Break the Conspiracy of Silence

Amrit Singh Photo80x100By Amrit Singh
Senior Legal Officer for National Security and Counterterrorism
Open Society Justice Initiative

The debate over torture and the secret detention of terrorist suspects lingers more than a decade after the September 11 terrorist attacks mainly because there has been no public reckoning with the Bush administration’s torture and detention policies.

The reality is that Americans still do not have all of the facts. To be sure, we have some information about the torture methods authorized by the Bush administration. But the full scope of what was done to whom and where remains secret.

The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and the Obama Administration have the power to remedy this deficit of information and provide the general public with all of the facts.

Last year, after a three-year long investigation, the panel adopted a 6,000 page report on CIA secret detention and interrogation. Declassifying the report could provide answers to difficult questions and help the American public understand what was done in their name.

For now, the report remains secret even though some of its conclusions— namely that the CIA misled the White House, the Justice Department and Congress about the effectiveness of so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” — have made their way into the media.

According to Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the SSCI chairman, the report would, “settle the debate once and for all whether our nation should ever employ coercive interrogation techniques such as those detailed in the report.” She also has said that majority of the committee members believe that secret CIA prisons and so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” were “terrible mistakes.”

The Senate report would add to the eye-opening evidence already in the public domain.

In February, the Open Society Justice Initiative issued a detailed report, based on credible publicly available evidence and sources, which chronicles the history of the CIA’s secret detention and rendition program. The report catalogues the roles of 54 foreign governments—spanning the continents of Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe, and North America—implicated in these illegal operations in various ways. It also names 136 individuals who were reportedly subjected to these operations.

There could be many more victims, and many more governments responsible along with the United States for these operations—government secrecy makes it impossible to provide a complete accounting. The United States government has refused to meaningfully acknowledge its involvement in any particular case of rendition or disclose the locations of secret CIA prisons. Taking their cue from the U.S., foreign governments that participated in these operations have similarly refused to own up to their roles.

By engaging in secret detention and torture the U.S. government violated the law and diminished its moral standing around the world. By enlisting other governments to assist in torture and other abuses associated with secret detention and rendition operations, it further undermined longstanding human rights protections enshrined in international law.

Until the full truth about these operations has been disclosed and meaningfully addressed, the debate about U.S. torture will continue to rear its head. As the Justice Initiative’s report notes, courts around the world are beginning to hold governments to account for these violations. In December 2012, the European Court of Human Rights held that Macedonia’s participation in the rendition of German national Khaled El-Masri violated his rights. And Italy’s courts have convicted U.S. and Italian officials involved in the rendition of Egyptian national Abu Omar. Until the U.S. and its partners own up to the truth, the stain of torture will continue to cling to them.

On his first full day in office, President Obama rightly declared, “A democracy requires accountability, and accountability requires transparency.” If the Obama Administration believes, as Justice Brandeis famously said, that sunlight is the best disinfectant, it should work with the Senate to secure immediate public disclosure of the Senate report.

The time has come to break this conspiracy of silence.

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