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Interview: Terrorism Legal Expert On Significance Of U.S. Torture Report

The task force's report concludes that both the use of torture and the high level of secrecy surrounding the rendition and torture of detainees has no justification.
An independent report by the U.S.-based Constitution Project has concluded that the United States has engaged in torture.

Experts and 11 panel members from both political parties, the military, every branch of government, and the legal, ethics, and medical fields reached that conclusion after conducting interviews in Guantanamo Bay, Afghanistan, Iraq, and at CIA detention facilities. They also talked to former detainees and former U.S. and foreign officials.

RFE/RL correspondent Heather Maher asked Amrit Singh, senior legal officer for national security and counterterrorism issues at the Open Society's Justice Initiative, about the report's findings.

RFE/RL: The key finding in the report is that it is "indisputable that the United States engaged in the practice of torture." Is that a surprise to legal experts like you?

Amrit Singh:
It's not a surprise because there is now an overwhelming body of evidence, including U.S. government documents, that demonstrate beyond any doubt that the United States was torturing its prisoners, and that torture was in fact being conducted as a matter of policy that was authorized by officials at the very highest levels of government.

RFE/RL: The members of the commission concluded that the United States violated its international legal obligations by engineering "enforced disappearances" and secret detentions. Does that mean there might be some legal recourse for former detainees?

U.S. courts have, unfortunately, closed their doors to the victims of the CIA secret detention and rendition program. But there are courts all over the world that are now hearing these cases. In particular, the European Court of Human Rights is now going to be reviewing cases brought against Poland, Romania, and Lithuania for their collaboration in the secret CIA detention program. And just last year, in the case of rendition victim [and German citizen] Khaled el-Masri, the European Court specifically found that Macedonia had violated the European Convention on Human Rights by collaborating with the CIA in his abduction and secret detention.

RFE/RL: The commission found "no firm or persuasive evidence" that these interrogation methods produced valuable information that could not have been obtained by other means, which was the whole rationale for its use. Will that finding stand as a bulwark against any future policy debates over the merits of harsh interrogation?

Yes, I think so. The report confirms that these techniques were ineffective and exposed the United States to censure and liability around the world, but also, this finding has been confirmed by seasoned interrogators who have actually undertaken interrogations of some of the prisoners that were subjected to the interrogation program. And the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence has recently authored a report that also apparently concludes, based on its review of classified information, that enhanced interrogation techniques and secret detention sites were terrible mistakes.

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RFE/RL: The report says the U.S. government's use of torture "damaged the standing of our nation, reduced our capacity to convey moral censure when necessary, and potentially increased the danger to U.S. military personnel taken captive." Will that finding affect the United States' credibility when it criticizes human rights abuses in other countries?

Absolutely. And this is a very credible, independent report that unequivocally finds that the United States engaged in torture. It only demonstrates that the United States' moral authority has been diminished throughout the world. The capacity of the United States to call on other governments to respect human rights is severely undermined by the findings in this report.

RFE/RL: The commission said it began this project in part because President Barack Obama declined calls to investigate CIA practices under his predecessor, George W. Bush, and it criticizes the Obama administration for its own "excessive secrecy." Have we moved on from this chapter of history?

President Obama made a mistake in stating that there was no need to "look backward." In fact, the only credible way in which the United States can turn the page on this very dark chapter in its history is by conducting investigations -- credible, effective investigations -- into the torture that was conducted by both its armed forces and the CIA.