You are browsing the archive for John Durham.

The Significance of HRW’s New Call to Prosecute Bush Administration Officials for Torture

5:01 pm in Military, Terrorism, Torture by Jeff Kaye

Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a new report Tuesday. As they stated in the press release announcing the 107-page report, “Getting Away with Torture: The Bush Administration and Mistreatment of Detainees” (HTML, PDF), there is “overwhelming evidence of torture by the Bush administration.” As a result, President Barack Obama is obliged “to order a criminal investigation into allegations of detainee abuse authorized by former President George W. Bush and other senior officials.”

In particular, HRW singled out “four key leaders” in the torture program. Besides former President George W. Bush, the report indicts former Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and CIA Director George Tenet. But others remain possible targets of investigation and prosecution. According to the report:

Such an investigation should also include examination of the roles played by National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice and Attorney General John Ashcroft, as well as the lawyers who crafted the legal “justifications” for torture, including Alberto Gonzales (counsel to the president and later attorney general), Jay Bybee (head of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC)), John Rizzo (acting CIA general counsel), David Addington (counsel to the vice president), William J. Haynes II (Department of Defense general counsel), and John Yoo (deputy assistant attorney general in the OLC).

But the key passage in the HRW report concerns the backing for international prosecutions, under the principle in international law of “universal jurisdiction,” which was used back in 1998 by Spanish Judge Baltasar Garzón to indict former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet for genocide and murder.

Unless and until the US government pursues credible criminal investigations of the role of senior officials in the mistreatment of detainees since September 11, 2001, exercise universal jurisdiction or other forms of jurisdiction as provided under international and domestic law to prosecute US officials alleged to be involved in criminal offenses against detainees in violation of international law. [emphasis added]

Indeed, in an important section of the report, HRW details the failures and successes of pursuing such international prosecutions in the face of U.S. prosecutors’ failure to act and investigate or indict high administration officials for war crimes. This is even more important when one considers that the Obama administration has clearly stated its intention to not investigate or prosecute such crimes, going after a handful of lower-level interrogators for crimes not covered by the Bush administration’s so-called “legal” approvals for torture provided by the infamous Yoo/Bybee/Levin/Bradbury memos issued by the Office of Legal Counsel.

Nor has Congress shown even a smidgen of appetite for pursuing further accountability: not one Congressman or Senator has stepped forward as yet to endorse HRW’s new call. Instead, they demonstrated their obsequiousness by approving Obama’s nomination of General David Petraeus as new CIA director 94-0, despite the fact that Petraeus has been implicated in the organization of counter-terror death squads in Iraq, and was in charge of training Iraqi security forces who repeatedly were documented as engaging in widespread torture. It was during Petraeus’s tenure as chief of such training for the coalition forces, that the U.S. implemented the notorious Fragmentary Order (FRAGO) 242, which commanded U.S. forces not to intervene in cases of Iraqi governmental torture should they come across such it (which they often did). No one during Petraeus’s testimony in his nomination hearings even questioned him about this.

Why this report now?

I asked Andrea Prasow, a senior counsel at Human Rights Watch, why this report was issued now, noting that some on the left had already questioned the timing of HRW’s action.

“Because it really needed to be done,” Prasow explained. She noted the recent admissions by former President Bush and Vice President Cheney that they had approved waterboarding. Furthermore, “following the killing of [Osama] Bin Laden, we saw the immediate response by some that torture and the enhanced interrogation techniques led to the capture of Bin Laden. And it became a part of normal debate about torture. It shows how fragile is the current commitment not to torture.”

Prasow also noted the recent closure of the Durham investigation, which resulted in the decision to criminally investigate the deaths of two detainees in CIA custody, while 99 other cases referred to his office were closed. I asked her whether she felt, as I do, that the announcement of the two investigations were meant to forestall attempts by European (especially Spanish) prosecutors to pursue “universal jurisdiction” prosecutions of U.S. officials for torture.

