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U.S. has never held accountable those who authorized torture

Detainees sitting in a holding area at Naval Base Guantanamo Bay

Today is the anniversary of two tragedies. Five years ago the 35W bridge collapsed, 13 people died, and dozens of others were injured. We cut corners and people died. The other anniversary, equally tragic, won’t get as much attention in this state. This tragedy is ongoing, and the lessons have not yet been learned.

Ten years ago today, the so-called “torture memos” were written for President George W. Bush. Those were the memos, authored by the Justice Department’s John Yoo and Jay Bybee, that defined torture so narrowly that it was virtually defined out of existence. After those memos became public, they were repudiated by the Bush Justice Department and deemed “inoperative.”

Inevitably, though, those memos resulted in people in U.S. custody being tortured. The evidence is overwhelming. The chief judge at the Guantanamo Military Commissions, Susan Crawford, has said so, as have other federal judges. The inspector general of the CIA has said so. FBI interrogators, who refused to participate in the torture program, reportedly half-jokingly kept a “war crimes” file on Guantanamo.

Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba, the man selected by the Pentagon to do the report on the Abu Ghraib scandal, a man whom no one has described as anti-American, summed it up when in wrote in a more general context: “The Commander-in-Chief and those under him authorized a systematic regime of torture.”

President Bush didn’t just receive and follow bad legal advice. Many in his own administration dissented. Legal counsel and others in the State Department expressed their disagreement with and disapproval of engaging in such practices. The General Counsel of the Navy, Alberto Mora, strongly objected and was left standing by the side of the road. Lawyers with the military’s Judge Advocates General (JAG) Corps consistently condemned these “enhanced interrogation techniques,” but the program proceeded regardless. The president got the “advice” he wanted and rejected the opinions — legal and otherwise — that got in his way.

Other nations confronting their pasts

But the real tragedy is that once our torture program was revealed, we failed — and continue to fail — to hold accountable those who were responsible for designing, authorizing, or ordering its implementation. And this failure has continued in spite of a worldwide trend of holding high government officials accountable for human-rights violations. University of Minnesota Professor Kathryn Sikkink’s recent book, “The Justice Cascade,” documents how countries with rule-of-law traditions far less robust than ours are using a variety of accountability mechanisms for past human-rights violations. Truth commissions, investigations and prosecutions, reparations, official apologies — other governments are moving forward by confronting their pasts.

Not in our country, though. We want to look forward, not backward. But even President Barack Obama, who famously expressed that point of view with respect to our own actions, advised the Indonesian government in 2010 to confront its past. He said, “We have to acknowledge that those past human-rights abuses existed. We can’t go forward without looking backwards. …”

No one charged

But alas, no one has ever been charged under the Federal Torture Statute with committing or conspiring to commit torture on behalf of the United States. This while our officially sanctioned torture program has been documented by everyone who has examined the issue, both inside and outside of government.

When the bridge fell, we didn’t say we were going to look only forward, not backward. We didn’t say those responsible should not be held accountable. We didn’t simply acknowledge the tragedy and move on.

When it comes to torture, we Minnesotans have a special responsibility. We have two U.S. senators who sit on the Judiciary Committee. The U.S. Attorney for the District of Minnesota heads the 18-member Attorney General’s Advisory Committee. And our state has often led the nation on issues of human rights.

Every day that we fail to act to realize accountability for the torture we have committed, we compound the tragedy of those initial memos of 10 years ago. This tragedy, done intentionally and done in our names, continues on, and the lessons have not yet been learned. We can do better.

Chuck Turchick is a retired Minneapolis resident who is concerned about torture and torture accountability issues.


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Comments (7)

  1. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 08/01/2012 - 06:47 am.

    It’s difficult

    for a reasonable American to get exercised over the alleged mistreatment of enemy combatants who’ve vowed to kill us, when we consider that our government incinerated over 300,000 innocent Japanese civilians without international outcry or consequence.

    That’s because when a nation is under attack, governments do what they have to do. We’ve been fortunate to have leaders in our government who took seriously their oath to protect the American people, whatever it takes, hand-wringing fools and pacifists notwithstanding.

    • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 08/01/2012 - 11:47 am.

      The problem is defining “enemy combatant” when it turns out that many in US custody were nothing more than ordinary people who were turned in on a grudge or swept up in random actions.

      The most clear results of the botched and prolonged “global war on terror” are that our enemies have learned how to fight us into a stalemate with small weapons and IED’s, that actions such as torture are recruiting tools for the “bad guys” and divide the “good guys”, and that the US gets entangled with some pretty objectionable people (torture outsourced to Mubarak’s Egypt and Assad’s Syria–do you think that had any thing with us being frozen into inaction during their regime change?)

      By the way–what did the torture accomplish? Not much, from what I’ve read.

      So we are a nation under attack, because they hate our democratic values,rights and freedoms?

      What is the answer then? Become more autocratic, brutal, disregarding of individual life, group reprisals, make individual rights subservient to the wishes of an ideology?

      That sounds like we are becoming more like them.

      Who’s winning if we become them?

    • Submitted by Steve Titterud on 08/01/2012 - 01:45 pm.

      Governments do plenty they don’t have to do.

      Your statement seems to imply that if someone is “exercised” about our use of torture, he must not be “reasonable”, or perhaps not “American”.

      But then, in spite of contrary evidence, you cling to the notion that the use of torture is merely “alleged”. I mean, maybe you think it never happened in the first place, or maybe in your eyes, all those cited in the article here have just got it all wrong.

      You don’t have to be a hand-wringing fool or pacifist to see the harm these practices have done to US. Even though some may object to what it does to others, or that our own soldiers are imperiled by our use of torture, or that it is highly ineffective, the real point of those who object is what it does to ourselves, our country.

      The fire-bombings of civilian centers in Europe and Japan were not prosecuted as war crimes ONLY because we won the war. After the war, the victors executed the enemy for far lesser crimes. Do you think those indictments, trials, and sentences were issued by “hand-wringing fools” ??

      Curtis LeMay himself said, “If we lose the war, we’ll be tried as war criminals.” I’m confident he was right.

  2. Submitted by chuck turchick on 08/01/2012 - 08:36 am.

    Amen, Dennis.

    Enough of those “hand-wringing fools and pacifists” like John McCain!

  3. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 08/01/2012 - 11:58 am.

    The final result of the “global war on terror” is that anything can be justified simply because it is a war without a defined end objective that predictably creates more enemies the longer and more dirtier it is fought.

  4. Submitted by Beryl John-Knudson on 08/01/2012 - 07:21 pm.

    Terror is a relative term sometimes…

    Funny thing…when we have managed to wall out all the ‘terrorists’, we have walled ourselves in as we wall out the ‘others’. We become caged in by our own fears and acts ‘justified’ in the process. Gitmo was a big landmark…the jump from credible to incredible terrorism somehow warped into to our foggy consciousness and justified in the process?

    In the mi- thirties in Europe anything was okay like killing off a whole group to save themselves …for what? To become totally insensitive to the ‘other’ over ‘me and us’; and whomever we choose to call terrorist?

    So who do you trust:
    But what happens when drones become boomerangs and we start turning on our neighbors and ‘security’ and surveillance become the acceptable part of our daily lives… how long before we start turning on ourselves and then what?

    But that’s probably not the case as long as we sell our violent acts as necessary terrorism against others?

    Life soon becomes a marketplace of power; used and abused at times?

    We are good people eh…tell that to your grandkids down the years caged in by our own deceptions…say it isn’t so, eh?

  5. Submitted by Beryl John-Knudson on 08/02/2012 - 06:32 am.

    Where are we going? Are we there yet?

    Violence generates violence. It is the insidious nature of the act itself. With righteous certainty the perpetrator of the retaliatory act may claim it is a necessary means of deterring acts of violence by others.

    But in the silent moments of his retrospective self, a dull, nagging survives. So pertinaciously he must must perform acts of violence again and again, hoping to silence the dull throbbing; hoping to making it all right.

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