Detainee treatment

  • April 16, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    President Obama promised but failed to shutter the Guantánamo Bay military prison and has refused to launch an investigation into the use of torture at the prison and other unknown or “black sites.” But groups like Human Rights Watch and many others, including inmates at the prison, strive to highlight the injustices and atrocities of the prison, rendition and military commissions.

    It’s not an easy endeavor in a nation where polls suggest that many people are not terribly concerned about the rights of people who the American government has labeled terrorist suspects. In a piece for The New York Times op-ed page that garnered notice, Samir Najl al Hasan Moqbel, a prisoner at Guantánamo for more than 10 years, explained his reasons for going on a hunger strike. He’s never been charged with a crime, he has been left to languish in a dark hole, where prison officials brutally force-feed him. “The situation is desperate now,” he writes. “All of the detainees are suffering deeply. At least 40 people are on a hunger strike. People are fainting with exhaustion every day. I have vomited blood.”

    It has been widely documented that military detainees have been tortured at Guantánamo and other unknown or “black” sites overseas, with the knowledge of top administration officials in the administration of George W. Bush. In 2011, Human Rights Watch issued a report documenting evidence that top Bush administration officials, including the president, approved of torture. (Office of Legal Counsel memoranda were eventually made public reveling the lengths attorneys took to justify torture.) The Constitution Project, as reported by The New York Times’ Scott Shane, has released an exhaustive report, more like a book, that adds “considerable detail” to the treatment of military detainees. See the group’s Task Force on Detainee Treatment.

    Another report from Seton Hall School of Law provides more evidence that the Guantánamo military tribunals are a sham.

    In “Spying on Attorneys at Gitmo,” the Seton Hall School of Law’s Center for Policy & Research, details a system of “surveillance and recording” devices in “designated attorney-client meeting rooms at the military prison.”

    Law Professor Mark Denbeaux, director of the law school’s policy and research center, said government surveillance of conversations between attorneys and military detainees greatly undermines the already wobbly legitimacy of the military commissions.

  • April 10, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    Though then-presidential candidate Barack Obama often blasted President George W. Bush’s expansion of presidential powers to fight terrorism, once in the White House he quickly embraced those powers which have only swelled during his tenure.

    Earlier this year, Bill Moyers, during a segment, “The Legal and Ethical Case Against Drones,” highlighted a comment President Obama gave early in his first term.

    “Our actions in defense of our liberty will be just as our costs, and that ‘We the People,’ will uphold our fundamental values as vigilantly as we protect our security,” Obama said. “Once again, America’s moral example must be the bedrock and the beacon of our global leadership.”

    The president’s rhetoric, however, does not mesh with what we are discovering about the ramped up use of Reaper and Predator drones to target suspected terrorists. Reporting by Mark Mazzetti for The New York Times provides insight into the “origins of a covert drone war that began under the Bush administration, was embraced and expanded by President Obama, and is now the subject of fierce debate.”

    Part of the debate includes whether the Obama administration has tossed aside some of the fundamental values the nation cherishes, such as due process and being a defender of human rights globally.

    A “white paper,” leaked earlier this year and made public by NBC is apparently a summary of a lengthier document prepared by a few attorneys in the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC). The white paper makes the argument that a high-ranking government official, like the president, can order the killing of a U.S. citizen integral to or associated with al Qaeda abroad if the person poses an “imminent threat of violent attack” against America, the person is unlikely to be captured and that the killing operation would be conducted in accordance with laws governing war.” The OLC white paper also asserts that no court oversight of the administration’s targeted killing regime is required.

    The Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights chaired by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) will conduct a hearing on April 16* to explore the “constitutional and counterterrorism implications of targeted killings.” According to a statement announcing the hearing, senators will “also explore proposals to increase transparency regarding U.S. drone policy and establish a legal architecture to regulate drone strikes.”

    The administration has endeavored to shroud its policy on drone warfare in secrecy, but release of the OLC white paper and the mounting numbers of civilians killed in drone strikes are making it more difficult to keep the policy under wraps. The ACLU has lodged a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit to force the administration to release the entire memo, for instance.  

    The escalation of drone warfare is likely also not helping Obama’s desire for America to remain a beacon of “global leadership.” As The Times’ Scott Shane reports, since taking office the CIA and military “have killed about 3,000 people in counterterrorist strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, mostly using drones.”

