The Significance of HRW’s New Call to Prosecute Bush Administration Officials for Torture

5:01 pm in Military, Terrorism, Torture by Jeff Kaye

Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a new report Tuesday. As they stated in the press release announcing the 107-page report, “Getting Away with Torture: The Bush Administration and Mistreatment of Detainees” (HTML, PDF), there is “overwhelming evidence of torture by the Bush administration.” As a result, President Barack Obama is obliged “to order a criminal investigation into allegations of detainee abuse authorized by former President George W. Bush and other senior officials.”

In particular, HRW singled out “four key leaders” in the torture program. Besides former President George W. Bush, the report indicts former Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and CIA Director George Tenet. But others remain possible targets of investigation and prosecution. According to the report:

Such an investigation should also include examination of the roles played by National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice and Attorney General John Ashcroft, as well as the lawyers who crafted the legal “justifications” for torture, including Alberto Gonzales (counsel to the president and later attorney general), Jay Bybee (head of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC)), John Rizzo (acting CIA general counsel), David Addington (counsel to the vice president), William J. Haynes II (Department of Defense general counsel), and John Yoo (deputy assistant attorney general in the OLC).

But the key passage in the HRW report concerns the backing for international prosecutions, under the principle in international law of “universal jurisdiction,” which was used back in 1998 by Spanish Judge Baltasar Garzón to indict former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet for genocide and murder.

Unless and until the US government pursues credible criminal investigations of the role of senior officials in the mistreatment of detainees since September 11, 2001, exercise universal jurisdiction or other forms of jurisdiction as provided under international and domestic law to prosecute US officials alleged to be involved in criminal offenses against detainees in violation of international law. [emphasis added]

Indeed, in an important section of the report, HRW details the failures and successes of pursuing such international prosecutions in the face of U.S. prosecutors’ failure to act and investigate or indict high administration officials for war crimes. This is even more important when one considers that the Obama administration has clearly stated its intention to not investigate or prosecute such crimes, going after a handful of lower-level interrogators for crimes not covered by the Bush administration’s so-called “legal” approvals for torture provided by the infamous Yoo/Bybee/Levin/Bradbury memos issued by the Office of Legal Counsel.

Nor has Congress shown even a smidgen of appetite for pursuing further accountability: not one Congressman or Senator has stepped forward as yet to endorse HRW’s new call. Instead, they demonstrated their obsequiousness by approving Obama’s nomination of General David Petraeus as new CIA director 94-0, despite the fact that Petraeus has been implicated in the organization of counter-terror death squads in Iraq, and was in charge of training Iraqi security forces who repeatedly were documented as engaging in widespread torture. It was during Petraeus’s tenure as chief of such training for the coalition forces, that the U.S. implemented the notorious Fragmentary Order (FRAGO) 242, which commanded U.S. forces not to intervene in cases of Iraqi governmental torture should they come across such it (which they often did). No one during Petraeus’s testimony in his nomination hearings even questioned him about this.

Why this report now?

I asked Andrea Prasow, a senior counsel at Human Rights Watch, why this report was issued now, noting that some on the left had already questioned the timing of HRW’s action.

“Because it really needed to be done,” Prasow explained. She noted the recent admissions by former President Bush and Vice President Cheney that they had approved waterboarding. Furthermore, “following the killing of [Osama] Bin Laden, we saw the immediate response by some that torture and the enhanced interrogation techniques led to the capture of Bin Laden. And it became a part of normal debate about torture. It shows how fragile is the current commitment not to torture.”

Prasow also noted the recent closure of the Durham investigation, which resulted in the decision to criminally investigate the deaths of two detainees in CIA custody, while 99 other cases referred to his office were closed. I asked her whether she felt, as I do, that the announcement of the two investigations were meant to forestall attempts by European (especially Spanish) prosecutors to pursue “universal jurisdiction” prosecutions of U.S. officials for torture.

“I don’t see how there’s a defensible justification that the investigations Durham announced can do that,” Prasow said. “It’s pretty clear that there should be an investigation into the deaths of these detainees,” she added, “but it’s so clear the investigation is very limited. The scope of the investigation is the most important part. Even if Durham had investigated the 100 or so cases that exceeded the legal authorities, it wouldn’t be sufficient. What about the people who wrote the legal memos? Who told them to write the memos?” she said, emphasizing the fact that Durham’s investigation was limited by Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder to only CIA crimes, and only those that supposedly exceeded the criteria for “enhanced interrogation” laid out in a number of administration legal memos. The torture, Prasow noted, was “throughout the military” as well, including “hundreds or thousands” tortured at sites in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo.

