The recent decision by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence to declassify parts of its report on the CIA’s post-Sept. 11 detention and interrogation program marks a milestone in the process of ensuring that the United States learns from a dark chapter in its history and never again repeats it.
Eleven members of the committee, Republicans and Democrats alike, voted to declassify the executive summary, findings and conclusions (more than 500 pages) of the committee’s oversight report. They deserve our thanks, especially the chairman, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, for her tenacious leadership in reaching this point.
Mrs. Feinstein has described the committee’s report as “unprecedented in its comprehensive attention to detail, in the history of the Senate,” and she and several of her colleagues think it will end the debate over the wisdom and necessity of sanctioning torture in the name of national security.
Other members, including some who voted for declassification, strongly disagree. They say the committee’s report is “flawed,” “biased,” and “based on a cherry-picking of the facts.” The report will stand or fall on its own merit, as it should, but there is an independent reason to think the committee’s investigators got it right.
I was co-chairman, along with former Arkansas Rep. Asa Hutchinson, of the Constitution Project’s Task Force on Detainee Treatment. We were 11 members from across the political spectrum and with expertise in governance, the military, law, diplomacy, medicine and ethics. Our bipartisan group spent two years studying detainee-treatment policies and practices from the late Clinton years through the beginning of the Obama presidency.
We did not have access to classified information, and so have not seen the rich and varied source material that the Senate Intelligence Committee examined (including internal agency emails, operational cables and transcripts of interviews conducted by the CIA’s inspector general while the detention and interrogation program was ongoing). Nor did we have subpoena power.
Our review was limited to the public record and interviews with more than 100 people, including former detainees, military and intelligence officers, interrogators and policymakers.
After much deliberation, we made several unanimous findings that match important conclusions the committee reportedly reached. First, detainee abuse in the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, was more brutal and widespread than most people understand. We tortured, and not just in a few isolated incidents. Second, the detention and interrogation program’s authorization rested on claims about torture’s safety and efficacy that simply do not hold up.
Our task force called specifically for the Senate committee report’s release. Notwithstanding their disagreements over the report’s content, all 11 committee members who voted for declassification similarly recognize that the American people deserve the opportunity to make fully informed judgments about what their government did in their name. When and to what extent that happens is now squarely in President Obama’s hands.
The president said recently that he is “absolutely committed” to declassification. He can demonstrate that commitment by taking control of the process, making sure that it moves quickly and that redactions are limited to protecting specific individuals and to honoring specific, valid diplomatic agreements.
Continued secrecy around the use of “enhanced interrogation” and the conditions in which detainees were held cannot be justified on the basis of national security.
Promptly getting a minimally redacted version of the report’s executive summary, findings and conclusions into the public’s hands, along with the committee minority’s views, is the priority. The CIA’s response should be released as well.
Transparency should not stop there, though. The full report needs to follow, and the president should publicly support its release. We are now more than 12 years removed from Sept. 11, 2001. The president formally ended the CIA’s detention and interrogation program more than five years ago. It is time to declassify all relevant information about post-Sept. 11 detainee abuse (with appropriate redactions, as noted above).
One former agency official recently described the committee’s report as “an attempt to rewrite history.” The problem is that to the extent this history has been written, the primary authors are those with a reputational stake in defending the detention and interrogation program, and Hollywood.
Our task force worked hard to make an objective, bipartisan contribution to the historical record. However, we recognized that there was more to be learned and more to be told. With the vote to release parts of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report, let’s hope that process has now begun.
James R. Jones formerly served as ambassador to Mexico and as a Democratic congressman from Oklahoma. He is a co-chairman of the Constitution Project’s Task Force on Detainee Treatment.