Archive for the ‘Obama administration’ Category
May Jeong reports in The Intercept:
When the Taliban overran Kunduz last September after a monthlong siege, the northern Afghan city became the first to fall to the insurgency since the war began in 2001. A week earlier, many Kunduz residents had left town to observe Eid al-Adha, the sacrificial feast honoring Abraham’s act of submission to God. The heavy fighting sent the remaining Kunduzis fleeing as dead bodies littered the streets.
On Friday, October 2, the city lay quiet, with just one building lit up against the dark sky. Most other international organizations had evacuated when the fighting began, but the Kunduz Trauma Center run by Médecins Sans Frontières remained open throughout the battle for the city. It was one of the few buildings with a generator. Throughout the week, violence seemed to lap against the walls of the hospital without ever engulfing it. All around the 35,620-square-meter compound, the site of an old cotton factory, fighting ebbed and flowed. Doctors and nurses marked the intensity of battle by the freshly wounded who arrived at the gate. According to MSF, the hospital treated 376 emergency patients between September 28, when the city fell, and October 2.
The last week had seen much bloodshed, but Friday was uncharacteristically calm: no fighting nearby, no gunshots, no explosions. “I remember seeing a child flying a kite,” recalled Dr. Kathleen Thomas, “and thought to myself, today is a calm day.” That evening, while more than 100 MSF employees and caretakers slept in a basement below the hospital, several staff members remained awake, preparing for what the night might bring. There were 105 patients in the hospital, including three or four Afghan government soldiers and about 20 Taliban fighters, two of whom appeared to be of high rank. Hospital staff stepped outside to take in the bracing autumn air, something they’d lately refrained from doing for fear of stray bullets. The night sky was open and clear.
Some 7,000 feet above, an AC-130 gunship was preparing to fire. At 2:08 a.m., on October 3, a missile began its descent, gliding through a cloudless sky.
About two hours earlier,
nurse Mohammad Poya lay down on the concrete floor of the hospital’s administrative office. Poya had a few hours for sleep, but instead dead bodies were on his mind. In the morning he had visited the morgue to find its refrigerators full. Earlier in the week, Poya had asked the orderlies to pack the dead in as tight as possible. When there was no more space, he asked the cleaners to scrub the front porch of the morgue so that the excess corpses could be stacked there. What Poya hated most was carelessness. Many died undignified deaths in Afghanistan; the least the hospital could do was to show the dead the respect that had eluded them in life.
Poya was especially worried about the fighting that had ensnarled the streets around the compound. With all major roads blocked, the hospital was running low on supplies. Corridors overflowed with the wounded, and a decision was made to triage patients earlier than usual to avoid wasting resources on those least likely to survive. The last thought Poya remembers having before finally falling asleep was that they would have to start turning away patients.
Earlier that Friday, at 1 p.m., Guilhem Molinie, the head of MSF in Afghanistan, sat at his desk in Kabul to write an email to a contact in the U.S. 3rd Special Forces Group, which had been deployed to Kunduz after the fall of the city. “Questions in case things go bad,” the subject line read. It wasn’t the first time that week he had taken precautions. On Monday, when a Taliban victory seemed certain, Molinie called an insurgent contact to reaffirm the hospital’s neutral position. He did the same with the other side, sending a letter with GPS coordinates of the hospital to the Afghan National Security Council, Ministry of Defense, Ministry of Interior, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Public Health, the U.S. Embassy, USAID, and the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the agency’s body tasked with responding to complex emergencies. The U.N. forwarded Molinie’s email to Col. Paul Sarat, the deputy commander of NATO’s mission in the north, as well as to Maj. Gen. Abdul Hamid, who headed the 209th Corps of the Afghan National Army, which is responsible for the country’s northern nine provinces. Molinie tried to reach out to Freedom’s Sentinel, the U.S. counterterrorism mission in Afghanistan, but was not successful; he assumed he had done enough.
