A major report on the United States government’s use of torture was released on April 16. The product of a two-year intensive study. It examined discussion involving President George W. Bush and his top advisers after 9/11 and the how they had considered inflicting “pain and torment on detainees” in custody as part of challenging the “global terrorist threat.” It also examined how detainees were treated by President Bill Clinton and how they have been treated under President Barack Obama.
It was put together by a “Task Force on Detainee Treatment” setup by The Constitution Project, which describes itself as a “national watchdog group that advances bipartisan, consensusbased solutions to some of most difficult constitutional challenges of our time.” The co-chair of the “Task Force” was Asa Hutchinson, a Republican who worked in the Department of Homeland Security under Bush. James R. Jones, who helped President Bill Clinton pass the North-American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), was the other co-chair.
Those behind the report are Beltway-types, people who believe in the Washington Consensus. That is both a strength and a flaw.
As highlighted by the few media organizations that actually bothered to cover the report’s release, the report’s “findings” include the fact that the US government did engage in torture and high-ranking officials were responsible for allowing and contributing to torture.
Bush declared the Geneva Conventions would not apply and authorized “brutal techniques” the CIA was allowed to use on detainees. Secret “black site” prisons were setup by the CIA in countries like Thailand, Poland, Romania and Lithuania, for detention and interrogation. Medical advisors used the” Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape program (SERE) as the basis to fashion a harsh interrogation regime for people captured in the new war against terrorism.” The Justice Department had lawyers that crafted “legal guidance” designed to “allow treatment that amounted to torture.” They drafted memos that limited the “definition of torture to those acts that might implicate organ failure,” which “remain a stain on the image of the United States and a potential aid to repressive regimes elsewhere when they seek approval or justification for their own acts.”
None of this may be news to those who have followed this issue closely, but these findings are part of the consensus that the Constitution Project seeks to build with their report.
In the aftermath of the debate the film Zero Dark Thirty rekindled, the report clearly states, “There is no firm or persuasive evidence that the widespread use of harsh interrogation techniques by U.S. forces produced significant information of value.” It appropriately castigates those who would defend torture techniques:
… [T]hose who make the argument in favor of the efficacy of coercive interrogations face some inherent credibility issues. One of the most significant is that they generally include those people who authorized and implemented the very practices that they now assert to have been valuable tools in fighting terrorism. As the techniques were and remain highly controversial, it is reasonable to note that those former officials have a substantial reputational stake in their claim being accepted. Were it to be shown that the United States gained little or no benefit from practices that arguably violated domestic and international law, history would render a harsh verdict on those who set us on that course… [emphasis added]
Hence, this is why former Counterterrorism Center head Jose Rodriguez, who was part of the decision to destroy torture tapes, wrote a book and has periodically been popping up to defend torture. His reputation and status depends on people thinking what he did worked.
The report acknowledges that prisoners in Guantanamo are being subject to “indefinite detention.” The Obama administration happens to disagree, since they are trying to “close” the prison.
It finds the US “violated its international legal obligations in its practice of the enforced disappearances and arbitrary detention of terror suspects in secret prisons abroad.” The US government knew, when individuals were rendered to countries, that some of those countries were likely to torture those people. And, “US officials involved with detention in the black sites committed acts of torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.”
Again, none of this will be news to people, who have closely followed this issue and even argued former Bush administration officials should be prosecuted and jailed for their involvement in torture. However, the Task Force, in putting together this report, is forcing those in Washington to confront the reality of what the US government actually did in the past twenty or so years.
The report explicitly condemns the Obama administration for “the high level of secrecy surrounding the rendition and torture of detainees since September 11.” It urges the State Department, Pentagon and CIA to “expeditiously declassify and release information pertaining to any secret proxy detention (upon US authority or pursuant to US official requests) occurring abroad.”
It calls on the Executive Branch to declassify the significant 6,000-page Senate Intelligence Committee report on CIA torture that remains classified. It also requests the administration release the following:
- The Report of the Special Task Force on Interrogation and Transfer Policies.
- The CIA Office of the Inspector General (OIG) reports on the deaths of Gul Rahman, Manadel al-Jamadi, and Abed Hamed Mowhoush; the rendition of Khaled El-Masri; the non-registration of “ghost” detainees; the use of unauthorized techniques at CIA facilities; and all OIG reports on the CIA’s interrogation, detention and transfer of detainees.
- Investigations by the Armed Forces’ criminal investigative divisions, the chain of command, and the Department of Defense into abuses of detainees by Joint Special Operations Command Special Mission Unit Task Forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.
It highlights how the Obama administration has been explicitly violating the Convention Against Torture by invoking the state secrets privilege in lawsuits brought by torture victims, making it impossible for “the victim of an act of torture” to obtain “redress” for treatment.
The Obama administration has also violated the Convention by refusing to “criminalize all acts of torture, attempts to commit torture or complicity or participation in torture.” In other words, it has contributed to a coverup that has let CIA officers escape accountability, as none have been convicted or charged for crimes committed. “Many acts of unauthorized torture by military forces have also been inadequately investigated or prosecuted.”
There is much more to present from the report and, from now until the weekend, The Dissenter will be highlighting key parts that merit further attention. To conclude, let’s take a brief look at what Hutchison told Scott Shane of The New York Times about the report.
At first, he did not think America had tortured people. It was not “an easy inquiry for me, because I know many of the players.” He said, “It’s incredibly important to have an accurate account not just of what happened but of how decisions were made.” But, he concluded, according to Shane, that “everyone involved in decisions, from Mr. Bush down, had acted in good faith, in a desperate effort to try to prevent more attacks.”
This may be the key flaw of the report: the language downplaying the nature of crimes committed and sometimes even framing it as damaging to America’s “image.”
It was not a mistake, a flaw or some product of the fog of war, that detainees were imprisoned and tortured. Perhaps, a few lower-level soldiers unwittingly found themselves in situations where they were abusing humans and now regret it tremendously. There have been stories of soldiers apologizing for what they did and that should not be overlooked. But, at the highest levels of government, this is what officials wanted to be able to do to terror suspects to “win” the war: torture.
There is no “good faith” in torturing people, especially when you are someone like John Yoo, who worked in the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) under Attorney General John Ashcroft and consciously crafted legal guidance so CIA officers and military interrogators could get away with using torture techniques on detainees. But, this is similar to how there are so many willing to say Bush made “mistakes” and “failures” when deciding to invade Iraq, even though officials manipulated fabricated intelligence to sell Americans on the idea that the US had no choice but to go to war.
The Task Force’s report adds to the ever-increasing body of evidence that the Bush administration committed war crimes and the Obama administration has sought to cover it up or distract from this reality. It is made clear that the public is reading this report because Obama did not favor any sort of “truth commission” that would address abuses and crimes committed by Bush officials.
In conclusion, the report should revitalize efforts toward declassifying key reports and pushing for accountability for officials responsible for clear crimes. While this may not seem possible, it is what is owed to the victims of torture and all who are cleared for release in the Guantanamo Bay prison but remain there in indefinite detention.