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Editorial: Secrecy Abounds; U.S. Must Confront Torture Issue

The Senate Intelligence Committee has completed an exhaustive review of the CIA’s detention and interrogation of terrorism suspects during the Bush administration and produced a 6,000-page report examining the treatment of every detainee and the value of the intelligence gained.

The report “uncovers startling details about the CIA detention and interrogation program and raises critical questions about intelligence operations and oversight,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., chairwoman of the committee.

The American people, in whose name those suspects were detained — and often tortured at one of the various secret locations the CIA maintained — will not soon, if ever, learn what “startling” information is in the report. It must first be reviewed by the White House, the CIA and other federal agencies, after which the committee will decide how much of it will be declassified.

Not much, if recent history is any indication.

In fact, the committee’s vote on the report was conducted behind closed doors, although it has been widely reported that it was 9-6, with one Republican, retiring Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine, joining all the Democrats in endorsing it. It has also been reported that the review of so-called “harsh” or “enhanced” interrogation techniques — euphemisms for practices such as waterboarding that are more properly referred to as torture — found them to be generally ineffective, except perhaps in serving as recruiting tools for future terrorists and diminishing the nation’s moral stature.

In other words, brutality does not pay.

“What I have learned confirms for me what I have always believed and insisted to be true — that the cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of prisoners is not only wrong in principle and a stain on our country’s conscience, but also an ineffective and unreliable means of gathering intelligence,” said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a nonvoting committee member whose personal experience of being tortured while a prisoner of war in Vietnam lends weight and poignancy to his opinion.

Although the report remains classified, some things are known. One of the al-Qaida suspects whose harsh treatment produced no useful information was Khaled el-Masri, a German citizen of Lebanese descent who was picked up by Macedonian guards while traveling on a bus in that Balkan country. After being locked in a hotel room for almost a month by the Macedonians, he was handed over to the CIA and taken to the airport, where he was “beaten, sodomized, shackled and hooded,” according to the European Court of Human Rights, which recently fined Macedonia for its role in the affair. Masri was then flown to Afghanistan, where the CIA held him for an additional four months, before being taken back to Macedonia and dumped on the side of the road.

Masri produced no useful intelligence because he had none; the Macedonians had mistaken him for an al-Qaida member with a similar name.

No apology has been offered by U.S. officials. In fact, when the ACLU filed a suit on behalf of Masri, it was dismissed in 2006 when a U.S. court ruled that hearing his case would require disclosure of state secrets.

Nor are the trials of terror suspects who have been held for years at Guantanamo Bay likely to shed much light on CIA practices. The presiding judge of the trial of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the al-Qaida leader who is believed to have masterminded the 9/11 attacks and who was waterboarded repeatedly during interrogation, has ruled that anything that Mohammed and four other suspects being tried say about their interrogations should be treated as classified and remain secret.

We can be thankful, we suppose, that the Senate Intelligence Committee issued a report raising questions about the torture practiced by the U.S. during the Bush years. We can be thankful that the Bush administration withdrew authorization for those practices shortly before leaving office and that Barack Obama officially prohibited them when he took office.

But as is the case with other countries that have shameful episodes in their recent history, the United States won’t have closed this particular chapter until it fully and honestly accounts for its behavior.