Ex-CIA Chief Defends Hiding Torture Evidence, But We Need to Know the Truth

©PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images

It feels like we have been here before. Another testosterone-fueled memoir from a charter member of President Bush’s torture team unapologetically seeks to justify the unjustifiable with inflated claims of attacks thwarted and secret battles won.

Latest to the plate is Jose Rodriguez, former Head of the CIA’s National Clandestine Service, and the man charged with implementing the application of enhanced interrogation techniques (EITs) to detainees that fell into the CIA’s clutches after 9/11.

Rodriguez was not always quite so willing to boast about his handiwork. In 2005 he destroyed 92 videotapes of high value detainees Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri being water-boarded at secret CIA prisons in Thailand.

At the time Rodriguez justified his action to CIA Director Porter Goss by telling him that the tapes would make the CIA “look terrible; it would be devastating to us.”

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Bad News For Accountability For Detainee Abuse At Abu Ghraib

By Rebecca DeWinter-Schmitt, Amnesty’s Business & Human Rights Group

Earlier this week, we reported on this blog that the possibility of a civil remedy for the detainees abused by Titan (L3) and CACI employees at Abu Ghraib was denied when the Supreme Court refused to allow the suit against the two companies to move forward.

The Center for Constitutional Rights had brought the lawsuit on behalf of 250 victims of abuse using the Alien Tort Statute, a key legal tool in ensuring civil remedy to victims of corporate human rights violations committed overseas.

Now, an opportunity for criminal justice for those abused by Titan (L3) and CACI employees has also been squandered. Today, the Washington Post reports that Special Prosecutor John Durham has closed his investigation of 101 cases of CIA interrogators and contractors alleged participation in detainee abuse.

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Holding Private Security Contractors Accountable for Human Rights Abuses

By Rebecca DeWinter-Schmitt, Amnesty’s Business & Human Rights Group

Justin Cannon and Christopher Drotleff were working for private security company Blackwater (now known as Xe) when they were accused of killing two civilians and injuring two others after opening fire on a vehicle in Afghanistan in May 2009. Romal Mohammad Naiem, who was a passenger in the car, which had approached the scene of a traffic accident involving two Xe vehicles and was leaving when it was repeatedly shot upon, was killed.

© Scott Olson/Getty Images

On Monday, Cannon was given a 30-month sentence for involuntary manslaughter in the shooting death of Naiem. Drotleff, his partner, received a 37-month sentence earlier this month.

According to the Virginian-Pilot, they are the first Xe contractors to be punished for killing a civilian in a conflict zone. (Four more Xe contractors still face manslaughter charges for the Nisour Square shootings that resulted in the death of 17 civilians.)

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The Courage To Speak Out Against Torture

Yesterday was the United Nations International Day in Support of Victims of Torture.

In many ways, fighting against the use of torture around the world has been Amnesty’s signature issue over the past 50 years. In that time we have tried to shine a light both on the victims of torture and its perpetrators.

However, there is one group that has often been overlooked: Those rare individuals who display the courage to stand up against those who would use torture, regardless the cost to themselves.

Individuals like Military Policeman Joe Darby, who blew the whistle on the abuse of prisoners in Abu Ghraib by referring pictures taken by Charles Graner to the US Army’s Criminal Investigations Division (CID):

“I’ve always had a moral sense of right and wrong. And I knew that you know, friends or not, it had to stop.”

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New Survey Finds Tolerance Of Torture In The US

Simulated waterboarding torture © Amnesty International

Last week to mark the 150 anniversary of the American Civil War the American Red Cross released a survey of US attitudes to international humanitarian law which revealed a shocking tolerance of torture across American society.

The Red Cross survey found that 59% of the 502 teenagers and 51% of the 1,019 adults polled believed that it was sometimes acceptable to torture enemy fighters to obtain important military information.

41% of teenagers and 30% of adults also accepted the logical corollary that it might therefore sometimes be acceptable for enemy forces to torture captured American POWs. The survey powerfully suggests just how far the norm against torture in American public life has been eroded.

Giants of American public life like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln have spoken out against torture but the evidence seems to suggest that, for now at least, the ants have carried the day.

An American public weaned on a diet of hard-charging maverick cop shows like 24, video games like Modern Warfare, and the obfuscating legal maneuvers of Bush’s torture team has drunk the kool aid and, despite all evidence to the contrary, concluded torture works.

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Pulp Fiction

Today former Bush administration Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld launched his autobiography Known and Unknown: A Memoir with a tour of the usual media outlets.

