Judge upholds order demanding release of CIA torture accounts

The Guardian reports: A military judge has rejected the US government’s attempts to keep accounts of the CIA’s torture of a detainee secret, setting up a fateful choice for the Obama administration in staunching the fallout from its predecessor’s brutal interrogations.

In a currently-sealed 24 June ruling at Guantánamo Bay – described to the Guardian – Judge James Pohl upheld his April order demanding the government produce details of the detentions and interrogations of Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri during his years in CIA custody. The Miami Herald also reported on the ruling, citing three sources who had seen it.

Among those details are the locations of the “black site” secret prisons in which Nashiri was held until his September 2006 transfer to Guantánamo; the names and communications of CIA personnel there; training and other procedures for guards and interrogators; and discussions of the application of so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques”. [Continue reading...]

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Ariel Dorfman: A tale of torture and forgiveness

I’ll bet you didn’t know that June is “torture awareness month” thanks to the fact that, on June 26, 1987, the Convention Against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman, and Degrading Treatment or Punishment went into effect internationally.  In this country, however, as a recent Amnesty International survey indicated, Americans are essentially living in Torture Unawareness Month, or perhaps even Torture Approval Month, and not just in June 2014 but every month of the year.

One simple fact of the post-9/11 era should make this clear and also boggle the mind, but has had almost no impact here.  But for this you need a little background from the early years of what was once called the Global War on Terror.  In addition to a stream of international kidnappings (euphemistically called “renditions”) of terror suspects, including completely innocent people the CIA snatched off the streets of global cities, as well as from the backlands of the planet and “rendered” into the hands of well-known torturing regimes (with the help of 54 other countries) and the setting up of a network of “black sites” or offshore prisons where anything went, the CIA tortured up a storm.  And it did so at the behest of the top officials of the Bush administration, including the president and vice president who were convinced that it was time for Washington to “take the gloves off.”  In those years, torture techniques were reportedly demonstrated in the White House to some of those officials, including the vice president and national security advisor.  At the time, they went by the euphemistic, administration-approved term “enhanced interrogation techniques,” which was quickly picked up and used in the U.S. mainstream media in place of the word “torture” — though only when the enhanced interrogators were American, of course.  The bad guys out there continued to “torture” in the usual fashion.

In the Obama years, torture was (at least officially) tossed out as a useful tactic.  But the torturers themselves were given a pass, every last one of them, by the Justice Department, even two cases in which the CIA’s acts of enhancement had led to death.  No charge was ever brought against anyone, including the Justice Department lawyers who wrote the tortured memos endorsing those techniques and redefining torture as only happening when the torturer meant it to, or the officials who green-lighted them.  Think of the Obama administration then as Amnesty National.  That administration did, however, have the guts to go after one man connected to the torture program, forced a plea deal from him, and sent him to jail for two years.  I’m talking about former CIA agent John Kiriakou, the only person since 9/11 convicted of a torture-related crime.  To be specific, his criminal act was to blow the whistle on his former employer’s torture program to a journalist, revealing in the process the name of a CIA agent.  That was considered such an indefensible act — in effect, an act of torture against the American security state — that justice, American-style, was done.

It’s quite a tortuous record when you think about it, not that anyone here does anymore, which is why we need TomDispatch regular Ariel Dorfman, author most recently of Feeding on Dreams: Confessions of an Unrepentant Exile, to remind us of what’s really at stake when one human being tortures another. Tom Engelhardt

How to forgive your torturer
The River Kwai passes through Latin America and Washington
By Ariel Dorfman

What a way to celebrate Torture Awareness Month!

According to an Amnesty International Poll released in May, 45% of Americans believe that torture is “sometimes necessary and acceptable” in order to “gain information that may protect the public.” Twenty-nine percent of Britons “strongly or somewhat agreed” that torture was justified when asked the same question.

