Former US Military Interrogator: Release al-Odaini from Gitmo

By Matthew Alexander, former U.S. Senior Military Interrogator

The importance of releasing Mohammed Hassan al-Odaini cannot be overstated.  This isn’t about one innocent man that a federal judge ordered released on May 26, 2010.  This is about who we are as Americans. As the judge ruled, the US government has:

kept a young man from Yemen in detention in Cuba from age eighteen to age twenty-six.  They have prevented him from seeing his family and denied him the opportunity to complete his studies and embark on a career. The evidence before the Court shows that holding Odaini in custody at such great cost to him has done nothing to make the United States more secure. There is no evidence that Odaini has any connection to Al Qaeda.

Mohammed Mohammed Hassan al-Odaini remains detained in Guantánamo despite being cleared for release.

What the judge didn’t say is that holding al-Odaini actually makes the United States less safe.  How?  When Americans live up to the accusations of Al Qaeda, namely that we don’t uphold the principles upon which our country was founded, we hand Al Qaeda a powerful recruiting tool.  Imagine an enemy holding an American citizen for eight years without charges and then, after admitting he is innocent, refusing to release him?  Compare the U.S. response to recent detentions of U.S. citizens in Iran and North Korea.

Our greatest leverage in fighting terrorism is our ability to dissuade vulnerable populations from turning to crime (terrorism) as a remedy for personal adversities.  When we abandon our principles in favor of indefinite detention without charge, and worse, for detention after proven innocence, we have shifted the balance to favor Al Qaeda’s recruiters and the result is that America is less safe.

Help me and Amnesty International in calling for the immediate release of Mohammed Mohammed Hassan al-Odaini.  Restore America’s strength by helping us return to the rule of law.  ‘Winning’ in this conflict is not defined by stopping terrorist attacks.  It’s defined by adherence to our values.  To release Odaini is to stand up for the basic principles of humanity – principles that are ingrained in our own Constitution.

USA: We find the defendant NOT guilty. Now lock him up!

Omar Khadr

Omar Khadr

Is this America or the Twilight Zone? According to Amnesty International’s new report, President Obama’s new rules for military commissions at Guantanamo allow for a defendant who is found NOT guilty to be locked up. Potentially forever.

It could happen to Omar Khadr. He will be the first person tried under President Obama’s military commissions, and his pre-trial hearings started this week.  Khadr is a Canadian national who has been held in US custody for nearly 8 years, since he was 15 years old. He has said he was repeatedly tortured in U.S. custody.

His military commission is set up such that it will not meet international standards for fairness. And, even if he is found not guilty after his unfair trial, he can still be held indefinitely.

The new military commissions rule book notes that indefinite detention after acquittal by military commission “may be authorized by statute, such as the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), as informed by the laws of war.” (Rule 1101, page II-139.)

President Obama has already used the AUMF to justify indefinite detention and Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) has proposed writing that justification into standard American law.  President Obama and Senator Graham worked with Congress last year to set up the current unfair military commissions.

They are using—as did President Bush—the concept of a global war against al Qaeda as justification for violating three pillars of the American justice system:

-If you are accused of a crime, you have the right to either be charged and tried, or be released.

-If you are tried, you have the right to a fair trial.

-If you are found not guilty, you have the right to go free.

Now that two presidents and hundreds of members of Congress from two different parties have responded to the heinous attacks on 9/11 by throwing away due process and fair trials, the conclusion is inescapable:  al Qaeda has destroyed the U.S. justice system.

It’s pretty obvious that self-imposed self destruction by states is one of the hallmark goals of terrorism; how could elected officials ignore—to this day—the American military and intelligence experts who warn them over and over again not to go down this road?


From American Soil

The disruption of a plot by a clandestine militant group in Clayton, Michigan, to murder law enforcement officials illustrates perfectly what an unholy and inconsistent mess America’s counter-terrorism architecture has become.

