The cost of freedom entails moral accountability

The need for truthtelling about the CIA’s torturing practices

by Ken Sehested


A few weeks ago, Senator Richard Burr [R-NC] took over as Chair of the US Senate Intelligence Committee, whose responsibility is to oversee the Central Intelligence Agency. But already we are troubled by his actions in that job.

Mr. Burr stepped into this role at a critical time: A little more than a month ago, the Committee released a 500-page summary of its “Torture Report,” publicly documenting the inefficacy and brutality of the CIA’s torture program. The full report, which totals some 6,900 pages, remains secret.

In this program, the CIA waterboarded detainees until they convulsed and vomited.  The agency conducted “rectal feedings” of prisoners. In one case, the CIA imprisoned a mentally challenged individual and taped his crying for the sole purpose of coercing a relative to provide information. Another detainee was left partly naked and chained to a concrete floor until he died of hypothermia. The CIA even threatened to sexually abuse detainees’ family members.

Since the Torture Report was released, CIA Director John Brennan has admitted the CIA does not know whether torture produced useful intelligence. According to the chief of one of the CIA’s secret prisons, managers selected “problem, underperforming officers, new, totally inexperienced officers, or whoever seems to be willing and able to deploy at a given time” for the torture program. This casualness resulted in “the production of mediocre or, I dare say, useless intelligence. . . .”

These are clear signs of an agency gone astray. It has never been more obvious that the CIA needs real oversight to ensure that it complies with our laws and with basic moral decency. In his new role, Mr. Burr serves as the CIA’s chief overseer. He bears the moral responsibility for ensuring the CIA does not torture again.

Unfortunately, recent reports suggest Mr. Burr has abdicated his responsibility almost before it began. The Senator has already written to the Administration asking that it return all copies of the full Torture Report to him. He has not said whether this is because he opposes our government learning from its past mistakes or because he is afraid that the full report might some day be declassified—allowing the public to read the full story about the CIA’s use of torture. Either way, the effect of this request is to help the CIA whitewash history.

Worse, Mr. Burr has suggested he is likely to return the Committee’s copy of the “Panetta review” to the CIA. This document is the CIA’s own internal review of its torture program. Although it is classified, it reportedly confirms the findings of the Torture Report—namely, that torture didn’t work and was incredibly brutal, and that the CIA misled the rest of the government about the extent and efficacy of the torture program. Most importantly, the Panetta review is said to contradict the CIA’s public response to the Torture Report.

Given the critical importance of the Panetta review, it seems clear that it should be made public, rather than returned to the CIA (which has a history of destroying evidence related to torture, for example, violating a court order to destroy videotapes of torture sessions before they could be seen by the courts or by Congress). Instead, though, Mr. Burr wants to hand the Panetta review back to the Agency—likely so that it too can be destroyed.

Over the past 15 years the aphorism “freedom is not free” has become a popular patriotic refrain. But we forget that, in 1953, Army Chief of Staff General Matthew Ridgeway used the phrase to identify the difference between those who torture their captives and those who, like us, believe the disavowal of torture is among the “self-evident truths” dating from our Republic’s founding. The “cost” of freedom entails moral accountability.

If we aspire to be a truly exceptional nation, we must be willing to face up to unsavory episodes in our history—to repent of (turn from) wrongdoing and repair torn social fabric. As people of faith we join the National Religious Campaign Against Torture and others in calling for an end to secret prisons designed to mask the stench of torture and subsequent cover up.

Senator Burr is uniquely situated to influence a restoration of our national moral compass in this regard. Urge him to take the lead.

Originally published as an op-ed in the Asheville Citizen-Times

©Ken Sehested @