Even judged by the standard of political memoirs Rumsfeld has mounted an epic display of denial that puts reggae bad boy Shaggy to shame. Bin Laden’s escape from Tora Bora? Wasn’t me. Misleading intelligence about WMDs in Iraq? Wasn’t me. Iraq’s collapse into chaos? Wasn’t me. The Pat Tillman affair? Not even mentioned.

Rumsfeld really outdoes himself when he tries to wash his hands of the systemic abuse of detainees held in military prisons in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay.

Discussing the Abu Ghraib scandal with ABC News anchor Diane Sawyer, Rummy commented:

“That was such a stain on our country. To think that people in our custody were treated in that disgusting and perverted and ghastly way — unacceptable way.”

Fine sentiments indeed, and you might be forgiven for thinking that the incident had nothing to do with the former Secretary of Defense, until you recall that it occurred in a detention facility under his command and grew out of a permissive attitude to detainee abuse that he himself was responsible for creating.

But don’t just take my word for it – here is an excerpt from the Senate Armed Services Committee Inquiry into the Treatment of Detainees in US Custody adopted unanimously in November 2008 by Republican and Democrat members alike:

“The abuse of detainees at Abu Ghraib in late 2003 was not simply a result of a few soldiers acting on their own. Interrogation techniques such as stripping detainees of their clothes, placing them in stress positions and using military working dogs to intimidate them appeared in Iraq only after they had been approved for use in Afghanistan and at [Guantánamo]… Rumsfeld’s authorization of aggressive interrogation techniques and subsequent interrogation policies and plans approved by senior military and civilian officers conveyed the message that physical pressures and degradation were appropriate treatment for detainees in U.S. military custody. What followed was an erosion in standards dictating that detainees be treated humanely.”

In December 2002 Rumsfeld personally authorized the use of “mild, non-injurious physical contact” as well as stress positions, stripping naked and even dogs to break detainees. Rumsfeld famously even questioned why the use of stress positions was limited to just 4 hours noting that he was used to standing for 8-10 hours a day.

In fact, Donald Rumsfeld’s fingerprints are all over the Bush administration’s torture program and you don’t need to be CSI’s Gil Grissom to find them. The last category Rumsfeld’s autobiography belongs in is “Non-fiction”.

That is why we are calling on all good bookshops to take a long hard look at the content of Known and Unknown and then move it straight to the “True Crime” section of their stores.

Six years on Abu Ghraib victims still fighting for justice

By Rebecca DeWinter-Schmitt

Abu Ghraib will live on in collective memory as one of the biggest stains on the reputation of the United States as a supposed human rights leader. Who can forget the images that, despite their horrific nature, did not even begin to capture the full extent of the alleged abuse – including rape, sexual assault, beatings, prolonged stress positions, the use of dogs in interrogations and other forms of torture? Yet, six years on the victims of these human rights violations are still struggling to have their day in court, while the private military contractors involved – employees of CACI, Inc. and L-3 Communications (formerly Titan) – appear to be immune from criminal prosecution and civil lawsuits and continue to win multi-million dollar government contracts.

While a few of the soldiers implicated in the Abu Ghraib scandal have been held accountable, not a single contractor has seen the inside of a court room, despite the fact that several military-commissioned reports, including the Fay-Jones Report, confirmed that military contractors were responsible for the most serious abuses that occurred and recommended a civilian criminal probe and prosecutions. Instead, under the Bush administration, the cases of contractors implicated in detainee abuse were referred to a task force in the Eastern District of Virginia, where they were quietly dismissed or left interminably open. Existing U.S. law provides jurisdiction over contractor personnel for criminal offenses, such as torture. Some legal scholars have characterized the failure to prosecute as a willful decision to sweep contractors’ crimes under the rug.

With little hope for criminal prosecution of the perpetrators, hundreds of the victims of Abu Ghraib and other detention centers in Iraq, all of whom had been released without charge, have sought recourse to justice through civil litigation with the assistance of the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) and a small team of attorneys. The case, Saleh et al v. Titan et al, has been making its way through the courts for the last six years and is currently at a critical juncture.  On September 11, 2009, in a 2-1 decision, a panel of the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia affirmed the dismissal of all claims against Titan/L-3, and, reversing a district court ruling, also dismissed all claims against CACI. The following January, the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit issued an order denying plaintiffs’ petition for rehearing en banc, in other words by a full panel of judges. On Monday, April 26, CCR undertook the final available step; it filed a petition with the Supreme Court asking it to take up the case against Titan/L-3 and CACI and review the Appeals Court’s decision to dismiss the case.

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Those torture memos

It’s clear to us that the torture memos released yesterday, as gruesome and repugnant the details are within, are only the tip of the iceberg.

