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While Texas Dismisses Torture Charges Against James Mitchell, Other Investigations Under Political Pressures

6:16 pm in Torture by Jeff Kaye

Danny Robbins at Associated Press reported last Friday that the Texas State Board of Examiners dismissed a licensing complaint filed by a Texas psychologist against former SERE psychologist James Mitchell. Mitchell was accused of “violating the standards demanded by the Psychologists‘ Licensing Act and the Board‘s Rules of Practice” (PDF). Specifically, the complaint cited Mitchell’s role in the design and implementation of a torture program, “ignoring the complete lack of a scientific basis for the regime‘s safety and—assuming its safety—its effectiveness,” as well as his actual participation in the torture of prisoners such as Abu Zubaydah.

The complaint against Mitchell was filed on June 16, 2010, and was signed by Texas psychologist Jim L.H. Cox. Attorneys Dicky Grigg and Joseph Margulies were also signatories to the complaint. Grigg and Margulies have also represented Guantanamo prisoners before the government.

According to the AP story, “The board said there wasn’t enough evidence to prove Mitchell violated its rules,” despite the fact that “thousands of pages of evidence, including sworn testimony, tying Mitchell to practices that violate professional ethics” were presented to the board. It is not known if Mitchell utilized in his board defense any of the $5 million “indemnity” defense fund set up by the CIA for use in legal defense for Michell and his CIA contractor partner, Bruce Jessen.

The hearing was held on February 10. Proceedings were held in secret session, and only Mitchell and his representative were present before the three board members. No complainants were at the hearing. Two days later, the board issued its finding of dismissal. Strangely, no reports of the Texas board decision surfaced for another two weeks.

As AP notes, the Mitchell decision follows the dismissal of other cases brought before boards in New York, Ohio, and Louisiana, concerning other military psychologists, Major John Leso and Colonel Larry James. Late last year, the Center for Justice and Accountability and the New York ACLU filed asked a New York court “to order the New York Office of Professional Discipline (OPD) to perform its duty to investigate a complaint of professional misconduct against Dr. John Francis Leso, who, as asserted in the complaint, violated professional standards when he designed and participated in the abusive interrogation program at Guantánamo.”

Worldwide Actions to Hold the Torturers Accountable

The decision of the Texas state board also comes in the context of a number of legal actions worldwide to bring the Bush-era torturers to justice. Lawyers and international human rights activists and organizations continue to press for investigations and prosecutions of the torture of Abu Zubaydah and other “high-value” detainees held in CIA black site prisons around the world, or sent to foreign countries for torture as part of the U.S. “extraordinary rendition” program.

Most recently, the Spanish National Court announced it had the competent standing to proceed with the investigations into the torture of former Guantanamo prisoner Lahcen Ikassrien, since he had been a Spanish resident for 13 years. Center for Constitutional Rights said in regards to the decision:

Since the U.S. government has not only failed to investigate the illegal actions of its own officials and, according to diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks, also sought to interfere in the Spanish judicial process and stop the case from proceeding, this will be the first real investigation of the U.S. torture program. This is a victory for accountability and a blow against impunity.

Meanwhile, in Poland, where the U.S. constructed one of the CIA black site prisons, authorities were stymied in their efforts to secure U.S. cooperation into their country’s investigation into the CIA activities at the black site near the Szymany air base in northern Poland. The Obama administration cited an international Agreement on Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters, whereby “a country has the right to refuse to provide legal assistance if the execution of the request would encroach on this country’s security or another interest of this country.” Requests for an investigation were forwarded by legal represenatives of former CIA prisoners Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri.

In a direct rebuff to the United States, a Polish state prosecutor last January became “the first state official to accept Abu Zubaydah’s claims that he was a victim of extraordinary rendition and secret detention in Poland.” Zubaydah is being represented by Polish lawyer Bartlomiej Jankowski, who is working with the British human rights charities Interights and Reprieve, in addition to U.S. lawyers Joseph Margulies and Brent Mickum. Al-Nashiri was recognized as a “victim” of torture by Polish authorities last fall.

