Political Fireworks Over Torture Prosecutor: Report Reveals Threats to Kill Children, CIA Director in 'Screaming Match'
The New York Times reports: "The Justice Department released a long-secret report Monday chronicling abuses inside the Central Intelligence Agency’s overseas prisons, showing how interrogators choked a prisoner repeatedly and threatened to kill another detainee’s children. In response to the findings, Attorney General Eric H Holder Jr. chose John H. Durham, a veteran prosecutor from Connecticut who has been investigating the C.I.A.’s destruction of interrogation videotapes, to determine whether a full criminal investigation of the conduct of agency employees or contractors was warranted. The review will be the most politically explosive inquiry since Mr. Holder took over the Justice Department in February."
It has already been an explosive issue for CIA director Leon Panetta, who got in a "profanity-laced screaming match" at the White House about the investigation, according to ABC news: "Amid reports that Panetta had threatened to quit just seven months after taking over at the spy agency, ... insiders tell ABCNews.com that senior White House staff members are already discussing a possible shake-up of top national security officials. According to intelligence officials, Panetta erupted in a tirade last month during a meeting with a senior White House staff member. Panetta was reportedly upset over plans by Attorney General Eric Holder to open a criminal investigation of allegations that CIA officers broke the law in carrying out certain interrogation techniques that President Obama has termed 'torture.'"
The Washington Post reports that Holder selected Durham for the inquiry "in part because of his role as prosecutor in an ongoing investigation of the destruction of CIA videotapes in late 2005, expanding his mandate to cover additional agency conduct." The Post also reports that "Durham's mandate ... will be relatively narrow: to look at whether there is enough evidence to launch a full-scale criminal investigation of current and former CIA personnel who may have broken the law in their dealings with detainees."
There is the potential that the investigation could expand, as the Post reports:
"Legal analysts said [Durham's] review, while preliminary, could expand beyond its relatively narrow mandate and ensnare a wider cast of characters. They cited U.S. Attorney Patrick J. Fitzgerald's investigation of the leak of a CIA operative's identity, which culminated with the criminal conviction of then-Vice President Richard B. Cheney's chief of staff. ... [T]he attorney general and his national security team appear to be staking out a middle ground -- rejecting a broad inquiry that could result in possible prosecutions of Justice Department lawyers in the Bush years as well as cabinet officers who developed counterterrorism policy; but giving civil liberties advocates at least part of what they wanted without supporting a full, independent truth commission to examine a host of Bush national security practices."
But elected officials and civil liberties advocates aren't satisfied. As TalkingPointsMemo reports, "Some top Democrats are expressing disappointment with Eric Holder's announcement of a probe into Bush-era torture, and specifically with Holder's apparent decision to ensure the probe doesn't look at the Bush officials who authorized the policy." Senators in opposition include Russ Feingold and Patrick Leahy. And human rights groups were quick on the offensive after Holder's plan emerged. Ari Melber writes for The Nation,
"Several human rights groups immediately said Holder's approach falls fatally short, since it does not address the range of alleged counter-terror abuse and seems to foreclose accountability up the chain of command. ... The Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), which filed the first habeas cases for Guantanamo detainees, criticized the new inquiry's presumed targets. "Responsibility for the torture program cannot be laid at the feet of a few low-level operatives," read the Center's official statement on Monday. "Some agents in the field may have gone further than the limits so ghoulishly laid out by the lawyers who twisted the law to create legal cover for the program, but it is the lawyers and the officials who oversaw and approved the program who must be investigated." (Disclosure: I once worked at CCR.)
The ACLU, which successfully sued for the release of several torture-related documents, also offered a mixed assessment of the decision. "While this is a welcome first step, we are disappointed that Attorney General Holder still appears unwilling to conduct a full investigation and to prosecute any crimes that are uncovered," said executive director Anthony D. Romero. "A preliminary investigation absent a commitment to prosecute violations of the law is simply anemic. How much evidence of wrongdoing and violations of law is necessary before the attorney general commits to launching a full investigation?," he added.
MoveOn.org, which had joined efforts by netroots activists and progressive bloggers calling on Obama to appoint a special prosecutor with a wide latitude to investigate torture, said on Monday that while it "applaud[ed]" Holder's move, it was not enough. "The Department of Justice must not only investigate the CIA, but also those who ordered, approved and sanctioned the torture," said Justin Ruben, the group's Executive Director. "We need to make sure those all the way up the chain of command are held responsible for their actions."
The torture report, written by the CIA's Inspector General in 2004 is heavily redacted, yet the findings that are available are quite shocking. Glenn Greenwald at Salon describes some of the worst cases, including issuing threats of killing a detainee and his children, applying pressure to a detainee's carotid artery, and threats to rape a detainee's female relatives in front of him. The last example appears in the image below from the Inspector General's redacted passage: