30+ torture memos remain sealed while thousands of torture photos will eventually be released. Be prepared: Learn the deep history of US torture in SERE, Vietnam, Latin America, GMTO, Black Sites and beyond in American Torture.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Anti-Torture Activists Chase Brennan from CIA Post

Posted by Valtin at 3:13 PM |

The Washington Post reports in an article today that the "criticism of a number of groups" regarding John Brennan's positions on torture and rendition led him to withdraw his name from nomination to CIA director in an Obama administration.
Brennan's withdrawal came three days after a group of about 200 psychiatrists and academics wrote to Obama opposing his appointment, saying Brennan was tainted by his association with some of the CIA's most controversial policies of the Bush era. They include the use of waterboarding and other harsh interrogation methods against captured al-Qaeda leaders in secret CIA prisons.

"Mr. Brennan served as a high official in George Tenet's CIA and supported Tenet's policies, including 'enhanced interrogations' as well as 'renditions' to torturing countries," the coalition stated in the letter. The group said Brennan's appointment would "dishearten and alienate those who opposed torture under the Bush administration."
I congratulate the psychologists and other health and academic professionals who helped demonstrate that there is anger and opposition to torture policies among much of the professional class and intelligentsia in this country. But this is a nuanced victory in a skirmish with a dangerous enemy, and I am admittedly someone who differs on tactics with those who helped orchestrate Brennan's defeat. (Let's not forget that a number of others on the left, and even conservatives like Andrew Sullivan opposed the Brennan would-be nomination.)

The CIA should be abolished. It cannot be reformed. It's bureaucracy was forged in a world of covert wars and abusive interrogation research. Asking for someone who is "anti-torture" to head the CIA would at most drive the worst elements of torture underground. It might end, for awhile, the "enhanced interrogation techniques" (so-called "touchless torture") that is the CIA's expertise. But it does nothing to address the evils of covert secret action that derails foreign governments, nor is there any outcry against the use of targeted assassinations undertaken by the CIA over the years.

An example of how good feelings over a victory can lead to a false sense of comfort, consider the decision today by the Obama administration to put forth Bush's Secretary of Defense Robert Gates for another go at the post.
President-elect Barack Obama has decided to retain the Bush administration's Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, in his current position, at least for a year....

Such a move, if confirmed, could also incite the Democratic left, which had based much of its support on Obama's slowly melting pledge to withdraw American combat troops within 16 months and start immediately.

Gates has been a loyal steward of the successful surge, which Obama long appeared reluctant to admit during the political season....

On paper at least Gates and Obama also disagree over the need for a European missile defense system now, with Obama saying he wants the technology to be more proven before any installation talk.
Perhaps someone will remember that last August, Gates was implicated by the New York Times as a prime participant in the Pentagon's own policy of secret detention in Iraq of foreign fighters, and rendition of prisoners to foreign countries, such as Saudi Arabia, where monitoring of interrogations and possible abuse is impossible. As the Times reported (emphases added):
Many of these militants are initially held, without notification to the Red Cross, sometimes for weeks at a time, in secret at a camp in Iraq and another in Afghanistan run by American Special Operations forces, the military officials said.

They said that foreign intelligence officers had been allowed access to these camps to question militants there, as a prelude to the transfers....

American military officials said the transfers required assurances that the prisoners would be well taken care of, but they would not specify those assurances, and human rights advocates questioned whether compliance could be monitored.

While the militants are in American custody, Pentagon rules allow them to be held at the Special Operations sites in Balad, Iraq, and Bagram, Afghanistan, for up to two weeks, with extensions permitted with the approval of Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates or his representative, military officials said.
As Aaron Glantz noted in 2006, after the hearings approving Gates as Secretary of Defense:
No Senator asked Robert Gates about a plan he wrote for President Reagan for an invasion of Lybia to "redraw the map of Northern Africa." No one asked him about his record of falsifying intelligence during the Cold War and his involvement in the Iran-Contra scandal.

