Architects of Atrocity Remain at Large, and Unrepentant

By analogy, blaming it all on Eichmann while giving Hitler a pass

The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence has been taking bows for being the guardian of American law, decency, and character. It’s not. It’s not even close. American law, decency, and character have yet to be redeemed. Worse, only a small percentage of Americans in or out of power seems to care enough to act against the pall of moral failure still spreading through the culture.

The intelligence committee has done a good, small thing in its effort to make some partial truth somewhat better known, but its report is fundamentally short on meaningful intelligence. This is a committee divided against itself that nevertheless managed to exceed expectation by a bit. But this committee is no truth commission. The committee’s report is a negotiated settlement in which the perpetrators exercised too much control over the content.

Without doubt, committee chair Diane Feinstein and the committee majority needed courage to see even the limited, redacted summary of national criminality through to this much daylight. But there’s the deeper problem, ignored in plain sight by most observers: it’s a measure of our corrupted government that it takes such courage to tell the truth about torture that every honest, conscious person already knows was done in our name.

With its 524-page CIA Torture Summary, the Senate Intelligence Committee becomes both a witness against government crimes and, at the same time, an accomplice to these crimes against humanity by way of mitigation after the fact, and long after the fact at that. Some of these Senators and staffers have known about official depravity since it started. Only now, more than a decade of guilty knowledge later, are they telling us only some of what they know. The shame of Washington “leadership” today is that the bipartisan consensus takes pride in throwing the CIA under the bus and all but exonerates the frat boy cheerleaders and draft dodgers who demanded torture and other crimes in the first place.

CIA personnel, or some of them, certainly belong under the bus, but that’s only the Eichmann part. The torture problem is a mirror image of the Blackwater contractors killing civilians problem – government contractors out of control and making millions. That’s a policy from the top, as expensive as it is corrupt. Without Hitler there is no Third Reich. Without Bush-Cheney and five Justices, there is no degraded America, not like this, not still crowing proudly over and proudly defending its atrocities.

Real national decency, national integrity, national security in the most critical sense demands not only acknowledgement of the recent past, but a radical break from that past and atonement for it.

“To face an ugly truth and say never again” is a cop out

Literally, that sentiment is a cop out. It leaves the cops out. “To face an ugly truth and say never again” are the words of Diane Feinstien and they lack the kind of   wisdom we might hope for from an octogenarian multi-millionaire. Unfortunately, this timid, unenforceable sentiment seems to be hardening into the collective denial that passes for conventional wisdom.

To face an ugly truth?  Not really. Only in the narrowest sense does this report face the underlying truth of systematic government cruelty, and only in a redacted and semi-fictionalized form. Yes, it’s better than nothing, but the fundamental revelations are more than a decade old. The torture report moves the nation no closer to anything like justice and may well make any justice less possible. For all the courage it took Feinstein to move just this far, she has more likely brought us to a stopping place when what we need is for this to be, at long last, a starting place. The really obvious, ugly truth that remains to be faced is that all these degenerate crimes flowed from a single corrupt source, the Oval Office.

And say never again? Seriously? Already the head of the CIA has said, in effect, well, we’ll see about that. “Never again” is easily said. “Never again” is much harder to maintain as a reality. Can Feinstein really believe this report is sufficient to assure that U.S. leaders will avoid convenient perversions of democracy in the future? How does this report deter any future despotism without any consequences for any of the most recent despotism? At best, Feinstein appears to be a delusional optimist with her head in the sand, not even accepting responsibility for her own failing to oppose the horrors she now partially lays out. At worst, she is an enabler of future crimes by accommodating herself with such an easy, meaningless answer to past crimes.

She said all that herself, for anyone who cared to hear it. She said:

I believe the documentation and the findings’ inclusions will make clear how this program was morally, legally and administratively misguided.

Yes, the senator, with the entire English language available, chose to describe the U.S. torture program as “misguided.” Misguided! Well, yes, it was misguided, but was that its essential failing? The senator doesn’t even mention who the guides were. Instead she resorts to government-speak in the passive voice, in which things are just “misguided,” oh dear, how did that happen, what do you mean I was responsible for oversight, you must be misguided.

Rectal rehydration is not just “misguided”!

Misguided! That’s about as good as saying, “Ooops, my bad.” Feinstein could at least have called torture unfortunate, or even unnecessary. She might have said torture was illegal, or unconstitutional. She could have called torture stupid or useless or mindlessly sadistic. She might have noted that torture is universally considered immoral in civilized countries. She could have mentioned that torture is banned under an international treaty adopted during the Reagan administration. She might have called torture a war crime, or a crime against humanity, or any of the ugly names the “program” deserves.

“Misguided,” she called the U.S. torture program, which was a depraved betrayal of human decency for which no words alone are harsh enough.

“Misguided” is bad enough, but for pure moral squalor and minimization, it’s hard to beat President Obama saying, “We tortured some folks.”

And we gave the torturers our blessings, the President should add, because that’s the morally indefensible political calculation he made when he came into office and that’s the morally indefensible political choice he maintains to this day. By all accounts, Obama and his White House tried to prevent even this much ugly truth being shared with the people he’s supposed to work for, the people who have a right to know what is done in their name.

There may be fewer active American torturers under Obama, but there’s no meaningful human rights improvement when this president goes on using drones to assassinate at will and often randomly, surely war crimes and crimes against humanity in their own right.

This president is so unlikely to do anything meaningful about past torture that it’s a mystery to hear Republicans like Senator Saxby Chambliss (also on the intelligence committee) say this: “It seems as though the study takes every opportunity to unfairly portray the CIA in the worst light possible.”

He’s as right about this as he is dishonest. Insofar as the CIA is getting scapegoated, it is unfair. But it seems unlikely Chambliss is looking for an investigation leading fairly to those most responsible. And defending the CIA in this way helps keep the focus on the underlings and keep those most responsible out of harm’s way.

Hoping for the best is not a form of accountability

Chambliss, like Feinstein, is engaged in cynical damage control. Neither wants real fairness or serious justice, both are acting to contain this thing before it actually threatens the power structure that has failed so spectacularly. That’s the new, emerging consensus, something like “we’re good because we know we were bad.” Like so many others across the political spectrum, someone named Leslie Marshall at U.S. News & World Report expressed the moral and intellectual vacuity of the new irresponsibility with close to perfect pitch:

Hopefully the release of this report will show the world that the United States admits when it has done wrong and that we are transparent, even if we once stooped to the level of our enemy and broke international laws. The release, in a sense, was an apology to the world. Now let’s hope our nation will not only find redemption, but not repeat the sins of our past.

Isn’t it time to stop pretending our government was legitimately elected in 2000 or that it represented legitimate authority when it lied us into war, torture, looting the U.S. treasury, promoting economic and environmental lawlessness, and all the other social and political depravities we’ve been subjected to?

We know who the torturer-in-chief was, and we know his vice-torturer has said George Bush was as fully informed as he, Dick Cheney was. Along with everything else we know about these men who still defend their criminality, why isn’t that enough for probable cause and a criminal indictment?

There’s much more to be said about this defining moment in our history.

William M. Boardman has over 40 years experience in theatre, radio, TV, print journalism, and non-fiction, including 20 years in the Vermont judiciary. He has received honors from Writers Guild of America, Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Vermont Life magazine, and an Emmy Award nomination from the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. A collection of his essays, EXCEPTIONAL: American Exceptionalism Takes Its Toll (2019) is available from Yorkland Publishing of Toronto or Amazon. This article was first published in Reader Supported News. Read other articles by William.