Frank Rich on the National Circus: America Is Still in Denial About Torture

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An IKONOS satellite image of a facility near Kabul, Afghanistan taken on July 17, 2003. A Washington Post on November 2, 2005 refers to this facility as the largest CIA covert prison in Afghanistan, code-named the Salt Pit.
A satellite image of a U.S. detention facility near Kabul, Afghanistan, code-named the Salt Pit. Photo: IKONOS/Space Imaging Middle East/Reuters/Corbis

Every week, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich talks with contributor Eric Benson about the biggest stories in politics and culture. This week: The Senate Intelligence Committee releases its report on CIA torture, the impact of the Eric Garner and Michael Brown protests, and the GOP Establishment dreams of Mitt.

Earlier this week, the Senate Intelligence Committee released its much-anticipated report on the Bush-era CIA’s extensive use of interrogation and detention techniques that plainly constituted torture and, according to the committee’s findings, did not contribute to the killing of Osama bin Laden or stop any terrorist plots. President Obama — who outlawed the torture techniques during his first week in office — has tried to strike a middle ground in responding to the report, praising the CIA as “patriots” while decrying their former methods. Should he be taking a stronger stance? Can America just move past its torture era, or are prosecutions and formal accountability necessary?
There are two important things to remember about this report: (1) We have only seen a fraction of it — a heavily redacted 524-page executive summary of a document whose full text exceeds 6,000 pages. Given how grotesque that censored executive summary is, it beggars the imagination to guess what horrors didn’t make the cut. (2) Much of the news in this report is not news at all, but has been in essence reported many times by major news organizations in the years since the Abu Ghraib revelations. And yet we are shocked all over again. So is America moving past its torture era? Hardly. We still live in a land of denial.

Which brings us to the issue of prosecutions and formal accountability — and to President Obama. Whatever credit he deserves for shutting down our government’s practice of torture is mitigated by his refusal to hold anyone accountable for the crimes committed in our country’s name. Addressing the passions aroused by Ferguson a couple of weeks ago, Obama reminded everyone that we are a nation of laws. But what does that even mean when the nation’s laws are not applied to those in power — whether CIA officers and others who practiced torture, or Wall Street executives who brought the world’s economy to the brink of ruin, looted their companies and their investors, and then escaped with their ill-gotten gains? The more flagrant the offense, the easier it is to escape, it seems. The CIA official Jose Rodriguez destroyed evidence, in-house videos of American torture, and received a nice book contract. Those two “psychologists,” James Elmer Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, to whom the agency outsourced some of the nastiest torture management, walked away with $81 million in taxpayers’ money. And yet Obama’s attorney general, Eric Holder, is still threatening to imprison James Risen, a Times reporter who covers our national security state, for refusing to name his sources. Holder has also moved to keep secret 1,700-plus pages of findings from another torture investigation, one conducted by his own Justice Department. Unlike the Senate report, it contains interviews with many participants in the interrogation program — potentially, an invaluable aid to a national reckoning with this criminal chapter in our history.

But it’s not as if there are other potential presidents out there who will improve on Obama’s sorry record. The only Washington officials of stature who have been outspoken about the need to expose the truth — Dianne Feinstein, John McCain, Mark Udall — have in common that their careers as national politicians are nearing an end. The GOP’s presidential hopefuls are running for cover, Rand Paul included. And Hillary Clinton, who has said almost nothing publicly about torture, could be found, as usual, straddling. When she addressed the subject briefly earlier this year at the Council on Foreign Relations, according to the Times, she said she “opposed prosecuting ‘people who were doing what they were told to do.’” In other words, as long as you were just following orders, you bear no responsibility for, say, inflicting “rectal feeding” on an inmate in an American torture chamber in Poland. Let’s be grateful that Hillary Clinton was not presiding over the justice meted out at Nuremberg.

Over the past month, grand juries in St. Louis and New York declined to indict police officers who killed two unarmed black men, Michael Brown and Eric Garner. Those decisions incited nationwide demonstrations and provoked calls to end a culture of police brutality toward black men, but it remains to be seen what kind of lasting effect they’ll have. Do you think the Brown and Garner protests can lead to a cultural shift? And if they did, what would that look like?
The protests have often been powerful, but it’s hard to see what will change without actual reform in our so-called nation of laws. The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court is on record on this point: “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” So why do anything?

There is again much talk of how Obama might abandon his timidity and lead yet another discussion of race in America. Nicholas Kristof has called for America to take a page from South Africa and create a Truth and Reconciliation Commission “to examine race in America.” We’ve had many commissions on race in America — does no one remember the Kerner Report commissioned by Lyndon Johnson after the riots of 1967? — and many conversations. But the fact remains that the killing of unarmed black Americans — and as we’ve most recently seen in Cleveland, of unarmed black American children — by white policemen goes on unabated in the North and South alike. We don’t need talk; we need action, legal action, on a variety of fronts.

According to a new CBS News poll this week, Americans do more or less agree on one point — that we are not making progress. The differential between the percentage of blacks who think racial relations are bad (54 percent) and the percentage of whites who feel that way (42 percent) is not as wide as one might suppose. But here, too, we need political leadership that we are not seeing from our first black president, or from anyone else in power. Indeed, we have a major political party and a Supreme Court majority whose main interest in black Americans is to try to suppress their vote and, by so doing, limit their power to address the legal inequities that give us police outrages like those in Ferguson, New York, and Cleveland.

On Monday, the Times and the Washington Post published stories on the desire of GOP megadonors to coalesce early around a 2016 presidential nominee and avoid a repeat of the drawn-out and circuslike 2012 primaries. Predictably, big Wall Street donors are pining for Chris Christie, Jeb Bush, or even a return of Mitt Romney, while a host of more tea-party-friendly candidates like Rand Paul and Rick Perry have begun to mount their own backers. The GOP almost always nominates an Establishment candidate, but you’ve been clear that the party’s present and future lies with its radical wing. Is there any way the Republicans don’t have an even more drawn-out and circuslike primary season than they did in 2012?
What emerges from both these stories is yet another example of how adrift America is from its identity as a “nation of laws.” A bunch of billionaires just assume — not entirely without reason — that they can choose the next president and, with their fortunes, install him as the Republican nominee and, perhaps, as the next president. My own instinct remains that the radical base of the GOP will still fight back hard, and we will have another drawn-out primary season, and, one hopes, another three-ring circus with freak shows as entertaining as those headlined by Herman Cain and Donald Trump. Just listen to the more powerful voices of the hard right, whether Mark Levin or Michelle Malkin: They loathe Bush, Christie, and Romney no less than they did last time around. Indeed, we may see pretty much a replay of 2012 in the GOP. Certainly the most intriguing motif running through the Times story is that big donors do think there’s a real chance Romney will enter the fray — and that some of them would enthusiastically back him if he did. Given Bush’s baggage (his positions on immigration and Common Core education standards are anathema to the base) and Christie’s (the bridge and the bullying), Mitt could well be just what the Establishment will order to shut down Rand Paul. I know it sounds preposterous that the man from Bain could be suited up one more time, but I would not underrate his chances running against the woman from the Clinton Global Initiative.