The Slatest

Could America Torture Again? 

Leg restraints awaiting detaintees in a interview room at the U.S. detention center in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. 

Photo by Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images

 “Rather than another reason to refight old arguments, I hope that today’s report can help us leave these techniques where they belong—in the past.” That was President Obama, last December, after the release of a Senate panel report on the CIA’s use of torture against terrorism detainees. Obama’s statement encapsulated both his confidence that the brutal interrogation techniques of the Bush era had been brought to an end by the executive order he issued banning them upon taking office, and his reluctance to probe more deeply into abuses that occurred or prosecute any of the offenders.

But a new report issued this morning by Amnesty International charges that the Obama administration has effectively granted impunity to the practitioners of torture, and that its reluctance to address the issue “not only leaves the USA in serious violation of its international legal obligations, it increases the risk that history will repeat itself when a different president again deems the circumstances warrant resort to torture, enforced disappearance, abductions or other human rights violations.”

Amnesty’s report examines what the senate document actually added to the public record, considers the potential involvement of senior executive branch officials (including President George W. Bush) in rendition and torture, and finally argues that the senate report falls short of providing accountability for the acts that took place. 

“What we’ve consistently heard is this theme of looking forward, not backward,” Naureen Shah, director of Amnesty USA’s Security and Human Rights Program, told me of signals and statements from the Obama administration. “They wanted to prohibit torture and then move on.” Shah says Amnesty’s report is aimed primarily at the Justice Department, and in particular outgoing Attorney General Eric Holder, in the admittedly long-shot hope that he might spend his remaining time in office (a very short amount of time now that the senate reached a deal on Tuesday paving the way for the confirmation of Holder’s successor, Loretta Lynch) reopening an investigation into abuses. Holder had earlier ruled out charges against CIA interrogators in 2012 after a controversial three-year investigation, and the department declined to reopen the case after the Senate report. As for Lynch, she has said that she considers waterboarding to be torture, but Shah notes that she hasn’t been specifically asked about whether she would reopen the investigation.

Amnesty’s report calls for the Department of Justice to reopen and expand its investigation and “bring to justice in fair trials all the persons, regardless of their level of office or former level of office, suspected of being involved in the commission of crimes under international law, such as torture and enforced disappearance,” though Shah notes that there are possible ways of ensuring accountability without criminal prosecution, such as the truth and reconciliation commissions used by several Latin American countries to address crimes, including torture, committed under authoritarian governments.

“Our experience shows that any time people get away with torture, you’re sending the message that it can happen again,” Shah says, arguing that “this administration keeps getting confronted with opportunities to take seriously the possibility that this could happen again and it is failing.”

The Obama administration has not only failed to look into the sins of the Bush administration. Obama may not be OK with “enhanced interrogation,” but he has approved the secret detention and interrogation of suspects before they are turned over to the civilian justice system. His administration has also allowed for the transfer of suspects to facilities with dire conditions in places like Afghanistan and Somalia. “There are places throughout the world where CIA has worked with other intelligence services and has been able to bring people into custody and engage in the debriefings of these individuals … through our liaison partners, and sometimes there are joint debriefings that take place as well,” CIA Director John Brennan said recently, raising the disturbing possibility that the administration hasn’t so much banned harsh interrogation practices as outsourced them.

As for what happens in U.S. custody, Obama’s most concrete step to prohibit torture was an executive order that could be rescinded by the next administration. This hasn’t come up much yet on the campaign trail, but there’s already reason for concern.

Jeb Bush has said little about the interrogation practices that took place under his brother’s administration, though several of W’s senior national security officials, including two former CIA directors, are advising him.  Marco Rubio has strongly criticized the release of the Senate report and declined to criticize any of the actions detailed in it. He has suggested that he believes waterboarding may have played a role in tracking down Osama Bin Laden, something the Senate report disputed.

At this point, it certainly doesn’t seem inconceivable that in response to a major national security threat, the U.S. could once again decide it needs to “torture some folks.”