Time & Elections

From the article US Torture: Voices from the Black Sites by Mark Danner at NYRB on the report of the International Committee of the Red Cross on the treatment of detainees at Guantanamo Bay [pdf]:

We think time and elections will cleanse our fallen world but they will not. Since November, George W. Bush and his administration have seemed to be rushing away from us at accelerating speed, a dark comet hurtling toward the ends of the universe. The phrase “War on Terror”—the signal slogan of that administration, so cherished by the man who took pride in proclaiming that he was “a wartime president”—has acquired in its pronouncement a permanent pair of quotation marks, suggesting something questionable, something mildly embarrassing: something past. And yet the decisions that that president made, especially the monumental decisions taken after the attacks of September 11, 2001—decisions about rendition, surveillance, interrogation—lie strewn about us still, unclaimed and unburied, like corpses freshly dead.

How should we begin to talk about this? Perhaps with a story. Stories come to us newborn, announcing their intent: Once upon a time… In the beginning… From such signs we learn how to listen to what will come. Consider:

I woke up, naked, strapped to a bed, in a very white room. The room measured approximately 4m x 4m [13 feet by 13 feet]. The room had three solid walls, with the fourth wall consisting of metal bars separating it from a larger room. I am not sure how long I remained in the bed….

A man, unnamed, naked, strapped to a bed, and for the rest, the elemental facts of space and of time, nothing but whiteness.

InConvenient Questions!

On Friday, the US Justice Department, Barack Obama’s Justice Department, told a federal court that it shouldn’t consider the legal challenges of prisoners held at Bagram Prison near Kabul and under US control:

In a short legal filing, Justice Department lawyers said they planned to maintain the Bush administration’s claim that the roughly 600 prisoners held in Afghaninstan have no right to contest their detention in the courts. “The Government adheres to its previously articulated position,” the attorneys said.

Last year, the Supreme Court ruled that war-on-terror prisoners at Guantanamo Bay have the right to file court petitions because the U.S. has “de facto sovereignty” over the base, located on land leased from Cuba.

However, the Justice Department has argued that prisoners in Afghanistan, held at the Bagram Airbase outside Kabul, lack recourse to the courts because the U.S. does not have similar control over that region.

“Bagram is in a theater of war where the United States is engaged in active hostilities,” so extending those legal rights to the prisoners would be “impracticable,” Justice Department lawyers argued in a brief filed last November. They also argued that the habeas petitions are barred by the Military Commissions Act of 2006, a law Obama vocally opposed.   [more]

How large does the area of de facto sovereignty have to be?  Big as Bagram?  Bigger?

How big is a “theater of war” that isn’t a war on a nation but on an activity, i.e. terrorism?  Very, very big?

How difficult would it be, or should I say “impracticable”, for the US to set up a system for holding hearings in or around Bagram?

How long can the US hold prisoners in places like Bagram without hearings?  Till the war on terror is over?

NB:  The US is now handing over thousands of its prisoners to Iraq according to a security agreement that took effect on January 1st.  Do they remember or care that Iraq is known to torture and mistreat its prisoners?

Articles 10 and 12 of  The Geneva Convention govern the “transferrability” of prisoners of Afghanistan and Iraq.  Prisoners can only be transferrred between countries that are both signatories of the Convention.  The Republic of Afghanistan is not a signatory.  Prisoners cannot be transferred by an occupying authority into the hands of the country it occupies.  Iraq is occupied.

Back to Afghanistan.  When Canadian forces take prisoners, should they turn them over to the US when it’s widely known the Americans torture their prisoners?

I remember watching a movie that began with an trip into an Morrocan prison where infidels had languished for so long the bony hands of skeletons were clamped to the mouldering walls.

Please write to me if you have answers.


The word “Guantanamo” serves as shorthand among some Afghans for all the reasons they hate foreign troops, but the impending closing of the notorious prison has gotten surprisingly little attention in this country.

Nothing changed with last month’s U.S. presidential order to close Guantanamo, many people here say, because another prison inspires even greater fear: Bagram.

Even a man who could be expected to feel the most joy about Guantanamo closing, a former detainee who spent more than six years in the camp, quickly turns the conversation to the detention facility north of Kabul, inside the U.S. military base at Bagram.  [more]

Très Stupide

If Binyam Mohamed hadn’t been tortured in this scenario, it might be funny:

[UPDATED below]

A British ‘resident’ held at Guantanamo Bay was identified as a terrorist after confessing he had visited a ‘joke’ website on how to build a nuclear weapon, it was revealed last night.

Binyam Mohamed, a former UK asylum seeker, admitted to having read the ‘instructions’ after allegedly being beaten, hung up by his wrists for a week and having a gun held to his head in a Pakistani jail.

It was this confession that apparently convinced the CIA that they were holding a top Al Qaeda terrorist.