  • March 25, 2013
    Guest Post

    by Peter Jan Honigsberg, professor of law at the University of San Francisco and Director of the Witness to Guantanamo project and author of Our Nation Unhinged, the Human Consequences of the War on Terror

    Damien Corsetti was an interrogator at the Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan in 2002, where, according to The New York Times, he was known as the “King of Torture.”  In 2006, he was prosecuted for alleged abusive treatment he committed while an interrogator, but was acquitted.  Nevertheless, he told our Witness to Guantanamo project that he had mistreated his prisoners.

    When he began working in summer 2002, Corsetti believed in what he was doing.  He thought they were all guilty and, like most Americans, he was angry.  He explained how he had obtained information regarding several alleged plots through his interrogations in time for the U.S. to intervene and prevent the incidents from occurring.  He saved American lives.

    In the months that followed, however, he and other interrogators began to have doubts about their work. They asked a Judge Advocate General, or JAG lawyer, for advice.  The JAG attorney assured them that their actions were legal because the Bush administration had decided not to adhere to the Geneva Conventions. After hearing the JAG assessment, Corsetti felt obligated to follow orders.

    Corsetti told us how he would hood prisoners, tighten the cord at the neck, and then pour water over the hood.  The process wasn’t quite the same as “waterboarding,” but the detainees did experience the sensation of drowning or suffocating.

    He forced prisoners into extremely uncomfortable and awkward “stress positions” for hours.  He noted how the military later renamed the term “stress positions” to “safety positions,” explaining that the safety positions were for the safety of the interrogators and the military personnel on the base, not the detainees.

  • February 7, 2013
    Guest Post

    by Stephen Vladeck, Professor of Law and Associate Dean for Scholarship, Washington College of Law, American University

    The more that I grapple with the so-called “white paper” prepared by the Department of Justice to provide at least some overview of the legal rationale behind the targeted killing of U.S. citizen terrorism suspects such as Anwar al-Awlaki, the more I’m reminded of Justice Robert Jackson’s dissenting opinion in the Mezei case -- decided in March 1953 at the height of the Cold War. As Jackson there explained:

    Only the untaught layman or the charlatan lawyer can answer that procedures matter not. Procedural fairness and regularity are of the indispensable essence of liberty. Severe substantive laws can be endured if they are fairly and impartially applied. Indeed, if put to the choice, one might well prefer to live under Soviet substantive law applied in good faith by our common-law procedures than under our substantive law enforced by Soviet procedural practices.

    Although Jackson lost in Mezei, his understanding of due process eventually became hard-wired into the Supreme Court’s due process jurisprudence, culminating in a number of decisions in the 1970s in which the Court recognized that the heart of the Due Process Clause was an individual’s entitlement to a hearing before a neutral decision maker.

  • February 5, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    Federal courts have avoided legal challenges against President George W. Bush’s construction of counterterrorism policies that included extraordinary rendition where terrorism suspects were secretly shipped to countries well-known for employing torture. The Bush and Obama administrations urged the federal courts to dismiss legal challenges to extraordinary rendition and secret detention sites arguing that they would expose “state secrets.”

    But an exhaustive report from the Open Society Foundations’ Justice Initiative reveals the policies marketed as a way to protect Americans from terrorism, trampled human rights and produced fatally flawed information. Rendition, in particular, “stripped people of their most basic rights, facilitated gruesome forms of torture, at time captured the wrong people, and debased the United States’ human rights reputation world-wide,” write OSF’s Jonathan Horowitz and Stacy Cammarano  about the report.

    The federal government has refused to acknowledge participation in rendition and according to Horowitz and Cammarano more than 50 other governments were also involved though have refused to admit it. The initiative’s report details the brutality and senselessness of secret prisons and rendition.

    In "Globalizing Torture: CIA Secret Detention and Extraordinary Rendition," Amrit Singh, a senior legal officer of OSF’s Justice Initiative, states that “more than a decade after September 11, there is no doubt that high-ranking administration officials bear responsibility for authorizing human rights violations associated with secret detention and extraordinary rendition, and the impunity that they have enjoyed to date remains a matter of significant concern.”

    But because the government has used the so-called state-secrets privilege to scuttle lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of its counterterrorism work, it has until now been difficult to discern the scope of rendition, its number of victims and other government involvement.

    In the report’s executive summary, it is noted that “based on credible public sources and information provided by reputable human rights organizations, this report is the most comprehensive catalogue of the treatment of 136 individuals reportedly subjected to these operations. There may be many more such individuals, but the total number will remain unknown until the United States and its partners make the information publicly available.”