Obama's Record: Torture

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An important provision in the January 22, 2009 Executive Order regarding Interrogations was repudiating the numerous executive orders and opinions issued during the Bush administration that granted official approval for torture, cruel and inhuman treatment, and abuse. The order explicitly affirmed the applicability of the Geneva Conventions to all persons in U.S. custody who are detained in any armed conflict and limited interrogation techniques to those allowed in the Department of Defense Army Field Manual (AFM).

While this executive order certainly represents an extraordinary step forward, the current version of the Army Field Manual authorizes numerous brutal interrogation techniques that amount to torture. The persistence of these Bush-era torture techniques, combined with Obama’s refusal to seek prosecutions for those responsible for designing and overseeing the illegal torture program, makes ending torture an unfinished promise.

While the current Army Field Manual does not allow waterboarding or many other torture techniques adopted by the Bush administration, it still condones an array of techniques that constitute torture. The manual was revised in 2006, in part as an attempt to legitimize some of the abuses taking place at Guantánamo and elsewhere. It includes a new section, Appendix M, which applies only to so-called “unlawful enemy combatants," a term used to describe detainees in Guantánamo and elsewhere that was not a recognized designation under U.S. or international law prior to being introduced by the Bush administration in 2002 and later incorporated into the Military Commissions Act of 2006. This appendix allows such techniques as prolonged isolation, sleep deprivation, sensory deprivation, and inducing fear and humiliation of prisoners. These techniques, especially when used in combination as permitted by these guidelines, can cause long-lasting psychological and physical harm and constitute cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, and in some cases, torture.

Other techniques in the Army Field Manual allow U.S. interrogators to pretend to be from another country, or to pretend the prisoner is located in another country (including nations known for torture and abuse), and to use "Fear Up"—a procedure designed to psychologically exploit prisoners' existing fears and to induce "new fears" in prisoners. This administration should remove Appendix M from the Army Field Manual entirely, and rewrite the rest of the document to remove abusive and illegal techniques.

President Obama has repeatedly indicated his reluctance to pursue prosecutions for the senior Bush administration officials who orchestrated and implemented the U.S. torture program, and he has even welcomed some of the conspirators into his administration. The current Department of Justice inquiry into CIA prisoner abuse is limited to investigating the agency’s low-level employees and contractors. While the torture program was created by the Bush administration, to date it has been the Obama administration that is ensuring impunity for the most powerful people responsible for these crimes. We will not be free of the dangerous legacy of torture until we hold those responsible for torture accountable, and thus show the world that these crimes will not be tolerated. Only criminal prosecutions will unequivocally demonstrate to future government officials that if they torture, they too will be held accountable.

Since the first public revelations of the Bush administration’s torture program, the Center for Constitutional Rights has been working to hold high-level officials and their lawyers accountable for their crimes. CCR has tried three times—twice in Germany and once in France—to bring criminal cases against former Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, former CIA director George Tenet, former White House Counsel/former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, and others who were part of the torture conspiracy. The Center has also published a book, The Trial of Donald Rumsfeld: A Prosecution by Book, that lays out the evidence that Rumsfeld and other high-level members of the Bush administration are responsible for war crimes and must be held accountable.

CCR is continuing to pursue torture Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) litigation charging the Department of Defense and other government agencies with illegally withholding records concerning the abuse of detainees in U.S. military custody. Information about the role of private contractors in the U.S. torture program is available in CCR’s fact sheet on corporations and torture in prisons in Iraq, and on the Military Contractors section of this report.
You can take action today by writing to President Obama and asking him to revoke Appendix M and other sections of the Army Field Manual that could allow torture, abuse, and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment to continue, and to fully investigate and prosecute those officials responsible for war crimes, torture and other violations of U.S. Law.
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This page last updated: April 1, 2010

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