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Monday, January 19, 2009

Remarks on Torture May Force New Administration’s Hand

Just 14 months ago, at his confirmation hearing, Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey frustrated and angered some senators by refusing to state that waterboarding, the near-drowning technique used on three prisoners by the Central Intelligence Agency, is in fact torture.

This week, at his confirmation hearing, Eric H. Holder Jr., the attorney general-designate, did not hesitate to express a clear view. He noted that waterboarding had been used to torment prisoners during the Inquisition, by the Japanese in World War II and in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge.

“We prosecuted our own soldiers for using it in Vietnam,” Mr. Holder said. “Waterboarding is torture.”

In the view of many historians and legal authorities, Mr. Holder was merely admitting the obvious. He was agreeing with the clear position of his boss-to-be, President-elect Barack Obama, and he was giving an answer that almost certainly was necessary to win confirmation.

Yet his statement, amounting to an admission that the United States may have committed war crimes, opens the door to an unpredictable train of legal and political consequences. It could potentially require a full-scale legal investigation, complicate prosecutions of individuals suspected of committing terrorism and mire the new administration in just the kind of backward look that Mr. Obama has said he would like to avoid.

Mr. Holder’s statement came just two days after the Defense Department official in charge of military commissions at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, said in an interview with The Washington Post that she had refused to permit a trial for one detainee there, Mohammed al-Qahtani, because she believed he had been tortured.

Together the statements, from a current and an incoming legal official, cover both the Central Intelligence Agency, which has acknowledged waterboarding three captured operatives of Al Qaeda, and the military’s detention program.

Legal experts across the political spectrum said the statements would make it difficult for the incoming administration to avoid a criminal investigation of torture, even as most also say a successful prosecution might well be impossible. [Mark Godsey]

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