A dozen years after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, an independent, nonpartisan panel’s examination of the interrogation and detention programs carried out in their aftermath by the Bush administration may seem to be musty old business. But the sweeping report issued on Tuesday by an 11-member task force convened by the Constitution Project, a legal research and advocacy group, provides a valuable, even necessary reckoning.
The work of the task force, led by two former congressmen — Asa Hutchinson, a Republican, who served in the Bush administration as under secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, and James Jones, a Democrat, who was an ambassador to Mexico during the Clinton years — is informed by interviews with dozens of former American and foreign officials, as well as with former prisoners.
It is the fullest independent effort so far to assess the treatment of detainees at Guantánamo Bay, in Afghanistan and Iraq, and at the C.I.A.’s secret prisons. Those who sanctioned the use of brutal methods, like former Vice President Dick Cheney, will continue to defend their use. But the report’s authoritative conclusion that “the United States engaged in the practice of torture” is impossible to dismiss by a public that needs to know what was committed in the nation’s name.
The report found that those methods violated international legal obligations with “no firm or persuasive evidence” that they produced valuable information that could not have been obtained by other means. This blunt language should help end a corrosive debate that has broken down on largely partisan lines.
Reaching a stronger national consensus on the issue of torture is crucial because, as the report says, “as long as the debate continues, so too does the possibility that the United states could again engage in torture.” The task force found that using torture — like waterboarding, slamming prisoners into walls, and chaining them in uncomfortable stress position for hours — had “no justification” and “damaged the standing of our nation, reduced our capacity to convey moral censure when necessary and potentially increased the danger to U.S. military personnel taken captive.” And in engineering “enforced disappearances” and secret detentions, the United States violated its international treaty obligations. A detailed 22-page appendix cites dozens of legal cases in which the United States prosecuted similar treatment or denounced it as torture when carried out by other countries.
Brutality is not uncommon in warfare. But, as the panel notes, there never was before “the kind of considered and detailed discussions that occurred after 9/11 directly involving a president and his top advisers on the wisdom, propriety and legality of inflicting pain and torment on some detainees in our custody.”
The panel further details the ethical lapses of government lawyers in the Bush years who served up “acrobatic” advice to justify brutal interrogations, and of medical professionals who helped oversee them. It is also rightly critical of the Obama administration’s use of expansive claims of secrecy to keep the details of rendition and torture from becoming public and to block victims’ lawsuits.
The report’s appearance all these years later is a reminder of the lost opportunity for a full accounting in 2009 when President Obama chose not to support a national commission to investigate the post-9/11 detention and interrogation programs. At that time, Mr. Obama said he wanted to “look forward, not backward.” But identifying past mistakes so they can be avoided is central to looking forward. The Constitution Project’s effort is a good step in that direction. But the portrait of what happened is still incomplete. For starters, a separate 6,000-page report by the Senate Intelligence Committee, based on Central Intelligence Agency records, has yet to be declassified and made public. The next step should be its release. There is no excuse for further delay.
A version of this editorial appeared in print on April 17, 2013, on page A22 of the New York edition with the headline: Indisputable Torture.
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