President Barack Obama promised "more transparent ... more creative" government. His release of the torture memos, and the Pentagon's expected release of more photos of detainee abuse, is a step in the right direction. Yet he assured the CIA that he will not prosecute those who followed the instructions to torture from the Bush administration. Congress might not agree with this leniency, with prominent senators calling for investigations.
Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, just released a 262-page report titled "Inquiry Into the Treatment of Detainees in U.S. Custody." Levin said the report "represents a condemnation of both the Bush administration's interrogation policies and of senior administration officials who attempted to shift the blame for abuse ... to low-ranking soldiers. Claims ... that detainee abuses could be chalked up to the unauthorized acts of a ‘few bad apples' were simply false." Sens. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., also are proposing investigations.
The Senate interest in investigation has backers in the U.S. House, from Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., to Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee John Conyers, D-Mich., who told The Huffington Post recently, "We're coming after these guys."
Amrit Singh, staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, said the Pentagon's photos "provide visual proof that prisoner abuse by U.S. personnel was not aberrational but widespread, reaching far beyond the walls of Abu Ghraib. Their disclosure is critical for helping the public understand the scope and scale of prisoner abuse as well as for holding senior officials accountable for authorizing or permitting such abuse." The ACLU also won a ruling to obtain documents relating to the CIA's destruction of 92 videotapes of harsh interrogations. The tapes are gone, supposedly, but notes about the content of the tapes remain, and a federal judge has ordered their release.
In December 2002, when the Bush torture program was well under way, then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld signed off on a series of harsh interrogation techniques described in a memo written by William Hayes II (one of the "Bush Six" being investigated by Spanish Judge Baltasar Garzon). At the bottom of the memo, under his signature, Rumsfeld scrawled: "I stand for 8-10 hours a day. Why is standing limited to 4 hours?" Rumsfeld zealously classified information in his years in government.
A similar crisis confronted the U.S. public in the mid-1970s. While the Watergate scandal was unfolding, widespread evidence was mounting of illegal government activity, including domestic spying and the infiltration and disruption of legal political groups, mostly anti-war groups, in a broad-based, secret government crackdown on dissent. In response, the Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations With Respect to Intelligence Activities was formed. It came to be known as the Church Committee, named after its chairman, Idaho Democratic Sen. Frank Church. The Church Committee documented and exposed extraordinary activities on the CIA and FBI, such as CIA efforts to assassinate foreign leaders, and the FBI's COINTELPRO (counterintelligence) program, which extensively spied on prominent leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
It is not only the practices that are similar, but the people. Frederick A.O. Schwarz Jr., general counsel to the Church Committee, noted two people who were active in the Ford White House and attempted to block the committee's work: "Rumsfeld and then [Dick] Cheney were people who felt that nothing should be known about these secret operations, and there should be as much disruption as possible."
Church's widow, Bethine Church, now 86, continues to be very politically active in Idaho. She was so active in Washington in the 1970s that she was known as "Idaho's third senator." She said there needs to be a similar investigation today: "When you think of all the things that the Church Committee tried to straighten out and when you think of the terrific secrecy that Cheney and all of these people dealt with, they were always secretive about everything, and they didn't want anything known. I think people have to know what went on. And that's why I think an independent committee [is needed], outside of the Congress, that just looked at the whole problem and everything that happened."
Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.