This is the British case that was in the news last week when the justices held that documents pertaining to Mohamed’s interrogation could not be made public because the US threatened to stop sharing intelligence with the British if they gave up its “state secrets”.  By the way, this was the policy of the Bush administration but Barack Obama has adopted it to the apparent dismay of the British court.

The “build a nuclear bomb” article in question was a satirical piece written by Barbara Ehrenreich, Rolling Stone journalist Peter Biskind and scientist Michio Kaku.  It claims that a nuclear weapon can be made ‘using a bicycle pump’ and with liquid uranium ‘poured into a bucket and swung round’.  It was published in the American magazine Seven Days and was later available on many websites.

 Don’t get me wrong, it wouldn’t be acceptable to torture someone for a better reason.  Still, this does add insult to injury.  If anyone thinks that the US has its hands tied because the real reasons for Mohamed’s detention and torture can’t be revealed in order to protect national security, think again.  The story is coming out anyway, as these stories so often do.  At this point, I can only think the US doesn’t want to acknowledge the sheer stupidity of its buffons-in-action,  post 9/11.  Better we should think they at least thought they had good reason to be freaked out, a lá that most serious and altruistic of torturers, Jack Bauer.

UPDATE:  The wonderfully lucid Glenn Greenwald provides an excellent synopsis of the way the Bush administration, and now the Obama adminisration, used the State Secrets Act –

What was abusive and dangerous about the Bush administration’s version of the States Secret privilege — just as the Obama/Biden campaign pointed out — was that it was used not (as originally intended) to argue that specific pieces of evidence or documents were secret and therefore shouldn’t be allowed in a court case, but instead, to compel dismissal of entire lawsuits in advance based on the claim that any judicial adjudication of even the most illegal secret government programs would harm national security.  That is the theory that caused the bulk of the controversy when used by the Bush DOJ — because it shields entire government programs from any judicial scrutiny — and it is that exact version of the privilege that the Obama DOJ yesterday expressly advocated (and, by implication, sought to preserve for all Presidents, including Obama).  


Love-Fifteen U.K.

I haven’t been a fan of any politician for a very long time.  I’m not a fan of Barack Obama’s though, yes, he is much better than George W. Bush, if that isn’t damning him with faint praise.  I haven’t posted much about Obama recently and I’ve been asking myself why.  The truth is, there’s not much going on that I find interesting.

Granted, Obama has made some good initial noises about closing Guantanamo and ending extraordinary rendition and torture.  I’m still in “wait and see” and “I’ll believe it when I see it” mode.  Don’t get me wrong, I’ll be happy if I see it.  But I’m not going to get ahead of myself.

There are some bad signs.  Obama’s expansion of Bush’s “faith-based” programs, for one.  I hate that.  Religion is quite powerful enough in the United States.  The administration doesn’t need its own religious instructors.

The President’s intentions with respect to Afghanistan gives me the heaves.

I’m glad Tom Daschle’s gone, not so much because I’m freaked out by his unpaid taxes – they all do that shit, they really do – but because there was never any reason to think that he was going to do what it’s gonna take to reform American health care and that led me to think, not unreasonably, that Obama isn’t really interested in doing a good job on that either.

Nor was I impressed at all by Obama’s attempt to get a bipartisan stimulus bill passed by selling out a part of the bill that would have provided free contraceptives to women in need – especially since it didn’t win him a damned thing from the Republicans – that’s smart politics?

All of that has seemed to obvious to be worthy of comment – apart from the Afghanistan situation.  But this really bugs me:  A British Court reluctantly decides not to publicize evidence of torture because of threats from the United States and the Obama administration thanks them.  WTF?

Here’s a bit of Glen Greenwald on that subject:

Andrew Sullivan notes this article from the BBC, reporting on threats made by the U.S. to punish Britain if British courts disclose what was done to one of its citizens, Binyam Mohamed, a former Guantanamo detainee who is suing the British Government for its complicity in his torture.  British judges “said they wanted the full details of the alleged torture to be published in the interests of safeguarding the rule of law, free speech and democratic accountability” — what are those strange things? — but decided not to do so because it was “persuaded that it was not in the public interest to publish those details as the US government could then inflict on the citizens of the United Kingdom a very considerable increase in the dangers they face at a time when a serious terrorist threat still pertains.”

So not only has our own Government erected an impenetrable wall of secrecy around what it has done, but is demanding that other countries do the same, upon threat of being punished.  As Sullivan said: “Torture is a cancer. It spreads through the legal system until it destroys the integrity of all of it. It will also destroy alliances if allowed to spread. The scale of that destruction has yet to be measured or understood. Obama has now drawn a line under it. But that is only the start of a process of recovery.”

 No kidding!  The rule of law has been under attack in the US for eight years and now Obama’s grateful that his country has applied the jackboot to the country of its birth? 

