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NEW YORK — An independent review of the U.S. government's anti-terrorism response after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks reported Tuesday that it is "indisputable" the United States engaged in torture and the George W. Bush administration bears responsibility.
The report by the Constitution Project, a non-partisan Washington-based think-tank, is an ambitious review of the Bush administration's approach to the problems of holding and interrogating detainees after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
The report says brutality has occurred in war before, "But there is no evidence there had ever before been the kind of considered and detailed discussions that occurred after September 11, directly involving a president and his top advisers on the wisdom, propriety and legality of inflicting pain and torment on some detainees in our custody."
The former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations under President George W. Bush, John Bolton, called the report "completely divorced from reality" and stressed that the procedures were "lawyered, and lawyered again, and lawyered again."
"The whole point of the Bush administration's review of the techniques was so that no one would be tortured," he said. "The intention was precisely the opposite."
The Constitution Project surveyed the ways in which prisoners were held and interrogated at Guantanamo Bay, in Afghanistan and Iraq, and at secret CIA "black prisons."
The report is the product of a two-year study based on evidence in the public record. It was conducted by a bipartisan task force of 11 experts from a broad range of ideological perspectives and professions. The Constitution Project appointed both former Republican and Democratic policymakers and members of Congress, retired generals, judges, lawyers and academics.
Among them was co-chairman Asa Hutchinson, who was President George W. Bush's undersecretary for border and transportation security at the Department of Homeland Security from 2003 to 2005. The other co-chairman was former Rep. James R. Jones, a Democrat.
Much of the legal justification for what was called "enhanced interrogation" by some, but torture by the Constitution Project, was drafted by John Yoo, at the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel.
The Constitution Project report cites Alberto Mora, the general counsel of the Navy, as being one of the senior officials troubled by the expanded interrogation techniques, and quotes him as asking Yoo whether the president could lawfully order a detainee to be tortured.
"Yes, the president could authorize torture, he said was Yoo's response," according to the report. "Yoo said that whether the techniques should be used wasn't a legal question, but rather it was a policy question," the report says.
A call for response to Yoo, who now teaches at the University of California-Berkeley School of Law, was not immediately answered. The Constitution Project said that he did not participate in the preparation of their report.
As a result of the Bush administration's green-lighting of "enhanced interrogation techniques," the report says, "U.S. forces, in many instances, used interrogation techniques on detainees that constitute torture. American personnel conducted an even larger number of interrogations that involved 'cruel, inhuman, or degrading' treatment."
"Both categories of actions violate U.S. laws and international treaties. Such conduct was directly counter to values of the Constitution and our nation," The Constitution Project report said.
Former Vice President Dick Cheney, the most vocal defender of the Bush administration's anti-terror policies, said in 2011 that he had "no regrets" about the harsh interrogation policies pursued in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.
Cheney was asked in 2009 if he still advocated waterboarding, and told NBC News, "I would strongly support using it again if circumstances arose where we had a high-value detainee and that was the only way we could get him to talk."
The executive director of Boston-based Physicians for Human Rights, Donna McKay, said that her group "has long contended that interrogation techniques such as waterboarding, sleep deprivation, and stress positions did in fact constitute torture. We are gratified that a highly respected bipartisan panel led by two former members of Congress uniformly concurs. Their report should put to rest any lingering doubt about the severity of the abuse that took place at Guantánamo Bay and other US detention facilities."
The review found "There is no firm or persuasive evidence that the widespread use of harsh interrogation techniques by U.S. forces produced significant information of value. There is substantial evidence that much of the information adduced from the use of such techniques was not useful or reliable."
"There are, nonetheless, strong assertions by some former senior government officials that the use of those techniques did, in fact, yield valuable intelligence that resulted in operational and strategic successes. But those officials say that the evidence of such success may not be disclosed for reasons of national security," the report noted.
"History shows that the American people have a right to be skeptical of such claims, and to decline to accept any resolution of this issue based largely on the exhortations of former officials who say, in essence, 'Trust us' or 'If you knew what we know but cannot tell you,'" the Constitution Project said.
"The Task Force believes there was no justification for the responsible government and military leaders to have allowed those lines to be crossed. Doing so damaged the standing of our nation, reduced our capacity to convey moral censure when necessary and potentially increased the danger to U.S. military personnel taken captive," it said.
"Democracy and torture cannot peacefully coexist in the same body politic," the report said. "The Task Force also believes and hopes that publicly acknowledging this grave error, however belatedly, may mitigate some of those consequences and help undo some of the damage to our reputation at home and abroad."
President Obama has declined to investigate interrogation methods under the administration of his predecessor, George W. Bush.
The counterterrorism adviser at Human Rights Watch, Laura Pitter, said, "The finding of torture by a diverse, bipartisan task force, without subpoena power and looking solely at the public record, shows the need for an official US investigation into detainee abuse. The indisputable evidence of torture clearly raises the question: what will the US government do about it?"