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Context of 'April 27, 2008: Justice Department Says Government Can Decide When Geneva Conventions Apply to Individual Instances of Interrogation'

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President Bush signs the Military Commissions Act into law.President Bush signs the Military Commissions Act into law. [Source: White House]President Bush signs the Military Commissions Act (MCA) into law. [White House, 10/17/2006] The MCA is designed to give the president the authority to order “enemy detainees” tried by military commissions largely outside the scope of US civil and criminal procedures. The bill was requested by the Bush administration after the Supreme Court’s ruling in Hamdi v. Rumsfeld (see June 28, 2004) that the US could not hold prisoners indefinitely without access to the US judicial system, and that the administration’s proposal that they be tried by military tribunals was unconstitutional (see June 28, 2004). [FindLaw, 10/9/2006] It is widely reported that the MCA does not directly apply to US citizens, but to only non-citizens defined as “enemy combatants. [CBS News, 10/19/2006] However, six months later, a Bush administration lawyer will confirm that the administration believes the law does indeed apply to US citizens (see February 1, 2007).
Sweeping New Executive Powers - The MCA virtually eliminates the possibility that the Supreme Court can ever again act as a check on a president’s power in the war on terrorism. Similarly, the law gives Congressional approval to many of the executive powers previously, and unilaterally, seized by the Bush administration. Former Justice Department official John Yoo celebrates the MCA, writing, “Congress… told the courts, in effect, to get out of the war on terror” (see October 19, 2006). [Savage, 2007, pp. 319, 322]
'Abandoning' Core 'Principles' - The bill passed the Senate on a 65-34 vote, and the House by a 250-170 vote. The floor debate was often impassioned and highly partisan; House Majority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) called Democrats who opposed the bill “dangerous,” and Senate Judiciary Committee member Patrick Leahy (D-VT) said this bill showed that the US is losing its “moral compass.” Leahy asked during the debate, “Why would we allow the terrorists to win by doing to ourselves what they could never do, and abandon the principles for which so many Americans today and through our history have fought and sacrificed?” Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Arlen Specter (R-PA) had said he would vote against it because it is “patently unconstitutional on its face,” but then voted for it, saying he believes the courts will eventually “clean it up.” Specter’s attempt to amend the bill to provide habeas corpus rights for enemy combatants was defeated, as were four Democratic amendments. Republicans have openly used the debate over the MCA as election-year fodder, with House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-IL) saying after the vote that “House Democrats have voted to protect the rights of terrorists,” and Boehner decrying “the Democrats’ irrational opposition to strong national security policies.” Democrats such as Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) say they will not fight back at such a level. “There will be 30-second attack ads and negative mail pieces, and we will be called everything from cut-and-run quitters to Defeatocrats, to people who care more about the rights of terrorists than the protection of Americans,” Obama says. “While I know all of this, I’m still disappointed, and I’m still ashamed, because what we’re doing here today—a debate over the fundamental human rights of the accused—should be bigger than politics.” [Washington Post, 10/19/2006] After winning the vote, Hastert accused Democrats who opposed the bill of “putting their liberal agenda ahead of the security of America.” Hastert said the Democrats “would gingerly pamper the terrorists who plan to destroy innocent Americans’ lives” and create “new rights for terrorists.” [New York Times, 10/19/2006]
Enemy Combatants - The MCA applies only to “enemy combatants.” Specifically, the law defines an “unlawful enemy combatant” as a person “who has engaged in hostilities or who has purposefully and materially supported hostilities against the United States or its co-belligerents,” and who is not a lawful combatant. Joanne Mariner of Human Rights Watch says the definition far exceeds the traditionally accepted definition of combatant as someone who directly participates in hostilities. But under the MCA, someone who provides “material support” for terrorists—whether that be in the form of financial contributions or sweeping the floors at a terrorist camp—can be so defined. Worse, the label can be applied without recourse by either Bush or the secretary of defense, after a “competent tribunal” makes the determination. The MCA provides no guidelines as to what criteria these tribunals should use. Taken literally, the MCA gives virtually unrestricted power to the tribunals to apply the label as requested by the president or the secretary. Mariner believes the definition is both “blatantly unconstitutional” and a direct contradiction of centuries of Supreme Court decisions that define basic judicial rights. [FindLaw, 10/9/2006] Under this definition, the president can imprison, without charge or trial, any US citizen accused of donating money to a Middle East charity that the government believes is linked to terrorist activity. Citizens associated with “fringe” groups such as the left-wing Black Panthers or right-wing militias can be incarcerated without trial or charge. Citizens accused of helping domestic terrorists can be so imprisoned. Law professor Bruce Ackerman calls the MCA “a massive Congressional expansion of the class of enemy combatants,” and warns that the law may “haunt all of us on the morning after the next terrorist attack” by enabling a round of mass detentions similar to the roundup of Japanese-American citizens during World War II. [Savage, 2007, pp. 322]
