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Friday, January 23, 2009

Obscurity Blankets Certain Anti-Torture Moves

Posted by Valtin at 10:24 PM |

Josh Gerstein at Politico has ably described the important shortcomings one finds in President Obama's Executive Orders issued yesterday to close Guantanamo and end torture. While the CIA is disallowed from using waterboarding and other "enhanced" torture techniques, and forced to adhere to the standards (flawed as they are) of the Army Field Manual; and while the CIA is forced now to close their secret black site prisons; and while Guantanamo itself is to be close "promptly... within a year", there are some troublesome problems remaining.

Not least is the problem with the Army Field Manual itself. Some former Bush administration figures and CIA types see the AFM as insufficient to guide their interrogation actions in the field. They want the ability to improvise their techniques to the given interrogation or situation. Many of these same people are implying that Obama's moves to close Guantanamo raises the spectre of the release of horrible terrorists in the homeland itself, who will attack American communities. In a column today, Glenn Greenwald dissects this fear-mongering campaign by the right.

Others, like myself, see the AFM as abusive in and of itself. The inclusion of Appendix M, and other procedures allowed by that document, means that use of techniques such as isolation, sleep deprivation, sensory deprivation, inducing fear and humiliation of prisoners is still allowed. These techniques, especially when used in combination, which is what the AFM suggests, certainly amount to cruel, inhumane and degrading behavior (in contradistinction to Geneva rules), if not torture itself.

Josh Gerstein emphasizes a now much-examined aspect of the language of the executive order on interrogations:
[The] order also created an interagency commission which will have six months to examine whether to create “additional or different guidance” for non-military agencies such as the CIA. One group that represents detainees, the Center for Constitutional Rights, deemed that an “escape hatch” to potentially allow enhanced interrogations in the future.

White House counsel Greg Craig told reporters such fears are misplaced. “This is not an invitation to bring back different techniques than those that are approved inside the Army Field Manual, but an invitation to this task force to make recommendations as to whether or not there should be a separate protocol that's more appropriate to the intelligence community,” he said....

“For now, they’re punting, saying they’ll comply with what’s in the Army manual…but at some point in the future this commission may revert to the executive” to recommend harsher techniques, said [Yale law school lecturer, and attorney for Guantanamo prisoner Ahmed Zuhair, Ramzi] Kassem, adding that he was concerned about how transparent the commission’s recommendations would be.
Gerstein has other caveats, as well. For one thing, the man ultimately in charge of Guantanamo in the last few years for Bush, Secretary of State Robert Gates, is also the man now in charge of re-examining whether conditions there meet "humane standards of confinement." His findings will be interesting for yet another reason. As Gerstein points out, Guantanamo prisoners still suffer from isolation and force feeding.
According to detainee lawyers, about two dozen inmates who refuse to eat as a form of protest are currently being force fed, and about 140 are in some form of solitary confinement....

As far as we know, the force feeding and solitary practices continued onto Obama’s watch. Craig dodged a question about the new president’s views on those issues. “I'm not going to get into the details,” Craig said.
As I and others have noted, Obama's executive orders say nothing about other U.S. prisoners held in Baghram (about 600), and the tens of thousands held in Iraq. Nor does the halt in the military commissions mean there won't be a return to some form of ersatz trial body in the near future.
That suggestion exasperates detainee lawyers like Kassem. “That would be a huge mistake, “ he said. “That system [is] set up to launder statements obtained through torture… What’s the point of getting rid of our offshore, improvised, sham, military tribunals in Cuba, only to recreate it here in the United States?”
The Center for Constitutional Rights has called for trying prisoners (who can be charged) in ordinary criminal courts.
The new administration must repatriate those who can be released safely, secure safe haven in the United States and other countries for those who cannot be repatriated safely, and prosecute in federal criminal courts those who should be prosecuted. Only 250 of 779 men remain in the prison camp. Most can be returned to their home countries through vigorous diplomacy. A smaller number need to be offered protection in the United States or third countries, many of whom have already begun to come forward to offer help to the new administration. There is no justification for continued detention without trial or the creation of special courts; such proposals would continue the human rights disaster rather than end it.
A number of political forces are circling around the torture interrogations issue. Senator Dianne Feinstein has apparently decided that Obama's executive order is not secure as policy, and declared she will go forward with legislation to "codify" the change to the Army Field Manual, making it less likely it can be overturned by further executive actions.

While Feinstein may see this as a progressive step, I see it as a danger, in that the abusive techniques left in the Army Field Manual will be perpetuated.

Much struggle still remains in the fight against torture. This next period will see a heightening of that struggle. One thing remains clear: we must not let the discussions and battles over it creep back into backroom corridors and out of public awareness. Hopefully, Obama's wish for greater openness, and his recent efforts to strengthen access to presidential records and government documents in general, through the Freedom of Information Act, will assist us in this effort. But the main tool of change will remain public awareness and public vigilance.

Also posted at Invictus

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