USA: Crimes and Impunity

April 21, 2015

USA: Crimes and Impunity

More than four months after publication of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s summary report on the secret detention program operated by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the US administration has done nothing to end impunity for the torture and enforced disappearances committed in the program. Indeed, it has failed to meaningfully respond to the report in any way whatsoever.

Major US agencies implicated in the Senate summary, including the Departments of Justice and State, have even kept the full report in sealed envelopes, and locked away.

The Obama administration is attempting to sweep the report – and the crimes committed in the program – under the carpet. Instead of scrutinizing the report, examining the failures that led to the systematic abuse of detainees, and holding perpetrators accountable, the Obama administration is continuing on a course charted by its predecessors in the Bush administration and engaging in a de facto amnesty for the crimes under international law of torture and enforced disappearance.

In a new report revisiting the Senate committee’s summary and the administration’s failure to act on it in the four months since it was issued, Amnesty International pieces together information provided in the declassified version of the summary with some of what was already known about the detention program. While the full Senate intelligence committee report, running to some 6,700 pages, remains classified Top Secret, the cumulative evidence now in the public domain is already damning. The summary has reminded the world again that this was not some rogue operation, but one involving many administration officials up to and including the President.

The Senate committee does not address the fact that most or all those held in the program were subjected to enforced disappearance, a crime under international law. On another crime under international law, torture, its collective findings avoid the word torture, agreeing only that interrogations were “brutal and far worse”, and conditions of confinement “harsher”, than the CIA had “represented to policymakers and others.

Amnesty International’s report fills in such gaps – and makes clear that the USA remains squarely and seriously on the wrong side of its international legal obligations in relation to truth, accountability and remedy.


On 6 September 2006, four and a half years into the secret detention program operated under his authority and after countless acts of torture or other ill-treatment committed in it, President Bush publicly confirmed the program’s existence the first time. He did so in order to seek legislation allowing it to continue and to prevent the “unacceptable” outcome that individuals involved could face prosecution under the USA’s War Crimes Act. It was of little surprise, then, when the Bush administration left office in January 2009 having not prosecuted anyone for the crimes under international law committed in the program.

Over six years later, however, we are in the same place. The administration of President Barack Obama took up where its predecessor left off, differentiating between “unauthorized” and “authorized” interrogation techniques while failing to recognize that techniques from both categories were unlawful and conducted against individuals who had been or were being subjected to conditions of transfer or detention also incompatible with the prohibition of torture or other ill-treatment and of enforced disappearance.

In 2009, President Obama wrote to CIA employees to assure them that anyone who followed Department of Justice (DOJ) advice in using “enhanced” interrogation techniques would not face prosecution. Attorney General Eric

Holder gave similar assurances: “the Department of Justice will not prosecute anyone who acted in good faith and within the scope of the legal guidance given by the Office of Legal Counsel regarding the interrogation of detainees.”