The Trail of Torture

By Andy Worthington

That the White House authorised 'waterboarding' is disturbing. But that no one in mainstream US politics seems to care is worse

The revelation, in yesterday's Washington Post, that the Bush administration "issued a pair of secret memos to the CIA in 2003 and 2004 that explicitly endorsed the agency's use of interrogation techniques such as waterboarding against al-Qaida suspects" will increase calls for the administration to be held to account for its actions.

It is unlikely, though, that this revelation will lead to significant activity, beyond adding more voices to grassroots impeachment campaigns in the United States - although it may lead to a strengthening of plans in various European countries to indict senior officials for war crimes. As law professor Scott Horton explained in June, the best that opponents of the regime can hope for is that the "Bush administration officials who pushed torture will need to be careful about their travel plans."

The problem for all parties concerned is that the administration itself still refuses to concede that it has engaged in torture, and is being allowed to get away with it in the two places where opposition could really count: the Senate and the House of Representatives. Rather than pursuing senior officials, house Democrat leader Nancy Pelosi declared that impeachment was "off the table" after the Democrats gained a majority in the House of Representatives two years ago. A month earlier, politicians had endorsed the executive's attempts to shield itself and its employees from any liability for their actions by passing the Military Commissions Act, parts of which were clearly intended to exempt US officials from being prosecuted for war crimes.

Freed from direct challenges, the administration has, instead, attempted to stifle all mention of torture in its dealings with prisoners seized in the "war on terror".

A case in point is the British resident Binyam Mohamed. According to his lawyers at the legal action charity Reprieve, Mr Mohamed, who was seized in Pakistan in April 2002, was sent to Morocco by the CIA (before the agency brought torture "in-house"), where proxy torturers extracted a number of false confessions from him. As a result, he was accused of plotting to detonate a radioactive "dirty bomb" in a US city, and was put forward for trial by military commission at Guantánamo.

However, just last week, when a judge in Washington, DC finally had the opportunity to review his case, the US justice department chose to drop the charges relating to the "bomb plot" rather than pursue them, presumably because senior officials were aware that the entire trail of decision-making as to why Mr. Mohamed was rendered to Morocco led to the highest levels of government, and to the kinds of discussions between the CIA and senior officials - including Vice President Dick Cheney and defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld - that were discussed in yesterday's article in the Washington Post.

Even so, Mr. Mohamed may still face the same charges in a trial by military commission, because the defense department, safe from judicial scrutiny, still believes that it can pursue prosecutions in a system that is so rigged that, when one of the prosecutors, Lt Col Darrel Vandeveld, resigned two weeks ago, he expressed his profound doubts that the system was "capable of delivering justice".

The fact that some of these cases - like that of Mr. Mohamed - involve the alleged use of extraordinary rendition and torture by or on behalf of the CIA only serves to confirm that even confirmed critics and opponents of the administration's detention and interrogation policies in the "war on terror" are a long way from holding senior officials to account. Perhaps the greatest shame, however, is that out on the campaign trail, where these issues ought to count for something, they are not being mentioned at all.