Archive for the ‘Torture’ Category
Jennifer Gonnerman writes in the New Yorker:
Prison officials rarely allow journalists to walk through their prisons, and even rarer is the warden who lets a reporter into his solitary-confinement unit. The voices of the men and women confined inside these prisons-within-a-prison are often the last ones that any prison administrator wants outsiders to hear. But the potential power of these prisoners’ stories to draw public attention—and propel politicians to act—was on display earlier this week, when President Obama announced a plan to decrease the use of solitary confinement in federal prisons. Obama cited the story of a young man named Kalief Browder, who spent nearly two years in solitary confinement on Rikers Island without having been convicted of a crime.
I wrote about Browder for this magazine in the fall of 2014, but there may be no reporter in the United States who has collected more stories of solitary-confinement prisoners than the veteran investigative reporter James Ridgeway. Since it is virtually impossible for a reporter to gain access to a solitary-confinement unit, Ridgeway came up with another strategy. “I wanted to use the prisoners themselves as reporters,” he told me. “Of course, that’s taboo in the mainstream press, since we all know they’re liars and double dealers and escape artists.” He chuckled. But breaking that taboo “didn’t bother me at all,” he said. “My position was: all we want to do here is, we want to know what is going on inside.”
Each week, Ridgeway leaves his home in Washington, D.C., walks to his local post office, and returns with about fifty letters from men and women locked in solitary-confinement units in prisons around the country. The letters began arriving in 2010, soon after Ridgeway launched a Web site, called Solitary Watch, with an editor named Jean Casella. “When we started, there was nobody writing about this,” she said. Ridgeway was then seventy-three years old. He dug into his retirement fund to help cover startup costs, and now, when he goes to the post office each week, he pushes a walker.
He began his journalism career more than fifty years ago, and for thirty years he was the Washington correspondent for the Village Voice. (We were colleagues there for about a decade.) Mother Jones once called him “one of the legends of modern muckraking.” By now, he has written so many books that he’s lost count. “Sixteen or seventeen,” he said. It’s actually eighteen, and next week will bring the tally to nineteen. “Hell Is a Very Small Place: Voices from Solitary Confinement,” which he co-edited with Casella and Sarah Shourd (who was held in solitary confinement in Iran for four hundred and ten days), will be released on February 2nd.
Many of the book’s stories are culled from the Web site, which publishes original news reporting as well as firsthand accounts of solitary confinement. The site gets about two thousand visitors a day, but one story drew six hundred thousand views. It was written by a New York prisoner named William Blake, who had been held in solitary for nearly twenty-six years. Describing a solitary-confinement unit—which in New York is known as a “Special Housing Unit” (or “SHU”) or just “the box”—Blake wrote:
The box is a place like no other place on planet Earth. It’s a place where men full of rage can stand at their cell gates fulminating on their neighbor or neighbors, yelling and screaming and speaking some of the filthiest words that could ever come from a human mouth, do it for hours on end, and despite it all never suffer the loss of a single tooth, never get his head knocked clean off his shoulders. You will never hear words more despicable or see mouth wars more insane than what occurs all the time in SHU, not anywhere else in the world.… Day and night I have been awakened to the sound of the rage being loosed loudly on SHU gates, and I’d be a liar if I said I haven’t at times been one of the madmen doing the yelling.
There are now an estimated hundred thousand people in solitary confinement in prison in the United States. That number should fall in the coming months, in the wake of Obama’s executive actions, which ban solitary confinement in federal prison for all juveniles and for adult prisoners who commit only low-level infractions. Figuring out the true impact of Obama’s actions—and how many states and counties decide to follow his lead—will require the sort of close, relentless scrutiny that has become Solitary Watch’s specialty.
Meanwhile, letters from solitary-confinement prisoners continue to fill Ridgeway’s postal box. In a 2014 article in CounterPunch, he explained:
There are so many letters now that I cannot possibly reply to most of them, even with a couple of volunteers to help. So I buy packages of cards, and gather up all the ones sent to me for free by wildlife groups as thank-you gifts for donations. I start sending people in solitary pictures of polar bears and endangered gray wolves, with just a few handwritten words: “Thanks for your letter. Stay strong.” They write back with a level of gratitude totally disproportionate to my lame missives.
