Trump poised to lift ban on CIA ‘black site’ prisons

The New York Times reports: The Trump administration is preparing a sweeping executive order that would clear the way for the C.I.A. to reopen overseas “black site” prisons, like those where it detained and tortured terrorism suspects before former President Barack Obama shut them down.

President Trump’s three-page draft order, titled “Detention and Interrogation of Enemy Combatants” and obtained by The New York Times, would also undo many of the other restrictions on handling detainees that Mr. Obama put in place in response to policies of the George W. Bush administration.

If Mr. Trump signs the draft order, he would also revoke Mr. Obama’s directive to give the International Committee of the Red Cross access to all detainees in American custody. That would be another step toward reopening secret prisons outside of the normal wartime rules established by the Geneva Conventions, although statutory obstacles would remain. [Continue reading…]

The Daily Beast reports: “The President can sign whatever executive orders he likes. But the law is the law. We are not bringing back torture in the United States of America,” said Republican Senator John McCain, himself a victim of torture at the hands of his Vietnamese captors.

“We haven’t engaged in waterboarding since 2004…We haven’t used black sites since President Bush emptied the black sites, and we’ve somehow managed to keep our country safe,” said former CIA chief of staff Jeremy Bash, in answer to a Daily Beast question. “I have picked up precisely zero appetite for doing that again from intelligence officers,” a sentiment echoed by other former intelligence officers.

“With respect to torture, that’s banned,” Senate Republican Conference Chair John Thune told reporters Wednesday afternoon. “We view that to be a matter of settled law.” [Continue reading…]

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The Senate torture report must be saved

Senators Carl Levin and Jay Rockefeller write: In President Obama’s final national security speech on Tuesday, he spoke about the importance of staying true to our values, of not returning to torture, and of transparency. Now, in his remaining time in office, he has an opportunity to take action to advance these goals and to do something of great importance for the public’s understanding of our history. He has the ability to protect the Senate Intelligence Committee’s full 6,700-page report on torture from being lost, perhaps forever.

Given President-elect Donald J. Trump’s unconscionable campaign pledge to “bring back waterboarding” and “a hell of a lot worse” — acts that would be illegal if carried out — President Obama’s leadership on this issue has never been more important.

Drawing on our decades of work in the Senate and our chairmanships of the Armed Services and Intelligence Committees, we are calling on President Obama to preserve the full torture report as a matter of profound public interest. We are not asking him to necessarily agree with all of the report’s findings, though we certainly hope he does, but we are asking him to protect it as an important piece of history.

The president could do this simply by allowing departments and agencies that already possess the document to enter it as a federal record, making it much more difficult for a future administration to erase. [Continue reading…]

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More Americans support torture than Afghans, Iraqis and South Sudanese. Why?

The Washington Post reports: The United States has a higher tolerance for torture than any other country on the U.N. Security Council, and Americans are more comfortable with torture than citizens of war-ravaged countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq and Ukraine.

Those are two key findings reported by the International Committee of the Red Cross on Monday, in a new report highlighting global perspectives on war.

The American willingness to use torture was part of a worrying trend identified by the ICRC — a growing belief globally that enemy combatants can be tortured for information. When researchers asked that question in 1999, just 28 percent of respondents said enemy combatants could be tortured. This year, 36 percent said it was justified.

That finding has raised concern, ICRC researchers said, about the role of international law in the world’s numerous armed conflicts. The report said the rules of armed conflict, like the Geneva Conventions, “are being questioned perhaps more than at any time in recent history.”

But there’s also a shocking lack of awareness that those rules exist — 39 percent of the Americans who supported torture told the ICRC they “didn’t realize my country had agreed to ban torture” as a signatory to the Geneva Conventions. [Continue reading…]

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When doctors first do harm

M. Gregg Bloche writes: President-elect Donald J. Trump on Tuesday expressed reservations about the use of torture. But he did not disavow the practice, or his promise to bring it back. And if he does, C.I.A. doctors may be America’s last defense against a return to savagery. But they’ll need to break sharply with what they did the last time around.

Buried in a trove of documents released last summer is the revelation that C.I.A. physicians played a central role in designing the agency’s post-Sept. 11 torture program. The documents, declassified in response to an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit, show in chilling detail how C.I.A. medicine lost its moral moorings. It’s long been known that doctors attended torture as monitors. What’s new is their role as its engineers.

The documents include previously redacted language from a directive by the C.I.A.’s Office of Medical Services telling physicians at clandestine interrogation sites to flout medical ethics by lying to detainees and collaborating in abuse. This language also reveals that doctors helped to design a waterboarding method more brutal than what even lawyers for the George W. Bush administration allowed. [Continue reading…]

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McCain warns Trump on torture, waterboarding

Politico reports: Republican Sen. John McCain issued a fiery warning to President-elect Donald Trump on the subject of torture Saturday.