No Senator asked Robert Gates about his claim, in written testimony given before his public hearing, that he believes in the doctrine of preemptive strikes on other countries, the policy position that got us in the mess in Iraq.

No Senator asked Robert Gates about his claim, in written testimony given before his public hearing, that he believes Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction or the capability to produce weapons of mass destruction and that he still – even in hindsight – thought the invasion was a good thing.
Perhaps I am wrong. I'm quite ready to admit it. But you cannot stop the hydra-headed monster that is the military-industrial-intelligence establishment by playing musical chairs. Does it matter to the 200 opponents of Brennan that Gates was a primary participant in the military's own version of rendition, up to the present day (the Times story is actually dated last August)? Or that he has conducted secret detentions, prosecuted Bush's "War on Terror", as a supporter of the torture-loving Contras in Nicaragua under Reagan's term of office, or any number of negatives concerning this stalwart defender of the ruling elite?

Abstractly, I imagine the answer to the last question is yes. But concretely, campaigns such as the one that appears to have helped nix Brennan put illusions in the overall reformability of institutions that have a proven negative track record of human rights abuses and anti-democratic actions for over fifty years. In this day and age, one has to be practically a flame-breathing radical to note the CIA cannot be trusted, no matter who runs it.

I respect those who might argue against me that we have to pick and choose our battles, that we raise public consciousness through campaigns against public figures, and perhaps even do some good in the process. I cannot deny such arguments. While respecting such arguments, I also strongly believe that the dangers of sowing illusions about change are real, and that they disarm activists in the face of the struggle that really lies ahead.

Perhaps the disagreements elaborated herein are redolent of the old arguments of reform vs. revolution, or between stagist views of progress and change and those who see history as punctuated by qualitative leaps over old ways of thinking and doing. I think it's my fate to play the "ultra-left" role in this instance, and, in this instance, I'm not sorry to do it.

In any case, I am glad to see Brennan have to slink off (back to his job as CEO of the private intelligence company, Analysis Corporation). I salute those, like Stephen Soldz, who organized the letter-writing campaign, who have the guts to take on the powers that be. I hope they take my criticism with the good faith with which it's offered.

Also posted at Invictus

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Tuesday, November 25, 2008

"Liberal Blogs" Oust Brennan

Posted by Michael Otterman at 8:14 PM |

Following the outcry across the human rights community and liberal blogosphere, John Brennan has withdrawn his name from Obama's CIA Director short-list. As the NYTimes reports:
In a letter to President-elect Barack Obama, Mr. Brennan said he did not want these concerns to be a “distraction” for the incoming administration...

The letter came as a surprise to many intelligence experts and even some lawmakers, and some questioned whether Mr. Brennan had been forced to withdraw his name by senior members of Mr. Obama’s transition team who were concerned about Mr. Brennan’s association with Bush administration policies. One official with the Obama transition team, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the decision was entirely Mr. Brennan’s.

The opposition to Mr. Brennan had been largely confined to liberal blogs, and there was not an expectation he would face a particularly difficult confirmation process. Still, the episode shows that the C.I.A.’s secret detention program remains a particularly incendiary issue for the Democratic base, making it difficult for Mr. Obama to select someone for a top intelligence post who has played any role in the agency’s campaign against Al Qaeda since the Sept. 11 attacks.
While its easy to overstate the people-power element of the blogosphere-- the Brennan episode does show that dissent-- despite being "confined" to "liberal blogs"-- can effect real change.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The Forgotten Men: New UC Report on "Guantanamo and its Aftermath"

Posted by Valtin at 12:06 AM |

Last summer, Physicians for Human Rights and Human Rights First released Broken Laws, Broken Lives: Medical Evidence of Torture by the U.S. The study looked at medical and psychological evidence of the costs of torture by eleven men who endured such abuse by US personnel in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantánamo Bay.

