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President Obama and Torture: Where Is the Accountability?

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August 1st marked the 10th anniversary of the infamous "Torture Memos" written by John Yoo, Steven Bradbury and signed by Jay Bybee of the Office of Legal Counsel under the Bush administration. These memos provided a legal framework for the torture of detainees held by the CIA in connection with the "War on Terror."

The contents of the memos are spine-chilling. Government lawyers employed strained legal reasoning to eviscerate the definition of torture under international and domestic U.S. law. In effect, these memos gave the imprimatur of the U.S. Justice Department to abhorrent and illegal acts. The memos authorized interrogators to slam a prisoner's head against a wall repeatedly; to deprive prisoners of sleep for 11 days at a time; and to subject prisoners to 'waterboarding,' a technique of controlled suffocation that was used extensively by the Spanish Inquisition and by the Khmer Rouge during the genocide in Cambodia. As a result of these legal opinions, one prisoner was water-boarded 183 times.

In one of the memos, Steven G. Bradbury, then Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General, opines on what constitutes "prolonged mental harm" as a result of torture. He juxtaposes waterboarding, which is used to "induce a sensation of drowning," with the game of "Russian roulette" which Center for Justice and Accountability's clients, Kemal Mehinovic, Muhamed Bicic, Safet Hadzialijagic and Hasan Subasic, experienced while being held in a Bosnian detention camp in 1992. Strangely, Bradbury concludes that that waterboarding is an acceptable form of torture but Russian roulette is not. Needless to say, CJA's clients would disagree.

When the memos were declassified and rescinded three years ago, President Obama stated that he believes strongly in "transparency and accountability." Certainly, transparency is a virtue, but transparency alone will not serve to deter torture unless it is followed by accountability.

CJA joins with the human rights community is calling on Congress and the Obama administration to set up a non-partisan Truth Commission with the authority to investigate and, if warranted, recommend prosecution of U.S. officials responsible for torture. Those held responsible should include the interrogators who committed torture, the lawyers and senior officials who authorized torture, and the medical personnel who oversaw torture. President Obama needs to stand by his words and take this important step in holding U.S. officials accountable for their actions.

To that end, we request that the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Report on the CIA interrogation program authorized by the "Torture Memos," which is scheduled to be released this summer, be made public with the fewest redactions possible. The American public deserves to know the truth.

Investigating torture is not only our moral duty: it is our legal obligation. When the U.S. Senate ratified the Convention Against Torture in 1994, we committed ourselves as a nation not only to refrain from torture but to prosecute perpetrators when there is evidence of a crime.

It is in this spirit that we ask our President and Congress to stand up for not just transparency when it comes to torture, but accountability as well. The United States cannot be a safe haven for those who torture -- whether they come from outside our borders or from within.