The 449-page executive summary of a Senate Intelligence Committee report released today on the CIA's torture of suspected al-Qaida detainees after the Sept. 11 attacks contained only a fraction of the information gathered by Senate investigators over the last five years. But it is chilling enough in its indictment of the abuses committed by agency operatives. Not only did the report conclude that the CIA repeatedly lied to Congress and the White House about what it was doing but that the harsh interrogation techniques it employed failed to make the country safer while damaging America's standing in the world in a way that made it harder to pursue our broader counter-terrorism goals with allies and partners.
In recent weeks Republicans have condemned the report's release as a politically motivated rehash of "old news" aimed at discrediting Bush administration policies. They say there's nothing to be gained from dredging up the past and that releasing the gruesome details of the "enhanced interrogation techniques" carried out by the agency a decade ago will actually put American lives at risk by angering our enemies. But people have a right to know when crimes are committed in their name, if for no other reason than to see to it that such abuses are not permitted to recur. The CIA torture program blatantly violated both international law and core American values, and unless the agency is held to account for that there's no assurance a future U.S. administration won't do the same thing again.
That's why complaints that releasing the committee's report now could somehow prompt new terrorist attacks on U.S. personnel and facilities around the world ring hollow. The Obama administration has acknowledged beefing up security in anticipation of the possibility that the report's findings could inspire al-Qaida or other groups to seek revenge for their comrades. But anyone who thinks Islamic radicals need an excuse to murder Americans hasn't been paying attention to the sickeningly gratuitous violence recently carried out by the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. It would be folly to muffle debate over the issue in the vain hope that self-censorship might spare us from such murderous fanatics.
The brutality of our enemies, however, can never justify or excuse our adopting similarly inhumane methods. To do so would be to lower ourselves to their level and betray our most cherished beliefs and values. War is, by definition, an ugly business under any circumstances. But even in a war there must be some limit on what is considered permissible, otherwise the line separating civilization and barbarism quickly vanishes. The CIA torture program clearly crossed that line, and while Americans are not being called on to atone for those misdeeds, it's incumbent on them to acknowledge they must never be repeated in a country that seeks to maintain its moral compass.
That's also why assertions by the CIA and its supporters that the agency's harsh interrogation techniques were carried out under the color of law on the advice of Bush administration attorneys also miss the point. There has never been a tyranny in history whose laws have not sanctioned the grossest violations of human rights. Does the fact that North Korean law permits the enslavement, starvation and murder of millions of that country's citizens entitle the government to claim it has done nothing wrong?
Even if the law enabled the abuses of the CIA's torture program — and it didn't — it will never make them right. That is, at bottom, the lesson Americans should take away from the Senate committee's report. No matter how shocked, saddened, frightened and enraged the country was after terrorists attacked the country in 2001, the CIA's response was a deeply flawed and ill-conceived overreaction that violated every tenet of decency and justice Americans hold dear, and ultimately it failed to even work as advertised. It must never be allowed to happen again. It was the use of torture that put American lives at risk, not our belated acknowledgment of it.