Obama's Alleged Link to Secret Prisons and Extraordinary Rendition

Following hard on the heels of the revelation that the Obama administration had held Ahmed Abdulkadir Warsame in secret detention on a US naval vessel patrolling off the coast of Somalia for over two months, comes a startling new claim from The Nation magazine that the Obama administration is back in the extraordinary rendition business.

Writing in the latest edition of The Nation, journalist Jeremy Scahill alleges that since early 2009 the United States has maintained a secret prison located on a compound within the perimeter of Mogadishu Airport and that in July 2009 the United States was involved in the extraordinary rendition of Ahmed Abdullahi Hassan from Kenya to Somalia.

Without further independent investigation it is difficult to make a definitive judgment about Scahill’s claims but it is worth noting that he is the author of the well-regarded study “Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army” and has extensive contacts in the intelligence, special forces, and private military contractor communities.


Senator Graham: Let’s Hear it for New York

Dear Senator Graham,

Sometime tomorrow, Thursday, likely before noon, the Senate will probably vote on the Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies Appropriations Act for Fiscal Year 2010 and on your proposed amendment to that act that would block Guantanamo detainees from having trials in US federal courts.

I urge you to drop your amendment. And I’ve called my Senators, Gillibrand and Schumer, and urged them to oppose it, using the script below. I’ve encouraged others to call their Senators too.

Why? Because I live in New York City. I’m watching the Yanks as I write this.

And I could see the Twin Towers from my living room. I saw the second Tower fall with my own eyes, from the corner of West Broadway and Canal. I want the people responsible brought to justice. SEE THE REST OF THIS POST

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.

Leahy and the Accountability Call

Senator Leahy made headlines yesterday by calling for an independent commission at a speech at Georgetown law School, to examine alleged wrongdoing during the Bush administration.  “We need to come to a shared understanding of the failures of the recent past,” Leahy said.

His statements were echoed by Senator Whitehouse who has said Congress should discharge its “independent responsibility” to investigate:

“[Senator Leahy] understands that the trust we hold for future generations can be safeguarded only when honesty, freedom, justice and compassion guide our institutions of government; that where that trust has been violated, the cost is incalculable; and that the path to recovery leads through disclosure.”

There are many voices out there, and they strike different notes, but they are essentially calling for the same thing and what is critical is to begin a process of accountability.  These are great steps forward, but it’s a long road.  Without more information in the public arena and more pressure the debate and the call for the truth is going to fall by the wayside.

The further the Bush years fade in the rearview mirror, the easier it will be to put up the kind of straw arguments that former officials have already paraded.  Yes, we are in a massive financial crisis, and yes there are many very important challenges we need to address, but the truth isn’t something we buy with spare change from our economic growth.  Truth, justice and rule of law are the very foundations of our way of life. This isn’t easy to ask for and many people would rather hide their eyes, but it’s never to late or too early to do the right thing.

The administration has to follow the facts, but we need make sure that the facts are laid out there for the public to see and debate.  As Senator Leahy eloquently put it – you have to read the page to turn the page.

This is why is important to have Amnesty members call and talk to their Senator to explain what you care about.

Macho Posturing Does Not Make Us Safer

Speaking to Politico last Tuesday, former Vice-President Richard Cheney opined:

“When we get people who are more concerned about reading the rights to an Al Qaeda terrorist than they are with protecting the United States against people who are absolutely committed to do anything they can to kill Americans, then I worry.”

Sadly, this is a sentiment that Amnesty International volunteers hear a lot as they engage in the debate on the abuse of detainees. It is also a line of argument that can be easily rebuffed.

The bottom line is that such macho posturing does the national security of this country no favors.  Due process rights keep us honest but they also make us smarter. They hold law enforcement, military and intelligence officers to a higher standard.  A standard that holds mere assertion, hearsay and innuendo is not sufficient to deprive an individual of his or her liberty; A standard that requires official action to be based on the collection of facts – evidence – that will stand up in court; That ensures skilled interviewing by trained and experienced investigators replaces mindless bullying and produces better intelligence; That guarantees fewer miscarriages of justice.

The former Vice-President is not wrong to highlight the threat from terrorism.  The threat has not gone away and, if anything, the Bush Administration’s policies over the past seven years have ensured that the threat is greater now than it has ever been.  Terrorism is the ultimate human rights abuse and Amnesty International is as steadfast in its condemnation and opposition to such tactics as it is to the use of torture and indefinite detention by government agents.

Macho posturing is no substitute for effective counterterrorism policies.  And passion is no substitute for competence.  Human rights standards keep us smarter and make our counterterrorism efforts more effective.  No democratic state that has betrayed these basic principles has ever successively defeated a terrorist threat.  Bitter experience teaches us that the war on terror can only be fought and won from the moral high ground.

Freed GTMO Detainee Becomes Al Qaeda Chief? Blame Bush (and Clinton).

In a case of interesting timing, today’s New York Times reports in “Freed by U.S., Saudi Becomes a Qaeda Chief”  that a former Guantanamo detainee is now a deputy leader of Al Qaeda in Yemen and opines that this has “underscored the potential complications in carrying out the executive order President Obama signed Thursday that the detention center be shut down within a year.” A related Times online forum debates “The Risks of Releasing Detainees.” 