Andres Romero, MSF’s head liaison with the U.S. government, forwarded the coordinates to Carter Malkasian, an old Afghan hand and an adviser to top U.S. military officer Joseph Dunford of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Malkasian emailed Romero to inquire whether the hospital had been overrun by the Taliban. Romero told him no, but this information appeared not to have traveled back to the special operations forces on the ground, since on Friday, according to the Associated Press, a senior officer with the 3rd Special Forces Group wrote in his daily report that the hospital was under Taliban control and that he planned to clear the grounds in the coming days.
Among the units accompanying the 3rd Special Forces Group were Afghan commandos and the 6th Special Operations Kandak, reporting to the Ministry of Defense; 222 and 333 national mission units, reporting to the Ministry of Interior; and a police special unit already based out of Kunduz. The men had not worked together before, and they were now in charge of leading the battle to take back Kunduz city. “They just got thrown up there, into an environment they didn’t know much about,” said a security analyst based in northern Afghanistan, who was formerly an adviser to the U.S. special operations forces in Afghanistan. The security analyst asked not to be identified by name, as did many of the dozens of individuals who were interviewed for this article in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Some were not authorized to speak on the record; others, including residents of Kunduz and Afghan security personnel, feared retaliation for doing so.
The picture that emerges from these firsthand accounts, as well as from interviews with several high-ranking Afghan officials, is one of remarkable chaos and uncertainty, even by the standards of war. Those on the ground said it was not clear who was in charge, and those in charge seemed not to have had a clear understanding of what was happening on the ground at any given point before, during, and after the fall of the city.
At 10:00 p.m.Molinie returned to his office to speak with Heman Nagarathnam, who was in charge of the hospital in Kunduz. It was a quiet night and Nagarathnam stepped out for a cigarette to take the call. The nightly check-ins had allowed Molinie to keep updated on the goings-on around the hospital. Molinie knew, for instance, that on Tuesday a local Taliban representative visited Nagarathnam to give his reassurance. He knew that the hospital lay in a Taliban-controlled area, but that Afghan soldiers were still crossing the front line to bring in patients. By Wednesday, however, worries of a Taliban takeover had pushed soldiers to the provincial hospital, which was in an area controlled by government forces.
At one point that week, government forces had regained the city’s central square, before losing it again to the Taliban. On Friday night, Nagarathnam relayed his concerns that the hospital was now located in an area vulnerable to counterattack. They discussed the 2,000 sandbags that he had ordered to defend the hospital against stray bullets. A little after 1:30 a.m., he went to bed.
For some time, Molinie told me, something had been bothering him. “It was never clear who was in charge of what,” he said, in reference to the metastasizing 15-year-old conflict. The current war in Afghanistan was being run by two distinct commands: NATO’s Operation Resolute Support (RS) and U.S. Forces-Afghanistan’s Operation Freedom’s Sentinel. Resolute Support was a non-combat mission with a limited mandate to train, advise, and assist Afghan security forces. Freedom’s Sentinel, successor to Operation Enduring Freedom, was the latest version of America’s so-called war on terror. It was meant to hunt down al Qaeda remnants, but without the rigor of public scrutiny, Freedom’s Sentinel seemed to have spiraled beyond its already vague mandate.
Despite President Barack Obama’s 2014 announcement that America’s combat mission in Afghanistan would end in 2015, Molinie had noticed that many military operations seemed to be outside the bounds of both Resolute Support and Freedom’s Sentinel. It was never clear where one mission ended and another began. Long before January 2016, when President Obama expanded the counterterrorism mission of Freedom’s Sentinel to include the fight against the Islamic State, for instance, there were already airstrikes targeting ISIS in the eastern province of Nangarhar.
When I asked Col. Michael Lawhorn, spokesperson for both NATO and U.S. Forces-Afghanistan, to explain the differing missions of the two commands, he said: “Think of it as a big box marked RS and inside that you have a small box marked Freedom’s Sentinel but inside that box you have two smaller boxes marked Resolute Support and another one marked counterterrorism.” When I inquired how we might tell all these different boxes apart, Lawhorn conceded, “It’s not always clear under what authority an action is taken.” The same was true, he said, of what happened in Kunduz. . .