As the volume of letters coming in has grown, so have the descriptions of prisoners’ psychological torment. About one prisoner, Ridgeway recalled, “This guy would write me: ‘I tried to kill myself with the electric light socket, but couldn’t do it. I’m now testing to see if I’m going to slit my wrists.’ ” (Ridgeway made several phone calls, and, he said, somebody moved the man out of solitary and into a psychiatric hospital for prisoners.) “I feel so bad for some of these guys,” he said, “because they really do seem like potential suicides. Those people—I just promise them that I will read their letters and respond.” . . .
Here’s the column. Ignore the footnote by-play. The point is quite serious, or so it seems to me.
The US in general and the Obama administration—including the so-called Department of Justice—really does not want to confront the systematic program of torture the US instituted and ran. There seems to be a strong feeling that it’s better simply to ignore what happened. Murtaza Hussain reports in The Intercept:
One year ago today, the Senate Intelligence Committee published a highly redacted executive summary of its investigation into the CIA’s torture and rendition program. The 525-page summary was shocking in many of its details, revealing the torture and rape of detainees held in CIA custody and encompassing treatment far in excess of even the torture techniques formally authorized by the Bush administration.
Despite the passage of 12 months, the actual report, comprising 6,700 pages, still has not been made publicly available. In fact, reading it appears to be prohibited among officials in the executive branch. Nearly a month and a half after the report’s initial release, it had not even been taken out of the package in which it was delivered to the Department of Justice and Department of State, according to government lawyers. Even the organization that was the subject of the report, the CIA, tightly controlled internal access and made “very limited use” of it, as had the Department of Defense, the lawyers said in a court filing.
That shunning of the torture report appears to be ongoing and very much by design: It turns out the Department of Justice has “refuse[d] to allow executive branch officials to review the full and final study,” Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Patrick Leahy wrote in a letter last month to the attorney general and FBI director, urging that they or their “appropriately cleared” underlings read the full report.
“The legacy of this historic report cannot be buried in the back of a handful of executive branch safes, never to be reviewed by those who most need to learn from it,” they added.
Elizabeth Beavers, a policy coordinator focusing on torture at Amnesty International, believes that no one in the Obama administration, including at the Department of Justice, has read the full report. “They appear to be taking a ‘see no evil, hear no evil’ [stance] with regards to the proof of criminal acts it may contain,” she said. But “for the administration not even to read the whole report, and to look the other way while it is possibly buried or even destroyed, sets a dangerous precedent by excusing major crimes like torture and forced disappearance.”
In January, the new Republican head of the Senate committee that produced the study, Richard Burr, demanded that all extant copies be returned, reportedly over concerns they could be obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. The Obama administration declined to do so, at least barring a court ruling. But the report is certainly being sought under FOIA, including in an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit against the government.
Feinstein, for her part, anticipated that the full report would eventually be available to the public, writing last year that it would be “held for declassification at a later time.” (As chair of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Feinstein shepherded the study, often in the face of staunch CIA opposition.)
Of particular interest in the full report is Volume III, which Feinstein has said contains “excruciating” details of the treatment of detainees during interrogation by the CIA, including further details on the torture of prisoners like Janat Gul, who, according to the report’s executive summary, was tortured to the point that he begged his captors to let him “die or just be killed.” The agency later concluded that Gul had been implicated by a fabricated report from a source.
The release of the executive summary last year was widely hailed by civil rights groups as a landmark moment of accountability for post-9/11 human rights abuses. Although the administration has to date refused to press charges against those responsible for torturing CIA detainees, the release of the summary helped galvanize efforts at legal redress. A report last week by Human Rights Watch, drawing heavily from the executive summary of the Senate report, offered a detailed pathway for obtaining criminal prosecutions against those who both authorized and carried out acts of torture. The release of the full report would likely provide further ammunition with which to fight for accountability. . .
Glenn Greenwald reports in The Intercept:
As vice president, Dick Cheney was a prime architect of the worldwide torture regime implemented by the U.S. government (which extended far beyond waterboarding), as well as the invasion and destruction of Iraq, which caused the deaths of at least 500,000 people andmore likely over a million. As such, he is one of the planet’s most notorious war criminals.
