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Crimes Without Punishment

A Commentary by Joe Conason

Thursday, December 11, 2014

With the release of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report on the use of torture by the CIA after 9/11, the final defense of the indefensible by its perpetrators, advocates and publicists is falling apart before our eyes.

Not only did "enhanced interrogation," the Nazi euphemism adopted by the Bush-Cheney administration, include methods outlawed and prosecuted by our country for more than a century, such as waterboarding -- and not only did those "activities," as Dick Cheney called them, violate American law, the Constitution, the Geneva Conventions and the conventions on torture -- but also we now know with great certainty that the CIA executed this secret program with horrific incompetence and that it produced nothing of significant value.

Indeed, the SSCI report concludes -- contrary to the boasting of Cheney and many others -- that torture was proved "not an effective means of gathering intelligence," let alone saving millions of Americans from jihadi plots, and actually "complicated, and in some cases impeded, the national security missions." The overseers of the torture program, themselves of dubious competence, were unable even to assess the impact or effectiveness of their orders.

As Micah Zenko of the Council on Foreign Relations points out, the CIA itself has admitted, in its otherwise aggressive response to the SSCI, that it lacked the "structure, expertise, and methodologies" to "systematically evaluate the effectiveness" of its "covert actions." The CIA didn't know what it was doing. But it was doing grave damage to itself and to us.

Unavoidably, the SSCI report dwells on the details of these true nightmares, revealing facts that anyone would regret learning: the "rectal rehydration" of detainees by shoving food up the wrong way, with the infliction of excruciating pain; the "black sites" where detainees were held for months in total darkness, with loud music constantly playing and only a bucket for their waste; the cells where detainees suffered such freezing temperatures that at least one died of hypothermia overnight; the beatings, the near drownings, the constant infliction of pain and hunger and threats of rape and murder.

According to the report, some episodes of interrogation were so blatantly sadistic and so obviously criminal that the men who witnessed them actually wept. More than one officer broke down and fled, through retirement or transfer, while the White House and the Pentagon continued to lie about the extent -- and the supposed necessity -- of these unprecedented crimes. Those lies were designed to prevent investigations or oversight from revealing the horrific facts that are now emerging.

Yet despite a long and ongoing cover-up -- and notwithstanding the specific revelations highlighted in the report -- the basic outline has been known since 2009, when portions of the CIA inspector general's report on torture were released by the Obama Justice Department.

Back then, the spy agency's own investigation -- in the words of a Bush appointee and torture enthusiast -- found it "difficult to determine conclusively whether interrogations have provided information critical to interdicting specific imminent attacks." In other words, the CIA could never prove any instance when the sole justification for these gross violations of U.S. and international law -- breaking up a plot targeting American lives -- had been fulfilled since 9/11. And unsurprisingly, that is still the case.

The searing issue we now confront, as a society governed by law, is that these lawbreakers will not be prosecuted or even required to testify publicly about their grave offenses. The Obama administration is apparently willing to expose their lawlessness but unable to do anything to punish it. Even the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, Anthony Romero, has abandoned any hope of prosecutions, noting that the torturers have in effect been pardoned. Romero has urged President Obama to make those pardons official -- which would at least stamp the actions of the torturers and their accomplices as crimes.

What we have needed for years -- but evidently will never get -- is a truth and reconciliation process that might have granted freedom from prosecution to witnesses who testified publicly, honestly and completely about the crimes of that mercifully departed era. Instead, those miscreants will escape accountability altogether -- except in the pages of history, where the SSCI report will indict them over and over again.

To find out more about Joe Conason and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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