Today The Constitution Project’s independent, bipartisan Task Force on Detainee Treatment, which I co-chair with former Congressman Asa Hutchinson, releases its report. Our Task Force includes Republicans and Democrats with diverse experiences and views—diplomats, former members of Congress, retired military officers, and law enforcement officials, as well as experts in law, medicine, and ethics.
We started the project with the belief that humane treatment should not be a partisan issue, and that our country needed to fully understand what we had done—particularly, but not only, in the frightening period immediately after September 11—before looking forward. After two years of investigation, study, and deliberation about the United States’ treatment of detainees in our country’s conflicts with Al Qaeda, in Afghanistan, and in Iraq, the Task Force was able to reach unanimous findings and recommendations on issues that continue to divide official Washington and the American public.
We could not access classified information, and we did not have subpoena power. But a great deal of evidence about U.S. detainee treatment has become public over the years—albeit scattered in hundreds of media and NGO reports, and tens of thousands of pages of government documents. We supplemented those sources with over one hundred new interviews with military and intelligence personnel, former detainees, policymakers, and others.
When we reviewed all this information, we came to three unavoidable conclusions. First, the United States did indeed engage in conduct that is clearly torture. Second, the ultimate responsibility for the torture and other coercive tactics utilized by U.S. personnel rests with the nation’s most senior officials. Third, too many of the details of our actions remain hidden from the public.
Much of the mistreatment and, in too many instances, torture that occurred in Guantánamo, Afghanistan, and Iraq was never explicitly authorized. But, the authorization of harsh techniques that did occur depended on setting aside the traditional legal rules that protected captives—above all, the Geneva Conventions. Unfortunately, our government leaders never clearly specified what rules would apply instead of Geneva, and many interrogators and guards concluded that “the gloves were off.” The results were both predictable and damaging.
The worst abuses ended many years ago. We can understand the president’s and Congress’s temptation to “look forward” and move on rather than address these painful, politically difficult topics. But we do not believe it is possible to do that—with confidence that we have built the safeguards necessary to guide us during the next crisis and ones after that—without an honest and open accounting of what was done in our name.
To his credit, President Obama has taken the position that torture is never justified, and forbidden by Executive Order any “enhanced” technique outside the Army Field Manual. But that order could be overturned with the stroke of a pen by another administration or after another terrorist attack, and the Field Manual is not as protective as it should be.
On his second day in office, President Obama ordered that Guantanamo be closed by January 22, 2010. That date came and went over three years ago. Since January, 2011, only five detainees have been transferred from Guantanamo, while three detainees have died there, a number that threatens to increase if the current hunger strike continues. Over 11 years after the atrocities of September 11, the suspected perpetrators have not been brought to justice in any court. Their current trials are marred by the effort to conceal from the public the details of their treatment at CIA black sites.
The president and Congress need to act now to shut the door on the possibility of our repeating the serious mistakes we made. Our report makes a number of specific recommendations on how to do that. But none is more important than increased transparency—beginning, but not ending, with declassification to the extent possible and release of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s study of the “enhanced interrogation” program.
The amount of information that remains classified has contributed to disturbingly high public support for torture. In a December 2012 poll, only 25 percent of Americans said that the use of torture against suspected terrorists was “never justified.” A combined 47 percent said that torture of terrorism suspects was “always justified” or “sometimes justified.”
The Task Force spent two years of delving into these extremely difficult issues. We concluded that the United States’ ability to exercise moral leadership in the world requires a complete renunciation of torture and cruel treatment. I am confident that if confronted with the full scope and scale of what was done in their name many more people will reach the same conclusion.