Sweeping Torture History Under the Rug: Round Two
If those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it, what happens to those who willfully ignore history and make every attempt to cover it up?
Last Friday, reports emerged that the Trump Administration is in the process of returning to Congress its agency copies of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s (SSCI) comprehensive report on the CIA’s Rendition, Detention, and Interrogation program. In other words, the administration is relinquishing its copies of what has become popularly known as the “Torture Report,” which details the CIA’s brutal and largely concealed torture techniques following the attacks of September 11, 2001.
This complicates matters for Trump Administration officials who promised to read the report during their confirmation hearings this past spring.
A quick recap for those unfamiliar with the Torture Report: On December 9, 2014, after years of painstaking research and countless debates over classification, then-SSCI Chair Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) released the executive summary, findings, and conclusions of the Torture Report. The full study (approximately 6,700 pages) remains classified, but copies were sent to relevant government agencies, including the Department of Justice (DOJ), the Department of Defense (DOD), and the CIA.
The report was almost immediately branded as partisan, with many Republican members of Congress discrediting the findings—despite the fact that bipartisan votes agreed to initiate, release, and declassify the executive summary. Shortly after Senator Richard Burr (R-NC) took control of the SSCI chair in 2015, he wrote a letter to President Obama asking for all of the copies of the report be returned. Many feared that this was an attempt to prevent the administration from making use of the report or to prevent the report from ever being subject to a Freedom of Information Act request and, therefore, being seen by the public. President Obama refused to honor the request, and even submitted a copy of the full report to his presidential archives before he left office to preserve it.
Sadly, it seems that there is a push under the new administration to sweep the history illuminated by the Torture Report under the rug. We’ve talked at length in the past about why this is problematic. But there’s a new twist to this story that the Trump Administration would do well to keep in mind.
This past spring, CIA Director Pompeo, CIA General Counsel Courtney Ellwood, and Attorney General Jeff Sessions all stated during their confirmation processes that they would commit to reading the full, classified report (or at least the ‘relevant parts’ of the report, in the cases of Pompeo and Sessions). Attorney General Sessions also committed to not return the DOJ’s copy of the report.
However, the CIA’s copy of the report was among those recently returned. I’m curious to know how Director Pompeo and General Counsel Ellwood intend to keep their commitment to reading sections of the report if they no longer have copies of it (a sentiment that Senators Wyden and Feinstein share).
Three copies of the report still exist outside of the SSCI vaults: one in the Obama archives, one with the DOJ, and one with the DOD as a result of a court order from the Guantanamo military commissions. However, the Obama archive copy won’t be subject to release for another 12 years. Even then, a future president could decide to maintain its classification. The copies held by the DOD and the DOJ are by no means permanent either, given that they exist only to serve relevant legal cases. If the judges in those cases decide that the report is not necessary, the copies will be lost.
It's not clear what Senator Burr’s ultimate intentions are for the report. He has never stated that he intends to destroy the report, as some fear (and, in fact, he is barred from doing so by SSCI rules of procedure). His request certainly makes clear that he hopes to prevent the public from ever being able to see the full details of the torture committed at the hands of U.S. personnel.
This information will come out eventually; perhaps not next year, or even in the next decade, but the American public will ultimately find out the awful truth. The U.S. torture program is not, as Senator Burr has previously stated, a "footnote in history." It is a serious and tragic era that needs to be thoroughly studied and understood by officials in our government to make sure that we never return to it. Senator Burr should end his crusade to lock the torture report away in the SSCI vaults and commit to preserving the copies he already has.