It would be very interesting to know what an in-depth independent investigation would reveal, but I’m sure the US military will never allow an investigation that they cannot control that might draw conclusions the military wishes to exclude. With the military doing its own investigation of itself, it can conceal the identities and roles of the perpetrators and limit the “punishment” to harsh words and hard looks.
Ryan Devereaux and Cora Currier report in The Intercept:
Nearly seven months after the first shots were fired, the Pentagon has released its full report detailing the night of chaos and horror that left 42 patients and staffers dead at a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan. In publishing the highly anticipated account, the military concluded that its attack did not amount to a war crime because its effects were not intentional, a view at odds with certain interpretations of international law.
In the wake of the attack, Doctors Without Borders, also known by its French name, Médecins Sans Frontières, or MSF, described the October 3 raid as “abhorrent and a grave violation of international humanitarian law,” adding, a “war crime has been committed.”
In announcing the report today, Gen. Joseph Votel, the head of U.S. Central Command, argued that was not the case.
“The label ‘war crimes’ is typically reserved for intentional acts — intentional targeting [of] civilians or intentionally targeting protected objects or locations,” the general said. The Americans “had no idea,” they were targeting the hospital, Votel said, and once they recognized what was happening, they called off the attack.
In a statement, MSF said it had not had an opportunity to review the military report before it was posted online, though the organization did receive a two-hour verbal briefing from Votel on Thursday. The humanitarian group fired off a set of unanswered questions, and repeated its call for an independent inquiry into the attack by the International Humanitarian Fact Finding Commission.
“MSF and other medical care providers on the front lines of armed conflicts continually experience attacks on health facilities that go uninvestigated by parties to the conflict,” the statement read. “However, MSF has said consistently that it cannot be satisfied solely with a military investigation into the Kunduz attack.”
While Votel stressed that the conclusions of the report were subjected to legal review by military lawyers, the general’s argument that the absence of intentionality meant the attack on the MSF could not be a war crime wades into complex legal territory. According to the International Red Cross definition, “war crimes are violations that are committed willfully, i.e., either intentionally…or recklessly…The exact mental element varies depending on the crime concerned.” Following the release of the report, Patricia Gossman, Human Rights Watch’s senior researcher in Afghanistan, tweeted, “It is established principle of customary international law that war crimes can be committed through recklessness.”
What’s more, Votel’s claim appeared inconsistent with the military’s own law of war manual, which states, “In some cases, the term ‘war crime’ has been used as a technical expression for a violation of the law of war by any person; i.e., under this usage, any violation of the law of war is a war crime. This has been longstanding U.S. military doctrine.” According to the findings of their report, the investigators looking into the Kunduz attack noted violations of the rules of engagement, and also breaches of the laws of war.
MSF president Meinie Nicolai said that “a grave breach of international humanitarian law” is not determined solely by whether or not the act was intentional.
“With multinational coalitions fighting with different rules of engagement across a wide spectrum of wars today, whether in Afghanistan, Syria, or Yemen, armed groups cannot escape their responsibilities on the battlefield simply by ruling out the intent to attack a protected structure such as a hospital,” Nicolai added.
The Kunduz report comes in the context of a disturbing trend of attacks on medical facilities. This week, an MSF-supported hospital was bombed in Syria, killing three doctors. MSF says seven medical facilities that it works with in Syria have been hit this year, while four have been bombed in Yemen.
Votel, who was the head of U.S. Special Operations Command at the time of the Kunduz raid, confirmed that more than a dozen U.S. service members were disciplined for their roles in the airstrike — they would not, however, face criminal charges in connection with the ordeal. Repeating much of what the military has already claimed with respect to the attack — an account that has changed multiple times — Votel framed the tragedy as the result of overlapping human and technological errors. . .
Later in the report (but read the whole thing):
. . . Donna McKay, executive director for Physicians for Human Rights, slammed the military’s punishments as insufficient. “The decision to dole out only administrative punishments and forego a thorough criminal investigation of October’s deadly strike in Kunduz is an affront to the families of the more than 40 men, women, and children who died that night, punished merely for being in a hospital, a supposed safe haven in a time of war,” McKay said in a statement.
