Torture, War, and No Consequences

During the Bush administration, the US engaged in the torture of terrorism suspects at prisons like Abu Ghraib, and at black sites all over Europe. Arguably, torture is still occurring in some places, through actions like the force feeding in Guantanamo Bay. However, in 2009, right after he entered office, President Obama banned torture – including waterboarding.

The Obama administration, the Senate, and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) are now grappling over how much of the Senate’s CIA torture memo to release, and how much of it should stay redacted. The study, which reportedly comes to some damning conclusions about the agency’s "enhanced interrogations" throughout the lawless beginnings of the war on terror, took five years, and cost $40 million dollars to produce.

In April, the Senate Intelligence Committee voted to release a 500 page summary of this in depth look at the CIA’s habit of torture, detention, and interrogation. So far, only 5 percent of it is going to be redacted, which constitutes progress in the negotiations.

However, the CIA, the White House, and the Senate are still arguing over details like agent pseudonyms and references to other CIA activities. Critics say even a few redactions means the report will be almost impossible to read. However, former CIA director Michael Hayden recently said that the release of the study would endanger active agents and operations. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio (R) and a few other hawkish sorts have echoed this, saying that identifying former CIA rendition sites would endanger foreign governments cozy with the US enough to have allowed the agency to host such things.

According to Foreign Policy, the White House is desperately trying to stifle the release of the 6300 page report, and is dragging its feet for cold, pure calculated reasons. The White House officially swears it is just dying to release the report, as soon as these few more matters of redaction are cleared up. But as senior counsel for the Constitution Project put it, crankily, “The administration is failing the test it set for itself if it is continuing to demand unprecedented redactions that obscure key facts in the committee’s report.”

If the memo is finally released, that is good. It would be even better if it were entirely unredacted. Better still, someone like lame duck Sen. Mark Udall (D-CO) should read the thing into the Senate record, an idea which seems to have gained traction in the last week. Sen. Mike Gravel (D-AK) did something similar when he read 4100 pages of the Pentagon Papers during a Senate subcommittee hearing in 1971. Udall didn’t confirm that he was seriously considering this, but he appears to be toying with the idea.

On the other hand, so what if the torture report is released or not? Will it make a difference? Will the public be outraged enough to give it their full attention, and then demand that such outrages are never again committed in their name? Not so much.

Alright, it’s not really that pointless. It should be released. All evidence of government crimes should see the light of day, if only for the principle of the thing or for historical completeness.

But the idea that anything beyond a few splashy New York Times headlines might come out of the release is foolish optimism. Nothing will come of it, because there is no reason for the CIA, or anyone else, to do anything different next time. Without accountability, at best there are vague promises to not be so bad next time.

During the Bush era, I disliked him as much as anyone else in America. However, I could never jump on the bandwagon of "Bush and Cheney should be in the Hague!" This was mostly because I was more concerned with the horrible things they had enacted, rather than in satisfying some vengeful bloodlust.

Last year, while reading Glenn Greenwald’s With Liberty and Justice for Some, I suddenly – finally – realized why people who start wars, and permit torture should be punished. Our entire society is set up to respect war criminals from Barack Obama, back to Henry Kissinger, and beyond. It dismisses their crimes, and it codifies their acceptability through that negligence.

George W. Bush is now retired. He paints. He’s cute, dopey, cowboy Grandpa now. He is so classy, he doesn’t even involve himself in politics. He does, however, get to be referred to as "President" until he dies. (Dies under Secret Service protection, as well.)

And the honorable Mr. President started two boots on the ground wars that killed hundreds of thousands, gave free reign to torture, and handed Americans their current national security state.

Barack Obama, as Greenwald writes in his book, started off his tenure determined to move on from all that unpleasantness. He echoed perfectly the sentiments of Gerald Ford when he took office after Richard Nixon resigned. Namely, Obama and Ford both said Americans needed to look forward, and not worry over the recent unpleasantness. That way you cover your own ass, if you feel like pushing executive power.

It goes beyond presidents. Henry Kissinger, of course, is a respected ex-statesman. What politician who successfully completed their term is not invited to cocktail parties, and whose ears are not bent with pleas for advice on new conflicts? Academia, too, is full of once-powerful apologists for power, from John Yoo to Janet Napolitano.

Prison should not be considered for brutes because we are cruel, and bloodthirsty, and want revenge. It should be considered so that people have even a fraction of a disincentive to do what our leaders and respected statesmen do every day – whatever they want.

Bush’s comfy life proves it. There is no punishment – not even social shunning – for killing hundreds of thousands of people, for torturing untold others, and for violating the Fourth Amendment rights of millions of Americans. Prosecution is off the table, even if, as in 2005, the CIA destroyed evidence of their torture which was recorded on more than 90 tapes.

A vague sense that someone acted in good faith in their capacity as Commander in Chief, or head of any intelligence agency means that when their time in power is done, we move on to the next leaders, and the bad things they intend to do. We don’t look back, because that’s not America’s style. And again, why prosecute? You might need to torture, or go to war sometime yourself. Nobody powerful limits their power like that.

We do need to see the unredacted version of the torture study. But it won’t do anything. The CIA does what it wishes, without consequence. We know this already. The report will add a little to history, but it will mostly just give us more grim details about which we’ll do nothing.

Lucy Steigerwald is a contributing editor for and a columnist for She previously worked as an Associate Editor for Reason magazine. She is most angry about police, prisons, and wars. Steigerwald blogs at

Author: Lucy Steigerwald

Lucy Steigerwald is a contributing editor for and an editor for Young Voices. She has also written for VICE,, the Washington, The American Conservative, and other outlets. Her blog is Follow her on twitter @lucystag.