It’s been a busy week in news. Scientists have confirmed the existence of “old person smell”; some dude ate some other dude’s face: You know, serious stuff. So, I’ll forgive you if this little tidbit slipped your notice.
According to a federal appeals court, the CIA is allowed to withhold any information pertaining to their use of torture from the American public. Per the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), “The CIA argued that the cables could be kept hidden because waterboarding is an ‘intelligence method’ exempt from disclosure under [the Freedom of Information Act].” They also argued that “the photograph [of a suspected terrorist subjected to 'enhanced interrogation techniques'] might reveal the detainee’s ‘condition’ after being tortured.” Despite the ACLU’s objections, the judges on hand agreed with the CIA.
After perusing the list of exemptions that can be withheld from the public, I thought there were two that could plausibly be cited to justify this decision. The first exemption is for “documents properly classified as secret in the interest of national defense or foreign policy.” First of all, this is redundant; of course they’d be classified as secret, otherwise no one would bother to invoke the Freedom Of Information Act (FOIA) to access them. Besides that, how is withholding evidence of torture in the interest of national defense or foreign policy? Withholding evidence does not serve to deteriorate any existing relationships with foreign countries; the names of those who have been detained by the CIA are already available to any who are curious. Countries are already angered by our military interventionism and hold no illusions about what we’re doing to suspected terrorists who may be their citizens. It’s not like anyone isn’t aware at this point what crimes the U.S. has been committing.
Then there’s the seventh exemption, which concerns law enforcement and covers documents that “would disclose techniques, procedures, or guidelines for investigations or prosecutions.” Correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe this is intended to be used to restrict access to documents that could compromise investigations into suspects, so that they can’t in turn compromise the investigation by allowing a suspect to detect them. This isn’t really necessary if your suspect is already locked up, or if you never intend to actually prosecute them in the first place. It’s all kind of a moot point because the CIA isn’t technically a law enforcement agency.
While I thought that those were the most critical exemptions it turns out I was wrong. It was the third exemption that caused the court to rule in favor of the CIA. What does the third exemption pertain to? Anything “specifically exempted by other statutes.” There is one statute that gives exemption to “intelligence source or methods”, under which waterboarding apparently qualifies. According to one of the judges, “A photograph depicting a person in CIA custody discloses far more information than the person's identity,” and “conveys an ‘aspect of information that is important to intelligence gathering … and that this information necessarily ‘relates to’ an ‘intelligence source or method.’” In other words, a photo of a man who has been tortured cannot be released because that would reveal that the United States had tortured somebody.
The entire purpose of the FOIA is to provide a public check on government agencies should they overstep their bounds. It’s designed to be a tool to illuminate problems in government so that they may be corrected, and so that corruption may be rooted out. The act is utterly worthless if it allows the government to define what information FOIA can or cannot be used to access. Sure, there are some legitimate restrictions in it, but others, particularly exemption 3, are ludicrous. The exemptions are so vague that they allow the government to restrict accessible information at their convenience, simply by creating and then evoking any statute that suits their agenda; implicitly defeating the purpose of the act.
If the FOIA were capable of releasing all evidence, terrorists wouldn’t suddenly have detailed information regarding the efforts to capture them; America’s enemies wouldn’t despise us any more than they already do. The only potential consequences may be that American citizens may finally demand an end to "enhanced interrogation methods." Perhaps there would be an attempt by the UN to try those involved as war criminals, which would be no more than they would deserve. Unfortunately, this is highly unlikely. But the fact that American citizens do not possess the autonomy to ascertain if our country is committing crimes that could possibly violate the Geneva Conventions and the United Nations Convention Against Torture is beyond unethical. It’s [classified].