Death at Camp Delta

On the evening of June 9, 2006, three inmates of the Guantanamo detention facility known as Camp Delta, Salah Ahmed al-Salami, Mani Shaman al-Utaybi and Yasser Tala al-Zahrani, were found dead in their cells.

All three men had died in a very similar and somewhat bizarre circumstances hung alone in their individual cells, with bound hands and feet, and with a rag stuffed down their throats.

Their bodies were not discovered for two hours despite supposedly being under surveillance from both circulating guards and static cameras.

Senior military commanders at Guantanamo described the deaths as “an act of asymmetrical warfare” perpetrated by the dead men. A military investigation pronounced the deaths suicides.

No disciplinary action was taken against any member of the guard force despite manifest breaches in the standard operating procedures in effect at the facility on the night in question.

In December 2009 Seton Hall University School of Law published a detailed review of the military investigation based on redacted documents disclosed as the result of a Freedom of Information Act request.

The report, Death in Camp Delta, found that the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) investigation suffered from major shortcomings and raised “more questions than answers”.

Earlier this month an article written by Scott Horton for Harper’s Magazine appeared which went one step further. SEE THE REST OF THIS POST

Obama, the Federal Death Penalty, and Race

The death penalty is a difficult issue for just about any politician.  Most prefer to avoid it as much as possible.  But the time may soon come when President Obama will have to take a stand on this question.  In a recent article on, Josh Gerstein outlines the challenges that President Obama may face in the near future regarding the federal death penalty, as several cases inch a little closer to crossing his desk. Obama has previously stated that he supports the death penalty in cases that involve “heinous” crimes, but has not made it clear exactly where he draws the lines between which crimes are heinous and which are not. Attorney General Eric Holder has likewise given few clues about his specific stance on this issue. He has stated that he personally opposes capital punishment, but he has also authorized federal prosecutors to seek the death penalty in four cases since he has taken office. 

Compared to some states, the federal death penalty has been used relatively sparingly, and executions at the federal level have been halted for several years due to challenges to the constitutionality of lethal injection. In April, 2008 the Court ruled that lethal injection is constitutional, clearing the way for some pending executions to go forward. There are several cases making their way through the federal appeals process now, including the cases of 6 African Americans from the Washington area all of whom are nearing the end of their appeals. 

That all six of the inmates involved in these cases are African-American is sadly symbolic of the racial disparities inherent in the federal death penalty.  Currently there are 57 prisoners on federal death row, 35 of which are people of color, and 28 of which are African-American. According to a recent survey of the Federal Death Penalty  System, during the years 1995-2000 U.S. Attorneys recommended that the death penalty be sought in 44.3% of cases involving a black defendant, but only 26.2% of cases involving a white defendant. Also, in a 2007 report titled The Persistant Problem of Racial Disparities in the Federal Death Penalty the ACLU found that the death penalty is reduced to life sentences during plea bargaining almost twice as often for white defendants as for black defendants.

These statistics not only reflect serious racial bias on their own, but they are also disproportionate to the rest of the nation: in 2003 the United States Government, and the U.S. military, had higher percentages of non-white prisoners on their death rows (77% and 86% respectively) than any single state except Colorado.   At the beginning of this year, those figures still stood at 60% and 78%, way out of proportion with the population as a whole.

The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same

Late on Friday afternoon, in a move apparently designed to give the media as little time to respond as possible, the Obama administration filed a new motion in the US District Court for the District of Columbia clarifying that the administration still asserted the authority to detain suspected terrorists indefinitely at the US Naval base in Guantanamo Bay.

The filing marked three departures from the policies of the Bush administration. First, the administration no longer asserted that this power derived from the executive office of the presidency but from the Authorization for Use of Military Force passed by Congress in the immediate aftermath of the September 11th attacks.

Second, in a deliberately symbolic gesture the filing dispensed with the term “enemy combatant.” Third, the threshold for detention has been elevated to just those who are part of or “substantially support” the Taliban, Al Qaeda or associated forces, and excludes the category of “unwitting supporter”. 

