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It is "indisputable" that the United States engaged in torture after the September 11, 2001 terror attacks and top officials are ultimately to blame, says an independent review released Tuesday.
The lengthy, bipartisan report led by two former lawmakers found intelligence officers and military forces practiced torture, as well as "cruel, inhuman and degrading" treatment of detainees in Afghanistan, Iraq, the US-run prison at Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere, in violation of US and international law.
The co-chair of the panel, Asa Hutchinson, a former Republican lawmaker who worked in ex-president George W. Bush's administration, said that "we have come to the regrettable, but unavoidable, conclusion that the United States did indeed engage in conduct that is clearly torture."
The 577-page report, sponsored by The Constitution Project, a legal advocacy group, marked the most comprehensive attempt outside of government to assess America's interrogation record over the past decade, featuring dozens of interviews with former CIA officers and other key actors. An exhaustive inquiry by the Senate has yet to be publicly released.
The interrogation tactics used after 9/11 failed to produce valuable information and had been condemned as torture and abuse by the US government in the past when the techniques were used by other countries, the report said.
The tolerance of torture violated the country's values and was "greatly diminishing America's ability to forge important alliances around the world," said James Jones, the other co-chair of the panel who is a former Democrat in Congress and ambassador to Mexico under ex-president Bill Clinton.
The torture employed by interrogators was never explicitly authorized but was the result of "decisions made by the nation's highest civilian and military leaders," including deciding that the Geneva Conventions did not apply to Al-Qaeda and the Taliban militants and that the CIA could use brutal techniques against "high-value" detainees, it said.
Bush administration officials allowed the Central Intelligence Agency to employ harsh tactics on detainees at secret prisons, or "black sites", in Thailand, Poland, Romania and Lithuania, a policy that has created legal headaches for those countries, the study said.
And Donald Rumsfeld, then defense secretary, approved interrogation methods at the US military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, that "included deprivation, stress positions, nudity, sensory deprivation and threatening detainees with dogs." The techniques were later employed in Iraq.
The report focused mainly on the Bush presidency but also said the practice of secretly transferring detainees overseas was used during Clinton's administration. The panel accused President Barack Obama of imposing excessive secrecy over his administration's treatment of detainees, as well as drone bombing raids in Pakistan and Yemen.
Although the US officials who allowed the spread of torture meant well in trying to prevent future terror attacks, it was crucial that Americans come to terms with what happened, the review said.
The report drew a parallel between the use of torture after 9/11 and the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.
"What was once generally taken to be understandable and justifiable behavior can later become a case of historical regret," it said.
The panel urged declassifying CIA and other government documents related to investigations of torture, including the Senate intelligence committee's probe, to ensure a full public accounting.
The review also called for changing criminal laws to close loopholes that allow government lawyers to label brutal methods as less than torture, ensuring the Red Cross be given "prompt" access to detainees and barring the Pentagon or the CIA from asking medical professionals to monitor or sanction harsh interrogations.
The 11-member panel could not agree about the controversial prison at Guantanamo Bay, but a majority condemned the indefinite detention of inmates as "abhorrent and intolerable" and urged the closure of the jail.
The report also demanded the Obama administration stop force feeding inmates on hunger strike at Guantanamo, where more than 40 detainees are currently refusing to take meals to protest their indefinite imprisonment.