The military’s response does not assure the future of MSF’s work in one of Afghanistan’s most volatile regions.
“We can’t put our teams – including our colleagues who survived the traumatic attack – back to work in Kunduz without first having strong and unambiguous assurances from all parties to the conflict in Afghanistan that this will not happen again,” Nicolai, the MSF president, said.
The Pentagon has approved a $5.7 million effort to rebuild the facility it destroyed, and as “a gesture of sympathy,” more than 170 individuals have received condolences for loved ones injured or killed, Votel said. “$3,000 for wounded and $6,000 for killed,” he said.
On Thursday, The Intercept published a months-long investigation into the attack on the hospital, based on dozens of interviews with American and Afghan officials, witnesses, regional experts and survivors of the air raid. The picture that emerged was one of remarkable confusion about who was in charge, and of a divergence between how American and Afghan forces viewed the situation.
Afghan authorities claimed that the Taliban were using the hospital to launch attacks — despite fervent denials from MSF that there were armed fighters in the compound, and a lack of evidence to back up the Afghan officials’ claims. A senior Western official told The Intercept that the Afghans’ “biggest fear after the strike was that this would put a chill on their being able to request U.S. air support when shit hits the fan.” . . .
Strange form of lying from the Obama administration: Say something (repeatedly), and then deny having said it
Zaid Jilani and Alex Emmons have a report (with video) in The Intercept that begins:
After President Obama announced on Monday that he would deploy 250 additional special operations troops to Syria, State Department spokesperson John Kirby tried to deny that Obama had ever promised not to send “boots on the ground” there.
“There was never this ‘no boots on the ground,’” said Kirby. “I don’t know where this keeps coming from.”
[WordPress has lost—temporarily, I hope—the ability to insert YouTube videos. Click the link to the article to see the video in the article, and also this 3-minute video is of interest. – LG]
The problem for Kirby was that Obama has repeated the promise at least 16 times since 2013:
For instance, on August 30, 2013, Obama said: “We’re not considering any boots-on-the-ground approach.”
On September 10, 2013, he said: “Many of you have asked, won’t this put us on a slippery slope to another war? One man wrote to me that we are ‘still recovering from our involvement in Iraq.’ A veteran put it more bluntly: ‘This nation is sick and tired of war.’ My answer is simple: I will not put American boots on the ground in Syria.”
On September 7, 2014, he said: “In Syria, the boots on the ground have to be Syrian.”
After reporters pointed out the mistake, Kirby tried to walk back his claim by defining the phrase “boots on the ground” to exclude special forces.
“When we talk about boots on the ground, in the context that you have heard people in the administration speak to, we are talking about conventional, large-scale ground troops,” said Kirby. “I’m not disputing the fact that we have troops on the ground, and they’re wearing boots.”
The new deployment will result in a six-fold increase to the 50 U.S. special forces troops already in Syria. There are also 4,000 U.S. troops in Iraq. The White House has insisted that its forces “do not have a combat mission,” and are deployed in an “advise and assist” capacity only, helping to train local militias that engage ISIS directly.
There is, as Kirby indicated, a distinction between a large-scale ground invasion and, say, a small group of advisers hanging back from the front. But the line between “combat” and “assist” missions is not always so clear.
In Iraq, when a U.S. special forces soldier was killed during a raid on an ISIS-held prison, the White House insisted that U.S. forces were only flying helicopters carrying Kurdish commandos, and that it was a “unique circumstance.” They refused to call the exchange “combat,” prompting outrage from veterans groups.
A second American soldier was killed in a rocket attack in northern Iraq last month, while guarding a U.S. base near Mosul. The White House calledit “an enemy action,” not “combat.”
“Advise and assist” may also include providing targeting intelligence for U.S. airstrikes, according to Dan Grazier, a former Marine in Afghanistan and Iraq who is now a fellow with the Center for Defense Information at the Project on Government Oversight. “With a force the size they’re talking about, they’re probably there to help provide fire support,” Grazier said.
Some veterans are outraged by the administration’s semantics.
