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Civil Liberties Issues

Torture, Inhumane and Degrading Treatment, and Rendition

On this page:

About U.S. Use of Torture
Education and Action: Petitions, Letters, and Legislation
Extraordinary Rendition
Court Decisions
Treaties Against Torture to which the U.S. is a Party
Bush Administration Torture Memos, Taguba Findings on Abu Ghraib
Findings and Reports

About U.S. Use of Torture

Torture is prohibited under U.S. Code Title 18, Section 2340. The definition of torture used is as follows:

1. "torture" means an act committed by a person acting under the color of law specifically intended to inflict severe physical or mental pain or suffering (other than pain or suffering incidental to lawful sanctions) upon another person within his custody or physical control;
2. "severe mental pain or suffering" means the prolonged mental harm caused by or resulting from - (A) the intentional infliction or threatened infliction of severe physical pain or suffering; (B) the administration or application, or threatened administration or application, of mind-altering substances or other procedures calculated to disrupt profoundly the senses or the personality; (C) the threat of imminent death; or (D) the threat that another person will imminently be subjected to death, severe physical pain or suffering, or the administration or application of mind-altering substances or other procedures calculated to disrupt profoundly the senses or personality

Since September 11, 2001, however, members of the Bush administration, including President Bush and former White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales, have made statements and issued memos, many of them classified, that signal shifts in that policy.

For example:

  • Descriptions of abuse, torture, and murder at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison match experiences of detainees in prisons from Guantánamo Bay, Afghanistan, Brooklyn, and elsewhere around the world.
  • Most of the reported 108 deaths of prisoners in U.S. custody in Iraq and Afghanistan have been caused by torture and abuse.
  • Since September 11, 2001, the CIA has sent between 100 and 150 suspects overseas for interrogation. The U.S. government euphemistically refers to the practice as "extraordinary rendition," but it is commonly being called "outsourcing torture." The best known rendition incident is that of Maher Arar, a Syrian-born Canadian who was diverted to Syria for more than a year of interrogation and torture after changing planes at New York's JFK Airport while returning home from a trip overseas.
  • A March 19, 2005, article in The Guardian reported, "The floating population of 'ghost detainees', according to US and UK military officials, now exceeds 10,000." A March 2005 article in the Washington Post reveals that the U.S. Army and the CIA agreed on the ghost detainees at Abu Ghraib.

The American public and the press overwhelmingly condemned torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment as morally wrong. Their use violates U.S. law and international treaties and endangers U.S. military personnel should they be captured.

Moreover, according to international law, testimony obtained by using torture is inadmissible. Information obtained via such methods is often false. Consequently, in July 2004, the German government dropped charges against Mounir Mtassadeq, alleged to have been a member of al-Qaeda's Hamburg cell, because the testimony of Ramzi Binalshieb and Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, both held by the CIA, had reportedly been obtained using torture. FBI email messages from May 2004 that were partially declassified in March 2005 revealed that (1) intelligence obtained at Guantánamo Bay using harsh methods was "suspect at best" and (2) the FBI had made it known to the Pentago that it "has been successful for many years obtaining confessions via non-confrontational interviewing techniques."


November 3, 2005 - BORDC faxed a letter (PDF) signed by national organizations, local governments, veterans groups and retired military officers, which opposes torture and abuse, to President Bush and conferees for the 2006 defense spending bill, cross-copied to all members of Congress.

September 29, 2006 - Congress passed the Military Commissions Act, a bill ceding enormous powers to the executive branch to name enemy combatants and "unlawful enemy combatants" potentially from among U.S. residents. It also abolishes the basic right of Guantánamo detainees to ask a judge to consider whether there is legal cause to imprison them -- the right of habeas corpus. Ironically, this bill leaves potentially innocent and low-level detainees imprisoned forever, while providing military tribunals for the 14 recently-transferred and suspected al-Qaeda high-level operatives.

March 8, 2008 - President Bush vetoed Congress' ban on CIA torture, overcoming House and Senate votes to prevent torture by all U.S. agencies. On February 13, 2008, the Senate voted 51 to 45 to limit the CIA to interrogation techniques permitted in the Army Field Manual. The vote was on the Intelligence Authorization Conference Report (H.R. 2082), which the House passed December 13, 2007, including Amendment 327 with the following language:

(a) Limitation- No individual in the custody or under the effective control of an element of the intelligence community or instrumentality thereof, regardless of nationality or physical location, shall be subject to any treatment or technique of interrogation not authorized by the United States Army Field Manual on Human Intelligence Collector Operations.

(b) Instrumentality Defined- In this section, the term `instrumentality', with respect to an element of the intelligence community, means a contractor or subcontractor at any tier of the element of the intelligence community.

A House vote soon after Bush's veto fell 51 votes shy of the two-thirds majority needed to override the veto.

