A bipartisan panel said President George W. Bush’s administration engaged in torture after the Sept. 11 attacks and blamed “the nation’s highest officials” for “allowing and contributing to the spread of torture.”
The 560-page report by a task force of the Washington-based Constitution Project also takes aim at the Obama administration for maintaining secrecy on past abuses and failing to prosecute acts of torture.
The task force -- led by Republican Asa Hutchinson, a former Arkansas congressman and Homeland Security official under Bush, and Democrat James Jones, a former Oklahoma congressman and U.S. ambassador to Mexico in the Clinton administration -- offered what it called the most comprehensive report so far on prisoner interrogations.
“It is indisputable that the United States engaged in the practice of torture,” the report said.
The torture question roiled the Bush administration after the disclosure that three prisoners held by the CIA had been waterboarded, an interrogation technique that simulates drowning.
While the Bush administration denied the practice amounted to torture, the task force said the issue should no longer be subject to debate.
“The United States may not declare a nation guilty of engaging in torture and then exempt itself from being so labeled for similar if not identical conduct,” the report said.
The group, which had no access to classified information or subpoena power, said the public record provides ample evidence of torture.
“Torture was used against detainees in many instances and across a wide range of theaters,” Hutchinson said at a news conference, citing instances of waterboarding, stress positions and sleep deprivation.
The report said much of the torture that occurred in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, “was never explicitly authorized.” Still, it found the administration laid the groundwork for torture by declaring that the Geneva Conventions, which require humane treatment for prisoners of war, didn’t apply to the war on terrorism.
“The administration never specified what rules would apply instead,” the report said.
It faulted Justice Department lawyers for providing “novel, if not acrobatic” legal opinions that permitted torture and other mistreatment of prisoners.
The report also challenges the CIA’s claim that only three al-Qaeda prisoners were waterboarded.
The task force confirmed an account first provided by Human Rights Watch that at least one Libyan militant was waterboarded by U.S. forces in Afghanistan. It said a second Libyan militant was subjected to a “similar water-suffocation procedure” that didn’t involve a board.
The two incidents “caused some consternation at the CIA, which had always maintained that only three people had been waterboarded,” the report said.
Jones faulted the Obama administration for keeping documents classified in a practice that he said serves only “to conceal wrongdoing.”
Obama, in his first term, decided against creating a commission to study the Bush administration’s interrogation and detention policies, saying it was unproductive to “look backwards.”
Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont introduced legislation in 2009 to create a “truth commission” to investigate alleged wrongdoing, but the proposal went nowhere.
The task force, which interviewed scores of prisoners, military intelligence officers and interrogators, said its report “should not be the final word on how events played out.” It called on the Obama administration to declassify as much information as possible to expose wrongdoing and correct past abuses.
The report also disclosed an internal rift within the International Committee of the Red Cross over whether the Geneva-based group should reveal abuses it found at Guantanamo Bay, breaking a tradition of speaking only to affected governments.
Some Red Cross officials “were so offended by their discoveries at Guantanamo that they argued the group had to be more forceful in confronting the Defense Department,” the report said. Top Red Cross leadership “decided against confrontation, and a valuable opportunity may have been missed,” it said.
The report was less definitive on whether torture provided any valuable information to U.S. officials tracking potential terrorist plots.
Without access to classified information, the group said it couldn’t be sure whether torture yielded any breakthroughs. The Senate Intelligence Committee produced a report on interrogations that remains classified.
Still, the task force said there is no “firm or persuasive evidence” to indicate that torture was beneficial and called on those who disagree to offer some factual basis.
“The public record strongly suggests there was no useful information gained from going to the dark side” and engaging in torture, said David Irvine, a former Republican Utah state legislator and retired Army brigadier general who served on the task force. “We have been badly misled by false confessions derived from brutal interrogations.”
While most of the report’s findings were unanimous, the task force couldn’t agree on one key issue: how to address the indefinite detention of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay.
A majority of the group said the indefinite detention is “abhorrent and intolerable” and called on the Obama administration to bring prisoners to court or deport them.