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US Torture Programs: Obama's Mixed Progress

George Hunsinger

Since the signing of the Executive Orders in January 2009, the record of the new administration on torture has been very mixed.  Important memos have been released that only add to the presure for investigating the full scope of the previous administration's torture programs.  A Report of the International Committee of the Red Cross was leaked in April 2009 depicting in horrid detail the forms of torture--the word "torture" can no longer be evaded--to which terrorist suspects were subjected by the U.S.   

Yet as of that time, the administration has resisted all calls for investigation and prosecution, or only half-heartedly complied with them.  Invoking "state secrecy," it has attempted to shield illegal spying programs from judicial review.  It has argued that suspects abducted and rendered to Bagram have no rights of any kind.  The new director of the CIA has announced a policy of blanket amnesty for those who have committed grave violations of domestic and international law.  Many officials implicated in the now suspended torture programs still hold positions, notably in the CIA, and elsewhere in high places.  A fierce power struggle rages just behind the scenes.  Much still hangs in the balance.  

Three developments in August 2009 indicated the dimensions of this power struggle.  First, a heavily redacted report, written by the CIA's Inspector General, was released.  Although it revealed much that was not previously known, roughly one-third was blacked out (35 out of 109 pages).  Not formerly disclosed was that prisoners held in secret detention were subjected -- in direct violation of domestic and international law -- to mock executions and terrorized with electric drills.  Threats were made that their children would be tortured and their mothers raped.  (While still unclear, troubling evidence exists that some of these these threats may not have been idle.)  According to a former intelligence official, one thing the redactions hid were deaths and "lost" detainees. Despite highly publicized claims by former Vice President Cheney that the report showed torture as having "worked," he was contradicted by top Bush terrorism adviser, Frances Townsend.  The Inspector General expressed dismay that every one of his recommendations -- about three pages -- was blacked out.[1]   

Second, Attorney General Holder appointed a special prosecutor.  However, the prosecutor's mandate appeared to be severely limited.  Attention was supposed to be directed down the chain of command and authority, but not up.  Whether the investigation could finally be restricted in this way to protect those at the top remained unclear.  On the apparent regime of "semi-accountability," Dahlia Lithwick commented that the door was left wide open for reinstating the torture programs in the future.  "Pretending we are investigating and curtailing a torture program isn't all that different from pretending we didn't torture in the first place."[2]  

Finally, the Special Task Force created by the president's Executive Orders issued its report.  The Task Force concluded that the Army Field Manual provided adequate guidance for military and other interrogators.  The report failed to state that the Field Manual allows for certain abusive techniques that are tantamount to torture, especially when used in combination, as is not always uncommon.  These techniques include prolonged isolation, sleep deprivation, partial sensory deprivation, stress positions, and the use of drugs. The Task Force also endorsed the use of "renditions" in a supposedly more regulated form than had been known in recent years.  As psychologist and anti-torture activist Jeffrey Kaye observed: "The Special Task Force recommendations are a defeat for organizations ... which called for a rescission of Appendix M of the Army Field Manual and an end to extraordinary renditions. It is a victory for the version of Bush-lite that is being assembled in the new, Democratic administration."[3]  

One last point.  It is sad to see the mainstream media display so much confusion about a heinous crime like torture Torture is immoral under all circumstances.  It represents an extreme and shocking form of violating the human person.  Like slavery, genocide and rape, it is never justified.  It is false to suppose that torture is an effective means of interrogation. The pragmatic question - even in an emergency situation -  is not whether torture "works" but whether it produces reliable information. The overwhelming verdict of professional interrogators is that it does not.  The immoral and the illegal are thus compounded by futility   

What is prohibited by domestic and international law is not just torture, but also cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.  Even if waterboarding, sleep deprivation, stress positions, threats to a suspect's children, and so on were not torture (which they are), they would still be unspeakable crimes.

A democratic society that systematically resorts to torture descends to the level of the monstrous regimes it purports to oppose.    

[1] See Joanne Mariner, 'What the Inspector General Found," FindLaw (August 25, 2009) <>; Daphne Eviatar, "Former Intelligence Officer: CIA Report Redactions Hide Deaths and 'L:ost' Detainees," Washington Independent (August 26, 2009) <>.
[2] Dahlia Lithwick, "Halfway There," Slate (August 25, 2009).<
[3] Jeffrey Kaye (Valtin). "Obama Task Force Recommends Army Field Manual Abuse and Rendition as New U.S. Policy," Invictus (August 24, 2009). <>  

George Hunsinger teaches at Princeton Theological Seminary. He is the editor of Torture Is a Moral Issue: Christians, Jews, Muslims and People of Conscience Speak Out (Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2008), and Founder of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture (

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