Prasow noted that the Obama administration has made it policy to block attempts by torture victims to get compensation for torture, asserting a policy of protecting “state secrets” to shut down court cases. “But there are other ways of providing redress,” she said, adding that “providing redress is part of international laws.” The HRW report itself states, “Consistent with its obligations under the Convention against Torture, the US government should ensure that victims of torture obtain redress, which may include providing victims with compensation where warranted outside of the judicial context.”

The new HRW report comes on the heels of a controversy roiling around a proposed United Kingdom governmental inquiry into torture. A number of British human rights and legal agencies have said they would boycott the UK proceedings as a “whitewash.” As Andy Worthington put it the other day:

As a result of pandering to the Americans’ wishes, the terms of reference are “so restrictive,” as the Guardian described it, that JUSTICE, the UK section of the International Commission of Jurists, warned that the inquiry “was likely to fail to comply with UK and international laws governing investigations into torture.” Eric Metcalfe, JUSTICE’s director of human rights policy, said that the rules “mean that the inquiry is unlikely to get to the truth behind the allegations and, even if it does, we may never know for sure. However diligent and committed Sir Peter [Gibson] and his team may be, the government has given itself the final word on what can be made public.”

Andrea Prasow echoed Metcalfe’s fears, saying HRW had “some concerns about how much information [in the UK inquiry] was going to be kept secret. I think transparency, making it as public as possible, is most important.”

The fight for transparency also makes HRW’s call for prosecutions of high government officials, along with “an independent, nonpartisan commission, along the lines of the 9-11 Commission, [that] should be established to examine the actions of the executive branch, the CIA, the military, and Congress, with regard to Bush administration policies and practices that led to detainee abuse,” very timely. In a column the other day at Secrecy News — Pentagon Tightens Grip on Unclassified Information — Steven Aftergood reported on a Department of Defense proposed new rule regarding classification. While the Obama administration is supposedly on record for greater governmental transparency, the new rule imposes “new safeguard requirements on ‘prior designations indicating controlled access and dissemination (e.g., For Official Use Only, Sensitive But Unclassified, Limited Distribution, Proprietary, Originator Controlled, Law Enforcement Sensitive).’”

According to Aftergood, “By ‘grandfathering’ those old, obsolete markings in a new regulation for defense contractors, the DoD rule would effectively reactivate them and qualify them for continued protection under the new Controlled Unclassified Information (CUI) regime, thereby defeating the new policy.” Even worse (if possible), “the proposed rule says that any unclassified information that has not been specifically approved for public release must be safeguarded. It establishes secrecy, not openness, as the presumptive status and default mode for most unclassified information.”

Much of what we know about the Bush-era torture program is due to the work of the ACLU and Center for Constitutional Rights, who have used the Freedom of Information Act to gather hundreds of documents, if not thousands, that document the paper trail surrounding the crimes of the Bush administration. Reporters and investigators like Jane Mayer, Philippe Sands, Alfred McCoy, and Jason Leopold have also contributed much to our understanding of what occurred during the Bush years. The work of investigators going back years demonstrates that U.S. research into and propagation of torture around the world goes back decades.

The Senate Armed Services Committee has also produced an impressive, if still partially redacted, investigation (large PDF) into detainee abuse by the Department of Defense. Their report, for instance, concluded regarding torture at Guantanamo that “Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s authorization of interrogation techniques at Guantanamo Bay was a direct cause of detainee abuse there.”

When one puts together the accelerated emphasis on “state secrets”; the Obama political program of “not looking back” in regards to U.S. war crimes (while supposedly pursuing accountability for torture and war crimes committed by other countries); the political passivity, if not cowardice of Congress; the fact that Obama “has not been transparent on the rendition issue, not even saying what its policy is,” according to Andrea Prasow; and finally the lies and propaganda spewed forth by the former Administration’s key figures and their proxies, one can only agree with HRW that enough is enough. The time for investigations and prosecutions into torture and rendition is now.

And if they won’t listen in Washington, D.C., perhaps they will in Madrid. Or some other intrepid prosecutor in — who knows? — Brazil or Argentina or Chile will pay back America, as a matter of poetic but also real justice for the crimes endured by their societies when the U.S. helped organize torture and terror in their countries only a generation ago. There were no U.S. investigations into actions of government figures then, and now we are faced with another set of atrocities produced by our own government. If we do not act now, what will our children face?