It has been a year and a half since the United States Senate Select Committee on Intelligence finished its 6,000-page report on torture by the Central Intelligence Agency. It’s been two months since it voted to declassify portions of it. But what we’ve seen leaked so far is next to nothing.
I was at the CIA when the torture program was conceived. I refused to be trained in the techniques and when I left government I confirmed that torture was official U.S. policy. Partly as a result, I have been locked away almost as long as the Senate report. But the issues remain, not only as a matter for history, and a question of justice; they remain because we still can’t be sure whether ours is a nation governed by people who condone torture or not.
It is vital that we know this at a time when so many headlines raise questions about intelligence gathering that intercepts phone calls and emails, or analyzes metadata from millions of different sources. Even if we accept that much of that work is necessary, we should have—we must have—confidence that the government will deal honestly, fairly and with restraint to keep our country and its people safe, and without violating the Constitution.
How can we have such confidence if the government leaves the door open to torture by pretending it can close that door behind us, that we can just walk away, holding no one accountable for the actions that were taken.
The most revealing defense of what the CIA did was published in The Washington Post in April when the Senate voted to declassify a few pages of its vast report.
Former CIA official Jose Rodriguez, the agency’s most vocal torture defender, wrote to defend his indefensible position that torture worked, torture was good, and that the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) report highly critical of the program is wrong. Rodriguez’s strategy is not new: Repeat the lie often enough that the public comes to believe it as truth.
Rodriguez, remember, was the head of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center (CTC) when the agency created the torture program. He implemented the program, oversaw it, and defended it, to say nothing of the secret prisons, which he also directed.
When the press began reporting that torture was taking place and was official U.S. Government policy, Rodriguez, who was by then the CIA’s deputy director for operations, did not work toward the “transparency” that he recently lauded in the Post. Instead, he took it upon himself to destroy videotaped evidence of the torture, an act many would call “obstruction of justice.”
Rodriguez protested in the Post that the torture program was “effective” and “authorized,” and that the Senate report is flawed. He even condemned the SSCI vote to declassify only the report’s conclusions. His position is that he knows the truth because he was there and that the SSCI wrote the report with 20/20 hindsight.
I can tell you that he is wrong. I was there, too, at the same time.
What of the report’s conclusions is so objectionable? Among other things, the SSCI found that torture did not work: Agency officials, including Rodriguez, repeatedly and routinely misled the Justice Department, the White House, and Congressional leaders, and underreported the program’s brutality. The report concludes that the agency deliberately misled the media by leaking classified information, which “inaccurately portrayed [the program’s] effectiveness;” that Rodriguez’s management of the program was “deeply flawed throughout its duration”; and that the program “damaged the United States’ global reputation and came with heavy costs, both monetary and non-monetary.”
Surely, Rodriguez is not solely to blame for the government’s immoral decision to torture prisoners. Others in and out of the CIA were up to their necks in the program. There are the torturers themselves, the CIA officials who conceived of and implemented the program, the attorneys at the CIA, the Justice Department, the Bush White House officials who wrote specious legal opinions justifying the torture, and the CIA officials who blocked internal and external investigations.
In the eyes of history, President Barack Obama’s legacy will be tainted by his 2009 decision that the Justice Department would “look forward, not backward” on torture. This denied justice and attempted to cover up a dark chapter in American history, putting us at risk for repeating this immorality in the future. It also allowed people like Rodriguez and his former minions to go to the press and repeat their lies over and over again.
This is not to say that the Justice Department has done nothing. After I blew the whistle on the CIA’s torture program in 2007, I became the subject of a selective and vindictive FBI investigation that lasted more than four years. In 2012, the Justice Department charged me with “disclosing classified information to journalists, including the name of a covert CIA officer and revealing the role of another CIA employee in classified activities.” What I had revealed was that the CIA had a program to kill or capture al Qaeda members—hardly a secret—and that the CIA was torturing many of those prisoners. I’m serving 30 months in a federal prison.
The Senate report apparently does not offer any suggestions for next steps. Clearly, the White House will not reverse itself and pursue criminal charges against anyone involved in the torture program. Rodriguez will continue to brag, as he did last year on the CBS program 60 Minutes, that he put on his “big-boy pants” to lead the torture program. He’ll continue to deny that anybody was tortured, and then out of the other side of his mouth argue that the torture worked and American lives were saved.
What the Senate can do, however, is to demand that President Obama appoint an independent prosecutor, and to hold public hearings on the torture program. Further, the SSCI can declassify the report in its entirety, subpoena witnesses, demand the truth, and vow never again to allow the abomination of torture to become U.S. Government policy. This is the only way that the United States can reclaim the moral high ground on torture and enable the international community to trust our leadership on human rights. We must learn from our past mistakes, embrace the report’s conclusions, and not allow the likes of Jose Rodriguez to set the terms of the debate.