Privacy SOS

Secrecy and willful ignorance at DOJ are laying the groundwork for future torture crimes



As philosopher George Santayana famously warned, “Those who cannot remember the past, are condemned to repeat it.” Perhaps that’s what Senator Richard Burr, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, is counting on as he crusades to erase from history one of the most shameful chapters in memory, the CIA’s kidnapping, rendition, and torture program. Burr has demanded that the Obama administration return to his committee every copy of the 6,700-page torture report compiled by his predecessor, Senator Dianne Feinstein. Copies of the report, a 500-page summary of which was made public last year, were in December 2014 distributed to offices at the Pentagon, CIA, and State Department. There they have sat untouched for nearly a year. Now Burr wants them called back (and destroyed?) to ensure the report never sees the light of day.

It wouldn’t be a torture related drama without the ACLU playing a starring role. The New York Times reports:

The American Civil Liberties Union has sued the C.I.A. for access to the document, and at this point the case hinges on who owns it. Senate documents are exempt from public records laws, but executive branch records are not. In May, a federal judge ruled that even though Ms. Feinstein distributed the report to the executive branch, the document still belongs to Congress. That decision is under appeal, with court papers due this month.

Justice Department officials defend their stance, saying that handling the document at all could influence the outcome of the lawsuit. They said that a State Department official who opened the report, read it and summarized it could lead a judge to determine that the document was an executive branch record, altering the lawsuit’s outcome. The Justice Department has also promised not to return the records to Mr. Burr until a judge settles the matter.

According to the Times, the DOJ has prevented its own officials from reading the report, in part because they believe that doing so would help the ACLU prevail in court. But as Feinstein and Senator Pat Leahy wrote last week to the DOJ, this willful ignorance comes at a price greater than government secrecy. “The Department of Justice was among those parts of the executive branch that were misled about the [torture] program, and D.O.J. officials’ understanding of this history is critical to its institutional role going forward,” they wrote.

It seems as if those officials don’t want to know what happened in the dark torture chambers where macabre games were played with human bodies and minds, or how they may have been deceived into approving the legal regime governing those sickening practices. I’m sure officials at the DOJ understand that if you cannot remember the past, you are condemned to repeat it. Maintaining a posture of willful ignorance about one’s past crimes is a frightening way to govern an ostensibly free society, but it’s particularly chilling when the issues at stake involve experimental torture programs on human subjects.

It’s deeply shameful for Senator Burr to try to bury this disgraceful chapter of US history, but as long as the DOJ continues to resist transparency efforts, intent on keeping the details of the program secret from the world, its actions are no better.

© 2024 ACLU of Massachusetts.