For someone like me, who has been haunted by the daily existence of torture since the September 11, 1973 coup that overthrew Chilean President Salvador Allende, such percentages couldn’t be more depressing, but perhaps not that surprising. I now live, after all, in the America where Dick Cheney, instead of being indicted as a war criminal, sneeringly (and falsely) claims to anyone who asks him — and he is trotted out over and over again as the resident expert on the subject — that  “enhanced interrogations” have been and still are absolutely necessary to keep Americans safe.

[Read more...]

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Guantánamo prosecutor fights handing secrets over to defense

The New York Times reports: The chief prosecutor at the Guantánamo Bay war-crimes court has asked a judge to set aside an order that requires the government to give defense lawyers sweeping amounts of classified details related to the Central Intelligence Agency’s treatment of Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, a Saudi detainee accused of orchestrating the 2000 bombing of the destroyer Cole.

In a pretrial motion declassified last week, the prosecutor, Brig. Gen. Mark S. Martins, cited Obama administration efforts to declassify information related to a Senate Intelligence Committee report about the detention and interrogation program. That process, he said, should be allowed to play out.

Richard Kammen, an Indianapolis defense lawyer representing Mr. Nashiri, said in a phone interview that he was drafting a motion to oppose any attempts to reverse the judge’s order. He noted that he had a security clearance, and said the information he was seeking was for his own investigations and was not necessarily going to be made public. [Continue reading...]

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Mystery surrounds move of Afghan ‘torturer in chief’ to U.S. amid allegations of spy agency abuse

The Washington Post reports: In Afghanistan, his presence was enough to cause prisoners to tremble. Hundreds in his organization’s custody were beaten, shocked with electrical currents or subjected to other abuses documented in human rights reports. Some allegedly disappeared.

And then Haji Gulalai disappeared as well.

He had run Afghan intelligence operations in Kandahar after the U.S.-led invasion in 2001 and later served as head of the spy service’s detention and interrogation branch. After 2009, his whereabouts were unknown.

Because of his reputation for brutality, Gulalai was someone both sides of the war wanted gone. The Taliban tried at least twice to kill him. Despite Gulalai’s ties to the CIA and Afghan President Hamid Karzai, United Nations officials and U.S. coalition partners sought to rein him in or have him removed.

Today, Gulalai lives in a pink two-story house in Southern California, on a street of stucco homes on the outskirts of Los Angeles. [Continue reading...]

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Karen Greenberg: Abu Ghraib never left us

In mid-April, Abu Ghraib was closed down.  It was a grim end for the Iraqi prison where the Bush administration gave autocrat Saddam Hussein a run for his money. The Iraqi government feared it might be overrun by an al-Qaeda offshoot that calls itself the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. By then, the city of Fallujah for which American troops had fought two bitter, pitched battles back in 2004 had been in the hands of those black-flag-flying insurgents for months.  Needless to say, the American project in Iraq, begun so gloriously — remember Iraqi exiles assuring Vice President Cheney that the invaders would be greeted with “sweets and flowers” — was truly in ruins.  By then, hundreds of thousands had died in the aftermath of the 2003 invasion, the insurgencies that followed, and the grimmest of sectarian civil wars.  And the temperature was rising anew in that divided land, where only the Kurdish north was relatively peaceful.  Iraq was once again threatening to fracture, with suicide bombers and car bombs daily occurrences, especially in Shiite areas of the country, and the body count rising rapidly.

The legacy of America’s Iraq is essentially an oil-producing wreck of a state with another autocrat in power, a Shiite government allied to Iran in Baghdad, and a Sunni population in revolt.  That, in short, is the upshot of Washington’s multi-trillion-dollar war.  It might be worth a painting by George W. Bush.  Or maybe the former president should reserve his next round of oils not for the world leaders he met (and Googled), but for those iconic photos from the prison that might have closed in Iraq, but will never close in the American mind.  From the torture troves of Abu Ghraib, there are so many scenes that the former president could focus on in his days of tranquil retirement.

