CIA detention programme: Criminal investigations long overdue

US Attorney General Eric Holder’s announcement on Tuesday that he has ordered a “preliminary review” into some interrogations of some detainees in the secret detention programme operated by the CIA after the attacks of 11 September 2001, while a welcome first step, does not go far enough, Amnesty International said.

“The USA needs to ensure that every case of torture is submitted for prosecution, whether or not perpetrators claim to have been following orders, and those who authorized or ordered the commission of torture or other criminal abuse of detainees must also be brought to justice,” said Rob Freer, Amnesty International’s researcher on the USA. “The USA should also establish an independent commission of inquiry to investigate all aspects of the USA’s detention practices in what the previous administration called the ‘war on terror'”, he said.

“The establishment and operation of such a commission, however, must not be used to block or delay the prosecution of any individuals against whom there is already sufficient evidence of criminal wrongdoing.”

The Attorney General’s announcement came on the same day that a 2004 review of the CIA’s detention and interrogation activities by the CIA Inspector General was released as part of Freedom of Information Act litigation. Suppressed for more than five years, the report covers the period between September 2001 and October 2003. Parts of it remain Top Secret and have been redacted from the published version.

“The Attorney General’s announcement is unquestionably a significant step forward from the years of total denial and the consequent climate of near-zero accountability or remedy that has prevailed to date,” said Rob Freer.

“But it is not nearly enough to satisfy US obligations under international human rights and humanitarian law, including the most basic notions of accountability and remedy for gross and systematic human rights violations.”

Allegations of torture, enforced disappearance and other crimes under international law committed as part of the CIA detention programme have been in the public realm for years. No one has been prosecuted for authorizing or committing these crimes.

It is over four years since the leaking of a Department of Justice memorandum written for the CIA in mid-2002, arguing among other things that “under the current circumstances” necessity or self-defence could justify interrogation methods amounting to torture.

The third anniversary of President George W Bush’s speech confirming the existence of the secret detention programme, effectively admitting that the USA had been conducting a programme of enforced disappearance, is fast approaching.

The Attorney General’s announcement comes on the heels of fresh allegations by unnamed CIA sources to ABC News last week that Lithuania hosted a secret prison where terrorism suspects were detained and interrogated by the CIA.

Poland and Romania have also been named as having provided detention facilities to the CIA for use as secret prisons. The Polish government has an ongoing investigation into the presence of secret CIA interrogation sites on its territory and the Lithuanian government pledged this week to commence a parliamentary inquiry into allegations that such a facility existed outside Vilnius until late 2005. Romania continues to deny that it conspired with the US to host a secret prison on its territory, but has failed to adequately investigate those charges.

A year and a half ago, the then CIA Director, General Michael Hayden, confirmed that “water-boarding”, a torture technique under which the perception of drowning is induced in the victim, had been among the “enhanced” techniques used against detainees in CIA custody. It is four months since it was revealed that Abu Zubaydah had been subjected to waterboarding at least 83 times in August 2002, and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed some 183 times in March 2003.

“The USA has a basic legal obligation, expressly provided for by treaties such as the UN Convention against Torture and the Geneva Conventions, not to look away from crimes such as torture and enforced disappearance but rather to bring the full force of the criminal justice system to bear upon them,” said Rob Freer. “Refusing to bring to justice perpetrators of torture is simply not tenable if the USA is to live up to its obligations.”