Torture Is Un-american

Our View: Announcement Of A Special Prosecutor To Probe Cia Abuses And A New Interrogation Unit Under White House Control Signal A Clean Break With Past Policies

August 25, 2009

With the economy still sputtering, unfinished wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and health care reform under attack, it's little wonder President Barack Obama isn't eager for a distracting debate over the Bush administration's policy on torture to extract information from suspected terrorists. But a report released Monday revealing new details of the abuses carried out by the agency shows why Mr. Obama will have to tackle the subject. Indeed, within hours of the report's release, the Justice Department announced a criminal probe of alleged detainee abuses, and the White House said it will assume direct control of interrogations of terror suspects.

The previously classified report - the result of a 2004 investigation by the Central Intelligence Agency's inspector general into allegations of illegal mistreatment of detainees at the agency's secret prisons in Iraq and Afghanistan - cited instances in which interrogators threatened detainees with guns and electric drills, conducted mock executions to make suspects believe they were about to be executed and told prisoners their families would be targeted for death if they refused to cooperate. One interrogator reportedly threatened to rape a prisoner's mother in front of him if he didn't answer questions.

Even under the extremely permissive interrogation rules adopted by the Bush administration, such methods were deemed illegal, although Justice Department lawyers at the time declined to prosecute those involved. In remarks defending the agency yesterday, CIA Director Leon Panetta said that some CIA officers had been disciplined and that a contract employee was prosecuted for detainee abuse.

A heavily redacted version of the report, released earlier this year in response to a suit by the American Civil Liberties Union, had already revealed some of the abuses carried out by the agency in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terror attacks on New York and the Pentagon. They included beatings, exposure to extreme temperatures, confinement in crippling stress positions, depriving prisoners of sleep, food and medical care, slamming them into walls and subjecting them to waterboarding. All are practices condemned as torture by the International Committee of the Red Cross, which monitors compliance with the Geneva Conventions.

President Obama banned the use of torture during interrogations when he entered office, at the same time pledging to hold the CIA harmless for abuses committed under his predecessor. But the administration reversed course Monday. U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder will appoint a veteran prosecutor, John Durham, to investigate CIA questioning of terror suspects. In addition, the White House will set up a new unit composed of FBI, CIA and military officers to interrogate "high value" detainees. The administration also said that from now on, all U.S. interrogators must follow the rules for detainees laid out by the Army Field Manual.

These developments signal an opportunity for the Obama administration to make a clean break with Bush administration policies that ignored or even condoned torture and other abuses. But they come at a price, both for the president's domestic agenda (which could be held hostage to the bitter partisan standoff in Congress even more than it already is) and for the tarnished intelligence agency, which will still to have to play a major role in interrogating terror suspects.

No one wants to see the government paralyzed by the controversy likely to erupt if criminal charges are brought against former high-ranking agency officials and others who authorized or condoned the illegal abuses outlined in the inspector general's report. But the nation also needs to reassert vigorously the principle that in a democracy, no one is above the law.

Until there is a full accounting of what went wrong, there's no assurance it won't happen again - or that future crimes committed in Americans' names won't also just be swept under the rug as a matter of political expediency.

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