Govt Running Out the Clock on Torture

(As originally posted on Daily Kos)

Let’s be clear, calls to allow the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence to conduct its own investigation into the abuses committed in secret CIA detention centers are little more than an attempt to play out the clock by freezing judicial investigations in until the 8 year statute of limitations on Anti-Torture Act crimes starts to render them moot from the spring of 2010 onwards.

The Select Committee has had plenty of time to complete its own investigations. Indeed, senior members of the committee, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, were briefed on the adoption of new harsh interrogations as early as September 2002. Unlike their colleagues on the Senate Armed Services Committee they chose to look the other way. They have missed their chance, and in this arena it’s play or pass.

So where does that leave those who care about accountability? The White House continues to fail to show leadership on this issue. After equivocating all week the President seems to have returned to his earlier line that we need to turn the page on the past.

Even without the President’s leadership, pressure for accountability is growing day by day. The first step is to develop enabling legislation for a genuinely independent inquiry along the lines of the 9-11 Commission. This commission must possess three fundamental qualities: it must be bi-partisan and comprised of eminent Americans of unimpeachable integrity; it must be well funded and well staffed; and it must be possessed of the necessary legal powers to effectively discharge its functions. However, it should not grant immunity from prosecution in return for testimony.

Furthermore, as the majority staff of the House Committee on the Judiciary recommended in January, Congress should consider extending the statute of limitations for offenses under the torture statute and war crimes statute. This would give the Commission the time to complete its work without prejudicing the prosecution of those found responsible for commissioning and perpetrating acts of torture.

What are the other key takeaways from the past week’s revelations? First, the 2002 Bybee memo represents the very best case scenario for the regime of abuse inflicted on detainees in U.S. custody. Amnesty International knows well that abuse escalates in a permissive environment and, within days of the memo’s release, confirmation emerged that waterboarding had been used greatly in excess of even what the DoJ’s Office of Legal Counsel considered permissible limits.

Second, the Bush administration did not seek advice from the best-qualified experts on how to effectively gain intelligence from captured members of Al Qaeda, it chose to get tough rather than smart. To this end, the General Counsel’s Office in the DoD sought advice not from experienced criminal investigators or military intelligence officers but from the Joint Personnel Recovery Agency (JPRA), which runs the military’s Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape (SERE) program.

Even the JPRA’s Commander noted, in newly declassified memos published this week by the Senate Armed Services Committee, that his organization was “not in the business of strategic debriefing (interrogation).” Inevitably, it wasn’t long before SERE instructors were warning their superiors: “this is getting out of control.”

Finally, claims that vital intelligence was gained using such techniques have been roundly discredited. Former FBI Special Agent Ali Soufan who led the law enforcement interrogation of Abu Zubayda broke seven years of silence to go on the record in The New York Times to refute the “false claims magnifying the effectiveness of the so-called enhanced interrogation techniques.”

His words were echoed by CIA Director Admiral Dennis Blair who said publicly:

“The bottom line is these techniques have hurt our image around the world, the damage they have done to our interests far outweighed whatever benefit they gave us and they are not essential to our national security.”

A CIA officer who spoke to President Obama’s transition team on intelligence matters also admitted that some foreign intelligence agencies were now refusing to share intelligence about the location of terrorism suspects for concern at being implicated any resulting abuses or other internationally wrongful acts. Surely, the canard that these techniques were a vital tool in our counterterrorism arsenal can now be laid to rest.

It has been a momentous week for human rights campaigners. After long years in the wilderness, there is now a sense that the balance is reasserting itself. Human rights and the rule of law are finally edging back to where they belong – at the very heart of American democracy.

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.