President Obama made the decision in early 2009 to block the Justice Department from criminally investigating and prosecuting Cheney and his fellow torturers, as well as to protect them from foreign investigations and even civil liability sought by torture victims. Obama did that notwithstanding a campaign decree that even top Bush officials are subject to the rule of law and, more importantly, notwithstanding a treaty signed in 1984 by Ronald Reagan requiring that all signatory states criminally prosecute their own torturers. Obama’s immunizing Bush-era torturers converted torture from a global taboo and decades-old crime into a reasonable, debatable policy question, which is why so many GOP candidates are nowopenly suggesting its use.
But now, the Obama administration has moved from legally protecting Bush-era war criminals to honoring and gushing over them in public. Yesterday, the House of Representatives unveiled a marble bust of former Vice President Cheney, which — until a person of conscience vandalizes or destroys it — will reside in Emancipation Hall of the U.S. Capitol.
At the unveiling ceremony, Cheney was, in the playful words of NPR, “lightly roasted” — as though he’s some sort of grumpy though beloved avuncular stand-up comic. Along with George W. Bush, one of the speakers in attendance was Vice President Joe Biden, who spoke movingly of Cheney’s kind and generous soul: . . .
The column concludes:
It is a long-standing trope among self-flattering Westerners and their allies that a key difference between “us” and “them” (Muslim radicals) is that “they” honor and memorialize their terrorists and celebrate them as “martyrs” while we scorn and prosecute our own.
Yesterday, the U.S. government unambiguously signaled to the world that not only does it regard itself as entirely exempt from the laws of wars, the principal Nuremberg prohibition against aggressive invasions, and global prohibitions on torture (something that has been self-evident for many years), but believes that the official perpetrators should be honored and memorialized provided they engage in these crimes on behalf of the U.S. government. That’s a message that most of the U.S. media and thus large parts of the American population will not hear, but much of the world will hear it quite loudly and clearly. How could they not?
In other news, U.S. officials this week conceded that a man kept in a cage for 13 years at Guantánamo, the now 37-year-old Mustafa al-Aziz al-Shamiri, was there due to “mistaken identity.” As Joe Biden said yesterday, “I actually like Dick Cheney.”
I have to say that this gives me the creeps. It will be a stain on Obama’s legacy.
Mark Mazzetti and Matt Apuzzo report in the NY Times:
A Senate security officer stepped out of the December chill last year and delivered envelopes marked “Top Secret” to the Pentagon, the C.I.A., the State Department and the Justice Department. Inside each packet was a disc containing a 6,700-page classified report on the C.I.A.’s secret prison program and a letter from Senator Dianne Feinstein, urging officials to read the report to ensure that the lessons were not lost to time.
Today, those discs sit untouched in vaults across Washington, still in their original envelopes. The F.B.I. has not retrieved a copy held for it in the Justice Department’s safe. State Department officials, who locked up their copy and marked it “Congressional Record — Do Not Open, Do Not Access” as soon as it arrived, have not read it either.
Nearly a year after the Senate released a declassified 500-page summary of the report, the fate of the entire document remains in limbo, the subject of battles in the courts and in Congress. Until those disputes are resolved, the Justice Department has prohibited officials from the government agencies that possess it from even opening the report, effectively keeping the people in charge of America’s counterterrorism future from reading about its past. There is also the possibility that the documents could remain locked in a Senate vault for good.
In a letter to Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch last week, Ms. Feinstein, a California Democrat, said the Justice Department was preventing the government from “learning from the mistakes of the past to ensure that they are not repeated.”
Although Ms. Feinstein is eager to see the document circulated, the Senate is now under Republican control. Her successor as head of the Intelligence Committee, Senator Richard M. Burr of North Carolina, has demanded that the Obama administration return every copy of the report. Mr. Burr has declared the report to be nothing more than “a footnote in history.”
It was always clear that the full report would remain shielded from public view for years, if not decades. But Mr. Burr’s demand, which means that even officials with top security clearances might never read it, has reminded some officials of the final scene of “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” when the Ark of the Covenant is put into a wooden crate alongside thousands of others in a government warehouse of secrets.
