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After the Torture Report: Political and Legal Implications

The release of the 500-page executive summary of the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report on the CIA extreme interrogation techniques has opened up the floodgates of criticism and political and legal fallout that could extend to President Obama’s drone assassinations program and even affect the political future of possible Republican presidential contender Jeb Bush. Jeb, the former governor of Florida is the brother of George W. Bush whose administration implemented the CIA program.

At least two leading officials of the United Nations have called for disclosure of the identities of both the planners and implementers of the CIA torture program so that these individuals can be legal prosecuted for violations of international law. In addition, there is a growing faction among US military and intelligence personnel—active and retired—who are pressuring the Congress and the Justice Department (DoJ) to reverse the decision by Obama’s DoJ not to prosecute members of the George W. Bush administration who designed and approved the program and then misled the Congress and the public about what was going on.

In releasing the report on December 9, Senator Dianne Feinstein, the Democratic chairman of the Senate committee that investigated the activities, gave an impassioned hour-long speech where she said the report “shows that the CIA’s actions a decade ago are a stain on our values and on our history. The release of this 500-page summary of our report cannot remove that stain, but it can and does say to our people, and the world, that America is big enough to admit when it’s wrong and confident enough to learn from its mistakes.”

The opposition leader, Republican Sen. John McCain, followed Feinstein with a long speech and made clear his support for the release of the report, saying, “it is a thorough and thoughtful study of practices that I believe not only failed their purpose – to secure actionable intelligence to prevent further attacks on the U.S. and our allies – but actually damaged our security interests, as well as our reputation as a force for good in the world.” McCain was a prisoner in North Vietnam during the Indochina War for five years, and was subjected to some of the torture techniques.

The Senate report focused on 20 specific cases of rendition and “extreme interrogation methods” in the Bush-Cheney Administration’s global war on terrorism, which was largely focused against Al Qaeda and the networks behind the 9/11 attacks. The report concluded not only that the extreme methods adopted by some of the CIA interrogation teams constituted torture, but also that the use of such extreme measures was not effective, and that very little, if any, actionable intelligence came out of the effort.

In a highly unusual response to the report, CIA Director John Brennan, who had tried to block its release, gave a press conference on December 11, where he attempted to refute some of the report’s conclusions, including the claim that no valuable intelligence had come from the use of waterboarding, sleep deprivation, beatings and other even more extreme forms of brutality. His appearance has triggered a further debate, which has gone beyond the political partisanship that often characterizes such revelations.

A byproduct of the report’s release has been a spotlight on the role of the Obama Administration in delaying the release of the Senate document, which was completed months ago and submitted to the White House for approval. The White House turned over the draft unclassified document to the CIA itself for review, in what was widely viewed as an attempt to delay its release for as long as possible. In addition, Obama’s Justice Department conducted its own investigation, thus preventing Senate investigators from interviewing CIA witnesses. Then, after nearly five years, the Justice Department concluded that there was no basis for criminal prosecutions of the CIA officers involved in the interrogations program.
It is expected that both the UN Commission on Human Rights and a number of governments around the world will look to file criminal charges against the CIA officials involved in the program. Many will be forced to avoid travel to countries where the renditions and interrogations took place, for fear of arrest and criminal prosecution. A UN human rights ombudsman has already publicly declared that the actions by the CIA constituted crimes against humanity and war crimes and should be prosecuted before the International Court of Justice in The Hague, Netherlands.
The events around the report have also revived a simmering debate over the Obama Administration’s use of drone warfare. While the Bush-Cheney Administration used “extraordinary renditions” to capture and interrogate suspected Al Qaeda terrorists and their backers, the Obama Administration has instead gone for targeted assassinations, no longer seeking to capture and interrogate terror suspects. In many documented instances, civilians were killed or injured in the drone strikes in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen and other locations. Two years ago, the New York Times revealed that President Obama personally presides over weekly White House Situation Room sessions, where new targets for assassination—including several American citizens—are identified. UN officials have referred to these assassinations as war crimes.

This is a development that will not go away soon—despite the fact the general parameters of the story have been publicized in the past and that there were several previous investigations. In fact, the decisions in those previous investigations to not reprimand or prosecute the individuals involved in the CIA torture incidents may become the basis for further legal inquiries and action.

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