“I don’t give a damn what the president of the United States wants to do. We will not waterboard,” McCain told an audience at the annual Halifax International Security Forum. “We will not torture people … It doesn’t work.”

Trump has repeatedly said that he would use much harsher measures against suspected terrorists. “We have to fight fire with fire,” he said at a June campaign rally, adding that the U.S. would have to “fight so viciously and violently” against the Islamic State.

“What do you think about waterboarding?” Trump asked the crowd, which cheered his answer: “I like it a lot. I don’t think it’s tough enough.” [Continue reading…]

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Mike Pompeo, Trump’s pick for CIA director, could take the agency back to its darkest days

Vox reports: President-elect Donald Trump has tapped Republican Rep. Mike Pompeo of Kansas to head the Central Intelligence Agency, putting a hawkish lawmaker who favors brutally interrogating detainees and expanding the American prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in charge of America’s premier spy agency.

Pompeo may be an unfamiliar name to many Americans, but he is well-known — and apparently generally well-respected — among intelligence professionals and well-liked by his colleagues on Capitol Hill.

The 52-year-old third-term Congress member serves on the House Intelligence Committee and played a prominent role the House Select Committee on Benghazi, which investigated Hillary Clinton for her role in the deaths of four Americans at the hands of Islamist terrorists in Benghazi, Libya, in 2012.

Pompeo was particularly harsh on Clinton during the hearings, and in a report afterward accused her of having “put politics ahead of people” and “focusing more on spin and media narrative before an election than securing American lives under attack by terrorists.”

As a member of Congress with experience working closely with — and at times strongly defending — the intelligence community, Pompeo’s nomination as CIA chief could bode well for the future relationship between the CIA and Congress, which has deteriorated in recent years over the CIA’s detainee program and feuds with its nominal overseers on Capitol Hill.

But Pompeo’s extremely hawkish views on critical national security issues, such as his support for keeping open the US prison at Guantanamo Bay; his defense of brutal CIA interrogation practices like waterboarding and “rectal feeding”; and his overwhelming focus on the dire threat of “radical Islamic terrorism” — all positions closely aligned with those of President-elect Trump and his new national security adviser, Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn — suggest he is not likely to be a particularly sobering or restraining force on the president-elect, particularly when it comes to controversial policies like torture and drone strikes.

Pompeo’s hawkish stance toward Russia, on the other hand, could be a major source of tension between him and the president-elect, who, along Flynn, seeks to develop closer ties with Russia, particularly in the fight against ISIS in Syria. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. forces may have committed war crimes in Afghanistan, prosecutor says

The New York Times reports: The prosecutor of the International Criminal Court said Monday that she had a “reasonable basis to believe” that American soldiers committed war crimes in Afghanistan, including torture.

The international prosecutor has been considering whether to begin a full-fledged investigation into potential war crimes in Afghanistan for years. In Monday’s announcement, the prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, signaled that a full investigation was likely.

Still, the prosecutor did not announce a final decision on an investigation, which would have to be approved by judges, and it is unlikely that the United States will cooperate. [Continue reading…]

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How Obama left the door open for Trump to resume torture

The New York Times reports: As a presidential candidate, Donald J. Trump vowed to refill the cells of the Guantánamo Bay prison and said American terrorism suspects should be sent there for military prosecution. He called for targeting mosques for surveillance, escalating airstrikes aimed at terrorists and taking out their civilian family members, and bringing back waterboarding and a “hell of a lot worse” — not only because “torture works,” but because even “if it doesn’t work, they deserve it anyway.”

It is hard to know how much of this stark vision for throwing off constraints on the exercise of national security power was merely tough campaign talk. But if the Trump administration follows through on such ideas, it will find some assistance in a surprising source: President Obama’s have-it-both-ways approach to curbing what he saw as overreaching in the war on terrorism.

Over and over, Mr. Obama has imposed limits on his use of such powers but has not closed the door on them — a flexible approach premised on the idea that he and his successors could be trusted to use them prudently. Mr. Trump can now sweep away those limits and open the throttle on policies that Mr. Obama endorsed as lawful and legitimate for sparing use, like targeted killings in drone strikes and the use of indefinite detention and military tribunals for terrorism suspects.