The report tells the story of how, in the months after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the C.I.A. began capturing people and interrogating them in secret prisons beyond the reach of the American judicial and military legal systems. The report’s central conclusion is that the spy agency’s interrogation methods — including waterboarding, sleep deprivation and other kinds of torture — were far more brutal and far less effective than the C.I.A. acknowledged to policy makers, Congress and the public.
For now, it is the most comprehensive chronicle of one of the most controversial counterterrorism programs after the Sept. 11 attacks.
The American Civil Liberties Union has sued the C.I.A. for access to the document, and at this point the case hinges on who owns it. Senate documents are exempt from public records laws, but executive branch records are not. In May, a federal judge ruled that even though Ms. Feinstein distributed the report to the executive branch, the document still belongs to Congress. That decision is under appeal, with court papers due this month.
Justice Department officials defend their stance, saying that handling the document at all could influence the outcome of the lawsuit. They said that a State Department official who opened the report, read it and summarized it could lead a judge to determine that the document was an executive branch record, altering the lawsuit’s outcome. The Justice Department has also promised not to return the records to Mr. Burr until a judge settles the matter.
“It’s quite bizarre, and I cannot think of a precedent,” said Steven Aftergood, the director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists. He said there are any number of classified Senate documents that are shared with intelligence agencies and remain as congressional records, even if they are read by members of the executive branch.
The findings of the report on the secret prisons remain the subject of fierce debate. A group of former senior C.I.A. officers published a book in September challenging its conclusions and methodology, and Senate Republicans have derided the investigation as shoddy and partisan. . .
It’s pretty clear that what happened is something the American public deserves to know, and the intensity of resistance to revealing what happened shows that it must have pretty bad.
Jenna McLaughlin reports in The Intercept:
The American Civil Liberties Union suffered major defeats on Friday, when two of its cases involving clear violations of civil rights and civil liberties were dismissed, both undone by the judiciary’s deference to executive-branch secrecy.
A dramatically divided three-judge panel on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. circuit ruled in favor of Department of Justice lawyers who argued that Amir Meshal couldn’t sue for damages for his alleged torture at the hands of FBI agents in three African countries because it happened overseas and because the litigation would jeopardize “national security.” Meshal is a U.S. citizen who FBI agents suspected had ties to al Qaeda.
And a Maryland district court judge threw out a massive legal challenge to the National Security Agency and its “Upstream” surveillance program on behalf of Wikimedia, Amnesty International USA, The Nation magazine and six other groups, because they couldn’t prove that the NSA had specifically spied on them — despite the troves of publicly available information on how the mass-surveillance program works, primarily from NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.
In both cases, the ACLU had appealed to the judicial branch for relief from the excesses of the executive branch. But both courts allowed the federal government to escape judicial oversight simply by insisting that national security matters should remain secret.
Meshal v. Chris Higgenbotham, FBI Supervising Special Agent
Amir Meshal, a U.S. citizen and New Jersey resident, traveled to Somalia in 2006 to study its culture and Islamic religious traditions. When he fled the country due to violence, he was apprehended by Kenyan authorities, whom he says passed him off to the FBI, who wanted to investigate him for ties to al Qaeda.
The ACLU filed suit against the FBI agents in November 2009 on behalf of Meshal, who alleges the agents detained him secretly for four months, denying him access to counsel and threatening to kill him or “make [him] disappear.” He lost 80 pounds while detained. He was subsequently released and was never charged with a crime.
The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia originally concluded his treatment was “appalling,” but dismissed the case because it concluded there was no legal precedent to help him.
The ACLU appealed in 2014, citing the legal precedent of a 1971 case called Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents, in which the Supreme Court decided that individuals whose constitutional rights are violated by federal agents can sue for that violation and are entitled to a remedy.
Judge Janice Rogers Brown rejected that precedent, writing in her majority opinion that Meshal’s case was “unprecedented” because it dealt with a terrorism investigation overseas that could not be disclosed. She found a remedy “unavailable.” Brown was joined by her fellow George W. Bush-nominee Brett Kavanaugh.
But in her 29-page dissent, Obama-appointed Judge Cornelia Pillard argued that there was no real reason that Meshal did not qualify for compensation under Bivens, especially because the majority agreed that his allegations of constitutional violation and torture were “quite troubling.”