Those photos from hell were, at the time, so run-of-the-mill for the new American Iraq (“as common as cornflakes”) that they were used as screen-savers by U.S. military guards at that prison.  The images then returned to the United States as computer “wallpaper” before making it onto “60 Minutes II” and into our collective brains.  They revealed to this country for the first time that, post-9/11, Washington had taken a cue from the Marquis de Sade and any other set of sadists you cared to invoke.  Of course, the photos and the systematic torture and abuse that went with them at Abu Ghraib were quickly blamed on the usual “few bad apples” and “some hillbilly kids out of control.”

As it happened, those photos that first entered public consciousness 10 years ago this week exposed a genuine American nightmare that led right to the top in Washington and has never ended.  Included in the debacle were Justice Department lawyers who, at the bidding of the highest officials in the land, redefined torture in remarkable ways.  They made it clear, for instance, that the only person who could affirm whether torture had actually taken place was the torturer himself.  (If he didn’t think he had tortured, he hadn’t, or so the reasoning then went.)

No one has followed this endlessly grim tale more assiduously than TomDispatch regular Karen Greenberg, the chronicler of the creation of the prison at Guantanamo Bay and the editor of The Torture Papers: The Road to Abu Ghraib.  Today, she explores the shameful tale of why, a decade later, the Abu Ghraib affair remains without an end. Tom Engelhardt 

The road from Abu Ghraib
A torture story without a hero or an ending
By Karen J. Greenberg

It’s mind-boggling. Torture is still up for grabs in America. No one questions anymore whether the CIA waterboarded one individual 83 times or another 186 times. The basic facts are no longer in dispute either by those who champion torture or those who, like myself, despise the very idea of it. No one questions whether some individuals died being tortured in American custody.  (They did.) No one questions that it was a national policy devised by those at the very highest levels of government. (It was.) But many, it seems, still believe that the torture policy, politely renamed in its heyday “the enhanced interrogation program,” was a good thing for the country.

Now, the nation awaits the newest chapter in the torture debate without having any idea whether it will close the book on American torture or open a path of pain and shame into the distant future. No one yet knows whether we will be allowed to awake from the nightmarish and unacceptable world of illegality and obfuscation into which torture and the network of offshore prisons, or “black sites,” plunged us all.

[Read more...]

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Tom Engelhardt: Knowledge is crime

Why kidnapping, torture, assassination, and perjury are no longer crimes in Washington
By Tom Engelhardt

How the mighty have fallen.  Once known as “Obama’s favorite general,” James Cartwright will soon don a prison uniform and, thanks to a plea deal, spend 13 months behind bars.  Involved in setting up the earliest military cyberforce inside U.S. Strategic Command, which he led from 2004 to 2007, Cartwright also played a role in launching the first cyberwar in history — the release of the Stuxnet virus against Iran’s nuclear program.  A Justice Department investigation found that, in 2012, he leaked information on the development of that virus to David Sanger of the New York Times. The result: a front-page piece revealing its existence, and so the American cyber-campaign against Iran, to the American public.  It was considered a serious breach of national security.  On Thursday, the retired four-star general stood in front of a U.S. district judge who told him that his “criminal act” was “a very serious one” and had been “committed by a national security expert who lost his moral compass.” It was a remarkable ending for a man who nearly reached the heights of Pentagon power, was almost appointed chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and had the president’s ear.

In fact, Gen. James Cartwright has not gone to jail and the above paragraph remains — as yet — a grim Washington fairy tale.  There is indeed a Justice Department investigation open against the president’s “favorite general” (as Washington scribe to the stars Bob Woodward once labeled him) for the possible leaking of information on that virus to the New York Times, but that’s all.  He remains quite active in private life, holding the Harold Brown Chair in Defense Policy Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, as a consultant to ABC News, and on the board of Raytheon, among other things. He has suffered but a single penalty so far: he was stripped of his security clearance.