“I don’t see how there’s a defensible justification that the investigations Durham announced can do that,” Prasow said. “It’s pretty clear that there should be an investigation into the deaths of these detainees,” she added, “but it’s so clear the investigation is very limited. The scope of the investigation is the most important part. Even if Durham had investigated the 100 or so cases that exceeded the legal authorities, it wouldn’t be sufficient. What about the people who wrote the legal memos? Who told them to write the memos?” she said, emphasizing the fact that Durham’s investigation was limited by Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder to only CIA crimes, and only those that supposedly exceeded the criteria for “enhanced interrogation” laid out in a number of administration legal memos. The torture, Prasow noted, was “throughout the military” as well, including “hundreds or thousands” tortured at sites in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo.

Prasow noted that the Obama administration has made it policy to block attempts by torture victims to get compensation for torture, asserting a policy of protecting “state secrets” to shut down court cases. “But there are other ways of providing redress,” she said, adding that “providing redress is part of international laws.” The HRW report itself states, “Consistent with its obligations under the Convention against Torture, the US government should ensure that victims of torture obtain redress, which may include providing victims with compensation where warranted outside of the judicial context.”

The new HRW report comes on the heels of a controversy roiling around a proposed United Kingdom governmental inquiry into torture. A number of British human rights and legal agencies have said they would boycott the UK proceedings as a “whitewash.” As Andy Worthington put it the other day:

As a result of pandering to the Americans’ wishes, the terms of reference are “so restrictive,” as the Guardian described it, that JUSTICE, the UK section of the International Commission of Jurists, warned that the inquiry “was likely to fail to comply with UK and international laws governing investigations into torture.” Eric Metcalfe, JUSTICE’s director of human rights policy, said that the rules “mean that the inquiry is unlikely to get to the truth behind the allegations and, even if it does, we may never know for sure. However diligent and committed Sir Peter [Gibson] and his team may be, the government has given itself the final word on what can be made public.”

Andrea Prasow echoed Metcalfe’s fears, saying HRW had “some concerns about how much information [in the UK inquiry] was going to be kept secret. I think transparency, making it as public as possible, is most important.”

The fight for transparency also makes HRW’s call for prosecutions of high government officials, along with “an independent, nonpartisan commission, along the lines of the 9-11 Commission, [that] should be established to examine the actions of the executive branch, the CIA, the military, and Congress, with regard to Bush administration policies and practices that led to detainee abuse,” very timely. In a column the other day at Secrecy News — Pentagon Tightens Grip on Unclassified Information — Steven Aftergood reported on a Department of Defense proposed new rule regarding classification. While the Obama administration is supposedly on record for greater governmental transparency, the new rule imposes “new safeguard requirements on ‘prior designations indicating controlled access and dissemination (e.g., For Official Use Only, Sensitive But Unclassified, Limited Distribution, Proprietary, Originator Controlled, Law Enforcement Sensitive).’”

According to Aftergood, “By ‘grandfathering’ those old, obsolete markings in a new regulation for defense contractors, the DoD rule would effectively reactivate them and qualify them for continued protection under the new Controlled Unclassified Information (CUI) regime, thereby defeating the new policy.” Even worse (if possible), “the proposed rule says that any unclassified information that has not been specifically approved for public release must be safeguarded. It establishes secrecy, not openness, as the presumptive status and default mode for most unclassified information.”

Much of what we know about the Bush-era torture program is due to the work of the ACLU and Center for Constitutional Rights, who have used the Freedom of Information Act to gather hundreds of documents, if not thousands, that document the paper trail surrounding the crimes of the Bush administration. Reporters and investigators like Jane Mayer, Philippe Sands, Alfred McCoy, and Jason Leopold have also contributed much to our understanding of what occurred during the Bush years. The work of investigators going back years demonstrates that U.S. research into and propagation of torture around the world goes back decades.

The Senate Armed Services Committee has also produced an impressive, if still partially redacted, investigation (large PDF) into detainee abuse by the Department of Defense. Their report, for instance, concluded regarding torture at Guantanamo that “Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s authorization of interrogation techniques at Guantanamo Bay was a direct cause of detainee abuse there.”

When one puts together the accelerated emphasis on “state secrets”; the Obama political program of “not looking back” in regards to U.S. war crimes (while supposedly pursuing accountability for torture and war crimes committed by other countries); the political passivity, if not cowardice of Congress; the fact that Obama “has not been transparent on the rendition issue, not even saying what its policy is,” according to Andrea Prasow; and finally the lies and propaganda spewed forth by the former Administration’s key figures and their proxies, one can only agree with HRW that enough is enough. The time for investigations and prosecutions into torture and rendition is now.

