US authorities have engaged in the torture of detainees, and the nation's "highest officials" bear some of the responsibility, according to a report [text, PDF] released on Tuesday by the Constitution Project [advocacy website], a bi-partisan legal advocacy and watchdog group. The Task Force on Detainee Treatment [advocacy website] was established after US President Barack Obama [official profile] announced in 2009 that he opposed [JURIST report] a proposal by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy [official profile] to set up a "truth commission" to investigate [JURIST report] controversial actions of the Bush administration, including justifications for the Iraq War, warrantless wiretapping and detainee treatment. The task force members reached their conclusions after a two-year process, which included examination of public records and interviews with former detainees, military and intelligence officers, interrogators, and policymakers.
The first conclusion by the task force, that the US engaged in torture, is based on historical and legal precedents as to what constitutes torture. According to the UN Convention Against Torture, and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT) [text], which has been ratified by the US, torture is any act "by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes of obtaining ... information or a confession." Though the Bush administration concluded [memo, PDF] that certain acts, including waterboarding, sleep deprivation and facial slapping, do not constitute torture, the commission pointed to US court cases that determined such acts to constitute torture and to instances where the US has defined those acts as torture when performed by other governments around the world.
The second conclusion, that the US officials at the highest levels are partially responsible for "allowing and contributing to the spread of torture," is based on a number of decisions made by the Bush administration following the 9/11 attacks. One is an order issued [press release] by President George W. Bush in 2002, which found that the Geneva Conventions did not apply to the conflict with al Qaeda. According to the commission, this decision, along with authorization of enhanced interrogation techniques and the establishment of numerous detention facilities, contributed to inhumane treatment of detainees. The commission concluded that these decisions, without subsequent clarification as to what rules would apply to al Qaeda detainees, resulted in an attitude among many lower-level troops that "the gloves were off" regarding treatment of prisoners and ultimately contributed to the use and spread of torture.
Since the attacks of 9/11 [JURIST backgrounder], the US has engaged in a number of controversial policies with respect to the conflict with al Qaeda. The increased use of unmanned drone strikes against suspected terrorist suspects by the Obama administration has been criticized by US lawmakers, foreign countries and international organizations [JURIST reports]. Additionally, the treatment of detainees at the Guantanamo Bay military prison [JURIST backgrounder] has been controversial. Recently, the practice of force-feeding detainees [JURIST report] participating in a hunger strike in order to protest indefinite detention and inhumane treatment has come under public scrutiny. In 2011, Obama signed [JURIST report] a four-year re-authorization of the the Patriot Act, which allows the government to use roving wiretaps on electronic devices and to gain access to certain records relevant to investigations.