In Lithuania, where other black site prisons also operated, presumably near Vilnius, state authorities meanwhile have dropped investigations into torture, rendition and CIA activities. After initial support for an investigation of the prisons — one of them constructed at a former horse riding club — Prosecutor Darius Valys announced in January that the investigation was over. According to a report by Reprieve, Valys admitted “that three ex-security services agents had ‘abused their position’” but “oddly stopped short of addressing allegations of serious official crimes, including torture and illegal imprisonment.” In addition, the Lithuanian prosecutor made a pro forma nod to expired statutes of limitation, and also a bizarre charge that NGO “lack of transparency” had harmed the investigation.

Attorney Joseph Margulies replied, “The Prosecutor is trying to deflect blame for the failure of his investigation onto NGOs and the media. It’s ironic that an official investigation into a secret torture facility should claim to be thwarted because the media is insufficiently transparent.”

UK State Investigation Blasted by Human Rights Groups

A British government investigation into UK complicity with U.S. torture programs, announced last July after revelations in the UK court case on Binyam Mohamed, has met criticism from almost the beginning. In particular, the decision to have Sir Peter Gibson, the Intelligence Services Commissioner, responsible for monitoring secret bugging operations by MI5, MI6 and GCHQ (Britain’s version of the NSA), lead the investigation was questioned from the very start.

At this point, a number of British NGOs are so concerned that the inquiry, according to the UK Guardian,  “will fail to meet the UK’s obligations under international and domestic law,” that they are considering boycotting the proceedings. Nine of the NGOs – Amnesty International, Cageprisoners, JUSTICE, Liberty, the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture, Redress, Reprieve, the AIRE Centre and British Irish Rights Watch — have written a letter to Gibson expressing their concerns.

The letter is substantive and detailed, and includes discussion of whether the inquiry as currently constituted can meet Article 3 (prohibition against torture) requirements of the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (ECHR) regarding promptness, independence, and thoroughness. In addition, the NGO signatories note the insufficiency of public scrutiny and victim participation, the lack of effective remedy and redress for victims, secrecy invoked over the material to be presented, and “the lack of any current powers to compel the production of documents or the attendance of witnesses.”

Another outstanding issue facing the inquiry concerns the last British resident in Guantanamo, Shaker Aamer. As Andy Worthington pointed out in an article on the torture inquiry, due to begin this coming week, Aamer “is still held despite being cleared for release by a military review board in 2007, when President Bush was still in power.” Aamer is the only British torture prisoner to directly claim “that British agents were in the room when he was tortured by US operatives in the US prison in Kandahar prior to his transfer to Guantánamo in February 2002.” Worthington notes that the British inquiry “cannot legitimately begin while he is still held,” as Aamer is a crucial witness as to UK participation, “whose testimony Sir Peter Gibson will need to hear if the inquiry is to have any credibility.”

What Is to Be Done?

It is perhaps unavoidable that the efforts to establish investigations and promote accountability have been led by attorneys and human rights activists (most of them attorneys, too, by the way). As a result, the movement for accountability appears to rise and fall based on the legal decisions of governments, administrative boards, military commissions, and non-U.S. governmental prosecutors. While these legal actions are necessary, and the lawyers and NGO personnel involved deserve our thanks, at the same time the anti-torture movement suffers from an over-reliance on legalism at the expense of social struggle to end the use of torture.

On the other end of the spectrum, groups that promote local activism to bring justice to torture victims or accountability to war criminals like John Yoo, tend to get lost in overly parochial approaches, which when they fail, as in the case of the defeat of a Berkeley, California measure to endorse resettling cleared Guantanamo detainees in that city, promote demoralization and/or endless rounds of campaigning, with little or no progress. While such activists also deserve praise for their efforts, behind the scenes they too express frustration over what course of action might bring greater success.

The underlying problem is political, and lies in a refusal to take on the legitimacy of the so-called “war on terror,” which the U.S. uses as an excuse for the extension of its power abroad in support of corporations that seek to extend their economic influence and power, and which are interpenetrated with the U.S. military and intelligence establishment in that effort. It is apposite to notice, too, the efforts of the government to interdict and obstruct the work of anti-government critics, as the recent revelations surrounding FBI abuse and HBGary make abundantly clear.

