Torture: What are the U.S. Obligations to Prevent?

From: Kathy Guthrie
kathyguthrie@fcnl.org [FCNL]

The Bush administration this week publicly attempted to narrow the definition of torture and limit the responsibility of individuals working for the U.S. government to prevent torture from taking place. But U.S. military leaders and many members of Congress from both parties are refusing to stand aside while fundamental rights are eroded.

Behind-the-scenes arguments came dramatically into public view recently when Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld argued that military personnel have no obligation to intervene when they personally witness torture taking place by officials of other, sovereign governments. Standing next to Rumsfeld at a press conference last week, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Peter Pace, responded: "It is absolutely the responsibility of every U.S. service member, if they see inhumane treatment being conducted, to intervene to stop it.”

But the secretary of defense didn’t agree: “I don’t think you mean they have an obligation to physically stop it.” In a rare, direct, public confrontation, Gen. Pace stood his ground: “If they [U.S. soldiers] are physically present when inhumane treatment is taking place, sir, they have an obligation to try to stop it," Pace told the secretary of defense.

Following this exchange, The Washington Post reported that the secretary of defense has asked the Pentagon to review guidelines for soldiers operating in these conditions. Read a letter from FCNL’s Col. Dan Smith (USA Ret.) to Gen. Pace supporting Pace’s position at

This public debate within the executive branch on appropriate responses to torture comes as the U.S. government has come under new scrutiny by European governments. The European Union expressed concern about public reports that the U.S. is holding some prisoners in secret prisons in Eastern Europe without granting them access to legal counsel or the International Committee of the Red Cross.

The secret detention facilities in Eastern Europe and other areas of the world are part of a shadowy network of detention and interrogation facilities set up by the U.S. government to circumvent legal restrictions on interrogation, torture, and due process of law, according to reports from Human Rights Watch and some press accounts. Read a Human Rights Watch report on government treatment of detainees at

But the public disclosure of these facilities and the acknowledgment by Secretary of State Condolezza Rice that these facilities have been used in Europe have persuaded some European governments to call for the shut down of these secret prisons.

The public debate on interrogation, torture, and secret detention facilities has persuaded many members of Congress to support legislation offered by Sen. John McCain (AZ) that would establish clear guidelines for interrogation that prohibit torture. The New York Times reported December 7 that the White House has “all but abandoned its effort to persuade Sen. McCain to exempt Central Intelligence Agency employees from legislation barring inhumane or degrading treatment of prisoners in American custody.” If true, that is a victory on which we can and must build.

Although we citizens should be able to take for granted that our government opposes and strenuously prohibits torture, we cannot. Our government officials are engaged in an intense debate whether some agents of the U.S. government should be able to engage in some types of torture of certain kinds of suspects. Now the White House is seeking to limit the penalties imposed on U.S. government personnel who engage in torture.

The public outcry against torture is strengthening the hand of those within the U.S. government who oppose torture and want to prohibit its use.We want to encourage all our FCNL constituents to back them up with informed comment and with encouragement to sustain government advocates of a world free from the threat of torture. Read more about these issues at


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Dezember 2005

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