Scenes of prisoner abuses in Zero Dark Thirty, the Kathryn Bigelow film on the hunt for Osama bin Laden, have reawakened a debate over the United States' use of torture that should have been fully and publicly vetted long ago.
Whether the Bush administration's enhanced interrogations program, a.k.a. torture, "worked" is the question being kicked around, as if that should matter in a nation committed to human rights.
Knowledgeable commentators have taken both sides. Jose Rodriguez Jr., who oversaw the agency's counterterrorism operations at the time, says the harsh techniques elicited information that did contribute to locating bin Laden. Opposing that view are Michael Morell, acting CIA director, and California Democrat Sen. Dianne Feinstein, chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, who each blasted the movie as inaccurate and misleading.
Feinstein said a 6,000-page study just completed by the intelligence committee is highly critical of the CIA detention and interrogation program under President George W. Bush and demonstrates that information gained from mistreating prisoners did not play a significant role in finding bin Laden.
But since the report is classified, we can't see for ourselves. You would think once there is a blockbuster Hollywood movie depicting the CIA's torture program, it's no longer a secret. Releasing the report would be a valuable service by both clearing up these questions and as a "how could we go so wrong?" lesson.
The secrecy bespeaks a deep humiliation at how America reacted to the al-Qaida threat with CIA black-site prisons, extraordinary renditions and prisoner mistreatment. We don't want to be reminded of what we did, whether it occasionally "worked" or not. In those dank cells, our once-proud principles of due process and the rule of law were reduced to rubble. Our self-image of the American character was indelibly stained.
Even the federal courts don't want to go there. To keep innocent torture victims from suing, they have accepted fatuous claims asserted by both the Bush and Obama administrations that it would jeopardize national security.
Typically at year's end I give out the "Freeby" award to the person or institution that did the most to advance civil liberties. This year I look beyond our borders to a courageous stand against the CIA's mistreatment of prisoners. The European Court of Human Rights gets the "Freeby" for finally giving Khaled El-Masri a measure of justice.
Earlier this month the court handed El-Masri, a German national, a victory against Macedonia for its complicity in his torture within the CIA's extraordinary rendition program nine years ago. America was not directly on trial, but our guilt was clear.
On Dec. 31, 2003, El-Masri was detained after his name was found similar to that of an al-Qaida suspect. Macedonian security officials held him incommunicado for 23 days at America's request. After that he was turned over to the CIA at Skopje Airport, where, the court found, he was severely beaten, stripped and forcibly sodomized with a suppository and flown to Afghanistan. For months El-Masri was held in a cold, unheated cell at the "Salt Pit," a secret CIA-run prison. Even after it became evident his detention was a mistake, El-Masri wasn't immediately released. Finally at the end of May 2004, he was taken and dumped at a roadside in Albania, left to find his way home to Germany.
Since then, El-Masri's efforts to get justice in U.S. courts failed. The "state secrets" defense defeated any consideration of his claim. Astoundingly the United States has never apologized for what happened to him or even publicly acknowledged it.
So if anyone wants to debate the efficacy of Zero Dark Thirty-style torture, let's do it with the full record before us. Make the Senate Intelligence Committee's report public so we can read about all the people like El-Masri that the CIA put into its black-site prisons. Give us a full description of what happed to them, and how that "worked." The record is likely so shockingly disturbing that continued secrecy over it has less to do with national security than national shame.