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.


Unlocking the Truth of Secret CIA Prisons in Lithuania

secret prison lithuania

There are allegations of renditions between Lithuania and other European countries © Amnesty International

On Thursday Amnesty International launched a new report, Unlock the Truth, on the Lithuanian government’s abortive investigation of CIA ‘black sites’ that operated on their soil.

In December 2009 Lithuania became the first, and so far only, European state to publicly acknowledge that it had allowed the CIA to operate secret prisons on its territory. In January 2010 the Lithuanian Prosecutor General initiated a criminal investigation into the revelations.


CIA 'Shocked' Prisoners They Sent To Libya Were Tortured

Abdel Hakim Belhaj ©Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images

This past weekend has provided a few new insights into what Dick Cheney’s policy of ‘working the dark side’ actually entailed and offered a piquant example of the law of unintended consequences.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) was able to gain access to the headquarters of Libyan Intelligence after the organization’s building in Tripoli fell to rebel control. HRW’s researcher found files detailing the relationship that developed between the CIA and Gadhafi’s external intelligence service in the years after September 11th.


More Torture, Please?

By Steve Hendricks, author of A Kidnapping in Milan: The CIA on Trial

Seventy percent of Americans believe we should commit crimes against humanity. Not that they would put it that way. They would say something like, in the words of a Pew poll from some months ago, that torturing suspected terrorists is “often justified” (19 percent), “sometimes justified” (35 percent), or “rarely justified” (16 percent). That such beliefs persist, in such numbers, after years of talk about torture, signifies a moral chasm almost too depressing to contemplate.

If hope remains for spanning that chasm, it lies in the possibility—I would even argue the probability—that the better part of those 70 percent are not barbarous, merely benighted. To maintain such hope, it helps to have faith in American ignorance. My faith is pure. I derive immense comfort, for example, from the similarity between the pro-torture 70 percent and the 68 percent of Americans who believe “angels and demons are active in the world.” Surely many of my pro-torture countrymen just need a little more education about torture. Well, a lot more.

There is ample reason to believe they aren’t getting enough to make a difference. As other commentators have described, our educators on such affairs—reporters, editors, producers—have failed us abysmally. They have deferred grossly to hawks (including torture hawks), have dismissed doves as frivolous, have soft-pedaled the worst of tortures as “enhanced interrogation techniques,” have only rarely told us that to torture (or to send captives elsewhere to be tortured, as we still do) is to violate the UN Convention Against Torture (which the United States has adopted as law), and have told us even more rarely that international law regards systematic torture as a crime akin to those for which we executed Nazis at Nuremberg.


Kidnapped in Italy, Tortured in Egypt

By Steve Hendricks

In 2003 the police of Milan were closing in on a network of Islamic terrorists that recruited suicide bombers—until the radical imam at the heart of their investigation, Abu Omar, inexplicably disappeared. He was, it would turn out, snatched off the street by the CIA, roughed up, and eventually flown to Egypt, where he was savagely tortured. The full story is told in my new book, A Kidnapping in Milan: The CIA on Trial,  published yesterday by W. W. Norton.

I started working on A Kidnapping in Milan four years ago because I was frustrated that there were no narratives that described the full horror of what our client states were doing to our captives in our offshore dungeons. By depicting that horror in all its depth (as I think I’ve done), I hope more people will understand why systematic torture is not just a crime but a crime against humanity. I hope more people will also begin to see why President Obama’s continuation of our torture-by-proxy program makes him a species of criminal that, if not up the high mark of his predecessor, is still appalling.

A Kidnapping in Milan, though, is not just a narrative of torture. In a sense, it’s a heroic story, for it also tells how a bold Italian magistrate, Armando Spataro, traced the CIA’s kidnappers through cell-phone records, hotel receipts, and other clues that they had sloppily strewn around Milan, then how he struggled to bring the kidnappers to trial—the first-ever such trial of CIA officers by an ally of the United States. One of the joys of working on this book was getting to spend a lot of time with one of the few heroes to have emerged in the “war on terror.”