And even in areas where Mr. Obama tried to terminate policies from the George W. Bush era — like torture and the detention of Americans and other people arrested on domestic soil as “enemy combatants” — his administration fought in court to prevent any ruling that the defunct practices had been illegal. The absence of a definitive repudiation could make it easier for Trump administration lawyers to revive the policies by invoking the same sweeping theories of executive power that were the basis for them in the Bush years. [Continue reading…]

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Turkish government gave security services ‘blank cheque’ to use torture says Human Rights Watch

Reuters reports: Turkey has effectively written a “blank cheque” to security services to torture people detained after a failed military coup attempt, a U.S.-based rights group said on Tuesday, citing accusations of beatings, sleep deprivation and sexual abuse.

A report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) said a “climate of fear” had prevailed since July’s failed coup against President Tayyip Erdogan and the arrest of thousands under a State of Emergency. It identified more than a dozen cases raised in interviews with lawyers, activists, former detainees and others.

A Turkish official said the Justice Ministry would respond to the report later in the day; but Ankara has repeatedly denied accusations of torture and said the post-coup crackdown was needed to stabilise a NATO state facing threats from Kurdish militants as well as wars in neighbouring Iraq and Syria. [Continue reading…]

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How U.S. torture left legacy of damaged minds

The New York Times reports: Before the United States permitted a terrifying way of interrogating prisoners, government lawyers and intelligence officials assured themselves of one crucial outcome. They knew that the methods inflicted on terrorism suspects would be painful, shocking and far beyond what the country had ever accepted. But none of it, they concluded, would cause long lasting psychological harm.

Fifteen years later, it is clear they were wrong.

Today in Slovakia, Hussein al-Marfadi describes permanent headaches and disturbed sleep, plagued by memories of dogs inside a blackened jail. In Kazakhstan, Lutfi bin Ali is haunted by nightmares of suffocating at the bottom of a well. In Libya, the radio from a passing car spurs rage in Majid Mokhtar Sasy al-Maghrebi, reminding him of the C.I.A. prison where earsplitting music was just one assault to his senses.

And then there is the despair of men who say they are no longer themselves. “I am living this kind of depression,” said Younous Chekkouri, a Moroccan, who fears going outside because he sees faces in crowds as Guantánamo Bay guards. “I’m not normal anymore.”

After enduring agonizing treatment in secret C.I.A. prisons around the world or coercive practices at the military detention camp at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, dozens of detainees developed persistent mental health problems, according to previously undisclosed medical records, government documents and interviews with former prisoners and military and civilian doctors. Some emerged with the same symptoms as American prisoners of war who were brutalized decades earlier by some of the world’s cruelest regimes. [Continue reading…]

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Tunisian men detail CIA black site torture involving electric chair and more

The Guardian reports: Two Tunisian men held in secret CIA prisons for more than a year have told a leading human rights organization they were tortured with gruesome and previously unknown techniques.

The men, who were released to Tunisian custody in 2015, described being threatened with placement in an electric chair at a black site prison in Afghanistan in 2002; being beaten with metal batons while their arms were suspended by a bar above their heads; and having their heads pushed into barrels of water.

One of the men, Ridha al-Najjar, was a pivotal detainee for the CIA, which believed him to be a bodyguard for Osama bin Laden. Najjar was the first man taken by the CIA to the black site, which was code-named Cobalt and was where at least one detainee is known to have died. His interrogation became a template for others at the site, according to the CIA inspector general. Najjar said the interrogators forcibly inserted something into his anus.

According to a footnote in the 2014 Senate intelligence committee’s investigation into torture, John Brennan, now CIA director, was among the senior CIA officials briefed in the summer of 2002 on the interrogation plan for Najjar. According to the Senate report, the plan included isolation, “‘sound disorientation techniques’, ‘sense of time deprivation’, limited light, cold temperatures, and sleep deprivation”.

“There was a barrel full of water, and they kept submerging [my head] in the water,” the other Tunisian man, Lotfi al-Arabi El Gherissi, told Human Rights Watch, which shared the two men’s accounts with the Guardian. [Continue reading…]

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A stark reminder of Guantánamo’s sins

In an editorial, the New York Times says: It is haunting, maddening even, to revisit the facts of Abu Zubaydah’s time in American custody more than 14 years after he was detained in Pakistan in the frenzied period following the Sept. 11 attacks. Abu Zubaydah, the first prisoner known to have been waterboarded by the Central Intelligence Agency, loomed large in America’s imagination for years as the personification of evil.

On Tuesday, a small group of human rights advocates and journalists got a fleeting glimpse of Abu Zubaydah — the first since his detention — when he appeared before a panel of government officials to argue that he would not be a threat to the United States if he were released from the Guantánamo Bay prison in Cuba. The hearing, which civilians were allowed to watch part of from a live video feed, is an opportunity to reflect on the shameful tactics employed during years of national panic about terrorism and to reinvigorate efforts to close the prison.

