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Talking About Torture

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June 18, 2009

Last week, we kicked off an Online Torture Forum to continue the conversation about torture and accountability. So far, we’ve featured a variety of voices calling for accountability for the abuse of detainees in U.S. custody, including an international torture expert, a former military interrogator in Iraq, and a professional psychologist who took a stand against the American Psychological Association’s complicity in torture.

Glenn Greenwald of helped commence the conversation by hosting an exclusive podcast (MP3) with ACLU Attorney Amrit Singh—counsel in our Torture FOIA litigation and co-author of Administration of Torture—and Philippe Sands, an expert on international law and the author of Torture Team. Both books reveal that the abuse of prisoners in U.S. custody under the Bush administration was systemic and pervasive, and that decisions endorsing, encouraging, and authorizing torture were made at the very highest level of government.

Sands also contributed a written piece to the torture forum, in which he discusses a one-page memo written in November 2002 by Jim Haynes (PDF), who was a DoD lawyer at the time. The memo, which recommended that Haynes’ boss, then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, provide blanket authorization for the use of stress positions, sleep deprivation, dogs, and nudity, and left open the use of waterboarding, gained notoriety because in signing it Rumsfeld joked: “I stand for 8-10 hours a day. Why is standing limited to 4 hours?” Philippe describes: “The document was a shocker. It was difficult to understand how the senior lawyers involved could have authorized torture. So I spent 18 months trekking around the U.S., meeting many of the officials involved.” The result? His book: Torture Team: Rumsfeld’s Memo and the Betrayal of American Values.

Former U.S. military interrogator Matthew Alexander contributed a piece to the forum rebuking the false notion that torture has kept America safe, and advocating for accountability and a realignment of actions and policies to once again uphold the values and principles upon which our country was founded. Alexander writes:

An independent investigation is an opportunity to look at those senior leaders who gave unlawful orders to torture and abuse prisoners and the senior military officers who followed those unlawful orders. It is a chance to emphasize again, for the next generation of America military leaders, that torture and abuse are inconsistent with our oaths of office, and that following unlawful orders is not acceptable conduct.

Dr. Ghislaine Boulanger, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst who has conducted extensive research on adult-onset trauma as the result of catastrophic experiences such as torture, joined the conversation by contributing a piece condemning the role that psychologists played in the Bush administration’s detention and interrogation policies. Dr. Boulanger and other brave members of the American Psychological Association (APA) banded together to make their disapproval of the APA’s involvement in torture known—some by resigning in protest and others by withholding their professional dues and mobilizing in protest by bringing a referendum to the entire membership in an effort to prohibit the involvement of psychologists in work settings that violate international law and the Constitution. Dr. Boulanger explains, “Just as the ACLU is calling for an Independent Prosecutor to investigate Bush era violations of human rights, Psychologists for an Ethical APA is calling for an independent investigation of psychologists and psychological organizations involved and indirectly complicit in activities that culminated in the treatment of detainees that is now known to have been torture.” (Clinical psychologist, attorney, and author Brent Welch provides another take on the role of the APA and psychologists in torture in a Huffington Post piece this week.)

Meanwhile, it’s been busy in the world of torture revelations. Last Thursday, we filed a new Torture FOIA lawsuit seeking the disclosure of even more still-secret records. Many of the recent revelations about torture—including the “torture memos” released in April — have been a part of our original Torture FOIA request. Since filing the initial lawsuit in 2004, we have obtained more than 100,000 pages from the government that show both that hundreds of prisoners were tortured in the custody of the CIA and Department of Defense, and that the torture policies were devised and developed at the highest levels of the Bush administration. You can learn more about the documents we’ve obtained through the lawsuit, and use our new and improved Torture Document Search to read the documents yourself.

On Monday, the CIA released documents in another ACLU FOIA lawsuit, concerning Combatant Status Review Tribunal (CSRT) hearing transcripts from Guantánamo Bay. In previously released versions of the documents, the CIA had redacted virtually all of the prisoners’ accounts of the abuse and torture they suffered in CIA custody. Unfortunately, the documents released this week are still heavily redacted, but include some new information. Ben Wizner, the ACLU attorney on the case, discussed the newly received documents with Rachel Maddow earlier this week, and noted that, “The disturbing trend here is that . . . the Obama administration is stepping back from transparency because they see that it is an inevitable ingredient to accountability.”

And yesterday, The Washington Post reported that CIA officials are pressuring the Obama administration to suppress significant portions of a CIA Inspector General report on the agency’s interrogation and detention policies. The government has a deadline tomorrow to reprocess the report in our Torture FOIA lawsuit. In response to the article, the ACLU’s National Security Project director, Jameel Jaffer stated:

It’s not surprising that the CIA is fighting for the suppression of documents that would provide further evidence that its torture program was both ineffective and illegal…President Obama should not allow the CIA to determine whether evidence of its own unlawful conduct should be made available to the public…[R]estoring the rule of law at home and the moral authority of the United States abroad… will [not] be possible as long as the CIA is permitted to conceal evidence of its crimes. The public has a right to know what took place in the CIA’s secret prisons, and on whose authority.

Sounds like another internal government conflict between transparency and covering up past torture crimes . . . stay tuned for developments.

And beyond the latest news and developments from us here at the ACLU, the robust conversation about torture and accountability for crimes committed in America’s name continues.

Yesterday, ran an opinion piece calling for accountability by the ACLU’s Executive Director Anthony Romero and Lt. Col. Darrel Vandeveld — a former prosecutor in the Guantánamo Bay military commissions who resigned from six cases due to ethical problems with the tribunal system.

American Public Media’s “Speaking of Faith” recently featured a conversation with Professor Darius Rejali, an Iranian-American political scientist, expert on torture, and author of Torture and Democracy. The conversation explores the long shadow of torture — how democracies change torture and are changed by it, as well as the collective reckoning with consequences yet to unfold.

And in her latest piece for the New Yorker, Jane Mayer poses the question: can the CIA move forward without confronting its past?

Amidst all the talk about torture, we hope one message rings loud and clear: the ACLU is committed to restoring the rule of law. We will fight for the disclosure of the torture files that are still secret. We will advocate for the victims of the Bush administration’s unlawful policies. We will press Congress to appoint a select committee that can investigate the roots of the torture program and recommend legislative changes to ensure that the abuses of the last eight years are not repeated. And we will advocate for the appointment of an independent prosecutor to examine issues of criminal responsibility.

We hope you’ll join in the conversation next week and take action on Friday June 26th — International Day in Support of Torture Victims — to take a stand and demand accountability for torture (stay tuned for details!).

We can’t sweep the abuses of the last eight years under the rug. Accountability for torture is a legal, political, and moral imperative.

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