It's Time to End Torture

By Lee Hamilton, Huffington Post: 01/14/2015 10:45 am EST
Jan 14 2015

It's been more than a month since the Senate Intelligence Committee issued a 500-page summary of its report into the CIA's post-9/11 torture program, which provided a detailed and disturbing glimpse into a dark period in our nation's history.

The full report, which took over five years to complete, is more than 6,500 pages. It's been widely documented just how much opposition it had to overcome, including the CIA's interfering with Senate computers, to see the light of day.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who spearheaded the report, is introducing legislation that would prevent future administrations from ever employing torture techniques, such as waterboarding, but it's highly unlikely the new Republican-led Congress will take any action on her proposals. Some members of the GOP have pointed to a Washington Post-ABC poll, released last month, which indicated that a majority (59 percent) of U.S. citizens believe the CIA's treatment of suspected terrorists was justified and would be acceptable in the future.

After months of wrangling and millions of dollars spent in the fight over whether to disclose this controversial report, where, realistically, do we go from here?

Personally, I'm appalled by our government's behavior and how hard it worked to cover up its abuses from lawmakers and other key government officials, including former Secretary of State Colin Powell. In my more than three decades in Congress, and in my post-congressional work, including my co-chairmanship of the 9/11 Commission, I've often heard the words "national security" invoked to justify all kinds of government actions, and it's been repeatedly used to justify our recent conduct regarding torture. Gradually I have come to scrutinize the use of that rationale in supporting anti-terrorist actions by our government.

I do not see how you can read the report summary and argue, as some have, that these actions did not represent abuses of power. While I recognize there is a big debate over the line between "coercive interrogation" and "torture," I take issue with our government engaging in actions such as waterboarding, sealing prisoners in coffins and chaining them in cold dungeons. To any reasonable person, these actions would come under the definition of torture, which includes cruelty to human beings and the employment of severe force.

Some say our national security was well served by so-called "enhanced interrogation techniques," but the efficacy of torture and other coercive actions in counterterrorism efforts are difficult to gauge. The benefits of such actions are not clear.

The doubt about their demonstrated value would, in itself, seem to me to be an argument for not using such controversial methods. Surely in a democracy, the burden is on those who favor enhanced techniques to show, beyond question, that they are effective. I do not think they have met that burden.

All of us should be concerned by the conduct of the CIA, which engaged in acts of brutality, farmed out responsibilities for these acts to contractors whom the agency didn't control, withheld important information from Congress and destroyed evidence. This conduct will make the agency's work more difficult in the years ahead. It will be used by terrorist groups seeking to recruit new members and fuel the types of dangerous threats the agency seeks to prevent.

That said, we continue to need our intelligence community and the CIA. Its work is, quite simply, too important. I've dealt with hundreds of intelligence officials over the years, and I have been impressed by their competence, dedication and patriotism.

We must also be mindful of the fact that very few intelligence personnel were involved in the egregious incidents detailed in the Senate Intelligence Committee report. Those who did participate likely believed they were acting in America's best interest and with a clear green light from their superiors.

The events related in the report did indicate, however, how hard it is to fit our intelligence community into a system of representative democracy that demands openness, transparency and accountability. Our intelligence agents work in secret and must work in secret. Somehow, though, we must devise a way to ensure that our constitutional provisions and restraints apply to our intelligence community like they do to everyone else in the country.

The principal step for Congress to take is to up its oversight game. Too often it is co-opted by the intelligence community, which persuaded Congress to avoid a public debate on massive surveillance and does not ask and insist on answers to hard questions.

This will not be easy, of course. But I would like to see more effort to integrate the intelligence community into our constitutional system of government. Even though some of the agency's actions likely violated the law, criminal charges aren't likely to satisfy even the most vocal opposition to the agency's behavior. More importantly, they would only consume enormous amounts of time and energy, and serve to divide and demoralize our intelligence community at a time when Americans need it to be as strong and effective as possible.

I remain troubled by an apparent lack of critical self-examination at the CIA as it engaged in conduct that put a stain on our nation's history and will make it more difficult for us to take the moral high ground on future issues. And I have doubts about the likelihood of our government never repeating these acts of coercion, even brutality.

But it's time to move on.

As we move forward, I hope that a U.S. policy will emerge that strongly states, as a matter of law, principle and practice, that we do not use torture. It is wrong, morally corrupt and not who we are as Americans.

Indeed, it is time to end torture. There should be no ambiguity about this. The American people should have the right to know what's being done in their name.

Even if there is some value to enhanced interrogation -- and that value is by no means clear -- we should still not do it. These methods cross the line of where we are as a moral people who have enacted laws against torture and agreed in international agreements to ban its usage. And that's what's ultimately at stake here: who we are as a people.

I do not believe that terrorists have the ability to destroy what America stands for, and it's time to state clearly that the policy of the U.S. government will be to never torture again.

Lee H. Hamilton is Professor of Practice, Indiana University School of Public and Environmental Affairs; Distinguished Scholar, IU School of Global and International Studies; Director, Center on Congress at Indiana University. He served as U.S. Representative from Indiana's 9th Congressional District from 1965-1999.