Release of the long-delayed US Senate report on CIA abuses should make Americans proud as well as ashamed. Shame is a natural reaction when we learn that agents acting in our name have behaved so brutally. It is also reasonable, however, for us to be proud of what we read. Security forces in other countries also arrest innocent people, abuse them, and then lie about what they have done. Few of those countries, though, publish reports of their crimes.
That is one reason crimes like these are so often repeated. As long as people know about injustice in a vague and diffuse way, we can push the subject to the back of our minds. We try to believe our leaders when they minimize the extent of abuse and emphasize how vital it has been to national security. But when details of the abuse are published with official imprimatur, it becomes harder to deny or sugarcoat.
Release of this report, then, is a welcome step. The idea of political freedom is based on the belief that knowledge is good. This is subverted when governments seek to decide what citizens may or may not know. Opponents of releasing the CIA report argued that some historical truths are too unpleasant for public consumption. That is a dangerously undemocratic idea.
Those who wished to keep this report secret worry that anti-American forces will seize on it to incite public anger, possibly leading to attacks on Americans. This is not unreasonable; in fact, it will be surprising if the report does not spark outrage. The only alternative, however, would be to keep the report secret indefinitely, or until a more convenient time — assuming such a time will ever come. That would be a crime against both history and democracy.
Critics of the release also fear its impact at home. This report may lead some Americans to look unfavorably on figures involved in the abuse it describes, and on the Republican Party, to which most of them belonged. It would be naive not to realize that Republicans who wanted to keep this report secret acted in part out of political motives. They want the next election to be based on whether Democrats are incompetent socialists, not whether Republicans are mendacious torturers.
Although this report will stir anti-American anger, it should also serve as an example to other countries wrestling with the challenges of facing their past. Nations, like individuals, think of themselves as essentially good and do not like to admit wrongdoing. Doing so, however, is a sign of strength and maturity. In the era of Edward Snowden and the Internet, secrets are hard to keep. It is better to come clean than to leave questions of responsibility hanging forever.
Unfortunately, the new CIA report falls short of real truth-telling. It chillingly describes the exuberance with which CIA officers crashed around the world, grabbing suspects off streets and dispatching them for torture at “black sites.” True and deplorable as that may be, no one has suggested that these officers, or their superiors, were doing anything other than what elected leaders wanted them to do. By focusing on the CIA’s kidnappers, torturers, and fabulists, this report diverts us away from the central responsibility of political leaders.
The “major lesson” of this report, Senator Dianne Feinstein said in releasing it, is that intelligence officers must act in rigorous accord with law “regardless of the pressures.” That is an unrealistic fantasy. Intelligence officers are not legal scholars. When they are given orders, they obey — especially in moments of perceived crisis. If the boss says it’s legal, that is usually enough.
According to the report, senior CIA officials fed the White House a poisoned smorgasbord of false statistics and fabricated good news. If they did so, it was because they knew what the White House wanted. There is no such thing as a “rogue elephant” CIA. For all its global depredations, it has always acted within US law, as interpreted by presidents and their aides. It is refreshing to see liars and torturers called out in this report, but disappointing that it stops short of naming the real culprits. Everything bad is attributed to runaway bureaucrats, rather than to those who gave them orders.
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Stephen Kinzer is a visiting fellow at the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University. Follow him on Twitter @stephenkinzer.