Inside Story Americas

Torment, torture and terror

A report concludes that the US tortured detainees, so how will its findings affect the US counter-terrorism policy?

Last Modified: 17 Apr 2013 13:36
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A non-partisan US task force concludes that it is indisputable that the United States tortured detainees; and that the country's highest officials bear responsibility.

The comprehensive 560-page study into US interrogation and detention programmes after 9/11 was produced by an eleven-member panel convened by a group called the Constitution Project.

"This is a very strongly worded report ... which starts with: 'The United States tortured'. First of all using the word torture [instead of enhanced interrogation techniques] ... is making a statement .... The report makes it clear that it's not just important to acknowledge that torture happened [but also] to acknowledge that individuals at the highest level of government were involved ... it is not just a backwards looking report, it is very much ... forward looking ... and the moral clarity, the legal clarity [in it] is actually something that we haven’t seen before."

- Karen Greenberg, director of the Centre on National Security at Fordham University 

It was led by a former Republican and member of George W Bush's cabinet; and a former Democrat congressman.

The report will make uncomfortable reading for members of both the Bush and the Obama administrations.

It concludes that "the kind of considered and detailed discussions, involving the president and his top advisors on inflicting pain and torment on some detainees in custody" were unprecedented.

Moreover, the taskforce found 'no firm or persuasive evidence' that torture produced valuable information and that the policy 'damaged the standing of the US'.

The report was undertaken after President Obama refused to support a national commission to investigate the post 9/11 counter-terrorism programmes.

Although it finds an improvement in policy under president Obama, it notes allegations of so-called "proxy" detention and the torture of suspects handed over to US allies in the last few years.

It also questions Obama's executive order that allows what the report calls 'imhumane practices' during interrogation. The commission also calls for the indefinite detention of prisoners at Guanatanamo to be addressed.

And the report raises significant legal questions - as a signatory to the international convention against torture, the US is required to promptly investigate allegations of abuse and compensate the victims.

"One of the findings in the report ... is the trickle-down effect, which is that when you have senior leaders in our government, who say that it's ok once in a while to break the rules, and use torture if it saves lives, that has an effect in the field ... [it] had a very catastrophic effect in many different theatres, in Iraq, Afghanistan, at Guantanamo."

- Tony Camerino, former senior military interrogator 

The Constitution Project's report is billed as the most ambitious, non-partisan attempt yet to assess US detention and interrogation programmes.

It concludes that it is "indisputable" that the US engaged in torture, and that ultimate responsibility lies with the country's most senior officials.

As well as detailing numerous acts of torture, the report also found that the US violated its international legal obligations by engineering what it called "enforced disappearances" and secret detentions.

So why has the report been undertaken now and will its findings make any difference?

Inside Story Americas, with presenter Shihab Rattansi, speaks to guests: Thomas Pickering, a former US ambassador to numerous countries and the United Nations who also served as undersecretary of state for political affairs; Tony Camerino, a former senior military interrogator who conducted or supervised over 1,300 interrogations in Iraq; and Karen Greenberg, director of the Centre on National Security at Fordham University.

"We interviewed well over a 100 people, we saw thousands of pages of documents, there is nothing classified in the report. But it gave us an opportunity to look at torture, to look at rendition, to look at Guantanamo, to look at the behaviour of medical personnel in these particular set of activities, to look at legal people …"

" It gave us an opportunity - we hope to tell the American public - the truth as we found it and as we understood it. And we hope it will impel the United States to take a series of actions ... that will never allow this to happen again." 

-Thomas Pickering, Constitution Project task force member


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