Senate vote on torture report spurs renewed calls for accountability

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Last week’s vote by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence to declassify part of a 6,300-page report on the CIA’s rendition and torture program is being hailed by some as an important step towards greater transparency, yet criticized by others as a rather meaningless gesture that will ultimately continue to provide CIA torturers with the impunity that they have long enjoyed.

Meg Satterthwaite, writing at Just Security, called the vote “a crucial milestone in the quest for transparency concerning U.S. extraordinary rendition and torture.” Blogger Marcy Wheeler, however, noted that the SSCI did not vote to declassify the whole report, but just certain sections including the executive summary and conclusions:

What we’re going to get will be the Executive Summary, Findings, and Additional and Dissenting Views. Because we’ll get just the Executive Summary, we won’t get much hard detail — aside from that which has been public for years — about the allegations that will appear in the Executive Summary, which will make it harder to rebut any claims CIA’s defenders make.

And this is assuming that even these sections are released in their entirety. After all, the SSCI did not actually declassify anything; it simply voted to send the report to the CIA for redactions and then to the president for declassification review and possible eventual public release. Until the declassification process is complete and that portion of the report is released (which could take months or even years), it will remain under wraps.

With these concerns in mind, a coalition of human rights groups sent a letter to the White House calling for President Obama’s staff to expeditiously lead the declassification of the report, rather than leaving it to the CIA. The groups welcomed CIA Director John Brennan’s pledge “not … to stand in the way” of the report’s release, but noted that the agency has an inherent conflict of interest that cannot be ignored.

“The recent allegations that the CIA searched computers made available to the SSCI, removed documents from them, triggered potential criminal proceedings against congressional staff and took other troubling steps make this inherent conflict of interest very vivid,” the letter says.

This conflict of interest is even more vivid considering that what is at stake is not simply a policy dispute, but legal issues as well. As media reports based on leaked sections of the report have indicated, CIA agents had illegally detained 26 of the 119 individuals in CIA custody, and the interrogation techniques used on detainees went beyond the methods that had been approved by the Bush Justice Department or CIA’s headquarters (guidelines that were likely overly permissive in the first place).

Also at issue are potential crimes committed including murder and obstruction of justice. As McClatchy reported on April 1, “In the case of the death of Gul Rahman, an Afghan who was shackled, doused with cold water and left in a cold cell partially clothed until he died of hypothermia, the CIA’s internal documents reviewed by the Senate confirm the agency’s culpability.”

A Department of Justice inquiry concluded in August 2012 that there was insufficient evidence to push for the prosecution of individuals in Rahman’s death. As Attorney General Eric Holder said at the time, “Based on the fully developed factual record … the Department has declined prosecution because the admissible evidence would not be sufficient to obtain and sustain a conviction beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Amnesty International criticized this decision in its annual report on the USA, saying that in 2012:

The absence of accountability for crimes under international law committed under the administration of President George W. Bush in relation to the CIA’s programme of secret detention was further entrenched.

On 30 August, the US Attorney General announced the closure of criminal investigations into the death of two individuals in US custody outside the USA. He stated that no one would face criminal charges in relation to the deaths, believed to have occurred in Afghanistan in 2002 and Iraq in 2003. This followed the announcement in June 2011 that a “preliminary review” conducted into interrogations in the CIA programme was at an end and that, apart from in relation to the two deaths, further investigation was not warranted.

But according to evidence uncovered by the SSCI regarding the death of Rahman, the agency may have tried to “minimize or sanitize that case” – in other words, to obstruct justice. “The documents initially make it seem like it was an accident,” a former official told McClatchy. “However, evidence pointed to what it actually was: willful negligence or even negligent homicide.”

So, despite the fact that possible criminal charges including homicide are at stake, potentially implicating individual interrogators as well as their superiors, the CIA is being offered the opportunity to redact any sections of the executive summary that it considers too damaging. The term “conflict of interest” is probably an understatement.

As the United Nations Human Rights Committee put it in its recent report on U.S. compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights,

The State party should ensure that all cases of unlawful killing, torture or other ill-treatment, unlawful detention, or enforced disappearance are effectively, independently and impartially investigated, that perpetrators, including, in particular, persons in command positions, are prosecuted and sanctioned, and that victims are provided with effective remedies. The responsibility of those who provided legal pretexts for manifestly illegal behavior should also be established. The State party should also consider the full incorporation of the doctrine of ‘command responsibility’ in its criminal law and declassify and make public the report of the Senate Special Committee on Intelligence into the CIA secret detention programme.

Or, as the Center for Constitutional Rights tweeted following the Senate vote last week, “White House must ensure that US officials responsible for torture described in #SSCI report are prosecuted & held accountable for crimes.”

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