Editorial: The difficult truth about U.S. torture after 9/11

Published: Wednesday, Apr. 17, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 14A
Last Modified: Wednesday, Apr. 17, 2013 - 8:24 am

As a country, we have not yet accepted that in the understandable fear and anger after 9/11, suspected terrorists were tortured. An independent review released Tuesday can be an important step to reach that truth – and to make sure it never happens again.

"It is indisputable that the United States engaged in the practice of torture," concludes the report issued by the bipartisan Constitution Project. "As long as the debate continues, so too does the possibility that the United States could again engage in torture."

The 577-page study confirms previously reported abuses by military and intelligence personnel at detention centers in Iraq and Afghanistan, secret CIA prisons in Eastern Europe and Guantánamo Bay in Cuba. It also validates a report that one or more Libyan militants were waterboarded by the CIA, which has long maintained that only three al-Qaida prisoners were subjected to the near-drownings.

The CIA also slammed detainees into walls, chained them in uncomfortable positions and kept them awake for days. The report cites dozens of cases in which similar treatment was prosecuted in the United States or denounced as torture by the State Department when done by other countries.

The report concludes that there's "no persuasive evidence" that the brutal interrogations yielded any valuable intelligence that could not have been obtained by other means.

By coincidence, the report was released a day after what appears to be the deadliest terror attack on a U.S. city since 9/11.

We don't know yet whether those behind the horrific bombing of the Boston Marathon are linked in any way to al-Qaida or another foreign terrorist group.

We do know that there will be more acts of terror against Americans. And we should know that the torture perpetrated after 9/11 has made those future attacks more likely, not less. The inhumane treatment almost certainly endangered our own soldiers, violated international law, damaged America's moral standing and only bred more militants.

Most of the practices cited in the report happened under President George W. Bush. However much they acted in good faith while trying to prevent more attacks, Bush and his top advisers bear "some responsibility for allowing and contributing to the spread of torture," the report concludes.

The study is also critical of President Barack Obama, whose insistence on secrecy has stalled the necessary reckoning. The report urges Obama to make public as much evidence as possible on "extraordinary rendition" and "enhanced interrogation." Secrecy "cannot continue to be justified on the basis of national security," the report says.

Importantly, the study also makes specific recommendations to close loopholes in laws against torture and war crimes, to guarantee prompt Red Cross access to detainees and to protect medical professionals from having to take unethical actions.

The study was conducted by an 11-member task force led by two former members of Congress, Republican Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas and Democrat James Jones of Oklahoma. While the task force did not have access to classified reports, it visited Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and other countries, and interviewed more than 100 people, including former detainees, military and intelligence officers and policymakers.

Like many in his party, Hutchinson, who was undersecretary for homeland security for Bush, had been reluctant to acknowledge that the U.S. practiced torture. But after nearly two years of intensive research, he has no doubts.

"The United States has a historic and unique character," he told the New York Times, "and part of that character is that we do not torture."

Yet we have tortured, and recognition of that is the first step to ensuring it never happens again.

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