FREE SPEECH ZONE | An open letter to Congressman Ellison about torture


Dear Congressman Ellison:

Our nation has tortured people in our custody. That hardly makes us unique; torture is all too common a practice. Our failure has been in resisting the “arc of history…[that] bends toward justice,” as Martin Luther King, Jr., described it.

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As University of Minnesota Professor Kathryn Sikkink has noted by the title of her latest book, there has been a Justice Cascade in recent years. In country after country, high government officials are being held accountable for their human rights violations. But not in our country. We have decided to sweep our recent officially-sanctioned torture program under the rug. We have decided to look forward rather than backwards.

We know we don’t have to convince you that people were tortured in our names. No fair-minded person questions this any more; the evidence is overwhelming. A Bush-appointed head judge at the Guantanamo Military Commissions, Susan Crawford, said we have done so. Alberto Mora, the Bush-appointed General Counsel of the Navy, said we have done so. Major General Antonio Taguba, the Pentagon’s choice to do the limited report on the Abu Ghraib scandal — “limited” because he was ordered to stop at a certain level in the chain of command — has written, “The Commander-in-Chief and those under him authorized a systematic regime of torture.” F.B.I. interrogators have confirmed this, as have inspectors general of the federal government. Plus we have public statements that amount to confessions from several high government officials.

But accountability has been virtually non-existent. While a few lower-ranking military people have been charged with abusing prisoners, no one has ever been charged with torture committed on behalf of our country. President Obama and Attorney General Holder lack the political fortitude to hold accountable those who authorized, ordered and committed torture. We need members of Congress and the Senate to speak out, to demand accountability.

Your staff has told us you are taking your lead from the Obama administration, you lack seniority, and there is no political will in Washington to take on the issue of accountability for torture. On a less vital issue, these are lame excuses. On an issue like torture, they are almost scandalous.

You have said, “I am not a prosecutor.” But you have publicly criticized other prosecutorial decisions, such as in the Jena Six case.

We appreciate the fact that you have spoken out on torture. You sharply questioned government officials and sympathized with Maher Arar’s plight when they and he appeared before the House Judiciary Committee. You participated in the reading of ACLU-obtained torture documents at Georgetown Law School. You co-sponsored an impeachment resolution against former President Bush, a resolution that included accountability for torture provisions. But now that we have a Democratic President who wants this issue to disappear, your call for accountability has disappeared as well.

Among the 35 articles of impeachment included in that resolution was one that dealt with authorizing and encouraging torture (Article XVIII) and one that dealt with rendering prisoners to nations known to torture (Article XIX).

Article XVIII reads in part: “In violation of the Constitution, US law, the Geneva Conventions (to which the US is a signatory), and in violation of basic human rights, torture has been authorized by the President and his administration as official policy” (page 34 of impeachment resolution).

We assume “US law” refers to federal criminal law, specifically the Federal Torture Statute, 18 U.S.C. Sec. 2340-2340A. If so, the impeachment resolution you co-sponsored alleged that President Bush had committed not just impeachable offenses but also crimes in violation of that statute.

We also call your attention to the following language in Article XVIII of the 2008 impeachment resolution: “The president, besides bearing responsibility for authorizing the use of torture, also as Commander in Chief, bears ultimate responsibility for the failure to halt these practices and to punish those responsible once they were exposed” (page 35 of impeachment resolution, emphasis added).

The Obama administration not only has consistently opposed efforts of alleged victims of U.S. torture to seek civil redress within our courts (a violation of the Convention Against Torture, Article 14), but has also never prosecuted anyone who committed torture on behalf of the United States — let alone those who made torture “official policy” (see impeachment resolution wording above) — for a violation of the Federal Torture Statute.

Why is a Republican President worthy of impeachment for failing “to punish those responsible [for torture]” and a Democratic President not called to account?

You have demonstrated your willingness to question administration policies with which you disagree, most recently by signing a letter this month about the use of drone strikes. Accountability for torture is similarly not a partisan issue.

In fact, when it comes to torture, we believe even political concerns become irrelevant. If you speak out for accountability, maybe the administration won’t have your back on issues of concern to you. Maybe you’ll become an outsider to the Democratic Party establishment. Maybe you’ll endanger your ties to the White House.

But this issue is above politics. This is about what kind of a country we are. If President Obama were turning a blind eye to an agency of our government locking people up in concentration camps because of where they were born or what their religion was, would you make political cost-benefit considerations before deciding whether to speak out, and speak out forcefully? We don’t think so. On some issues, we must throw caution to the wind, forget our political loyalties, forget the political price we might pay. Torture is one of those issues, and especially torture committed by our government in our names.

The website of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, on whose Executive Committee you sit, includes a portion of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights at the top of its front page: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” You, more than most members of Congress, embody and have fought for the spirit of that statement. A nation that has tortured with impunity cannot embody that spirit.

Accountability for torture is not just one among many important issues. Rather, it goes to the core of who we are as a nation. If we allow our government to torture in our names, all bets are off. Aggressive, illegal wars; drone strikes based on “signatures”; a political system that can be bought; a health care/education/economic system that favors the rich. We can’t consistently fight those injustices while acquiescing to torture with impunity.

Let’s sit down and figure out what you can do on this issue. Not what you politically can do, but what you ethically and patriotically should do. Let’s see what we can do to help our country rejoin that “arc of history…[that] bends toward justice.”


Respectfully yours,

Steve Clemens    
Tom Dickinson  
Patty Guerrero  
David Harris 
Bob Heberle   
Melissa Hill
Lydia Howell
Sonja Johnson
Gary W. King, Ph.D.
Jack Nordgaard
Emma Onawa
Ross and Coleen Rowley
Lucia Wilkes Smith
Chuck Turchick