U.S. Torture Was a War Crime. Why Hasn't Anyone Been Held Accountable?


"Perhaps the most important or notable finding of this panel is that it is indisputable that the United States engaged in the practice of torture."

This is only the first of several conclusions offered in a 576-page report released by the Task Force on Detainee Treatment, an 11-member bipartisan commission organized by the Constitution Project to investigate the United States' treatment of detainees over the past two decades.

What's really shocking is that this is the Task Force's least controversial conclusion. There's been surprisingly little disagreement over what, exactly, representatives of the United States have done to detainees in Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantanamo Bay, and in secret prisons around the world. Defenders of such practices have argued that they were necessary, that they were justified, or contorted the legal definitions of torture while re-branding them "enhanced interrogation techniques," but to their dubious credit, they haven’t disputed what is actually happening.

On this last point, the Task Force offers a resounding condemnation of the view that such measures weren't torture. An entire appendix is devoted to laying out the abuses in great detail and establishing them as violating the Geneva Conventions as well as international and U.S. law.

The hypocrisy of the U.S. government is astounding: while regularly describing the use of "near drowning" by countries like Sri Lanka and Tunisia as "torture and abuse," the Bush Administration staunchly defended its own use of waterboarding. And there are many more examples. The efficacy of torture is sharply criticized as well, the Task Force declaring that "no clear evidence in the public record that torture produced more useful intelligence than conventional methods of interrogation, or that it saved lives."

But the report continues: "The second notable conclusion of the Task Force is that the nation's highest officials bear some responsibility for allowing and contributing to the spread of torture."

Unsurprisingly, the report focuses on the Bush Administration, laying out how the decision not to apply the Geneva Convention to captured militants and the authorization of brutal techniques by the CIA reverberated throughout the military. In the words of Marine generals Charles Krulak and Joseph Hoar: "any degree of ‘flexibility’ about torture at the top drops down the chain of command like a stone — the rare exception fast becoming the rule."

The Task Force is unyielding in its conclusions – that American officials at the highest levels, including President Bush, Vice President Cheney, and Secretary Rumsfeld, facilitated and condoned crimes of war.

But the Task Force explicitly rejects any partisan motivations, condemning both the Clinton and Obama administrations for their own transgressions, the former for introducing the practice of rendition, the latter for failing to satisfactorily address past injustices as well as continuing to avoid transparency. Lawyers, doctors, and journalists all helped to facilitate torture, both directly and indirectly.

Even as someone familiar with the situation, and who firmly believed that such actions were torture, the extent to which the United States promoted the use of torture and abuse is shocking. But the completely lack of accountability on behalf of those responsible is even worse. We cannot change the past, but to completely ignore it only compounds our nation's crimes. This report, with its unprecedented breadth and detail, should be a call to action on an issue that threatens to undermine our moral character and authority.

Certainly, any attempts at redress will not be easy. The fickle nature of democracy makes it difficult to hold such public figures accountable. Yet, as Andrew Sullivan points out, "What matters and the law is crystal clear about this is that torture and anything even close to torture be prosecuted aggressively." We cannot claim to be a nation that upholds the rule of law and at the same time blatantly ignore such brutal violations of those laws.

Such accountability needn't be punitive. Some have suggested that the best path forward is a Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the South African model. Jonathan Bernstein argues that "The best chance to persuade key Bush administration figures to say that what they did was, in fact, torture, and that it should never happen again is for torture opponents to treat it as a grave but understandable error in the context of a zealous effort to keep the nation safe in a suddenly uncertain world."

Regardless of the path that is chosen, addressing our nation’s systematic use of torture is a moral and legal imperative. But perhaps most importantly, to do otherwise is to all but guarantee that the United States will again use such repulsive and morally bankrupt methods. Again, Andrew Sullivan wisely offers: "There is no way forward without this going back. And there is no way past this but through it."