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January 03, 2014

Snowden Controversy Highlights Risk to Obama’s Legacy on Torture

This week, The New York Times published an editorial calling for President Obama to offer clemency to NSA leaker Edward Snowden. The internet, predictably, exploded in debate. Some commenters noted while the Obama administration seeks to prosecute Snowden, it’s given a free pass to government employees who approved or conducted torture after 9/11.

On his second day in office, President Obama signed an executive order banning the use of torture in interrogation, and has consistently spoken out against torture. The president has adopted a policy of “looking forward, not backward,” but several members of the Bush administration and Bush-era CIA have looked backward in memoirs (such as CIA counsel John Rizzo’s forthcoming “Company Man”) and asserted that torture “worked.” Whenever the topic resurfaces, as it did with the release of “Zero Dark Thirty,” they jump into the spotlight to defend torture.

Obama’s executive order can be overturned by any future president. And with the narrative frequently muddied, if not dominated, by torture advocates, the president’s anti-torture legacy is in jeopardy. The inescapable comparison between the treatment of Snowden and that of Bush administration officials responsible for torture goes to show the lack of accountability continues to mar Obama’s record.

But there is one thing that the president can do today to protect his legacy and reduce the likelihood the United States will return to the dark side. The Senate Intelligence Committee has conducted an exhaustive study of CIA interrogation and detention after 9/11, and has produced a 6,000-page report detailing its findings, many of which reportedly demonstrate that torture was not effective or important in fighting terrorism and stopping terrorist attacks.

The Committee has adopted the report and now needs to vote to declassify and approve its public release. The CIA has produced a response, but has reportedly put the brakes on the process of declassification and release at every turn. Vice President Joe Biden and Obama’s former Defense Department Counsel Jeh Johnson have come out in favor of the report’s release; President Obama has stayed silent.

President Obama believes that torture is ineffective, immoral, and illegal. Pushing for the release of the Senate Intelligence report would show that he is committed to ending the use of torture once and for all.