When the head of the CIA’s torture unit decided to destroy videotapes of his team’s horrific work, he unwittingly set in motion a series of events that led to the release this week of the most massive, detailed documentation of unlawful behavior by high-ranking government officials and intentional infliction of pain on noncombatants by the United States government since the Civil War era.

Here is the backstory.

One of the reasons repeatedly stated by President George W. Bush for the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 was the maintenance of “torture rooms” by Saddam Hussein. While making this very argument, Bush was secretly authorizing CIA agents to engage in similar unlawful behavior for similar purposes: intelligence and deterrence. Bush sounded credible when he claimed that his administration adhered to federal and international legal standards.

He knew he could make that claim because the torturers were sworn to secrecy, as were their congressional regulators. The CIA charter permits Congress to regulate the CIA in secret. Congress has established two secret congressional committees, one from the Senate and one from the House, to serve as monitors and regulators of CIA activities. The stated reason for the secrecy is to keep our enemies from knowing what the CIA is doing. The effect of the secrecy has been a muzzled Congress, lied to by law-breaking and rogue CIA officials.

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