Tag Archives: interrogation techniques

The Criminal Responsibility of Those Suspected of Torture

On 3 December 2014, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s Committee Study of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Detention and Interrogation Program was declassified thereby providing the world for the first time with an “official” version of the United State’s anti-terrorism program run by the CIA. A lot has already been written about what techniques were used by the American intelligence community, whether they led to any actionable intelligence (in particular if the information gathered played any part at all in locating Osama bin Laden), and whether the particular techniques amounted to torture. A lot has also been said about whether or not the United States should prosecute those responsible for authorizing CIA interrogation techniques that amounted to torture. However, one part of this situation has not been fully analyzed – other than the individual who carried out the interrogation (and possibly their immediate supervisor), who else would be liable for prosecution?

Put plainly, where does the buck stop?

The only way to answer this question, as a matter of law, is to take the generally accepted facts about the program, and apply potentially applicable laws of criminal responsibility. I say potentially as there is no set law on criminal responsibility at the international level – and torture is an international crime.

At the moment, there are two potentially applicable doctrines of criminal responsibility at the international level. The first is that applied by the United Nations ad-hoc International Criminal Tribunals created in the 1990’s. The second is the doctrine adopted by the International Criminal Court. Both doctrines are potentially applicable in that the case could (eventually) go before the ICC – an albeit unlikely event – should the United States join the court. Likewise, the issue could wind up before an ad hoc internationalized or international tribunal should the political winds move in that direction. In any case, the question remains academic for the time being.

Before turning to the doctrines of responsibility, it will be necessary to set out some basic and generally accepted facts of the program so that the doctrines can be applied. For the sake of this article, I will assume that at least some of the interrogation techniques used by the CIA amount to torture. That question has been debated enough elsewhere.

The doctrine adopted by the United Nations International Criminal Tribunals is generally referred to as Joint Criminal Enterprise, or JCE. It comes in three different versions, however, only the third version – the most expansive – will be of interest here as it would be able to reach the greatest number of individuals. This doctrine states that,

With regard to the third category, what is required is the intention to participate in and further the criminal activity or the criminal purpose of a group and to contribute to the joint criminal enterprise or in any event to the commission of a crime by the group. In addition, responsibility for a crime other than the one agreed upon in the common plan arises only if, under the circumstances of the case, (i) it was foreseeable that such a crime might be perpetrated by one or other members of the group and (ii) the accused willingly took that risk.[1]

While the quote sets out two different requisites, there are in fact three: that the accused participate in a criminal plan, that the crime was foreseeable even though it was not the object of the criminal plan, and that the accused willingly took the risk that the crime would be committed. The additional factor is required because it would be too expansive to hold an individual for crimes committed in the furtherance of a legal plan in the same way which is allowed when the underlying scheme is already illegal.[2]

The question arises as to what the criminal enterprise in question would be regarding the CIA interrogation program. All responses to this question will themselves be controversial, and would detract from the overall discussion here, much like the issue of whether or not the CIA techniques amounted to torture. For the sake of argument, let us assume that the interrogation program itself – regardless of the techniques used – would constitute an illegal act.[3] If this were the case, any individual within the administration that formulated or actively participated in the implementation of the interrogation program could potentially be held liable for acts of torture carried out during the implementation of said program. This could include those who designed the program, authorized the program or knowingly implemented the program. This may seem broad, and it is, but it is also an accepted reach for the law in order to hold those who lead criminal groups accountable for the actions of their collaborators.

The view would be slightly different if the matter were to be brought before the International Criminal Court due to the fact that the doctrine of JCE is not applied by the court. At the ICC it is sufficient that a crime is committed during the implementation of a common plan between the accused and another, under the following circumstances:

(i) that the co-perpetrators have agreed: (a) to start the implementation of the common plan to achieve a non-criminal goal, and (b) to only commit the crime if certain conditions are met; or

(ii) that the co-perpetrators (a) are aware of the risk that implementing the common plan (which is specifically directed at the achievement of a non-criminal goal) will result in the commission of the crime, and (b) accept such outcome.[4]

Under this doctrine, there is no need to determine if the underlying plan was criminal in nature. It is sufficient that a criminal act was a reasonable possibility in achieving their goal.

The significance of the difference between the ICC and UN doctrines of responsibility is that an individual can be tried for a crime even if they did not actively participate in a crime, but that they knew one could occur in the course of an otherwise legal endeavor. This knowledge could simply be that the accused knew one of their associates commonly committed crimes of a specific type under the given circumstances.[5]

For there to be criminal responsibility under this doctrine of responsibility, it would need to be shown that the member of the administration engaged in a common agreement to allow certain types of activity (say, enhanced interrogation techniques) and that they should have known that this could lead to torture, and accepted that risk. Responsibility under this doctrine is potentially much more expansive due to the fact that there is not need for voluntary or knowing participation in a criminal plot, but only the intentional engagement in activity with others while knowing that it is possible that a crime could be committed in the normal course of events: something that is extremely likely in a war setting.

The bottom line is that a colorable argument could be made that high-level American officials are criminally responsible for crimes committed as part of the CIA interrogation program. This means that they could be indicted and prosecuted under generally recognized principles of international criminal law, in particular universal jurisdiction for torture.[6] Under no circumstances should the United States permit its officials to be tried abroad, this would simply be a political blunder of unprecedented proportions. The only way to avoid this possibility entirely is to prosecute those who could be responsible under the above theories of criminal responsibility within the United States justice system.


[1] ICTY, Prosecutor v. Tadic, Judgment, 15 July 1999, IT-94-1-A, ¶ 228.

[2] This is the theory of responsibility if the accused did not order or otherwise aid and abet in the commission of the torture.

[3] One aspect of the program was the unwilling removal of individuals from one country to a “black site” where they were not allowed contact with the outside world without court process. This could be viewed as “illegal,” regardless of whether or not the country of origin permitted the removal. See, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Article 9 (“1. Everyone has the right to liberty and security of person. No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest or detention. No one shall be deprived of his liberty except on such grounds and in accordance with such procedure as are established by law. 2. Anyone who is arrested shall be informed, at the time of arrest, of the reasons for his arrest and shall be promptly informed of any charges against him. 3. Anyone arrested or detained on a criminal charge shall be brought promptly before a judge or other officer authorized by law to exercise judicial power and shall be entitled to trial within a reasonable time or to release. It shall not be the general rule that persons awaiting trial shall be detained in custody, but release may be subject to guarantees to appear for trial, at any other stage of the judicial proceedings, and, should occasion arise, for execution of the judgement [sic]. 4. Anyone who is deprived of his liberty by arrest or detention shall be entitled to take proceedings before a court, in order that that court may decide without delay on the lawfulness of his detention and order his release if the detention is not lawful. 5. Anyone who has been the victim of unlawful arrest or detention shall have an enforceable right to compensation.”)

[4] ICC, Prosecutor v. Lubanga, 14 March 2012, ICC-01/04-01/06, Judgment Pursuant to Article 74 of the Statute, ¶¶ 982, 984 (requiring that implementation embodied a sufficient risk that, if events follow the ordinary course, a crime will be committed.

[5] See, for example, Ibid. at ¶¶ 1072 – 1083, 1109, 1111-1112.

[6] There are debates as to whether this is perfect universal jurisdiction, or an imperfect jurisdiction that requires the presence of the accused on the national territory, however, this is a debate for a different place and time.

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