Similar to police department investigations that always find shootings “justified,” DoD finds no serious wrongdoing in its one-hour attack on a hospital
The Department of Defense has carefully done its own investigation of its own war crime (an egregious and sustained attack on a Doctors Without Borders hospital that killed 24 patients, 14 staff members, and four caretakers. The Pentagon’s defense is that, while the incident was regrettable, mistakes will happen, and those involved have been spoken to sharply. But no one was actually held responsible, as the report in the LA Times and the report in the NY Times say: reprimands were issued, but (says the Pentagon) surely no need for an independent investigation. The Pentagon investigates (and protects) its own. No outsiders need to get involved, since they might fail to understand the special burdens of the military and take a hard look at what actually happened and hold people accountable for their actions. That’s not the Pentagon way.
It seems perfectly evident that an independent investigation is absolutely needed, but the military will never agree to that, and the Obama administration has been particularly protective of governmental wrong-doers (e.g., the CIA war criminals and those who gave them their orders), so I imagine the Obama administration will reject any independent investigation, much as it rejects any lawsuit by an innocent person who has been kidnapped and tortured by the CIA.
I find this new attitude by the US, holding itself above the law and above accountability, a bad development. If the terrorists do in fact hate us for our freedoms, as George W. Bush said, I think freedom from any accountability is probably high on that list of freedoms.
From the NY Times story:
. . . After the announcement, Médecins Sans Frontières, the French name of Doctors Without Borders, reiterated its calls for an independent investigation, saying in a statement “that it cannot be satisfied solely with a military investigation.”
“Today’s briefing amounts to an admission of an uncontrolled military operation in a densely populated urban area, during which U.S. forces failed to follow the basic laws of war,” said Meinie Nicolai, the group’s president. “It is incomprehensible that, under the circumstances described by the U.S., the attack was not called off.”
John Sifton, the Asia policy director of Human Rights Watch, disputed General Votel’s assertion that the airstrike did not constitute a war crime because it was the unintentional result of mistakes and equipment failures, not an intentional attack.
The failure to bring any criminal charges was, “simply put, inexplicable,” Mr. Sifton said.
“General Joseph Votel’s assertion that a war crime must be deliberate, or intentional, is flatly wrong.” Mr. Sifton added. He said that there are legal precedents for war crimes prosecutions based on acts that were committed with recklessness, and that recklessness or negligence do not necessarily absolve someone of criminal responsibility under the United States military code. . .
UPDATE: It should be obvious to everyone that there is a serious conflict of interest in having the military investigate itself: they are investigating their colleagues and friends and acquaintances, and the military has a well-documented history of lying to cover up problems—cf. the Pat Tilman incident. Or Jessica Lynch.
Plus the military is a highly hierarchical and authoritarian organization, in which crossing the wishes of a superior can be hazardous to one’s career. The Catholic church is another such organization, and the Catholic church’s self-investigations of the pedophiles in their midst was abysmal: minimization, lies, and cover-ups. I would expect that the military would tend to do the same when it investigates its own misdeeds.
I think there is an obvious reason that the military is so strongly resisting an independent investigation: it’s because the military loses control of the findings.
Some good news, reported in Mother Jones by Kevin Drum:
The decision last week by United Healthcare to drop out of Obamacare got a lot of attention, but the truth is that UH was a pretty small player in the exchanges. What’s more important—but hasn’t gotten much attention—is the fact that more and more Obamacare insurers are getting close to profitability. Richard Mayhew comments:
2014 was a year where there were only guesses about both the Exchange population, the market structure, and federal policy structure (specifically the risk corridor revenue neutrality restrictions. 2015 had a bit more clarity on who was coming into the market, what was working and what was not working, and what federal policy on risk corridors would actually be. 2016 is the first year where the policies are priced on functionally decent real information and some of the amazingly dumb strategic decisions have been unwound through either course changes or through exiting the market.
As a simple reminder, competitive markets should see some companies make money and some companies that offer more expensive and less attractive products lose money. I would be extremely worried if everyone was making money after three years, just like I would be extremely worried that everyone was losing money after three years of increasingly better data.
