Friday, October 31, 2014

34 House Democrats Urge Obama to Abandon Bush Torture Policies

Two weeks ago, the New York Times reported that the Obama administration was considering upholding a controversial Bush administration interpretation of the United Nations Convention Against Torture:
When the Bush administration revealed in 2005 that it was secretly interpreting a treaty ban on “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment” as not applying to C.I.A. and military prisons overseas, Barack Obama, then a newly elected Democratic senator from Illinois, joined in a bipartisan protest.
Mr. Obama supported legislation to make it clear that American officials were legally barred from using cruelty anywhere in the world. And in a Senate speech, he said enacting such a statute “acknowledges and confirms existing obligations” under the treaty, the United Nations Convention Against Torture.
But the Obama administration has never officially declared its position on the treaty, and now, President Obama’s legal team is debating whether to back away from his earlier view. It is considering reaffirming the Bush administration’s position that the treaty imposes no legal obligation on the United States to bar cruelty outside its borders, according to officials who discussed the deliberations on the condition of anonymity.
The administration must decide on its stance on the treaty by next month, when it sends a delegation to Geneva to appear before the Committee Against Torture, a United Nations panel that monitors compliance with the treaty. That presentation will be the first during Mr. Obama’s presidency.
State Department lawyers are said to be pushing to officially abandon the Bush-era interpretation. Doing so would require no policy changes, since Mr. Obama issued an executive order in 2009 that forbade cruel interrogations anywhere and made it harder for a future administration to return to torture.
But military and intelligence lawyers are said to oppose accepting that the treaty imposes legal obligations on the United States’ actions abroad. They say they need more time to study whether it would have operational impacts. They have also raised concerns that current or future wartime detainees abroad might invoke the treaty to sue American officials with claims of torture, although courts have repeatedly thrown out lawsuits brought by detainees held as terrorism suspects.
The internal debate is said to have been catalyzed by a memo that the State Department circulated within an interagency lawyers’ group several weeks ago. On Wednesday, lawyers from the State Department, the Pentagon, the intelligence community and the National Security Council met at the White House to discuss the matter, but reached no consensus.
In other words, design a loophole so large that all of your atrocities become legal.

Yesterday, 34 members of the House Democratic caucus wrote to the president encouraging him to abandon the Bush administration's interpretation of the Convention---as he once said that he would.

Here are the 34 signers:

Raúl Grijalva (AZ-03)
Eleanor Holmes Norton (DC)
John Garamendi (CA-03)
Barbara Lee (CA-13)
Jackie Speier (CA-14)
Mike Honda (CA-17)
Sam Farr (CA-20)
Judy Chu (CA-27)
Adam Schiff (CA-28)
Karen Bass (CA-37)
Mark Takano (CA-41)
Maxine Waters (CA-43)
Alan Lowenthal (CA-47)
Alan Grayson (FL-09)
Alcee Hastings (FL-20)
Hank Johnson (GA-04)
Danny Davis (IL-07)
Jim McGovern (MA-02)
Donna Edwards (MD-04)
Chris Van Hollen (MD-08)
John Conyers (MI-13)
Keith Ellison (MN-05)
Jerry Nadler (NY-10)
Carolyn Maloney (NY-12)
Charlie Rangel (NY-13)
Jose Serrano (NY-15)
Suzanne Bonamici (OR-01)
Pete DeFazio (OR-04)
David Cicilline (RI-01)
Sheila Jackson Lee (TX-18)
Steve Cohen (TN-09)
Lloyd Doggett (TX-35)
Jim Moran (VA-08)
Jim McDermott (WA-07)

Dear Mr. President,
We are writing to express our strong support for interpreting the United Nations Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment as applying overseas to all persons wherever they are located. This standard is consistent with your promise that you made to the American people both while you were a senator and a presidential candidate, and consistent with your actions early in your presidency to ban the use of torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment during interrogation.
The United States of America is a beacon of hope and aspirational model of government for billions of oppressed people across the world. Unfortunately, according to news reports, your administration is considering reaffirming the President George W. Bush Administration’s misguided and dangerous interpretation of the Convention—as not applying to all persons under effective control of U.S. authorities—when the United Nations Committee Against Torture convenes in Geneva in November. We urge your Administration to send a strong signal that it opposes torture by taking a clear position on this issue.
As senator, you supported legislation banning cruel or inhumane treatment of all individuals within U.S. custody, both inside and outside of U.S. borders. You specifically declared that this standard was important due to the obligations our nation has under the Convention Against Torture. You unequivocally continued to advocate for this standard as you sought the U.S. presidency, as you noted soon after being elected: “I was clear throughout this campaign and was clear throughout this transition that under my administration the United States does not torture.”
We shared in the worldwide support for your decision in 2009 to issue an executive order that forbade cruel interrogations anywhere and made it harder for a future administration to return to torture. The decision to issue that executive order so early in your Administration sent an unambiguous signal that the United States had learned from its mistakes and had turned from its use of torture. Since that executive order, there has been no evidence that torture is an effective tool for gathering reliable intelligence. Rather, the evidence is clear that the use of torture only harms America’s reputation and fuels international resentment.
The Convention Against Torture had the full support of President Reagan, President George H. W. Bush and President Clinton—and not one of them supported the misguided interpretation at issue now. To the contrary, Abraham D. Sofaer, who negotiated the United Nations Convention Against Torture for President Reagan and continued as the State Department’s top lawyer under President George H. W. Bush, wrote in The Wall Street Journal in 2005 that neither president intended to restrict enforcement of the cruelty ban to within U.S. territory. That kind of territorial restriction, as Sofaer put it, “would fundamentally undermine the treaty’s purpose.”

Indeed, at the time of advice and consent, both President Reagan’s Administration and the U.S. Senate took the position that treaty provisions—including the ban on cruel treatment in “any territory under [a state’s] jurisdiction”—applied not just within America’s sovereign boundaries but to ships and aircraft as well as U.S. special territorial, maritime and aircraft jurisdictions. The negotiating history of the treaty reflects the same—the negotiators rejected a proposal limiting it to inside state borders.
The Bush Administration’s misguided interpretation isolated us from our allies and put us in the dubious company of abusive and authoritarian governments. We urge your Administration to break with this harmful legacy, affirm the Convention Against Torture applies overseas, and renew America’s leadership on the right of all people to freedom from torture.
It is rather depressing that members of Congress even have to write to the president on this---and that there were not more signers.

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