By Peter Finn
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 18, 2009
The ACLU called on Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. yesterday to appoint an independent prosecutor to investigate allegations of torture at CIA secret prisons, following the leak last weekend of a secret report by the International Committee of the Red Cross.
The Red Cross reported in 2007 that some of the 14 detainees whom U.S. officials considered "high-value" said they had been waterboarded, beaten, deprived of food and placed in coffin-like boxes, among other techniques. Excerpts from the document were published Sunday in the New York Review of Books, and the American Civil Liberties Union said, "The report of these incidents certainly warrants a criminal investigation."
Although Holder described waterboarding as torture during his confirmation hearings, the Obama administration has shown little willingness to support an investigation of interrogation techniques undertaken while George W. Bush was president.
Justice Department officials declined to comment on the ACLU's letter, which was provided to The Washington Post after it was delivered to the department yesterday.
"Allegations of crimes is not a discretionary matter," said Anthony D. Romero, the executive director of the ACLU. Romero argued that Holder must act to meet the obligations of his office.
The civil liberties groups also said time is running out for any criminal investigation into the interrogation of the first major terrorism suspect captured after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Zayn al-Abidin Muhammed Hussein, a Saudi-born Palestinian better known by his nom de guerre, Abu Zubaida.
Abu Zubaida was captured in Pakistan in March 2002. Shot in the groin, thigh and stomach, he was nursed back to health by an American surgeon whose services were arranged by the CIA. Abu Zubaida was held in a series of secret locations, where shortly after his recovery, he says, he was beaten, waterboarded and placed in a box with a limited air supply and no light.
On Aug. 1, 2002, the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel issued the first in a series of memos that excluded a series of interrogation techniques from the prohibitions of the American Anti-Torture Act.
It is unclear from the Review of Books report exactly when the interrogation of Abu Zubaida began and how it progressed. But if he was abused before Aug. 1, 2002, those involved would not have the potential legal shield of the OLC opinion.
"The eight-year statute of limitation period for Anti-Torture Act charges related to crimes allegedly committed in Spring 2002 will expire in Spring 2010," said the ACLU letter, which was signed by Romero. "A prosecutor has only little more than a year from today to bring charges for some important and well-documented alleged torture or abuse incidents."
The ACLU also said that any independent investigation must include a "top-to-bottom review."
"At this point there is too much evidence of high-level orders and authorization for the use of torture and abuse to justify criminal investigations focused solely on persons in the field," the letter stated. "A full and fair criminal investigation must include decisions made and carried out at the very highest levels of government."
Staff writer Carrie Johnson contributed to this report.