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Accountability for Torture

Jameel Jaffer,
Director, Knight First Amendment Institute
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June 30, 2009

Since 2004, the ACLU and its partners — the Center for Constitutional Rights, Physicians for Human Rights, Veterans for Common Sense, and Veterans for Peace — have been litigating under the Freedom of Information Act for documents concerning the abuse of prisoners held by the Department of Defense and CIA. The litigation has resulted in the release of thousands of pages of government documents, including the Justice Department torture memos that were released in April, the FBI emails that discussed the torture of prisoners at Guantanamo, and dozens of autopsy reports relating to the deaths of prisoners in the custody of the Defense Department.

To those of us who have been working on the lawsuit, though, the remarkable thing is not how much information has been released but how much is still being withheld. Six years after we filed our FOIA request, and five years after the Abu Ghraib photos were broadcast by CBS 60 Minutes, the Defense Department is still withholding photographs showing prisoners being abused at facilities other than Abu Ghraib as well as details of abusive interrogation methods used by military interrogators in Afghanistan and Iraq. The CIA is still withholding a crucial report authored by that agency’s Inspector General, transcripts in which prisoners describe the abuse they suffered at the hands of their CIA interrogators, as well as hundreds of documents relating to the destruction of videotapes showing CIA prisoners being waterboarded. We’re expecting some of these documents to be released to us tomorrow, but it’s clear that it will be months and perhaps years before we have anything that resembles a complete picture of how the torture policies were developed, on whose authority they were implemented, and what consequences they had for prisoners held by the military and CIA.

If it’s remarkable how much information is still being withheld, it’s even more remarkable how little has been done to address the information that has been released. Congress has convened no select committee. The Justice Department has inaugurated no criminal investigation other than a narrowly circumscribed one into the destruction of the waterboarding tapes. The victims of the Bush administration’s torture program have received no official acknowledgement, and the proposition that they should be compensated for the abuse they suffered at the hands of their interrogators is one that has not got traction at all.

Earlier this month, the ACLU launched an initiative that will put new resources behind our transparency work and behind the larger aim of accountability. The Accountability for Torture initiative has four interrelated goals.

  1. Comprehensive disclosure about the torture program and its consequences. Over the next few months, we will step up our efforts under the FOIA. On the same day we launched the Accountability for Torture initiative, we filed a new FOIA lawsuit seeking some critical documents that in our view ought to be made public. These documents include OLC memos as well as correspondence between the White House and CIA about the CIA’s interrogation and detention program.
  2. The assembly of an accurate, comprehensive, and accessible historical record. Beyond advocating for comprehensive disclosure, we’ll also step up our efforts to make the documents we’ve obtained through the FOIA more accessible. We’ve already launched a new version of our search engine; while it’s still far from perfect, it’s an improvement on the original version and we will be making additional improvements over the next few months. Our legislative office will continue to press Congress to appoint a select committee that can examine the origins of the torture program, produce a comprehensive account of that program, and recommend legislative changes to ensure that past abuses are not repeated.
  3. Recognition and compensation for the victims. We will step up our efforts — both in Congress and the courts — to obtain recognition and compensation for the victims of torture. We’ve already filed several lawsuits on behalf of victims — in Ali v. Rumsfeld, for example, we represent Iraqis and Afghans who were abused at Abu Ghraib and Bagram, and in Mohamed v. Jeppesen we represent five victims of the CIA’s rendition program. Over the next few months, we’ll develop a broader strategy to ensure that torture victims are not forgotten.
  4. The appointment of an independent prosecutor. The publicly available evidence warrants a criminal investigation. Senior government officials who authorized torture should not be immune from prosecution, and they certainly should not be shielded from investigation. In fact, sanctioning impunity for government officials who authorized torture would send a problematic message to the world, invite abuses by future administrations, and further undermine the rule of law that is the basis of any democracy. As more information gets released — through FOIA litigation and through the hard work of investigative journalists — we will continue to call on the Justice Department to appoint an independent prosecutor to examine issues of criminal responsibility.

President Obama has spoken eloquently about the importance of restoring America’s moral authority abroad. Restoring that moral authority, though, will require restoring the rule of law at home, and restoring the rule of law at home will require finally confronting the gross human rights abuses of the last administration. Over the next few months, we’ll press the Obama administration to do this. As we’ve been saying, accountability for torture is a legal, political, and moral imperative.

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