George W. Bush’s administration believed that Abu Zubaydah, a bearded Saudi who wears a patch on his left eye, was the operations head of Al Qaeda. Mr. Bush singled him out in a 2006 speech, calling him a “senior terrorist leader,” and claiming that “the security of our nation and the lives of our citizens depend on our ability to learn what these terrorists know.” Abu Zubaydah and men like him, government officials argued, fully justified the facility at Guantánamo as well as a secret web of prisons run by the C.I.A. They also justified the “enhanced interrogation techniques,” otherwise known as torture, then eagerly embraced by some American intelligence officials.

Years later, it became clear that Abu Zubaydah wasn’t a top figure in Al Qaeda after all. It also became clear that he had willingly provided insights into terrorist groups when he was interrogated by F.B.I. agents, who treated him cordially. By the time he was turned over to the C.I.A., his knowledge about threats to the United States appears to have been largely exhausted. Yet agency personnel insisted on the need for torture, waterboarding him at least 83 times and subjecting him to other cruelty.

Never charged and never tried, Abu Zubaydah has also never been allowed to speak publicly about his ordeal. His American abusers have never been held to account. [Continue reading…]

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17,723 people have died in custody inside Syria’s prisons

Amnesty International reports: The horrifying experiences of detainees subjected to rampant torture and other abuse in Syrian government prisons are detailed in a damning new report published by Amnesty International today (18 August), which estimates that more than 17,723 people have died in custody in Syria over the past five years – an average of more than 300 people each month, about 10 a day.

The 69-page report, ‘It breaks the human’: Torture, disease and death in Syria’s prisons, documents the cases of 65 torture survivors who’ve described appalling abuse and inhuman conditions in detention centres operated by various Syrian intelligence agencies and in one of Syria’s most notorious jails, Saydnaya Military Prison, on the outskirts of Damascus. Most said they had witnessed prisoners dying in custody – some beaten to death – and several former detainees described being held in cells alongside dead bodies.

The majority of survivors told Amnesty that abuse would begin instantly upon their arrest and during transfers, even before they set foot in a detention centre. Upon arrival detainees described a “welcome party” ritual involving severe beatings, often using silicone or metal bars or electric cables. These were often followed by “security checks”, during which women in particular reported being subjected to rape and sexual assault by male guards. [Continue reading…]

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‘Abu Ghraib’-style images of children in detention in Australia trigger public inquiry

The Guardian reports: Australia’s prime minister has launched a public inquiry following the broadcast of footage of children in detention being abused, hooded and bound in a manner likened to Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay.

Malcolm Turnbull announced a royal commission hours after the national broadcaster aired shocking footage showing children in detention at the Don Dale facility outside Darwin in the Northern Territory.

Footage aired on the ABC’s Four Corners program on Monday showed one youth being stripped and physically held down by guards.

In another scene that the program compared with images from Guantánamo Bay or the Abu Ghraib jail in Baghdad, 17-year-old Dylan Voller was shown hooded and tied in a restraint chair for two hours. [Continue reading…]

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How a modest contract for ‘applied research’ morphed into the CIA’s brutal interrogation program

The Washington Post reports: The architect of the CIA’s brutal interrogation program was hired for the job through a secret contract in late 2001 that outlined the assignment with Orwellian euphemism.

The agency “has the need for someone familiar with conducting applied research in high-risk operational settings,” the document said. The consultant would be in a unique position to “help guide and shape the future” of a vaguely described research project “in the area of counter-terrorism and special operations.”

In fact, the CIA already had a specific consultant in mind, and the agreement to pay $1,000 a day to psychologist James E. Mitchell subsequently expanded into an $81 million arrangement to oversee the use of waterboarding, sleep deprivation and other harrowing techniques against al-Qaeda suspects in secret agency prisons overseas.

The abuses of that program have been documented extensively over the past decade, but the initial contracts between the CIA and the psychologists it hired to design the torturous interrogation regimen were surrendered by the agency for the first time earlier this month as part of an ACLU lawsuit. [Continue reading…]

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Syria: Abductions, torture and summary killings at the hands of armed groups

Amnesty International reports: Armed groups operating in Aleppo, Idleb and surrounding areas in the north of Syria have carried out a chilling wave of abductions, torture and summary killings, said Amnesty International in a new briefing published today.

The briefing ‘Torture was my punishment’: Abductions, torture and summary killings under armed group rule in Aleppo and Idleb, Syria offers a rare glimpse of what life is really like in areas under the control of armed opposition groups. Some of them are believed to have the support of governments such as Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the USA despite evidence that they are committing violations of international humanitarian law (the laws of war). It also sheds light on the administrative and quasi-judicial institutions set up by armed groups to govern in these areas.