Obamacare critics have spent a lot of energy trying to pretend that premiums on the exchanges have skyrocketed, but that’s never been true. What is true is . . .
Dan Grazier reports for Motherboard:
Last summer, F-35 program officer Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan said the F-35’s logistics system was “the brains and blood of operating this weapons system.”
Despite many fixes, the aircraft’s Autonomic Logistics Information System (ALIS) is so flawed that government auditors believe the computer system may not be deployable. These problems may also delay the Air Force’s declaration of Initial Operational Capability. And now, in a surprising twist, Bogdan is saying ALIS is not really critical after all, insisting the F-35 can fly without it for 30 days.
F-35 supporters enjoy telling people how the plane is a “flying computer,” as if that alone makes it worth the hundreds of billions of dollars spent so far. Lockheed Martin goes one step further, calling it a “supercomputer” in its own promotional materials.
ALIS is the ground-based computer system meant to diagnose mechanical problems, order and track replacement parts, and guide maintenance crews through repairs. It also allows pilots to plan missions and later review their performance. At least, it’s supposed to do all of those things.
So far, the software has been so flawed that maintenance crews have had to resort to time-consuming workarounds. In one instance, maintainers even had to manually burn data onto CDs and drive off base to send the massive files across a civilian WiFi network.
The plane is absolutely dependent on computer technology and millions of lines of software code to operate. So the fact that ALIS is years behind schedule and plagued with bugs is particularly disturbing. The Government Accountability Office has nowreleased a report confirming POGO’s earlier reporting: flaws in ALIS can ground the entire fleet.
The program office dismissed the gravity of this finding, a position that puts the office at odds with itself. Testifying before Congress in 2014 and explaining the Joint Program Office’s renewed development efforts, Bogdan said “the enterprise now deals with ALIS as if it is a ‘weapons system’ and a critical part of the F-35 program.”
Also from 2015, Assistant Secretary of the Navy Sean Stackley said that “the responsiveness, the timeliness of ALIS information for the maintainers and for the warfighter is at the top of our priority list.”
And just this year, Bogdan said, “It is a software-intensive system that connects to almost every piece of the F-35 program.” . . .
From later in the article: “could lead to $20–100 billion in additional costs.”
Tom Englehardt writes at TomDispatch.com:
Let’s take a moment to think about the ultimate strangeness of our American world. In recent months, Donald Trump and Ted Cruz have offered a range of hair-raising suggestions: as president, one or the other of them might order the U.S. military and the CIA to commit acts that would include the waterboarding of terror suspects (or “a hell of a lot worse”), thekilling of the relatives of terrorists, and the carpet bombing of parts of Syria. All of these would, legally speaking, be war crimes. This has caused shock among many Americans in quite established quarters who have decried the possibility of such a president, suggesting that the two of them are calling for outright illegal acts, actual “war crimes,” and that the U.S. military and others would be justified in rejecting such orders. In this context, for instance, CIA Director John Brennan recently made it clear that no Agency operative under his command would ever waterboard a suspect in response to orders of such a nature from a future president. (“I will not agree to carry out some of these tactics and techniques I’ve heard bandied about because this institution needs to endure.”)
These acts, in other words, are considered beyond the pale when Donald Trump suggests them, but here’s the strangeness of it all: what The Donald is only mouthing off about, a perfectly real American president (and vice president and secretary of defense, and so on) actually did. Among other things, under the euphemistic term “enhanced interrogation techniques,” they ordered the CIA to use classic torture practices including waterboarding (which, in blunter times, had been known as “the water torture”). They also let the U.S. military loose to torture and abuse prisoners in their custody. They green-lighted the CIA tokidnap terror suspects (who sometimes turned out to be perfectly innocent people) off the streets of cities around the world, as well as from the backlands of the planet, and transported them to the prisons of some of the worst torture regimes or to secret detention centers (“black sites”) the CIA was allowed to set up in compliant countries. In other words, a perfectly real administration ordered and oversaw perfectly real crimes. (Its top officials even reportedly had torture techniques demonstrated to them in the White House.)