In addition, effective action means taking on the misleadership and perfidy of both political parties, both Democratic and Republican. The Obama administration’s refusal to investigate war crimes, and its implication in ongoing war crimes (abuse of prisoners, assassination, use of drones) has not seriously been challenged by the liberal establishment.

The issue of U.S. or British torture is not really separable from issues of war abroad and domestic crackdown on civil liberties at home. Nor is it separable from the economic policies of the United States, which under both political parties has favored the enrichment of a privileged class over the immiseration of large portions of the population.

Nothing demonstrates the bankruptcy of the current ruling elites than the use of torture and assassination. The fight against torture must mean a full political assault against the legitimacy of a state apparatus and its defenders, who use such horrific means as torture as a bulwark against those who they fear challenge their rule and privileges. It must also involve the full use of the social power of civil society (unions, churches, professional organizations), which thus far have remained wedded to leaderships that will not challenge the electoral mastery of a morally and politically bankrupt two-party system.

Torture-linked Shrink’s Army Program Labels Some Soldiers “Spiritually Unfit”

4:25 pm in Military, Torture by Jeff Kaye

Jason Leopold has posted a new article at Truthout, describing how an “experimental, Army mental-health, fitness initiative” called Comprehensive Soldier Fitness (CSF) is drawing criticism from civil rights groups and rank-and-file soldiers by testing military personnel for “spiritual fitness.”

CSF appears to be the brainchild of Brig. Gen. Rhonda Cornum and Dr. Martin Seligman, the psychologist who developed the theories of “learned helplessness” and “learned optimism.” Jane Mayer, Scott Shane, and others have connected Seligman to talks at San Diego’s SERE school in May 2002, where he discussed, in Seligman’s own words, “how American troops and American personnel could use what is known about learned helplessness and related findings to resist torture and evade successful interrogation by their captors.” Notorious SERE/CIA interrogator-psychologists James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen were present at the Seligman talk. Former Air Force Colonel Steve Kleinman told Jane Mayer that he knew Mitchell for years, and “learned helplessness was his whole paradigm.”

According to Jason Leopold, five months prior to the May 2002 SERE lecture:

… Seligman hosted a meeting at his house that was attended by Mitchell, along with the CIA’s then-Director of Behavioral Science Research, Kirk Hubbard, and an Israeli intelligence agent. Seligman has claimed he was totally unaware his theory on Learned Helplessness was being used against detainees after 9/11 and denied ever engaging in discussions about the Bush administration’s torture program with Mitchell, Jessen, or any other government official.

But Seligman’s SERE days appear to be behind him, and he has repackaged himself as “Dr. Happy.” His new “learned optimism” theories, supposedly sold in program format (for millions of dollars) to the Army as a way to reduce PTSD and suicide rates, are instead packaging conformist and religious ideologies in the name of resiliency “fitness” for the Army.

CSF examines “spiritual fitness” with questions like “I am a spiritual person, my life has lasting meaning, I believe that in some way my life is closely connected to all humanity and all the world.” One soldier tested last month told Truthout that he was labeled “spiritually unfit” because he answered the “not like me at all” box. As a result, the Army has told him he “may lack a sense of meaning or purpose in his life.” Presumably, like other soldiers with low spirituality scores, he’ll have to attend remedial courses and “be forced to participate in exercises that use religious imagery to ‘train’ soldiers up to a satisfactory level of spirituality.”

According to the Truthout article, the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF) has sent letters to the Army demanding it “immediately cease and desist administering the ‘spiritual’ portion of the CSF test.

The fact the Army is enforcing religious ideology upon soldiers is already outrageous enough, but the piquant irony by which the primary theorist of the program is also one of the primary theorists behind the use of certain techniques to break down and torture people, and whose theories were used by DoD/CIA psychologists to devise a diabolical torture program, well… one’s head could spin for days processing the internal contradictions. But that’s America today, a torturing country that uses huckster psychology to promote ersatz spirituality in soldiers sent to invade foreign countries for the purpose of selling arms and controlling oil and gas supplies.

What’s next? Will atheism be pronounced a new form of “material support to terrorism”? Will Elmer Gantry replace Robert Gates as next Secretary of Defense? Gates has been President Obama’s Secretary of Defense nearly as long now as he served as same in the administration of George W. Bush.

