U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder's appointment of a special prosecutor to investigate CIA torture practices and the release of the former CIA inspector general's report on the subject constitute a milestone in the ongoing saga of the Obama administration's efforts to come to terms with this evil past.
While President Barack Obama has announced the closing of Guantanamo and the ending of "enhanced interrogation techniques," he has been reluctant to investigate what happened.
Holder's initiative shows independence from the White House and a welcome willingness to deal with an issue that refuses to go away. But will it be enough?
The special prosecutor, John Durham, is not an outside attorney but a justice department official. He will report directly to Holder. He is tasked with investigating the cases of CIA interrogators who went beyond already lax guidelines provided by the infamous "torture memos" from the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) in the Bush administration.
The inspector general's report provides plenty of evidence about such cases – from mock executions to threatening detainees with power drills and with killing their children. Yet these interrogators have already been investigated and no charges were filed – torture cases are notoriously difficult to prosecute, much of the evidence has disappeared and, given the OLC memos, drawing the line between what was allowed and what was not is not easy.
Beyond specific abuses, the most striking thing about this is that the whole design of the interrogation program was geared to make the 24-hour day of detainees a living hell: the infliction of torture not as an off-and-on process but a permanent condition.
A key instrument was sleep deprivation, a "baseline" element. Some detainees were not allowed to sleep for two or three weeks in a row. The program in its initial phase included interfering with all basic life functions – access to solid food, bodily hygiene, medical treatment. Some ideas considered by interrogators verge on the grotesque. To make Abu Zubaydah talk while detained in Bangkok, they considered putting him in a room full of cadavers or surrounding him with naked women. But mostly it seems like sadism pure and simple.
There was a method behind this seeming madness. The two psychologists who designed the program, Jim Mitchell and Bruce Jenssen, believe in "enforced helplessness" to "break" detainees. Many interrogation specialists (which Mitchell and Jenssen are not) dispute its usefulness. No final answer has emerged as to whether the program provided information that helped prevent terrorist attacks.
But this is not a matter of utilitarian calculus. The program was a failure because it was wrong. Holder's initiative is a step in the right direction but it may be too little too late. The cat is out of the bag and it is far bigger and darker than we thought. Every day new evidence surfaces about the shenanigans of the so-called "war on terror," of which the latest is the CIA "hit team" partially outsourced to Blackwater, without bothering to report to Congress.
Holder has talked about the need for a public "reckoning" over this tragic episode, which is at such variance with everything the United States stands for. Much more than a limited, partial and highly circumscribed investigation by one of his subordinates is needed. The scale and magnitude of the misdeeds call for nothing less than a full-blown truth commission, a policy tool that has shown its effectiveness in many countries, and that has been proposed by Senator Patrick Leahy, chair of the Senate judiciary committee.
Otherwise, if and when another terrorist attack takes place in the U.S., the right lessons from this torture program will not have been drawn, and it might well be revived, if in a different form and guise.
Jorge Heine is a former Chilean diplomat who holds the Chair in Global Governance at the Balsillie School of International Affairs and is a distinguished fellow at The Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI).