Senator Dianne Feinstein, the outgoing chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, is preparing this week to release a long-awaited report on the CIA’s use of torture on terrorism suspects during the George W. Bush administration. More specifically, the committee may release a 480-page summary of the full 6,000 page report.
Naturally, the people who approved, executed, and defended the torture program are not happy with the idea that the American public will actually learn just what was done in their name. So they’re preparing push-back: a last-ditch attempt to stop the report’s release, and if that fails, a campaign to blame any negative consequences on the Democrats who wanted the information public.
Here’s what the New York Times reported this morning:
Former intelligence officials, seeking allies against the potentially damaging report, have privately reassured the Bush team in recent days that they did not deceive them and have lobbied the former president’s advisers to speak out publicly on their behalf. The defense of the program has been organized by former C.I.A. leaders like George J. Tenet and Gen. Michael V. Hayden, two former directors, and John E. McLaughlin, a former deputy C.I.A. director who also served as acting director.
So what we’ll see in the next few days is a parade of intelligence officials, former Bush aides, congressional Republicans, and conservative pundits rushing to the media to decry the release of this report. They have old, familiar arguments about the torture program — it wasn’t really torture, it was all constitutional, we only tortured because that’s what everyone wanted — and one new one specifically tied to the Intelligence Committee’s report. They’re now arguing that the public can’t be shown the truth because doing so will spur a backlash that could include violent protests or the deaths of American hostages.
It isn’t only Republicans who have made this argument; Secretary of State John Kerry urged Feinstein to delay the report’s release for just that reason. But Republicans are leading the charge; Rep. Mike Rogers, the chair of the House Intelligence Committee, has been all over television (see here or here) warning that “This will in fact incite violence and it’s likely to cost someone their life.”
The problem is that that fear will never disappear. Just as thirteen years ago they used the public’s fear to justify the use of torture in the first place, today they try to create fear as a justification for keeping the truth secret. But whether we learn the full extent of the torture program this week, this year, or this decade, there will probably be a price to pay. Those who argue for delay ought to have the courage to admit that by their logic, the report should be quashed forever.
Might there be some violence in response to the information contained in the report? Yes, there might. When the truth is ugly, revealing it has a cost.
If and when that violence occurs, the torture advocates will blame it on those who sought the information’s release, not on the underlying fact of the torture program. But there is no doubt where the responsibility will lie. In an atmosphere of panic and fear, our government appears to have done some abominable things. Nearly as horrifying is the fact that even now, so many people who either used to be in positions of power or are still in those positions will defend the program, so thoroughly were they infected by the moral rot that spread through the Bush administration.
The darkest chapters in our history and the most outrageous government decisions and programs eventually move from a place of contestation to a place of consensus in public debate. Outside of a few fringe extremists, no one today holds the position that slavery, the Trail of Tears, the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, the Tuskegee syphilis experiments, Jim Crow, or the witch hunts of McCarthyism were the right and proper thing for America to do. The Bush torture program may not be even remotely close in scale to those atrocities. But just as there is now consensus that all of those things are moral blots on the country’s history, if the full truth about torture comes out, a consensus could eventually emerge that this, too, is an unambiguous stain.
The cynicism necessary to attempt to blame the blowback from their torture program on those who want it exposed is truly a wonder. On one hand, they insist that they did nothing wrong and the program was humane, professional, and legal. On the other they implicitly accept that the truth is so ghastly that if it is released there will be an explosive backlash against America. Then the same officials who said “Freedom isn’t free!” as they sent other people’s children to fight in needless wars claim that the risk of violence against American embassies is too high a price to pay, so the details of what they did must be kept hidden.
But either we’re a free society, or we aren’t. Either Americans have a right to know the full extent of what their government did in those dark days, or they don’t. We have to choose.