Last month, seven senior military officials serving on a military jury sentenced Guantanamo Bay detainee Majid Khan to 26 years in prison for his support and work as a courier for Al Qaeda. They coupled Khan’s sentence — the shortest possible term per war court instructions — with a letter urging clemency for him, citing the extreme torture he faced during his time in CIA custody.
“Mr. Khan was subjected to physical and psychological abuse well beyond approved enhanced interrogation techniques, instead being closer to torture performed by the most abusive regimes in modern history,” the letter, which was obtained by The New York Times, said. “This abuse was of no practical value in terms of intelligence, or any other tangible benefit to US interests. Instead, it is a stain on the moral fiber of America.”
In a detailed 39-page testimony, Khan was able to outline the abuse he faced as a prisoner, becoming the first former CIA “black site” detainee to publicly document how he was treated at the agency’s secret torture prisons. His torture included psychological abuse, waterboarding, and sexual assault. He was also starved, beaten, and hung naked from a ceiling.
This kind of morally depraved treatment of an individual by the government — no matter how serious a crime they commit — should have no place in American society. And in fact, it doesn’t: The torture Khan faced was and continues to be illegal under both US and international law, and the people who violated such laws ought to be held accountable for contributing to a clandestine operation that will forever be a source of great national shame. A first step toward closing this dark chapter in American history would be for the Biden administration to declassify a major congressional report on the United States’ post-9/11 torture program — as well as any additional case documents — which would bring greater clarity to what happened and who can be held responsible.
Much of what the public knows about America’s torture program is a result of news reporting, court documents, and the 2012 Senate Intelligence Committee report. But even the comprehensive Senate report — over 6,000 pages — was only partly declassified, and there is still much left to be uncovered. While former president Barack Obama decided to include the Senate’s report in his presidential papers — meaning that it could be declassified in 2028 at the earliest, though probably at an undetermined later date if future administrations believe the information is a risk to national security — the public has a right to know who was involved with the program, and just how extreme it was, far sooner. Few people have been held accountable while others have not only gotten away with torture but were rewarded for it. Gina Haspel, for example, became CIA director during the Trump administration despite being intimately involved in the agency’s torture program and its coverup, having run one of the CIA’s black sites in Thailand and advocating for the destruction of videotapes that had recordings of waterboarding sessions.
There is no excuse for the US government to keep secret its history of torture. In fact, doing so only gives officials an incentive to hold off the trials for some of the remaining Guantanamo detainees and afford them their due process rights; as Khan’s case shows, trials will probably uncover torture techniques that expose just how grotesque the program was. It also means that some victims of the program can’t receive adequate care because their medical records, which would show the kind of abuse they were subjected to, remain classified.
One of the mistakes of the Obama administration was that it did not wage a serious effort to hold people accountable for torture. While the administration did open criminal investigations into interrogations that went beyond what was authorized, the architects of the program and its biggest contributors walked away without facing any consequences. That inaction sent the message to future administrations that, so long as you’re in power, you can get away with anything — even torture.
But the good news is that it’s not too late to reverse course; there is no statute of limitations on torture and other war crimes that could have resulted in death. People can still be held accountable, and the first step is for the government to let the public know who was involved, how they were involved, and what they did. That, in the end, is one more tool the government can use to try to ensure that nothing like this abhorrent program is ever attempted again.
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