WASHINGTON -- America, the Obama administration says, takes its history of torture seriously. President Barack Obama outlawed the harsh practices of the Bush era days after taking office. The government has released documents, attempting to demonstrate accountability. There’s a 6,300-page Senate report that has been given to the White House and even a Justice Department investigation into abuses of the Bush years.
The United Nations doesn’t buy it.
A U.S. delegation, in a first appearance before the U.N. Committee Against Torture since 2006, told the panel in Geneva this week that it rejects Bush administration interpretations of torture statutes and affirms U.S. commitment to closing the dark chapter of the CIA’s post-9/11 interrogation program.
Those assertions, though, didn’t convince the U.N. panel, which hadn’t seen the U.S. crew since abuses of the Bush-era program were publicly revealed.
Despite its seeming reversal on Bush-era policies, the U.S. delegation was slammed for touting its 2009 Justice Department Investigation into the CIA’s torture program -- which resulted in no charges -- as proof of its commitment.
“We are not fully satisfied with that answer,” said torture committee Chairman George Tugushi. “In our view, any investigation into possible ill treatment by public officials must comply with the criteria of thoroughness. And actually to be considered credible, it must be capable of leading to a determination of whether force or other methods used were or were not justified under the circumstances, and to the identification of the appropriate punishment of those concerned.”
The Justice Department probe was supervised by John Durham, an assistant U.S. attorney in Connecticut. After the U.N. panel pressured the U.S. delegation for details, the Americans disclosed that the inquiry questioned more than 90 witnesses. Despite repeated questions, delegation members declined, however, to say whether those witnesses included any prisoners subjected to the CIA methods.
One member of the U.N. committee suggested the investigation was a whitewash.
The Durham investigation "found that there was not sufficient evidence,” said Jens Modvig. “Well ... you won’t find what you’re not looking for.”
CIA detainees who have said they were not interviewed in the Justice Department investigation have described being waterboarded, locked in small boxes and otherwise tortured.
The Justice Department inquiry, which lasted from 2009 to 2012, found insufficient evidence to open a criminal probe into abuses. Obama himself said in 2008 before he took office that he wanted to move on from the era and “look forward as opposed to looking backwards.”
“By failing to hold the perpetrators of torture accountable, the Obama administration undermined the prohibition on torture and abuse, and it certainly falls short of what’s required by the treaty,” said Jamil Dakwar, director of the Human Rights Program at the American Civil Liberties Union, following Thursday’s meeting of the U.N. panel. “We have no assurance that there has ever been a top-to-bottom criminal investigation that has included an investigation of any possible criminal conduct by government officials who authorized or ordered the use of torture and abuse.”
The Obama administration has reportedly used the Durham investigation in pressuring international courts to drop investigations into the Bush-era program, which employed the help of several foreign governments.
The focus by the U.N. panel on the Durham investigation underscores a lingering question that remains eight years after America’s torture chapter concluded: Why was no one held accountable?
That lack of closure has inspired new questions as the public awaits the release of the executive summary of a Senate Intelligence Committee review of the CIA’s operation. The five-year, $40 million Senate study has been touted as an authoritative accounting of the torture program. But it doesn’t examine the culpability of high-level Bush administration officials, McClatchy Newspapers revealed last month. Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) has stressed that the 6,300-page document is meant to be a comprehensive record, not an indictment.
The public may never know, at least officially, who in the Bush administration was responsible for a program that, as Feinstein said, was “un-American, brutal” and “never, never, never should have existed.”
That reality, the U.N. panel suggested, dents U.S. credibility on torture, and draws into question the Obama administration's dedication to closing the Bush chapter.
The Obama administration’s delegation also was asked by the U.N. group on Wednesday if it agreed with a Bush-era interpretation of the panel’s international torture convention, which outlaws harsh treatment of prisoners. Secret Bush legal memos argued that the anti-torture treaty did not apply outside U.S. borders, creating the basis for a covert CIA program that shipped suspected terrorists to secret overseas prisons for harsh interrogation.
The Obama delegation had reportedly considered affirming that legal interpretation, which sent the international community into an uproar this month.
The U.S. delegation this week appeared to reject the Bush legal reasoning. But its careful parsing of words leaves room for interpretation.
The American group told the U.N. panel that the anti-torture convention applies to all U.S. territory -- including military bases like Guantanamo. But the comments didn't include “black site” prisons outside the U.S.
The U.S. refused to accept that the Convention Against Torture "applies wherever the U.S. has effective control -- the standard that would give full effect to the treaty,” said Laura Pitter, senior national security researcher for Human Rights Watch. “The carefully limited language does little to allay concerns that the U.S. is looking for wiggle room in terms of how it applies treaty obligations outside U.S. borders.”
The new U.S. position also appears to exclude contractors stationed in foreign territory, and U.S.-sanctioned torture conducted by other governments, which the U.N. panel highlighted in questions to American delegates.
The U.N. Committee Against Torture monitors international compliance with the group’s Convention Against Torture, which the U.S. adopted 20 years ago.