A different leaker actually agreed to that plea deal for the 13-month jail term.  Nearly three weeks ago, ex-State Department intelligence analyst Stephen E. Kim pled guilty to “an unauthorized disclosure of national defense information.”  He stood before U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly, who offered those stern words of admonition, and took responsibility for passing classified information on the North Korean nuclear program to Fox News reporter James Rosen in 2009. 

Still, someday Cartwright might prove to be unique in the annals of Obama era jurisprudence — the only Washington figure of any significance in these years to be given a jail sentence for a crime of state.  Whatever happens to him, his ongoing case highlights a singular fact: that there is but one crime for which anyone in America’s national security state can be held accountable in a court of law, and that’s leaking information that might put those in it in a bad light or simply let the American public know something more about what its government is really doing.

If this weren’t Washington 2014, but rather George Orwell’s novel 1984, then the sign emblazoned on the front of the Ministry of Truth — “War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength” — would have to be amended to add a fourth slogan: Knowledge is Crime.

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CIA torture architect: ‘I’m just a guy who got asked to do something for his country’

Jason Leopold reports: Dr James Elmer Mitchell has been called a war criminal and a torturer. He has been the subject of an ethics complaint, and his methods have been criticized in reports by two congressional committees and by the CIA’s internal watchdog.

But the retired air force psychologist insists he is not the monster many have portrayed him to be.

“The narrative that’s out there is, I walked up to the gate of the CIA, knocked on the door and said: ‘Let me in, I want to torture people, and I can show you how to do it.’ Or someone put out an ad on Craigslist that said, ‘Wanted: psychologist who is willing to design torture program.’ It’s a lot more complicated than that,” Mitchell told the Guardian in his first public comments since he was linked to the CIA’s enhanced interrogation program seven years ago.

“I’m just a guy who got asked to do something for his country by people at the highest level of government, and I did the best that I could.”

Mitchell is featured prominently in a new report prepared by the Senate select committee on intelligence, which spent five years and more than $40m studying the CIA’s detention and interrogation program.

The findings, according to a summary leaked to McClatchy, are damning: that the agency misled the White House, Congress and the American people; that unauthorised interrogation methods were used; that the legal opinions stating the techniques did not break US torture laws were flawed; and perhaps most significant, that the torture yielded no useful intelligence. [Continue reading...]

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CIA’s use of harsh interrogation went beyond legal authority, Senate report says

McClatchy reports: A still-secret Senate Intelligence Committee report calls into question the legal foundation of the CIA’s use of waterboarding and other harsh interrogation techniques on suspected terrorists, a finding that challenges the key defense on which the agency and the Bush administration relied in arguing that the methods didn’t constitute torture.

The report also found that the spy agency failed to keep an accurate account of the number of individuals it held, and that it issued erroneous claims about how many it detained and subjected to the controversial interrogation methods. The CIA has said that about 30 detainees underwent the so-called enhanced interrogation techniques.

The CIA’s claim “is BS,” said a former U.S. official familiar with evidence underpinning the report, who asked not to be identified because the matter is still classified. “They are trying to minimize the damage. They are trying to say it was a very targeted program, but that’s not the case.” [Continue reading...]

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It is the second degree torture, when the torturer singles out someone else for abuse, that plays on your mind

shaker-aamerClive Stafford Smith writes: Two nights ago I watched The Railway Man at a local film festival. Afterwards, one of the writers, Andy Paterson, was being interviewed by Jon Ronson, the curator of the event. They discussed how Colin Firth’s character, Eric Lomax, had suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result of his torture by the Japanese during the second world war. Paterson had just returned from Tokyo, where it became clear to him that most Japanese people have not got to grips with what happened on the Thai-Burma railway.

I wonder how long it will take us to understand what we are continuing to do to Shaker Aamer in Guantánamo Bay?

