Not the Better Part of Valor: Obama's Duty to Prosecute Torturers

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the Jurist

Not the Better Part of Valor: Obama's Duty to Prosecute Torturers

In response to a Freedom of Information Act request by the ACLU, President Obama released four Bush-era memos that describe unimaginably brutal techniques and provide "legal" justification for clearly illegal acts of torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. In the face of monumental pressure from the CIA to keep them secret, Obama demonstrated great courage in deciding to make the grotesque memos public. At the same time, however, in an attempt to pacify the intelligence establishment, Obama said, "it is our intention to assure those who carried out their duties relying in good faith upon legal advice from the Department of Justice that they will not be subject to prosecution." He guaranteed free legal representation for CIA employees investigated by Congress or international tribunals, and indemnification for any financial judgments rendered against them.

Obama's intent to immunize those who violated our laws banning torture and cruel treatment violates the President's constitutional duty to "take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed."

The memos

The memo dated August 1, 2002 was signed by Jay Bybee, and the other three memos, dated May 10, 2005, were signed by Stephen Bradbury.

In startlingly clinical and dispassionate terms, the authors of the newly-released torture memos describe and then rationalize why the devastating techniques the CIA sought to employ on human beings do not violate the Torture Statute (18 U.S.C. sec. 2340).

The memos justify 10 techniques, including banging heads into walls 30 times in a row, prolonged nudity, repeated facial and abdominal slapping, dietary manipulation, and dousing with cold water as low as 41 degrees. They allow shackling in a standing position for 180 hours, sleep deprivation for 11 days, confinement of people in small dark boxes with insects for hours, and waterboarding to create the perception they are drowning. Moreover, the memos permit many of these techniques to be used in combination for a 30-day period. They find that none of these techniques constitute torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.

Waterboarding, admittedly the most serious of the methods, is designed, according to Bybee, to induce the perception of "suffocation and incipient panic, i.e. the perception of drowning." But although Bybee finds that "the use of the waterboard constitutes a threat of imminent death," he accepts the CIA's claim that it does "not anticipate that any prolonged mental harm would result from the use of the waterboard." As psychologist Jeffrey Kaye points out, the CIA and the Justice Department "ignored a wealth of other published information" that indicates dissociative symptoms, changes greater than those in patients undergoing heart surgery, and drops in testosterone to castration levels after acute stress associated with techniques that the memos sanction.

The Torture Statute punishes conduct, or conspiracy to engage in conduct, specifically intended to inflict severe physical or mental pain or suffering. "Severe mental pain or suffering" means the prolonged mental harm caused by or resulting from either the intentional infliction or threatened infliction of severe physical pain or suffering, or from the threat of imminent death.

Bybee asserts that "if a defendant acts with the good faith belief that his actions will not cause such suffering, he has not acted with specific intent." He makes the novel claim that the presence of personnel with medical training who can stop the interrogation if medically necessary "indicates that it is not your intent to cause severe physical pain."

Now a federal judge with lifetime appointment, Bybee concludes that waterboarding does not constitute torture under the Torture Statute. However, he writes, "we cannot predict with confidence whether a court would agree with this conclusion."

The Bush administration claimed it only used waterboarding three times. But a footnote in one of Bradbury's memos says waterboarding was utilized "with far greater frequency than initially indicated" with "large volumes of water" rather than small quantities as required by the CIA's rules.

Bybee's memo explains why the 10 techniques could be used on Abu Zubaydah, who was considered to be a top Al Qaeda operative. "Zubaydah does not have any pre-existing mental conditions or problems that would make him likely to suffer prolonged mental harm from [the CIA's] proposed interrogation methods," the CIA told Bybee. But Zubaydah was a low-ranking Al Qaeda operative, according to leading FBI counter-terrorism expert Dan Coleman, who advised a top FBI official, "This guy is insane, certifiable, split personality." This was reported by Ron Suskind in his book, The One Percent Doctrine.

The CIA's request to confine Zubaydah in a cramped box with an insect was granted by Bybee, who told the CIA it could place a harmless insect in the box and tell Zubaydah that it will sting him but it won't kill him. Even though the CIA knew that Zubaydah had an irrational fear of insects, Bybee found there would be no threat of severe physical pain or suffering if it followed this procedure.

Another noxious aspect of these memos is the use of medical professionals to enable the torture and cruel treatment. They are on hand to monitor the victims to make sure they come close to death, but don't actually die. But the medical personnel may well allow the abuse to cause severe physical pain and do nothing to stop it until the victim reaches the point of impending death. One of Bradbury's memos requires that a physician be on duty during waterboarding to perform a tracheotomy in case the victim doesn't recover after being returned to an upright position.

Employing a standard used to measure due process violations, Bradbury concluded that "the CIA interrogation techniques, with their careful screening procedures and medical monitoring, do not ‘shock the conscience,'" and thus were not cruel, inhuman or degrading. It is difficult to imagine how the techniques described above would fail to shock the conscience of any human being.

Obama's refusal to faithfully execute the law

The Constitution requires the President to enforce the law against both the petty thief who stole salmon from the market, and the CIA agent who tortured or abused a prisoner.

