It is not every day that a prosecutor is handed 500 meticulously documented, heavily footnoted pages detailing a years-long pattern of egregious criminal activity. Yet Tuesday’s release of the Senate Intelligence Committee report on the CIA’s torture program did exactly that. The committee’s redacted summary of a 6,700-page report on the CIA’s detention and interrogation program is nothing less than an overwhelming case for criminal indictments that should have U.S. and foreign prosecutors scrambling to prepare cases.
There is no question that the intelligence committee report describes brutal detainee abuse. Details like forced anal “feeding” and anal rehydration – forms of sexual assault – that have never before been publicly disclosed -- have surely shocked many Americans. I know they shocked me, and I was certain that after a decade as a human rights lawyer working on U.S. counterterrorism issues I had seen it all. But what is perhaps more shocking is the systematic attempts by the CIA to cover up its own crimes.
On Wednesday, Senator Mark Udall, who has served on the intelligence committee for the last four years, took to the Senate floor and for 48 minutes talked about the need to release the full committee report and for the CIA to be held accountable for its actions, not only those detailed in the summary but also in its cover-up and attempt to prevent the Senate investigation. Udall described last January’s actions by the CIA, in which the agency hacked into computers dedicated to intelligence committee staff in an attempt to prevent the CIA’s overseers from uncovering an internal review that itself condemned aspects of the CIA’s detention and interrogation program, and that contradicted information the CIA had provided to the intelligence committee. That’s a long way of saying that even this past January, the CIA was still attempting to cover up its crimes, which itself is a crime.
"That’s a long way of saying that even this past January, the CIA was still attempting to cover up its crimes, which itself is a crime."'
And the crimes are many. The CIA used painful stress positions on persons in their custody, forced them to stand for hours or even days on end, some of them while the CIA knew they had broken legs and ankles, deprived them of sleep continuously, and exposed them to bright lights and loud noise over long periods of time. It waterboarded detainees, a form of mock execution, threw them against walls, hung them from their arms, and locked them in coffins. These tactics took such a heavy toll on the detainees that the CIA summary described them as clearly “broken” – which was the very reason behind the abuse in the first place.
Where does this leave us? The intelligence committee report is only the latest of in a series of detailed, thorough reports documenting the criminal culpability of U.S. officials, from interrogators all the way up to the White House. And yet in the 13 years since former President George W. Bush’s executive order paved the way for senior U.S. officials and lawyers to develop and implement a system of detainee abuse and even murder, no significant actor in the program has been held accountable. Usually, when crimes of this magnitude occur, the criminals hide. In this case, they have taken to the airwaves, proudly confessing to their crimes, which should make it all the easier to prosecute them.
Make no mistake: the evidence is strong enough to formally investigate and likely prosecute CIA officers, contractors employed by the CIA, and senior U.S. government officials for a range of crimes, from torture and kidnapping to rape. These are crimes that violate U.S. law and, though they occurred years ago, in many cases can still be prosecuted, either because there is no applicable statute of limitation, or because actions by the CIA as recently as this year demonstrate an ongoing criminal conspiracy.
These crimes also violate many other countries’ laws, and countries in which some of the most egregious detainee abuse took place have a clear path toward opening their own investigations. Indeed, they are obligated to do so under the Convention against Torture. Beyond that, the principle of universal jurisdiction allows any country to prosecute alleged torturers. The prosecution of former U.S. officials by foreign governments might be politically unpalatable. But if the U.S won’t do it, someone has to. The victims of abuse deserve nothing less.
Andrea J. Prasow is deputy Washington director for Human Rights Watch.