Human Rights Watch has called on the Obama administration to launch a new and credible investigation into Bush-era CIA torture. The White House has so far failed to comply with international law, the group said.
A year has passed since the US Senate released the summary of a still classified report detailing CIA torture of terrorism suspects. Though President Barack Obama has publicly acknowledged that the US “tortured some folks,” not a single official has been charged with a crime.
Under the UN Convention against Torture, states are required to investigate and hold perpetrators accountable. Human Rights Watch (HRW) on Tuesday slammed the Obama administration for failing to uphold those responsibilities.
“They are in violation of the convention,” Laura Pitter, HRW’s senior national security council, told DW. “They claim that they’ve investigated, but it has to be thorough and credible and it wasn’t. There’s no doubt about that.”
Two days after being sworn into office, President Obama signed an executive order rescinding the Bush-era program known euphemistically as “enhanced interrogation” and reaffirmed the US commitment to the UN Convention against Torture.
The White House commissioned John Durham, an assistant US attorney in Connecticut, to investigate whether the interrogation program had violated federal law. After reviewing the cases of 101 CIA detainees, including two who died in US custody, the Justice Department closed the Durham investigation without filing criminal charges.
Attorney General Eric Holder said the “admissible evidence would not be sufficient to obtain and sustain a conviction beyond a reasonable doubt.” But according to Pitter, the Durham investigation was flawed. There’s no evidence the Justice Department even interviewed the CIA detainees, she said.
“Any prosecutor worth a grain of salt will tell you that it’s not okay to conduct a criminal investigation without speaking to the victims of the crimes,” Pitter told DW.
‘Never follow an unlawful order’
In a report titled “No More Excuses,” HRW on Tuesday called for the Obama administration to appoint a special prosecutor and conduct a “thorough, independent and credible criminal investigation” into the Bush-era CIA rendition, detention and interrogation program. Joseph Wippl, a 30-year veteran of the CIA, says he doesn’t believe there will be prosecutions.
“The reason is because all the things that were done, were done under the legal blessing of the Department of Justice,” Wippl, now a professor at Boston University, told DW. “Nothing that was done was illegal according to the law at that time. That’s why nobody will ever be prosecuted for torture.”
The Justice Department under President George W. Bush wrote a series of memos in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks sanctioning so-called “enhanced interrogation” techniques such as waterboarding.
According to Pitter, the lead author of the HRW report, “enhanced interrogation” amounts to torture regardless of what the memos say and is therefore illegal under both US and international law.
“You should never follow a clearly unlawful order,” Pitter said, while acknowledging that from a practical standpoint, officials who acted within the parameters of the memos are harder to prosecute.
‘What happened to the Enlightenment?’
The 2014 Senate report revealed, however, that CIA interrogators went beyond even the Bush administration’s guidelines. According to the Senate report, at least five detainees were subject to rectal feeding and some were forced to stand without sleep on broken limbs for days.
Even John Yoo, former deputy assistant attorney general and a principal author of the memos, said in a 2014 CNN interview that subjecting detainees to such treatment would be illegal.
“If these things happened as they are described in the report….those were not authorized by the Justice Department,” Yoo said. “They were not supposed to be done, and those people who did those are at risk legally because they were acting outside their orders.”
According to Pitter, “There’s a mountain of evidence and the defense is not strong” for those “who exceeded the authorization that did exist.” Human Rights Watch has also called for Yoo and other high-ranking officials who created the program to be investigated for conspiracy to torture.
In the US, the public debate over torture has not been settled. Several Republican presidential candidates – Jeb Bush, Ben Carson, Donald Trump and Carly Fiorina – have defended waterboarding terrorism suspects. According to a 2014 Washington Post-ABC News poll, 58 percent of Americans believe torturing suspected terrorists can be justified “often” or “sometimes.”
“What happened to the Enlightenment?” Wippl asked. “Frederick the Great abolished torture in the 18th century.”