Major Hassan’s murderous rampage in Fort Hood, Texas, is repeatedly described as terrorism but the word is barely mentioned when a group of white right-wing extremists plan to do almost exactly the same thing in Michigan.

The chosen target was the same – men and women in uniform. The chosen method was the same – murder. In both cases the motivation seems to be prompted by perverted religious teachings.

If anything, the militarization of the Hutaree group is more alarming than Hassan’s lone wolf shooting spree. There are forty-six other similar militia groups in Michigan alone. Fifty-seven in Texas. The only real difference between the two incidents is that Major Hassan was Muslim and the Stone Gang Christian.

The alleged members of the Clayton plot have been charged with sedition – seeking to overthrow the elected government of the United States. If there was ever a group that, in the words of George W. Bush, hates our freedoms surely this is it.

Yet our response to the two events is completely schizophrenic. Perhaps this is because the Clayton case raises such difficult questions. Is joining a militia any different than attending a terrorist training camp? What might providing material support to such groups entail?

Is using a nationally syndicated radio show or a platform on a 24-hour news channel any different that promoting hate-speech from a pulpit or minbar?  If the war on terror extends over the globe what implications does this have when the threat springs from American soil?

These are certainly questions worth pondering as the Southern Poverty Law Center reports an upsurge in the activities of these groups in reaction to the election of President Obama.

However, there is also another takeaway here. Law enforcement officials have proven more than equal to the task of meeting the threat these militia groups pose. Somehow the threat just seems less overwhelming when it comes in the form of good ol’boys dressed in jeans and T-shirts.

The Stone Gang will be dealt with entirely within the confines of the criminal justice system. The state’s response will have the legitimacy of more than two centuries of legal precedent and the Stones and their friends will receive all the rights guaranteed to them as citizens by the constitution.

America will not be weakened as a result, quite the reverse. The value of our system of government will be affirmed and the twisted propaganda of the Hutaree and their ilk refuted – quite a satisfactory result. No existential crisis, no panic, just the calm and rational dispensation of justice. It is not a bad model to follow.

We're Going to #CloseGitmo!

closegitmoAnother January 11th  Guantanamo  anniversary has come and gone, and still 198 men are detained at the facility (and hundreds more at Bagram). Over the last year there has been some progress, but not with the kind of momentum that we had hoped for last January.  Tomorrow marks the first anniversary of the Executive Order that President Obama drafted to have the Guantanamo Detention Facility closed within a year, but unfortunately, the detention facility is still open.  The military commissions process continues. And some in the Obama Administration seem to be flirting with the idea of indefinite detention (just in a US-based facility vs. Gitmo). The failed Bush-era policies on torture and indefinite and illegal detention sadly continue to linger on.  And thus the need for our important human rights work continues!

Last week on January 11th, we launched 10,000 Against Torture, a project to demonstrate to the White House and Congress, that Americans want both security AND respect for the rule of law. Over the next weeks, we’ll be doing weekly actions calling for the closure of Gitmo (in a way that respects human rights!) and accountability for these failed policies on torture and indefinite detention.

To mark the missed deadline tomorrow, we’ll be joining MoveOn, ACLU, Human Rights Watch and artists like Coldplay, Tom Morello, and others, by using Twitter and Facebook to get everyone online talking about closing Guantánamo.

Join us by taking action online today, January 21 and tomorrow, January 22:

  • Tweet messages with the “#closegitmo” hashtag (if you follow the  Amnesty USA, you can re-tweet messages that we will be posting)
  • Spread the word! Our goal is to make #closegitmo a top trending topic, and our success depends on reaching many people in a short amount of time to jump-start the conversation. Help us deliver this important message by asking others to join us (especially those with large followings online!)

