Classification and the “Descent Into Torture”

06.10.09 | 2 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

The public has been significantly misled and misinformed concerning the practice of abusive interrogation by the U.S. government and the resulting damage to American political institutions, said Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) on the Senate floor yesterday.

“I am very sorry to say this–but there has been a campaign of falsehood about this whole sorry episode. It has disserved the American public. As I said earlier, facing up to the questions of our use of torture is hard enough. It is worse when people are misled and don’t know the whole truth and so can’t form an informed opinion and instead quarrel over irrelevancies and false premises. Much debunking of falsehood remains to be done but cannot be done now because the accurate and complete information is classified,” Sen. Whitehouse said.

“I want my colleagues and the American public to know that measured against the information I have been able to gain access to, the story line we have been led to believe–the story line about waterboarding we have been sold–is false in every one of its dimensions.”

He itemized several statements he said were demonstrably untrue, beginning with the declaration by President Bush that “America does not torture.”

He said a structured investigation was needed into what he called “America’s descent into torture.”  First, it is necessary to document what was done, under what conditions, and to what end.  A second set of questions concerns “how this was allowed to happen.”  Finally, a rigorous debunking of erroneous and false assertions is needed.

Classification policy is an obstacle to all of these objectives, he said, especially the latter:  “At the heart of all these falsehoods lies a particular and specific problem: The ‘declassifiers’ in the U.S. Government are all in the executive branch.  No Senator can declassify, and the procedure for the Senate as an institution to declassify something is so cumbersome that it has never been used.”