Torture: Looking Back

Human Rights First has been a leader in pushing and encouraging America to acknowledge the mistakes made after 9/11 when we abandoned our values and the rule of law and chose to torture.

Beginning in 2004 after the horrific abuses of the Abu Ghraib prison became public, Human Rights First mobilized a group of retired Generals and Admirals who had been so disgusted by these revelations about torture and abuse by the U.S. military that they felt compelled to act.

We worked with Senator John McCain to pass the Detainee Treatment Act of 2005. This law prohibited the use of cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment of detainees, including the “enhanced interrogation techniques” approved by the Bush administration.  It also specifically required that any interrogations conducted by the U.S. military be performed in strict adherence to the Army Field Manual for Human Intelligence Collector Operations.

In 2006 Human Rights First launched a project called “Primetime Torture” with some of these interrogators and intelligence professionals, which examined the real-world effects of the media’s favorable portrayal of torture on television shows such as “24,” “Alias,” and “Lost.” Human Rights First and interrogators met with the producers of these shows to discuss how their depiction of torture was not only inaccurate, but having detrimental effects on actual interrogations and interrogators, as well as public opinion of torture. One of those producers went on to create “Homeland,” which received Human Rights First’s 2012 Lumet Award for integrity in entertainment.

In June of 2008 Human Rights First convened a meeting of 15 former interrogators and intelligence professionals from the CIA, FBI, and U.S. military to develop a list of “Principles for Effective Interrogation.” The principles unequivocally denounce torture as an interrogation method, and call for a single well-defined standard for interrogators across all U.S. agencies consistent with American values.

In the run-up to the 2008 presidential elections, the group of retired military leaders met with many of the presidential candidates to provide a military perspective on torture. The group met with candidates of both parties, including Barack Obama, Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton and Mike Huckabee. Clinton had previously supported torture in so-called “ticking time bomb” scenarios, but during a president debate, she said the military leaders had persuaded her that no exceptions should be permitted.

After President Obama was elected, members of the group of retired military leaders stood behind the president on his second day in office as he signed an executive order dictating that all interrogations across all U.S. agencies and military branches must follow the Army Field Manual. During the event, President Obama credited the group with influencing his decision, saying:

“The individuals who are standing behind me represent flag officers who came to both Joe and myself, and all the candidates, and made a passionate plea that we restore the standards of due process and the core constitutional values that have made this country great, even in the midst of war, even in dealing with terrorism. They’ve made an extraordinary impression on me. They are outstanding Americans, who have fought and defended this country, and for them to fight on behalf of our constitutional ideals and values, I think, is exceptional, so I wanted to make sure that they were here to witness the signing of this executive order.”

After the killing of Osama bin Laden, the release of the film “Zero Dark Thirty,” and the publication of a slew of memoirs by former Bush Administration officials, the public debate over torture once again reached a fever pitch. Human Rights First published a rebuttal to the story that torture had provided the intelligence that led to Osama bin Laden, and worked with former interrogators to publish a series of opinion pieces on the Huffington Post titled “Interrogators Speak Out,” refuting the arguments that torture “worked” and that the United States should return to the practice.

And this year, a growing group of 23 former interrogators and intelligence professionals released a principles statement reaffirming their opposition to torture, and calling it illegal, ineffective, and counterproductive. They also called for the Senate Intelligence Committee to release their report on CIA post-9/11 torture and detention. The signatories span both military and civilian intelligence agencies, including the FBI, CIA, Defense Intelligence Agency, Secret Service, and several branches of the U.S. military.

Human Rights First has been instrumental, along with these groups of retired Generals, Admirals, interrogators, and intelligence professionals in this year’s release of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s executive summary of its report on CIA torture and detention. The report, over 6,000 pages, shows that the CIA’s use of torture was not only more widespread and brutal than previously reported, but that the CIA misled both Congress and the public about the extent of the abuse.

Human Rights First worked assiduously to advocate for the declassification and release of the report, bringing these national security practitioners and experts together with decision-makers to convey the importance of the report’s publication.


Published on December 12, 2014


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