Ending our nation's addiction to torture

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The sickening details of the CIA's immoral torture program have been laid bare with the release Tuesday of the Senate Intelligence Committee's torture report. The report describes deeply disturbing acts of torture and confirms that it produced no meaningful intelligence that could not have been obtained through other means.

It is difficult to read the report and not conclude that both morality and common sense demand that we take every step necessary to prevent the U.S. torture program from ever being reactivated.

The CIA's use of waterboarding had already been widely reported. But it doesn't make it any easier to read official reports of a detainee who was waterboarded to the point that he was convulsing and vomiting, where even the torturers asked central CIA officials to stop his repetitive waterboarding.

Detainees were forced to suffer ice water "baths," while others were told that they would be killed in order to cover up what had been done to them. In one instance, the CIA imprisoned a mentally challenged relative of a detainee and taped his crying in an attempt to force the detainee to provide information. Still others endured sleep deprivation sessions of up to 180 hours, often while chained to a wall in a standing position.

And it was all for naught. The report clearly spells out that the CIA's torture program was not effective. As Sen. John McCain, a torture survivor himself, reminded us all on the Senate floor, torture often results in fabricated information and generally fails to produce actionable intelligence, if only because torture produces a situation of confusion and desperation.

The report also shows that the CIA assigned many inexperienced and unqualified officers to run the torture program. According to the chief of one of the CIA's black sites, this casualness resulted in "the production of mediocre or, I dare say, useless intelligence."

But more importantly, it led to the wanton disregard for human rights, dignity and life. Torture runs contrary to the teachings of all religions, violates the basic principles of our Constitution and international law and is wrong in any and all circumstances.

So why did the nation allow torture to happen, and where do we go from here?

Faith leaders and others who helped the nation and families suffering from grief and fear after the 9/11 attacks remember well those touch-and-go moments. While our government was coming to terms with the attack and planning a response, faith leaders were holding the hands of those questioning our common humanity, wondering whether a safe future was possible and even asking how a just God could have allowed the attacks.

And then, top U.S. leadership, all the way to President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, decided to do the unthinkable: The U.S. would torture detainees in the war on terror.

Yet internationally recognized principles of human rights, such as the Convention Against Torture, dictate that even in times of war (declared or undeclared), no nation can abandon the requirements of conscience or the treaties, laws and rules of engagement that govern the treatment of prisoners and the conduct of war. Otherwise, human society is little more than eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth anarchy, where no one ever wins -- not for very long, anyway.

It is especially important that in times of national tragedy, leaders understand their responsibility to ensure that, whether out of anger, or fear, or even out of a justified desire for self-defense, a people and its policies do not abandon the very values that have shaped national identity.

Now what? Congress should act now to ensure that our country never goes down the road of moral bankruptcy again and pass legislation that creates one humane standard for all intelligence-gathering interrogations, including requiring that the International Committee of the Red Cross be provided access to all detainees. Congress should also permanently bar the CIA from detaining people.

These are all reasonable steps and are current practice after President Barack Obama's 2009 executive order ending the torture program. At the moment, though, none of these is required by law. Congress can change that, and in doing so, can ensure that the CIA's torture program is never restarted.

It won't be easy to end our nation's addiction to torture. For many in our country, including people of faith, and certainly for those in the back rooms of the entertainment industry, torture sells as an antidote to fear. But it doesn't work. It's time to permanently stop torturing -- whether in a secret prison in Poland or the solitary confinement wing of a public prison in California -- in the name of U.S. citizens.

[The Rev. Ron Stief is executive director of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture.]

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