Truly, nothing can be considered strange anymore.

AP: CIA Gave $5 Million to Mitchell-Jessen Defense

7:46 am in Torture, Uncategorized by Jeff Kaye

Five million dollars for legal defense; what next, a medal for videotaped waterboarding? (graphic: Mike Licht, NotionsCapital.com via Flickr)

Adam Goldman and Matt Apuzzo at Associated Press report this morning on the CIA’s largesse in helping fund the legal defense for their former SERE psychologists contractors-cum-torturers, Bruce Jessen and James Mitchell. This shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, but reading about it turns one’s stomach.

The secret agreement means taxpayers are paying to defend the men in a federal investigation over an interrogation tactic the U.S. now says is torture. The deal is even more generous than the protections the agency typically provides its own officers, giving the two men access to more money to finance their defense.

The two psychologists were the proprietors of Mitchell-Jessen and Associates, who sold their expertise in waterboarding and other psychological and physical forms of torture, formerly applied in teaching U.S. military personnel how to withstand torture, for the torture of Abu Zubaydah, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Abd al-Nashiri, and possibly others. The article describes how the contractors anxiously importuned their superiors to destroy the videotapes of their torture. After the CIA complied, and the Justice Department launched a criminal investigation with the accompanying scandal, the kabuki over the atrocities played out, paid for entirely from scarce taxpayer dollars, ending with a decision by feckless special prosecutor John Durham, not to prosecute anyone, whether for torture, destruction of evidence, obstruction of justice, or anything.  . . . Read the rest of this entry →

Psychological Group Charges APA with Complicity in Bush-era Torture Interrogations

2:43 pm in Uncategorized by Jeff Kaye

Coalition for an Ethical Psychology (CEP) has issued a press release on the eve of the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association (APA), currently underway in San Diego, California. CEP announces that it has sent a letter (PDF) to Carol Goodheart, current APA president, charging the APA with "its own complicity in supporting and empowering psychologists" in the development, research, supervision and/or implementation of interrogation torture abuses during the Bush years.

The CEP press release states:

This complicity includes APA involvement in the cases of three psychologists – James Mitchell, John Leso, and Larry James – against whom ethics complaints have recently been filed with state licensing boards. APA complicity goes back to 2002 when the association amended its ethics code in a way that protected psychologists involved in government sponsored torture.

The Coalition is calling for an independent, impartial, outside investigation to study the APA’s collusion in the U.S. torture program. The Coalition also calls upon the APA to write letters in support of state ethics complaints against APA members Larry James and John Leso, and to initiate an APA ethics investigation of Larry James. The Coalition further insists that the association fully implement the member-passed referendum withdrawing psychologists from sites in violation of or outside of international law, specifically including Guantánamo and Bagram Air Base.

APA’s Letter in the James Mitchell Complaint

On June 30, the American Psychological Association (APA) wrote a letter (PDF) to the Texas State Board of Examiners of Psychologists. By APA’s own account, it was an unusual intervention into a licensing board complaint against former Air Force/SERE psychologist and CIA contractor, James Mitchell, who has been identified as involved in the abusive interrogation and torture of supposed Al Qaeda leader Abu Zubaydah in the spring and summer of 2002. The U.S. government has since dropped its assertion that Mr. Zubaydah was even a member of Al Qaeda, though he remains imprisoned as a "high-value detainee" at Guantanamo Bay.

The complaint against Mitchell was filed on June 16, 2010, and is signed by Texas psychologist Jim L.H. Cox. Attorneys Dicky Grigg and Joseph Margulies are also signatories to the document.

While the APA gives the impression that it is interested about intervening in a licensing complaint against Mitchell — the Complaint (PDF) cites Mitchell with violations of rules regarding competency, improper sexual conduct, exploitation of authority, research without informed consent, and more — an examination of APA’s letter and the context of their intervention suggests that APA’s action is disingenuous at best, and more likely, a continuation of APA’s attempt to rewrite the history of their own participation in the torture scandal.

