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Guanatanamo at sunrise, November 2008 (AP photo).

So much we still need to know

COMMENTARY | April 20, 2009

NiemanWatchdog.org is publishing a series of articles calling attention to the things we still need to know about torture and other abuses committed by the Bush administration after 9/11. Why the focus on what we don't know? Because when you think about how much remains hidden, how many issues are still unresolved, how many injustices have never been redressed, and how little accountability there has been, it's hard to make the argument that we're ready to move on.

By Dan Froomkin

One way or the other, we’ve learned a lot by now about the abuses committed by the Bush administration in the seven years after 9/11. Indeed, the drip-drip of grisly disclosures never seems to stop. But by no reasonable standard do we know enough.

The full extent of what was done in our name remains unclear, and there are still big gaps in our understanding of how it all came to pass. Just how many people were detained by the U.S. government in the so-called “war on terror”? How many of them should never have been held in the first place? How many of them were mistreated, and how badly? Did torture and abuse produce valuable information? How much did it embolden our enemies? How many people knew what was going on? Where in the chain of command does the responsibility lie? Why didn’t more people object? How direct was the link between what happened in the offices of the president and vice president and the cells of Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib? How willful was the administration’s corruption of the law?

And it’s not just torture and detention. When it comes to warrantless surveillance, for instance, what little we know about the program as it still exists today is still considerably more than we know about the program as it operated before the revolt in Bush’s own Justice Department. What were we doing from 2001 to 2004 such that even John Ashcroft couldn’t bring himself to approve it any longer? How many people have been wiretapped without a warrant? What happened to all the data?

We may have partial answers to many of these questions, but the events of 2001 to 2008 represent such a consequential departure from our moral and legal traditions that they require an authoritative history. Last week’s disclosure of Bush-era Justice Department memos – memos in which government lawyers detailed grisly acts of torture against detainees and tried to argue they weren’t against the law -- was accompanied by a plea from President Obama to stop “spending our time and energy laying blame for the past.” The president insisted: “Our national greatness is embedded in America’s ability to right its course in concert with our core values, and to move forward with confidence.”

But even those who prefer looking forward to backward should nevertheless recognize that, as Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy put it at a recent hearing: “We cannot turn the page until we have read the page.” Without a full understanding of what happened we are incapable of learning the right lessons. Without learning the right lessons, we risk making the same mistakes over again. And without some sort of process of reckoning and accountability, our recent past will continue to haunt us. New disclosures will continue to surface, our refusal to come clean will damage our moral stature abroad, and prosecutors elsewhere may even take it upon themselves to enforce international law.

The public overwhelmingly wants some sort of official inquiry. According to a recent USA Today/Gallup Poll, nearly two thirds of Americans support an investigation into the treatment of terror suspects during the Bush administration – although they are split on whether it should be conducted by an independent panel or by federal prosecutors.

And yet there are powerful forces --  motivated in large part by self-preservation and partisan politics -- opposed to further scrutiny. Many of the people implicated or associated with the policies in question remain in government, particularly in the intelligence community. New arrivals are in some cases hesitant to alienate the holdovers. Officials from both parties have plenty of reason to want to sweep things under the rug. Republicans legitimately worry about the effect that full disclosure could have on their party, so they argue that any investigation is tantamount to a witch hunt.  Obama evidently sees further investigation as a political loser and a distraction from his agenda. Democratic and Republican congressional leaders alike are leery of any process that is likely to call attention to their oversight failure – or possibly even their complicity. And there are growing signs that the new administration’s early commitment to transparency may be suffering as Obama begins to appreciate the allure of secrecy and unbounded executive power.

Thus far, to the extent that uncovering the truth has been a subject of conversation in Washington at all, the debate has been very political, very abstract, and focused mostly on process: Is a truth commission, a congressional investigation or a criminal investigation the best way to go? The serious and troubling questions that remain unanswered have gotten subordinated to squabbling over procedure. And here is where the Nieman Watchdog Project comes in.

Journalists have a special role here. Not only can we keep chipping away at the truth – but we can and should remind members of the public, over and over again, about all the facts that remain hidden from them, including information about acts committed in their name that had -- and continue to have -- profound moral and legal implications. We should also remind Americans that our moral stature on the globe has been -- and will remain -- seriously damaged until or unless there is some sort of process of reckoning and accountability. And while there’s no need for journalists to get involved in partisan battles, when the question at hand is whether the nation will avert its eyes or face up to the truth, it’s entirely appropriate for journalists to take a stand.

We’ll be asking a number of experts their views. We’d like to know what they think we as a nation most need to know. What lines of inquiry should be pursued? Who should be required to account for their actions? Who do we need to hear from? Who should be given a chance to speak? And the experts may have other ideas and lines of questioning as well.

We’ll start things off with these three columns, posting one a day:

  • Roy Gutman, a journalist with extensive expertise in war crimes, makes a compelling argument that we won’t really understand the scope of the problem until we document each detainee’s experience -- and offer reparations to those who were wronged.
  • Frederick (Fritz)  A.O. Schwarz, Jr., who helped lead the Church Committee’s investigation into intelligence abuses more than 30 years ago, thinks we need to further explore whether our conduct helped al Qaeda’s recruitment efforts, and how much excessive secrecy and a complaisant Congress were to blame.
  • Eric Stover, a professor who investigates human rights abuses, wants to focus on what our national security response should be to terrorism going forward, but in doing so poses some disturbing and unanswered questions about what we did.

There will be more to come. We welcome your suggestions on other experts we should contact. E-mail them to us at editors@niemanwatchdog.org. We encourage bloggers to weigh in – e-mail us what you write, either for cross-posting or linking purposes. And we’re eager to hear your own thoughts on the issue. Post them as comments or e-mail them to us for posting.

Glad to find you here!
Posted by Katherine M. Zerfas
07/06/2009, 08:10 PM

Have been reading your work in the Post for quite some time, and was shocked when the Post fired you.

We can never move on until we investigate the Bush Administration mess of torture, detention, etc.; I do not, however, see much happening on this score by the Obama administration. And yet every week it seems we learn some other sordid thing the Bush White House pulled--Cheney and the Plame outing, for example.

So I'm pleased you will be here to keep the fires hot under Obama so that he will perhaps be moved to order an investigation of some sort.

My thanks and best wishes

All the stories in this series

The Torture Record and the Press

Roy Gutman: How many detainees were wronged?

Schwarz: Is there a price for departing from our values?

Stover: To look forward, you have to look back

Hunsinger: Almost everyone remains anonymous

Fredrickson: Following the paper trail to the top

The NiemanWatchdog.org website is no longer being updated. Watchdog stories have a new home in Nieman Reports.