The Chicago Tribune has called A Kidnapping in Milan “[a] real-life thriller … skillfully crafted, highly disturbing,” and Tom Parker, Policy Director for Amnesty International’s Counter Terror With Justice campaign has called it “an amazing good read—at once a page-turner, a wry look at CIA lunacy, and a stirring call for justice.”

As I travel around the country on my book tour,  I’ll also be spreading the word about Amnesty’s campaign. I hope to see some of you on my stops. For more information about the book, see  And of course, you can buy the book anywhere books are sold. If you buy on Amazon through this special URL, Amnesty International will receive a percent of the sale.

Steve Hendricks is a freelance writer living in Knoxville, Tennessee, and Helena, Montana. His first book, The Unquiet Grave: The FBI and the Struggle for the Soul of Indian Country, made several best-of-the-year lists in 2006.

The Italian Job

Earlier today an Italian court convicted in absentia twenty-two CIA officers and a colonel in the US Air Force of charges relating to the February 2003 kidnapping of Muslim cleric Osama Moustafa Hassan Nasr aka Abu Omar.

Abu Omar was a victim of the extraordinary rendition program established by the Clinton administration and greatly expanded under President George W. Bush in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.

He was snatched off the street in Milan and flown secretly to Cairo where he was handed off to Egyptian security officials. Abu Omar was tortured extensively in Egyptian custody. He was finally released without charge in 2007.

The Italian decision is a graphic illustration of just how damaging practices such as kidnapping and torture are to America’s national security.

Armando Spataro, the deputy Milan public prosecutor, told reporters:

“This decision sends a clear message to all governments that even in the fight against terrorism you can’t forsake the basic rights of our democracies.”


Eric Holder and the Seven Dwarves

(Originally posted on Daily Kos)

Last Friday seven former Directors of Central Intelligence wrote an open letter to President Obama calling for him to reverse the Attorney General’s decision to reopen an investigation into alleged criminal acts committed by CIA interrogators.

This letter marks a new low point in the debate about accountability. Can it really be true that none of the authors are in any way troubled that officers in an agency they once ran tortured prisoners in their care?

The authors state that these cases have already been reviewed and discarded by career Department of Justice prosecutors and should thus remain closed. They neglect to note that the Justice Department was hardly a disinterested party at the time these investigations occurred.

They seem to suggest that good faith and government service should somehow immunize civil servants from being held accountable for their actions. Yet war crimes, crimes against humanity, torture, and even genocide are by their very definition committed by public servants.

Men and women in uniform have known for more than a hundred years that they have to act within certain boundaries in war. Those who cross these boundaries commit criminal acts pure and simple. This is the standard we hold other nations to and it is the standard we should hold ourselves to.

The authors argue that prosecutions will discourage American intelligence officers from taking risks to protect their country. Certainly it will force them to consider the consequences of their actions and that is no bad thing. No good can ever come of an intelligence agency that considers itself to be above the law.

The argument that disclosing the interrogation methods now discontinued might provide operational advantage to Al Qaeda is patently absurd. Not least, because the Bush administration has already released numerous former detainees who have told their stories in the Arab media.

Equally, western intelligence services are much more concerned at the potential criminal liability incurred by cooperating and assisting a rogue US intelligence community apparently unconstrained by consideration of international legal standards than by any perceived America inability to keep secrets.

It is not difficult to understand or even admire the loyalty and sense of esprit de corps that prompted this letter. But there are much bigger issues in play here than team spirit.

It is no exaggeration to argue that what is at stake here is the very soul of America. Are we a civilized people that stands resolutely for the principles enshrined in our constitution or do we cut and run at the first sign of trouble?

The Founding Fathers rejected arbitrary imprisonment, torture and total war in favor of something greater – the first modern state built on a foundation of individual human rights and the rule of law.

‘He may be a bastard, but he’s our bastard’ cannot ever be standard by which guilt or innocence is judged in a mature democracy. We undermine this foundation at our peril.

