The nation is still waiting to hear from the Obama administration regarding its declassification of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the CIA’s practice of torture under the Bush administration. On April 3, the committee voted 11-3 to declassify a four hundred page summary of its much larger report of over six thousand pages.
The committee gave the Obama administration the ability to redact whatever it deems harmful to national security. The administration, however, has allowed the CIA to take the lead on the redaction process, causing concern among many observers that the CIA may be focused more on protecting its reputation than national security.
The report is the result of a five-year, $40 million dollar investigation by the committee and its summary is expected to be highly critical of the CIA’s torture program. Leaked portions of it acquired by McClatchy indicate the CIA has been intent on hiding the truth of its torture practices from the public. The summary states that certain interrogation methods were used without approval from the Justice Department or even CIA headquarters and the agency evaded oversight by both Congress and the CIA’s own Inspector General’s Office. It also concludes that the interrogation methods were not successful at gathering significant intelligence on terrorist threats.
Senate Democrats have recently expressed impatience with the White House’s delay in releasing the summary and the CIA’s taking the lead in redaction. Senator Mark Udall (D-CO) stated “I’m patient, to a point. I called on the White House to intervene and take charge of the declassification process. I’m still waiting to hear from the White House…Patience has a shelf life.”
Notwithstanding the CIA’s avoidance of public scrutiny, it is essential to note that torture is in violation of both US and international law. Title 19, Section 2340 of the US Code bans “the intentional infliction or threatened infliction of severe physical pain or suffering” and “the threat of imminent death.” The US is also prohibited from the practice under international law through the Geneva Conventions, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the United Nations Convention against Torture. The Geneva Conventions specifically apply to the treatment of enemy combatants captured in armed conflict. The Convention against Torture obligates ratifying parties to prosecute torture committed within its jurisdiction and categorically states that obeying orders from one’s government is not an acceptable defense of torture.
The Obama administration’s record on torture has been mixed. Obama signed an executive order in 2009 committing the US to international standards regarding torture, including a revocation of George W. Bush’s 2007 order certifying that the CIA’s interrogation program did not violate the Geneva Conventions. However, in 2012, US Attorney General Eric Holder announced that he would not purse any prosecutions against those who engaged in “harsh interrogations” under the George W. Bush administration. In 2012, the US government invited the UN Special Rapporteur on torture, Juan Mendez, to visit the Guantanamo Bay military prison in Cuba, but Mendez declined because the US government would not allow him to meet with any of the prisoners. In an October 2013 statement, Mendez spoke about current conditions there, where many hunger striking prisoners have recently been undergoing forced-feeding. He expressed concern about “the practice of indefinite detention, other conditions applied to [prisoners] such as solitary confinement, as well as the use of force feeding as forms of ill-treatment that in some cases can amount to torture.”
While it is understandable to focus on the increased practice of torture following the attacks of September 11, 2001, it is important to recall that the practice of torture has a much broader history for the US, going far beyond the interrogation of terrorist suspects. The CIA utilized “enhanced interrogation techniques” during the Vietnam War, developing a detailed manual on how to do so. The CIA and US military passed on its experience with interrogation to Latin American militaries in the 1980’s, in the context of counterinsurgency. Many such officers were trained at the infamous School of the Americas, whose graduates went on to commit brutal human rights violations. In 2003, the US military and CIA regularly tortured inmates at the infamous Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, in a war that was not directed against Al Qaeda or similar organizations.
Torture will not be cast into the dustbin of history until its use is acknowledged and made fully public. The release of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s summary is a necessary first step and should be done with minimal or no redactions.