Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Religious Leaders Support Commission of Inquiry

By William Fisher

A leaked Red Cross report, detailing chilling accounts of prisoner torture in “black sites” run by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency have underlined the need for an independent commission of inquiry into possible war crimes committed by senior officials during the presidency of George W. Bush, according to a statement by 25 prominent clergymen and women.

Linda Gustitus, president of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT), said, "The release of the report from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) on the treatment of US-held detainees in CIA secret prisons makes the need for a Commission of Inquiry into US detention and interrogation practices even more compelling.”

“Our country cannot turn a blind eye to these findings; we must determine and make public all the facts with respect to this conduct, and we must hold the leaders who ordered these acts accountable," she said.

Rev. Rich Kilmer, NRCAT executive director, told IPS, “We need to understand fully what happened so that we can effectively develop those safeguards. Investigating the past will help produce a future where the U.S. no longer engages in torture.”

Kilmer said, “Such a Commission would not preclude a simultaneous investigation by the Department of Justice or by a special prosecutor. Where sufficient evidence exists that laws may have been broken, justice dictates that no one is above the law and prosecutions should be launched.”

He added that the Commission of Inquiry could be appointed by the President or by Congress.

Details of the leaked report were first published on the Web site of the New York Review of Books in an extensive article by Mark Danner, a journalism professor. The report, compiled from interviews with numerous U.S. detainees, describes acts of brutalization and sensory deprivation employed by American agents. The report concluded: “The allegations of ill-treatment of the detainees indicate that, in many cases, the ill-treatment to which they were subjected while held in the CIA program, either singly or in combination, constituted torture. In addition, many other elements of the ill-treatment, either singly or in combination, constituted cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.”

Danner writes that all the torture techniques "had to have the approval of the CIA’s deputy director for operations." He wrote that CIA officers "briefed high-level officials" in the National Security Council's Principals Committee,' including Vice President Dick Cheney, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, and Attorney General John Ashcroft, 'who then signed off on the interrogation plan.'" The briefings about these techniques were so "detailed and frequent that some of the interrogation sessions were almost choreographed."

The CIA’s secret "global internment system" was set up at the direction of President George W. Bush less than a week after the attacks of September 11, 2001, Danner asserts.

But during a press conference in August 2007, a reporter asked President Bush if he "had read" another highly confidential report alleging CIA prisoner mistreatment. "Haven't seen it; we don't torture," Bush answered, quickly moving on to another question.

After the Washington Post later uncovered and published details of the CIA’s global network of “black site” – secret – prisons, President Bush acknowledged that he had authorized interrogations using an "alternative set of procedures." These procedures included extended "sleep deprivation," prolonged forced nudity, bombarding detainees with noise and light, repeated immersion in cold water, prolonged standing, sometimes for many days, beatings of various kinds, and "waterboarding" -- or, as the report's authors phrase it, "suffocation by water."

According to the ICRC report, "in many cases, the ill-treatment to which they were subjected while held in the CIA program...constituted torture."

Its report continues: "In addition, many other elements of the ill-treatment, either singly or in combination, constituted cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment."

Both torture and "cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment" are forbidden by many treaties to which the U.S. is a signatory, including the Convention Against Torture and the Geneva Conventions.

The accounts of the detainees themselves, including the most prominent captured in the “War on Terror”, describe their detention from the time they were secretly brought to the “black sites" -- secret prisons around the world, including in Thailand, Afghanistan, and Poland, through the interrogations using "waterboarding." beatings, and other techniques.

The ICRC interviewed 14 "high-value detainees" over many days for the report, including Abu Zubaydah, Khalid Shaik Mohammed, and Walid bin Attash. These 14 remain imprisoned in Guantánamo.

The ICRC is the appointed legal guardian of the Geneva Conventions and the body appointed to supervise the treatment of prisoners of war. Its reports are delivered to signatory governments on a highly confidential basis. The ICRC expressed dismay at the leaking of one of its reports.

Accounts of the report were subsequently published in most of America’s major newspapers, including The New York Times and the Washington Post. So compelling were its details that it gained endorsement from some commentators whose political views customarily lean to the right. For example, Anne Applebaum, a columnist for the Washington Post, wrote:

“That crimes were committed is no longer in doubt…The horror of the CIA interrogation tactics in these places lies not in their scale but in the doggedness with which they defied American and international law...These 14 men were not tortured as part of an ordinary and accepted routine, in other words, but according to special rules and procedures, set up at the highest level of government, by people who surely knew that they were illegal; otherwise, they would not have limited them so carefully.”

NRCAT has joined many legal advocacy and human rights organizations in calling for an impartial, nonpartisan, and independent “Commission of Inquiry” to investigate U.S.-sponsored torture and to ascertain the extent to which Bush administration interrogation practices constituted "cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment."

NRCAT’S statement was signed by more than two dozen prominent religious leaders, representing denominations from a wide range of religions, including Protestant and Catholic Christians, Muslims, orthodox and reformed Jews, Sikhs and Hindus.

Their statement says, “The United States must never again engage in torture. Torture is immoral, illegal and counterproductive. It causes profound and lasting harm, especially to its victims but also to its perpetrators. It contradicts our nation’s deepest values and corrupts the moral fabric of our society.”

“As people of faith, we know that brokenness can be healed – both in individual lives and in the life of the nation. All religions believe that redemption is possible. Learning the truth can set us on a path toward national healing and renewal,” the statement says.

Senator Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat and Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, is exploring the possibility of establishing a “Truth” Commission. In the U.S. House of Representatives, Rep. John Conyers, Democrat of Michigan, is proposing a similar body. Others in and outside Congress are supporting the appointment of an independent prosecutor appointed by the Department of Justice. All would carry out comprehensive investigations into the approval of and use of torture by the U.S. government.

Thus far, President Barack Obama has appeared cool to the idea of a special commission of inquiry. At a recent press conference, he said his inclination was to look forward, not backward. However, he added, “ no one is above the law.”