Washington – More than a decade after the 9/11 attacks, a bruised and divided United States is still grappling with their dark legacy, as the squalid details of CIA torture dominate front pages.
America’s drone assassins still criss-cross the skies over Middle East battlefields, US military advisers are returning to Iraq and scores of prisoners languish in Guantanamo Bay’s military jail.
And as troops battle militants abroad, a Senate committee’s report into the Central Intelligence Agency’s ruthless abuse of War on Terror detainees has forced America to confront its own demons.
“It isn’t about our enemies; it’s about us. It’s about who we were, who we are and who we aspire to be. It’s about how we represent ourselves to the world,” said Senator John McCain.
The 78-year-old former presidential candidate and veteran senator made a powerful plea against torture, which he himself experienced when he was a prisoner of war in Vietnam.
The United States, he said, must face up to the questions raised by its conduct in the wake of the September 2001 attacks on its cities.
“What were the policies? What was their purpose?” he asked. “Did they achieve it? Did they make us safer? Less safe? Or did they make no difference? What did they gain us? What did they cost us?
“The truth is sometimes a hard pill to swallow. It sometimes causes us difficulties at home and abroad. It is sometimes used by our enemies in attempts to hurt us,” he said.
“But the American people are entitled to it, nonetheless.”
Sleep deprivation, isolation, confinement, waterboarding, forced rectal feeding, brandishing power drills and threatening to make a detainee watch his mother’s rape – the Senate report is searing.
More than 100 prisoners were held at secret facilities far from US soil, the details of their treatment kept hidden from even Congress.
The report also takes a dim view of the success from the techniques which, it says, were “not an effective means of obtaining accurate information” on imminent terror threats.
In a carefully worded statement, President Barack Obama denounced the CIA’s tactics – methods which he banned on taking office in 2009 – as “contrary to our values”.
But he also took care to emphasise that his predecessor George W Bush was confronted with “agonising choices” during the “difficult years” that followed the fall of the Twin Towers.
“We made a mistake, we’re exposing it,” said Vice President Joe Biden, summarising the report in his typical straightforward style,
It remains far from clear that the Senate report will mark – as Secretary of State John Kerry suggested optimistically – “a coda to a chapter in our history”.
Although there are exceptions, like McCain, most of the Republicans who will form a majority in the new Senate from next month opposed releasing the report and disputed its conclusions.
Republican Senator Saxby Chambliss vehemently denounced the publication, which he said re-opened “old wounds”.
He lamented that, as “the world around us burns”, a commission spent five years and $40m studying an abandoned programme.
On the opposite side, a number of rights groups, led by Amnesty International, have urged criminal prosecutions against US officials.
But so far, the Justice Department has apparently rejected taking such a move. A senior official said noting in the report would cause it to reopen a closed investigation.
In a cutting editorial on what it called the CIA’s “lies”, the New York Times predicted, and lamented, that the report will likely not lead to any concrete action.
“Republicans, who will soon control the Senate and have the majority on the intelligence panel, denounced the report, acting as though it is the reporting of the torture and not the torture itself that is bad for the country,” it said.
Beyond the question of torture, the shockwaves caused by the Senate intelligence committee’s three-year investigation could also add fodder to other debates.
Widespread US phone and internet surveillance, revealed in documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, sparked an outcry in the United States and around the world.
A reform project aimed at updating the Patriot Act and curtailing the warrantless wire-tapping denounced by Snowden was blocked in November by Senate Republicans.
Micah Zenko of the US think tank the Council on Foreign Relations said US leaders must now be more transparent on another issue: the “targeted killings” of suspected terrorists in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen.
“If the 119 detainees who entered the rendition and interrogation programme – 26 of whom were wrongly detained – deserve a public accounting, then don’t the 3 500 who have been killed deserve this as well?”