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.

Evan Vucci/AP/File
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.'

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.

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.

The report says Bush approved waterboarding and authorized the CIA’s secret overseas detention and rendition programs. “Even after learning that serious abuses were taking place, Bush never intervened to stop them or seek to prosecute those responsible,” the report says.

Mr. Cheney is identified in the report as an architect of the detention and interrogation programs who pressed for the Justice Department to issue a legal justification of the controversial efforts. He was involved in discussions of specific interrogations, including Abu Zubaydah, who was waterboarded 83 times, the report says.

Mr. Rumsfeld allegedly “created the conditions for members of the US armed forces to commit torture and other war crimes by approving interrogation techniques that violated the Geneva Conventions and the Convention against Torture.” The report says he closely followed the interrogation of Mohammed al-Qahtani, the suspected 20th hijacker, through a six-week program of isolation, sleep deprivation, stress positions, threats from dogs, and sexual humiliation. At one point Mr. Qahtani was forced to perform tricks on a dog leash. The report says his weight dropped from 160 to about 100 pounds in four months.

As CIA director from 2001 to 2004, Mr. Tenet authorized and oversaw the CIA rendition, detention, and interrogation programs, including waterboarding, the report says.

In addition to a broad criminal investigation, Human Rights Watch seeks a public accounting of the preparation of the Justice Department interrogation memos, payment of fair compensation to those subjected to the harsh interrogation and rendition policies, and creation of a nonpartisan commission to examine the policies and make recommendations to prevent them from being enacted in the future.

Human Rights Watch is an independent organization that seeks to focus international attention on violations of human rights. Among the conclusions in its 107-page report, entitled "Getting Away with Torture: The Bush Administration and Mistreatment of Detainees,” are the following.

• “Human Rights Watch believes that there is sufficient basis for the US government to order a broad criminal investigation into alleged war crimes and human rights violations committed in connection with the torture and ill-treatment of detainees, the CIA secret detention program, and the rendition of detainees to torture…. Human Rights Watch presents evidence now publicly available, but expresses no opinion about the ultimate guilt or innocence of these or other officials.”

• “The CIA’s use of torture, enforced disappearance, and secret prisons was illegal, immoral, and counterproductive.”

• “President Barack Obama took important steps toward setting a new course when he abolished secret CIA prisons and banned the use of torture upon taking office in January 2009. But other measures have yet to be taken, such as ending the practice of indefinite detention without trial, closing the military detention facility at Guantanamo Bay and ending rendition of detainees to countries that practice torture.”

• “In the context of practices such as waterboarding, prolonged stress positions, and long-term incommunicado detention, it stretches credulity to argue that a person of ordinary sense and understanding would not know the practices were illegal.”

• “There is now substantial evidence that the initiative for abusive interrogation techniques came largely from civilian leaders, and that politically appointed administration lawyers created legal justification in the face of opposition from government legal officers.”

• “No US federal court, including the Supreme Court, has granted judicial remedy to persons alleging torture or other ill-treatment, including rendition to torture, in post-September 11 cases. Both the Bush and Obama administrations have argued successfully that such cases should be dismissed under the state secrets privilege in US law.”

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