ACLU Lawyer Discusses Torture Documents

Many of the revelations about the U.S. treatment of terrorism suspects were uncovered following long court battles by the American Civil Liberties Union. ACLU attorney Amrit Singh, one of the key lawyers in the case, says though 100,000 documents are now with the ACLU, the information in the public domain remains incomplete.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Over the last five years, we've learned a lot about U.S. treatment of terrorism suspects, about harsh interrogation techniques authorized by the Justice Department, about the deaths of detainees in U.S. custody. Those revelations and much more uncovered in more than 100,000 pages of previously classified documents. The documents have been released after lengthy court battles led by the American Civil Liberties Union.

And ACLU attorney Amrit Singh has been one of the key lawyers on the case. She joins us from New York.

Welcome to the program.

Ms. AMRIT SINGH (Attorney, American Civil Liberties Union): Thank you.

BLOCK: I wonder if you ever expected, when you started making these requests under the Freedom of Information Act, did you expect that you would succeed to the extent that you have, with now more than 100,000 pages of documents that have come your way?

Ms. SINGH: Well, we certainly were hopeful that we would get documents. But at the time that we filed the FOIA request, we had no idea of what documents were actually out there, nor did we have a sense of the dimensions of the Bush administration's torture program, or indeed, any idea of the total number of responsive documents that were being withheld by the government.

So what's now in the public domain is still incomplete, almost six years after we filed our Freedom of Information Act request. We're still fighting for the disclosure of records that the Obama administration is now withholding.

BLOCK: Are there documents that you know you don't have that you want to see?

Ms. SINGH: Yes, certainly. We remain engaged in litigation against the Defense Department and the CIA. Most critically, photographs of prisoners being abused by U.S. personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan still remain the subject of litigation. The government has just filed a petition for certiorari before the Supreme Court. And the disclosure is absolutely critical to informing the public about the scope of prisoner abuse and its connection to the torture policies that were instituted by Bush administration officials.

BLOCK: The photographs that you mentioned, the Obama administration has reversed course on this and is fighting your motion to have those photographs released. And the president's argument now is this, that the release would put troops in greater danger, would further inflame anti-American opinion. What do you say to that?

Ms. SINGH: Well, I think the problem with that argument is that it really has no limit. To say that a record should be withheld because it could generate outrage or it could be inflammatory would in essence allow the government to withhold all kinds of records depicting the worst kinds of human rights abuses, precisely on the grounds that this would be inflammatory.

So, really, this would shut down, in effect, the Freedom of Information Act, the very purpose of which is to uncover government misconduct and to promote government accountability.

BLOCK: Is there, though, something different between the release of a document and the release of photographs? And the Obama administration's position is that these photographs don't add to our understanding of what happened. They are just by their nature inflammatory and destructive.

Ms. SINGH: These photographs, the government concedes, depict the abuse of prisoners. And yes, they are different from text because images convey what words possibly cannot. And the whole point of getting these photos out into the public domain is so that the best evidence of the treatment of prisoners can be aired, and the public can draw its own conclusions.

BLOCK: There is an interesting detail we should throw in here that, Amrit, you are the daughter of the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who has been trying very hard to improve India's ties to the United States, at the same time that you are doing battle with both the previous administration and this one in court.

Does your father ever say to you, Amrit, you know, take a break, lighten up, I've got work to do here?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SINGH: No, that has never happened. And certainly, we have entirely distinct professional lives, and I do my work regardless of what his views are. But in any event, he has never discouraged me from doing what I do.

BLOCK: Amrit Singh is an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union in New York. Ms. Singh, thanks very much.

Ms. SINGH: Thanks.

BLOCK: One footnote: late yesterday, the CIA told a federal court it would not release more of the requested documents about its secret prison and interrogation programs. The agency faced a court deadline yesterday to turn those documents over. The CIA said revealing the details in the documents would harm national security.

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