At the time, the CIA fulfilled its orders to a T and without complaint. A lone CIA officer spoke out publicly in opposition to such a program and was jailed for disclosing classified information to a journalist. (He would be the only CIA official to go to jail for the Agency’s acts of torture.) At places like Abu Ghraib, the military similarly carried out its orders without significant complaint or resistance. The mainstream media generally adopted the euphemism “enhanced interrogation techniques” or “harsh techniques” in its reporting — no “torture” or “war crimes” for them then. And back in the post-2001 years, John Brennan, then deputy executive director of the CIA, didn’t offer a peep of protest about what he surely knew was going on in his own agency. In 2014, in fact, as its director he actually defendedsuch torture practices for producing “intelligence that helped thwart attack plans, capture terrorists, and save lives.” In addition, none of those who ordered or oversaw torture and other criminal behavior (a number of whom would sell their memoirs for millions of dollars) suffered in the slightest for the acts that were performed on their watch and at their behest.
To sum up: when Donald Trump says such things it’s a future nightmare to be called by its rightful name and denounced, as well as rejected and resisted by military and intelligence officials. When an American president and his top officials actually did such things, however, it was another story entirely. Today, TomDispatch regular Rebecca Gordon catches the nightmarish quality of those years, now largely buried, in the grim case of a single mistreated human being. It should make Americans shudder. She has also just published a new book, American Nuremberg: The U.S. Officials Who Should Stand Trial for Post-9/11 War Crimes, that couldn’t be more relevant. It’s a must-read for a country conveniently without a memory. Tom
The Al-Qaeda Leader Who Wasn’t
The Shameful Ordeal of Abu Zubaydah
By Rebecca Gordon
The allegations against the man were serious indeed.
* Donald Rumsfeld said he was “if not the number two, very close to the number two person” in al-Qaeda.
* The Central Intelligence Agency informed Assistant Attorney General Jay Bybee that he “served as Usama Bin Laden’s senior lieutenant. In that capacity, he has managed a network of training camps… He also acted as al-Qaeda’s coordinator of external contacts and foreign communications.”
* CIA Director Michael Hayden would tell the press in 2008 that 25% of all the information his agency had gathered about al-Qaeda from human sources “originated” with one other detainee and him.
* George W. Bush would use his case to justify the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation program,” claiming that “he had run a terrorist camp in Afghanistan where some of the 9/11 hijackers trained” and that “he helped smuggle al-Qaeda leaders out of Afghanistan” so they would not be captured by U.S. military forces.
None of it was true.
And even if it had been true, what the CIA did to Abu Zubaydah — with the knowledge and approval of the highest government officials — is a prime example of the kind of still-unpunished crimes that officials like Dick Cheney, George Bush, and Donald Rumsfeld committed in the so-called Global War on Terror.
So who was this infamous figure, and where is he now? His name is Zayn al-Abidin Muhammad Husayn, but he is better known by his Arabic nickname, Abu Zubaydah. And as far as we know, he is still in solitary detention in Guantánamo.
A Saudi national, in the 1980s Zubaydah helped run the Khaldan camp, a mujahedeen training facility set up in Afghanistan with CIA help during the Soviet occupation of that country. In other words, Zubaydah was then an American ally in the fight against the Soviets, one of President Ronald Reagan’s “freedom fighters.” (But then again, so in effect was Osama bin Laden.)
Zubaydah’s later fate in the hands of the CIA was of a far grimmer nature. He had the dubious luck to be the subject of a number of CIA “firsts”: the first post-9/11 prisoner to be waterboarded; the first to be experimented on by psychologists working as CIA contractors; one of the first of the Agency’s “ghost prisoners” (detainees hidden from the world, including the International Committee of the Red Cross which, under the Geneva Conventions, must be allowed access to every prisoner of war); and one of the first prisoners to be cited in a memo written by Jay Bybee for the Bush administration on what the CIA could “legally” do to a detainee without supposedly violating U.S. federal laws against torture.
