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Endless denial

In the Blindman’s Buff variation of tag, a child designated as ‘It’ is tasked with tapping another child while wearing a blindfold. The sightless child knows the other children, all able to see, are there but is left to stumble around, using sounds and knowledge of the space they’re in as guides. Finally, that child does succeed, either by bumping into someone, peeking, or thanks to sheer dumb luck.

Think of us, the American public, as that blindfolded child when it comes to our government’s torture program that followed the 9/11 disaster and the launching of the ill-fated war on terror. We’ve been left to search in the dark for what so many of us sensed was there.

We’ve been groping for the facts surrounding the torture program created and implemented by the administration of President George W Bush. For 20 years now, the hunt for its perpetrators, the places where they brutalized detainees, and the techniques they used has been underway. And for 20 years, attempts to keep that blindfold in place in the name of ‘national security’ have helped sustain darkness over light.

From the beginning, the torture program was enveloped in a language of darkness with its secret “black sites” where savage interrogations took place and the endless blacked-out pages of documents that might have revealed more about the horrors being committed in our name. In addition, the destruction of evidence and the squelching of internal reports only expanded that seemingly bottomless abyss that still, in part, confronts us. Meanwhile, the courts and the justice system consistently supported those who insisted on keeping that blindfold in place, claiming, for example, that were defense attorneys to be given details about the interrogations of their clients, national security would somehow be compromised.

Finally, however, more than two decades after it all began, the tide may truly be turning.

Despite fervid attempts to keep that blindfold in place, the search has not been in vain. On the contrary, over these last two decades, its layers have slowly worn away, thread by thread, revealing, if not the full picture of those medieval-style practices, then a damning set of facts and images relating to torture, American-style, in this century. Cumulatively, investigative journalism, government reports, and the testimony of witnesses have revealed a fuller picture of the places, people, nightmarish techniques, and results of that program.

The fraying of that blindfold took endless years, starting in December 2002, when Washington Post writers Dana Priest and Barton Gellman reported on the existence of secret detention and interrogation centers in countries around the planet where cruel, unlawful techniques were being used against war-on-terror captives in American custody. Quoting from a 2001 State Department report on the treatment of captives, they wrote, “The most frequently alleged methods of torture include sleep deprivation, beatings on the soles of the feet, prolonged suspension with ropes in contorted positions, and extended solitary confinement.”

Less than a year later, the American Civil Liberties Union, along with other groups, filed a Freedom of Information Act request (the first of many) for records pertaining to detention and interrogation in the war on terror. Their goal was to follow the trail leading to “numerous credible reports recounting the torture and rendition of detainees” and our government’s efforts (or the lack thereof) to comply “with its legal obligations with respect to the infliction of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment.”

Then, in 2004, the blindfold began to show some initial signs of wear. That spring, CBS News’s 60 Minutes II showed the first photographs of men held at Abu Ghraib, an American-controlled prison in Iraq. They were, among other things, visibly naked, hooded, shackled, and threatened by dogs. Those pictures sent journalists and legal advocates into a frenzied search for answers to how such a thing had happened in the wake of the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq. By that fall, they had obtained internal government documents exempting any war on terror captives from the usual legal protections from cruelty, abuse, and torture. Documents also appeared in which specific techniques of torture, renamed “enhanced interrogation techniques” (EITs), were authorized by top officials of the Bush administration. They would be used on prisoners in secret CIA locations around the world (119 men in 38 or more countries).

None of this, however, yet added up to “Tag! I found you!”

Before Bush left office, Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) began a congressional investigation into the CIA interrogation program. In the Obama years, she would battle to mount a full-scale one into the torture program, defying most of her colleagues, who preferred to follow President Barack Obama’s advice to “look forward as opposed to looking backward.”

But Feinstein refused to back down (and we should honor her courage and dedication, even as we witness the present drama of her insistence on remaining in the Senate despite a devastating process of aging). Instead of retreating, Feinstein only doubled down and, as chair of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, launched an in-depth investigation into the torture program’s evolution and the grim treatment of those prisoners at what came to be known as “CIA black sites.”

Feinstein’s investigator, Daniel Jones, spent years reading through 6 million pages of documents. Finally, in December 2014, her committee issued a 525-page “executive summary” of his findings. Yet his full report – 6,700 pages with 35,300 footnotes – remained classified on the grounds that, were the public to see it, national security might be harmed. Still, that summary convincingly laid out not just the widespread use of torture but how it “proved not to be an effective means of obtaining accurate information.” In doing so, it dismantled the CIA’s justification for its EITs which rested on “claims of their effectiveness.”

Meanwhile, Leon Panetta, Obama’s director of the CIA, conducted an internal investigation into torture. Never declassified, the Panetta Review, as it came to be known, reportedly found that the CIA had inflated the value of the information it had gotten with the use of torture techniques.

Karen Greenberg, "Endless denial," The News. 2023-05-29.
Keywords: Political science , Political issues , National security , Terrorism , Journalism , Dana Priest , Barton Gellman , Pakistan , CBS , CIA