I have represented Aamer unsuccessfully for a long time, and we have just received the first independent medical evaluation of him in 12 years. Dr Emily Keram, a respected psychiatrist, despairs for him as long as he remains in Guantánamo Bay. Her report makes for devastating and depressing reading.

Because of society’s eternal prejudices, I am loth to discuss Aamer’s mental health status, but ultimately I must. So let me preface it with an admission: I, too, suffer from PTSD, albeit on an inconsequential scale when compared with either Aamer or Lomax. My own flashbacks, black-and-white negatives of what I witnessed, stem from watching six of my clients die – two each in the electric chair, in the gas chamber and on the lethal injection gurney. The hardest was Nicholas Ingram. I was born in the same hospital as him, and he was electrocuted in a gratuitously grotesque manner.

For Aamer, yes there was all the physical abuse, from beatings, to strappado (dislocating the shoulders by hanging by the wrists), most of which happened to Lomax. But it was the second degree torture (originated by the Spanish Inquisition) that got to Aamer most – when the torturer singles out someone else for abuse and plays on your mind. The American interrogators assured him that they had his family, and they described what they were going to do to his daughter, then five years old: “They are going to screw her. She will be screaming, ‘Daddy! Daddy!’”

I have a five-year-old myself. No wonder Aamer told Keram he felt powerless, guilty that he had failed his kids, his mind imploding. [Continue reading...]

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Senate panel finds CIA illegally interrogated terror suspects after 9/11

McClatchy reports: CIA officers subjected some terrorism suspects the agency held after the Sept. 11 attacks to interrogation methods that were not approved by either the Justice Department or their own headquarters and illegally detained 26 of the 119 in CIA custody, the Senate Intelligence Committee has concluded in its still-secret report, McClatchy has learned.

The spy agency program’s reliance on brutal techniques _ much more abusive than previously known _ and its failure to gather valuable information from the detainees harmed the U.S.’s credibility, according to the committee’s findings in its scathing 6,300-page report on the CIA’s interrogation and detention program.

The agency also repeatedly misled the Justice Department while stymieing Congress’ and the White House’s efforts to oversee the secret and now-defunct program, McClatchy has learned.

In all, the committee came to 20 conclusions about the CIA’s harsh interrogation tactics after spending six years and $40 million evaluating the controversial program, which began during the Bush administration.

The committee voted 11-3 Thursday to declassify an executive summary and conclusions. The findings and summary now will go to the White House and CIA for eventual public release. [Continue reading...]

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CIA lied about torture program, Senate report says

The Washington Post reports: A report by the Senate Intelligence Committee concludes that the CIA misled the government and the public about aspects of its brutal interrogation program for years — concealing details about the severity of its methods, overstating the significance of plots and prisoners, and taking credit for critical pieces of intelligence that detainees had in fact surrendered before they were subjected to harsh techniques.

The report, built around detailed chronologies of dozens of CIA detainees, documents a long-standing pattern of unsubstantiated claims as agency officials sought permission to use — and later tried to defend — excruciating interrogation methods that yielded little, if any, significant intelligence, according to U.S. officials who have reviewed the document.

“The CIA described [its program] repeatedly both to the Department of Justice and eventually to Congress as getting unique, otherwise unobtainable intelligence that helped disrupt terrorist plots and save thousands of lives,” said one U.S. official briefed on the report. “Was that actually true? The answer is no.”

Current and former U.S. officials who described the report spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue and because the document remains classified. The 6,300-page report includes what officials described as damning new disclosures about a sprawling network of secret detention facilities, or “black sites,” that was dismantled by President Obama in 2009.

Classified files reviewed by committee investigators reveal internal divisions over the interrogation program, officials said, including one case in which CIA employees left the agency’s secret prison in Thailand after becoming disturbed by the brutal measures being employed there. The report also cites cases in which officials at CIA headquarters demanded the continued use of harsh interrogation techniques even after analysts were convinced that prisoners had no more information to give. [Continue reading...]

