In President Obama’s final national security speech on Tuesday, he spoke about the importance of staying true to our values, of not returning to torture, and of transparency. Now, in his remaining time in office, he has an opportunity to take action to advance these goals and to do something of great importance for the public’s understanding of our history. He has the ability to protect the Senate Intelligence Committee’s full 6,700-page report on torture from being lost, perhaps forever.
Given President-elect Donald J. Trump’s unconscionable campaign pledge to “bring back waterboarding” and “a hell of a lot worse” — acts that would be illegal if carried out — President Obama’s leadership on this issue has never been more important.
Drawing on our decades of work in the Senate and our chairmanships of the Armed Services and Intelligence Committees, we are calling on President Obama to preserve the full torture report as a matter of profound public interest. We are not asking him to necessarily agree with all of the report’s findings, though we certainly hope he does, but we are asking him to protect it as an important piece of history.
The president could do this simply by allowing departments and agencies that already possess the document to enter it as a federal record, making it much more difficult for a future administration to erase.
This simple but consequential action is something that President Obama can do now, and it is something that he can do unilaterally.
Why is this so important?
Many people do not realize that the roughly 500-page summary of the Senate report that was declassified and made public at the end of 2014 is only a small part of the story. The full report remains classified. It is one of the largest reports in Senate history, and it is by far the most thorough account of what happened during a dark period when waterboarding and other brutal techniques were used and given legal cover — a decision by the George W. Bush administration that President Obama wisely reversed.
While we are not allowed to discuss the contents of the full report, we can say that it contains volumes of new information — information that leads to a more complete understanding of how this program happened, and how it became so misaligned with our values as a nation. Most important, the full report contains information that is critical to ensuring that these mistakes are never made again.
However, that written history is in jeopardy.
In 2014, Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, then the chairwoman of the Intelligence Committee, sent the full report to the Obama administration, asking relevant departments and agencies like the C.I.A., Defense Department, State Department and Department of Justice to read it, and to make use of it in their training materials. However, after Republicans took control of the Senate, the new chairman, Senator Richard Burr of North Carolina, took the unusual step of trying to recall the full report that Senator Feinstein had distributed — to prevent it from ever being widely read or declassified. In this effort, Senator Burr has written to President Obama, insisting that the full report not only be returned but that it “should not be entered into any executive branch system of records.”
Since then the full report has been locked in limbo, with the Obama administration unwilling to even open the document, but also unwilling to return it to Senator Burr.
This state of limbo is likely to change in January.
Given the rhetoric of President-elect Trump, there is a grave risk that the new administration will return the Senate report to Senator Burr, after which it could be hidden indefinitely, or destroyed.
Establishing the report as a federal record would prevent this from happening.
President Obama has said that “one of the strengths that makes America exceptional is our willingness to openly confront our past, face our imperfections, make changes and do better.” We couldn’t agree more, but to do that it is critical to know our history and to have a full accounting of how mistakes happened in the first place. The Senate Intelligence Committee’s full report on torture is that history.
Now in his final days in office, the president has an opportunity to ensure that his efforts to prevent a return to torture endure beyond his time in the White House. He has said of torture, “I will continue to use my authority as president to make sure we never resort to those methods again.” We urge him to make good on that pledge by protecting the full Senate report from those who may try to hide or destroy it.
The New York Times