The Torture Commission Trap
Today I awoke to read that a number of human rights type groups have called on President Obama to create a commission of accountability to investigate and report publicly on torture and the cruel and inhumane treatment of detainees. There is not a word in the petition about criminal prosecutions of the torture team. Yet, I know that some of these groups would say they still want prosecutions. Sadly, this call and a commission if set up, would almost guarantee that prosecutions won’t happen.
Briefly, here is why. We have reached a critical political moment on this issue. Obama has been forced or pushed to open the door to prosecutions, an opening I thought would take much longer to achieve. If there was ever a time to push that door open wider and demand a special prosecutor it is now. We have documented and open admissions of criminality. We have Cheney and Hayden admitting what they approved these techniques; and Cheney saying he would approve waterboarding again. We have the Senate Armed Services Report detailing how the torture program was authored and approved by our highest officials in the Whitehouse and employed in Guantanamo, Iraq and Afghanistan. And we have thousands of pages of proof. There is public outrage about the torture program and the media in the US and the world are covered with the US misdeeds.
So at this moment, instead of human rights groups getting together and calling for a special prosecutor what do they do? Call for a commission. What this call does and it must be said strongly is take the pressure off what is the growing public push for prosecutions and deflects it into a commission. Outrage that could actually lead to prosecutions is now focused away and into a commission. Think if this list of human rights groups had demanded prosecutions. We would be closer and not farther from the goal.
I am sure some of these human rights groups will argue that a commission will or can be a first step to prosecutions. Sure, it is possible, but unlikely for the reasons I gave in a letter published in Harper’s and available on my blog. The commission process will drag on, statutes of limitation will run and the conclusion of the commission is likely to be: the US should not have tortured, but it was an extraordinary and dangerous moment after 9/11 and the torturers were acting in our best interest to avoid another 9/11. Prosecutions are not recommended.
I don’t think I need to repeat here why we need prosecutions. If we are to stop torture in the future we need to send the clear message that if an official tortures, prosecutions will follow. Without that message the next President or even this one, can again put us on the page of torture by signing another executive order. And don’t think that won’t happen no matter how many commissions reach results saying the US should not have tortured. It will and Cheney, Hayden and other have said so.
It is time to do what is necessary. Appoint a special prosecutor and insure that this country will not again be a country of torture.
MICHAEL RATNER is president of the Center for Constitutional Rights and author of The Trial of Donald Rumsfeld: a Prosecution by Book.