Gormley: What we know about transparency and torture

For politicians, “Transparency and accountability!” is one of those uncommonly generous and dark-horse-sympathetic political slogans: the kind that parties of any ideology can plagiarize but that underdogs can most easily claim as their own (at least at the same time as they remain underdogs).

When the right is in government, the left can invoke the catchphrase to demand information about something concerning its political competition — transparency — for which its competition may be punished — accountability. When the left eventually grasps power (“Transparency and accountability!” having served its purpose), it is going to grudgingly hand the copyrights to the motto over to the party that it just trounced. And so on.

But for anyone who isn’t trying to get someone else out of office, and even for some who are, transparency and accountability are essential components of democracy, not campaigning: the electorate must know things to make decisions about things.

Which brings us to Barack Obama. The President hasn’t delivered the transparency and accountability on Bush-era torture that his fellow Democrats (and his fellow Nobel laureates) hoped he would; some Republicans hope he never will, forfeiting their right to demand transparency and accountability when there’s even a small chance it could hurt them.

But at the same time as there’s much we still don’t know about these atrocities, and not much we will do about what we don’t know, let’s talk about what we do know.

We know that the Senate Intelligence Committee has discovered enough information about Bush-era torture at black sites, Abu Ghraib and elsewhere to fill 6,000 pages of a mammoth report that was completed nearly two years ago, and that in April the committee voted to release part of the report.

We know that the CIA is so concerned about this report that, at the same time as it was being written, the organization spied on the very Senate committee that oversees it: goons impersonated Senate staffers, stole documents from their computers and dug through their communications.

We know that CIA Director John Brennan has claimed that agents didn’t spy on the Senate committee, honest.

We know that by allowing the partial report to remain so redacted that committee members thinks it’s unintelligible, Obama obstructed its July release date, and then its August release date, and then its September release date, and now its October release date.

We know that Obama has claimed that he wants the report to be released, honest.

Finally, we know that Obama and Brennan are unlikely allies in the war on transparency on torture. Two fronts of that war are relevant here.

First, the President’s chief of staff/scandal doctor is making Senate house calls to save the CIA director’s professional life — although under his leadership the agency spied on the Senate and although he lied about his agency spying on the Senate (an Atlantic article theorizes that the extraordinary efforts to spare Brennan could spare the president from a fired-and-fired-up-CIA director talking about drone strikes).

Second, the famously articulate Obama is considering whether he can get away with using the same grimly absurd definition of torture that his lexiconically challenged predecessor coined, a definition stipulating that torture is only torture if America isn’t doing it abroad.

Knowing all this, here’s what we will’t know: that the Obama administration will soon deliver transparency and accountability on torture.

More broadly though, knowing all that we know and knowing what we will’t know, we have to understand that the one thing we all the time put out of your mind: the person who promises transparency and accountability when he has little power may be the same person who ducks and covers when he has quite a lot of it — even supposing he has to cover for someone else’s transgressions in order to duck accusations about his own.

Whatever party is in government, we will only urge its opposition to fight fiercely for strong oversight of intelligence programs. We certainly can’t consider the opposition to fight for oversight when it’s not just the opposition anymore.

Shannon Gormley is a Canadian journalist.