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Prosecutions, pardons, or passing laws? Human rights advocates respond to torture report

In the wake of a report detailing CIA brutality, some human rights advocates are calling for full investigations at the highest level of government.

In the wake of an explosive Senate report that found post-Sept. 11 interrogation techniques used by the CIA essentially useless and far more brutal than previously disclosed, human rights advocates are calling for U.S. action to ensure that such crimes never happen again, with some pushing for full investigations and prosecutions at the highest level of government.

“The summary of the report ... released this afternoon confirms what the international community has long believed -- that there was a clear policy orchestrated at a high level within the Bush administration to commit systematic crimes and gross violations of international human rights law,” said Ben Emmerson, the U.N. special rapporteur on counter terrorism and human rights, in a statement. “It is now time to take action.”

Emmerson went on to say that the individuals responsible for this “criminal conspiracy” must face penalties “commensurate with the gravity of their crimes,” and that seniority should not translate to immunity.

“The fact that the policies revealed in this report were authorized at a high level within the U.S. government provides no excuse whatsoever. Indeed, it reinforces the need for criminal accountability,” Emmerson said. “As a matter of international law, the US is legally obliged to bring those responsible to justice.”

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The long-awaited report, released Tuesday by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, detailed gruesome accounts of suffering at the hands of the CIA’s interrogation techniques, which included keeping detainees awake for as long as 180 hours, threatening the lives of detainees’ wives, and severe, repeated waterboarding sessions, among others. It also revealed troubling instances where the spy agency provided “inaccurate information” about its tactics to the White House, Congress, Department of Justice (DOJ), internal CIA investigators, the press and the public.

So ingrained were these techniques that when President George W. Bush marked the 2003 U.N. International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, the CIA panicked and had to circle back with the administration to make sure what it was doing was okay. According to the report, after Bush stated that “torture anywhere is an affront to human dignity everywhere,” and The Washington Post ran a piece about his pledge, then-CIA Deputy General Counsel John Rizzo called John Bellinger, the legal adviser to the National Security Council, to "express our surprise and concern at some of the statements attributed to the Administration in the piece, particularly the Presidential statement on the U.N. International Day in Support of Victims of Torture as well as a quote from the Deputy White House Secretary Scott McClellan that all prisoners being held by the USG [U.S. government] are being treated 'humanely.'"

Days later, Vice President Cheney stated “that the CIA was executing administration policy in carrying out its interrogation program," the Senate report reads.

When asked whether the Justice Department would reopen a criminal investigation into the interrogation program, a senior administration official told msnbc’s Joy Reid Tuesday that the attorney general’s office had no such plans. The Justice Department conducted a thorough review in 2009 that encompassed the same information as was revealed in the Senate report, the official explained, and the DOJ determined then that there was not enough evidence to guarantee a viable prosecution.

Naureen Shah, director of Amnesty International USA’s security and human rights program, called that interpretation “completely wrongheaded.”

“We’re talking about crimes that under international law must not only be investigated, but have to be prosecuted by the Justice Department,” Shah told msnbc. “[These acts] are illegal, and there’s no question about it.”

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For years, Amnesty International has pushed for an investigation into President George W. Bush’s authorization of the CIA’s secret detention program, even calling on Canada -- as a party to the U.N. Convention Against Torture -- to arrest, investigate, and prosecute the former president during a 2011 visit. Tuesday’s report, said Shah, provides more evidence that Bush should be investigated for approving the use of torture, which would constitute prosecution under the Geneva Conventions.

Furthermore, Shah continued, the Justice Department should conduct its own internal investigation for providing what she called, “legal gymnastics of justification for committing torture.” Under Bush, the DOJ provided memos, which the Obama administration disavowed upon taking office, that devised legal arguments to avoid constraints against the mistreatment and torture of detainees.

“It’s not enough for the Obama administration to merely have withdrawn the memos,” said Shah. “There needs to be an investigation within the Justice Department of how any of this could’ve happened.”

Raha Wala, senior counsel for defense and intelligence at Human Rights First, called for more of a forward-looking approach to correcting the wrongdoings revealed in Tuesday’s report. While he believes it provided clear accounts of torture and criminality that extend to the highest levels of government, he thinks the focus should be shifted off of accountability and placed instead on legislation, like expanding the 2005 Detainee Treatment Act to restrict the types of interrogation techniques CIA personnel can use. Another way to avoid this type of abuse, he said, is to tighten language in the U.S. anti-torture statute.

“There no question that there should be accountability for those who ordered unlawful torture and abuse, but it’s pretty clear that the DOJ is not interested in taking up prosecutions. So that will be a longer-term process based on a variety of factors including political will,” Wala told msnbc. “The more productive path is to move forward on a bipartisan basis to pass legislation that could ensure this will never happen again.”

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The most surprising response among human rights advocates, however, came from the American Civil Liberties Union, whose executive director penned a New York Times op-ed Tuesday calling not for prosecutions, not for passing legislation, but for pardons. By continuing to not hold anyone accountable for the CIA interrogation program, argued Anthony D. Romero, President Obama would essentially be granting “tacit pardons,” leaving open “the very real possibility that officials will resurrect the torture policies in the future.” Formal pardons, by contrast, affirm that the U.S. believes torture is wrong.

“Pardons would make clear that crimes were committed; that the individuals who authorized and committed torture were indeed criminals; and that future architects and perpetrators of torture should beware,” wrote Romero. “Prosecutions would be preferable, but pardons may be the only viable and lasting way to close the Pandora’s box of torture once and for all.”