Untold History of the Torture Program

Capture

In this morning’s Los Angeles Times, Larry Siems and I have an op-ed about the soldiers and public servants who tried to expose and end the torture program.  It begins:

After more than a decade of denial and concealment on the part of our government, President Obama’s recent acknowledgment that “we tortured some folks” felt like a milestone. Even in its spare, reductive phrasing, the president’s statement opened up the possibility, finally, of national reflection, contrition and accountability.

But the president moved quickly to limit that conversation, painting those who authorized torture as “patriots” who were making difficult decisions under enormous pressure and urging the public not to feel “sanctimonious” because our military and intelligence leaders have “tough jobs.”

Obama was wrong to do this, and not only because patriotism isn’t a defense to criminal conduct. The deeper problem with the president’s account is that it consigned to obscurity the true heroes of the story: the courageous men and women throughout the military and intelligence services who kept faith with our values, and who fought to expose and end the torture.

Our op-ed is new, but our theme isn’t.  We wrote on the same theme a few years ago for the New York Times (see here).  The editorial boards of the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times have called on President Obama to honor the men and women who dissented from the decision to use torture (see here and here).  A coalition of human rights groups issued the same call (see here).  And just a couple of months ago, David Luban wrote two very thoughtful pieces on the same theme (here and here) for this blog.  After observing that the political leaders who authorized torture had not been held to account for their choice, Luban wrote:

I want to suggest a different form of accountability—one that was easily available to President Obama at little or no political cost. If he was politically unable to denounce, fire, or prosecute the torture team, he could at least have taken every available opportunity to praise and reward the many people who stood up against official torture during the Bush administration, some of them at personal cost. . . .  If punishing or shaming the torturers is “negative accountability,” this is a proposal for positive accountability. Accounts have credits and debits, and giving credit where it is due would be one powerful way to reinforce the message that moral clear-headedness was not only possible but real. A few well-chosen Presidential Medals of Freedom would make it clear that the praiseworthy course was resistance, not acquiescence.

This seems exactly right to me.  And I hope it’s something President Obama will consider as he decides how to respond to the apparently-imminent release of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s torture report.  As Siems and I write,

It is easy to understand why those who authorized torture would want to suppress the stories of those who opposed it. But neither the president nor anyone else should participate in this revisionism. To pretend that the decision to sanction torture was dictated by circumstance—that our leaders had no other choice, that anyone in their position would have done the same thing—not only excuses and justifies the terrible choice made by our political leaders but obscures the actions of the courageous men and women who stayed true to our foundational commitments even as their superiors abandoned them.

With the imminent release of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s account of the CIA’s interrogation program, the president will have other opportunities to tell the story of how our country came to endorse torture. As he does, he should tell the stories of the dissenters. He should honor their courage. It is time for the country to hear the history that torture’s architects have sought for so long to suppress.

  

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About the Author(s)

Jameel Jaffer

Founding Director of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, Former Deputy Legal Director at the American Civil Liberties Union and Director of the ACLU’s Center for Democracy, Author of The Drone Memos, Follow him on Twitter (@JameelJaffer).