By Stephen Hart
Americans’ opinions are passionate and divided regarding detainee treatment in our fight against terrorism. One factor in that heated debate is that much of what we need to know has been kept secret. The secrecy is justified on national security grounds, but that rationale is easily used to protect government agencies from embarrassment and criticism.
President Obama promised a more transparent government, but has continued to shield government actions and policies from public scrutiny. Congress has been equally hostile to unearthing the history of our treatment of detainees, derailing even the modest proposal by Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., for a South African-style truth commission. Efforts by the National Religious Coalition Against Torture and other groups to have Congress establish a public commission of inquiry into what was done in our name have not borne fruit.
Fortunately, the bipartisan, high-level Task Force on Detainee Treatment sponsored by the Constitution Project has just issued a comprehensive, unbiased, highly factual report. Even in the absence of subpoena power or access to classified data, the task force successfully acquired extensive accounts of counter-terrorist activities from public information and interviews.
Its diverse membership includes a Republican who served under President George W. Bush, a former three-star general, a longtime director of the FBI, high-profile professors in law and medical schools and an evangelical religious leader.
The report found that torture was practiced on many occasions, and that it was directly authorized by high officials, including Bush. Despite ratifying the Convention Against Torture, our government has not held accountable any but the very lowest-level people who abused detainees.
The report also shows that non-coercive methods of interrogation were actually more effective. There are, to be sure, statements by past leaders that torture was indispensable, but they rely on secret data, and the people offering these assessments have a built-in bias.
The report acknowledges that any country under stress is likely to behave below its usual standard, but argues that we should nonetheless strive to ensure that our country lives up to its ideals.
In December, the Senate Intelligence Committee finished analyzing 6 million pages of documents on the CIA’s use of torture after 9/11. As a Christian, specifically an Episcopalian, I stand with the more than 300 diverse faith-based organizations which, as members of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, are calling on the committee to make its report public.
As a participant in my church’s liturgy, I regularly vow to “respect the dignity of every human being.” I hope for my country to do the same.
Stephen Hart of Buffalo is convener of the Western New York chapter of the Episcopal Peace Fellowship.