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The U.S. has acknowledged that it engaged in torture, that it operated a program whereby it abducted men from around the world, put them in secret detention, and tortured them," said Laura Pitter, senior national security counsel for Human Rights Watch. (Photo: Brian Stauffer/Human Rights Watch)

Without Prosecution of Bush Officials, Obama Legacy 'Forever Poisoned'

Human Rights Watch offers legal blueprint for prosecuting architects of CIA torture program

Sarah Lazare

With just a year left in office, President Barack Obama must launch a full criminal investigation of former President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, and all U.S. officials behind the CIA torture program—and provide redress to its victims—Human Rights Watch (HRW) demanded Tuesday.

"It's been a year since the Senate torture report, and still the Obama administration has not opened new criminal investigations into CIA torture," said Kenneth Roth, executive director of HRW. "Without criminal investigations, which would remove torture as a policy option, Obama’s legacy will forever be poisoned."

In making a legal case for such a criminal probe, HRW took direct aim at Obama's repeated refusal to pursue criminal investigations into CIA torture. In 2012, the administration closed its inquiry into the whether the CIA torture program involved criminal conduct, with then attorney general Eric Holder claiming there was insufficient evidence for prosecution.

This refusal persisted despite Obama's infamous admission in August 2014, "We tortured some folks."

"The U.S. has acknowledged that it engaged in torture, that it operated a program whereby it abducted men from around the world, put them in secret detention, and tortured them," Laura Pitter, senior national security counsel for HRW, said in a video accompanying the report.

What's more, Pitter argued, the summary of the still-classified Senate Intelligence Committee report on CIA torture, released in December 2014, revealed that the "brutality and systematic nature of these abuses" was far more "widespread and much more brutal than we thought."

With no statue of limitations on many of the crimes the U.S. government has admitted to, and with Obama still in office for another year, the human rights group says the president has "no more excuses" not to prosecute.

"[T]here is substantial evidence to support the opening of new investigations into allegations of criminal offenses by numerous US officials and agents in connection with the CIA program," reads the report. "These include torture, assault, sexual abuse, war crimes, and conspiracy to commit such crimes."

HRW notes that governments are required to investigate allegations of torture and "prosecute where warranted" under the United Nations Convention against Torture, which the United States ratified nearly 30 years ago.

"If the United States with its established democracy and stable political system can flout its legal obligation to prosecute torture, it undermines respect for the rule of law the world over," Roth said. "Government officials who went shopping for and helped to craft legal opinions justifying the unjustifiable shouldn’t be able to rely on those opinions to shield themselves from liability."

HRW calls for the following officials "who created, authorized, and implemented" the CIA torture program to be among those facing criminal probes:

  • Acting CIA General Counsel John Rizzo
  • Assistant Attorney General for Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) Jay Bybee
  • OLC Deputy Assistant Attorney General John Yoo
  • CIA Director George Tenet
  • National Security Legal Advisor John Bellinger
  • Attorney General John Ashcroft
  • White House Counsel Legal Advisor Alberto Gonzales
  • Counsel to the Vice President David Addington
  • Deputy White House Counsel Timothy Flanigan
  • National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice
  • Defense Department General Counsel William Haynes II
  • Vice President Dick Cheney
  • President George W. Bush.
  • James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, CIA psychologist contractors

However, as journalist Murtaza Hussain noted in The Intercept on Tuesday, the CIA torture program is just the tip of the iceberg: "During the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wide-ranging human rights abuses are also documented to have been carried out by members of the military alongside civilian contractors, including unauthorized practices such as rape and murder."

Meanwhile, there are already signs that presidential hopefuls are looking to CIA torture as an inspiration for future policy. In late November, 2016 GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump vowed to bring back waterboarding and torture, stating: "Even if it doesn't work, they deserve it anyway."

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