The US Senate report on torture

The release of the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s ‘Study of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Detention and Interrogation Program’ marks the point at which there can no longer be any doubt that senior Bush administration officials deliberately enabled the use of torture during the Global War on Terror. While others have chronicled, at length, the backstory to the “torture memos” which brought about the many abuses recounted in the committee’s findings, the political and historical weight of a formal Senate report places the issue of American torture in an important new light.

The report’s first finding contains what may be its most damning sentence: “CIA officers regularly called into question whether the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques were effective, assessing that the use of the techniques failed to elicit detainee cooperation or produce accurate intelligence.” It is impractical to list here the many outrages detailed in the 500-page summary (the full 6,700 page report remains classified), but its key findings make it clear that not only did the CIA misrepresent the number of detainees subjected to the program, and the severity of its mistreatments, but it concealed the fact that in several cases detainees were tortured even before they had been given the opportunity to cooperate.

The report also shows that the agency – contrary to the public assertions of its Director, Michael Hayden—did not screen the personnel who perpetrated its “enhanced interrogation techniques” and allowed the participation of “individuals who, among other issues, had engaged in inappropriate detainee interrogations, had workplace anger management issues, and had reportedly admitted to sexual assault.”

While much of this may not strictly amount to news — journalists like Mark Danner, Jane Mayer, Jeremy Scahill, and the legal scholar Philippe Sands have covered similar terrain in a series of damning exposés— the fact that these findings now carry the official stamp of a Senate committee makes the nagging issue of torture one that the Obama administration will have to confront. To date, despite a commendable repudiation of torture early in his term, the President’s record on the issue has been less than inspiring. In April 2009, when his administration released the Bush-era memos used to provide the specious legal cloak for “enhanced interrogation” President Obama said it was “a time for reflection, not retribution” and he argued that there was nothing to be gained by “spending our time and energy laying blame for the past.”

Despite the gravity of the abuses recorded in the report, genuine accountability seems unlikely. In a powerful New York Times Op-Ed, ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero argues that given the impracticality of holding high-ranking political figures to account, President Obama could instead issue a series of strategically shaming pardons. Romero suggests that such naming-and-shaming would include pardons to former CIA chief George Tenet “for authorizing torture at the CIA’s black sites overseas,” to former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld “for authorizing the use of torture at the Guantánamo Bay prison,” to White House Office of Legal Counsel officials David Addington, John Yoo and Jay Bybee “for crafting the legal cover for torture, and to George W Bush and Dick Cheney for overseeing it all.” Romero concedes that “granting pardons to torturers still makes my stomach turn,” but points out that they would definitively establish that “individuals who authorized and committed torture were indeed criminals, and that future architects and perpetrators of torture should beware.”

Notwithstanding the shrewdness of Romero’s suggestion, international prosecutions remain possible, even though these would be largely symbolic. Torture is banned by an international treaty and indictments similar to those levelled against former Chilean president Augusto Pinochet are still possible. Last week a special investigator for the UN Human Rights Council urged the US to prosecute Bush-era officials, noting that “Torture is a crime of universal jurisdiction. The perpetrators may be prosecuted by any other country they may travel to.”

Beyond the question of prosecutions for the architects of the torture programme, there is also the thorny question of international accountability. Some 54 countries helped the CIA carry out its rendition programme, and hosted its network of black sites in which these shameful detentions and abuses were carried out. This underscores the importance of taking the implications of the Senate report seriously, and the need for the Obama administration to consider the committee’s findings carefully and to respond judiciously.

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