As for the national security argument for secrecy, Pillard wrote that she was “unpersuaded that adjudicating Meshal’s constitutional damages claim would necessarily pose unacceptable risks.” The government neither explained in any detail why national security would be irreparably harmed if the case went forward, nor sought to present classified evidence to the court.
The ACLU is concerned. “This opinion creates a legal black hole for the incommunicado detention and gross mistreatment of American citizens,” said Jonathan Hafetz, the ACLU-affiliated lawyer representing Meshal. “The line of national security is an amorphous, malleable concept that is frequently subject to manipulation and abuse.”
Pillard called on the rest of the bench to fight more vigorously for individual rights. “Judicial scrutiny becomes particularly important when executive officials assert that individual rights must yield to national security and foreign policy imperatives,” she wrote.
Wikimedia v. NSA . . .
The Obama administration, like the Bush administration, is determined that none of those whom the U.S. tortured should get any justice, not even those who were clearly innocent. This is the sort of behavior that the U.S. deplores when done by other nations (unless those nations are, like Saudi Arabia, protected, with all their human rights offenses taken as being okay).
Interesting development: Former U.S. Detainees Sue Psychologists Responsible For CIA Torture Program
Very intriguing. I’m sure the government will do all it can to quash the case, mostly by intoning “national security” and “state’s secrets” and avoiding trial altogether. But these guys are civilians, outside the government. Stay tuned.
Jenna McLaughlin (a name I’m noticing on a lot of good stories) reports in The Intercept:
The American Civil Liberties Union filed suit on Tuesday morning on behalf of three former U.S. detainees against the psychologists responsible for conceiving and supervising the Central Intelligence Agency’s interrogation program that used systematic torture.
From 2001 to 2010, James Mitchell and John “Bruce” Jessen, along with their employees, netted almost $85 million dollars in contracted fees from the CIA for executing a pseudoscientific plan to extract information from alleged terrorists.
The plaintiffs in the case, Suleiman Abdullah Salim, Mohamed Ahmed Ben Soud, and Gul Rahman, are just three of 119 detainees who were tortured through means developed by Mitchell and Jessen. Rahman died in a CIA black site due to his treatment, and the ACLU is suing on behalf of his estate.
Salim and Soud were never formally charged by the U.S. with a crime and are now free, but are still suffering severe physical and psychological impairments as a result of their treatment in various CIA “black sites.”
The plaintiffs were subject to being waterboarded repeatedly, crammed into tiny coffin-like boxes, stripped naked and then slapped and beaten, and left alone in the dark with nonstop loud music, among other torture techniques.
The plaintiffs argue that Mitchell and Jessen, charged professionally as psychologists with promoting mental health, are guilty of commissioning “torture, cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment; non-consensual human experimentation; and war crimes, all of which violate well-established norms of customary international law.”
“These psychologists devised and supervised an experiment to degrade human beings and break their bodies and minds,” said Dror Ladin, a staff attorney with the ACLU National Security Project. “It was cruel and unethical, and it violated a prohibition against human experimentation that has been in place since World War II.”
The CIA contacted Mitchell and Jessen in 2001 after police found materials in an alleged Al Qaeda supporter’s apartment in England that explained how someone might resist interrogation.
The CIA asked the psychologists, neither of whom had experience with interrogation, to come up with ways to combat these resistance techniques. Mitchell and Jessen took inspiration from a psychologist named Martin Seligman, who determined that dogs would be completely submissive if subjected to repeated physical and mental suffering. This state of “learned helplessness” would force a confession out of detainees, surmised Mitchell and Jessen.
However, there is still no evidence that the torture techniques actually helped obtain important information. The Senate Intelligence Committee’s executive summary of its report on the CIA program found that it resulted in “faulty intelligence” or no intelligence at all.
Nevertheless, multiple levels of the government signed off on the techniques at various steps of the program. Mitchell and Jessen’s contract continued until 2009, when President Obama issued an executive order officially ending the enhanced interrogation program.
The ACLU’s case is the first lawsuit brought against major players in the Senate’s so-called “torture report” since it was published last December. . .
The government never should have condoned torture (by anyone) much less instituted a program of torture under the aegis of the US government, but it is now determined that no one face any accountability for what they did.