Now, University of California, Berkeley's Human Rights Center, in conjunction with the International Human Rights Law Clinic and Center for Constitutional Rights, has released a report on the medical and psychological condition of 62 detainees released over the years from Guantanamo. According to a press release by the university:
The report, "Guantanamo and Its Aftermath: U.S. Detention and Interrogation Practices and Their Impact on Detainees," based on a two-year study, reveals in graphic detail the cumulative effect of Bush Administration policies on the lives of 62 released detainees. Many of the prisoners were sold into captivity and subjected to brutal treatment in U.S. prison camps in Afghanistan. Once in Guantanamo, prisoners were denied access to civilian courts to challenge the legality of their detention. Almost two-thirds of the former detainees interviewed reported having psychological problems since leaving Guantanamo....

Researchers conducted interviews with released detainees in nine countries. The comprehensive study also includes in-depth interviews with key government officials, military experts, former guards, interrogators and other camp personnel.
As the Bush Administration winds down into it ignominious end, President-elect Obama has made clear -- most recently in a 60 Minutes interview last night -- he will very early on use his executive power to close Guantanamo and put an end to torture. It's not clear yet what will happen to the over 200 detainees still held prisoner at Guantanamo, or whether other prisons will be closed, or even whether any executive order will pertain to CIA activities. When Laurence Tribe, an Obama legal advisor and his former law professor argued the other day that perhaps a new federal judiciary system was needed to deal with the Guantanamo prisoners, the idea was quickly scotched (at least for now) by Obama's spokepeople.

"I've Lost My Will"

Almost 800 prisoners have been dragged through the torture chambers of Guantanamo. Reams of words have been written, and scores of legal cases filed in an effort to either end or excuse the mistreatment wrought there. Reporting in today's San Francisco Chronicle, Bob Egelko, describes some of the stories from the HRC report:
"I've lost my property. I've lost my job. I've lost my will," said an Afghan man, one of 62 former inmates in nine countries interviewed anonymously by UC Berkeley researchers for a newly released report.

Another man, jobless and destitute, said his family kicked him out after he returned, and his wife went to live with her relatives. "I have a plastic bag holding my belongings that I carry with me all the time," he said. "And I sleep every night in a different mosque."
UC Berkeley's press release quotes the HRC study as documenting the use at Guantanamo of "being subjected to short shackling, stress positions, prolonged solitary confinement, and exposure to extreme temperatures, loud music, and strobe lights for extended periods -- often simultaneously." Some detainees reported even worse abuse at the U.S. detention center at Baghram, Afghanistan, where prisoners were threatened with dogs, regularly beaten, and suspended by their arms for hours on end.

And yet:
Most detainees interviewed for the study were not vengeful toward America, but simply expressed a desire for justice and an opportunity to clear their names.
The suffering of these detainees is heart-breaking. Their wish to recover a normal life should be at the top of the list for a country with so many broken promises and difficult crises dropped into its lap in the wake of one of the most sinister and criminal administrations to ever rule this or any other ostensibly democratic country.

A Terrible Moral Failure

The role of doctors, psychiatrists and psychologists at these torture centers is not left unmentioned. As the report describes it:
... since late 2002, military psychologists and psychiatrists serving on Behavioral Science Consultation Teams (BSCTs) have played an active role in developing and implementing interrogation strategies at Guantánamo....

Interrogation policies and standards at Guantánamo changed over time, but the data demonstrate that some practices remained consistent throughout the period when the study respondents were held there (January 2002 to January 2007). While more needs to be revealed about the specific interrogation techniques used at Guantánamo, it appears that many of the methods which detainees complained about most bitterly -- cold rooms and short shackling, in conjunction with prolonged isolation -- were permitted under the U.S. military’s interrogation guidelines in force from April 2003 to September 2006... These practices contravene the Geneva Conventions of 1949, which the United States ratified in 1955....

