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To save its soul, America needs to ban torture once and for all

Obama took the first step in ending torture, but as a recent Senate report shows, we have a lot of work to do.


Patrick Howell O'Neill


Posted on Dec 9, 2014   Updated on May 30, 2021, 12:51 am CDT

I turned on the television and immediately began shaking.

Every station had the same image. The Twin Towers were burning because jets had slammed into them minutes before in front of millions of people, not to mention all the cameras of America’s media capital.

I was a teenager in Brooklyn, at home from school pretending to be sick, so I only stopped playing video games and turned on the TV when my father called me from the roof of his building at work. He was watching the World Trade Center from a distance of several miles as the fire grew and the smoke billowed. He was crying, shakily repeating that “the bastards got us” over the phone before he hung up.

I walked outside and saw my neighbors looking toward the sky. The previously blue skies were now being covered with black smoke that had traveled across the East River and briefly blocked out the sun. The next time I looked up, I saw fighter jets streaking through the black and blue skies down the Atlantic coast.

I didn’t much know what to do with myself after watching people jump from 1,000 feet up and then seeing the towers collapse. I could hardly grasp what was playing out in front of me. That, it turned out, is something I had deeply in common with the rest of America.

The national delirium that followed 9/11 led to a decade of disasters at home and abroad, including the construction and expansion of a secret global torture program the likes of which the world had never seen.

As the Senate releases its torture report today, there is one key question to be asked above all else: How do we prevent it from ever happening again?

The only thing that can prevent the next age of American torture is stronger laws banning torture and cruel treatment of prisoners. During the last decade, the Bush administration was able to sidestep existing legislation, defy international law, and rest assured that no punishment would be waiting for them on the other side thanks to Obama’s insistence on “protecting” personnel involved in the name of “moving forward.”

To prevent another decade of mistakes, the United States needs new legislation that starkly bans torture by both the military and intelligence agencies.

“A law could take various forms: a codification of the president’s 2009 executive order banning torture, for example, or an expansion of the 2005 Detainee Treatment Act so that key protections in it would apply to the CIA as well as the military,” former Department of Homeland Security interrogator Mark Fallon wrote recently in Politico. Fallon served as special agent in charge of the criminal investigation task force with investigators and intelligence personnel at Guantanamo Bay, Afghanistan, and Iraq.

“However it’s designed, a new law would help the country stay true to its ideals during times of crisis and guard against a return to the ‘dark side,’” he said.

The 9/11 attacks were brought up again and again by the Bush administration to justify invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, to build the most massive surveillance apparatus in history, and to create a network of secret prisons in which to conduct torture.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, chair of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, urged Americans to remember the context in which the program began “as a warning for the future.”

“It is worth remembering the pervasive fear in late 2001 and how immediate the threat felt,” she explained in the report’s introduction. “Just a week after the September 11 attacks, powdered anthrax was sent to various news organizations and to two U.S. Senators. The American public was shocked by news of new terrorist plots and elevations of the color-coded threat level of the Homeland Security Advisory System. We expected further attacks against the nation.”

That fear set a tone. The attacks were brought up over and over again as justification as the Bush administration built, expanded, and lied about a secret global torture program the likes of which the world had never seen.

A day before Bush authorized torture, Vice President Dick Cheney sat down for a special edition of Meet the Press where he warned that enemies would face the “full wrath of the United States.”

“We also have to work the dark side,” Cheney said, arguing that “it’s going to be vital for us to use any means at our disposal, basically, to achieve our objectives.”

The torture program existed in the black abyssal depths of law. The Bush directive authorizing secret prisons around the world as dens of torture is off-limits to both the courts and the American people. Civilians have never read it, never even seen the cover, don’t know what the font is because it’s classified. Most of the Senate didn’t know about it for years while the news media and public is still figuring the thing out.

The newly released Senate torture report details some of the ways the public was manipulated when it came to torture. The CIA is said to have leaked specific classified information to the media in order to make it seem like torture was extremely effective in gaining new intelligence. The agency lied to a plethora of government officials about the efficacy of their technique, the report asserts, and impeded oversight efforts from the White House, Department of Justice, Congress, and even the CIA’s own Inspector General.

The obfuscation tactics and lies were used to give torturers as much legal cover as possible while the torture grew more brutal and the results more catastrophic.

The bad information gleaned from torture was used to justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The subsequent war cost hundreds of thousands of lives and threw the region into depths of chaos (see: the Islamic State) that it is nowhere close to climbing out of.

When Ibn Sheikh Al-Libi, an al Qaeda training camp director, told the CIA that Iraq and al-Qaeda were working together and that they possessed chemical weapons and weapons of mass destruction, he didn’t say it because it was true. It was a lie. He said it in hopes that it would make the torture stop.

The mania following the trauma of 9/11 left Americans deeply vulnerable to be taken advantage of, and taken advantage of we were. The fear has yet to be exorcised, a fact that helps explain this year’s drooling media-driven panic of ISIS striking the U.S. despite all reasonable signs pointing elsewhere.

But it’s not unreasonable to say that in some point in the future, we will be attacked again. It’s a matter of numbers, of politics, of stark reality.

If the catalyst to 9/11 was our meddlesome presence in the Middle East, combined with a bloody religious chaos in the region, then our previous decade of stumbling military catastrophes—our bloodied boots are still on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan—means it doesn’t take a soothsayer to see more violence in our future unless something drastic changes.

Another attack on America could mean another trauma and deeper vulnerability. There’s nothing to say a future president won’t use the same kind of fear as a means to the same kind of ends.

President Obama’s 2009 executive order banning torture is easily reversible by the next president navigating the next scare. The only way to shore up the ban on torture is to make it law.

To be effective, any new law would have to ensure that both personnel and officials involved in future torture were held accountable, not simply forgotten. Anything less would make the legislation worthless.

A new law would be a significant step forward in the long work of repairing America’s reputation in the world, making it easier to work confidently in areas ranging from human rights to humane wars—well, as humane as they can possibly be, anyway.

A new law would take away significant fuel for propaganda that has burned so hot across the middle east for the entirety of the last decade.

“What happened broke faith in the Constitution,” Senator Mark Udall recently told Esquire magazine, as he pushed for the release of the Senate’s torture report. “It’s made our challenge much greater when it comes to facing the threat of Islamic fundamentalism. And it is morally repugnant. When this report is declassified, people will abhor what they read. They’re gonna be disgusted. They’re gonna be appalled. They’re gonna be shocked at what we did.”

A new law banning torture would go a long way toward preventing us from making the same mistakes all over again, helping save America from itself.

Photo via The National Guard/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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*First Published: Dec 9, 2014, 3:00 pm CST