President Obama must have known that choosing John Brennan to direct the CIA would be highly controversial because of his alleged tolerance of torture as a top official at the agency during the Bush administration. Among those who have spoken out over the past several days is Senator John McCain — himself a victim of torture as a war prisoner in North Vietnam — who responded to Brennan’s nomination with a clear warning:
I appreciate John Brennan’s long record of service to our nation, but I have many questions and concerns about his nomination to be Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, especially what role he played in the so-called enhanced interrogation programs while serving at the CIA during the last administration, as well as his public defense of those programs. I plan to examine this aspect of Mr. Brennan’s record very closely as I consider his nomination.
In coming weeks, this line of criticism will become central when Brennan faces his confirmation hearing in the Senate. But maybe we shouldn’t rush to condemn this nomination — an appointment which makes sense from the point of view of the Obama administration trying to unify its national security policy across agencies. Rather than seeing Brennan’s appointment as a surrender to post-9/11 abuses, perhaps we should ask whether it is in fact an opportunity. The nomination process for John Brennan just might help us through the national impasse on matters of transparency and accountability, which continue to prevent Congress, and the nation, from moving forward on the issue of torture — as the raging debate over Kathryn Bigelow’s controversial film Zero Dark Thirty has illustrated.
Right now, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence is sitting on what is widely considered to be the most definitive report to date on the CIA’s use of enhanced interrogation techniques. On March 5, 2009, Democratic chairman Dianne Feinstein and Republican vice chairman Kit Bond announced that the committee would review the CIA detention and interrogation program. Last December, the completed report was adopted by the committee, though not yet publicly released. Reportedly, it comprises an unprecedented and staggering amount of research, with over 6,000 pages and more than 35,000 footnotes resulting from the committee’s review of more than six million pages of CIA records and other documents.
So the real story of enhanced interrogation at American hands — Senate investigators claimed to have looked at the creation of the program, the assessment of information that came from the program, the sharing of knowledge of the program with other agencies and more — is now available, or should be. While the Senate Armed Services Committee report from 2008 made some headway in revealing the details of the creation and implementation of the policy, this recent report promises much greater depth, accuracy and access to CIA information. In Feinstein’s words, this new report, adopted on a bipartisan basis, “…will settle the debate once and for all over whether our nation should ever employ coercive interrogation techniques such as those detailed in this report.”
Unfortunately, the Obama administration has continued to back away from accountability for torture. At the start of his first term, the president declared that “we need to look forward as opposed to looking backwards” on matters related to torture. This directive resonated throughout the work of the administration. And, not surprisingly, just over four months ago, the investigation into whether or not the Department of Justice would prosecute anyone for the deaths of two detainees being held in U.S. custody abroad was brought to a close without any criminal charges being filed, marking the end of any official probe of those responsible for the torture policy.
It is an irony that the investigations leading to decisions not to prosecute concluded as the Senate Select Committee’s comprehensive report was finished. Added to this is the even bigger irony that Senators Feinstein and McCain have condemned Zero Dark Thirty for inaccuracies in portraying the torture program, while the Intelligence Committee, headed by Feinstein, could be providing the true facts to the public. Doesn’t it make sense for the American people to have full understanding and knowledge concerning an issue of such national importance?
What can certainly be said for John Brennan is that he has been a consistent advocate of transparency in government. While acknowledging the need for balancing openness with government secrecy, he has made it a mantra of his service as White House Counterterrorism Advisor, stating repeatedly that “staying true to our values as a nation also includes upholding the transparency upon which our democracy depends.” The president, too, has repeatedly stated his preference for transparency. This should be a moment for transparency in the matter of torture.
The transition to a new national security team is the perfect time to push for release of the Senate’s comprehensive report. As the dialogue surrounding Zero Dark Thirty makes clear, unless the country now reaches a long overdue moment of accountability, Washington and the American public will continue an endless and fruitless debate over the policies of the past, and we will not be able to truly move forward.
Karen Greenberg is Director of the Center on National Security at Fordham University’s School of Law.
Photo by CSIS: Center for Strategic & International Studies/Flickr