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Senate CIA torture report could throw Gitmo hearings into chaos

Jason Leopold reports: The possible declassification and release of a Senate report into the CIA’s detention and interrogation program — begun in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks — could have a huge impact on the controversial military tribunals happening at Guantánamo Bay, experts and lawyers believe.

The proceedings have been moving at a snail’s pace at the U.S.-held military base on the island of Cuba, amid widespread condemnation that they are being held in a legal limbo and outside the U.S. criminal justice system.

Details surrounding the CIA’s activities have been one of the most contentious issues concerning the commissions at Guantánamo, where the alleged mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and his co-defendants are on trial. Their alleged treatment while in CIA custody has been a key stumbling block in the hearings’ progress. The same goes for the man alleged to be behind the USS Cole bombing, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, another former CIA captive.

In both cases, there have been dozens of delays — mainly due to the fact that the attorneys have been battling military prosecutors over access to classified information about the CIA interrogation program that the attorneys want to use as evidence. Both cases have been dragging on for two years and are still in the pretrial evidentiary phase.

But now that the Senate Intelligence Committee appears set to vote on releasing its long-awaited 6,300-page, $50 million study — or at least some portion of it — the defense attorneys will finally get the opportunity to talk openly at the military commissions about torture. That could prove disastrous for military prosecutors. According to defense attorneys and human rights observers who have been monitoring the proceedings, it might also derail the government’s attempts to convince a jury that the detainees, if convicted, deserve to be executed. [Continue reading...]

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UN slams U.S. for torture, NSA spying

n13-iconAl Jazeera reports: A wide-ranging United Nations report released Thursday strongly criticizes the United States for a host of human rights concerns — from jailing the homeless and sentencing juveniles to life sentences, to drone warfare and spying by the National Security Agency.

While the U.N. praised some steps the U.S. government has taken, like curbing human trafficking and a 2009 ban on Central Intelligence Agency torture and secret detention, the report’s authors found the U.S. wanting on 25 human rights issues.

“The U.S. is adept at demanding human rights change from other governments, while failing to meet international standards itself,” said Jose Luis Diaz, Amnesty International representative at the United Nations.

Diaz welcomed the U.N.’s recommendations on torture transparency and calls for ending the death penalty nationwide, as well as limiting the use of solitary confinement in U.S. prisons. [Continue reading...]

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America’s regime of institutionalized torture

o13-iconSadhbh Walshe writes: Sarah Shourd still has nightmares about the 13 months she spent in solitary confinement in Iran. “It reduces you to an animal-like state,” she tells me. Shourd recalled the hours she spent crouched down at the food slot of her cell door, listening for any sign of life. Or pounding on the walls until her knuckles bled. Or covering her ears to drown out the screams – the screams she could no longer distinguish as her own – until she felt the hands of a prison guard on her face, trying to calm her.

Shourd was captured by the Iranian government in 2009, along with her now husband Shane Bauer and their friend Josh Fattal, when they accidentally crossed over the border during a long vacation hike. The three have just released a book called A Sliver of Light about their subsequent incarceration. Shourd spent less time in Evin prison than Bauer and Fattal, but she was held in solitary confinement for her entire stay. Her devastating account of how this isolation almost caused her to unravel will, no doubt, shock many American readers. They should be even more shocked, however, to know that there are tens of thousands of prisoners held in isolation in American prisons every day – and the conditions to which they’re subjected are not much better than Shourd’s in Iran.

Indeed, ‘the hole’ in the US is sometimes even worse than the worst public horror stories.

Scientific studies have shown that it can take less than two days in solitary confinement for brainwaves to shift towards delirium or stupor (pdf). For this reason, the United Nations has called on all countries to ban solitary confinement – except in exceptional circumstances, and even then to impose a limit of no longer than 15 days so that any permanent psychological damage can be averted. Shourd spent a total of 410 days in solitary and was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder after her release. She still has trouble sleeping. But since returning home, she has spent much of her time trying to draw attention to the plight of more than 80,000 Americans who are held in isolation on any given day, some of whom do not count their stay in days or months, but in years and even decades. [Continue reading...]

