A leaked Red Cross report, detailing chilling accounts of prisoner torture in "black sites" run by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, has underlined the need for an independent commission of inquiry into possible war crimes committed by senior officials during the presidency of George W. Bush, according to a statement by 25 prominent clergymen and women.
Rev. Rich Kilmer, executive director of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT), told IPS, "We need to understand fully what happened so that we can effectively develop those safeguards. Investigating the past will help produce a future where the U.S. no longer engages in torture."
"Such a commission would not preclude a simultaneous investigation by the Department of Justice or by a special prosecutor," he said. "Where sufficient evidence exists that laws may have been broken, justice dictates that no one is above the law and prosecutions should be launched."
He added that the commission of inquiry could be appointed by the president or by Congress.
Details of the leaked report were first published on the Web site of the New York Review of Books in an extensive article by Mark Danner, a journalism professor. The report, compiled from interviews with numerous U.S. detainees, describes acts of brutalisation and sensory deprivation employed by U.S. agents.
The report concluded: "The allegations of ill-treatment of the detainees indicate that, in many cases, the ill-treatment to which they were subjected while held in the CIA program, either singly or in combination, constituted torture. In addition, many other elements of the ill-treatment, either singly or in combination, constituted cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment."
Danner writes that all the torture techniques "had to have the approval of the CIA’s deputy director for operations." He wrote that CIA officers "briefed high-level officials" in the National Security Council’s Principals Committee, including Vice President Dick Cheney, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, and Attorney General John Ashcroft, "who then signed off on the interrogation plan." The briefings about these techniques were so "detailed and frequent that some of the interrogation sessions were almost choreographed."
The CIA’s secret "global internment system" was set up at the direction of President George W. Bush less than a week after the attacks of Sep. 11, 2001, Danner asserts.
But during a press conference in August 2007, a reporter asked President Bush if he "had read" another highly confidential report alleging CIA prisoner mistreatment. "Haven’t seen it; we don’t torture," Bush answered, quickly moving on to another question.
After the Washington Post later uncovered and published details of the CIA’s global network of "black site" secret prisons, President Bush acknowledged that he had authorised interrogations using an "alternative set of procedures."
These procedures included extended "sleep deprivation," prolonged forced nudity, bombarding detainees with noise and light, repeated immersion in cold water, prolonged standing, sometimes for many days, beatings of various kinds, and "waterboarding" or, as the report’s authors phrase it, "suffocation by water."
According to the ICRC report, "in many cases, the ill-treatment to which they were subjected while held in the CIA program…constituted torture."
Its report continues: "In addition, many other elements of the ill-treatment, either singly or in combination, constituted cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment."
Both torture and "cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment" are forbidden by many treaties to which the U.S. is a signatory, including the Convention Against Torture and the Geneva Conventions.
The accounts of the detainees themselves, including the most prominent captured in the "war on terror", describe their detention from the time they were secretly brought to the "black sites" secret prisons around the world, including in Thailand, Afghanistan, and Poland, through the interrogations using "waterboarding." beatings, and other techniques.
The ICRC interviewed 14 "high-value detainees" over many days for the report, including Abu Zubaydah, Khalid Shaik Mohammed, and Walid bin Attash. These 14 remain imprisoned in Guantánamo.
The ICRC is the appointed legal guardian of the Geneva Conventions and the body appointed to supervise the treatment of prisoners of war. Its reports are delivered to signatory governments on a highly confidential basis. The ICRC expressed dismay at the leaking of one of its reports.
Accounts of the report were subsequently published in most of America’s major newspapers, including The New York Times and the Washington Post. So compelling were its details that it gained endorsement from some commentators whose political views customarily lean to the right. For example, Anne Applebaum, a columnist for the Washington Post who has close ties to the neo-conservative American Enterprise Institute, wrote:
"That crimes were committed is no longer in doubt…The horror of the CIA interrogation tactics in these places lies not in their scale but in the doggedness with which they defied American and international law…These 14 men were not tortured as part of an ordinary and accepted routine, in other words, but according to special rules and procedures, set up at the highest level of government, by people who surely knew that they were illegal; otherwise, they would not have limited them so carefully."
NRCAT has joined many legal advocacy and human rights organisations, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, in calling for an impartial, nonpartisan, and independent "commission of inquiry" to investigate U.S.-sponsored torture and to ascertain the extent to which Bush administration interrogation practices constituted "cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment."
NRCAT’S statement was signed by more than two dozen prominent religious leaders, representing denominations from a wide range of religions, including Protestant and Catholic Christians, Muslims, orthodox and reformed Jews, Sikhs and Hindus.
The ACLU also sent a letter Tuesday to Attorney General Eric Holder reiterating its call for the Department of Justice to appoint an independent prosecutor to investigate the authorisation to use torture at CIA secret prisons.
"Given the increasing evidence of deliberate and widespread use of torture and abuse, and that such conduct was the predictable result of policy changes made at the highest levels of government, an independent prosecutor is clearly in the public interest," wrote ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero.
Meanwhile, Senator Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat and chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, is exploring the possibility of establishing a "truth" commission.
In the U.S. House of Representatives, Rep. John Conyers, Democrat of Michigan, is proposing a similar body. Others in and outside Congress are supporting the appointment of an independent prosecutor appointed by the Department of Justice. All would carry out comprehensive investigations into the approval of and use of torture by the U.S. government.
Thus far, President Barack Obama has appeared cool to the idea of a special commission of inquiry. At a recent press conference, he said his inclination was to look forward, not backward. However, he added, "No one is above the law."