After months of partisan debate, the Senate finally confirmed Loretta Lynch as head of the U.S. Justice Department—but her delayed confirmation was just the beginning of the challenges she will face as attorney general. In addition to the turmoil in Baltimore, Lynch inherited a torture problem.
Ever since the Senate summary report on CIA torture was issued last December, the Justice Department has been actively trying to shove this landmark document under a rug. In Eric Holder’s final weeks as attorney general, he not only failed to make a decision about the Senate torture report, he permitted the agency to say completely inconsistent things about it. The day the declassified summary of the report was released to the public, an unnamed Justice Department official told multiple leading U.S. news outlets that a team of investigators had reviewed the full report but found nothing new that would make them reconsider prosecutions for torture.
Then, a little more than a month later, the Justice Department told a U.S. court that no one there had ever opened, let alone reviewed the full report. In a Kafkaesque court document, a Justice Department official describes receiving a Senate package with two CDs containing the report, stuffing these CDs into new envelopes, then sealing them and putting them away. “The DOJ copy of the Full Report … remains unopened,” according to the Justice Department.
Has the Justice Department read the report, or hasn’t it? Is it reviewing any potential evidence of human rights violations and criminal wrongdoing, or isn’t it? These are just a couple of the questions that Lynch must now answer in her new role.
Meanwhile, Sen. Richard Burr, in one of his first acts after replacing Sen. Feinstein as head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, tried to get back every copy of the full 6,700-page classified Senate report that was in the possession of federal agencies – including the Justice Department. Will Lynch help Sen. Burr bury it, or review it for evidence of criminal wrongdoing and human rights violations?
The Obama administration is fond of saying that it wants to “look forward” on torture, not “backward;” that is, it does not want to investigate or prosecute anyone. But failure to act now could increase the risk of torture recurring under the next administration. There are too many horrific acts – like forced rectal feeding and hydration – that we only learned of due to the report and that we must ensure will never happen again.It is not difficult to imagine the next major attack on U.S. soil provoking another political debate about whether torture can be justified, or the next president revoking the executive order on torture President Obama issued in his first days in office. No matter what laws are on the books, there will always be the risk of politically appointed government lawyers ready to wildly distort them—and justify torture as “lawful” once again. After the Senate torture report was released, former vice president Dick Cheney said he’d “do it again in a minute.”
The costs of Lynch failing to act now – including measures such as charging individuals for criminal wrongdoing in the CIA detention program – will become more glaring in the wake of these scenarios. Those who got away with torture once will try and get away with it again, and they will embolden other would-be perpetrators, too. That is not a morose prediction -- it is what decades of Amnesty International’s experiences all over the world suggest. It is one reason why, under international human rights law, accountability is not a choice -- it is an obligation.
Just this month, the city of Chicago approved an unprecedented reparations ordinance for victims of police torture under former commander Jon Burge, proving that accountability for torture is possible, albeit after decades of struggle.
While accountability for human rights violations does not immunize governments from ever committing abuses again, the lack of accountability unmistakably contributes to the risk of future abuses.
As Lynch becomes a recognized national figure in the United States, she must also reckon with her responsibility to the world. Last week, the U.S. government received a scathing review from the U.N. Human Rights Council, and more than a dozen governments asked about its record on accountability for torture. Lynch’s inaction spoke volumes. With a record of no charges, no prosecutions, no trials, no punishment, and no redress for CIA torture, the United States is continuing to lose credibility when it speaks out on human rights. Abusive governments around the world will use U.S. inaction as an excuse for their own cruel and unlawful actions.
As the new attorney general, Lynch faces countless issues she must tackle during her time in office, but ignoring CIA torture is untenable. She must act now to close this chapter of the American torture story.
Naureen Shah is the director of Amnesty International USA’s Security and Human Rights Program.