To me, however, this case–and the Pentagon’s reports of recidivism–underscores the failure of the Bush administration’s attempt to identify and prosecute those responsible for 9/11.

By resorting to illegal and untested practices and policies, the Bush administration turned its back on the best tools we have for identifying and prosecuting people responsible for grave acts of violence against civilians–including standard law-enforcement practices and a tried and true federal court system.

As a result, some of the wrong people may have been released and some of the wrong people have been (and continue to be) detained–while those ultimately responsible for 9/11 remain either at large or unprosecuted.

This is criminal. In addition to accountability for torture and other abuses against detainees, there should be accountability for the failure to identify, apprehend and prosecute those who have attacked the United States, whether under G.W. Bush’s administration–or Clinton’s.

If anything, accounts of the radicalization of former detainees underscore the need for a full, independent, investigation into the U.S. government’s detention and interrogation program to find out where things went wrong, make sure the same mistakes aren’t repeated and hold those responsible accountable.  

President Obama has the power to make it all happen. Let him know you want him to.

US Officials' Lopsided Response to Gaza Crisis

Last Friday, January 2, Amnesty International USA released its first major action of the year, calling on all Amnesty members and concerned citizens to write to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice about the current violence in Gaza and southern Israel.  In that action, we called on four things:

  • All parties to the conflict—ie Israel and Palestinian armed groups such as Hamas—should cease attacks on civilians.
  • The humanitarian crisis in Gaza should be ameliorated.
  • The US should cease military transfers to Israel and should investigate if any US weapons were used in attacks against civilians.
  • The US should condemn all sides with equal vigor—including Israel for its vastly disproportionate response.

So far, over 500 Palestinians and five Israelis have been killed. Yet despite those figures, the US continues to place the onus of blame solely on Hamas.  Below is a list of quotes by US officials that illustrate why Amnesty calls the US response “lopsided.”

As the letter to Secretary Rice states, “We expect the US government to share this concern for all unarmed civilians, be they Israeli or Palestinians, who are caught in this conflict, and we urge the US government to spare no effort to pressure all sides in the conflict to immediately cease indiscriminate or disproportionate attacks which cause civilians fatalities and casualties.”

Quotes on Gaza by US Officials

Harry Reid, Senate Majority Leader
Jan. 4, 2009- “I think what the Israelis are doing is very important. I think this terrorist organization, Hamas, has got to be put away. They’ve got to come to their senses.”

Howard L. Berman, Chairman, Foreign Affairs Committee
Dec. 27, 2008- “Israel has a right, indeed a duty, to defend itself in response to the hundreds of rockets and mortars fired from Gaza over the past week. No government in the world would sit by and allow its citizens to be subjected to this kind of indiscriminate bombardment. The loss of innocent life is a terrible tragedy, and the blame for that tragedy lies with Hamas.”

Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House
Dec. 27, 2008- “Peace between Israelis and Palestinians cannot result from daily barrages of rocket and mortar fire from Hamas-controlled Gaza. Hamas and its supporters must understand that Gaza cannot and will not be allowed to be a sanctuary for attacks on Israel. The United States must continue to do all it can to promote peace in the region and a negotiated settlement to differences between Israelis and Palestinians. Humanitarian needs of all innocent civilians must also be addressed. But when Israel is attacked, the United States must continue to stand strongly with its friend and democratic ally.”

Michael Bloomberg, Mayor, New York City
Jan. 4, 2009- “I think I speak for an awful lot, almost all Americans, who think that Israel is doing the right thing in defending itself.” Asked about the suffering of the Palestinians in Gaza, Mr. Bloomberg replied sharply: “That they are putting people at risk is an outrage. If Hamas would focus on building a country instead of trying to destroy another one, then those people would not be getting injured or killed.”

George W. Bush, President of the United States
Jan. 2, 2009- “This recent outburst of violence was instigated by Hamas — a Palestinian terrorist group supported by Iran and Syria that calls for Israel’s destruction […] In response to these attacks on their people, the leaders of Israel have launched military operations on Hamas positions in Gaza. As a part of their strategy, Hamas terrorists often hide within the civilian population, which puts innocent Palestinians at risk. Regrettably, Palestinian civilians have been killed in recent days […] Another one-way ceasefire that leads to rocket attacks on Israel is not acceptable. And promises from Hamas will not suffice — there must be monitoring mechanisms in place to help ensure that smuggling of weapons to terrorist groups in Gaza comes to an end. I urge all parties to pressure Hamas to turn away from terror, and to support legitimate Palestinian leaders working for peace.

Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of State
Jan. 2, 2009- “I want to begin by noting that Hamas has held the people of Gaza hostage ever since their illegal coup against the forces of President Mahmoud Abbas, the legitimate President of the Palestinian people. The Hamas has used Gaza as a launching pad for rockets against Israeli cities and has contributed deeply to a very bad daily life for the Palestinian people in Gaza, and to a humanitarian situation that we have all been trying to address. But frankly, Hamas has made it very difficult for the people of Gaza to have a reasonable life. We are working toward a cease-fire that would not allow a reestablishment of the status quo ante where Hamas can continue to launch rockets out of Gaza.

Write to Secretary of State Rice asking her to call for the protection of all civilians and an end to unlawful attacks.

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.”