You Won't Read a Full Accounting of America's Use of Waterboarding and Torture Anytime Soon

Supreme Court turns away transparency lawsuit trying to force release of Senate report.


Ingo Wagner/EPA/Newscom

A push to force the federal government to publicly release the full contents of a Senate report on the secret torture and detention of terror suspects ended quietly this morning with a simple rebuff by the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court declined to consider a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). The ACLU had been suing under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to force the federal government to release the contents of a 6,000-page report from the Senate. The full report detailed not just the terrible treatment—waterboarding and other forms of torture—of people suspected (sometimes incorrectly) of terrorism overseas; it also argued that the violent interrogations failed to get useful information and that the CIA lied about the program to higher-ups in government to conceal what they were doing.

An executive summary—clocking in at more than 500 pages—was finally declassified and made public in heavily redacted form back in 2014 after a long fight over it. But the full report has been secreted away to the point that the Department of Justice has actually ordered federal agencies to not even open and read the report, and Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) has attempted to get federal agencies to give their copies of the report back to the Senate.

The ACLU's lawsuit is partly why. In defending against the ACLU's lawsuit, the federal government argued that the full torture report was a congressional record and therefore not subject to FOIA. The ACLU countered that passing the report along to agencies in the executive branch meant otherwise. Unfortunately, courts have up until now found for the government. This morning the Supreme Court denied certification for the ACLU's lawsuit, so their push ends here with a loss for transparency.

It is the end of this particular legal fight, Hina Shamsi, director of the ACLU's National Security Project, tells Reason. "It is a very disappointing end because we think that the lessons of the full report are really necessary to learn."

Nevertheless, Shamsi felt as though the fight itself hasn't been a total loss. The outrage that followed the disclosure of waterboarding and other harsh interrogation techniques led military and executive branch leaders to acknowledge the legal limitations to what they were permitted to do to prisoners of the war on terror, and the military has promised to use only interrogation techniques listed in the Army Field Manuals, meaning no waterboarding.

"Opposition [to torture] at the highest levels is going to be critically important," Shamsi said. That's particularly true because President Donald Trump campaigned fully in support of waterboarding and even harsher forms of torture as tools to fight the Islamic State.

The Supreme Court declining to hear the case means the legal fight is over, but that doesn't necessarily mean that the chance Americans will ever get to see the full report is completely gone. The president has the authority to declassify the full report's contents, but that seems extremely unlikely given Trump's positions. Before leaving office, President Barack Obama managed to save a copy in his presidential archive. So even if the Trump administration has all the copies of the full report destroyed, there's still one out there they can't touch.

When the executive report was initially released to the public, we made note of the outrageous incidents described in there. But while those violent incidents described in the report got the most media attention, huge chunks of the summary were devoted to whether proper procedures were followed or not and whether the torture actually got results or not. As I noted at the time, you could switch torture out and replace it with any other massive bureaucratic process the federal government put together and see the same kind of debates. So it seems likely that the massive full report would also be focused on the deep procedural issues of how the torture came to pass. Nevertheless, Shamsi says the full report would contain important information, and Americans should support its release.

"What we know is that the full report provides a lot more information about what was actually done and how, and critically … it sheds greater light on the essential corruption that [came from] a determination to torture—Which is that the CIA lied to the White House other parts of the executive branch and to Congress," she says. "Torture corrupts, and [the report] details the way torture corrupts and harms people along with institutions we care about."