Private military and security companies wanted for hire by CIA as "hitmen"?

by Lillian Tan, Corporate Action Network Intern

September 16, 2009 will be the second anniversary of the Nisour Square shootings, in which six Blackwater (now Xe) personnel shot and killed 17 Iraqi civilians outside Baghdad’s green zone. The bad media which surrounded the incident galvanized the U.S. Government to take some steps towards ensuring that the Department of Defense (DOD) and Department of State (DOS) better regulate PMSC operations in Iraq. But was it enough?

The six Blackwater guards who allegedly indiscriminately opened fire in Nisour Square on September 16, 2007 were finally indicted late last year. The trial hasn’t even started but Blackwater/XE personnel are already implicated in another incident. On May 5, 2009, four Blackwater/Xe personnel reportedly shot and killed two Afghan civilians in Kabul. So much for lessons learned in Iraq; so much for regulation, oversight, and accountability.

However, the U.S. government should not keep pushing aside the questions of how to effectively regulate and where to set the limits on using PMSCs — especially with the increased number of contractors flooding into Afghanistan in the wake of the planned surge in troops. The longer it takes for the U.S. government to finally take a position and answer these questions, the longer PMSCs operate in a legal limbo, in which they may commit human rights abuses with impunity.

Just recently, it has been reported that the CIA contracted Blackwater/Xe to assist in a secret assassination program of which the Congress was not even aware. According to the August 20, 2009 New York Times, “it is unclear if the CIA planned to use Blackwater/Xe to actually capture and kill Qaeda operatives, or just to help with training and surveillance in the program.”

The article also mentions that government officials are concerned about serious issues of accountability when contractors are brought into covert and lethal operations. Where there is no transparency, accountability will be near impossible if a crime were committed during those operations. The past administration has been quick to invoke several legal reasons to withhold sensitive information from the public — from the Glomar response to claiming that releasing detainee abuse photos would be against the Geneva Conventions. When the same photos were about to be released in May 2009, the Obama administration sought to block their release arguing that the images could further inflame anti-American opinion. If it is already this difficult to get information out of government agencies, then imagine the difficulty of obtaining information for the purpose of accountability when there’s a private contract involved in a sensitive national operation.

Another area of great concern that the New York Times article briefly touches upon is whether, aside from the concerns about accountability for PMSCs in such a program, PMSCs should be involved in the first place? As Senator Diane Feinstein (CA) aptly states, “It is too easy to contract out work that you don’t want to accept responsibility for”. In the debate about the use of PMSCs in modern warfare, there is the pressing question of what functions a government can and cannot outsource. In U.S. statute and policy, inherently governmental functions are loosely defined as “a function so intimately related to the public interest” that it must be performed by Federal employees. The list of functions that fall under “inherently governmental” is also extremely inconsistent, varying from agency to agency. Because of this lack of a clear and consistent definition, PMSCs are contracted to perform duties in highly sensitive areas such as intelligence and now, even assassinations.

To better regulate the industry, Congress also needs to pass legislation that will close the legal vacuum in which PMSCs are operating and appropriate more resources to regulation and oversight. The U.S. government currently does not adequately regulate the industry and its statutes to hold PMSCs accountable for crimes overseas are few. In its June 2009 Interim Report, the Commission on Wartime Contracting finds that U.S. government oversight of PMSCs is inadequate. Because they mostly operate transnationally, jurisdiction can become a problem. While PMSCs contracted by the DOD can be held accountable under the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act (MEJA) and the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), contractors hired by other agencies such as the DOS often fall through legal gaps.

The foundation to improve regulation, oversight and accountability of PMSCs has already been set. To close legal gaps such as the one in MEJA, legislation has been proposed in the past and we look forward to similar legislation in the 111th Session of Congress. As for clarifying definitions of “inherently governmental functions”, a bipartisan Commission on Wartime Contracting was established in Public Law 110-181 to recommend among other things improvements in its Final Report on the “process for determining which functions are inherently governmental and which functions are appropriate for performance by contractors in a contingency operation, especially whether providing security in an area of combat operations is inherently governmental.” On an international level, the UN Working Group on Mercenaries (UNWGM) completed its two-week visit to the U.S. on August 3rd, 2009. During that time, the UNWGM met with the DOJ, members of Congress, governmental officials and public interest groups to discuss how PMSCs can be regulated on international, regional, national and local levels. Such efforts are all a step in the right direction.