According to their letter, APA was writing to the Texas State Board to describe how "its Ethical Principles for Psychologists and Code of Conduct as well as relevant Association policies, apply to facts set forth in the [Mitchell] Complaint." Even so, the APA states it will not comment on any of the facts submitted in the Complaint, explaining they will limit their "information sharing… to APA policies on torture" only. According to APA, it is the Board’s responsibility to adjudicate the matter according to its own procedures, including the responsibility to "consider Dr. Mitchell’s explanation."

Meanwhile, APA spokeswoman Rhea Farberman described the letter to an AP reporter as an unprecedented action for APA, which was compelled "to act" by the seriousness of the allegations. The subsequent AP story was widely reported, usually with a headline that explained the APA wanted Mitchell stripped of his license to practice psychology. Yet a close reading of the letter demonstrates that APA was essentially concerned by how "the allegations regarding Dr. Mitchell’s conduct… [and] the scope of misperception and harm regarding the public’s understanding of the profession of psychology" (emphasis added). In other words, the APA was mostly concerned about the image of professional psychology, and not by the fact the U.S. government had used psychologists to develop and implement experiments into the torture of prisoners.

An APA President on the Board of Mitchell’s Company

There are many different ways in which the APA’s letter is disingenuous. The CEP letter (PDF) to APA President Goodman goes into some detail on these. Perhaps the most immediately apparent is the way APA disappears the association of one of its own leading members with Mitchell’s activities. The letter never mentions, and the AP story by Andrew Welsh-Huggins never alludes to the fact that former APA President Joseph Matarazzo was a "governing member" of James Mitchell’s company, Mitchell-Jessen and Associates. Even more, Dr. Matarazzo was reported by New Yorker reporter Jane Mayer to be "on the CIA’s professional-standards board at the exact time when psychologists James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen were developing an interrogation program for the CIA, based on the US military’s SERE training program."

When APA was confronted in August 2007 with the evidence surrounding the links between Dr. Matarazzo and Mitchell-Jessen, Rhea Farberman, APA’s director of public affairs, released a statement that said Dr. Matarazzo had "no active role in APA governance [since he was APA president 18 years previously] but has been actively involved in the American Psychological Foundation (APF), the charitable giving arm of APA. Dr. Matarazzo currently holds no governance positions in either APA or APF." Farberman also stated that APA member Matarazzo’s "professional activities are outside and independent of any role he has played within APA and APF… We have no direct knowledge about the business dealing of Mitchell’s and Jessen’s company; however, APA’s position is clear — torture or other forms of cruel or inhuman treatment are always unethical."

Despite ample reporting on the activities of Mitchell and his associates at the time, APA had no problem disregarding even the associations of one of its own active members, while once again repeating its mantra that it was on the record as being against torture. At the time, few took APA to task for its hypocrisy.

The Fate of the Leso Complaint

In a final twist of irony regarding the APA’s letter on Mitchell, a complaint against registered APA member Major John Leso, filed by the Center for Justice and Accountability (CJA) last month, was dismissed, as announced in a July 28 letter from the Director of the New York Office of Professional Discipline, Louis J. Catone, to Kathy Roberts of CJA. CJA is expected to appeal that decision.

APA has not chimed in on the Leso case, despite the fact Leso is an APA member. He was also a prime figure in the propagation of the highly experimental interrogation "Battle Lab" at Guantanamo. From the CJA complaint:

Dr. Leso led the first Behavioral Science Consultation Team (BSCT) at the United States Naval Station at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba (Guantánamo or GTMO) from June 2002 to January 2003. While at Guantánamo, Dr. Leso co-authored an interrogation policy memorandum that incorporated illegal techniques adapted from methods used by the Chinese and North Korean governments against U.S. prisoners of war. He recommended a series of increasingly psychologically and physically abusive interrogation techniques to be applied against detainees held by the United States. Many of the techniques and conditions that Dr. Leso helped put in place were applied to suspected al-Qaeda member Mohammed al Qahtani under Dr. Leso’s direct supervision, as well as to other men and boys held at Guantánamo.

Despite the self-evident participation as a "behavioral consultant" psychologist at the torture interrogations of al Qahtani — an interrogation labeled torture by no less than Judge Susan Crawford, the then-Convening Authority at Guantanamo — Catone, a former Democratic Party District Attorney in upstate New York, uses twisted logic to maintain that "Leso’s conduct did not constitute the practice of psychology," which he only defines as helping people.

