12 Questions for John Brennan On Drones and Torture

drones fb graphicOn Thursday, February 7th, John Brennan, President Obama’s nominee to head the CIA, will face a confirmation hearing in front of the Senate Intelligence Committee. The hearing comes on the heels of yesterday’s release of troubling information about the Obama administration’s use of lethal force.

John Brennan has served in important leadership roles in the Bush and Obama administrations, including at the CIA.  The Senate and the U.S. public have a right to know the truth about his involvement, if any, in human rights violations. Brennan should also be asked what he will do to make sure human rights violations are never committed again.

Amnesty International does not currently take a position on whether or not John Brennan should head the CIA. However, all government officials—including Brennan—have an obligation to ensure that the U.S. meets its responsibilities under international law to respect, protect and fulfill human rights.

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Mad About the NDAA? Join the January 11 Protest in DC

close gitmo rallyLate last night, President Obama signed the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) into law with provisions that restrict the transfer of Guantanamo detainees and further impede closure of the prison. Furthermore, nothing was done to correct provisions in last year’s NDAA that further entrench indefinite military detention, unfair trials, and the U.S. government’s “global war” framework, in U.S. law.

The “global war” framework— which holds that the U.S. government is engaged in a global, pervasive, never-ending “war” with al-Qaeda and other vaguely defined groups and individuals—was first articulated by the Bush administration and has been embraced by the Obama administration.

Expressed in the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force and reaffirmed in the 2012 NDAA, this “global war” doctrine is used to justify everything from killings with drones to detention without charge at Guantanamo to renditions (still happening, according to a Washington Post report) to impunity for crimes under international law, including torture and enforced disappearances.

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Is Egypt’s “State of Emergency” Finally Over?

egyptian protester run tear gas

A masked Egyptian protester runs after picking up a tear gas canister fired by riot police during clashes near the interior ministry in Cairo on February 4, 2012. (Photo KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images)

Last night at midnight, Egypt’s 31-year-old “Emergency Law” came to an end.  The law gave Egypt’s police and security forces widespread powers to arrest and detain Egyptian civilians.

Under Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, thousands of people experienced torture and other human rights abuses.  So far, government accountability for these violations has been almost nonexistent.

Egyptians may get the first steps towards accountability tomorrow, when a verdict is expected in the trial of Mubarak on charges of killing protesters during the “January 25 Revolution” last year. Some 840 protesters were killed and more than 6000 injured during the uprising that forced Mubarak to step down in February 2011.  But while significant, this trial does not delve into the human rights abuses under Mubarak’s rule for the three decades prior to the revolution. SEE THE REST OF THIS POST

Friends, Neighbors and the Fight Against Torture

Many Amnesty International members have long experience with the challenge of opposing state-sponsored torture in other countries.  But when human rights activists in North Carolina found that a trail of torture led to their own backdoor, they learned that talking to neighbors about human rights abuses is just as difficult as challenging a foreign government.

The Washington Post last week featured a story, “Hangar 3′s Mystery” about the work of North Carolina Stop Torture Now to document the activities of a small, nominally private air charter company, Aero Contractors,  whose headquarters are at an airfield in Smithfield, North Carolina.

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A Moral Quagmire

On Tuesday the British government announced that it had reached a settlement to pay compensation to sixteen former Guantanamo detainees for the abuses they suffered in US custody. Shaker Aamer, a UK resident still held in Guantanamo, will be one of those receiving an, as yet, undisclosed financial payment.

At least six of the individuals had lodged civil claims for damages against the government in the UK. The complaints included British complicity in unlawful detention, extraordinary rendition and torture. One detainee, Binyam Mohamed, alleged that British intelligence officers had supplied questions to his Moroccan interrogators who at one point cut his penis with a knife to get him to talk.

The British government has denied any wrong doing and the Home Secretary Kenneth Clarke told the House of Commons that “no admissions of culpability have been made in settling these cases.” The stated reasons the government decided to agree to the settlement were to avoid protracted litigation, diverting resources from vital counterterrorism investigations, and estimated legal costs that could have exceeded $80m.

However, an equally pressing concern was the government’s desire to protect classified information from disclosure in court. Much of this classified information related to CIA reporting on its interrogation and treatment of the detainees in its custody.

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An Enduring Double Standard

Earlier this month a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Attorney General John Ashcroft had violated the rights of U.S. citizens in the wake of the 9/11 attacks by using material witness warrants to detain suspects without charge.

Speaking for the majority Judge Milan D. Smith Jr., a Republican appointee, fulminated:

“Some confidently assert that the government has the power to arrest and detain or restrict American citizens for months on end… merely because the government wishes to investigate them for possible wrongdoing… We find this to be repugnant to the Constitution and a painful reminder of some of the most ignominious chapters of our national history.”

The Court also found that Attorney General Ashcroft could be held personally liable for prosecutorial abuses committed under his direction. If upheld by the Supreme Court this ruling could ultimately shed much needed light on an almost forgotten chapter in America’s response to the tragedy of 9/11.

Incredibly, we still do not know how many U.S. citizens were held on material witness warrants in the aftermath of the New York and Washington attacks. Further proof, if further proof be needed, of the need for a 9/11-style Commission to lay bear the facts.

There is also another troubling issue here and that is double standard applied to American victims of the abuse of governmental power and that applied to foreign victims. The International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights, of which the United States is a signatory, guarantees equality for all before the law.

However, to date only one individual has received any compensation from the United States for being falsely imprisoned as a consequence of the ‘War on Terror’: Brandon Mayfield, an Oregon attorney erroneously connected to the 2004 Madrid train bombings by flawed fingerprint analysis.

Mayfield was arrested as a material witness and held for two weeks by the Justice Department. He was never charged and has received an official apology and a payment of $2million in compensation.