How significant are these new positions? In short, beyond the symbolism of retiring a much overused term associated with the Bush administration, little has changed. The power to detain suspected members of Al Qaeda and its affiliates indefinitely and without charge remains entirely intact.

The Attorney General, Eric Holder, held out the possibility that there may be “further refinements” of the government’s position once the interagency review of detention policy is completed but this hardly hints at sweeping change.

The publication over the weekend of comprehensive excerpts from a 2007 report submitted to the United States government by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) concerning the treatment of fourteen “High Value detainees” held in CIA custody highlighted all too clearly why ‘staying the course’ is an unacceptable position for the Obama administration to adopt.

The report was leaked to the author of Torture and Truth, Mark Danner, and it leaves little doubt as to the dark and sordid waters to which this course leads. In the words of the report’s authors:

“The allegations of ill treatment of the detainees indicate that, in many cases, the ill treatment to which they were subjected while held in the C.I.A. program, either singly or in combination, constituted torture. In addition, many other elements of the ill treatment, either singly or in combination, constituted cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.”

This finding is about as definitive as it is possible to get. It was compiled from interviews of individuals in US custody who had had no opportunity to collaborate on fabricating a shared story concerning their experiences. The assessment was conducted by an organization famous for both its discretion and neutrality that is charged with upholding the Geneva Conventions.  It is a damning indictment of acts that amount to war crimes.

And where did it get us? Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged architect of the 9/11 attacks, told the Red Cross:

“I gave a lot of false information in order to satisfy what I believed the interrogators wished to hear in order to make the ill-treatment stop…. I’m sure that the false information I was forced to invent…wasted a lot of their time and led to several false red-alerts being placed in the US.”

The Obama administration seems to be finding it very difficult to turn the page on one of the darkest chapters in recent American history. It is vitally important that we continue to keep up the pressure on them to reject the discredited policies of the Bush administration. The only change we can truly believe in, is the change we bring about for ourselves.

Transparency Still an Unfulfilled Promise by President Obama

The Obama Administration has already taken several laudable steps to separate itself from illegal policies and practices of its predecessor, and I applaud them for it.  I’m glad Attorney General Holder released some of the shocking legal memoranda prepared by the Bush Office of Legal Counsel, which authorized blatantly unlawful and unconstitutional acts by the executive branch.  But I choked a bit on Mr. Holder’s statement that “Americans deserve a government that operates with transparency and openness.”  I agree wholeheartedly, but I find this sentiment glaringly at odds with some of the Justice Department’s own recent actions.

In several pending court cases that began before President Obama took office, summarized by blogger Glenn Greenwald, among others, the Obama Justice Department has recently taken positions that appear to embrace the Bush Justice Department’s expansive view of Presidential power.  For example, in a lawsuit brought against the Jeppesen company, a Boeing subsidiary, by five alleged victims of “extraordinary rendition,” the Obama administration invoked the “state secrets” doctrine to keep certain documents out of the hands of the plaintiffs, with the apparent aim of depriving them of their day in court.  In this and other recent cases where Eric Holder’s Justice Department has taken similar positions, no administration official has bothered to offer any explanation for doing so.  So much for transparency and openness!  Yet these actions cry out for an explanation because, on their face, they are so conspicuously at odds with President Obama’s and the Attorney General’s own declared values and promises.

It’s beginning to appear that what we have is a President who disagrees with many of the specific policies and practices of his predecessor but who reserves the right to adopt them himself — or other, possibly equally illegal practices — if he feels the need in the future.  This should serve as another sad reminder of the need to ensure that honoring our obligations under domestic and international law is not left up to the whim of whoever happens to be our President at any given time.  A good first step would be a thorough investigation by an impartial panel of experts into all US government counterterrorism practices since 9/11, in a manner that enables criminal prosecutions to be undertaken where warranted.  Only by demonstrating that lawlessness has serious consequences can we ensure that whether we have a government that obeys the law does not remain a matter of Presidential preference.