Amid grassroots pressure to hold senior Bush administration officials accountable for torture and other crimes, an influential Democratic senator said President Barack Obama and Congress have no choice but to mount a serious investigation because to do nothing would invite a repetition of the abuses.

“We need to follow this thing into those dense weeds and shine a bright light into what was done,” Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-Rhode Island, said in a speech at Brown University on Saturday. “We can paper it over if we choose, but the blueprint is still lying there for others to do it all over again. It’s important that we not let this moment pass.”

Whitehouse’s remarks were made at two-day medical conference sponsored by Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), which has called for an investigation into the Bush administration’s use of interrogation techniques that have been widely regarded as torture.

At the conference, PHR officials gave Whitehouse a petition signed by attendees calling on Congress to form a committee to probe the torture of prisoners detained in the “war on terror.” Last year, PHR published a report, “Broken Laws, Broken Lives,” that concluded that 11 former detainees held in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantánamo Bay were systematically tortured. The prisoners were later released and were never charged with any crimes.

President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney both admitted publicly last year they had personally authorized the waterboarding of at least three suspected terrorists and allowed interrogators to use harsh methods against 33 other suspects. However, Bush and Cheney denied that these actions violated anti-torture laws.

Waterboarding is a technique that makes the victim believe he is drowning and has been regarded as torture at least since the Spanish Inquisition. The U.S. government has treated its use in battlefield interrogations as a war crime, and Whitehouse noted that the Justice Department prosecuted a Texas sheriff in the 1980s for using waterboarding to extract confessions from suspects.

Incoming Attorney General Eric Holder said during his confirmation hearing earlier this month that “waterboarding is torture,” but the Obama administration has hesitated to launch new investigations of the Bush administration’s crimes partly out of fear that would infuriate Republicans who might retaliate by obstructing Democratic economic plans during a deepening recession.

In a column published Monday on the Huffington Post, House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers said an examination of what the Bush administration has done requires a comprehensive overview of how these abusive policies evolved.

“While disparate investigations by committees of Congress, private organizations and the press have uncovered many important facts, no single investigation has had access to the full range of information regarding the Bush administration's interrelated programs on surveillance, detention, interrogation and rendition,” Conyers wrote.

“The existence of a substantially developed factual record will simplify the work to come, but cannot replace it. Furthermore, much of this information, such as the Central Intelligence Agency's 2004 Inspector General report on interrogation, remains highly classified and hidden from the American people. An independent review is needed to determine the maximum information that can be publicly released.”

At the conference on Saturday, Whitehouse, a former federal prosecutor, said it’s crucial that the Obama administration confront Bush’s torture policies early, with an eye toward holding individuals accountable for violating federal and international laws.

“The U.S. government took part in inhumane, brutal interrogation techniques that were torture,” Whitehouse said. “The question is, what does it mean when a country as a whole heads down a road like this? It is an important story to tell to understand the way democracy works.”

Whitehouse also rejected the Bush administration’s claim that officials are innocent because they had approval from Justice Department lawyers who adopted a novel and narrow definition of torture. Whitehouse said that simply having in-house lawyers fix the law around a policy does not make it legal.

Internal Probe

A year ago, Whitehouse and Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, wrote a letter to the Justice Department’s watchdog agency requesting an investigation into the role “Justice Department officials [played] in authorizing and/or overseeing the use of waterboarding by the Central Intelligence Agency... and whether those who authorized it violated the law.”

The senators’ Feb. 12, 2008, letter to Inspector General Glenn Fine and H. Marshall Jarrett, head of the Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR), asked them to examine whether the legal advice met professional standards and whether the lawyers were “insulated from outside pressure to reach a particular conclusion?”

Whitehouse and Durbin also asked what role was played by Bush’s White House and the CIA in possibly influencing “deliberations about the lawfulness of waterboarding?”

Less than a week later, Jarrett responded by saying the senators’ concerns were already part of a pending investigation that OPR was conducting into the genesis of the Aug. 1, 2002, legal opinion widely known as the “torture memo.”

The memo, which gave a legal stamp of approval for the Bush administration’s torture policies, was written by Deputy Attorney General John Yoo, who worked in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC), and was signed by his boss, Jay Bybee, who is now a federal appeals court judge. Yoo is a law professor at the University of California at Berkeley.

The OPR inquiry is expected to be completed by early March. An aide to Whitehouse did not respond to questions about whether the senator has received any update on the investigation. A spokesperson for Durbin did not return calls for comment. Whitehouse is a member of the Senate Judiciary and Intelligence committees; Durbin is the Senate Majority Whip and close ally of President Barack Obama.

John Bradshaw, the chief policy officer for PHR, said at the Brown University conference that “accountability” is the paramount concern to his organization.

“We need to re-establish the fact that no one is above the law,” Bradshaw said.

For the medical professionals who attended the PHR conference, the Yoo-Bybee torture memo was particularly disturbing because it was derived from a legal opinion about a statute written in 2000 regarding health benefits.

“They got that standard, from all places, from health-care reimbursement law,” Whitehouse noted. “The words happened to be useful to them, but they were taken out of context.”

The Yoo-Bybee legal opinion stated that unless the amount of pain administered to a detainee results in injury "such as death, organ failure, or serious impairment of body functions" then the interrogation technique could not be defined as torture. Since waterboarding is not intended to cause death or organ failure – only the panicked gag reflex associated with drowning – it was deemed not to be torture.

Whitehouse said Yoo’s opinion, and the fact that the Bush administration relied upon it, was “beyond malpractice” and “raises the specter that these things were overlooked” just to advance policy.

Jason Leopold has launched his own Web site, The Public Record, at www.pubrecord.org.

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