Americans have known for years both the broad outlines and some of the disgusting details of the George W. Bush administration’s policy of subjecting suspected terrorists to torture, humiliation and imprisonment at “black sites” in foreign countries. But they have been denied a comprehensive accounting of how the United States decided after the 9/11 attacks to travel to what then-Vice President Dick Cheney called “the dark side.”
That would change if the Senate Intelligence Committee released to the public a 6,000-page report on the CIA’s detention and interrogation policies that it approved last week. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the committee chair, says the report includes “details of each detainee in CIA custody, the conditions under which they were detained, how they were interrogated, the intelligence they actually provided and the accuracy — or inaccuracy — of CIA descriptions about the program to the White House, Department of Justice, Congress and others.” The report also includes 20 findings and conclusions.
Release of the document could fill in blanks left by news reports, lawsuits and various official documents. It also could shed light on whether waterboarding and other “enhanced interrogation techniques” played a role in tracking down Osama bin Laden — a debate rekindled by the movie “Zero Dark Thirty.” Feinstein herself has rejected a claim that the operation that discovered Bin Laden’s whereabouts was carried out “based on information gained through the harsh treatment of CIA detainees.” Of course, even if torture did prove useful, that doesn’t make it legal or moral.
Unfortunately, the report will remain classified while the committee solicits comments — and presumably suggested redactions — from the Obama administration. Feinstein and her colleagues must press the administration, including the CIA, to review the document expeditiously and exercise restraint in editing it. Then the committee must vote to release it.
The Obama administration has a mixed record when it comes to publicizing Bush-era abuses. In 2009, it released a version of the CIA inspector general’s report on the interrogation program that was significantly more complete (and embarrassing) than the heavily redacted copy that had been made public by the Bush administration. On the other hand, the Obama Justice Department has followed its predecessor’s example in asserting the “state secrets privilege” to block litigation that would have illuminated interrogation and rendition practices.
Release of the intelligence committee report won’t end the debate about either the morality or the efficacy of the CIA’s interrogation policy — a debate that often follows party lines. Only one Republican on the committee, Maine Sen. Olympia J. Snowe, voted to approve the report (though Arizona Sen. John McCain, a nonvoting “ex officio” member, praised it and urged its release). The ranking Republican, Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, said it contained “significant errors, omissions, assumptions and ambiguities — as well as a lot of cherry-picking.”
But the report, which is based on a study of more than 6 million pages of CIA and other records, represents the most ambitious attempt yet to explain why and how this country lost its moral bearings in the aftermath of a terrorist attack. The American people have a right to see it.