How much should the American public be allowed to know about the use of torture and other forms of cruelty practiced by U.S. interrogators against captives of the war on terror? Everything.

In the wake of the September 11 attacks, the Bush administration relied on controversial legal justifications dutifully supplied by the Justice Department to figuratively (and perhaps literally) put the screws to every known and suspected terrorist held in "black sites" around the world by the CIA.

Exactly what was done in the name of protecting U.S. national security is not known. Although the use of torture came under severe criticism from the moment the first reports surfaced, most Americans appeared to support doing whatever was necessary to avoid another series of disastrous attacks.

But was the torture worth it? Did the use of torture to gain information from terrorist suspects make the nation safer, or was the government's embrace of a morally reprehensible tactic unnecessary?

It depends on whom you ask.

A 6,200-page classified report produced by the Senate Intelligence Committee concludes that in 20 separate cases the staff investigated, the same information could have been obtained without resorting to brutal methods. The report, which took four years to compile, claims torture failed to produce significant intelligence and did not prevent further attacks.

It also says the agency mismanaged the program and repeatedly provided false information to the Department of Justice, impeding a proper legal analysis of the torture and detention project. Interrogators, the report contends, used methods not approved by government lawyers and CIA headquarters and evaded effective oversight by the White House.

John Rizzo, the CIA former top lawyer, told the McClatchy Washington Bureau that the Senate report is wrong. He said interrogations under torture yielded "detailed, valuable information into terrorist plots." The claim that the agency supplied inaccurate details about the program is also false, Mr. Rizzo said.

It is impossible to know who is telling the truth unless the public is allowed to see significant portions of the report. The Senate panel voted to release a 400-page summary, but has allowed the White House - with the aid of the CIA and the Pentagon - to delete whatever they deem too sensitive for public consumption.

The White House should waste no time getting it out, nor should the CIA and other interested agencies have free rein to censor whatever they choose. Their involvement must be limited and deletions should be kept to a minimum because the details that have leaked out so far are troubling at every level, including the use of torture methods that went well beyond waterboarding.

The claim that torture was not effective goes to the heart of the issue. Few today contend that torture is anything but immoral, but from the outset the program has been defended as necessary and effective. Unless the report is released without significant censorship, how is the public to judge?

The government must not pass up this chance to come clean. President Obama put a stop to the torture program in 2009, but that shouldn't be the end of it. In hindsight, it may have been not only immoral and unjustified, but ineffective to boot.

Releasing the report can have a curative effect. It should become the first step in fixing accountability for mistakes, and ensuring that it can never happen again.

 

—The Miami Herald, April 28