Holder’s Proposed Torture Probe: Worse Than Doing Nothing?

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US Attorney General Eric Holder is prepared to appoint a special prosecutor to launch a criminal investigation into alleged CIA abuse of suspects detained during the war on terror. But officials familiar with Holder’s plans told the Los Angeles Times that the probe will not investigate the authors of the so-called “torture memos” or Bush administration officials who knew about the use of interrogation techniques like waterboarding, which both Holder and President Obama have said constitute torture.

Instead, the investigation would focus on CIA operatives who went beyond interrogation tactics approved by the Bush administration, including cases of excessive waterboarding, unexplained deaths, and one incident in which an interrogator used a gun to get information from a detainee.

Opinions were divded among human rights and civil liberties groups about the merits of this approach. On the one hand, Tom Malinowski, the Washington advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, thinks that a probe that lets the authors of the interrogation policies off the hook would be more destructive than constructive.  “An investigation that focuses only on low-ranking operators would be, I think, worse than doing nothing at all,” he told the Los Angeles Times.

Virginia Sloan, president of the Constitution Project, which favors an independent commission to examine detainee abuse, agrees that “an investigation limited to examining the conduct of low-level officials will not provide the comprehensive picture we need to fully understand what has been done in the past, and what may continue to be done in the future.”  

But Gabor Rona, the international legal director of Human Rights First, is more optimistic about the proposed inquiry. He agrees that the investigation should not be confined to low-level interrogators because “if we end up having scapegoats as responsible people instead of those who authorized and solicited torture, then it would be an abdication of our international legal responsibility.” But he thinks it would be possible to start with those who overstepped the rules of interrogation and cast a wider net later—that is, if federal investigators follow where the evidence leads and investigate accordingly.

Notably, Rona said that the investigation would still have value even if it stopped short of targeting the torture policy’s authors. In his view, it would be a good first step for the United States to “determine the accountability of its own people who were implicated in human rights violations” in order to “restore its human rights credibility elsewhere in the world.”

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