Amidst a Set-Back for Transparency, Citizen-Led Accountability in North Carolina

By David M. Crane & Catherine Reed

(Jurist | May 4, 2017) Last Monday, 24 April, it was easy to miss the important news that the Supreme Court denied cert in the ACLU’s Freedom of Information Act lawsuit to make public the full Senate Intelligence Committee report on the CIA’s use of torture. The news was lost in the frenzied media analysis of Trump’s first 100 days, new opinion polls on his performance, and a looming possible government shutdown over the border wall.

“The Supreme Court’s denial of public access to the full Senate report means we will be forced to continue wondering how much torture was used, the level of damage it did to the US, and which private entities may have been involved.”

The ACLU is to be commended for their leadership both in this FOIA request, and in the ground-breaking lawsuit Salim v. Mitchell. That suit was brought by torture victims and the family of a man tortured to death by the CIA, and fortunately is moving forward in a Spokane federal court.

But this Supreme Court decision on the Senate report is a blow to efforts at accountability for this dark chapter in US history, and bad news for Americans who want open government and transparency. From the declassified but heavily-redacted executive summary that is available, we know that the CIA’s interrogation tactics were both more brutal and less effective than was acknowledged publicly. The CIA did not provide oversight at the black sites it maintained, and it lied to Congress and the public about the number of detainees it held and tortured during the period following 9/11.

The Supreme Court’s denial of public access to the full Senate report means we will be forced to continue wondering how much torture was used, the level of damage it did to the US, and which private entities may have been involved. Most disturbingly, the decision blocks the robust public debate that release of the full report would stimulate. It continues the shielding of responsible officials from any form of accountability, and keeps the American public and our elected leaders from learning lessons from the failed tactics of the past.

One of President Obama’s final acts in office was to preserve the report under the Presidential Records Act — a positive step given that many elected officials, including Senate Select Intelligence Committee Chair Richard Burr (R-N.C.), have advocated destroying all classified versions. But this step also meant that the report would remain hidden from the public for at least twelve years, and perhaps much longer.

Our current President has, at best, easily influenced and inconsistent views on torture. President Trump, both while campaigning and even after taking office, has openly supported and endorsed resuming torture, although he has also backtracked on his own statements. His appointment of Deputy CIA Director Gina Haspel, who once oversaw a CIA black site in Thailand and was physically present during torture sessions, further underscores that more information about the torture, rendition and detention program must be revealed.

The lack of government transparency and public accountability—reinforced by this week’s Supreme Court decision—makes the work of organizations pushing for accountability all the more vital. One such initiative worth noting is the recently launched non-governmental North Carolina Commission of Inquiry on Torture (NCCIT).

NCCIT was established to investigate and bring about public accountability for the specific role that North Carolina’s state and local governments played in supporting the US torture program …

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INSCT Affiliated Faculty Member David M. Crane was Founding Chief Prosecutor for the Special Court for Sierra Leone and currently is a Professor of Practice at Syracuse University College of Law. Catherine Read is Executive Director of the North Carolina Commission of Inquiry on Torture.