His interest, President Barack Obama says, is “the achievement of a full, frank and just acknowledgement of the facts.”
His topic was the delicate question of what to call the slaughter of 1.5 million ethnic Armenians at the hands of Turkey during World War I, a festering historical sore no American president can genuinely hope to heal.
But Obama’s professed desire for a complete and just accounting raises the question: If it’s good for the Armenians, why isn’t it good for Americans? Why can’t we also have a “full, frank and just acknowledgement” of the facts surrounding torture and other moral horrors that were carried out in our name during the Bush administration’s global war on terror?
History demands it.
Obama doesn’t want to bog his administration’s ambitious agenda down in partisan recriminations over past practices. Fair enough. But it does not follow that no official inquiry should be held. There is more to find out, because much information is still being kept secret—sometimes by the very perpetrators of the shameful practices, who press on in the courts, for example, to attain what they hope will be a permanent shroud.
A copious report by the Democratic staff of the House Judiciary Committee, released last month, provides a chilling compendium of what we know, and what we don’t.
We do not officially know whether the “enhanced interrogation tactics” used by the Bush administration were in fact criminal violations of federal statutes prohibiting torture and war crimes. We do not know what laws may have been broken through the use of “extraordinary rendition.” This was the practice of sweeping people up and transferring them to secret CIA “black sites” or to countries—Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Pakistan, for example—where torture is believed to be practiced.
We do not know how many people were jailed and interrogated in this system. Estimates range from 100 to 150 to “several thousand renditions of terror suspects,” the judiciary report says. We don’t know how a program of “rendition” that was occasionally used in prior administrations to deliver a suspect to face prosecution in a country where he was wanted on criminal charges metastasized into a global sweep of those who were detained for interrogation. We do not know what happened to “ghost” detainees held by the U.S. in Iraqi prisons—prisoners who were never registered or identified and, for all we know, disappeared.
We do not know the full extent of the warrantless wiretapping of Americans that continues, in some form, to this day.
Sweeping this all aside in the interest of moving on isn’t a mark of how mature our political system is. It is an indictment of it.
It acknowledges that we cannot withstand the clamor of television talking heads—that somehow the distraction of their empty chatter is as weighty in its consequence as the heinous acts that smear the nation’s reputation. Do we really want to surrender to the purveyors of partisan hot air? This is the ultimate capitulation. It shows us to be so weak that we really should worry about how this act of cowardice is perceived around the world.
We have a contemporary model for how to conduct a politically sensitive inquiry properly, without undue theatrics and with respect for classified information. It is the 9/11 commission, a sober and thorough panel that explored systemic failures that preceded the terrorist attacks and put to rest false claims—including the Bush administration’s contention that Saddam Hussein somehow was behind it. The panel operated outside the partisan hothouse of Congress, yet drew freely on the expertise of those inside and outside the government. Its final report became a best-seller, not because it inflamed political passion but because it was unconventionally—and thus, believably—dispassionate.
The Bush administration opposed the creation of the 9/11 commission, then resisted with much force many of the panel’s requests for information. In the end, determined lobbying by victims’ families and their acumen at airing their demands in the media forced officialdom to create the panel, and helped the commission surmount obstacles that were placed in its way.
Now we have no tearful widows or orphaned children to plead on television for a just accounting. But how we handle the grievances of the voiceless and confront our own misdeeds is yet another measure of our character. And yes, the whole world is watching.
Marie Cocco’s e-mail address is mariecocco(at)washpost.com.