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Monday, December 5, 2016

WASHINGTON — Can we now say with confidence that our government will not use torture again and that Americans in the future will rise up to prevent it from doing so? In light of the reaction to the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report, I fear that we can’t.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein persisted in releasing the document in the face of opposition from the CIA and attacks by some of her colleagues because she felt a moral calling. The 81-year-old California Democrat believed she had an obligation to leave behind a sturdy ethical roadblock to the use of extreme brutality in pursuit of information — even information seen as potentially saving American lives.

“There are those who will seize upon the report and say ‘see what the Americans did,’ and they will try to use it to justify evil actions or incite more violence,” she said on the Senate floor. “We can’t prevent that. But history will judge us by our commitment to a just society governed by law and the willingness to face an ugly truth and say ‘never again.'”

Yet what might have been a moment of national reflection immediately turned into what everything becomes these days: a carnival of partisanship. Making the truth public, Feinstein’s critics argued, could endanger our nation.

“She will have to live with the consequences,” Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC), who becomes chair of the Intelligence Committee next year, said darkly.

A moving exception was Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), who has denounced torture in season and out. His biography as a prisoner of war has been a standing rebuke to those who choose to play down the consequences of these techniques for our own men and women in uniform. He dismissed the idea that the report itself would be responsible for new attacks on Americans. “Violence needs little incentive in some quarters of the world,” he said. Terrorism should be blamed on terrorists, not Feinstein.

The real objection to the release of the report, McCain argued, was that it calls into question the claims by defenders of these techniques that they produced vital information. “We gave up much in the expectation that torture would make us safer,” he said. “Too much.”

One would like to think that this is now a consensual view, and it is the formal position of our government. But the pushback against Feinstein makes clear that many involved in “the program,” as they so delicately call this departure from our own norms, would do it all over again. John McLaughlin, former CIA acting director and deputy director, took to the pages of The Washington Post to list the intelligence breakthroughs of the interrogators. McLaughlin also joined with five other former CIA directors and deputy directors in a Wall Street Journal piece that denounced the Senate report as “a poorly done and partisan attack.”

But condemning the report as “partisan” is a way of evading its implications. If the issue is partisan, why did President Obama’s CIA director, John Brennan, defend the agency by declaring that “EITs” — that would be enhanced interrogation techniques — “did produce intelligence that helped thwart attack plans, capture terrorists, and save lives”? What’s striking here is the bipartisan unity among intelligence officials.

My friend and Washington Post colleague Michael Gerson saw partisanship in the committee’s focus on the CIA interrogations that took place under President George W. Bush, but not on the drone program, which Obama has embraced and expanded. Gerson is right to note that many who oppose torture are also concerned about the extensiveness of the drone program and I, for one, would have no objection to Congress investigating the ethical and practical problems it raises.

But legitimate questions about drones do not discredit either this legitimate inquiry into the use of torture or the obligation that Feinstein and her fellow committee Democrats felt to bear witness.

Defenders of the CIA make a point that should unsettle all of us because it’s true: In the wake of 9/11, the country was so scared that it tolerated or at least entertained a variety of extreme steps to protect our security, including torture. By November of 2001, there was already a public debate about the legitimacy of torture, even if brave voices (the blogger Andrew Sullivan has been admirably persistent) pushed back in those dark times.

Feinstein, McCain and their allies are hoping they can draw a line now that can strengthen such voices in the future. I wish that the response to their efforts inspired more certainty that their line will hold.

E.J. Dionne’s email address is [email protected] Twitter: @EJDionne.

Photo: Senate Intelligence chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (c) speaks to reporters about the committee’s report on CIA interrogations at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. on December 9, 2014 (AFP/Saul Loeb)