I find no basis for investigating your complaint because it does not appear that any of the conduct complained of constitutes the practice of psychology as understood in the State of New York…. If Dr. Leso’s conduct did not constitute the practice of psychology, then he cannot be guilty of practicing the profession of psychology with gross negligence, with gross incompetence, etc., and he cannot be guilty of engaging in conduct "in the practice of the profession" evidencing moral unfitness to practice.

Redolent of the pettifogging apologia that DoJ maven David Margolis applied in clearing attorneys John Yoo and Jay Bybee from criminal misconduct in the writing of the August 2002 torture memos, Catone would have us believe that unless the action of a psychologist fit the category of the profession’s activities in New York legal code, then it cannot be misconduct. By this logic, no crime or unethical behavior could be misconduct, since misconduct is not part of the legally defined professional activities. This will be welcome news to psychologists who have been charged with sleeping with their clients, since having sex with patients is patently not part of a psychologist’s legally defined practice!

APA has never weighed in on the Leso complaint, and it is silent now in the wake of this immoral action by the New York authorities. The APA remains committed to its program of promoting "national security psychology". Their letter to the Texas Board on the Mitchell complaint may represent some second thoughts among some members of the APA hierarchy about their general position regarding enthusiastic support for the military and intelligence agencies, and their program of being major players in the expansion of national security and military activities in the wake of 9/11. But I wouldn’t count on it. Instead, it more likely represents a cynical ploy by APA to cover itself in case there is a possible indictment of James Mitchell coming out of the John Durham DoJ investigation, which many reports have indicated is wrapping up its work.

Correction: The letter to APA President Carol Goodheart and the press release for same was originally reported in this story as originating from Psychologists for an Ethical APA. The actual authors, as corrected, are Coalition for an Ethical Psychology. I regret any confusion from this error.

U.S. Legal Actions, UK Inquiry: Noose Tightens on Torture Criminals

10:05 pm in Uncategorized by Jeff Kaye

Before taking up the question of the UK torture inquiry, announced the other day, we should consider other important developments on the anti-torture front today.

Omar Khadr, captured as a child, abused, mistreated and tortured for years at Guantanamo, has fired his military attorneys — most likely because he seeks some method to exert control over his situation. God knows how we would respond if placed in his situation.

Meanwhile, Daniel Shulman at Mother Jones has posted an article describing two new actions taken to strip licensure from two former Guantanamo psychologists, Major John Leso and retired Colonel Larry James. James is now dean of the professional psychology program at Wright State University in Ohio, and was the subject of a complaint against him in Louisiana, which was dismissed by the Louisiana State Board of Examiners of Psychologists, and subsequently brought to the Louisiana Court of Appeal. Leso is the infamous "Maj. L" in the interrogation log released by Time Magazine some years ago in the torture case of Mohammed Al-Qahtani.

Both Leso and James were members of the Behavioral Science Consultant Team, or BSCT, at Guantanamo. Indeed, James was in charge of the BSCT while he was there. The complaint against Leso, filed by the Center for Justice and Accountability, can be viewed here. The James filing — the work of Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic — is available in PDF format.

These filings were separate from yet another complaint, this one filed with the Texas State Board of Examiners of Psychologists, against James Mitchell, one of the principals for CIA torture contractors Mitchell-Jessen and Associates, who has also been identified as one of the interrogators involved in reverse-engineering SERE techniques for the interrogation-cum-torture experiments made upon Abu Zubaydah in the spring and summer of 2002. (PDF link to full document here.)

These actions have been taken in the context of the refusal of the Obama administration to undertake the necessary criminal investigations against the work of torturers under governmental employ during the Bush/Cheney era. While there is a secret investigation supposedly underway in the Senate’s Select Committee on Intelligence, congressional oversight and action on the subject of interrogations has been minimal. While the Senate Armed Services Committee conducted a wide-ranging investigation of the spread of SERE-style torture in the military, the committee refuses to release a less-redacted version of their report, and moreover, issued their findings without recommendations. Even worse, they allowed SERE psychologists, like James Mitchell, to remain in charge of Special Operations battlefield interrogations and detention.

