The details are horrifying. They include waterboarding, deprivation, isolation, beatings — and being suspended naked from a ceiling.
Such was the treatment of Majid Khan, a detainee who spent time in the Central Intelligence Agency’s black sites in the years after the 9/11 attacks.
Khan was an al-Qaida recruit who spent time in Pakistan and the U.S. and pleaded guilty in 2012 to terrorism crimes. His deplorable past actions included delivering thousands of dollars that helped fund a deadly hotel bombing in Jakarta. But those facts must be kept separate when evaluating the details of his treatment by American hands, which reemerged last month with his belated sentencing. Seven military officers serving on an eight-member jury at the U.S. Navy base at Guantánamo Bay signed a letter urging clemency for the prisoner. After hearing Khan’s account, the officers were unequivocal in their estimation.
"Mr. Khan was subjected to physical and psychological abuse well-beyond approved enhanced interrogation techniques, instead being closer to torture performed by the most abusive regimes in modern history," said the letter, obtained by The New York Times.
The military jurors correctly called his abuse a "stain on the moral fiber of America."
The period after the 9/11 attacks was chaotic for America and frightening for the New York region. The country reshaped its domestic security and went to war abroad in the name of vengeance and keeping the nation safe. It was clear from the beginning that torture was not a reliable tool — the letter from the jurors notes that Khan’s abuse was of "no practical value in terms of intelligence, or any other tangible benefit to U.S. interests." Khan himself has said that the more he cooperated, the more he was tortured.
It also is clear that actions taken by interrogators at black sites and beyond will remain a national shame.
We have made small steps toward reckoning with our post-9/11 wrongs. That included a report from the Senate Intelligence Committee partially released in 2014 featuring information on Khan’s treatment, and much more. Among the starker details was the fact that Khan’s food was sometimes "puréed" and infused rectally. It was and is shocking. In hundreds of pages, the document made the case again that what the nation had been doing secretly was wrong.
It’s an important reminder today, when the world is no less complicated, and dangers and pitfalls abound. Strong American leadership can still be a beacon for the world, and that depends on a deepened morality when it comes to diplomacy, drone warfare, global health, and interactions between great powers. American history has been full of voices who urge it to its better angels, as was and is the case with post-9/11 torture. We have to listen.
MEMBERS OF THE EDITORIAL BOARD are experienced journalists who offer reasoned opinions, based on facts, to encourage informed debate about the issues facing our community.