Military Commissions - The MCA mandates that enemy combatants are to be tried by military commissions, labeled “regularly constituted courts that afford all the necessary ‘judicial guarantees which are recognized as indispensable by civilized peoples’ for purposes of common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions.” The commissions must have a minimum of five commissioned military officers and a military judge; if death is a possible penalty, the commissions must have at least 12 officers. The defendant’s guilt must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt; convictions require a two-thirds vote. Sentences of beyond 10 years require a three-quarters vote, and death penalties must be unanimously voted for. Defendants may either represent themselves or by military or civilian counsel. The court procedures themselves, although based on standard courts-martial proceedings, are fluid, and can be set or changed as the secretary of defense sees fit. Statements obtained through methods defined as torture are inadmissible, but statements take by coercion and “cruel treatment” can be admitted. The MCA sets the passage of the Detainee Treatment Act (DTA—see December 15, 2005) as a benchmark—statements obtained before the December 30, 2005 enactment of that law can be used, even if the defendant was “coerced,” if a judge finds the statement “reasonable and possessing sufficient probative value.” Statements after that date must have been taken during interrogations that fall under the DTA guidelines. Defendants have the right to examine and respond to evidence seen by the commission, a provision originally opposed by the administration. However, if the evidence is classified, an unclassified summary of that material is acceptable, and classified exculpatory evidence can be denied in lieu of what the MCA calls “acceptable substitutes.” Hearsay evidence is admissible, as is evidence obtained without search warrants. Generally, defendants will not be allowed to inquire into the classified “sources, methods, or activities” surrounding evidence against them. Some human rights activists worry that evidence obtained through torture can be admitted, and the fact that it was obtained by torture, if that detail is classified, will not be presented to the court or preclude the evidence from being used. Public access to the commissions will be quite limited. Many experts claim these commissions are illegal both by US constitutional law and international law. [FindLaw, 10/9/2006]
Secret Courts - The military tribunals can be partially or completely closed to public scrutiny if the presiding judge deems such an action necessary to national security. The government can convey such concerns to the judge without the knowledge of the defense. The judge can exclude the accused from the trial if he deems it necessary for safety or if he decides the defendant is “disruptive.” Evidence can be presented in secret, without the knowledge of the defense and without giving the defense a chance to examine that evidence, if the judge finds that evidence “reliable.” And during the trial, the prosecution can at any time assert a “national security privilege” that would stop “the examination of any witness” if that witness shows signs of discussing sensitive security matters. This provision can easily be used to exclude any potential defense witness who might “breach national security” with their testimony. Author and investigative reporter Robert Parry writes, “In effect, what the new law appears to do is to create a parallel ‘star chamber’ system for the prosecution, imprisonment, and elimination of enemies of the state, whether those enemies are foreign or domestic.” [Consortium News, 10/19/2006]
Appeals - Guilty verdicts are automatically appealed to a Court of Military Commission Review, consisting of three appellate military justices. The DC Circuit Court of Appeals has extremely limited authority of review of the commissions; even its authority to judge whether a decision is consistent with the Constitution is limited “to the extent [that the Constitution is] applicable.”
Types of Crimes - Twenty-eight specific crimes fall under the rubric of the military commissions, including conspiracy (not a traditional war crime), murder of protected persons, murder in violation of the bill of war, hostage-taking, torture, cruel or inhuman treatment, mutilation or maiming, rape, sexual abuse or assault, hijacking, terrorism, providing material support for terrorism, and spying. [FindLaw, 10/9/2006]
CIA Abuses - The MCA, responding to the recent Supreme Court decision of Hamdan v. Rumsfeld (see June 30, 2006) that found the CIA’s secret detention program and abusive interrogation practices illegal, redefines and amends the law to make all but the most pernicious interrogation practices, even those defined as torture by the War Crimes Act and the Geneva Conventions, legal. The MCA actually rules that the Geneva Conventions are all but unenforceable in US courts. It also provides retroactive protection under the law to all actions as far back as November 1997. Under the MCA, practices such as waterboarding, stress positioning, and sleep deprivation cannot be construed as torture. [FindLaw, 10/9/2006] The MCA even states that rape as part of interrogations cannot be construed as torture unless the intent of the rapist to torture his victim can be proven, a standard rejected by international law. The MCA provides such a narrow definition of coercion and sexual abuse that most of the crimes perpetrated at Abu Ghraib are now legal. [Jurist, 10/4/2006] Although the MCA seems to cover detainee abuse for all US agencies, including the CIA, Bush says during the signing of the bill, “This bill will allow the Central Intelligence Agency to continue its program for questioning key terrorist leaders and operatives.” International law expert Scott Horton will note, “The administration wanted these prohibitions on the military and not on the CIA, but it did not work out that way.” Apparently Bush intends to construe the law to exempt the CIA from its restrictions, such as they are, on torture and abuse of prisoners. [Salon, 5/22/2007]
No Habeas Corpus Rights - Under the MCA, enemy combatants no longer have the right to file suit under the habeas corpus provision of US law. This means that they cannot challenge the legality of their detention, or raise claims of torture and mistreatment. Even detainees who have been released can never file suit to seek redress for their treatment while in US captivity. [FindLaw, 10/25/2006]
Retroactive Immunity - The administration added a provision to the MCA that rewrote the War Crimes Act retroactively to November 26, 1997, making any offenses considered war crimes before the MCA is adopted no longer punishable under US law. Former Nixon White House counsel John Dean will write in 2007 that the only reason he can fathom for the change is to protect administration officials—perhaps including President Bush himself—from any future prosecutions as war criminals. Dean will note that if the administration actually believes in the inherent and indisputable powers of the presidency, as it has long averred, then it would not worry about any such criminal liability. [Dean, 2007, pp. 239-240]

