Prosecute U.S. Officials For CIA Torture Program, Human Rights Groups Demand

A top UN human rights expert, Ben Emmerson, called for the prosecution of top US officials and CIA operatives for their role in the CIA’s torture program after the Senate Committee released a damning summary of its analysis on the controversial interrogation scheme on Tuesday. Emmerson, who has served as the Special Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Counter-Terrorism, applauded Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.) and her colleagues on the Senate Intelligence Committee in a statement for releasing the 525-page redacted report and called for accountability for both the high-level officials who designed the torture policy and lower-level CIA personnel who participated on the ground.

Prompting widespread condemnation and outrage in the global community, the findings in the Feinstein report has confirmed what many human rights organizations and experts have claimed for years: that from 2002 to 2009, the CIA and White House officials pursued a concerted strategy of brutal interrogations and unlawful detentions in hopes of securing key information in the War on Terror.

The list of abuses suffered by detainees is simply monstrous: rectal rehydration and rectal feeding, sleep deprivation lasting for up to a week, repeated waterboarding (which approximates a mock execution), threats to rape or kill members of a detainee’s family, shameful and humiliating acts, exposure to severe temperatures, dungeon-like cells, close confinement with insects. One man, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, was reportedly subjected to waterboarding 65 times over a two-day period. Another died from hypothermia after he was chained in a cold cell, naked from the waist down, and abandoned.

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According to Emmerson, these harsh interrogation techniques qualify as torture, crimes which the United States is required to investigate and prosecute under international law.

It is now time to take action. The individuals responsible for the criminal conspiracy revealed in today’s report must be brought to justice, and must face criminal penalties commensurate with the gravity of their crimes. The fact that the policies revealed in this report were authorized at a high level within the US Government provides no excuse whatsoever. Indeed, it reinforces the need for criminal accountability…The heaviest penalties should be reserved for those most seriously implicated in the planning and purported authorization of these crimes.

Many of the world’s biggest human rights advocacy organizations echoed Emmerson’s charge in statements released on Tuesday. The executive director of Amnesty International America, Steven Hawkins, noted that the CIA’s scheme “gave the green light to commit the crimes under international law of torture and enforced disappearance — with impunity.”

Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, noted in a statement that the use of torture is never justified:

The report shows the repeated claims that harsh measures were needed to protect Americans are utter fiction. Unless this important truth-telling process leads to prosecution of officials, torture will remain a 'policy option' for future presidents.

Prosecutions, however, seem unlikely. The Department of Justice on Tuesday announced its decision not to open any criminal investigations on the basis of the torture allegations. In 2009, the DOJ looked into whether it could prosecute the alleged perpetrators of abusive interrogation techniques in two cases but decided in 2012 that there was not enough evidence to seek convictions.

It is unclear which prosecutions the Department of Justice determined were unfeasible, given the evidentiary record.

Even without criminal prosecutions, many Congressional leaders — including Feinstein and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) — have stressed the importance of releasing details around the CIA’s rendition, detention and interrogation program to the public to give Americans the facts they need to make important decisions about the efficacy and morality of torture.

[H]istory will judge us by our commitment to a just society governed by law and the willingness to face an ugly truth and say 'never again,' Feinstein said on the Senate floor.

For many experts who have sounded the alarm on torture for nearly a decade, the biggest surprise Tuesday was not that the CIA had engaged in such widespread and abusive treatment, but how fundamentally unsuccessful their efforts were at producing the sort of critical intelligence needed to prevent future terrorist attacks.

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McCain, who survived torture as a prisoner of war in Northern Vietnam during the Vietnam War, broke with many of his Republican colleagues who decried the Feinstein report for misconstruing the effectiveness of the CIA’s efforts and playing politics. The former presidential candidate and foreign policy expert welcomed the release of the report on the Senate floor Tuesday afternoon:

I know from personal experience that the abuse of prisoners will produce more bad than good intelligence…I know they will say whatever they think their torturers want them to say if they believe it will stop their suffering.

Most of all, I know the use of torture compromises that which most distinguishes us from our enemies, our belief that all people, even captured enemies, possess basic human rights, he continued, which are protected by international conventions the U.S. not only joined, but for the most part authored.

Even if the torture program had been effective at staving off terrorist activity, the means would not have justified the ends. When Americans condone and justify the physical, psychological and emotional abuse of other human beings, whether at home or abroad, we lose sight of the ideals of human equality and dignity that we were supposedly founded upon.

As McCain said on the Senate floor Tuesday, Americans “gave up much in the expectation that torture would make us safer. Too much.”

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