Bipartisan Campaign Seeks Presidential Executive Order to Ban Torture

Human Rights

WASHINGTON, Jun 25 (IPS) - On the eve of the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, a bipartisan group of some 200 religious leaders and former top U.S. national security and military officers launched a campaign for a presidential order to outlaw torture and cruel and inhumane treatment of all detainees.

The campaign, consisting of a "Declaration of Principles," which members of the public are also invited to sign, has been endorsed by, among others, three former secretaries of state, including George Shultz, who served under former President Ronald Reagan; and three former secretaries of defense, including William Cohen, a Republican who served under former President Bill Clinton.

Sponsored by the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, the Evangelicals for Human Rights, and the Minnesota-based Center for Victims of Torture, the declaration has also been signed by 35 retired generals and admirals, as well as several retired senior counter-terrorist officers of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).

"Though we come from a variety of backgrounds and walks of life, we agree that the use of torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment against prisoners is immoral, unwise, and un-American," asserts the declaration, which stresses that such practices are also deeply counterproductive.

"In our effort to secure ourselves, we have resorted to tactics that do not work, which endanger U.S. personnel abroad, which discourage political, military and intelligence cooperation from our allies, and which ultimately do not enhance our security."

The declaration calls on the president to issue an executive order that "categorically rejects the authorization or use (of) any methods of interrogation that we would not find acceptable if used against Americans, be they civilians or soldiers." It comes amid a welter of recent disclosures regarding the personal involvement of top Bush administration officials in authorizing the use of what they have called "enhanced interrogation techniques," including waterboarding, but which virtually all international human rights groups have denounced as torture.

It also comes in the wake of a report released last week by Boston-based Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) on extensive medical and polygraph examinations of 11 former detainees held by U.S. forces in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay for at least three years and released without charges. In each case, according to the report, the examinations corroborated prisoners' claims of serious physical and psychological abuse, ranging from beatings, electric shocks, shackling in stress positions, and, in at least one case, sodomy.

In a scathing preface to the report, ret. Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba, who led the military's first official investigation on abuses at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, wrote that the evidence forced him to conclude that "the commander-in-chief and those under him authorized a systematic regime of torture."

"The only question that remains to be answered is whether those who ordered the use of torture will be held to account," he added.

Taguba's investigation in 2004, as well as subsequent revelations about the treatment of prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay, eventually led to Congressional approval of the Detainee Treatment Act of 2005. It required military interrogations to be performed according to the U.S. Army Field Manual, which itself outlaws techniques that violate the Geneva Conventions' prohibition on cruel and inhumane treatment.

But, under pressure from the Bush administration, the law exempted the CIA, which has reportedly not only continued using the same tactics, but has also continued holding terrorist suspects in secret prisons and in "rendering" them to other countries whose intelligence agencies are known to use torture.

The declaration does not make an explicit reference either to the most recent disclosures regarding the major role played by top officials in authorizing the use of torture and cruel treatment against detainees, nor to question of accountability for past abuses.

Instead, it called for across-the-board application of the Field Manual without exception. The executive order, it said, should declare that "(w)e will have one national standard for all U.S. personnel and agencies for the interrogation and treatment of prisoners."

In addition, it said the order should "acknowledge all prisoners to our courts or the International Red Cross (and) … in no circumstances hold persons in secret prisons or engage in disappearances." Moreover, the order should ban the "transfer (of) any person to countries that use torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment."

"It's time to say not in our name, it's time to ban torture," said Rev. John Thomas, the president of the United Church of Christ, one of more than 100 Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, and Muslim leaders, including 50 prominent Evangelicals, who signed the statement.

The organizers said that despite Bush's unwavering refusal so far to apply the Field Manual to the CIA, they intend to present the declaration to him after collecting more signatures both from the ranks of religious, government, political, and military leaders, as well as the public at large, over the next month or two. If Bush responds negatively, they intend to present it to the next president and then persuade Congress to make it law.

"We chose an executive order because it is the most dramatic, immediate and powerful way to close this ugly chapter on detention and open a new page," said Linda Gustitus, president of the Religious Campaign.

In addition to Shultz, other former secretaries of state who signed the declaration included Madeleine Albright and Warren Christopher. In addition, Bush's first deputy secretary of state, Richard Armitage, also signed, as did Reagan's deputy secretary of state, John Whitehead. Aside from Cohen, former Pentagon chiefs included Harold Brown, who served under Jimmy Carter and William Perry, who served under Bill Clinton. Two former deputy defense secretaries, John Hamre, who served in under Clinton, and William Taft, who served under George H.W. Bush, also signed.

Former national security advisers Sandy Berger, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and Anthony Lake, who currently serves as a key adviser to Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama, also signed the declaration.

Former Navy General Counsel, Alberto Mora, one of the government lawyers who battled unsuccessfully within the administration to preserve the ban on torture during Bush's first term, said the use of torture had badly set back Washington's anti-terrorism campaign and "made us less safe rather than more safe, in major part because of its use by insurgents in both Afghanistan and Iraq as an effective recruitment tool. "[Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo] were symbols of American cruelty," he said.

Rev. David Gushee, a leader of the Evangelicals Human Rights group, called the declaration an "important event" in bringing so many groups of people together, including within the Evangelical community, which, he said, "is learning to separate traditional theoretical beliefs from a kind of reflexively conservative political stance."

"What this symbolizes is a kind of moral center -- people looking at the same problem from a variety of viewpoints and saying, 'This is not who we are as the American people.'"

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