Smoke Screen Protects Ships at Okinawa

Smoke Screen Protects Ships at Okinawa by England, on Flickr

News certainly travels fast, sometimes. While it took the U.S. government two years to reply to a request by a Spanish judge regarding whether or not the U.S. has instigated any investigations or proceedings against six high-level Bush administration figures named in a complaint by the Association for the Dignity of Spanish Prisoners (see PDF), and it took another three weeks to get the response distributed to the parties involved, and yet another three weeks to have the news of this response released to the world at large, it took less than 24 hours to learn that the entire case was dismissed by the Spanish judge on Wednesday.

In effect, Judge Eloy Velasco sent the case back to the U.S. at the request of the Department of Justice, who argued in their March 1, 2011 letter to the judge that the U.S. is plenty interested in investigating and prosecuting torture and other war crimes. Besides the cases of CIA contractors David Passaro and Don Ayala (Marcy Wheeler discusses the Passaro case here), assorted Defense Department prosecutions of “bad apple” abusers, and the lingering Durham investigation, the U.S. representation cannot dredge up any significant criminal investigations — except one (if it is one).

The letter rogatory to the Spanish court refers to “pending federal investigations by the United States Attorneys’ Office for the Eastern District of Virginia” on “various allegations of abuse of detainees.” (p. 3-4 of letter) In addition the letter refers to “pending status and legal restrictions on the disclosure of investigative information, including rules of grand jury secrecy”. Since there has been no previous reports on current grand jury proceedings in the Eastern District on detainee abuse that I know of, is this a reference to the former cases since sent from the Eastern District by Attorney General Holder in 2009 for review by special prosecutor John Durham? Or is this something new? Have some of the cases under preliminary review by Mr. Durham now reached full investigation status?

DoJ Keeps Mum on Virginia “Pending” Investigation

In response to such questions, Dean Boyd, spokesman for the National Security Division at the Department of Justice replied to me today, “There is nothing further I can provide to you on this matter beyond what is in the document.”

Since the U.S. representation to the Spanish court was meant to convince the judge that the U.S. was serious about seeking investigations and prosecutions regarding torture, it is important to know whether a new stage in the otherwise dilatory investigations by the Obama administration, who famously has announced it would rather look forward and not backwards when it comes to investigating torture, has been hereby announced, or whether this was a con job by DoJ, describing the Eastern District grand jury as somehow still in play, when in reality, its actions on detainee abuse are non-existent, waiting for some determination of the review by Durham and his office.

Durham’s review has also been going on for over a year and a half now. But it was last June when, according to an article at Main Justice, Attorney General Holder said in remarks at the University of the District of Columbia Law School, that Durham was near the end of his preliminary review, and ”close to the end of the time that he needs and will be making some recommendations to me.” Did those recommendations include a referral back to the Eastern District for investigation and prosecution of those cases? According to the article, “several Justice officials cautioned that although Durham is nearing completion, it may take weeks or months to absorb his findings and decide what steps, if any, to pursue next.”

In a rebuttal letter to the U.S. response, the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), which has been championing the Spanish prosecution, appears to believe the entire episode as written up in the recent March 1 letter is a smokescreen for a whole lot of nothing. CCR wrote, “The U.S. Submission tries to hide behind the secrecy aspects of the grand jury proceedings to suggest that this investigation is a robust investigation into detainee abuse. It is notable, however, that the United States government has not spoken of any investigation in Virginia when discussing US investigations into US torture…” (PDF).

It must be galling to those looking to the Spanish court, and the hard workers at CCR especially, to see Judge Velasco so quickly take U.S. guarantees of sincerity as good coin. The U.S. had told the court, “The United States will continue to address allegations of abuse by its personnel, at home and abroad, and therefore believes it is appropriate for the Spanish courts to refer complaints related to such matters to the United States for appropriate review and action.”

CCR responded, noting the Obama administration policy of impunity for torture among mid-level and high-ranking government figures:

Through its actions and inactions, the U.S. clearly has demonstrated its unwillingness to exercise its jurisdiction to investigate and prosecute the named defendants for serious violations of international law. To refer this investigation from Spain to the United States would be to knowingly transfer this case to be closed.

Those following the torture scandal will find high irony in the U.S. claims that the DoJ Office of Public Responsiblity (OPR) and Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) investigations, into DoJ Office of Legal Counsel malfeasance on the torture memos and on the origins and spread of the DoD torture program, respectively, are somehow indicative of U.S. good faith on investigations. The OPR report found government attorneys John Yoo and Jay Bybee to be guilty of “professional misconduct,” only to have DoJ Associate Deputy Attorney General David Margolis downgrade the OPR decision. The SASC investigation found the torture at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo and elsewhere to be the responsibility not of “bad apples” in the military, but of high officials who promoted a program of torture and detention abuse.

It seems unlikely that the Durham investigation is actually going to bear any fruit, or that a grand jury investigation on detainee abuse is actually underway in Virginia. Sooner or later, we will know the truth. But whatever it is, the actions and policy of the Obama administration won’t fundamentally change, as high officials, such as those identified in the Spanish case — David Addington, Jay S. Bybee, Douglas Feith, Alberto R. Gonzales, William J. Haynes, and John Yoo — are not in any danger of prosecution. The U.S. has made that clear numerous times, and most lately in the response to the Spanish judge.

Update, Thursday morning, 7:25 PDT,: Center for Constitutional Rights released a statement today regarding Velasco’s dismissal of “this politically charged case,” noting that the U.S. made it clear in it’s statement that “the Department of Justice has concluded that it is not appropriate to bring criminal cases with respect to any other executive branch officials, including those named in the complaint, who acted in reliance on [Office of Legal Counsel] memoranda during the course of their involvement with the policies and procedures for detention and interrogation.”

“This decision is a cowardly political act by a judge afraid to pursue justice under his country’s own laws. He is hiding behind the fig leaf of the U.S.’s scant seven-page response, but the submission made clear the U.S. has no intention of investigating these crimes or holding higher-level officials accountable for torture. As we saw from the WikiLeaks cables, the U.S. has been pressuring Spain to drop the case and interfering with the independence of judges. A second U.S. torture case remains open in Spain after a higher court ruled it should continue on February 25. Judge Velasco asked for opposing views but then issued his decision without even looking at our detailed submission refuting the U.S. claims. We will fight this decision and continue to demand accountability for torture.”