Torture authorized by highest US officials: report

US authorities have engaged in the torture of detainees, and the nation's "highest officials" bear some of the responsibility, according to a report (PDF) released on April 16 by the Constitution Project, a bipartisan legal advocacy and watchdog group. The Project's Task Force on Detainee Treatment was established after US President Barack Obama announced in 2009 that he opposed a proposal by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy to set up a "truth commission" to investigate controversial actions of the Bush administration, including justifications for the Iraq war, warrantless wiretapping and detainee treatment. The task force members reached their conclusions after a two-year process, which included examination of public records and interviews with former detainees, military and intelligence officers, interrogators, and policymakers.

The first conclusion by the task force, that the US engaged in torture, is based on historical and legal precedents as to what constitutes torture. According to the UN Convention Against Torture, and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT), which has been ratified by the US, torture is any act "by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes of obtaining…information or a confession." Though the Bush administration concluded that certain acts, including waterboarding, sleep deprivation and facial slapping, do not constitute torture, the commission pointed to US court cases that determined such acts to constitute torture and to instances where the US has defined those acts as torture when performed by other governments around the world.

The second conclusion, that the US officials at the highest levels are partially responsible for "allowing and contributing to the spread of torture," is based on a number of decisions made by the Bush administration following the 9-11 attacks. One is an order issued by President George W. Bush in 2002, which found that the Geneva Conventions did not apply to the conflict with al-Qaeda. According to the commission, this decision, along with authorization of "enhanced interrogation techniques" and the establishment of numerous detention facilities, contributed to inhumane treatment of detainees. The commission concluded that these decisions, without subsequent clarification as to what rules would apply to al Qaeda detainees, resulted in an attitude among many lower-level troops that "the gloves were off" regarding treatment of prisoners and ultimately contributed to the use and spread of torture.

From Jurist, April 16. Used with permission.