Collective amnesia won’t erase US torture problem

UWT emeritus professor Robert Crawford
UWT emeritus professor Robert Crawford courtesy photo

Holding high public officials to account for grave acts of wrongdoing is one of the greatest challenges for a democracy. That challenge has just been demonstrated in the U.S. Senate.

But in the middle of the impeachment drama, readers might have easily missed the latest iteration of another effort to hold accountable public officials who have committed a gross abuse of power — the crime of torture.

During the Bush-Cheney years, torture was authorized at the highest levels of the administration.

At Guantanamo prison camp, the long-delayed military trial for the accused 9/11 conspirators is still to begin. In pretrial hearings, two CIA contractors, psychologists James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, are being required to testify under oath. They were responsible for devising torture techniques and inflicting them on detainees at CIA black sites.

Mitchell’s testimony of what he did offends any humane sensibility. His statement that “I would do it again” reveals a man who believes he has gotten away with his crime and has license to commit another.

A recent Netflix film, “The Report,” directed by Scott Burns, dramatizes the Senate’s Intelligence Committee’s five-year investigation of torture carried out by the CIA and how powerful political forces tried to stop it.

The Senate investigation found that the CIA secretly tortured at least 39 detainees. (The number would be far greater if U.S. military torture in Afghanistan, Iraq and at Guantanamo were included.)The film shows some techniques used on chained and bound prisoners, such as waterboarding, sleep deprivation, freezing temperatures, stress positions, wall slamming and more.

Viewing those scenes, one cannot help but be appalled. The investigation further found that torture produced no useful information about imminent threats and severely damaged the reputation of our country.

The CIA has employed tactics to conceal, deny and undermine investigations of its torture program. In 2005, it destroyed videotape evidence of torture sessions. In 2009, it orchestrated a media campaign warning of catastrophic consequences of a criminal investigation.

Then came the Senate Intelligence Committee investigation. The CIA hacked the staff’s computers, lied about it and attempted to intimidate the committee by threatening legal action. Chair Diane Feinstein was furious.

Next, the very agency being investigated was permitted to redact the report. Feinstein warned this would “eliminate or obscure key facts that would support the report’s findings and conclusions.”

With President Obama’s consent, the full 6,700-page report was then suppressed. What were they afraid of?

“There is no doubt in my mind that war crimes have been committed,” wrote retired US Army Gen. Antonio Taguba, who led a major torture investigation. “My only question is whether anyone will be held accountable.”

In fact, no CIA official, top military commander or administration official has been prosecuted or otherwise held to account for torture or for numerous homicides — Human Rights Watch estimates over 100 — resulting from the torture and detention program.

Evidence continues to be kept from the American people. The full Senate report remains secret. Accountability requires that the full report be released.

Without accountability, we are in danger of returning to torture. Our current president proclaims that Article II gives him “the right to do whatever I want as president.” He has threatened to use it. Incredibly, he even thinks “they deserve it.”

Power unchecked (present or past) will be power abused.

Collective amnesia, contrary to what Obama once counseled regarding torture (“look forward as opposed to looking backwards”) is the death of democracy. Unless we confront the past, it will leave its toxic marks on our political life

One might start by taking a deep breath and watching “The Report.” But ensuring democratic control of our elected leaders and government officials will require something more: courage to know the truth of official wrongdoing and to demand that those responsible are held to account.

Robert Crawford of Vashon Island is a professor emeritus at University of Washington, Tacoma. In 2007, he co-founded and continues to facilitate the Washington State Religious Campaign Against Torture.