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Doug Saunders

Doug Saunders


From secrecy to transparency and back again Add to ...

Which revelation from Washington has shocked the world more?

That the Central Intelligence Agency has run, for more than a decade, a secret network of de facto dungeons where sometimes lethal torture, rape and atrocities have systematically been used against more than 100 people, with no useful intelligence results, under broad presidential authorization?

Or that the world now knows this, in extraordinary and impeccably documented detail, because a different branch of the U.S. federal administration, the Senate Intelligence Committee, released to the public 525 pages of a 6,000-page report, composed entirely of the CIA’s own internal self-documentation, resulting from a five-year investigative effort that the agency spent almost $40-million resisting but that got its documents with full political freedom?

One thing you could say about the United States: No other country’s government is able to self-critically document its own abuses and excesses with such regular alacrity, transparency and totality.

This sort of exposure, even with executive approval, would be almost unimaginable in, say, Canada. We know this, because our own torture scandal, involving the handover of scores of Afghan detainees by the Canadian military and other NATO forces to local authorities for alleged torture, has never been fully investigated. In fact, Ottawa has worked hard to keep its documentation secret, and most of what we know about it comes from a British High Court of Justice trial in 2010. If such abuses were committed by our intelligence agencies, they would be unlikely to see the light of day, given the dysfunctional nature of our civilian oversight system and the powerlessness of parliamentary committees.

The world, in this view, should be inspired by the U.S. democratic penchant for self-inculpating scrutiny.

But of course, there is another thing you could say about the Americans: Few major democracies have such a spotty record of military and intelligence agencies falling into extended periods of anti-democratic excess and abuse, from the CIA’s international misadventures in the first decades of the Cold War to the My Lai-type excesses of the Vietnam War to the targeting of American dissidents in the 1960s and 1970s to the Iran-Contra scandal of the 1980s to the multiagency derelictions of moral principle during the war on terror. Each of these moments has provoked a congressional committee investigation, then a period of reform and transparency, until the next international crisis erupts and the rules get tossed overboard.

Too many journalists and historians tend to look at modern U.S. history either as a continuous and undifferentiated string of CIA and Pentagon atrocities and excesses, or as a set of institutional and democratic triumphs.

In fact, both secret excess and revelatory transparency are part of the same system, which pits Washington’s institutions against one another in a teeter-totter of competitive animosity unlike any other country’s. Even former vice-president Dick Cheney, who largely dreamed up the torture regime, viewed the CIA with deep distrust, believing it to be a dangerously liberal organization.

This system dates back to the creation of the secret branches of the U.S. administration – 13 agencies, including the CIA and the FBI – in 1947, without any oversight. Their vast abuses of power led to the 1975 Church Committee, which exposed the Cold War abuses and led to laws restricting secret activities and establishing congressional oversight committees. These committees have powers unknown in most other countries, but tend to support and defend the agencies until the cycle of reform and abuse once again turns dark.

If the world is to learn anything from this, it is the key discovery made by these unique committees: Most of the activities carried out by the secret agencies they monitor (and by sibling agencies in every country) are pointless and ineffective. Senator Dianne Feinstein’s Intelligence Committee report proved beyond doubt that 13 years of torture produced not a single piece of actionable intelligence. Earlier reports have shown that targeted-assassination programs (aimed, for example, at Fidel Castro or Saddam Hussein) have completely failed; that engineered coups always backfire (Iran, Chile and Congo all saw unsavoury but democratic leaders overthrown with CIA help, leading to even worse regimes coming to power); that the mass surveillance of religious and ethnic communities fails to produce any useful information; that the use of sting operations increases, rather than reduces, terrorism.

In its decades-long cycle of secrecy and transparency, the very least Washington has taught us is this: Don’t bother doing what their spies have done, for it leads to nothing but misery.

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