Despite the outcry it has prompted, the Administration was absolutely right to declassify the Department of Justice-CIA interrogation memos. The argument that the letters compromise national security does not hold water. As noted in the memos, the interrogations techniques are taken from the military's escape and evasion training manuals, known as SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape) which in turn were taken from Chinese abusive interrogations used on our troops during the Korean War. If there is any doubt the techniques were already in the public domain, released detainees have more than detailed the abuse interrogation techniques they were subjected to.
But Obama should not stop there. The memos justify abusive interrogations by the completely discredited "ticking time-bomb" defense that if we don't torture a suspect when we know there is an imminent threat, we stand to lose many, many American lives. But what ticking bomb? In one memo it states that it was thanks to waterboarding 9/11's mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (who was, according to the memo, subjected to the procedure 183 times) that we learned about a "Second Wave" of attacks. There has been little heard since about the "Second Wave," so without more documents declassified, it can be assumed that KSM made it up to stop the waterboarding. In another memo, it is noted that senior Al Qaeda member Abu Zubaydah was tortured into admitting KSM was the 9/11 mastermind. The memo does not note that early on KSM freely admitted his role in an interview with al-Jazeera. (View pictures of life inside Guantanamo.)
Not everything related to abusive interrogations can be declassified, but nonetheless should be looked at by a blue-ribbon presidential commission. For instance, in an Aug. 1, 2002 memo there is a passing reference to "chatter" that suggests there's about to be another 9/11, the underlying message to Justice being that unless it approves the abusive interrogation techniques, the deaths of thousands of Americans will be on its head. Someone objective needs to take a close look at the exact wording of the "chatter", and tell the President whether there really was an imminent threat. The complete raw interrogation reports should also be reviewed by the same commission to compare it to follow-up investigations, in particular leads generated inside the United States. We cannot take anyone's word for it that the interrogations saved lives; someone objective needs to take a good hard look at the facts. (Watch TIME's video on the risks of chatter.)
On a more public level, a thorough clearing of the air will go a long way toward discrediting the idea that we either torture terrorists or die. This false choice is played out week after week in the popular TV show 24, leaving people with the notion that had the FBI somehow caught one of the hijackers in the hours leading up to 9/11, torture would have led to the arrest of the other 18 before those planes took off. We need to put the last nail in the coffin of Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz's idea of torture warrants.
In the short run, CIA morale will be hurt by yet another investigation. But at the same time it will force the agency to take a much needed honest look at its reporting on al-Qaeda. One memo notes that in 2004 the CIA obtained half of its reporting on this organization from detainees, many of whom "confessed" under abusive interrogation. A complete investigation into the quality of that information, I suspect, will prove we are going through this national trauma and international humiliation for absolutely nothing. I hope I am wrong, but unless Washington takes the steps to open the historical record to more scrutiny, no one will be able to prove it. (Read Six Ways to Fix the CIA.)
Baer, a former CIA field officer assigned to the Middle East, is TIME.com's intelligence columnist and the author of See No Evil and, most recently, The Devil We Know