Sr. Megan Rice, an 84 year old Roman Catholic sister of the Society of the Holy Child Jesus, was sentenced in February to 35 months in a federal prison for walking into a high security nuclear weapons facility at Oak Ridge, Tennessee and defacing a building containing bomb grade uranium. Rice was one of three who breached the security of this sensitive installation, embarrassing the government and causing a shut-down of the site to retrain security staff. They also left behind some chipped concrete, spray painted “biblical graffiti,” and melted wax from the candles they burned while waiting for arrest, singing and praying. Even though no one was injured in this non-violent act of civil disobedience, the U.S. attorney asked for a much longer, 70 month sentence to be imposed, describing the nun and her two colleagues from the anti-war group Plowshares as “incorrigible, habitual offenders.”
Meanwhile, in Washington a storm has erupted over investigations by the U.S. Senate into the CIA’s history of illegal detention, rendition, torture, and harsh interrogation in the years following 9/11. With a CIA internal investigation still classified, the Senate initiated its own investigation in 2009 when it discovered that CIA agents had destroyed videotape evidence of interrogations and had lied to the Senate oversight committee about the program. Those involved in these cover-ups were never prosecuted by the Obama administration.
The latest brouhaha concerns the discovery by the Senate investigators that their own work was compromised by the CIA which hacked into the computers it was given by the Agency to use in reviewing thousands of classified documents. Those computers contained, apparently mistakenly, the internal CIA review which, according to Senator Feinstein of the Intelligence Committee, largely confirms what the Senate investigators found. Namely, the US engaged in torture and other illegal and immoral acts, and got almost no useful intelligence in the process. Lives were lost. Bodies broken. Laws defied. American prestige damaged. The public misled. To date, no one has been held accountable. And now, apparently, attempts at a cover-up continue.
President Obama entered office promising to end the post-9/11 programs. As far as we know, they have ended, though the shame of Guantanamo continues, in part due to Republican intransigence, in part due to Administration fecklessness. But the President has resolutely refused to hold those responsible for this heinous episode in U.S. history accountable. We have been urged to “move on,” and, in fact, those responsible – the President, the Vice-President, the Secretary of Defense, leadership of the CIA, attorneys in the Justice Department – have all moved on to lucrative book deals, comfortable retirements, or another job in the endless cycle of public-private employment.
Meanwhile, Sr. Megan Rice is held without bond awaiting transfer to a federal prison to serve her sentence. She does have one thing in common with the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld crowd: none of them have any remorse for their crimes. “We have to speak, and we’re happy to die for that,” she told the judge. “To remain in prison for the rest of my life is the greatest honor you could give to me. Please don’t be lenient with me.”
The message in all of this seems clear. You are taking a far bigger personal risk engaging in civil disobedience on behalf of a world without nuclear weapons (and in the process embarrassing the government over its inept supervision of highly sensitive weapons grade materials) than you are conceiving, constructing, condoning and carrying out a program of torture and forced rendition as a high government official. No one should be overly surprised at selective prosecution in this country. But the juxtaposition here is, well, striking. Sister Rice knew when she engaged in civil disobedience that she would be held accountable. She accepted that reality as the cost of bearing witness to her faith. Criminal behavior that destroyed lives, put the nation’s moral integrity in question, and produced little benefit to the security of the country or its citizens ought to be held accountable as well even if high government officials assume they can shroud themselves with immunity due to the privilege of their positions.
President Obama argued that investigating, let along prosecuting the criminals who devised and led our campaign of torture would deter the nation from “looking ahead.” Now that even independent investigations by the Senate are being impeded and undermined, that argument is even harder to swallow. It’s time for the truth to be told, in order to “ensure,” in the words of Senator Feinstein, a long-time friend of the intelligence community, “that an un-American, brutal program of detention and interrogation will never again be considered or permitted.”
John H. Thomas
March 13, 2014