Human rights advocates were quick to praise President Barack Obama for Thursday’s release of the infamous “torture memos” used by the Bush-era Justice Department to justify cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of war-on-terror prisoners. However, they appear unanimously critical of the president’s decision not to prosecute the Central Intelligence Agency operatives who used these techniques.
Amnesty International’s Tim Hancock said, “With this statement, the U.S. Department of Justice appears to have offered a ‘get-out-of-jail-free card’ to people involved in torture.”
“Brushing torture and rendition under the carpet will not provide closure — the facts should be brought out into the open through an independent commission of inquiry,” he added. “Those who have broken the law — no matter what rank they hold — should be prosecuted under the law.’
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) — which brought the Freedom of Information Act lawsuit that triggered release of the memoranda — was more hopeful.
The ACLU’s Alex Abdo, an attorney in the group’s National Security Program, told IPS, “We’re nowhere near the end of this road. President Obama has said he will not prosecute CIA operatives who administered torture because they acted in good faith based on what they were told were legal opinions from the Office of Legal Counsel, approved by President Bush.”
But, he noted, “Obama has left the door open to prosecuting those who crafted and approved these memos. And he has said no one is above the law. We remain hopeful that he will appoint a special prosecutor.”
“There is still a lot of work to do,” he added. “For example, the CIA must release the report of its Inspector General into interrogation and detention.”
Physicians for Human Rights weighed in on recent disclosures that medical professionals had assisted the CIA in harsh interrogations at secret prisons overseas and at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility.
“The health professionals involved in the CIA program broke the law and shame the bedrock ethical traditions of medicine and psychology,” the group said. “All psychologists and physicians found to be involved in the torture of detainees must lose their license and never be allowed to practice again.”
A similar sentiment was voiced by Michael Ratner, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, which has mobilized a small army of volunteer lawyers to provide defense counsel for Guantanamo Bay detainees. While acknowledging that “It is good that President Obama ordered the release of four more of the torture memos,” Ratner was unrelenting in his condemnation of Obama’s decision not to prosecute those responsible.
He said, “President Obama goes out of his way to praise those who engaged in these unlawful practices and assures them they will not be prosecuted. In making this decision he is acting as jury, judge and prosecutor. It is not his decision to make.”
“Whether or not to prosecute lawbreakers is not a political decision. Laws were broken and crimes were committed. If we are truly a nation of laws as he is fond of saying, a prosecutor needs to be appointed and the decisions regarding the guilt of those involved in the torture program should be decided in a court of law.”
Many constitutional law scholars were also critical of President Obama’s decision not to prosecute CIA operatives. David Cole, a professor at Georgetown University Law Center, said, “The four legal memos released by the Obama administration on Thursday confirm in excruciating detail that the Bush administration employed twisted and macabre legal reasoning to authorize the unspeakable — the torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of human beings.”
“The memos’ matter-of-fact clinical descriptions belie the harsh tactics to which they gave a green light. They set the CIA loose to slam suspects’ heads into walls up to 30 times in a row, to deprive suspects of sleep for more than a week straight, to confine them to small dark boxes for hours at a time, to slap them repeatedly in the face and abdomen, and to suffocate them with water to induce the perception that they are drowning.”
But, he added, “Mr. Obama’s refusal to hold accountable those responsible for the wrongs so evident from the memos is unacceptable. A child would recognize these tactics as cruel and inhumane.”
The memos, written in flat, emotionless legal language, were produced by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC). They provided the legal framework for the CIA’s use of waterboarding and other “enhanced interrogation” techniques used during the Bush administration.
The four memos were turned over to a federal judge Thursday, according to a deadline set by the court. Three of the memos were written by Steven Bradbury, then a lawyer in the OLC, in 2005. The fourth memo was written by then-OLC head Jay S. Bybee in August 2002. He is now a federal judge, appointed by Bush.
The OLC provides authoritative legal advice to the president and all executive branch agencies. It drafts legal opinions of the attorney general and also provides its own written opinions and oral advice in response to requests from the executive branch.
In addition to waterboarding, the 2002 Bybee memo authorized slapping, pushing, confinement in a small, dark space, painful stress positions, and sleep deprivation for up to 11 days. It also approved a request to lock one of the ‘high-value’ prisoners, Abu Zubaydah, in a confinement box with an insect.
The memo says: “You have informed us that he appears to have a fear of insects. In particular, you would like to tell Abu Zubaydah that you intend to place a stinging insect into the box with him.”
The Bybee memo authorized 10 special interrogation techniques for use against Zubaydah, including waterboarding. Under this interrogation technique, the suspect is placed on a board or table with his feet above his head, a cloth is draped over the nose and mouth, and water is poured over his face. The technique, widely considered a form of torture by human rights experts, triggers an intense, uncontrollable sensation of drowning.
In the memo, Bybee acknowledged that waterboarding came close to violating the U.S. torture statute because it constitutes “a threat of imminent death.” But he added that it would not amount to torture unless the experience resulted in “prolonged mental harm” lasting months or years.
Informed observers say the controversy over interrogations is far from over — there are a number of additional shoes left to drop. For example, the Obama administration must decide whether to release the tightly held reports by the CIA inspector general on torture and rendition. Disclosure of the reports will add fuel to the debate over whether Bush administration officials should be investigated for their role in the implementing the torture regime.
And, later Friday, the DOJ will turn over to a federal judge a number of never-before-seen images of prisoner mistreatment at Iraq’s notorious Abu Ghraib prison — or tell the judge why it refuses to do so. Release of the images — sought in another Freedom of Information Act lawsuit brought by the ACLU — is likely to add considerable fuel to the interrogation controversy.
(Inter Press Service)