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Herb Rothschild Jr.: Torture and the end of accountability

Three days after his first election, Barack Obama issued an executive order banning torture. What he wouldn’t do was expose publicly the gruesome reality of the CIA’s torture program during the George W. Bush years. Obama’s Justice Department, which investigated it, decided not to prosecute anyone responsible and to keep its findings secret, even from congressional investigators. The CIA promoted some of the abettors, and Obama made one of them, John Brennan, his chief counter-terrorism advisor and later CIA director. In that latter position Brennan obstructed the congressional investigation and lied to discredit its findings, chief among them that torture produced no useful information even according to the agency’s own internal review.

The story of the torture program and the difficulties of exposing it are dramatized in “The Report,” a two-hour film produced by Amazon. Its title derives from the 6,000-page report of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s investigation into torture. While not a documentary, the film hews closely to the facts about both the program and the cover-up contained in the 500-page summary of the report that, in defiance of the CIA and Obama’s White House, the committee made public in 2014.

The film was released Nov. 29. It had a limited run in selected theaters (the Varsity screened it this past week), but it’s available for viewing on Amazon Prime Video. Much as I didn’t want to watch the horrifying footage of torture contained in its first half, I had promised the National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT) that I would write an opinion piece about the film.

The mission of NRCAT, an interfaith project with a membership of more than 150 religious bodies, is to prevent torture by exposing what the CIA did, and to end torture in U.S. prisons, including prolonged solitary confinement. It was formed in 2006 after the public exposure of abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib by army and CIA personnel. The army severely disciplined the soldiers involved. Not so the CIA. Despite assertions by the Bush White House that the abuses at Abu Ghraib were isolated incidents, the CIA had set in motion a program of widespread and systematic torture before the Iraq invasion in 2003.

The heroes of the story “The Report” tells are Daniel Jones, who conducted a five-year investigation for the Senate Intelligence Committee, committee chair Dianne Feinstein, and Sen. John McCain, Republican co-sponsor of the bill Congress passed to outlaw torture after the report was released.

Chief among the many villains are Jim Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, two psychologists who came out of Air Force retirement to sell the CIA on their repertory of “enhanced interrogation techniques” (EITs), such as such as waterboarding, induced hypothermia and body slamming, and who were personally involved in the torture. The company they formed to “consult” got $81 million of our tax dollars. Another high-ranking villain is John Yoo, then Deputy U.S. Attorney in the Office of Legal Counsel of the Justice Department, who wrote the 2002 “torture memo” interpreting existing law to legitimize EITs. Yoo was later awarded an endowed chair at UC-Berkeley’s law school.

Obama is not among the villains. I focus on him because in effect he declared that justice is secondary to political considerations even in dire cases, and that the executive branch can resist congressional oversight. Legal accountability has lost much of its force now, and President Trump will escape the constitutional consequences of acting as if he is beyond reach of the law.

Herb Rothschild’s column appears in the Ashland Tidings every Saturday.