Last month saw the release of once classified memos related to the CIA's secret “enhanced interrogation” program, along with the CIA inspector general's 2004 report on the program. Attorney General Eric Holder has since named a special prosecutor to investigate claims that CIA interrogators violated the law. The limited scope of the investigation, which will focus on so-called bad apples rather than those who approved the harsh interrogation methods, has left many critics concerned about the Obama administration's commitment to redressing the nation's sorry history of torturing terrorism suspects.
Predictably, former vice president Dick Cheney immediately took to the airwaves—and not only those controlled by FOX—to proclaim the efficacy, legality, and righteousness of the Bush administration's interrogation program. Cheney continues to claim that the now-released documents show that aggressive interrogation prevented attacks against the United States. But do they? Not quite. The memos show that the CIA sought and received permission to use harsh methods, including sensory and sleep deprivation, exposure to cold, nudity, waterboarding, beating, stress positions, and diapering—and that some agents went beyond what was permitted. They also show that useful information was obtained from detainees through traditional, less coercive means. And they offer no evidence that torture was necessary to produce valuable, life-saving intelligence.
President Barack Obama fears a politicized investigation would derail his broader agenda and threaten his party's political future. The White House has repeatedly stated its preference for “looking forward rather than looking back.” So Attorney General Holder deserves some credit for opening an investigation, and for naming the highly respected prosecutor John Durham to lead it.
Holder has not yet released a long-awaited Office of Professional Responsibility report on the legal opinions that were used to justify torture. Durham's limited mandate, Holder explained, is to investigate CIA operatives who failed to “act in good faith and within the scope of legal guidance”—that is, the guidance offered by Department of Justice lawyers like John Yoo. But without a public examination of the work of Yoo and other DOJ lawyers, the full story of how the United States came to practice torture cannot be told. Still, this investigation could prove a useful first step. As recent history reminds us, once a special prosecutor gets started, there's no telling where he'll stop.