January 21, 2009 - President Obama issued executive orders that direct all U.S. personnel to follow U.S. Army Field Manual guidelines on the interrogation of suspects and end secret CIA imprisonment of terrorism suspects. However, the order did not detail what interrogation techniques qualify as torture.


Education and Action

The American people and their government know that the abhorrent practices of torture and degrading treatmentare wrong, whether they are carried out by U.S. government forces or by other countries acting on our government's behalf. The Bush administration is sending mixed messages about its stance on these practices, and is classifying documents on the basis of their embarrassing contents rather than national security. Public support for ending


You can print our online petition against torture and extraordinary rendition (PDF) and collect signatures in your community. Petitions are useful for gauging public sentiment and as one-on-one educational tools.

Write your representatives

Send a message directly to your Senators and Representatives asking them to oppose torture. Your representatives in Congress need to hear from you!

Support legislation

Visit BORDC's legislation page for updates on other bills and strategies to end torture and extraordinary rendition. Sign up for BORDC's monthly newsletter and action alerts to stay informed.

Other educational methods

Hold candidate forums, write letters to the editor, send press releases, submit articles and op-eds to local news outlets. Host a public reading of the play Guantánamo: 'Honor Bound to Defend Freedom' as part of the nationwide Guantánamo Reading Project. These are just a few suggestions for increasing public interest, awareness, and debate in these issues for the purpose of ensuring that our government's actions match its words and adhere to U.S. and international law. Let us know what you've done in your community that was successful, so that we can share it with others.


Extraordinary Rendition

The CIA’s program of extraordinary rendition, abducting terrorist suspects and transporting them to foreign countries for torture, continues to be a pressing issue. It represents the height of the Bush administration’s contempt for human rights, human dignity and the rule of law.

  • On August 28, 2007 the Santa Clara Human Relations Commission passed a resolution supporting H.R. 1352, the Torture Outsourcing Prevention Act/ The legislation, which would prohibit U.S. involvement in extraordinary rendition, has become a local issue because a San Jose Boeing subsidiary, Jeppesen Dataplan, Inc., has been implicated for its role in handling logistics for CIA torture flights. The South Bay Coalition to Stop Torture asked for the resolution, as a first step towards a county board resolution urging congressional representatives to support H.R. 1352. SBCST has been conducting weekly vigils in front of Jeppesen Dataplan in 2007.
  • In mid-August 2007, Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) placed a hold on the nomination of John Rizzo, former acting general counsel for the CIA, who is up for confirmation as CIA general counsel. Wyden says he'll block the nomination until the White House clarifies CIA guidelines for interrogation. Read a news story on Rizzo's unclassified hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee and a copy of his statement before the committee. Rizzo, while acting as general counsel, had a hand in approving the rendition program.
  • Italian prosecutors have decided to try US and Italian intelligence officers for the rendition and torture of Egyptian cleric Abu Omar. The US has stated that it will not extradite its intelligence officers for trial. Read a news story covering the trial.
    As of June 18th, however, the trial is on hold while the Italian Constitutional Court rules on the issue of state secrets. Read more.
  • The ACLU has filed suit against Jeppesen Dataplan, a subsidiary of Boeing, for arranging the rendition flights. More information can be found here and on the ACLU's website.
    The lawsuit, Mohamed et a. v. Jeppesen Dataplan, Inc. alleges that Jeppesen has been the CIA's primary provider of logistical and flight support in its rendition program. On the ACLU's website, you can find the original complaint filed in the US District Court as well as a number of other supporting documents. Also available is the New Yorker article which first reported Jeppesen's involvement. President Obama's administration maintained the Bush position in this case, requesting that it be dismissed because of state secrets concerns. The judge declined to dismiss the case.


Legislation Against Torture and Extraordinary Rendition

Visit our legislation page for information on legislation related to torture and extraordinary rendition, including the Unlawful Interrogation and Detention Act, which was introduced January 6, 2009, by Sen. Diane Feinstein and Rep. Jane Harman.

For legislation from previous legislatures, see our archives of the 110th, 109th, and 108th Congresses.


Court Decisions

On June 29, 2006, the Supreme Court ruled, in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld that the federal government did not have the right to set up special military commissions in Guantánamo Bay. It further decided that the administration's program was in violation of the Uniform Code of Military Justice: first, by prohibiting viewing of evidence by defendant and defendant's attorney, and discussion of certain evidence by both parties; second, probative evidence, such as hearsay, and unsworn live testimony, to be used in prosecution; thirdly, for appeals to be heard by Executive branch rather than judicial.


Treaties Against Torture to which the U.S. is a Party


Bush Administration Torture Memos, Taguba Findings on Abu Ghraib


Findings and Reports

Also see BORDC's Recommended Resources page, which includes books about Guantánamo Bay and Abu Ghraib prisons.