The full extent of what was done in our name remains unclear, and there are still big gaps in our understanding of how it all came to pass. Just how many people were detained by the U.S. government in the so-called “war on terror”? How many of them should never have been held in the first place? How many of them were mistreated, and how badly? Did torture and abuse produce valuable information? How much did it embolden our enemies? How many people knew what was going on? Where in the chain of command does the responsibility lie? Why didn’t more people object? How direct was the link between what happened in the offices of the president and vice president and the cells of Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib? How willful was the administration’s corruption of the law?
And it’s not just torture and detention. When it comes to warrantless surveillance, for instance, what little we know about the program as it still exists today is still considerably more than we know about the program as it operated before the revolt in Bush’s own Justice Department. What were we doing from 2001 to 2004 such that even John Ashcroft couldn’t bring himself to approve it any longer? How many people have been wiretapped without a warrant? What happened to all the data?
The public overwhelmingly wants some sort of official inquiry. According to a recent USA Today/Gallup Poll, nearly two thirds of Americans support an investigation into the treatment of terror suspects during the Bush administration – although they are split on whether it should be conducted by an independent panel or by federal prosecutors.
Journalists have a special role here. Not only can we keep chipping away at the truth – but we can and should remind members of the public, over and over again, about all the facts that remain hidden from them, including information about acts committed in their name that had -- and continue to have -- profound moral and legal implications. We should also remind Americans that our moral stature on the globe has been -- and will remain -- seriously damaged until or unless there is some sort of process of reckoning and accountability. And while there’s no need for journalists to get involved in partisan battles, when the question at hand is whether the nation will avert its eyes or face up to the truth, it’s entirely appropriate for journalists to take a stand.
NiemanWatchDog is having a series devoted to these questions. Journalists, please do your jobs.