By Elisa Massimino Something important happened earlier this month on Capitol Hill. By a huge bipartisan majority—78 to 21—the Senate repudiated torture and took action to make sure it never becomes U.S. policy again.
The vote was on a measure applying the military’s interrogation rules to all government actors. This means the CIA will be prohibited by law — not just by President Barack Obama’s 2009 executive order — from engaging in what it once called “enhanced interrogation techniques,” but what, thanks to the Senate Intelligence Committee report released last December, everyone else now understands was torture.
In a time of partisan gridlock, the breadth of support for this measure is striking. Despite how contentious an issue torture has been, more than three-quarters of the Senate — liberals, centrists, and conservatives — voted to repudiate the practice. Fewer than 1 in 5 amendments voted on in the last three Congresses — and only 13 percent in this one—garnered such widespread support. Republican and Democratic leaders of the armed services, intelligence, foreign affairs, homeland security, and judiciary committees all backed it. That’s a big step towards re-establishing the bi-partisan consensus that existed when President Reagan championed the United Nations Convention Against Torture.
It’s been a long road back. After 9/11, officials charged with governing a traumatized nation authorized torture and other cruelty. Fear and a desire for revenge left policymakers and the public vulnerable to a collective fantasy that “taking the gloves off” could save us. On network television, the hit show 24 proffered the comforting fiction that security depends on heroes like Jack Bauer willing to do “whatever it takes.”
Torture violated our laws and betrayed our ideals. And, as the Senate report showed, the fantasy that it kept us safe was just that—a fantasy. Torture didn’t disrupt terrorist plots. On the contrary, it produced bogus information that hindered investigations.
This is what retired military leaders and veteran interrogators have been saying for years. But the more torture proponents were challenged, the more vigorously they pushed back. First they claimed that torture wasn’t really “torture.” When the details of abuse became public and rendered that claim transparently false, they claimed torture “worked.”
In the face of this PR onslaught—and with no public accounting—polls found that many Americans continued to support torture precisely because they believed it kept them safe. Leaders with honor challenge people to be their best selves. Instead of asking Americans to have the courage of our ideals and faith in our institutions, officials asked us to be afraid.
Fortunately, some leaders stood up. Many inside government sought to stop torture, combating it from within or blowing the whistle. When General David Petraeus learned that troops under his command were accepting of torture, he publicly reminded them in that it is wrong and aids the enemy. After Abu Ghraib, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., spearheaded the Detainee Treatment Act. On his second day in office, President Obama banned torture by executive order. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., fought to release the findings of her committee’s investigation in the face of attacks from the CIA.
Release of the report’s executive summary in December created an opening that Feinstein and McCain seized. Their bill builds on the Detainee Treatment Act and codifies the central part of Obama’s executive order. “I’ll take 70-plus votes anytime,” Feinstein said with a smile.
Yet this wasn’t just anytime. For anyone who has lamented the gridlock in Washington — and especially those who watched with dismay as misguided leaders turned a once-taboo practice into a mere policy option — this vote as remarkable. Ahead of the vote, supporters and opponents each had reason to play down its significance, but make no mistake: this was an overwhelming rejection of the torture program.
Most presidential candidates serving in the Senate, from liberal Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., to conservative Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, supported the measure. Out on the campaign trial, frontrunner Hillary Rodham Clinton has long opposed torture, and even Jeb Bush distanced himself from his brother’s policy saying of torture, “I don’t think we need it, it’s not the law.” Less than three years ago, GOP candidate Mitt Romney vowed to overturn Obama’s executive order and “use enhanced interrogation techniques which go beyond those that are in the military handbook.”
The McCain-Feinstein legislation is only one means of preventing torture, and many feel it doesn’t go far enough. History shows that accountability for war crimes and other human rights abuses often takes years, sometimes decades. No matter what you think of that, to prevent torture, we must re-establish solid, bipartisan leadership against it. Last month's vote put us much closer to that goal.
After the Senate report’s findings came out, Dick Cheney defiantly said he would do it all again. Last month, 78 senators said no—and put an extra lock on the door that leads to the dark side.
Elisa Massimino is president and chief executive of Human Rights First.
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