Entity Tags: Human Rights Watch, Joanne Mariner, US Supreme Court, Patrick J. Leahy, Military Commissions Act, John Dean, George W. Bush, Scott Horton, Geneva Conventions, Bruce Ackerman, Dennis Hastert, American Civil Liberties Union, Amnesty International, Detainee Treatment Act, Arlen Specter, War Crimes Act, Barack Obama, Central Intelligence Agency, Bush administration (43), John Boehner

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

President Bush signs Executive Order 13440, which authorizes the CIA to continue using so-called “harsh” interrogation methods against anyone in US custody suspected of being a terrorist, or having knowledge of terrorist activities. The order relies on, and reaffirms, Bush’s classification of “al-Qaeda, Taliban, and associated forces” as “unlawful enemy combatants” who are not covered under the Geneva Conventions. The order also emphasizes that the Military Commissions Act (MCA) (see October 17, 2006) “reaffirms and reinforces the authority of the president to interpret the meaning and application of the Geneva Conventions.” The order does not include “murder, torture, cruel or inhuman treatment, mutilation or maiming, intentionally causing serious bodily injury, rape, sexual assault or abuse, taking of hostages, or performing of biological experiments… other acts of violence serious enough to be considered comparable to murder, torture, mutilation, and cruel or inhuman treatment… any other acts of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment prohibited” by law. It also precludes acts of extreme humiliation “that any reasonable person, considering the circumstances, would deem the acts to be beyond the bounds of human decency, such as sexual or sexually indecent acts undertaken for the purpose of humiliation, forcing the individual to perform sexual acts or to pose sexually, [or] threatening the individual with sexual mutilation, or using the individual as a human shield.” The order also excludes acts that denigrate a detainee’s religion or religious practices. [White House, 7/20/2007] The order does not apply to the Army, which has numerous interrogators operating at Guantanamo and other US detention facilities. [Social Science Research Network, 3/18/2008] CIA Director Michael Hayden says, “We can now focus on our vital work, confident that our mission and authorities are clearly defined.” Administration officials say that because of the order, suspects now in US custody can be moved immediately into the “enhanced interrogation” program. Civil libertarians and human rights advocates are much less enamored of the new order. Human Rights Watch official Tom Malinowski says, “All the order really does is to have the president say, ‘Everything in that other document that I’m not showing you is legal—trust me.’” [Washington Post, 7/21/2007] In January 2009, President Obama will withdraw the order. [Washington Independent, 4/21/2009]

