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Ex-Guantanamo prosecutor: 'US must practice what it preaches on torture'

The former chief prosecutor at Guantanamo tells DW why the US Senate should release its controversial report on the CIA's Bush-era torture program. He also explains why the report can only be a starting point.

Morris Davis was the chief prosecutor for terrorism trials at the US military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and at the Pentagon from 2005 to 2007.

DW: There is a controversial debate in the US over whether the Senate should publish a report this week that details the use of torture and rendition by the CIA during the Bush presidency. On Friday, Secretary of State John Kerry personally asked the head of the Senate Intelligence Committee to delay the release, arguing the report could complicate foreign relations and endanger US personnel. Why do you still favor releasing the report now?

Morris Davis: For many years the US held itself out as being the leader in the belief in the rule of law. We led the effort to create the Convention against Torture that essentially every country on the planet has signed off on - even under President Ronald Reagan, who was the one that sent the Convention against Torture to the Senate for ratification. He said torture was an abhorrent practice and that the US was a leader in trying to eradicate torture. Then 9/11 happened and we became a purveyor of torture. I think it is important to the US and its standing. If it truly is a leader we have to acknowledge what we did and take appropriate action. You can't preach one thing and practice another. So I think this report is an important step in acknowledging what we did in the wake of 9/11 and then taking responsibility for our actions.

What do you expect we will learn from the report?

Morris Davis

Morris Davis was Chief Prosecutor at Guantanamo

I don't think any startling bombshells are going to come out of this report. I think the public over the last years has a pretty decent understanding of the techniques that were used on detainees after 9/11 to extract information. So I don't anticipate that the report will reveal some additional practices that have not been discussed in some way already. What it will do though is officially confirm what's been talked about in the media for years. Having that official record is important.

While the report focuses on the CIA's practices it does not address the question of the political leadership and responsibility for those practices. Why not?

That's a really good point. I think it's important to keep this in perspective. This report, which hopefully comes out this week, isn't an end point. Some may want to see this as something we can wash our hands of after it comes out, the conduct that took place. It should be a starting point for discussion going forward. Under the Convention against Torture, which again the US led the effort to pass, it creates an obligation. When there are allegations of torture there is a duty to investigate, to prosecute and to afford alleged victims of torture a means for seeking civil remedies for their abuse. And so far the US has avoided all those responsibilities. So I think this report coming out ought to give some impetus to living up to the obligations that we took on when we signed on to the Convention against Torture.

The question of political leadership and responsibility is arguably as important as detailing the specific practices at the CIA. Would you then want to see another investigation or report on the questions of political leadership and responsibility that led to those practices and policies?

I would like to see that. In my view accountability should be from the top down, not from the bottom up. And too often it's those at the bottom of the pyramid that are held accountable and those at the top of the pyramid end up with impunity. For instance, at Abu Ghraib, the abuses that took place there - it was the low-level enlisted soldiers that were prosecuted and went to prison, and no one further up the chain of command was held accountable. I hope we avoid that with that report. I met many of these people when I was the chief prosecutor in Guantanamo. I had the opportunity to sit down with many of those involved in this enhanced interrogation program who I believe felt they were acting in good faith, they had the assurance of the Department of Justice and the White House, that their actions were legally permissible and necessary. Those above them in the White House and in the Justice Department who authorized these practices should not be able to avoid accountability for their actions when those who acted upon them face the consequences.

You mentioned your time as chief prosecutor in Guantanamo: Many people probably wonder whether you think - or thought - torture is legitimate under any circumstances?

I clearly do not think torture served any useful purpose. What's important in looking at this report is not just what it shows, but what it doesn't show. And I think what you are not going to see is an instance where torture provided a tangible benefit. I think it is going to document a lot of harm and no good. The proponents of torture will say we avoided attacks and lives were saved, but you never hear them give any specifics. And that's because there are none. Having spent two years reviewing the evidence on the detainees - including Khalid Sheikh Mohamed (the alleged mastermind of the 9/11 attacks - the ed.), there is no indication that any of these techniques produce evidence that stopped a plot or saved a life. To the contrary, I think there is ample evidence that torture did a tremendous amount of damage.

The final straw that led to the US invasion of Iraq, with our allies joining in that effort, was when Colin Powell went to the UN and talked about that person that had established a link between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda and weapons of mass destruction and yellow cake uranium from Niger. After the invasion, when that proved to be false, they went back to that individual - Ibn Sheikh al-Libi - and said, Why did you lie about this? And he said, I didn't want to be tortured, so I told you what you wanted to hear. So the whole war in Iraq was premised on false information that was obtained in order to obtain torture. We have pretty compelling proof that torture causes a lot of harm. And I don't think you will see any proof in this report that torture did any tangible good.

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