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What the CIA torture report, Ferguson, and the NSA scandals all have in common

If killer cops, torturers, and spies can't go to trial, who can?


Gillian Branstetter

Internet Culture

Posted on Dec 11, 2014   Updated on May 30, 2021, 12:25 am CDT

In recent weeks, millions of Americans have taken to social media to voice their frustration and outrage at the failure of their own government to indict the killers of Michael Brown in Ferguson and Eric Garner in Staten Island. Now, as #TortureReport enters its third day as a top trending topic on Twitter, a very similar discontent is brewing once again.

The release of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the Bush-era torture of “enemy combatants” tells the a story of CIA agents displaying a depraved disregard for human dignity. Captives were shackled amongst their own filth, had their lives and their families’ lives threatened, and were subjected to odd punishments involving insects, power tools, and “rectal rehydration.” By any definition, they were tortured.

Despite the stance of federal and international law banning such treatment of any prisoner, any government official involved in this useless deluge of sadism and insanity will not face a criminal court. The Justice Department has pledged to not investigate the matter further and President Obama made no reference to the several statutes against torture in his official statement on the report, nor did Senate Intelligence Committee chairwoman Dianne Feinstein.

The last year has seen a stunning trend in the U.S. of the law granting immunity to those who must defend it. And not just immunity from conviction, but immunity from a trial at all. While the court of public opinion plays out on social media, the government sits on its hands when the rule of law and it alone can settle these matters.

The National Security Agency, as well, has avoided the basic structure of our legal system. The programs unveiled by whistleblower Edward Snowden are undoubtedly illegal and unconstitutional, as shown by an independent review board Congress itself created. Despite this, the federal government has opened no criminal investigation into the matter. And while a different review found the programs just barely legal, these are the inconsistencies which a trial can settle.

This is not necessarily a new feature of American culture. The famed Church Committee—the precursor of today’s Senate Intelligence Committee—spent much of the early 1970s investigating illegal actions by the CIA, the NSA, and the FBI. The committee found the illegal wiretapping of thousands of Americans, a program of sanctioned assassinations of foreign officials, and odd experiments of the early CIA, which included giving LSD to unwitting civilian participants just to see what would happen.

Despite the committee’s report finding “the Constitutional system of checks and balances has not adequately controlled intelligence activities,” it found trials harder to come by, stating that “the judiciary has been reluctant to grapple with them.”

Feinstein might’ve found great inspiration within the Church report. The study released this week shies away from the word “torture,” likely aware of the legal weight such a declaration would have. While not only showing a particularly dangerous kind of political cowardice, the committee’s refusal to do so also highlights the hypocrisy of the exemption they’ve granted the CIA.

During World War II, the Japanese caught and tortured hundreds and hundreds of U.S. soldiers, a crime U.S. officials were hungry to make right. Japanese generals and soldiers were charged with war crimes for, among other things, waterboarding, perhaps the most prominent method of “enhanced interrogation” used by our own intelligence officials.

You see this same favoritism in the cases of Brown, Garner, and thousands of others brought before grand juries. While grand juries almost always indict, the exceptions seem to be cases where a police officer will act as the defendant (this is despite the famous line about grand juries indicting ham sandwiches). Our “us, not them” attitude towards torture reveals the same frightening thread within our society at large, one that winds all the way down to local cops: A complete and utter belief that what our government has done is legally right only when our government has done it.

This is despite the American people’s trust in their government being famously low, with only 24 percent professing confidence in the government to do the right thing. Though our seemingly unwavering loyalty to officers of the law is explained by our own hypocrisy: In much the same way Congress’s low approval rating does not reflect the moderately high approval rating of each individual member, our general distrust towards the federal government is contradicted by our overwhelming trust in individual government agencies. Even the NSA which, lest it be forgotten, is actively breaking the law to spy on millions of Americans, has a 54 percent approval rating among the general public. Local police are approved by 53 percent of Americans, a slightly higher number than those who trust churches.

What this causes is the dysfunctional lack of justice at the CIA, the NSA, and on the streets of Staten Island. Americans, be they an anonymous member of a grand jury or chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, will blindly follow the errors of our government into the pits of complacency towards criminal acts.

By functionally ignoring the abhorrent wrongs the torture report details, we are telling future intelligence officials they will not just be forgiven for their wrongdoing: They won’t even face a judge. This is the same culture we are bestowing upon police officers with the refusal of two grand juries to even question the actions of Darren Wilson (who shot Brown dead) and Daniel Pantaleo (who choked the life out of Garner on camera). When we deny the need for a fair trial, we are not just disrespecting the rights of Brown, Garner, unnamed victims of CIA torture, and tens of millions of lawful US citizens spied upon by the NSA. We disrespect our rights themselves.

Maybe you believe Officers Wilson and Pantaleo are innocent of a crime. Or that the behavior of the CIA somehow avoids falling within the legal margins of torture. Or that the NSA’s mass surveillance is sustainable under some obscure reading of the PATRIOT Act. If you honestly believe these things, you must admit these matters would best be debated in a court by experts, not on a Facebook timeline by your friends.

Photo via Mario Piperni/Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)

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*First Published: Dec 11, 2014, 12:00 pm CST