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Bush should face criminal probe over post-9/11 'torture,' report urges

Human Rights Watch urges a criminal investigation of former President Bush, Vice President Cheney, and two others over their alleged authorization of torture of terrorism suspects after 9/11. The Obama administration has narrowed its probe to the deaths of two men in CIA custody.

By Staff writer / July 12, 2011

In this Dec. 9, 2008 file photo, then-President George W. Bush delivers remarks on defense transformation, at the United States Military Academy in West Point, N.Y. According to a Human Rights Watch report issued on Tuesday, Bush should face criminal probe over post-9/11 'torture.'

Evan Vucci/AP/File

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Former President George W. Bush, as well as his vice president, Defense secretary, and CIA director should all face a criminal investigation for their alleged authorization of torture and other war crimes during their tenure in office following the 9/11 attacks in 2001, according to a report issued on Tuesday by Human Rights Watch.

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In addition to authorizing “waterboarding” and other harsh interrogation tactics, the four men also approved the use of secret CIA prisons overseas and the transfer of terrorism suspects to countries where they were allegedly tortured, the report says.

The human rights group is urging the Obama administration to conduct a broad investigation into how the policies were drafted, adopted, and carried out. The group wants the Obama administration to hold President Bush and other top officials in his administration accountable for what it says were acts of torture and other illegal treatment of detainees in violation of the international Convention against Torture and US law.

“The US has a legal obligation to investigate these crimes,” Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, said in a statement released with the report. “If the US doesn’t act on them, other countries should.”

Two weeks ago, US Attorney General Eric Holder announced the results of a two-year Justice Department preliminary review of whether CIA personnel violated federal laws while interrogating terrorism suspects overseas. Mr. Holder said the department would launch a full criminal investigation into the deaths of two men while in CIA custody.

Critics said the preliminary probe was too narrowly drawn, examining only “unauthorized” interrogation methods rather than focusing more broadly on the legality of detainees’ treatment by US officials. Authorized interrogation techniques such as waterboarding were not a focus of the investigation but should have been, these critics said.

In a statement to the media, Holder said an expanded investigation of other interrogations beyond the two fatalities was not warranted. “I made clear at the time that the department would not prosecute anyone who acted in good faith and within the scope of the legal guidance given by the Office of Legal Counsel regarding the interrogation of detainees,” Holder said.

Given the Obama administration's position on these issues, it's unlikely the Human Rights Watch report will result in a broad investigation.

The legal guidance from the Bush administration’s Office Legal Counsel was set down in a series of legal memoranda branded by critics as “torture memos.” They were drafted to offer legal justification for harsh and coercive interrogation methods that opponents denounced as torture.

Upon taking office, President Obama ordered that such techniques would no longer be used by US personnel. But the administration has declined to undertake a full investigation into the prior use of harsh and coercive techniques.

“President Obama has treated torture as an unfortunate policy choice rather than a crime. His decision to end abusive interrogation practices will remain easily reversible unless the legal prohibition against torture is reestablished,” Mr. Roth said.

In addition to Mr. Bush, the report says investigators should focus on former Vice President Dick Cheney, former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and former CIA Director George Tenet.

Bush and other members of his administration have defended the detention and interrogation programs by saying they were seeking to protect the country from what they viewed as a severe and imminent threat from terrorists.

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