Human Rights Watch Report Calls for Compensation for CIA 'Torture' Victims

Poland Black Site
A barbed-wire fence surrounds a military area in the forest near Stare Kiejkuty village, close to Szczytno in northeastern Poland on January 24, 2014. Polish prosecutors investigating allegations that the CIA ran a secret jail in a Polish forest said they will look into a newspaper report that gave new accounts about the alleged "black site." The Trump administration has sent a key torture document back to Congress, where it may be sealed, according to The New York Times. Kacper Pempel/Reuters

It's been nearly a year since the Senate Intelligence Committee released the summary of its damning report about the CIA's post-9/11 rendition program, which detailed the agency's use of harsh interrogation methods such as waterboarding and rectal feeding on suspected Al-Qaeda members, among others.

Now, Human Rights Watch, a New York–based human rights group, is calling for the Justice Department to release the full 6,700-page Senate report, conduct a new criminal investigation into the officials who authorized the harsh treatment of detainees at the CIA's secret overseas prisons, also known as black sites, and compensate the victims who say they were tortured.

In a 153-page report released on Tuesday, the group cited the United Nations' Convention Against Torture and a 1994 federal anti-torture statute as the legal basis for the Justice Department to intervene.

"The Convention Against Torture (CAT), in addition to obligating states to investigate and appropriately prosecute torture and other ill-treatment," the report reads, "requires them to provide redress to victims of torture and ensure that they have 'an enforceable right to fair and adequate compensation.'"

The Justice Department declined to comment on Tuesday's report, except to say: "We are aware of the report and are reviewing it."

In 1994, when the U.S. ratified the international Convention Against Torture, it made a reservation, saying it does not view restitution as a requirement when torture occurs outside its territory, as was the case with CIA black sites. The State Department did not comment about the Human Rights Watch report in time for publication. But a spokesperson pointed Newsweek to statements made by government representatives at a November 2014 United Nations meeting in which the U.S. said its treaty obligations apply on U.S. soil, in Cuba, and on U.S. ships and aircraft. This interpretation would exclude compensation for victims who were allegedly tortured at CIA black sites in countries ranging from Afghanistan to Djibouti.

In an interview with Newsweek, Laura Pitter, the lead author of the Human Rights Watch report, says the U.N. convention should be interpreted to include locations where the U.S. acts as an authority. She also says that the Justice Department failed to provide restitution and "actively thwarted" attempts by former detainees to bring cases through the courts. Its justification: Ligating would jeopardize national security and reveal state secrets.

Yet since the release of the Senate's "torture report" summary, among other information about the treatment of detainees, Pitter maintains national security is no longer a legitimate excuse (she doubts it ever was). And in Tuesday's report, Human Rights Watch argued that releasing the full report and compensating victims is in the best interest of national security.

"Besides violating international law, the U.S. government's inaction in the face of clear evidence of torture sends a message to future U.S. policy makers and officials that they too can commit torture and other ill treatment and not fear being held accountable," the report says. Inaction, the report says, also "provides a ready excuse for countries unwilling to prevent or prosecute torture in their own countries, and undermines global respect for the rule of law."

National Security Council spokesman Ned Price declined to comment on whether the Obama administration would support declassifying the full Senate report. But Dean Boyd, the spokesman for the CIA, says the government has taken sufficient action to ban harsh interrogation methods.

In 2009, he points out, President Barack Obama issued an executive order that prohibited the future use of "enhanced interrogation" limiting interrogation techniques to those listed in the Army Field Manual. Obama later codified the executive order when he signed the National Defense Authorization Act on November 25. "I unequivocally banned torture when I took office," Obama said on December 9, 2014 —the day of the Senate committee released the summary. "[B]ecause one of our most effective tools in fighting terrorism and keeping Americans safe is staying true to our ideals at home and abroad. These harsh methods were not only inconsistent with our values as nation, they did not serve our broader counterterrorism efforts or our national security interests."

Yet Pitter says the administration needs to go further. The government's original investigation into the CIA's program, initiated in 2008 during the Bush administration, only looked at those who abused detainees beyond what the administration authorized, she says, not those high-level officials who signed off on the program despite its alleged illegality.

Boyd suggests opening a new investigation would be unnecessary. "The conduct discussed in the [Senate] study has been thoroughly investigated," he says. "The Department of Justice investigated the matters highlighted in the [Senate] report over a four and a half year period and decided not to initiate criminal charges."

Indeed, in 2012, Attorney General Eric Holder declined to prosecute the architects of enhanced interrogation saying "the admissible evidence would not be sufficient to obtain and sustain a conviction beyond a reasonable doubt."

But in Tuesday's report, Human Rights Watch laid out its case for charging the likes of President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice with crimes such as "torture and conspiracy to torture," as well as "assault, sexual abuse murder and war crimes."

This isn't the first time Human Rights Watch has called for prosecuting those responsible for the "enhanced interrogation" program, compensating former detainees or releasing the full Senate "torture report." And analysts say the Obama administration is unlikely to change the status quo. But with the president's second term winding down, Pitter maintains it's an opportune time to pressure the administration. "The public has a right to know the full extent of what went on in this program," she says. "It's a real black mark on U.S. history."