Throughout the 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump has made no secret of his disdain for human rights. In addition to supporting the murder of a terrorist’s family members, he has endorsed torture in no uncertain terms: “Torture works. OK, folks? You know, I have these guys—”Torture doesn’t work!”—believe me, it works. And waterboarding is your minor form. Some people say it’s not actually torture. Let’s assume it is. But they asked me the question: What do you think of waterboarding? Absolutely fine. But we should go much stronger than waterboarding.”
Despite the plentiful evidence that torture doesn’t work, Trump’s basic views on torture, if not his creepy enthusiasm for it, are fairly widespread in America. According to a survey conducted by the International Committee of the Red Cross, 46% of respondents expressed approval for torturing captured enemy combatants to extract information. Only 54% of respondents disagreed with the statement that torture was an unavoidable “part of war.”
On numerous occasions, from his 2008 presidential campaign to his major foreign policy address earlier this month at MacDill Airforce Base, President Obama has referred to torture as unacceptable and un-American. However, despite his strongly-worded condemnations, President Obama has not done everything possible to discourage his successor, Trump, from employing “advanced interrogation techniques” nor has he forced the American people to confront the ugly reality of torture. Notably, he chose to “preserve” in his library, rather than fully release to the public, an infamous 67,000 page “torture report” compiled by the Senate Intelligence Committee, culminating in the release of a damning portion of the document in 2014.
The report detailed the “enhanced interrogation” (including waterboarding and rectal feeding) the Bush Administration used on at least 119 terrorism suspects. Lawsuits filed under the Freedom of Information Act have failed to compel the release of the entire document, which would reveal the full extent of Bush administration abuses and provide a strong incentive against repeating them. Progressive groups, journalists and some Congressional Democrats have strongly spoken out in favor of releasing the documents. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) recently sent a letter to President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden urging them to do the right thing, declaring,” The time has come to declassify the report, allow the general public to make up its own mind.”
Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) is attempting to build bipartisan support in Congress for a release of the documents.“The American people deserve the opportunity to read this history rather than see it locked away in a safe for twelve years. When the president-elect has promised to bring back torture, it is also more critical than ever that the study be made available to cleared personnel throughout the federal government who are responsible for authorizing and implementing our country’s detention and interrogation policies,” Wyden said.
President Obama is on the verge of making a terrible mistake. In stonewalling efforts to reveal the full truth about “enhanced interrogation,” he risks not only diminishing his own legacy, but making it easier for a torture-happy Trump administration to make the treatment of detainees during the Bush years look like a stay at a Trump hotel. President Obama has already fallen short of candidate Obama’s pledges to emphasize transparency, earning the dubious distinction of presiding over one of the most secretive administrations in recent history. He should not compound the problem by depriving the American people of the opportunity to fully grapple with the ugly legacy of post-9/11 human rights abuses carried out in their name. Any danger posed to intelligence officials or American POWs by the release of the torture report (never mind that little it contains will come as much of a surprise to our enemies) is superseded by the danger of America betraying its own values moving forward.
On a practical level, President Obama should do everything possible to ensure that a Trump administration does not play into terrorist groups’ recruitment efforts by engaging in enhanced interrogation techniques with little intelligence value and a proven track-record of generating anti-American sentiment. If releasing the torture report can shame officials into refraining from enhanced interrogation or, even more crucially, convince the American people that torture is always wrong, then it is worth the risk. It is a cliché that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it, but given the Trump administration’s clear, even proud disregard for human rights, it applies now more than ever. As someone who cares deeply about his legacy, President Obama ought to consider the implications of his latest impulse towards secrecy.