Business as Usual?

The past week has seen some alarming news stories (and bloggers trying to figure out how alarming) suggesting that the Obama administration may be backing away from commitments made on the campaign trail to end detainee abuse, promote American adherance to international human rights standards and bring greater transparency to Washington.

The Senate confirmation hearings for the new Director of the Central Intelligence, Leon Panetta, raised the most significant flag when he told Senators that he had no intention of holding CIA officers responsible for the policies they were told to carry out – effectively suggesting the historically discredited defense of “only obeying orders” would be given currency by the Obama administration.

Equally disappointing was the decision by Department of Justice lawyers to press for the dismissal of a civil case brought by five victims of the Bush administration’s rendition program against Jeppersen Dataplan Inc., the US-based flight services company that facilitated the renditions, advancing the same ‘state secrets’ argument employed by the previous administration.

The administration has also continued to block the release of 42 classified documents concerning the ill-treatment of British Guantanamo detainee Binyam Mohamed. The Bush administration threatened to drastically reduce intelligence cooperation with the United Kingdom if the documents were made public by the British High Court.

Just how concerned should we be? Andrew Sullivan of the Atlantic cautioned yesterday that the administration may simply be in a holding pattern pending a thorough review of their predecessors’ positions on a range of issues with long-term legal implications. This may well be so. However, those concerned about human rights and accountability must keep up the pressure for change.

President Obama has been consistent in his assertion that he is interested in looking forward not backwards and it is unlikely that any initiative to establish an accounting process for the widespread abuses committed under the rubric of the Global War on Terror will come from inside the administration unless political pressure builds on the President to act

The fact that the Chairmen of the Judiciary Committees of both Houses of Congress, Representative Conyers (D, Michigan) and Senator Patrick Leahy (D, Vermont) have called for the establishment of a commission of inquiry to investigate the abuses of the past seven years is a powerful step towards accountability. But it is only the first step in what will likely be a long journey.

Next week Amnesty International USA activists across the country will participate in a Congressional call-in week, urging their senators and representative to support an independent investigation into the Bush administration’s war-on-terror policies. Please join them in adding your voice to our campaign to end the culture of impunity that has blackened America’s reputation around the world.

Obama planning to end harsh interrogations?

News reports indicate that President-elect Barack Obama is planning to end harsh interrogations of detainees by directing the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to adhere to the U.S. Army Field Manual for interviewing suspects.  If today’s reports are correct, Obama believes that returning the United States to the rule of law is paramount for his administration. It is vital that there be a single standard for all interrogations for all agents and forces of the U.S. government.

But there are also worrying signs that the administration is thinking of leaving a loophole for special techniques for the CIA. The military is on the frontlines dealing with insurgents and terrorism suspects everyday and has historically adhered to, respected and championed the Geneva Conventions. The argument that the CIA needs additional techniques, tools or methods is absurd and, even more importantly, fundamentally dangerous to our national security. Former FBI agents and among the best counterterrorism interrogators have denounced this false choice for what it is, a road to nowhere.  Or at best a confusing maze of contradictory standards ripe for abuse which we leave our own forces on the frontlines and yet fail to give them the clear guidance that they deserve.

Our security in dealing with insurgents or terrorists does not stem from the barrel of a gun, but from our own conviction and the faith we impart in American values and the strength of our democracy. The difference between winning and losing the fight with terrorists is the difference between our values and theirs, how we treat captured personnel and how they treated Neil Roberts. Every time we cross that line we diminish ourselves, our values and our chance of victory.

Amnesty International calls on the new administration to categorically reject the notion that any additional special techniques or methods beyond the Army Field Manual are needed. Torture or abuses in any form are neither acceptable nor necessary in protecting the United States.