Our law prohibits torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, and requires that those who subject people to such treatment be prosecuted. The Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment compels us to refer all torture cases for prosecution or extradite the suspect to a country that will undertake a criminal investigation. The Geneva Conventions proclaim an "obligation" to bring those who have committed torture and cruel treatment before our "own courts." The Torture Convention and the Geneva Conventions are both part of U.S. law under the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution, which says, "all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land." Two federal statutes - the Torture Statute and the War Crimes Act (torture is a war crime) - provide for life imprisonment and even the death penalty if the victim dies from torture.

Obama has made a political calculation to seek amnesty for the CIA torturers. He expressed his "intention" to protect people who relied in good faith on Justice Department advice. However, good faith reliance on superior orders was rejected as a defense at Nuremberg and in Lt. Calley's Vietnam-era trial for the My Lai Massacre. The Torture Convention provides unequivocally, "An order from a superior officer or a public authority may not be invoked as a justification for torture."

There is evidence that the CIA was using the illegal techniques as early as April 2002, three to four months before the August memo was written. That would eliminate "good faith" reliance on Justice Department advice as a "defense" to prosecution. And Obama did not say he favored amnesty for those who set the policy - which would include Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice, Powell, Ashcroft and Gonzales who comprised the Principals Committee that authorized the torture and Bush who approved of it. Nor did Obama include in his intended amnesty the lawyers - like Yoo, Bybee, Bradbury, Addington and Haynes - whose opinions under girded the policy.

When ABC's George Stephanopoulos asked Rahm Emanuel on Sunday, "What about the people who designed the policies?", Emmanuel said the President doesn't support their prosecution either.

But the decision about whether and who to prosecute is up to the Attorney General, Eric Holder. If Holder continues to carry out Obama's political agenda by resisting investigations and prosecution, Congress can, and should, authorize the appointment of a special independent prosecutor to do what the law requires.

The Watergate scandal led to the enactment of the Ethics in Government Act. Three years after Richard Nixon resigned rather than face impeachment, President Carter asked Congress to pass a law authorizing the appointment of a special prosecutor to investigate and prosecute unlawful acts by high government officials. The bill empowered the attorney general to conduct a preliminary 90-day investigation when serious allegations arose involving a high government official.

Under the act, the attorney general could drop the investigation if he determined it was unsupported by the evidence. But if he found some merit to the charges, he was required to apply to a three-judge panel of federal court judges who would appoint a special prosecutor to investigate, prosecute, and issue a report. This procedure was used to appoint Kenneth Starr, whose witch hunt led to Bill Clinton's impeachment. In reaction, Congress allowed the independent counsel statute to expire by its own terms in 1999. It's time for the people to demand that Congress enact an independent counsel statute.

Universal jurisdiction

What happens if the United States government refuses to prosecute those who ordered, justified and carried out the torture and abuse? Other countries will launch criminal investigations of U.S. nationals under universal jurisdiction. See Spain Investigates What America Should [http://marjoriecohn.com/2009/04/spain-investigates-what-america-should.html].

Indeed prosecutors in Spain decided to file criminal charges against Yoo, Bybee, Gonzales, Haynes, Addington and Feith for torture. But in a rare move, Candido Conde-Pumpido, Spain's attorney general, overruled the prosecutors' decision, saying the case had "no merit" because the six men were not present when the abuse took place and it was up to the United States to prosecute.

Universal jurisdiction is used to prosecute foreign nationals when their own country refuses to prosecute. Adoph Eichmann, often called "the architect of the Holocaust," was tried, convicted and executed by Israel for crimes unconnected to Israel. He orchestrated the deportations but was not necessarily present at the gas chambers when millions were murdered.

Curiously, Conde-Pumpido's decision followed discussions between the U.S. and Spanish governments in which the Obama administration strongly suggested that charges against the six would be "inconvenient," according to Scott Horton of Harpers. Apparently and unfortunately, Obama is following the same tack Bush took by pressuring countries to back down on universal jurisdiction prosecutions.

The Spanish case is not dead, however. Judge Baltasar Garzon, who issued the arrest warrant for Augusto Pinochet in 1998, still has the power to determine whether the case will proceed.

Ultimately, it is up to Obama to fulfill his constitutional duty to ensure that the laws are faithfully executed. As he seems inclined to shirk that duty, it is up to us to pressure him, and Congress to hold accountable, those who violate our laws. Obama said that "nothing will be gained by spending our time and energy laying blame for the past." He is wrong. There is more to gain from upholding the rule of law. It will make future leaders think twice before they authorize the cruel, illegal treatment of other human beings.

Marjorie Cohn

Marjorie Cohn, a professor at Thomas Jefferson School of Law and past President of the National Lawyers Guild, is the deputy secretary general for external communications of the International Association of Democratic Lawyers, and the U.S. representative to the executive committee of the American Association of Jurists. She is the author of Cowboy Republic: Six Ways the Bush Gang Has Defied the Law and co-author of Rules of Disengagement: The Politics and Honor of Military Dissent (with Kathleen Gilberd). Her anthology, The United States and Torture: Interrogation, Incarceration and Abuse, is now available. Her articles are archived at www.marjoriecohn.com

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