PARIS: The failure of the US to punish the perpetrators of torture had "left the door open" for future abuses, former officials of the administration of US president George W Bush said on Thursday (Jan 26).
"Donald Trump has promised to walk through that door," Lawrence Wilkerson, the former chief of staff of Bush's secretary of state Colin Powell, told a conference in Paris, the day after the new president said he thinks "absolutely" that torture works.
Under Bush, "what worried me was that no one of any stature" such as then CIA chief George Tenet or White House counsel Alberto Morales - who drafted the infamous January 2002 "torture memo" setting out a legal rationale for torture - "had in any way, fashion or form been punished," Wilkerson said.
"Indeed, it looked a lot to me like they had been rewarded for their good work under pressure," he said.
The conference on seeking justice for victims of US torture was organised by leading rights groups including the International Federation for Human Rights and the US-based Center for Constitutional Rights.
Under president Barack Obama, those in the government "who found these practices reprehensible were hoping that (he would) reopen the issue of accountability, close Guantanamo (the US military prison in Cuba), which he promised to do, and bring some light into what happened so that most of all it wouldn't happen again. It didn't happen."
Wilkerson was part of a panel that also included former anti-terrorism investigator Mark Fallon, author of "Unjustifiable Means: The Inside Story of How the CIA, Pentagon, and US Government Conspired to Torture" to be published in March.
Fallon, speaking to AFP, said he thought any return to torture could be tamped down by cooler heads.
On Thursday defence chief James Mattis said the Pentagon was sticking with the ban on torture introduced in 2009 shortly after Obama took office.
And top Republican Senator John McCain, who was tortured as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, said Trump could not reinstate it with an executive order.
"The law is the law. We are not bringing back torture in the United States of America," he said, in remarks echoed by House Speaker Paul Ryan.
Nevertheless, Fallon said he feared a new terror attack on US soil could weaken such resolve.
'ONE TERRORIST ATTACK AWAY'
"We're one terrorist attack away from torture," he said.
Also speaking at the conference were two former Guantanamo inmates, Mourad Benchellali and Nizar Sassi.
Benchellali, who spent two and a half years in detention before being released without charge, described abuse such as sleep deprivation and extremely cold air conditioning before saying: "There were other things that were too humiliating to describe. Let me just say it was similar to what happened at Abu Ghraib, without going into details."
He was referring to the US military prison in Iraq where photographs of torture and other abuse perpetrated on prisoners by US contractors shocked the world in December 2003.
Both Benchellali and Sassi said the US torture programme was a propaganda bonanza for jihadists.
"If you wanted to create something to create hatred, create Guantanamo," Sassi said.
Speaking to AFP earlier, Wilkerson said the fact that torture does not work "was never entertained because they had all these people, neo-conservatives in particular ... who infected the whole system."
He said condoning torture "at the highest levels of the land as we did is unconscionable, because then you open all those floodgates."