This moment is about as American as it gets here in the United States. The exemplary release of a Congressional investigation into the Central Intelligence Agency’s brutal interrogation techniques reflects the finest practice of citizen oversight of government executive and security agencies, truly one of the United States’ great gifts to the world; at the same time, the revelations of torture and deception at the highest levels of government reflect the worst practices of police states and authoritarian despots.
So is the United States the shining republic, or just another banana republic? Is this a moment of pride or shame for Americans? Right now, it seems to be a bit of both, but how it emerges in the longer term remains to be seen. I deeply admire that the Congressional committee carried out the multi-year investigation into the CIA’s practices and then agreed with the president to release the executive summary of its findings. The fundamental reason for doing this has been the right of the American people to know what is being done by their government, in their name.
Regardless of the awkward, awful and even criminal findings of the report, this episode affirms the central idea that the American revolution, Declaration of Independence, Constitution and 240 years of democratic governance experience have given life to — the consent of the governed. This means that the citizens rule by choosing their government every few years, and by holding it accountable every moment of every year, through the institutions of the rule of law, a free press, an independent judiciary, the right to protest peacefully, and parliamentary oversight.
Will this example of democracy at work prove more lasting and productive than similar previous revelations of misconduct by officials or security agencies? The report’s findings and the intense discussions now taking place across the country are not unique, so it is fair to ask whether its publication will trigger the positive changes that most citizens would desire to see. The United States has published similar reports or revealed other misconduct — such as massacres in Vietnam, criminal conduct and cover-ups in the White House, illegal domestic spying on private citizens, or racist denials of equal rights to all citizens — often without subsequent strong action to prevent such things from recurring. So the American system is being tested once again; most admirably, it is testing itself.
The discussions since the report’s release last Tuesday have mostly centered on several issues: whether the CIA methods used constitute “torture,” how honestly and fully the CIA briefed the executive branch and the congressional oversight committees, and whether the interrogations were effective in providing information that truly served American legitimate national security interests, by helping to capture Al-Qaeda operatives or to avert other terror attacks. The public discussions themselves are a critical dimension of rule by the citizenry.
Time will tell if definitive legal safeguards will be installed to prevent recurrences of torture and deception, and whether those who are identified as having acted improperly and illegally will be held accountable in a credible manner. I would add two other questions that should be answered in the months and years ahead.
The first is about the legality, morality and efficacy of other war-making techniques that the United States continues to use today. These include assassinating scores of people around the world via drone-fired missile attacks, and holding detainees at Guantanamo Bay and perhaps other places we do not know about for many years, without legal safeguards. These and other such issues are not only about legality, legitimacy or efficacy. They define the bigger fundamental issue of how an imperial-minded United States uses its immense global military and technological capabilities in any ways it sees fit, and justifies anything it does simply by claiming pre-emptive self-defense in the face of imminent attacks against it.
The second issue that desperately needs discussion and action in our part of the world is about the roles that Middle Eastern countries played in capturing, detaining, interrogating, torturing, or transporting detainees that the United States sought, and in many cases took to Guantanamo. A 2013 report by the Open Society Foundation’s Justice Initiative (Globalizing Torture: CIA Secret Detention and Extraordinary Rendition) charged that 54 foreign governments participated in the CIA’s program of “extraordinary rendition,” including 11 in the Middle East (Algeria, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, and Yemen). These are serious charges that deserve more public discussion in these Middle Eastern countries, because if the charges are correct they reflect a double failure in our societies: the unethical and criminal act of participating in torture activities, and the politically subservient behavior of supine colonial subjects who perform any act — regardless of its legality or morality — demanded by the distant power they cannot resist. Will we speak of or try to repair our own criminal and imperial collusions nearly as openly as the United States addresses its own?
Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly in the Daily Star. He was founding director and now senior policy fellow of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. On Twitter: @ramikhouri.
Copyright © 2014 Rami G. Khouri—distributed by Agence Global