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Torture with Impunity

Zachary Katznelson,
Senior Staff Attorney, ACLU National Security Project
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August 31, 2012

Yesterday, a dark chapter in American history got that much more disgraceful. Attorney General Holder announced the closure of the last two open criminal inquiries into abusive interrogations by CIA officials. The pronouncement means that not a single CIA official will be prosecuted in federal courts for any of the abuse, torture or even death that took place at the hands of CIA officers and contractors.

Since 9/11, dozens of terrorism suspects have been held incommunicado by the CIA in secret prisons around the world and subjected to repeated brutality in the name of extracting information. The White House and its lead legal advice team, the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC), approved the use of these previously illegal tactics based on profoundly flawed legal reasoning and a complete lack of interrogation or law enforcement experience.

CIA interrogators were told that they could waterboard suspects, even though the Reagan administration and its predecessors prosecuted Americans and others for using the tactic. Interrogators were told they could use, among other tactics, extended sleep deprivation; “stress positions” such as forced-standing, handcuffing in painful crouched positions and shackling people to the ceiling, usually for hours or even days; confining prisoners to small, coffin-like boxes with air and light cut off; extended forced nudity; sensory bombardment; extreme temperatures; hooding; and physical beatings, including slamming prisoners into walls. Each and every one of these techniques had been declared torture at some point by US courts, Israeli courts, European Courts, the UN Committee on Torture or other foreign courts. But the OLC’s approval of the techniques meant the Obama Justice Department refused to investigate their use. Instead, in 2009, Attorney General Holder ordered a preliminary review of 101 cases where the CIA allegedly went even beyond the approved torture techniques. In June 2011, the Justice Department closed 99 of those cases and opened full investigations into the remaining 2, both of which involved prisoners who died while in US custody. Now, those last two investigations have also ended.

It is simply unacceptable that torture can be treated with impunity, no matter the goal of the torturers. Doing so gravely undermines the prohibition against torture worldwide and sends the dangerous message to US and foreign officials that there will be no consequences for future abuses.

So, the ACLU is taking the long view of this struggle. Despite the Justice Department’s refusal to enforce the law, we will continue to press for true accountability – both in the United States and overseas – for the designers, facilitators, overseers and perpetrators of torture and abuse. We will continue to work for the day when officials hear a resoundingly different message than the one delivered by Attorney General Holder: torture and abuse are never legitimate, but if you do make the egregious error of crossing that line, fear the law, for you will be held be to account.

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