If $2m is the going price for two weeks imprisonment in the federal judicial system on the basis of flawed intelligence – what price seven years wrongful incarceration with a side order of sustained physical abuse and mental torture?

At present the Obama administration has made no provision for compensating those released without charge from Guantanamo nor made any attempt to aid their rehabilitation despite the well-documented social and mental health challenges former detainees face on release.

Furthermore, the Obama administration continues to use the State Secrets Privilege to prevent Maher Arar, the Canadian national rendered to Syria, and Khalid al Masri, the German national kidnapped in Macedonia and tortured in a CIA black site, both victims of faulty intelligence, from suing the United States government for compensation.

The Policies and Procedures Governing the Invocation of the State Secrets Privilege published by the Department of Justice on September 23 state that this privilege should be invoked only

“to protect against the risk of significant harm to national security.”

The guidelines also state that the Department will not invoke this privilege to conceal violations of the law or prevent embarrassment to a government agency.

Yet, the Obama administration, like the Bush administration before it, continues to do precisely this to evade its responsibilities to those abused in the spurious name of national security.

We have a moral and legal obligation to pay compensation to those abused in our name. We have a moral and legal obligation to extend the same remedies to foreign nationals and American citizens alike.

The time has surely come for the Obama administration to do the right thing. That is the ‘change’ the American people voted for on November 4, 2008.

Call To Action, Obama's Orders

The Counter Terror With Justice campaign and Amnesty International volunteers were on the National Mall yesterday, gathering 100 Days petition signatures before the inauguration and wearing orange and holding signs on the parade route.

I took this picture of JD with my phone, sorry it’s kinda pixely. It was great meeting so many people from around the country who want GTMO closed, torture ended and accountability for abuse. (Reminded me of the GTMO Cell Tour.)

We’ve been hearing for a few days now that President Obama would act quickly to address some of these points, but I didn’t think about how I’d feel when the time came. Now I’m getting a sense. My Aunt just forwarded me this, from ABC News: “Torture, Gitmo, and the Treatment of Detainees: President Obama’s Three Executive Orders for Thursday.”  If this article is correct, these orders would, quote:

  • close the detainee camp at Guantanamo Bay within a year and establish a process by which the U.S. government figures out what to do with the remaining detainees;
  • establish new rules on interrogation methods moving forward;
  • establish new guidelines for the treatment of detainees moving forward.

I have mixed emotions. I’d be thrilled to see such profoundly positive movement on these issues from President Obama, especially so quickly, but I’m already steeling myself for what will be probably be harder than getting to this point:

  • getting the details of the above right;
  • making sure illegal practices stop not just at GTMO, but also at Bagram, CIA sites and other US facilities in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere;
  • ending rendition
  • ensuring accountability for torture and other illegal US interrogation and detention practices and policies—whether under Bush, Clinton, or anyone else.

Right now, the best thing we can all do is let President Obama know that we support and care about efforts to bring US interrogation and detention practices and policies in line with international law.

To that end, please take a moment to:

and 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  • celebrate. We’ve all put a lot of hard work into this campaign—please give yourself a pat on the back. Have some orange juice. You’ll need a recharge for the fight ahead. Get that orange gear washed, ironed up and ready to go.

Seven Years Later: Our Power, Our Responsibility

This week we mark the 7th anniversary of the day the U.S. government first began warehousing “enemy combatants,” terrorism suspects and hapless wrong-place-wrong-time detainees at Guantánamo.  Since then, hundreds of detainees have been locked up and stripped of their legal rights, at least five have died in custody, and scores have attempted suicide (not to mention the more than 500 documented incidents of detainees trying to harm themselves).  The U.S. government’s malfeasance has metastasized all over globe to include torture, kidnapping and extraordinary rendition, as well as the CIA practice of “ghost detentions”—the secret and illegal imprisonment of in overseas prisons.

The past eight years have certainly been one of the darkest periods in our recent history. We’ve seen our own government trample human rights, commit war crimes and author an era of illegal practices reminiscent of some of the most repressive regimes in recent memory (see Gen. Pinochet). For this, as Michael Ratner (Center for Constitutional Rights) argues in the current issue of Amnesty International magazine, those responsible should be investigated, and if the evidence warrants it, they should be prosecuted.

Some of us in the human rights community have expressed cautious hope that the inauguration of Barack Obama as our nation’s 44th president will mark the end of this disgraceful era, that it will be the other bookend to January 11, 2002. But for this to become reality, we have to remember that now is not the time to dial down.  We applaud Mr. Obama for pledging to close Guantánamo, an important first step.  But the closure will be meaningful only if it is accompanied by “an unqualified return to America’s established system of justice for detaining and prosecuting suspects,” as Amnesty International, the ACLU, Human Rights First and Human Rights Watch have urged in a joint letter delivered to the presidential transition team last month.  We are categorically opposed to the creation of any other ad-hoc illegal detention system that would allow the executive branch to continue to suspend due process.  Any attempt to find a “third way” would amount to having a Guantánamo within our borders.

Since I became executive director of AIUSA three and a half years ago, I’ve often wondered if the inexorable and secretive nature of the Bush administration’s transgressions somehow robbed ordinary citizens of the belief that we can, as individuals with important common goals, make an impact.  If so, then this is the moment to reclaim our power—and shoulder our responsibility.  There is so much work to be done: holding the outgoing administration accountable for the war crimes it has committed, directing international attention and resources to address bloody conflicts overseas, addressing the continuing crisis of violence against women.  It is also a ripe moment for us to apply the human rights framework to urgent problems we face here at home, such as poverty and migrant detentions.

“Change you can believe in” is a phrase that has been trumpeted ad infinitum. But really, it is up to us. We have to make the change we believe in. And yes, we can.