The Senate commendably passed an amendment “outlawing” torture by a wide margin on Monday, but given that torture is already against the law - both through existing US statute and by international treaty - what does that really mean?
The bill, a response by lawmakers to last year’s devastating CIA torture reportthat exposed the agency’s rampant illegal conduct and subsequent cover-up in the years after 9/11, would force all US agencies - including the CIA, finally - to comply with the Pentagon’s rulebook on interrogations. It would also forbid any of the Pentagon’s interrogation rules from being secret and give the Red Cross access to all detainees held by the US, no matter where.
One would’ve thought pre-9/11 that it would be hard to write the current law prohibiting torture any more clearly. Nothing should have allowed the Bush administration to get away with secretly interpreting laws out of existence or given the CIA authority to act with impunity. The only reason a host of current and former CIA officials aren’t already in jail is because of cowardice on the Obama administration, which refused to prosecute Bush administration officialswho authorized the torture program, those who destroyed evidence of it after the fact or even those who went beyond the brutal torture techniques that the administration shamefully did authorize.
Since the Senate’ report reinvigorated the torture debate six months ago, Obama officials have continued to try their hardest to make the controversy go away bystifling Freedom of Information Act requests for the full report and, in many cases, refusing to even read it. And Bush-era law-breakers were even given the courtesy of having their names redacted from the report, sparing them of public shaming or criticism, despite clear public interest to the contrary.
Instead of treating torture as the criminal matter that it is, the Obama administration effectively turned it into a policy debate, a fight over whether torture “worked”. It didn’t of course, as mountains of evidence has proved, but it’s mind-boggling we’re even having that debate considering that torture is a clear-cut war crime. It’s like debating the legality of child slavery while opening your argument with: “well, it is good for the economy.”
But that’s now where we stand. While torture victims are without recourse – for over a decade, Guantanamo prisoners have been barred from testifying about what the CIA did to them – torture architects are television pundits, appearing on the big networks’ Sunday shows to defend one national security excess or another. They’re given enormous book contracts and 60 Minutes puff pieces, while almost universally avoiding tough questions, let alone an indictment. Those still inside government have not only avoided reprimand, but have gotten promotions.
And look where that attitude has left us: John Oliver, who did an excellent segment on the torture debate on Sunday, asked 14 presidential candidates if they supported the new ban, and only four responded with an affirmative. I guess it’s not exactly a surprise that this year’s lot of Republicans is more than willing to appeal to Jack Bauer fans over proven facts, given Mitt Romney openly advocated for rolling back Obama’s executive order “banning” torture in 2012. But given the outright disgust the torture report elicited, it’s embarrassing hardly any Republicans seemed to have reconsidered their positions.
Most notably, CIA director John Brennan has escaped completely unscathed - despite both advocating for torture during the Bush administration andauthorizing the hacking of computers used by Senate staffers while they conducted their torture investigation during the Obama administration. But David Buckley, CIA inspector general who investigated the agency for its potentially illegal and unconstitutional hacking episode? He resigned shortly after the CIA refused to act on his findings, and his position will likely remain empty for the foreseeable future.