To date, no independent, comprehensive investigation has been conducted to determine the role that camp personnel as well as officials farther up the civilian and military chains of command played in the design and implementation of interrogation
techniques at Guantánamo. No broad investigation has yet addressed whether or not these officials should be held accountable for any crimes they or their subordinates may have committed.
Elsewhere in the report, the authors describe the function of the BSCT teams:
A principal BSCT function was to engineer the camp experiences of “priority” detainees to make interrogation more productive. BSCT personnel coached interrogators on how to stress, coerce, and offer incentives to secure information from detainees. BSCT personnel “prepared psychological profiles [of detainees] for use by interrogators; they also sat in on some interrogations, observed others from behind one-way mirrors, and offered feedback to interrogators"... Army medical personnel also provided medical information to interrogators... In a confidential report, the International Committee for the Red Cross called the participation of doctors in designing interrogation plans a “flagrant violation of medical ethics"... In 2006, in response to publicity about the clinical participation in coercive interrogations at Guantánamo, the American Medical Association and the American Psychiatric Association endorsed more stringent guidelines for military doctors and psychiatrists who are asked to participate in interrogations... In 2008, after several years of often acrimonious debate, members of the American Psychological Association voted to prohibit consultation by its members in the interrogations of detainees held at Guantánamo or so-called “black sites” operated by the CIA overseas.
A Call for Justice

The Human Rights Center and their partners are insistent that the crimes committed by the United States around torture cannot and should not go without further investigation. Hundreds of detainees remains incarcerated without ever being accused of any crime. Evidence of torture and abuse is overwhelming, the deleterious personal, medical and psychological consequences for those caught in this torture web and then released is also strongly convincing. Per Egelko's article:
"We cannot sweep this dark chapter in our nation's history under the rug by simply closing the Guantanamo prison camp," said Eric Stover, director of UC Berkeley's Human Rights Center. "The new administration must investigate what went wrong and who should be held accountable."
The news is so dark every day, with thousands thrown out of their jobs seemingly every day, and millions more fearing they will lose theirs. The wreck that is American society has so many vital issues facing it, that it seems easy to let the sufferings of "only" a few hundred or thousand go unanswered. The latest leaks around Obama's plans to investigate or prosecute Bush officials for war crimes indicate an Obama administration will lean towards some investigation, and steer away from prosecutions. (See recent stories by Mark Benjamin at Salon, and Lara Jakes Jordan at Associate Press.) Meanwhile, Bush is said to be considering a massive blanket pardon for those involved in his interrogation policies. Some argue that such a pardon could facilitate a "truth and reconciliation" investigation.

In the end, no one knows yet what Obama will do, or what Bush will do (although I'm betting he will issue the pardons). What is clear is that among all the other crucial issues facing the U.S. at this point in time, we must solve a huge moral dilemma: what do we do when the government blatantly and recklessly disregards human rights or lives, when it kills or tortures? Do we stand back and let it pass, in the name of political expediency? What shame and moral rot will we have to endure? How can we rise from the muck of this terrible period in our history if we do not both witness and pay out with justice the ineffable suffering of the innocent made in our name, and now forever etched with acid on the soul of the country?

Update: Interested readers will want to read Scott Horton's latest piece at Harper's (subscription required) on the rationale and possibilities around prosecuting Bush Administration figures for torture and war crimes. A nice summary of Horton's article was also made by Compound F at Docudharma (no subscription required).

Also posted at Invictus

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Sunday, November 16, 2008

Ominous Signs on Obama Torture Policy

Posted by Michael Otterman at 5:19 PM |

With Obama's win comes great promise on the anti-torture front. According to Rush Holt, a New Jersey Democrat who chairs the select Appropriations subcommittee that recommends intelligence funding:
While an executive order will not remove the need for legislation on the issue, it is a way for President-elect Obama to put an immediate halt to our government’s use of torture during interrogations and to prevent secret detentions. By exercising his authority and acting quickly, he will begin to restore our moral leadership on the issue and repair some of the harm that has been done to our international reputation.
Will Obama follow through on his August 2007 pledge to "close Guantánamo, reject the Military Commissions Act, and adhere to the Geneva Conventions"? As post election euphoria fades, a picture has slowly emerged of what Obama's policies on torture will likely be. In a word: troubling.