As far as we currently know, the interrogation regime spelled out in the Bybee memo is the best case scenario for how detainees were treated. Amnesty International has been interviewing the victims of torture for almost fifty years and our experience teaches us that abuse nearly always escalates over time. It starts with roughing people up at 3am and ends with naked people piled up in pyramids.

All that we know is based on leaked reports, on a handful of interviews, and some pictures no one wanted us to see. What about the hundreds of other detainees, civilian and military staff who worked at these torture facilities? What other files and images exist? Why would the CIA destroy mountains of tapes and who knows what else?

Because as awful as the images from Abu Ghraib, as vile as the techniques outlined in the torture memos, there is so much more that we still do not know.

That’s why we were relieved that at least President Obama made good on his promise for a more transparent government by releasing the memos. This is an important distinction from other nations who practice torture. If what Bush and Cheney did was immeasurably damage our nation’s system of values and credibility, Obama took the first, critical step to repairing that damage by releasing the memos.

But we will not know the truth of what has been done in our name until a thorough, independent investigation has been conducted. It is clear from the Attorney General’s comments that the government cannot be trusted to do this alone. We’ve done plenty of reflecting, and it’s now time to act like a true democracy, built on the rule of law. Laws mean nothing if they are not enforced.

Go to any prison or jail in the United States, and you will find countless unsympathetic criminals: rapists, murderers, even domestic terrorists. Imagine telling an American police officer to treat these criminals in the manner outlined by the torture memos. What would they do? Would they blindly follow the command to do what they knew was wrong, both morally but also legally? The vast majority would not. Our agents in Iraq, Afghanistan and the other black sites knew better too.

The CIA officers in the field knew what they wanted to do was wrong which is precisely why they sought legal cover from the Office of Legal Council. They lawyered up. Jay Bybee, John Yoo and Steven Bradbury knew they were ignoring decades of jurisprudence in drafting their memos. This is not a good faith misunderstanding, this was a coldblooded decision to torture prisoners in American custody.

Laws have been broken and fundamental human rights have been abused. We have a responsibility to ourselves, to our nation and to the international community to show that this was wrong and that such a deviation from the values on which America was built shall not go unpunished.

Tell Congress to setup an independent investigation.

Calls Grow to Investigate Bush Detention Policies

Yesterday a coalition of 18 leading human rights organizations including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the Open Society Institute launched a call for the establishment of a non-partisan commission of eminent persons to investigate and examine the detention, treatment, and transfer of detainees following the 9/11 attacks.

The call was backed by former FBI Director William Sessions, Major General Antonio Taguba who headed the military investigations into the abuses at Abu Ghraib, former Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Thomas Pickering, Juan Mendez, President of the International Center for Transitional Justice, and the President of the United Church of Christ Dr. John Thomas.

Former FBI Director Sessions commented:

“The president has a responsibility to protect and defend Americans and unfortunately, many questions remain unanswered as to whether the detention, transfer, and treatment of detainees following the September 11th attacks were in the country’s best interest. We need to understand what happened and how to prevent any illegal actions form taking place in the future.”

The United States used to inspire the world as a beacon for human rights.  The U.S. championed the international rule of law and pressed other countries in Latin America, Europe and Africa to bring human rights abusers to account for their actions.  The past eight years have greatly damaged America’s image in the world.  We need to repair than damage by showing that we hold ourselves to the same standards that we hold other nations.

The Real Story Behind Abu Ghraib

Standard Operating Procedure, directed by Errol Morris, tells the dark story behind the infamous photographs of detainee abuse and humiliation that came out of Abu Ghraib in 2004.

The images are haunting and uncomfortably familiar. Pictures of naked detainees stacked in a pyramid, a hooded prisoner standing on a box waiting to be electrocuted, a U.S. soldier giving the thumbs-up in front of a dead inmate in a body bag—these images are burned into minds around the world as symbols of the United States’ “war on terror.”

At face value, these images just show the ugly side of a few “bad apples,” but this documentary reveals the structures and policies that allowed routine human rights violations to happen and raises the important issue of accountability.

“I do not think that everything that happened at Abu Ghraib was directed by the White House or by the Pentagon. But I do think that polices were put in place by this administration that made it all possible,” said Errol Morris, the film’s director.  “…To me it’s a question of, what kind of country do we want to live in?”

The past elections prove that Americans do not condone torture; that Americans will not let their government flout human rights in the name of national security. Today, president-elect Obama announced the members of his future national security team, saying that they represent “the very best of the American example.”

But a fresh start and a new cabinet can’t wipe the slate clean. Questions of accountability still remain. President Bush still has the power to pardon any number of people potentially responsible for the egregious acts committed in the “war on terror.”

The American people deserve to know exactly what measures were taken to ensure their “protection.”