03.18.15

Statement of Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Ranking Member, Senate Judiciary Committee, On Torture

Each year Sunshine Week reminds us that we cannot take for granted our democratic system of government.  Our Nation’s founders understood that to maintain a true democracy, we must have an open government.  Only an open government can be truly accountable to the people. 

But pulling back the curtain on the internal workings of government agencies is not always easy, and it is not always popular.  In some cases, it generates great controversy, as was the case with Senator Feinstein’s hard-fought efforts last year to declassify the executive summary of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s historic torture report.  This extraordinary report thoroughly reviewed the CIA’s use of torture during the Bush administration, and revealed that it was far more brutal than we knew. 

Shedding light on the CIA’s actions demonstrated to the world that America is different.  We acknowledge our mistakes, so that we can learn from them.  We do not sweep them under a rug and pretend they never happened.

But some seem to want just that. 

When Senator Feinstein publicly released the executive summary, she also provided the full report -- totaling more than 6,700 pages -- to the President and to relevant executive branch agencies.  The report details the failures that allowed this program to happen.  She rightly put these details in the hands of those officials with appropriate clearances who can learn from these mistakes and ensure that this never happens again.

But the program’s defenders will stop at nothing in the effort to erase this ugly history.  Immediately after the report was issued, there was an unabashed campaign to discredit it, and an attempt to portray what happened as something other than what it was:  torture.

I have had enough of the disingenuous euphemisms and acronyms used to mask the truly brutal nature of what was done to other human beings.  We should acknowledge that it was torture. President Obama has acknowledged that, and Attorney General nominee Loretta Lynch did at her nomination hearing when she stated clearly and unequivocally that waterboarding is torture.  Instead, defenders of this brutality call it something else, claim it was justified without offering any evidence to support their assertions, and either insist outright that they would do it again or imply as much. 

And if that wasn’t bad enough, now some want to make the report itself disappear.  In January, the incoming chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee asked the President and the agencies to return the full report to the Senate.    

This is outrageous.  Neither this historic Senate report, nor the shameful truths it reveals, can be wiped out of existence. 

I also was appalled to learn that several of the agencies that received the full report in December have not yet opened it.  In a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit seeking release of the full report, Justice Department and State Department officials submitted declarations stating that their copies remain locked away in unopened, sealed envelopes.  I do not know if this was done to attempt to bolster the government’s position in the FOIA lawsuit, or to otherwise avoid Federal records laws.  I certainly hope not.  Regardless of the motivation, it was a mistake and needs to be rectified.

The executive summary of the torture report makes clear that both the State Department and the Justice Department have much to learn from the history of the CIA’s torture program.  Both agencies were misled by the CIA about the program.  Both should consider systemic changes in how they deal with covert actions.  Yet neither agency has bothered to open the final, full version of the report, or apparently even those sections most relevant to them.

The fight for government transparency and accountability is never done.  The importance of the public release of the torture report’s executive summary cannot be overstated.  It was one of the most important oversight achievements of this body. Now we must ensure that the full report, containing the results of years of painstaking work, is put to good use by those within the executive branch. 

So today, as we recognize Sunshine Week, I send this message to the executive branch agencies who have received the full Intelligence Committee torture report:  Do not return your copy to the Senate.  Ensure that the appropriate people in your agencies, with appropriate clearances, have access to it and learn from it.  Initiate a process to consider the lessons your agency should learn from this experience.  Follow the example of FBI Director Comey, who last week testified that he would designate appropriate people to consider the report and what improvements can be made.

Because there are no instances when torture is acceptable.  The Convention Against Torture does not make exceptions.  There is no doubt that if these acts were committed against American soldiers, by a hostile government, we would condemn them as torture and a violation of international law.  Now we must ensure that America never allows this to happen again.

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