Alejandro Moreno—associate director of the Internal Medicine Residency Program at the University Medical Center Brackenridge in Austin—shares his insight into the Study of the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program, released by the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence on Tuesday, Dec. 9. The report, parts of which are being disputed by the CIA and some politicians, alleges that CIA officials used brutal interrogation methods against terrorism suspects, that the agency was not completely transparent with the Bush administration about its activities, and that such actions did not produce meaningful results.
Moreno, a physician and Texas attorney, has cared for victims of torture and has conducted and testified in numerous medical and legal investigations of torture in the United States and abroad. He consults the nonprofit Physicians for Human Rights and co-founded and co-directed the Boston Center for Refugee Health and Human Rights at Boston Medical Center, a multidisciplinary center that provides comprehensive care to survivors of torture and related trauma. He also has served as a medical and legal adviser to the Center for Survivors of Torture in Texas. Moreno additionally has led comprehensive training programs around the world for forensic physicians, prosecutors, attorneys, and adjudicators, and he has provided legal advice to NGOs and government officials overseas implementing the Istanbul Protocol—the international standard on how to conduct an effective medico-legal investigation of alleged torture and ill treatment.
All responses are the opinion of Moreno and do not necessarily indicate a reflection of the views of the State Bar of Texas.
What is your reaction to the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report?
The release of the report is a small step forward toward accountability for the actions taken by CIA operatives and other government officials in the aftermath of 9/11. The next step should be—as a law abiding nation—to pursue criminal cases against the perpetrators of these heinous acts, including but not limited to the actual perpetrators, health personnel who participated directly or indirectly, and the architects of such policies. We also need to have a dialogue that is not coaxed by political scaremongering so the nation understands that the absolute prohibition of torture is essential to our national security. We lost not only the high moral ground and credibility that has always characterized our nation, but also jeopardized the lives of our citizens abroad, including military personnel and diplomats.
How do the methods described in the report compare with torture in other countries and conflicts?
The methods described in the report constitute torture when you examine them under our own statutes and case law, as well as under the language of international treaties and cases from the International Criminal Court and the Inter-American Human Rights Court, because they inflict severe physical-psychological pain and suffering on the victims. To mention a recent case: In 2008, a federal court in South Florida found Charles McArthur Emmanuel Taylor, a native of Massachusetts and the son of former Liberia dictator, Charles Taylor, guilty of torture and sentenced him to 97 years in prison. Taylor had ordered and participated in acts similar in nature to those described by the U.S. Senate committee’s report while being the head of the anti-terrorist unit in Liberia.
One of the greatest travesties of the Jay S. Bybee and Steven G. Bradbury memos authorizing the CIA operatives and other government officials to conduct enhanced interrogation techniques is the fact that torture was narrowly redefined to include only acts that threatened life, affected a bodily function, endangered an organ, or caused significant and lasting psychological disability as a result of a short list of abuses. This redefinition basically made it impossible to find torture, except in the most extreme of the circumstances, even when serious physical and psychological harm has already occurred. It is important to remember that these strategies (as well as changing the intent requirement of the perpetrator and using “ghost” detention centers) have been used by dictators and totalitarian regimes. It is also important to remember that perpetrators aim at inflicting the most pain and suffering while avoiding permanent physical injuries, as they are powerful forensic evidence in a court of law. The most devastating consequence of torture and the hardest to prove in a court of law is the psychological destruction of the victim.
The other great travesty of the events [described in the Senate committee’s report] is the participation of health professionals in the design, implementation, and monitoring of torture practices on detainees. Legally and ethically, all health professionals are barred from ever participating in any form of abuse, especially torture.
Do methods such as the ones described in the Senate committee’s report conflict with a person’s human rights?
As simple as this: torture is a crime against humanity. The right of any human being not to be tortured is as basic as the right to life, freedom of expression, and due process.
Is there any legality to such actions, i.e., if they’re used to obtain confessions or information essential to homeland security?
Torture is never legal, even when considered under “doomsday” scenarios, because no reliable information is obtained. After caring for hundreds of torture victims and participating in several of these investigations, I have learned that torture victims provide misinformation, play mind games to confuse the perpetrators, or simply say what the perpetrators want to hear—even if it’s not true. Victims know that perpetrators are in absolute control of the situation and saying the “truth” won’t necessarily stop the abuse.
What impact do you think the report will have in the coming weeks and months, and where do lawyers fit in to this picture?
I think the calls to bring those responsible to justice will grow louder. I also hope that we can start a national dialogue about these events that is not ransomed by political extremism.