Opinion writer

By now, we’re all familiar with the horrific details in the Senate Intelligence Committee report into Bush-era torture and rendition. But the question now is this: Will there be any kind of legislative response that could prevent this from ever happening again? Will such a possibility even be a meaningful part of the conversation?

President Obama banned torture by executive order upon taking office, limiting techniques to those included in the Army Field Manual. But, even though the new report paints a grisly portrait of what torture as practiced really looked like — and, in the view of some legal experts, confirmed that crimes were committed — there is simply no guarantee that a future president won’t reverse this order.

As the Senate report on torture put it: “These limitations are not part of U.S. law, and could be overturned by a future president with the stroke of a pen. They should be enshrined in legislation.”

Some Democratic staffers have been discussing whether to push forward with some sort of legislative proposal that would codify in statute that such torture techniques are illegal. Though details are scarce, the basic idea would be to make it harder for such a thing to happen again, by requiring that Congress have a say in whether these techniques are resumed, rather than just the president.

Such a proposal would logically come from Senate Intelligence Committee chair Dianne Feinstein’s office, perhaps with the support of Senator John McCain, who (unlike many Republicans) endorsed the report’s findings. A Feinstein staffer would only say that her office expects to say something on such recommendations by the end of the week.

Chris Anders, senior legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, tells me that such a move is the next logical step for lawmakers who actually want to do something about these revelations.

“Our view is that basically all the significant acts in the report are already crimes under federal law,” Anders says. “There really isn’t a need to make anything new a crime, but this would reinforce the prohibitions. A legislative response could take the president’s executive order and make it a statute that Congress passes and the president signs.” Such a law, Anders notes, would put more of an onus on Congress to revisit the statute before any such torture could happen again.

Obviously the chances of such a thing happening are remote. After all, Republicans are basically suggesting that the report’s very release — rather than the revelations it contains — constitutes the real threat to the country. It’s hard to imagine Congress uniting to any degree behind such a legislative response.

But perhaps it’s worth pushing for, anyway. Republican lawmakers are dismissing the report as a political exercise by Democrats while downplaying the actual findings themselves. A push for a legislative response could put lawmakers on record as to whether they support or oppose the use of the tactics that have now been graphically displayed to the nation. And at any rate, if there ever were a moment where such a thing might have some sort of chance of happening — as slim as the odds are — it’s in the wake of these revelations.

Update: To clarify, such a legislative measure could codify in law the president’s executive order limiting such techniques to those in the Army Field Manuel.

* CIA MOUNTS MASSIVE PUSHBACK AGAINST TORTURE REPORT: Scott Shane has a good overview of the point-by-point rebuttal that the CIA and its defenders are mounting against the Senate torture report. The key points: Dem staff didn’t interview the program’s operatives, leading to key errors; Dems were too “prosecutorial,” ignoring the program’s flaws, rather than its achievements; and they didn’t take into account the whole context of the time, i.e., the climate of fear of future attacks.

The question to answer in the days ahead: Do these objections really shift the basic outlines of what the report actually uncovered?

* RENEWED CRITICISM OF OBAMA ON TORTURE: The New York Times editorial board makes the key point: The awful revelations in the torture report raise anew questions as to why no one has been held accountable:

The report raises again, with renewed power, the question of why no one has ever been held accountable for these seeming crimes — not the top officials who set them in motion, the lower-level officials who committed the torture, or those who covered it up….The litany of brutality, lawlessness and lack of accountability serves as a reminder of what a horrible decision President Obama made at the outset of his administration to close the books on this chapter in our history, even as he repudiated the use of torture.

Obviously it’s very unlikely anything will change, even in the wake of the report’s release, but the failure of accountability is now looking much harder to defend.

* OBAMA’S MISSED OPPORTUNITIES ON TORTURE: Steven Mufson has an excellent overview of the history of Obama’s decision-making that led to the non-accountability for torture we are left with today. As Mufson notes, Obama passed on repeated chances to offer a better response. Obama now hopes, in his own words, that “rather than another reason to refight old arguments,” instead “today’s report can help us leave these techniques where they belong — in the past.”

But it looks as if there is no escaping this old argument.

* CONGRESS REACHES DEAL TO KEEP GOVERNMENT OPEN: Congressional negotiators have reached a deal to fund most of the government for the next year, while only funding the Department of Homeland Security through February, in order to give GOP leaders a way to claim they will fight Obama’s executive actions on deportations next year.

The question remains: Are Republicans really going to risk closing down the Department of Homeland Security in order to fight Obama’s efforts to shield millions from deportation? Seems like a tough argument to sustain. But we’ll see.

 * CONGRESS HIKES CAMPAIGN SPENDING LIMITS: An amazing nugget from the new budget deal:

One of the most notable changes includes dramatically expanding the amount of money that wealthy political donors could give the national parties, drastically undercutting the 2002 landmark McCain-Feingold campaign finance overhaul. Top donors would be allowed to give three times the annual cap on national party donations to three additional party committees set up for the purposes of the presidential conventions, building expenses and election recounts.

As Chuck Todd remarked: “Just stunning that a decision to increase donor limits for political parties tenfold didn’t get a lick of debate in Congress.” Indeed.

* HOWARD DEAN ENDORSES HILLARY: Howard Dean, who still retains a large following among progressives, throws his support to Hillary Clinton for president. Key nugget: Dean says Clinton is particularly suited to addressing the failure of the recovery’s gains to achieve widespread, more equitable distribution:

This is a fundamental disparity that will be the greatest challenge our next President must tackle…Hillary Clinton will not shrink from this challenge. In the coming months, I expect her to lay out her plans to attack income inequality and help rebuild the middle class. She knows how to sell a broad range of Americans on these policies, and has shown how to stand up against extremist economic policies.

This is an area where progressives who want an Elizabeth Warren-style challenge from the left will expect some good, detailed answers from Clinton, given her ties to Wall Street. But the support of former insurgent Dean might allay some suspicions.

* AMERICANS UNIFIED (FOR ONCE) ON ERIC GARNER KILLING: A new CBS News poll finds the following about the police killing of Eric Garner on Staten Island:

Just 14 percent of whites and even fewer blacks (3 percent) think that use of force by police was justified. Two-thirds of blacks (68 percent) think it was not justified, while many whites (46 percent) don’t know enough to say. Many Americans think race played a role in Garner’s death, but blacks are far more likely to think it played a major role. Whites are more inclined to say race was not a factor at all.

And so, there is no racial polarization when it comes to whether the killing was justified — as there was on Ferguson — yet polarization remains on the question of the role of race in the killing.

 * AND TIME MAGAZINE’S PERSON OF THE YEAR IS… The Ebola fighters. A compelling choice.