Entity Tags: US Department of the Army, Tom Malinowski, Taliban, George W. Bush, Geneva Conventions, Al-Qaeda, Barack Obama, Central Intelligence Agency, Military Commissions Act, Michael Hayden

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Civil Liberties

Steven Bradbury, the chief of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC), issues a classified memo on what a new interpretation of the Geneva Conventions’ Common Article 3 means for the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation program.” The Bradbury memo, released after months of debate among Bush officials regarding the ramifications of the recent Supreme Court decision extending Geneva protections to enemy combatants in US custody (see June 30, 2006), new legislation following the Court’s decision (see October 17, 2006), and an executive order on interrogations (see July 20, 2007), spells out what interrogation practices the CIA can use. The memo’s existence will not become known until after the 2009 release of four Justice Department torture memos (see April 16, 2009). Michael Ratner of the Center for Constitutional Rights will say upon learning of the memo, “The CIA still seems to want to get authority to interrogate people outside of what would be found to be a violation of the Geneva Conventions and the law.” Ratner will add that the memo raises questions about why the CIA felt it needed expanded authorities for interrogations. “What we don’t know is whether, after Hamdan, that 2007 memo modifies what the CIA is able to do in interrogation techniques,” he will say. “But what’s more interesting is why the CIA thinks it needs to use those interrogation techniques. Who are they interrogating in 2007? Who are they torturing in 2007? Is that they’re nervous about going beyond what OLC has said? These are secret-site people. Who are they? What happened to them?” [Washington Independent, 4/21/2009]

Entity Tags: Geneva Conventions, Bush administration (43), Center for Constitutional Rights, Central Intelligence Agency, US Supreme Court, Michael Ratner, US Department of Justice, Steven Bradbury, Office of Legal Counsel (DOJ)

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Civil Liberties

Ron Wyden.Ron Wyden. [Source: Public domain / US Congress]Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) writes to the Justice Department’s acting head of the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC), Steven Bradbury, asking for clarification of the Bush administration’s stance on the Geneva Conventions as they apply to the interrogation of detainees. Wyden notes that President Bush has recently affirmed that the US would observe the conventions’ standards on humane treatment of all prisoners, and asks precisely how the OLC defines the concept of “humane treatment.” Wyden wants to know what circumstances definitions of that term might vary under, and asks the same questions of the term “cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment.” The principal deputy assistant attorney general, Brian Benczkowski, will answer Wyden’s letter on September 27, 2007 (see September 27, 2007). [US Senate, 8/8/2007 pdf file]

Entity Tags: George W. Bush, Brian A. Benczkowski, Bush administration (43), Office of Legal Counsel (DOJ), Geneva Conventions, Steven Bradbury, Ron Wyden, US Department of Justice

