In April 1975, Sen. Frank Church impaneled a special investigative committee to look into shocking accounts of CIA dirty tricks. The Church Committee ultimately published 14 reports over two years revealing a clandestine agency that was a law unto itself -- plotting to assassinate heads of state (Castro, Diem, Lumumba, Trujillo), carrying out weird experiments with LSD, and suborning American journalists. As a result, President Gerald Ford issued an executive order banning the assassination of foreign leaders, the House and Senate established standing intelligence committees, and the United States set up the so-called FISA courts, which oversee request for surveillance warrants against suspected foreign agents.
But the war on terror unleashed the CIA once again to carry out dark deeds against America's enemies -- torture, secret detention, and "rendition" to "black sites" across the world. How have Americans reckoned, this time, with the immoral and illegal acts carried out in their name? They have not: the CIA has retained control over the narrative. As the Constitution Project's Detainee Treatment report describes in great detail, the CIA falsely reported -- to the White House as well as to the public -- that torture "worked" in wresting crucial information from high-level detainees, and thus needed to be an instrument available to interrogators. Officials like Vice President Dick Cheney repeated ad nauseum that the CIA's dark arts had saved thousands of lives. Is it any wonder that a plurality of Americans think the United States should torture terrorists?
I wrote last month about the detainee treatment report, but I find it incredibly frustrating -- and all too telling -- that the findings were overwhelmed by the tidal wave of coverage of the Boston bombing. Because we fear terrorism far more viscerally than we feared communism -- certainly by 1975 -- we are all too susceptible to the view that America cannot afford to live by its own professed values. But of course that's what Chileans and Brazilians thought in the 1970s. That's why Sri Lankans have granted themselves the right to slaughter homegrown terrorists wholesale, and react furiously to any hint of criticism.
People give themselves a pass unless and until they are forced to face the truth, which is why a public airing of history is so important -- and so politically fraught. There's always a compelling reason to avoid facing the ugly truth. In early 2009, Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, called for an independent commission to investigate allegations of torture. But President Barack Obama's spokesman said that the proposal would not be "workable." We know what he meant: you can hardly blame the president for avoiding a colossal fight with Republicans over the past, especially, when he had so many fights he needed to wage over the future.
Obama probably thought that he could put the problem to rest by ending torture as well as the cult of secrecy surrounding CIA practices. He succeeded on the first count, but failed on the latter. In April 2009, he agreed to release the so-called "torture" memos written by President George W. Bush's Office of Legal Counsel (OLC), as well as photos of prisoner abuse from Iraq and Afghanistan. But then, after a fierce debate inside the White House said to pit Obama's military commanders against his counselor, Gregory Craig, among others, the administration reversed itself. The president later signed legislation allowing him to withhold the pictures if he determined that the release would harm national security.
Once adopted, the logic of national security carries all before it. The release of the OLC memos, the detainee treatment report notes, was the high-water mark of Obama-era transparency on torture. CIA reports on the death of three prisoners in custody as well as on broad policy towards detainees remain classified; so do the results of inquiries by the armed forces criminal investigation division. The agency's ability to withhold information probably contributed to the Justice Department's decision not to pursue indictments on any of the 100 or so cases of CIA mistreatment which it investigated. Defense lawyers in the military trial of the "9/11 defendants" held at Guantanamo have had to work around a "protection order" which classifies entire subject areas -- including anything related to the defendants' arrest or capture, the conditions in which they were held, or the interrogation techniques to which they were subjected. Whatever becomes of the defendants, Americans will learn nothing from the trials.