Keeping the lid on the torture scandal is the SOP of the Obama administration lately. According to a July 2 report by Mike Scarcella at The Blog of Legal Times, the Holder Justice Department has filed hundreds of papers in court arguing against an ACLU suit "that blacked-out passages in the [Office of Professional Responsibility] report [on the Office of Legal Counsel torture memos] should remain confidential in the interest of national security and the privacy of government lawyers."

It is in the context over this war over information and accountability that we must look across the Atlantic to see what is unfolding in the United Kingdom, where the new British administration of Prime Minister David Cameron (with coalition partner Nick Clegg) announced that there would be a "judge-led investigation" of the complicity of UK intelligence personnel in the torture of detainees in the U.S.-led rampage that incarcerated an untold number of prisoners, rendered them to countries that would torture, or sent them into CIA secret prisons. These crimes were committed in part to coerce "intelligence" and confessions that would link Saddam Hussein to Al Qaeda, the better to drum up fake evidence to justify an unprovoked attack upon Iraq.

UK Torture Inquiry Questions

The announcement of the UK inquiry has been met with a mostly uncritical positive reception in the U.S. And who can blame the American human rights, anti-torture and civil liberties movement? They’ve had to put up with the "don’t look back" policy of President Obama, not to mention the latter’s embrace of Bush-era positions on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, indefinite detention, support for the Army Field Manual’s Appendix M, governmental secrecy, and even this administration’s own operation of black site prisons (run now by JSOC, not, apparently, the CIA).

A press release by the ACLU captured the general attitude of U.S. opponents of the Pentagon/CIA torture program:

"An investigation into the role of government personnel in the abuse and torture of prisoners is exactly what the Obama administration should be initiating. And while we welcome Prime Minister Cameron’s commitment to ensuring that torture survivors are acknowledged and compensated, this announcement also serves as a reminder of how little has been done here in the United States to reckon with the abuses of the last nine years," said Jameel Jaffer, ACLU Deputy Legal Director.

While the sentiment is understandable (see a similar statement by Tom Parker at Amnesty International), even though we dearly need an investigation, it is not certain that the UK inquiry is exactly what the doctor ordered. The British press and human rights agencies, while approving of Cameron/Clegg’s decision to make good on their campaign promise and initiate an investigation into UK intelligence services complicity with torture, are dubious about the details of how the investigation will proceed.

For one thing, proceedings will be held in secret. While the three-person investigating panel will have ample access to UK documents, they will not be allowed to study U.S. documents. Moreover, the inquiry cannot begin until all current criminal and civil complaints are settled. This led U.S. blogger-commentator Marcy Wheeler to wonder if the inquiry weren’t meant in part to limit the disclosures that could still surface if the cases now outstanding were adjudicated fully.

The investigation panel is supposed to include Dame Janet Paraskeva, head of the civil service commissioners, and retired journalist Peter Riddell. No less a UK government critic than Craig Murray finds these two to be independent-minded and fair (though some question their experience in these matters). But Murray — and as we’ll see, many others — is concerned about the ex-judge Sir Peter Gibson, named to head the investigation.

The 76-year-old Gibson is an odd choice, especially, as John Ware at BBC Panorama put it, "for an inquiry deemed to be fully independent." He is closely linked to intelligence circles, as he is Intelligence Services Commissioner, responsible for monitoring secret bugging operations by MI5, MI6 and GCHQ (Britain’s version of the NSA). In the past, Gibson has refused to say how many instances of bugging have taken place, because it would “assist those hostile to the UK”. There has also been some criticism regarding Gibson’s propensity for secrecy.

Peter Oborne at the UK Daily Mail has more to say about Gibson and "judge-led" "independent inquiries:

Sir Peter is a thoroughly acceptable figure to British spies because he has been Commissioner of the Intelligence Services since 2006, and was reappointed only last year.

Most of his work is carried out away from the public eye, but I have heard no reports of Sir Peter asking probing questions of MI5 and MI6 bosses over the past few years, despite the publication of a mass of troubling material during that period.