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Inside the Senate report on CIA interrogations

f13-iconJason Leopold reports: A still-classified report on the CIA’s interrogation program established in the wake of 9/11 sparked a furious row last week between the agency and Senate Intelligence Committee chairwoman Dianne Feinstein. Al Jazeera has learned from sources familiar with its contents that the committee’s report alleges that at least one high-value detainee was subjected to torture techniques that went beyond those authorized by George W. Bush’s Justice Department.

Two Senate staffers and a U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the information they disclosed remains classified, told Al Jazeera that the committee’s analysis of 6 million pages of classified records also found that some of the harsh measures authorized by the Department of Justice had been applied to at least one detainee before such legal authorization was received. They said the report suggests that the CIA knowingly misled the White House, Congress and the Justice Department about the intelligence value of detainee Zain Abidin Mohammed Husain Abu Zubaydah when using his case to argue in favor of harsher interrogation techniques.

The committee’s report, completed in 2012, must go through a declassification review before any part of it may be released, but conflicts between the CIA — the original classification authority for the documents on which the report is based — and the Senate Intelligence Committee have complicated the process. Even if the report was declassified, releasing it would require Senate approval, and it’s not clear that Feinstein, a California Democrat, could muster enough votes to do so. President Barack Obama last week expressed support for releasing the report “so that the American people can understand what happened in the past … That can help guide us as we move forward.”

CIA Director John Brennan delivered a rebuttal to the report last June, more than four months after a deadline imposed by the Intelligence Committee. The 120-page CIA response, which addresses what the agency says are flaws in the Senate report, also remains classified. [Continue reading...]

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Obama’s duty is to defend the Constitution, not the CIA

Steve Coll writes: In the vestibule of Room 211 of the Hart Senate Office Building, just to the north of the Capitol, a cop guards an inner door that requires a numerical code to open it. The room, where the staff of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence sits, is called a “skiff,” for “sensitive compartmented information facility.” Last week, Senator Dianne Feinstein, the committee’s chair, described secret documents that are now apparently stored in the office. She did so publicly, during a remarkable jeremiad on the Senate floor, which was part “Homeland” treatment, part grand-jury instruction. She recounted several years of maneuvering between the committee staff and the C.I.A., before announcing “grave concerns” that agency officers had broken the law and violated the Constitution during a struggle over the documents.

Feinstein called them the Panetta Review, in reference to the former C.I.A. director Leon Panetta, who left the agency in 2011. The documents were prepared by C.I.A. officers, and although their contents are secret, their subject matter is clear and vitally important: the true history of the brutal interrogation of about a hundred Al Qaeda leaders and suspects at offshore C.I.A. “black sites” between roughly 2002 and 2006, on orders of the Bush Administration. The interrogations included the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques,” such as waterboarding, which constituted torture in the judgment of the Red Cross and many other authorities. Feinstein suggested that the Panetta Review may illuminate still disputed issues; namely, whether the program produced significant intelligence, whether the C.I.A. lied to Congress about it, and how cruel and degrading the black sites really were.

Barack Obama ended the program on his second day in office, in 2009, denouncing it as torture. Yet he also signalled that he would not hold the C.I.A. or its career officers accountable for the past. Moreover, he decided to advance the C.I.A.’s role in counterterrorism, which complicated the options for examining the interrogation program. The C.I.A.’s Counterterrorism Center ran the sites. It also managed the agency’s drone program and the hunt for Osama bin Laden. Obama called its officers into action, ordering drone strikes in Pakistan and encouraging the agency to finally find bin Laden, which it did, in 2011. For the President to have investigated some of the same personnel for past complicity in torture would have been awkward. [Continue reading...]

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