Early warning signs came from AP reportage of plans for new, unneccesary "terror courts" and a NYT piece on "preventive detention of terrorism suspects". More ominous news came from the Wall Street Journal. According to a “current government official familiar with the transition" interviewed by that paper, "Obama may decide he wants to keep the road open in certain cases for the CIA to use techniques not approved by the military, but with much greater oversight.”

Will Obama take the "centrist" approach and yield to more conservative factions demanding continuity of the torture regime? The speculative WSJ article, noted Glen Greenwald, is not "evidence of what Obama will do, but it is definitely compelling evidence that people close to him -- those whom he has chosen to be influential -- are pushing him in that direction."

Chief among these pushers are John Brennan-- former aide to CIA Director George Tenet, Obama's transition chief for intelligence policy, and the leading candidate to replace Mike McConnell as Obama's Director of National Intelligence. Jane Mayer last year labelled Brennan a "supporter" of "the CIA’s interrogation and detention program". Today Greenwald put Lexis-Nexis to good use and dug up the following views of Brennan on rendition and torture:

The News Hour with Jim Lehrer, 5 December 2005:
MARGARET WARNER: So was Secretary Rice correct today when she called [rendition] a vital tool in combating terrorism?

JOHN BRENNAN: I think it's an absolutely vital tool. I have been intimately familiar now over the past decade with the cases of rendition that the U.S. Government has been involved in. And I can say without a doubt that it has been very successful as far as producing intelligence that has saved lives.
CBS News:
CBS NEWS: Despite [torture, rendition victim Maher] Arar's experience, this former counterterrorism official says "rendition" does have its place.

Mr. JOHN BRENNAN (CBS News Terrorism Analyst, Former Director, National Counterterrorism Center): I think it allows us to have the option to move a person who is involved in terrorism or terrorism-related activities to a country where they can be effectively questioned or prosecuted.
CBS News, Novemeber 2007:
Mr. BRENNAN: Well, the CIA has acknowledged that it has detained about 100 terrorists since 9/11, and about a third of them have been subjected to what the CIA refers to as enhanced interrogation tactics, and only a small proportion of those have in fact been subjected to the most serious types of enhanced procedures.

SMITH: Right. And you say some of this has born fruit.

Mr. BRENNAN: There have been a lot of information that has come out from these interrogation procedures that the agency has in fact used against the real hard-core terrorists. It has saved lives. And let's not forget, these are hardened terrorists who have been responsible for 9/11, who have shown no remorse at all for the deaths of 3,000 innocents.
Given his history, it is likely Brennan will advise Obama to "stay the course" on torture-- publicly swear off its use, perhaps allow limited investigations into Bush torture policy, but ALSO allow for the CIA to continue to kidnap and use "enhanced" torture behind closed doors when the "need arises". Will Obama follow this path?

Amy Goodman is among the deafening chorus who hopes he does not. In her most recent column, she linked torture to its dark roots in US history and highlighted the deep significance of repudiating torture today. She concludes:
The executive orders he issues will set the tone of his presidency and could usher in a new era. Human-rights groups are calling for the closing of the Guantanamo prison camp and CIA “black sites,” where torture has been commonplace. Which brings us back to slavery. When Frederick Douglass, the renowned abolitionist, was young, he was enslaved on a plantation on Maryland's Eastern Shore, called Mount Misery, owned by Edward Covey, a notorious “slave breaker.” There, physical and psychological torture were standard. That property, today, is owned by Donald Rumsfeld, the former secretary of defense who was one of the key architects of the U.S. military's program of torture and detention.

With the stroke of a pen on Inauguration Day, President Obama could outlaw torture. It would be a tribute to those slaves who built his new home, the White House, a tribute to those slaves who built the U.S. Capitol Building, a tribute to those who were tortured at Mount Misery.