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Civil Liberties

The Justice Department’s Brian Benczkowski answers Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR)‘s request for clarification of the terms “humane treatment” and “cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment” as it applies to suspected terrorists in US custody. Benczkowski writes that the government uses the Military Commissions Act (MCA) (see October 17, 2006) and a recent executive order, Order #13440 (authorizing the continued use of harsh interrogation methods—see July 20, 2007) to determine how the US will comply with the Geneva Conventions. Benczkowski writes that Order 13440 and the Army Field Manual, among other guidelines, ensure that any interrogations carried out by US personnel comply with Geneva.
Geneva Does Not Clearly Define 'Humane Treatment' - He goes on to note that the term “humane treatment” is not directly defined by Geneva, but “rather provides content by enumerating the specific prohibitions that would contravene that standard.” Common Article 3, the statute in the Conventions that specifically addresses the treatment of prisoners, expressly prohibits “violence” including “murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture.” It also prohibits “outrages upon personal dignity,” including “humiliating and degrading treatment.” Benczkowski writes that there is no accepted international standard as to what is defined as “humane treatment” and what is not, outside of the basic provisions of food, water, clothing, shelter, and protection from extremes of temperature. Given this standard, he writes, the Bush administration does ensure that “all detainees within the CIA program shall be treated humanely.”
Defined by Circumstances - He goes on to note that Geneva seems to grant some leeway for interpretation as to what complies with its standards, particularly in the area of “outrages upon personal dignity.” Citing a previous international tribunal, he writes, “To rise to the level of an outrage, the conduct must be ‘animated by contempt for the human dignity of another person’ and it must be so deplorable that the reasonable observer would recognize it as something that must be universally condemned.” None of the methods used by US interrogators contravenes any of these standards as the Justice Department interprets them, Benczkowski concludes. As for the question of “cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment,” or as he abbreviates it, “CIDT,” Benczkowski writes that such treatment is prohibited by the Fifth, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the US Constitution. However, circumstances determine what is and is not CIDT, he writes; even “in evaluating whether a homicide violates Common Article 3, it would be necessary to consider the circumstances surrounding the act.” The CIA interrogation program fully complies with Common Article 3, various statutes and Supreme Court decisions, and the Bill of Rights, Benczkowski asserts. [US Department of Justice, 9/27/2007 pdf file]

Entity Tags: US Department of Justice, Brian A. Benczkowski, Bush administration (43), Central Intelligence Agency, Geneva Conventions, Ron Wyden, Military Commissions Act

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Civil Liberties

Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) replies to a letter from the Justice Department that claims the CIA’s detainee interrogation program is fully compliant with the Geneva Conventions and with US and international law (see September 27, 2007). Wyden challenges the legal rationale for the claims, noting that the cases cited do not directly apply to the question of whether the definitions of “humane treatment” and “cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment” can vary depending on the identity of the detainee and the circumstances surrounding his interrogation. He also challenges the Justice Department’s rather narrow interpretation of the protections afforded by the Eighth Amendment and the Detainee Treatment Act (see December 30, 2005). [US Senate, 3/6/2008 pdf file]

Entity Tags: Detainee Treatment Act, US Department of Justice, Ron Wyden, Geneva Conventions

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Civil Liberties

Justice Department attorney Brian Benczkowski replies to a follow-up letter from Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR), who is challenging the department’s claims that the CIA detainee interrogation program is fully compliant with US and international law (see December 20, 2007). Much of Benczkowski’s letter is a reiteration of points made in an earlier letter (see September 27, 2007), even citing the same legal cases that Wyden challenged as not directly relevant to the Justice Department’s arguments. Benczkowski reiterates that the definitions of “humane treatment” and “cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment” are flexible, in the department’s view, and can change drastically depending on the identity of the detainee and the circumstances surrounding his interrogation. The standards of compliance are also mitigated by the “nature and importance of the government interest,” he claims, giving as an example the possibility of abrogating a detainee’s fundamental rights under the Geneva Conventions and other statutes in order to force information about an impending terrorist attack from him. Benczkowski reiterates that the Eighth Amendment only applies to prisoners after they have been convicted of a crime; hence, detainees never tried or charged for crimes have no rights under that amendment. It is apparent that Benczkowski considers the discussion closed; he concludes his letter with the statement, “Please do not hesitate to contact the Department if we can be of assistance in other matters.” [US Department of Justice, 3/6/2008 pdf file]

Entity Tags: Central Intelligence Agency, Brian A. Benczkowski, Ron Wyden, Geneva Conventions, US Department of Justice

