We need to know if torture worked

President Obama did the right thing this week when he ordered the release of Justice Department memos that the Bush administration used to justify CIA torture of Al Qaeda prisoners in its custody.

The president and Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. also were correct when they not only renounced any future recourse to torture, but said there will be no prosecutions of the officers who did so under orders and believed their actions were legal.

The president is whistling past the graveyard, though, when he insists that this is “a time for reflection, not retribution.” Without facts, reflection is little more than daydreaming. That’s why Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) is right to call for a truth commission that can render an accurate historical accounting of the executive branch’s shameful conduct over the last seven years.


A truth commission is particularly important because of the public rhetoric of former Bush administration officials -- the very ones who pushed so hard behind closed doors for permission to torture and who have argued so strenuously that the legal memos ought to remain secret.

These officials, foremost among them former Vice President Dick Cheney, have not simply argued that releasing the memos and renouncing the kind of interrogation they sanctioned is bad national security policy or legally mistaken. Instead, they’ve gone well beyond that and actually insisted that torture “worked.”

In at least two interviews since leaving office, Cheney has made precisely that case. “If it hadn’t been for what we did -- with respect to the ... enhanced interrogation techniques for high-value detainees -- then we would have been attacked again,” he told interviewers in February. Whenever he’s been pressed for details on which of the tortured prisoners provided such critical details or which planned attacks may have been foiled, he has declined to give useful answers.

In an article published on the Wall Street Journal’s Op-Ed page Friday, former CIA director Michael V. Hayden and former Atty. Gen. Michael B. Mukasey made an even more explicit case that torture “worked” against Al Qaeda terrorists Abu Zubaydah, Ramzi bin al Shibh and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, leading to the capture of “other senior terrorists and the disruption of follow-on plots aimed at both Europe and the U.S.”

(Like Cheney, they didn’t identify the disrupted plots, although a footnote on one of the newly released memos suggests that Mohammed was tortured into revealing a plot to crash an airliner into a building in L.A.)

The argument that torture gets the job done was made yet again Thursday, when a person identified only as a former top official in the Bush administration told Politico that release of the memos was “damaging because these are techniques that work. ... Publicizing the techniques does grave damage to our national security by ensuring they can never be used again -- even in a ticking-time-bomb scenario where thousands or even millions of American lives are at stake.”

Obama, like many of us, believes that the Bush/Cheney administration’s adoption of torture as state policy constitutes “a dark and painful chapter” in the American story, but those who were involved are busy manufacturing a counter-history. In their version, torture was neither an abuse of fundamental human rights nor an affront to our own constitutional traditions, but a bulwark against mass murder thrown up by firm and courageous hands.

It’s a counter-history that turns on the as-yet unverified insistence that torture “worked.” That’s why we need a truth commission. There will be another terrorist attack on American soil eventually. If it occurs in the absence of a clear historical record of what the Bush/Cheney torture policies did or did not accomplish, those who supported the former administration will come roaring out of the weeds to charge that Americans died because their soft-headed countrymen were preoccupied with civil liberties and human rights.

Cheney has already begun warning about “people who are more concerned about reading the rights to an Al Qaeda terrorist than they are with protecting the United States.”

We need to know for certain whether torture worked or not. If it turns out that torture was effective in some instances, then the civil libertarians and constitutionalists -- among them this writer -- who believe torture is never justified need to make the case for why the experience of the last seven years doesn’t prove the contrary.

Obama fears that further inquiry into this appalling chapter in U.S. history will further the “disturbing disunity” he sees in the country. At some moment in the not-too-distant future, a disputed or murky history of that chapter could turn that disunity into something far uglier.