In the current semi-public debate between the Senate Intelligence Committee and the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, all useful details about the issues in question regarding the CIA’s interrogation program remain classified by both sides. This discussion would be almost laughable if not for the fact that hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people have been held, without due process, in indefinite extrajudicial detention at Guantanamo and in “black sites” overseas. “A guarantee of public access to government information is indispensable in the long run for any democratic society,” philosopher Sissela Bok once said. “If officials make public only what they want citizens to know, then publicity becomes a sham and accountability meaningless.”
Detainees have been tortured. Rebecca Palermo, with the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, reported on the systematic destruction of evidence that would have proved in a court of law the frequency and extent to which the CIA participates in torture of their prisoners at these illegal “black sites.” The political actors leading the charge in the Senate Intelligence Committee, namely Senators Feinstein and Chambliss, decry the CIA’s interrogation program for being ‘ineffective’ and say that the use of “enhanced-interrogation techniques,” such as waterboarding and other certain Geneva conventions-violating abuses, and CIA-run secret prisons are terrible mistakes. These actions are indeed terrible, but hardly mistakes. Years of planning went into these illegal CIA operations, and they were rubber-stamped the whole way.
Created in 1976, the Senate Intelligence Committee was designed to provide vigilant legislative oversight to intelligence programs and activities “to assure that such activities are in accordance with the constitution and laws of the United States.” The Committee participates in weekly hearings with senior intelligence analysts, program managers, and agency heads who provide updates on ongoing activities, regional analysis and information collection programs. The Senate Intelligence Committee is also responsible for writing an annual bill that authorizes funding levels for intelligence activities.
Given its expansive supervisory relationship with the CIA, the Senate Intelligence Committee has been well aware of the agency’s counterterrorism activities all along. What’s not clear is to what degree the Committee has been complicit through their budgetary and legislative authority in the establishment and maintenance of programs of torture, secret prisons and all the rest. Someone at some point authorized funding and other resources for these illegal operations.
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The lack of transparency has even more damaging impact on U.S. democracy. According to a report put out by the Brennan Center for Justice, “many secrets protected by the classification system pose no danger to the nation’s safety. In fact, “overclassification” jeopardizes national security.” The report further points out that, “withholding information allows the executive branch to insulate itself from public criticism and, in some cases, congressional and judicial oversight, which in turn increases the likelihood of unwise, illegal, and improper activity.” It is particularly troubling an oversight committee that insulates itself from oversight.
Since 2007 more than 90% of the weekly hearings held by the Committee for CIA reporting purposes have been closed. Back during the Patrick Fitzgerald leak investigation, former Vice President Dick Cheney indeed showed us by leaking the identity of former covert CIA operative Valerie Plame-Wilson that classification is actually subjective. And it is possible to talk about something contained in classified documents, so long as sources and information-gathering techniques aren’t disclosed.
The American people should have known what was reported on and authorized during those closed sessions and contained in the reports produced by the Committee and CIA officials, especially during the years immediately following passage of the Patriot Act. That was a time, of course, when the political climate and lamentably much of the American public was far more amenable to these illegal operations.
If made public this information could likely provide legal groundwork to unseat appointed CIA and elected public officials from their respective offices and or prosecute those culpable in committing and aiding and abetting war crimes. A still more dangerous outcome, to the political elite, is a much better-informed and empowered American electorate ready to act.