ELLSWORTH — On one historic day 225 years ago, on March 4, 1789, the first U.S. Congress met and the Constitution came into force. The Bill of Rights was ratified nearly three years later.
Massachusetts, which in those days included Maine, had opposed the original Constitution, until a Bill of Rights was added as the first amendments to the Constitution. The Bill of Rights has been part of the Constitution ever since, guaranteeing inviolable rights to all citizens. It led the United States to become the world’s beacon of human rights.
But since Sept. 11, 2001, the U.S. government has trampled at least four of the Bill of Rights’ amendments: disregarding the prohibitions against search and seizure without cause, the right to due process, the right to a prompt, public trial and the prohibition of torture (“cruel and unusual punishment”). Thus, on this 225th anniversary of the start of constitutional law in the United States, there is no cause for celebration.
But we now have an opportunity to help restore the primacy of the Constitution in our republic. Because of a happy coincidence, Maine can lead the way, because Maine is the only state both of whose senators are members of the Senate Select Intelligence Committee.
The U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence spent three years and $40 million investigating the covert U.S. government program to kidnap, detain, interrogate and torture designated “enemy combatants.”
After reviewing millions of pages of documents, the committee issued the most comprehensive report on this subject to date, in December 2012. However, the 6,300-page report has yet to see the light of day: It was immediately classified. Ten years after we first learned about the abuses at Abu Ghraib, the scope of what was done has yet to be made public.
The contents of the report are critical to gaining an understanding of what happened, and learning how to prevent a repeat.
How important is the report? Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Dianne Feinstein said that the report “uncovers startling details about the CIA detention and interrogation program and raises critical questions about intelligence operations and oversight … The creation of long-term, clandestine ‘black sites’ and the use of so-called ‘enhanced-interrogation techniques’ were terrible mistakes.”
She further said that the committee report “will settle the debate once and for all over whether our nation should ever employ coercive interrogation techniques such as those detailed in this report.”
But without a public airing of the report, there will never be accountability; without access to the report, the necessary national discussion on torture will be spun and controlled by those with vested interests – those who have lied repeatedly about this subject, with impunity.
For example, former administration officials linked the Navy SEAL raid in which Osama bin Laden was killed to the “enhanced interrogation” program. However, both Sens. Feinstein, D-Calif., and Carl Levin, D-Mich., who chairs the Armed Services Committee, called this claim “misguided and misinformed.”
The Senate Intelligence Committee can vote to declassify its report. Declassifying the Senate report on U.S.-instigated torture is the first, necessary step to prevent similar violations of human rights in the future. It should also be understood that the U.S. program of torture, rendition and detention depended on infringing on the Fourth, Fifth, Sixth and Eighth Amendments to the Constitution. As we begin the conversation on torture, it should be grounded in a new commitment to the preeminent role of the Constitution and its Bill of Rights in the affairs of the United States.
Agreement by Maine U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King will likely be pivotal to achieving declassification of the torture report and a national discussion of the report’s contents. Maine’s senators should not only vote to release the report, but also place the full force of their offices behind a return to constitutional government.
We must learn how the United States came to ignore its laws and Constitution and adopt medieval torture, extraordinary rendition and other illegal practices as policy. To end torture, and return to the rule of law, Americans need to know what was done in our name and with our dollars. Then we must say, “Never again.”