And if they won’t listen in Washington, D.C., perhaps they will in Madrid. Or some other intrepid prosecutor in — who knows? — Brazil or Argentina or Chile will pay back America, as a matter of poetic but also real justice for the crimes endured by their societies when the U.S. helped organize torture and terror in their countries only a generation ago. There were no U.S. investigations into actions of government figures then, and now we are faced with another set of atrocities produced by our own government. If we do not act now, what will our children face?

New Grand Jury Investigation On Torture, Or DoJ Smokescreen?

7:09 pm in Torture, Uncategorized by Jeff Kaye

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.
Read the rest of this entry →

CIA Second Taping System Reported in Zubaydah Interrogation

11:20 pm in Uncategorized by Jeff Kaye

Jason Leopold has published an important article on Abu Zubaydah and the questions swirling around the destruction of the videotapes of his interrogation by the CIA. The Truthout reporter writes that a number of intelligence sources have described a hitherto unreported second taping system that was used on Zubaydah at the black site CIA prison in Thailand where the interrogations took place in 2002-2003.

Reportedly, this second set of tapes appear to have been used to collect "’data’ about Zubaydah, specifically, how much mental and physical pain he could endure after each torture session he was subjected to that took place prior to the issuance of OLC legal memos in August 2002." This data was then used to shape the parameters of the torture program and the types of legal approval John Yoo, Jay Bybee and Steven Bradbury gave in those legal memos.

It is unknown if the purported second taping system was used on other CIA prisoners at the Thailand black site, but Leopold’s article also reports, in another important angle on the scandal, "that a similar taping system was also set up at a secret site at Guantanamo about a year later where interrogations of other high-value prisoners were also recorded." Last January, Scott Horton at Harper’s published a major expose concerning the possible killings of three prisoners in 2006 at a hitherto unrevealed secret site at Guantanamo unofficially known as Camp No. The prisoners had previously been labeled "suicides" by camp officials.

The issue of the tapes disposal has been under criminal investigation for many months by Special Prosecutor John Durham. Last August, Attorney General Holder also picked Mr. Durham to lead an inquiry into the abuse of prisoners subjected to the CIA’s interrogation program.

The investigation into the destruction of the tapes has included grand jury testimony by some CIA principals and a grant of immunity to CIA attorney John McPherson, who, according to the Washington Post, "reviewed the tapes years before they were destroyed to determine whether they diverged from written records about the interrogations."

Leopold is now reporting that the Senate Intelligence Committee has decided to look into the situation surrounding Abu Zubaydah’s CIA interrogation:

The panel will scrutinize thousands of pages of highly classified documents related to Zubaydah’s detention and torture to determine, among other things, whether the techniques he was subjected to [were] accurately reflected in CIA cable traffic sent back to Langley, whether he ever provided actionable intelligence to his torturers, and how the CIA and other government agencies came to rely on flawed intelligence that led the Bush administration to classify him as the No. 3 person in al-Qaeda and its first high-value detainee, Hill sources said.

As was reported in May 2009, FBI interrogator Ali Soufan, who was one of the early interrogators of Mr. Zubaydah, in his prepared statement to the Senate Armed Services Committee investigating prisoner abuse, mentioned the experimental nature of the CIA’s interrogation methods no less than four times. Mr. Zubaydah himself told the International Committee of the Red Cross that he heard or he suspected the CIA was experimenting with torture techniques upon him. I reported at the time:

It seems likely that Abu Zubaydah was a primary subject of JPRA/SERE’s reverse-engineering of torture techniques, using the paradigm of psychologist and former American Psychological Association president Martin Seligman’s theory of "learned helplessness."

According to a report last month by Mr. Leopold, a national security official said that Abu Zubaydah was used as an "experiment. A guinea pig." News of a second taping system, used to gather specific kinds of psychological or psychiatric data on the CIA’s interrogation subject(s), appear at the same time as revelations stemming from a release of CIA documents to the ACLU that describe CIA officials asking for "instructions" regarding the "disposition of hard drives and magnetic media" associated with the torture of Abu Zubaydah. Marcy Wheeler has been following a number of issues associated with the release of these documents at her Emptywheel blog.