Viewpoint

Burr’s CIA torture cover-up makes America less safe, less respected

U.S. Senator Richard Burr, R-N.C., heads the Senate Intelligence Committee.
U.S. Senator Richard Burr, R-N.C., heads the Senate Intelligence Committee. dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

From Larry Wilkerson, a retired U.S. Army colonel and former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell. He is the Distinguished Adjunct Professor of Government and Public Policy at the College of William & Mary in Virginia. He is a Republican.

As he runs for re-election, U.S. Sen. Richard Burr is airing $300,000 in television ads that tout his record as chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee. The truth, however, is that Burr’s handling of this key job has done our nation and North Carolinians a huge disservice.

The biggest challenge that confronted Burr as he took the helm of Intelligence in January 2015 was to come to grips with President George W. Bush’s torture program.

The committee’s six-year investigation had just revealed grim details of lawlessness and barbarism in the Central Intelligence Agency’s enhanced interrogation program. In every way, Burr has shown himself to be the ultimate protector of the criminals at the CIA, not their overseer.

His first act as chairman was an attempt to recall the committee’s 6,900-page “torture report” from the White House and executive agencies. He also tried to bury the Panetta Review, a still-secret internal CIA assessment of the torture program that, according to Intelligence members who have read it, is a “smoking gun” bolstering the negative conclusions of the committee’s own report.

And Burr refuses even to hold hearings on CIA misconduct like “rectal feeding,” sexual abuse and the torturing to death of detainees in its custody.

As a result, some presidential candidates now vie over who will order the harshest techniques. One promises more waterboarding, while another says he would go even further.

When asked recently if waterboarding counted as torture, Ted Cruz responded that “under the law, torture is excruciating pain that is equivalent to losing organs and systems, so under the definition of torture, it is not.” Cruz was echoing the infamous 2002 memo by disgraced former Justice Department lawyer John Yoo, later repudiated as illegally bad lawyering by many inside and outside the Bush administration. Moreover, Cruz was advocating a procedure roundly condemned and punished by the U.S. immediately after WWII.

This kind of deceit about torture is possible only because, under Burr’s guidance, the Intelligence Committee has deprived our nation of the conversation we need to have. If Burr had held hearings about the water tortures practiced by the CIA, we might have learned about the U.S. actions after WWII or that, even in 1968, the Army court-martialed a U.S. soldier for waterboarding a prisoner.

Sen. John McCain said the “loose talk” about torture on the campaign trail “stained our national honor.” Military leaders agree. In mid-February, 42 of our retired generals and admirals released a letter they sent to all candidates for president last fall, urging them to publicly reject the use of torture as illegal, counterproductive and harmful to national security.

“The people who were involved in the program, who were its architects and implementers, have an understandable desire to minimize all of this – to prevent a full discussion and perhaps a full awareness of the report,” said Alberto Mora, a fellow at Harvard’s Carr Center for Human Rights. Mora knows: He was general counsel at the Navy from 2001 to 2006, during the height of the torture program, and argued against it at the time.

Burr aids the cover-up. His proper job was to treat his committee’s findings with the utmost seriousness, to seek declassification of the entire 6,900-page report and then to hold hearings that would call the CIA’s top officials to account.

Had diplomats been invited to testify, we might have learned what international damage has been done by winking at the CIA’s torture program. China points to our failure to hold officials responsible when it rebuts U.S. criticisms of China’s own human rights practices. Iran’s Supreme Leader gains more traction in the Middle East by calling out U.S. hypocrisy on torture. Tyrants the world over relish such hypocrisy.

Had Burr done his job properly, no presidential candidate would now be laughing as his supporters call for the waterboarding of an opponent, as occurred at a recent Marco Rubio rally. And, closer to home, North Carolinians might realize that the CIA used airports in their state as transport hubs for its torture program.

Burr’s ads claim he is fighting for the tools to protect America. That is simply not true. What is true is that Burr’s failure to shoulder his responsibilities ensures our real power in the world is diminished by the unpunished criminals in our midst.

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