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Civil Liberties

In recent letters to Congress, the Justice Department has suggested that the Geneva Conventions’ ban on “outrages against personal dignity” does not automatically apply to terrorism suspects in the custody of US intelligence agencies (see August 8, 2007 and March 6, 2008). The letters are just now being made public, with Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) making them available to the Washington Post. Last year, Wyden asked the Justice Department to provide an explanation for President Bush’s 2007 executive order authorizing the CIA to continue using so-called “harsh interrogation techniques” on detainees (see July 20, 2007) even as Bush claimed US interrogators would always observe Geneva restrictions. The department responded with several letters that reasserted the Bush administration’s contentions that it is not bound by domestic law or international treaties in deciding how the Geneva Conventions apply to the interrogation of terror suspects. [Washington Post, 4/27/2008; Voice of America, 4/27/2008]
'Humane Treatment' Subject to Interpretation, Circumstances - The Justice Department acknowledges that the US is bound by Common Article 3 of the Conventions, which requires that a signatory nation treat its detainees humanely; however, the letters say that the definition of “humane treatment” can be interpreted in a variety of ways, and can depend on the detainee’s identity and the importance of the information he possesses. In a letter written to a Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, the principal deputy assistant attorney general, Brian Benczkowski, wrote, “Some prohibitions… such as the prohibition on ‘outrages against personal dignity,’ do invite the consideration of the circumstances surrounding the action.” The government can weigh “the identity and information possessed by a detainee” in deciding whether to use harsh and potentially inhumane techniques, according to Benczkowski. A suspect with information about a future attack, for example, could and possibly would be subjected to extreme treatment, he says, and notes that a violation of the Geneva Conventions would only occur if the interrogator’s conduct “shocks the conscience” because it is out of proportion to “the government interest involved.” He continued, “The fact that an act is undertaken to prevent a threatened terrorist attack, rather than for the purpose of humiliation or abuse, would be relevant to a reasonable observer in measuring the outrageousness of the act.” Furthermore, any action defined as an “outrage upon personal dignity” must be deliberate and involve an “intent to humiliate and degrade.”
Government Arguments 'Appalling,' Says Senator - A spokeswoman for Wyden, Jennifer Hoelzer, says that the administration’s contention that the Geneva Conventions can be selectively applied is “stunning.” Hoelzer says: “The Geneva Convention in most cases is the only shield that Americans have when they are captured overseas. And for the president to say that it is acceptable to interpret Geneva on a sliding scale means that he thinks that it is acceptable for other countries to do the same. Senator Wyden—and I believe any other reasonable individual—finds that argument appalling.” Law professor Scott Silliman, who teaches national security law at Duke University, agrees with Wyden’s assessments. He notes, “What they are saying is that if my intent is to defend the United States rather than to humiliate you, than I have not committed an offense.” An anonymous Justice Department official disagrees. “I certainly don’t want to suggest that if there’s a good purpose you can head off and humiliate and degrade someone. The fact that you are doing something for a legitimate security purpose would be relevant, but there are things that a reasonable observer would deem to be outrageous.” However, he adds, “there are certainly things that can be insulting that would not raise to the level of an outrage on personal dignity.” Wyden states that if the US is subjective in deciding what is and isn’t compliant under Geneva, then other countries will do the same to US prisoners in their custody. “The cumulative effect in my interpretation is to put American troops at risk,” he says. [Washington Post, 4/27/2008; New York Times, 4/27/2008] He adds that the letters help make the case for a law that explicitly puts the CIA interrogations under the same restrictions as the military, or another set of clear standards. [Wall Street Journal, 4/27/2008]
'Full Compliance' - The CIA refuses to comment on Benczkowski’s memo, but spokesman Mark Mansfield says the CIA’s detainee program “has been and continues to be in full compliance with the laws of our country.” He adds, “The program has disrupted terrorist plots and has saved lives.” [Washington Post, 4/27/2008; New York Times, 4/27/2008]

Entity Tags: Geneva Conventions, Mark Mansfield, Brian A. Benczkowski, Bush administration (43), Central Intelligence Agency, George W. Bush, US Department of Justice, Ron Wyden, Senate Intelligence Committee, Jennifer Hoelzer

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Civil Liberties

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