Two years ago, a team of Navy Seals raided a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, and killed Osama bin Laden. It was an important national victory for the United States. Unfortunately, it was also the beginning of a new chapter in the debate about the efficacy of torture.
News of bin Laden’s death had just broken when torture proponents began to claim that — as Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., put it — “the road to bin Laden began with waterboarding.” Undeterred by the glaring absence of evidence, they’ve made this claim repeatedly over the last two years and asserted that the movie “Zero Dark Thirty” supported their position, as if a Hollywood movie were the official record.
There is, in fact, an official record: the Senate Intelligence Committee’s magisterial 6,000-page report on CIA interrogation and detention after 9/11. Last year, a majority of the committee — including Maine’s former Sen. Olympia Snowe — voted to adopt the report. Now the committee, which includes Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King, will soon vote on whether to declassify it.
No other state has two members on the committee, so Maine will play the largest role in this momentous decision. While the outlines of the CIA’s torture program are known, its details remain murky. Committee Chair Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. — who has consulted the report to debunk the claim that torture led the U.S. to bin Laden — has said it shows that abuse of detainees was “far more widespread and systematic than we thought.”
Regardless of the report’s contents, Americans should be able to learn what their government did in their name. Some in Congress argue that releasing the report would jeopardize national security, but it’s not a credible argument considering that the Senate Armed Services Committee has already released a similar report about the military’s record. And if the report contains information that should not be made public due to security concerns, the government can and should redact it.
Release of the report would trigger a much-needed public reckoning of the torture program’s impact on the country and the world. Such an accounting would, we believe, help rebuild a strong national consensus against torture. Prior to the attacks of 9/11, torture was not a divisive or partisan issue. Twenty-five years ago, the United States signed the U.N. Convention Against Torture. President Ronald Reagan, who presided over the signing, pointed out that the United States “participated actively and effectively in the negotiation of the Convention.”
The George W. Bush administration’s decision to take the country “to the dark side” broke this consensus and turned the issue into a political football. What was once taboo is now the subject of a policy dispute.
In recent years, after President Barack Obama urged the country to “look forward, not backward,” public support for torture has grown. According to some polls, a slim majority of Americans are now willing to accept torture — but only if it would help protect them. That’s why torture proponents keep claiming that abusive interrogation aided the hunt for bin Laden.
As retired generals who know that the best defense policies are those that uphold American ideals, we believe there shouldn’t be any debate about torture. It is wrong, full stop. Not only is torture a blatant violation of our laws and our values, it is much less likely to produce actionable intelligence than humane interrogation techniques.
The U.S. government’s embrace of torture did great damage to U.S. national security. It alienated our allies and local populations, providing a gift to al-Qaida, which used it to recruit members and win sympathizers. This kind of damage to our moral standing cannot be repaired overnight. Although the torture program may be part of history, it came with a price that the United States is still paying.
But Americans shouldn’t have to take our word for it, or anyone’s word for it. They should be able to see the most authoritative record of the U.S. torture program. And Collins and King should follow Maine’s proud tradition of political independence and vote to release it.
Charles C. Krulak was commandant of the Marine Corps from 1995 to 1999. Joseph P. Hoar was commander in chief of U.S. Central Command from 1991 to 1994.