Transcript: Remarks by Asa Hutchinson on the Constitution Project’s report on detainee treatment – April 16, 2013

Partial transcript of remarks by Asa Hutchinson, former Republican Congressman from Arkansas, on the Constitution Project’s Task Force report on the torture of detainees. The press briefing was held at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. on April 16, 2013:

Thank you, Jim. And thank you for your leadership on the task force. And I want to express my thanks to the Constitution Project but also to all of my fellow task force members. What they’ve brought to the table in terms of experience, wisdom, public service really made a difference in the development of this project and important report.

As Jim mentioned, there’s more than 24 findings and recommendations. We can’t cover all of those this morning but we do want to hit some highlights. We hope you’ll take the entire report, study it through, and look at each of those recommendations.

Why is this report important? It’s important because we as a nation have to get this right.

I look back in history to the time during World War II that we interned some Japanese Americans. At the time, it seemed like the right and proper thing to do. But in the light of history, it was an error.

And so today, this report will hopefully put into focus some of the actions taken in the post-9/11 environment.

There’s some key question we want to address this morning. One, did the treatment of suspected terrorists in U.S. custody rise to the level of torture? Secondly, if so, how did this happen? And then what can we learn from this to make better decisions in the future?

On the first question, we found that U.S. personnel in many instances used interrogation techniques on detainees that constitute torture. American personnel conducted an even larger number of interrogations that involved cruel, inhumane, or degrading treatment. Both category of actions violate U.S. laws and international treaty obligations.

This conclusion is not based upon our own personal impressions but rather is grounded in a thorough and detailed examination of what constitutes torture from a historical and legal context.

We looked at court cases and determined that the treatment of detainees in many instances met the standards the courts have determined as constituting torture.

But in addition, you look at the United States State Department and its annual country report on human rights practices has characterized many of the techniques used against the detainees in U.S. custody in the post-9/11 environment – the State Department has characterized the same treatment as torture, abuse, or cruel treatment when those techniques were employed by foreign governments. The CIA recognized this and in an internal review acknowledged that many of the interrogation techniques it employed were inconsistent with the public policy positions the United States has taken regarding human rights.

The United States is understandably subject to criticism when it criticizes another nation for engaging in torture and justifies the same conduct under national security arguments.

There are those that defend the techniques like waterboarding, stress positions, and sleep deprivation because there was the Office of Legal Counsel, which issued a decision approving of their use because they defined them as not being torture. Those opinions have since been repudiated by legal experts and the OLC itself. And even in its opinion, it relied not only on a very narrow legal definition of torture but also on factual representations about how the techniques would be implemented that later proved inaccurate. This is important context as to how the opinion came about but also as to how policymakers relied upon it.

Based upon a thorough review of the available public record, we determined that an application torture was used against detainees in many instances and across a wide range of theaters.

On the question of responsibility or how did this happen. Any effort to understand how the government decided to approve a torture of detainees must begin with a recognition of the fear and anxiety that enveloped our country after 9/11. We have a small taste of this today even after the events yesterday in Boston and the desire of first responders and law enforcement and the public to know the perpetrators of this incredible act of violence. The intensity was even much greater post-9/11 because of the incredible loss of life and the greatest concern of Americans and their leaders in that period were simply preventing further attacks.

Task force members understand clearly that those officials whose decisions may have contributed to the use of torture undertook those measures as their best efforts to protect their fellow citizens.

And while our report is critical of the approval of interrogation techniques that ultimately led to U.S. personnel engaging in torture of detainees, the investigation was not an undertaking of partisan fault-finding. Our conclusions about responsibility should be taking very simply as an effort to understand what happened at many levels of the U.S. policymaking.

There’s no way of knowing how the government would have responded if a Democratic administration were in power at the time of the attacks.

Indeed, our report is equally critical of the rendition to torture program which began under President [Bill] Clinton, and we question several actions of current administration as well.

It should be noted that many of the corrective actions that were first undertaken during the Bush administration as well.

But the task force did conclude that the nation’s highest officials after the 9/11 attack approved actions for CIA and defense personnel based upon legal guidance that has since been repudiated.

The most important decision may have been to declare the Geneva Convention did not apply to Al Qaeda and Taliban captives in Afghanistan or Guantanamo. The administration never specified what rules would apply instead. The task force believes that U.S. defense and intelligence professionals and service members in harm’s way need absolutely clear orders on the treatment of detainees, requiring at a minimum compliance with common Article 3 of the Geneva Convention. This was not done.

Civilian leaders and military commanders have an affirmative responsibility to ensure that their subordinates comply with the laws of war.

President Obama has committed to observe the Geneva Convention through an executive order but a future president could change it by a stroke of a pen. Congress, one of our recommendation, needs to work with the administration to strengthen the torture statute, the War Crimes Act, and the Uniform Code of Military Justice to remove the loopholes that allow torture to occur.

In terms of the CIA, we did not have access to classified information. This is the reason we’re asking the administration to review much of the classified information to see what can be released without compromising national security and to provide more transparency and light on how the policy decisions were made. Dr. David Gushee would be happy to answer questions when we conclude about the responsibility and how the absence of clear standards left crews on the front line in an untenable position.

On the question of effectiveness of torture, there is no persuasive evidence in the public record that the widespread use of torture against suspected terrorists was necessary – that is that it produced significant information of value that could not have been otherwise obtained.

I’ll just simply make 2 points and observations in this regard.

The task force believes it’s important to recognize that to say torture is ineffective does not require a demonstration that it never works. A person subjected to torture might well divulge useful information. Nor is the fact that it sometimes yield legitimate information justify its use.

What values do America stand for? That’s the ultimate question.

But in addition to the very real legal and moral objections to its use, torture often produces false information, and it is difficult and time consuming for interrogators and analysts to distinguish what may be true and usable from that which is false and misleading.

Also convictional, lawful interrogation have proven to be successful whenever the United States uses them throughout history and I have seen this in law enforcement as well. We’ve seen no evidence in public record that the traditional means in interrogation would not have yielded the necessary intelligence following the attacks of 9/11.

Gen. David Irvine, who taught prisoner of war interrogation for 18 years at the Army Intelligence School, was on the task force and will be happy to answer questions about the effectiveness of torture.

Those are a couple of the key findings but there are many more findings in the task force report that I hope that you will review.

This has been an important task that we have engaged in but we understand how difficult it is for our nation to come to terms with what these findings are and these recommendations. We hope that we will learn from these and improve policymaking decisions in the future.

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