It has been said that the United States is capable of the best and the worst. The Senate Intelligence Committee report, with its content on CIA detention and interrogation practices after the September 11, 2001 attacks, can be construed as an expression of the dark side of the world’s oldest and most durable democracy.
Making the report public, and thus subject to the world’s scrutiny—despite opposition from most Republicans and concerns by White House and administration officials—is a manifestation of what is best about America. As President Barack Obama has said, the U.S. is not a perfect country, but it should not be afraid to face the truth if it has erred.
While there has been some pushback about the report’s findings, some of what was divulged has already been documented in other publications. What the report now shows with its mountains of evidence is that the enhanced interrogation methods used by the CIA were actually more brutal and inhuman than we knew. The report describes, in vivid detail, the horrors of the torture practices in CIA detention centers with the help of hired outside contractors at a cost of $80 million.
The CIA is said to have lied and given false information to Congress and the Bush-Cheney administration at the time. The report adds that the torture practices employed were ineffective and failed to provide useful information to capture Osama Bin Laden or prevent future terrorist attacks. Finally, it points the finger at CIA upper management and criticizes the program’s ineffectiveness and deception. The word “cover-up” is used.The Senate report unequivocally condemns the CIA’s behavior at the height of post-9/11 hysteria. In so doing, it is fair to say that the Senate report is also a clear indictment of the Bush-Cheney administration, which used dubious legal opinions about the use of torture to look the other way. War crimes were committed, and there seems to have been neither oversight nor accountability. Even now, no one in the Obama administration seems to raise the spectre of criminal prosecution.
California Senator Dianne Feinstein’s decision to divulge the report faced strong opposition from the Republican Party in Congress. Secretary of State John Kerry also expressed his worries about the short-term security of U.S. embassies around the world. Security measures were enhanced before the publication of the report, and will remain on high alert in the days to come. Feinstein brushed aside these concerns, and argued that the importance of American values, including justice and the rule of law, superseded any reservations about security. Her courage is to be commended.
Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona dissented with many of his fellow GOP senators. Having suffered torture at the hands of the North Vietnamese during the Vietnam War, and always an important opponent of torture, McCain endorsed the decision to make the Senate report public and expose the atrocities that CIA operatives committed. The senator was quick to condemn the policy and the methods. It is a courageous stand, and one that shows more than ever that McCain is a real American patriot.
Former Vice President Dick Cheney strongly differed with the views of Feinstein and McCain. He referred to the report as a “bunch of hooey.” He went on to say that the CIA operatives involved should be treated as heroes. Cheney recalled the horror of 9/11 and cited the need to prevent, at all costs, a repetition of the attack on the World Trade Center and government institutions in Washington as a justification for torture. Cheney does not deny the content of the report. He points out that the U.S. was at war once the 9/11 attacks occurred, and needed to act in a “preventive” manner.
I recall how Cheney would appear on Sunday talk shows in the post-9/11 period and present a compelling case for action, which included the eventual invasion of Iraq. I have to admit he was often convincing. We have seen, however, that his behaviour and presentation of the facts were inexact, inaccurate, misleading, and highly contentious. Some could conclude that Cheney lied openly and deliberately misled the American people. At the end of the day, his reaction to the Senate report was essentially defensive and ultimately just “spin.”
As a Canadian, I am very careful not to judge or condemn the United States. It is a country that I greatly admire. While it has the strongest military in the world, its strength rests mainly with what can be called its soft power—values such as freedom and justice, the rule of law and democracy. Senators Feinstein and McCain reminded us of that this week. Not too many countries do this.