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Torture: Declassified memos and next steps
NewsNotes, May-June 2009

On April 17, key memos drawn up by Bush administration advisors, which meticulously contend a legal argument for the use of torture of people classified as enemy combatants, were declassified and publicized. This disclosure comes as human rights advocates continue to call for restored legal rights for all detainees at the Guantanamo and Bagram military prisons, a just detention policy in line with international law and movement toward full disclosure and accountability of U.S. procedures. By confronting past wrongs and evaluating how such wrongs were set in motion, it’s possible to obtain necessary legislation and restore proper constitutional roles of the government’s branches and departments.

Publication of the memos brought sharp criticism from former CIA director Michael Hayden and former Vice President Dick Cheney, who has suggested that valuable intelligence was collected using “enhanced interrogations techniques.” However, one memo reveals that, in some cases, the most critical information was gathered before severe methods (such as waterboarding) were used, or, in other cases, traditional interrogation methods were never attempted before escalating to extreme methods.

When questioned, President Obama has responded that it is the role of Attorney General Eric Holder to decide whether legal grounds exist to prosecute Bush administration officials who formulated the decisions that enabled torture to occur. The Department of Justice, charged to handle legal matters, is obliged to remain impartial to the politics of the White House or Congress. Pursuing justice is the department’s constitutional mandate, not a political game that offers advantage to one party.

The president has also stated his opposition to prosecuting CIA operatives who were following the Bush administration’s guidelines. This recommendation for impunity, before a full accounting has taken place, seems unwise and premature. The Convention Against Torture (ratified by the U.S. in 1994), the Geneva Convention, and the Charter of the International Tribunal at Nuremburg state that orders from a superior do not justify the use of torture. Precipitous impunity risks leaving matters unresolved, forgoing our commitment to comply with international law, and could send dangerous signals to perpetrators of torture around the world.

Some have suggested that the release of the memos might damage the confidence of CIA operatives and undercut the success of future CIA operations. However, though the CIA may gather intelligence in a covert manner, it does not have license to operate outside of U.S. law. If the agency believed it did have such license, CIA officials would not have pursued authorization of enhanced interrogation techniques. If morale is indeed hurt, its rehabilitation could come from the clarification that the department is built to aid and not undermine U.S. law and its accordance with international law.

Faith in action:

June is Torture Awareness Month; the work to put torture and unlawful, indefinite detention behind us still continues. Consider joining the Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition throughout the month as they rally, vigil, fast, and speak truth to power about the imperative for accountability.
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