Zubaydah’s story is — or at least should be — the iconic tale of the illegalextremes to which the Bush administration and the CIA went in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. And yet former officials, from CIA head Michael Hayden to Vice President Dick Cheney to George W. Bush himself, have presented it as a glowing example of the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” to extract desperately needed information from the “evildoers” of that time.
Zubaydah was an early experiment in post-9/11 CIA practices and here’s the remarkable thing (though it has yet to become part of the mainstream media accounts of his case): it was all a big lie. Zubaydah wasn’t involved with al-Qaeda; he was the ringleader of nothing; he never took part in planning for the 9/11 attacks. He was brutally mistreated and, in another kind of world, would be exhibit one in the war crimes trials of America’s top leaders and its major intelligence agency.
Yet notorious as he once was, he’s been forgotten by all but his lawyers and a few tenacious reporters. He shouldn’t have been. He was the test case for the kind of torture that Donald Trump now wants the U.S. government to bring back, presumably because it “worked” so well the first time. With Republican presidential hopefuls promising future war crimes, it’s worth reconsidering his case and thinking about how to prevent it from happening again. After all, it’s only because no one has been held to account for the years of Bush administration torture practices that Trump and others feel free to promise even more and “yuger” war crimes in the future.
Experiments in Torture
In August 2002, a group of FBI agents, CIA agents, and Pakistani forces captured Zubaydah (along with about 50 other men) in Faisalabad, Pakistan. In the process, he was severely injured — shot in the thigh, testicle, and stomach. He might well have died, had the CIA not flown in an American surgeon to patch him up. The Agency’s interest in his health was, however, anything but humanitarian. Its officials wanted to interrogate him and, even after he had recovered sufficiently to be questioned, his captors occasionally withheld pain medication as a means of torture.
When he “lost” his left eye under mysterious circumstances while in CIA custody, the agency’s concern again was not for his health. The December 2014 torture report produced by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (despite CIA opposition that included hacking into the committee’s computers) described the situation this way: with his left eye gone, “[i]n October 2002, DETENTION SITE GREEN [now known to be Thailand] recommended that the vision in his right eye be tested, noting that ‘[w]e have a lot riding upon his ability to see, read, and write.’ DETENTION SITE GREEN stressed that ‘this request is driven by our intelligence needs [not] humanitarian concern for AZ.’”
The CIA then set to work interrogating Zubaydah with the help of two contractors, thepsychologists Bruce Jessen and James Mitchell. Zubaydah would be the first human subject on whom those two, who were former instructors at the Air Force’s SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape) training center, could test their theories about using torture to induce what they called “learned helplessness,” meant to reduce a suspect’s resistance to interrogation. Their price? Only $81 million.
CIA records show that, using a plan drawn up by Jessen and Mitchell, Abu Zubaydah’s interrogators would waterboard him an almost unimaginable 83 times in the course of a single month; that is, they would strap him to a wooden board, place a cloth over his entire face, and gradually pour water through the cloth until he began to drown. At one point during this endlessly repeated ordeal, the Senate committee reported that Zubaydah became “completely unresponsive, with bubbles rising through his open, full mouth.”
Each of those 83 uses of what was called “the watering cycle” consisted of four steps:
1) demands for information interspersed with the application of the water just short of blocking his airway 2) escalation of the amount of water applied until it blocked his airway and he started to have involuntary spasms 3) raising the water-board to clear subject’s airway 4) lowering of the water-board and return to demands for information.
The CIA videotaped Zubaydah undergoing each of these “cycles,” only to destroy those tapes in 2005 when news of their existence surfaced and the embarrassment (and possible future culpability) of the Agency seemed increasingly to be at stake. CIA Director Michael Hayden would later assureCNN that the tapes had been destroyed only because “they no longer had ‘intelligence value’ and they posed a security risk.” Whose “security” was at risk if the tapes became public? Most likely, that of the Agency’s operatives and contractors who were breaking multiple national and international laws against torture, along with the high CIA and Bush administration officials who had directly approved their actions.
In addition to the waterboarding, . . .
Of course, the CIA torturers have been protected by Obama’s refusal to follow the law specified in the Convention Against Torture, which as a treaty signed and confirmed by the US, is the law of the land.