To Prevent Torture, Solidify the Ban on It

This week the New York Times’ Retro Report detailed the story of the only CIA-affiliated person convicted for torture since 9/11, a contractor named David Passaro. He served six years in federal prison after beating Abdul Wali, a detainee in Afghanistan who then died. The exact cause of death is unknown since an autopsy was never conducted.

Passaro had no experience conducting interrogations and was known for his hot temper. Nonetheless he was put in charge of interrogating Wali, a farmer who voluntarily came to the military base to clear his name after hearing he was suspected of firing rockets on the base. Passaro beat Wali for two days, hitting him with his fists and a heavy flashlight and kicking him in the groin. At one point, according to prosecutors, Wali begged to be shot. A day later, he died.

Passaro, now released from prison, views himself as a scapegoat for the administration’s official policy of brutality. The message that “the gloves were off” came from the top down. “I wasn’t hired to be nice to these terrorists,” Passaro said. His indictment came two months after photos depicting detainee abuse at Abu Ghraib prison were publicly released. “They had to show they were going to hold the C.I.A. accountable, so they had me.”

Passaro may be right about that. The executive summary of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s (SSCI) report on detainee treatment shows Passaro’s actions were anything but unique. Detainees were not only waterboarded, but viciously beaten, chained to the ceiling for days on end, sexually assaulted, and killed.

Torture defenders maintain that the “enhanced interrogation techniques” were authorized. But some of the authorized techniques met the legal definition of torture. As Alberto Mora told the Times, the government “disfigured” the definition of torture. And even John Yoo, former Deputy Assistant U.S. Attorney General in the Office of Legal Counsel and author of the “torture memos,” said that some of the treatment described in the report exceeded what was authorized.

While the CIA misled Congress and the administration about some of its methods, it was the administration’s embrace of torture that opened the door to brutality even worse than the authorized techniques. That’s why we need legislation to solidify the ban on torture and prevent the use of loophole lawyering to authorize it.

Senator Dianne Feinstein is expected to announce such legislation in the near future. It presents an opportunity for the United States to make sure that torture never again becomes official policy or maintains the slightest shred of legitimacy.

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Published on April 22, 2015

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