Today is the anniversary of two tragedies. Five years ago the 35W bridge collapsed, 13 people died and dozens of others were injured. We cut corners and people died.
The other anniversary, equally tragic, won’t get as much attention in this state. This tragedy is ongoing, and the lessons have not yet been learned. Ten years ago today, the so-called “torture memos” were written for President George W. Bush. Those were the memos, authored by the Justice Department’s John Yoo and Jay Bybee, that defined torture so narrowly that it was virtually defined out of existence. After those memos became public, they were repudiated by the Bush Justice Department and deemed “inoperative.”
Inevitably, though, those memos resulted in people in U.S. custody being tortured. The evidence is overwhelming. The chief judge at the Guantanamo Military Commissions, Susan Crawford, has said so, as have other federal judges. The inspector general of the CIA has said so. FBI interrogators, who refused to participate in the torture program, reportedly half-jokingly kept a “war crimes” file on Guantanamo.
Major General Antonio Taguba, the man selected by the Pentagon to do the report on the Abu Ghraib scandal, a man whom no one has described as anti-American, summed it up when he wrote in a more general context: “The Commander-in-Chief and those under him authorized a systematic regime of torture.”
President Bush didn’t just receive and follow bad legal advice. Many in his own administration dissented. Legal counsel and others in the State Department expressed their disagreement with and disapproval of engaging in such practices. The General Counsel of the Navy, Alberto Mora, strongly objected and was left standing by the side of the road. Lawyers with the military’s Judge Advocates General (JAG) Corps consistently condemned these “enhanced interrogation techniques,” but the program proceeded regardless.
The President got the “advice” he wanted and rejected the opinions — legal and otherwise — that got in his way. But the real tragedy is that once our torture program was revealed, we failed — and continue to fail — to hold accountable those who were responsible for designing, authorizing, or ordering its implementation.
And this failure has continued in spite of a worldwide trend of holding high government officials accountable for human rights violations. University of Minnesota Professor Kathryn Sikkink’s recent book, The Justice Cascade, documents how countries with rule of law traditions far less robust than ours are using a variety of accountability mechanisms for past human rights violations. Truth commissions, investigations and prosecutions, reparations, official apologies — other governments are moving forward by confronting their pasts.
Not in our country, though. We want to look forward, not backwards. But even President Obama, who famously expressed that point of view with respect to our own actions, advised the Indonesian government in 2010 to confront its past. He said, “We have to acknowledge that those past human rights abuses existed. We can’t go forward without looking backwards….”
But alas, no one has ever been charged under the Federal Torture Statute with committing or conspiring to commit torture on behalf of the United States. This while our officially sanctioned torture program has been documented by everyone who has examined the issue, both inside and outside of government.
When the bridge fell, we didn’t say we were going to look only forward, not backwards. We didn’t say those responsible should not be held accountable. We didn’t simply acknowledge the tragedy and move on.
When it comes to torture, we Minnesotans have a special responsibility. We have two United States Senators who sit on the Judiciary Committee. The U.S. Attorney for the District of Minnesota heads the 18-member Attorney General’s Advisory Committee. And our state has often led the nation on issues of human rights.
Every day we fail to act to realize accountability for the torture committed on behalf of the United States, we compound the tragedy of those initial memos of ten years ago. This tragedy, done intentionally and done in our names, continues on, and the lessons have not yet been learned.
We can do better.
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