This is not the first time Gibson has been asked to head a secretive investigation, as he also led the inquiry into the 1998 IRA Omagh bombing, after a BBC report that GCHQ withheld info from the police that could have led to an interdiction of the bombers. The report itself was, of course, kept secret, but there were many questions about how Gibson conducted the affair. According to John Ware:

Sir Peter’s report, published in January 2009, angered relatives of Omagh’s victims and survivors when it focused only on whether the Omagh bombing could have been stopped. He concluded it could not have been.

Sir Peter later acknowledged he "deliberately did not" investigate why intercepts that he found had been shared between GCHQ and Special Branch were not also shared with the CID.

He told MPs on the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee (NIAC) that he had not seen it as part of his remit to "go into questions like why certain things were done or not done".

An mixture of hopefulness and ominous foreboding emanates from British anti-torture human rights groups. Addressing worries that the inquiry will focus on lower-level interrogators and let government officials like former Prime Minister Tony Blair off the hook, London director of Human Rights Watch said, "To be credible and to get to the bottom of what went wrong, any inquiry must be as public as possible, examine all cases of alleged complicity that are brought to its attention and examine the degree to which decisions by UK ministers and officials contributed to abuse."

The British human rights group, Reprieve, who like the U.S. Center for Constitutional Rights, sponsors many attorneys currently defending Guantanamo prisoners, noted a number of concerns about the proposed inquiry. Top on the list of concerns is the pervasive secrecy surrounding the investigation. Not only will they be held in secret, but only the Prime Minister can decide what will be made public in the proceedings or final report. "Under the Government’s plan," Reprieve reports, "there is no formal mechanism for civil participation — so Reprieve and other civil organisation[s] will not be allowed access to documents and proceedings."

Another outstanding demand is that the government produce the old, secret official policy that governed UK intelligence agents. The new policy, itself recently published, still allows unnamed "ministers" the ability to approve "cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment": "…a wide spectrum of conduct and different considerations and legal principles may apply depending on the circumstances and facts of each case." What, Reprieve asks, were in the old rules, if these are the new rules? Any real inquiry would make this public.

What Now?

The no-accountability policy of the Obama administration has proven bankrupt, and recent legal actions taken against Leso, James, and Mitchell are laudable and hopefully will provide a decent chill among those health care providers who serviced (or still serve) the CIA and Pentagon torture and human experimentation programs. The UK inquiry certainly is a response to a societal repulsion in Great Britain against crimes against humanity, and perhaps, at a remove, to the widespread hatred of Britain’s participation in the U.S.-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But it would be naive to believe that the British government, which sees itself as the best ally of the U.S. intelligence services, will open itself up to the kind of scrutiny needed — not without a fight. To agree to the form in which the investigation is now proposed threatens to direct the fight for accountability and justice into a blind alley. As Peter Oborne reminds us, we should remember that other "judge-led" inquiry/cover-up in 2003, when "Lord Hutton’s investigation into the death of government scientist David Kelly… failed to ask the right questions, while reaching conclusions that flew in the face of evidence."

In addition, instead of sparking a renewed bid for a real investigation in the U.S., which is the fond hope of many anti-torture activists, a limited hang-out in the UK will only stifle the movement for accountability in the U.S., as enthusiasm for an open inquiry and prosecutions of high government officials is buried by demoralization and a feeling of futility.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Activists can support the moves by Britain to have an investigation into Britain’s role in torture, while demanding that it be a real investigation, with open, televised hearings (as much as is feasible), the inclusion of civil organizations, such as Reprieve, and a published protocol that includes a programmatic insistence that all lines of evidence will be followed, no matter how high up the governmental ladder such inquiry leads, and no matter what other countries’ crimes may also be implicated. One could start by refusing to accept the appointment of Peter Gibson as head of the investigating panel.

Those who sponsored, support, and defend the torture and rendition programs of the past ten years must feel the noose of real justice tightening ever further around them, and they will fight with all their might and subterfuge to protect themselves and the monopoly of state violence and terror they administer. We must take this opportunity and push even harder to have a real investigation, one that will truly bring justice, and a giant step toward the complete abolition of torture and cruel, inhuman, degrading treatment of prisoners everywhere. That was the program of the European and American Enlightenment, and over 200 years later, it must be our program, too.