“This briefing exposes the distressing reality for civilians living under the control of some of the armed opposition groups in Aleppo, Idleb and surrounding areas. Many civilians live in constant fear of being abducted if they criticize the conduct of armed groups in power or fail to abide by the strict rules that some have imposed,” said Philip Luther, Director of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Amnesty International. [Continue reading…]

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Uncovered: Dark new CIA torture claims

The Daily Beast reports: The CIA said it would only torture detainees to psychologically break them, according to a previously-unreported passage from a 2007 Justice Department memo. It’s a claim that’s at odds with how congressional investigators say the agency really handled captives in the early days of the war on terror.

And it’s not the only eye-opening assertion found in newly declassified portions of Bush-era documents on the CIA’s use of torture. A second document says that the CIA believed itself to be legally barred from torturing others countries’ detainees — but not from using so-called enhanced interrogations on its own captives.

In a passage from a 2007 memo by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, the CIA said it would only subject detainees to harsh techniques, such as waterboarding, in order to break a detainee down to the point where he would no longer withhold information. The interrogations weren’t designed to get answers to specific questions; in fact, the agency interrogator “generally does not ask questions… to which the CIA does not already know the answers,” the memo states.

But that claim is contradicted by the agency’s actual record, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, which sued the government to disclose the portions of the document. [Continue reading…]

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Rebecca Gordon: Justice for torturers?

If you happen to be a potential American war criminal, you’ve had a few banner weeks.  On May 9th, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter presented former Secretary of State and National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger with the Department of Defense Distinguished Public Service Award, that institution’s highest honorary award for private citizens.”  In bestowing it on the 92-year-old who is evidently still consulting for the Pentagon, he offered this praise: “While his contributions are far from complete, we are now beginning to appreciate what his service has provided our country, how it has changed the way we think about strategy, and how he has helped provide greater security for our citizens and people around the world.”

Certainly people “around the world” will remember the “greater security” offered by the man who, relaying an order from President Richard Nixon for a “massive” secret bombing campaign in Cambodia, used a line that may almost be the definition of a war crime: “Anything that flies on anything that moves.”  The result: half a million tons of bombs dropped on that country between 1969 and 1973 and at least 100,000 dead civilians.  And that’s just to start down the well-cratered road to the millions of dead he undoubtedly has some responsibility for.  Public service indeed.

Meanwhile, speaking of American crimes in the Vietnam era, former Nebraska Senator Bob Kerrey, who ran for president of the U.S. and then became the president of the New School in New York City, was just appointed to “lead” Fulbright University Vietnam, the first private American-backed school there.  Its opening was announced by President Obama on his recent visit to that country.  Only one small problem: we already know of some children who won’t be able to apply for admission.  I’m thinking of the progeny-who-never-were of the 13 children killed by a team of U.S. SEALs under Kerrey’s command and on his orders in South Vietnam in 1969 (along with a pregnant woman, and an elderly couple whose three grandchildren were stabbed to death by the raiders) — all of whom were reported at the time as dead Vietcong guerillas.

It seems that if you are a distinguished citizen of the most exceptional country on the planet, even war crimes have their rewards.  Consider, for instance, the millions of dollars that were paid for memoirs by top Bush administration officials responsible for creating an American offshore torture regime at CIA “black sites” around the world.  Must-reads all!  With that in mind, turn to TomDispatch regular Rebecca Gordon, author most recently of American Nuremberg: The U.S. Officials Who Should Stand Trial for Post-9/11 War Crimes, to consider what “justice” for such figures might look like in a different and better world. Tom Engelhardt 

Crimes of the War on Terror
Should George Bush, Dick Cheney, and others be jailed?
By Rebecca Gordon

“The cold was terrible but the screams were worse,” Sara Mendez told the BBC. “The screams of those who were being tortured were the first thing you heard and they made you shiver. That’s why there was a radio blasting day and night.”

In the 1970s, Mendez was a young Uruguayan teacher with leftist leanings. In 1973, when the military seized power in her country (a few months before General Augusto Pinochet’s more famous coup in Chile), Mendez fled to Argentina. She lived there in safety until that country suffered its own coup in 1976. That July, a joint Uruguayan-Argentine military commando group kidnapped her in Buenos Aires and deposited her at Automotores Orletti, a former auto repair shop that would become infamous as a torture site and paramilitary command center. There she was indeed tortured, and there, too, her torturers stole her 20-day-old baby, Simón, giving him to a policeman’s family to raise.

[Read more…]

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