Written by Njambi Good, Director of Counter Terror with Justice (CTWJ) campaign for Amnesty International USA

The Story of Maajid Nawaz

Maajid Nawaz is a British citizen of Pakistani descent who became involved in his youth with the radical Islamic Liberation Party (Hizb al-Tahrir al-Islami), undertaking missions for the party in Pakistan and Egypt. Hizb al-Tahrir is an international movement that campaigns for the reestablishment of the caliphate in Muslim lands.

In April 2002 Nawaz was detained by the Egyptian authorities along with three other British members of the party. He was interrogated for twelve weeks in Cairo’s State Security Intelligence building, and then sent for pre-trial detention. He was written off by Hizb al-Tahrir as “a fallen solder.”

Hizb at-Tahrir is banned from participating in political activity in Egypt and Amnesty International took up Nawaz’s case as a freedom of speech issue. In the fall of 2002 an Amnesty delegation visited Egypt and sought access to him in prison.  Abandoned by his former colleagues, Nawaz was stunned to learn that an international human rights group had been taken up his case:

“I was just amazed, we’d always seen Amnesty as the soft power tools of colonialism. So, when Amnesty, despite knowing that we hated them, adopted us, I felt – maybe these democratic values aren’t always hypocritical. Maybe some people take them seriously … it was the beginning of my serious doubts.”


What Goes Around Comes Around

Our ad in the Farragut West Metro Station, Washington DC

Our ad in the Farragut West Metro Station, Washington DC

Last month I had the opportunity to meet with Tamil human rights defenders working to protect the rights of Tamil civilians displaced by the Sri Lankan government’s military campaign against the violent Armed Group known as the Tamil Tigers.

Displaced Tamils are confined to government run camps where conditions are harsh and there is no end to their detention in sight. Tamil and Sri Lankan human rights defenders are operating under great threat from the authorities and Sinhalese nationalist paramilitaries.

Journalists have been killed and activists have disappeared. An unmarked white van has been associated with several disappearances, evoking memories of the dirty wars of Latin America. The atmosphere in Colombo is increasingly one of fear and intimidation.

This is the context in which we learned earlier this month of a visit to Washington DC by the Sri Lankan Attorney General, Mohan Peiris, to meet with his American counterpart Eric Holder. SEE THE REST OF THIS POST

King of Horror's New Anti-Torture Ad

When I was around 10-years-old, I somehow caught a few minutes of Christine, the film based on Stephen King’s novel about a killer car. And it freaked me out. To this day, I’ve still never gotten a driver’s license.

Anyway, Stephen King knows a lot about horror. So if he is freaked out about the U.S. government’s use of torture, then you know it’s serious. Recently, Mr. King took the time to write a personal letter to President Obama calling for an independent commission of inquiry into the U.S. torture program, and that letter will be published tomorrow as an ad in the special Congressional printed edition of Politico, right next to the paper’s section on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

It’s part of the Committee’s job to “provide vigilant legislative oversight over the intelligence activities of the United States to assure that such activities are in conformity with the Constitution and laws of the United States.”

They’ve done about as good a job as Christine’s mechanic.

Members of the committee had agreed to start a review of the CIA’s detention and interrogation program. When, you ask? 2002? ’03? ’06? Nope, not until last March. A little slow off the blocks. Then, late last month, the ranking Republican on the committee, Kit Bond (R-Mo.), “withdrew from the probe” in protest over Attorney General Eric Holder’s decision to open a preliminary review into a small number of cases of alleged detainee abuse that the DOJ under President G.W. Bush declined to prosecute.

Basically, a guy who was supposed to make sure that the government follows the law in intelligence operations quit to protest an investigation into whether the government followed the law in intelligence operations.

This is unacceptable. And it’s illegal. Congress and President Obama are obligated by U.S. law to fully investigate, prosecute and provide remedy for torture and other human rights violations. They need to know that the U.S. public will hold them accountable if they do not obey the law and hold accountable those responsible for torture.

Join Stephen King in calling for a full investigation into torture. Read his letter and forward it to President Obama at You wouldn’t want to make Stephen King mad, would you?

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:








  • 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.

