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Growing Chorus Demands Criminal Investigation into Torture Program

Noa Yachot,
Former Senior Editor,
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December 22, 2014

Calls for a criminal investigation into the Bush-era torture program described in the Senate report released earlier this month are beginning to mount.

The ACLU and Human Rights Watch (HRW) sent a letter today to the Justice Department, calling on Attorney General Eric Holder to appoint a special prosecutor to conduct an independent and comprehensive investigation into the program, including the role played by senior Bush administration officials who sought to provide the program and its perpetrators with legal cover. Our call was echoed in a powerful editorial published in today’s New York Times.

Even a cursory read of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s executive summary leaves no doubt that President Obama’s preference to “look forward as opposed to looking backwards” is at odds with the basic principle that nobody, no matter how senior, should be above the rule of law.

The Obama administration has so far ducked the question of accountability, pointing to a previous probe into the program conducted by John Durham in the early days of the Obama administration. But as the ACLU-HRW letter explains, the Senate study, which synthesizes millions of pages of documents into a 6,700-page report, offers new opportunities for a more thorough investigation. It contains “significant new information relating to the commission of serious federal crimes, including torture, homicide, conspiracy, and sexual assault,” the letter says. And with so much information newly declassified, an investigation is now possible where it may have once been blocked by state secrets arguments.

As we note in our letter, some of the officials who authorized torture have been defending their conduct very publicly. Against this background, we write,

[T]he failure to conduct a comprehensive criminal investigation would contribute to the notion that torture remains a permissible policy option for future administrations; undermine the ability of the United States to advocate for human rights abroad; and compromise Americans’ faith in the rule of law at home

As to the officials who should be investigated, the Times editorial names former Vice President Dick Cheney; Cheney’s chief of staff, David Addington; former C.I.A. director George Tenet; John Yoo and Jay Bybee, the Office of Legal Counsel lawyers inside the Justice Department who drafted the torture memos; Jose Rodriguez, the C.I.A. official who ordered the destruction of the videotapes; the psychologists who devised the torture techniques; and CIA officers who implemented them.

(Learn more about the role of these officials, and other torture architects, in this interactive infographic.)

We note in our letter that torture was authorized by high officials who conspired with one another to evade the law. That conspiracy swept in hundreds of victims – including dozens of innocent men and many not mentioned in the report – who were waterboarded, sodomized, beaten, and kept in coffin-shaped boxes for days at a time, among other atrocities. Our failure to reckon with these crimes has already damaged the global struggle against torture, and it seriously calls into question our commitment to the principle of equality before the law.

“I’d do it again in a minute,” Dick Cheney said last weekend. If there’s no accountability, what will stop a future administration from doing just that?

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