The UN, human rights activists and legal experts have renewed calls for the Obama administration to prosecute US officials responsible for the CIA torture programme revealed in extensive detail following the release of a damning report by the Senate intelligence committee.
The report, released on Tuesday, found the CIA misled the White House, the Justice Department, Congress and the public over a torture programme that was both ineffective and more brutal than the agency disclosed.
“Today’s release once again makes crystal clear that the US government used torture. Torture is a crime and those responsible for crimes must be brought to justice,” Amnesty International USA’s executive director, Steven W Hawkins, said in a statement.
“Under the UN convention against torture, no exceptional circumstances whatsoever can be invoked to justify torture, and all those responsible for authorising or carrying out torture or other ill-treatment must be fully investigated.”
In Geneva, the United Nations’s special rapporteur on human rights and counter-terrorism, Ben Emmerson, said CIA officers and other US government officials should be prosecuted.
“The fact that the policies revealed in this report were authorised at a high level within the US government provides no excuse whatsoever,” Emmerson said in a statement.
Former Bush officials had been critical of the report’s findings before they were made public. Former vice-president Dick Cheney told the New York Times on Monday that any attempt to portray the programme as a rogue operation was a “bunch of hooey” and defended its use as “absolutely, totally justified”.
But Mary Ellen O’Connell, a professor of international law at the University of Notre Dame, told the Guardian that Cheney’s comments were undermined by the contents of the report.
“By bringing out that the CIA lied to Congress, to the executive branch, to the Justice Department, to the inspector general, to the courts and others, the report undermines any chance for Republicans like former vice-president Cheney to defend the CIA,” O’Connell said.
“The United States is obligated under both the Geneva convention and the convention against torture … to investigate and prosecute the commission of torture.”
Republican senator John McCain, tortured in Vietnam as a prisoner of war, was out of step with some fellow Republicans in welcoming the report and endorsing its findings.
“We gave up much in the expectation that torture would make us safer,” he said in a Senate speech. “Too much.”
President Obama has cooled on commitments made during the 2008 election campaign to pursue criminal investigations if it were proved that “there were high officials who knowingly, consciously broke existing laws, engaged in coverups of those crimes with knowledge forefront”.
A 2009 DoJ investigation into the use of torture, which was commissioned by the former attorney general Michael Mukasey and headed by assistant US attorney John Durham, concluded in August 2012 that no charges should be brought.
Chris Anders, senior legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, described the Senate report as an “exhaustive cataloguing not just of horrific details of the interrogation and torture programme, but also of the mismanagement and a chaotic CIA”.
Anders added that the statute of limitations had not lapsed for some incidents included in the report, particularly those that resulted in deaths.
The report documents the case of suspected militant Gul Rahman, who died from hypothermia after a CIA officer was approved to use “enhanced measures” during his interrogation and left him naked from the waist down and shackled to a wall in a cold cell.
Andrea Prasow, deputy Washington director at Human Rights Watch, also called on governments in other signatory states to the UN convention against torture to prosecute officials should they enter their territory.
“Other countries have all the information they need should they wish to exercise universal jurisdiction and prosecute these officials should they appear in their borders,” Prasow said.
The director of Amnesty USA’s security and human rights programme, Naureen Shah, told the Guardian that among the most shocking disclosures in the report were revelations that the US paid more than $180m (£115m) to two contractor psychologists to help establish the programme.
“This is the kind of thing that goes beyond horrific,” Shah said. “It shows exactly how free the US government felt to commit torture with impunity. It’s brazen in its detail and also in its abdication of legal responsibility – the idea that you would outsource to contractors the design of a programme that at base was about torture and ill treatment.”
The report reveals that use of torture in secret prisons run by the CIA across the world was even more extreme than previously exposed, and included “rectal rehydration” and “rectal feeding”, sleep deprivation lasting almost a week and threats to the families of the detainees.
The names of other countries – including Britain – who cooperated with the US programme by assisting the rendition of suspects were redacted from the published report.
Asked about British involvement, David Cameron said the question that a parliamentary inquiry was “dealing with all those issues” and that he had issued guidance to British agents on “how they have to handle these issues in future”
“Torture is wrong, torture is always wrong. Those of us who want to see a safer and more secure world, who want to see extremism defeated, we won’t succeed if we lose our moral authority, if we lose the things that make or systems work and countries successful,” the prime minister said.
The Senate committee published nearly 500 pages of its investigation into the CIA’s detention and interrogation programme during the Bush administration’s “war on terror”. The full report is over 10 times longer, but the declassified section is dense with detail and declassified communications between the officials involved.