Human Rights Made Whole

Yesterday, the U.N. General Assembly marked Human Rights Day by unanimously adopting the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (OP-ICESCR). This historic step fills in a crucial gap in the human rights framework; former High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour has described the OP-ICESCR as making human rights whole.

But to the media this looks like U.N. inside baseball, and they haven’t so much as mentioned it. (ReliefWeb, a U.N. humanitarian information portal, covered it; and here’s AI’s press release.)

So what’s it all about? In a word, it provides a means for redress for violations of economic, social and cultural rights.

One way of dividing up human rights obligations is like this:

  • To prevent human rights violations from happening.
  • To stop human rights violations that are currently happening.
  • To offer redress for human rights violations that have already happened.

The Counter Terror With Justice campaign’s call to the Obama administration in its first 100 days is a good illustration:

  • announce a plan and date to close Guantanamo;
  • issue an executive order to ban torture and other ill-treatment, as defined under international law;
  • ensure that an independent commission to investigate abuses committed by the U.S. government in its “war on terror” is set up.

That is, the call is to stop (close Guantanamo), prevent (ban torture), and begin to redress (set up an independent commission) human rights violations committed by the U.S. government in the “war on terror”. (You should, of course, sign the 100 days petition!)

Anyone who’s suffered a violation of his or her civil and political rights — like freedom of expression, freedom from torture, and the right to a fair trial — can file for redress with the United Nations. This is a matter of international law, and it empowers people in countries whose domestic courts won’t recognize their civil and political rights. That mechanism was established by the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in 1966.

But there’s never been an analogous system for economic, social and cultural rights — until yesterday. The OP-ICESCR finally provides a means for redress, under international law, for violations of the rights to water, food, health, housing, education and decent work.

This is a new tool for justice for refugees forcibly returned to North Korea and punished by starvation; for Roma children systematically segregated in Slovakia’s schools; and for poor families forcibly evicted from their homes in Angola to make way for new development projects.

Or, in other words:

For more, see the OP-ICESCR Coalition (which included AI).

A presidential pardon would not preclude accountability

The worth of a law is in its enforcement; if a law is not enforced, then it has no more value than a platitude, aspiration, or preference.  Because of this reason, one of AIUSA’s CTWJ campaign goals 100 days goals for the new administration is “accountability.”  Or in other words, AIUSA will demand that the government account for illegal or wrongful conduct of its employees or agents in the “war on terror.”

At first glace, a general presidential pardon (which seems likely in some form) threatens the accountability process.  But as I explain below, a pardon will likely only have a limited affect upon accountability.

As a general matter, a pardon precludes the US from prosecuting someone for criminal acts covered by the pardon.  However, accountability comes in many forms, not the least of which is a process resembling a truth commission.

South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission

South Africa


Congress has authority to summon witnesses to testify in hearings and a pardon does not limit this congressional power.  First, witnesses will have few, if any, 5th amendment rights protecting them from self-incrimination if those witnesses previously received a pardon.  If a witness has immunity, then there is no legal justification for that person to invoke the 5th amendment.  Second, a pardon does not protect a person from prosecution for future crimes.  If a person subject to a pardon refuses to testify, then congress can institute contempt proceedings against that individual.

There is also a question whether a pardon really protects US citizens from criminal liability.  Genocide, torture, or other violations of the law of are grave breaches of international law.  Grave breaches of international law trigger a doctrine called “universal jurisdiction,” meaning a person may be prosecuted by any country that obtains control over the person to be tried.  So, a person subject to a pardon for grave breaches of international law may be immune from prosecution in the US but remain subject to prosecution in any other country.  And if a person has received a presidential pardon but is detained overseas, then that county cannot extradite the American citizen back to the US for prosecution because the US will be precluded from trying the individual in American courts due to the broad application of the pardon.

So while a presidential pardon may create procedural or legal challenges to the accountability process, a pardon will not derail the accountability process.