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Time for Criminal Investigations

Published in: U.S. News & World Report

The summary of the Senate Intelligence Committee report on the CIA torture program describes in horrifying and sometimes gruesome detail the CIA’s systematic and frequent use of brutal techniques that the U.S. and the world have long banned and condemned as torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. We already knew about the CIA’s use of many of those techniques: waterboarding, beatings, painful “stress” positions, extensive sleep deprivation, slamming detainees against walls, forcing them into small boxes and shutting them into coffins, among others. But the summary also documents previously unknown techniques, like the use of punitive “anal feeding” or forcing detainees with broken legs to stand shackled against a wall. And it provides new evidence that corroborates the independent Human Rights Watch documentation of additional cases of waterboarding beyond the three that the CIA has acknowledged.

The summary also makes clear that the abuses were not the work of a few bad apples at the CIA. They cannot be dismissed as mere “excesses.” Rather, they were the product of a carefully crafted, deliberate program that was authorized and promoted not only at the highest levels of the agency, but by senior officials in the Bush administration itself.

The summary notes that CIA officials repeatedly lied to Congress and the White House about the scope, nature and effectiveness of the program. But let’s not kid ourselves: Senior members of the Bush administration were deeply involved in getting the CIA into the torture business in the first place, and there’s little reason to believe that more information would have changed their minds. Then-President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney were both involved in authorizing key elements of the programs, and both have admitted knowing about (and, in Bush’s case, approving) the use of waterboarding. Senior administration officials were also deeply involved in pressing the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel to draft the infamous “torture memos,” which provided the appearance of legal cover for actions that were patently illegal.

The torture program destroyed the lives of detainees, many of whom were apparently never involved in terrorism. It also evinced a deep contempt by senior U.S. officials for human rights principles and the rule of law, ripping to shreds the United States’ international reputation and credibility on these issues. And the efforts by many officials in the CIA and elsewhere to cover up the torture did serious damage to the U.S. system of checks and balances, undermining the democratic process and making it impossible for the American public to hold its government to account.

By insisting that the U.S. come clean about these crimes, Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and many others have taken a critical first step toward addressing the damage and ensuring it never happens again. It’s now up to the Obama administration to reopen criminal investigations into the CIA’s torture program and prosecute those responsible for designing and ordering it. Otherwise, there will be nothing to stop a future administration from once again going too far.

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