Overcoming the “Legacy of Torture”

The New York Times today highlights a new report released by ProPublica and the National Law Journal concluding that torture and “enhanced interrogation techniques” approved by the Bush Administration and used on suspected terrorists has made it impossible to bring many of those alleged terrorists to justice. Of the 53 habeas corpus cases brought by Guantanamo detainees and decided by federal court judges, the government has lost 37. Many of those losses were because the only evidence against the detainee was a coerced confession or statements from other prisoners who’d been tortured. Federal court judges have rightly found such statements unreliable and inadmissible. The result is that many of those suspects have won orders of release. (Only three have actually been freed.) Unfortunately, those orders have led some critics of the administration – including Sen. Lindsey Graham and Brookings Institution commentator Benjamin Wittes – to argue that we need more expansive detention laws so the government doesn’t have to let so many suspects go. That’s precisely the wrong response in a society that claims to presume suspects are innocent until actually proven guilty. (The standard in habeas cases is actually much lower than in a criminal case; the government only has to prove that it’s “more likely than not” that the suspect can legally be detained.) Those 37 prisoners won their habeas cases because the government had no reliable evidence that they’d been fighting for al Qaeda or the Taliban. So judges across the political spectrum concluded that the government hadn’t demonstrated that these detainees are detainable under the laws of war. In a report Human Rights First released with The Constitution Project in June, 16 former federal judges explained that the courts deciding these habeas cases are doing the right thing: they’re weighing the evidence, deciding the facts and applying the law. No new laws are needed. On the contrary, a new detention law designed to help the government win more cases in the absence of reliable evidence would only tarnish the reputation of the U.S. justice system, which in these cases is doing itself proud. As the Times points out, these court decisions demonstrate a “respect for due process [that] will help repair this country’s battered reputation.” The Bush administration’s failure to apply basic, longstanding American justice standards is what landed us in this mess in the first place, requiring that some terror suspects go free. Creating a new legal standard to accommodate those past mistakes would only compound the problem and drive the United States’ reputation further into the ground. We’re already seeing that happen at the military commissions at Guantanamo Bay. Although, as Peter Finn in the Washington Post today points out, many of the military commission cases have stalled, one that has gone forward recently produced a highly questionable ruling that was immediately broadcast around the world. In the case of a Canadian citizen and alleged child soldier, Omar Khadr, the judge ruled that a threat of gang-rape and murder in prison from his lead interrogator did not taint any of the 15-year-old’s later “confessions” that he threw a grenade that killed a U.S. soldier. Given that there’s no physical evidence that Khadr committed the act, his statements to interrogators at the Bagram prison in Afghanistan and later at Guantanamo Bay are critical to the prosecution. In a similar case, brought against Mohammed Jawad, also accused of throwing a grenade at U.S. soldiers as a child, the military commission judge in 2008 concluded that early threats by Afghan interrogators tainted all of Jawad’s later statements made to the Americans. His case was ultimately thrown out and he was returned to Afghanistan. These sorts of conflicting rulings can happen in the military commissions, an ad hoc justice system created in fits and starts over the last eight years with no binding precedent or road-tested rules. It’s one reason why those military commissions lack the legitimacy of civilian federal courts. Like the court rulings ordering Guantanamo detainees freed, the military commissions, too, are a legacy of torture. They’re an attempt to patch together a quasi-justice system to accommodate, without acknowledging or rectifying, the egregious mistakes of the past. But neither new detention rules nor military commissions can truly overcome torture’s legacy. That can only be done by admitting what happened, holding perpetrators accountable, and ultimately, prosecuting terror suspects in our time-tested, world-renowned American justice system. And that is rightly something about which this country can be proud.


Published on August 27, 2010


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