In a letter [pdf] to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, President of the ACLU Anthony Romero said, in part:

The claims made by the British justices that the United States continues to oppose publication of the judgment in the Binyam Mohamed case–to the point of threatening the future of U.S.-British intelligence cooperation–seems ompletely at odds with both the anti-torture and transparency executive orders signed by the President. We strongly urge you to clarify the position of the United States and remove any threat related to the publication of the court’s full judgment.

Indeed.  Clarify Madam Secretary of State and Mr. President.  As Mr. Romero says –

Hope is flickering. The Obama administration’s position is not change. It is more of the same. This represents a complete turn-around and undermining of the restoration of the rule of law. The new American administration shouldn’t be complicit in hiding the abuses of its predecessors.

So already, we’re left hoping for hope.

The judgment of the British High Court is here [pdf].  And here’s a bit of what the justices had to say:

Moreover, in the light of the long history of the common law and democracy which we share with the United States, it was, in our view difficult to conceive that a democratically elected and accountable government could possibly have any rational objection to placing into the public domain such a summary of what its own officials reported as to how a detainee was treated by them and which made no disclosure of sensitive intelligence matters. Indeed we did not consider that a democracy governed by the rule of law would expect a court in another democracy to suppress a summary of the evidence contained in reports by its own officials or officials of another State where the evidence was relevant to allegations of torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, politically embarrassing though it might be.


No reason has emerged, particularly in the light of the statement made by Ms Crawford to which we have referred at paragraph 12, why the United States Government has not itself put the matters contained in the redacted passage into the public domain. There has been ample time for the United States Government to do so.

In the circumstances, it is still difficult to understand how objection can properly be made to a court in the United Kingdom doing so in all the circumstances we have set out.


It was submitted to us by Mr David Rose that the situation had changed significantly following the election of President Obama who was avowedly determined to eschew torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and to close Guantanamo Bay. We have, however, been informed by counsel for the Foreign Secretary that the position has not changed. Our current understanding is therefore that the position remains the same, even after the making of the Executive Orders by President Obama on 22 January 2009 to which we have referred at paragraph 9 above. The concern of the United States pertains not to disclosure of the treatment of detainees that might be levelled against the administration of President Bush, but to the disclosure of information obtained through intelligence sharing. However, as we have observed the United States Government will still not make the information public.

The ball’s in your court now Mr. Obama.

Yoo & Obama’s Justice

OMG I can’t believe I missed this!  John Yoo still can’t shut up about his huge desire to place people outside the reach of the rule of law.  You’d think he’d be trying to keep a low profile these days.  But no …

The CIA must now conduct interrogations according to the rules of the Army Field Manual, which prohibits coercive techniques, threats and promises, and the good-cop bad-cop routines used in police stations throughout America. Mr. Obama has also ordered that al Qaeda leaders are to be protected from “outrages on personal dignity” and “humiliating and degrading treatment” in accord with the Geneva Conventions. His new order amounts to requiring — on penalty of prosecution — that CIA interrogators be polite. Coercive measures are unwisely banned with no exceptions, regardless of the danger confronting the country.

Eliminating the Bush system will mean that we will get no more information from captured al Qaeda terrorists. Every prisoner will have the right to a lawyer (which they will surely demand), the right to remain silent, and the right to a speedy trial.

The first thing any lawyer will do is tell his clients to shut up. The KSMs or Abu Zubaydahs of the future will respond to no verbal questioning or trickery — which is precisely why the Bush administration felt compelled to use more coercive measures in the first place. Our soldiers and agents in the field will have to run more risks as they must secure physical evidence at the point of capture and maintain a chain of custody that will stand up to the standards of a civilian court.

Relying on the civilian justice system not only robs us of the most effective intelligence tool to avert future attacks, it provides an opportunity for our enemies to obtain intelligence on us. If terrorists are now to be treated as ordinary criminals, their defense lawyers will insist that the government produce in open court all U.S. intelligence on their client along with the methods used by the CIA and NSA to get it. A defendant’s constitutional right to demand the government’s files often forces prosecutors to offer plea bargains to spies rather than risk disclosure of intelligence secrets.  [oh no, more]

If there was ever any doubt that John Yoo thinks it’s a great idea to torture detainees, it should be laid forever to rest:  “Coercive measures are unwisely banned with no exceptions, regardless of the danger confronting the country.”

Shorter John Yoo:  Oh NO, we can’t torture people, no exceptions, whatever will we do …?  The right to a lawyer, the right to silence and the right to a speedy trial for all?  What the fuck?  Rule of law you say?  Never heard of it.  Same goes for the Geneva Conventions.  That’s only for other folks.  They don’t apply to us …  If we get attacked it will be because of Barack!

Bush-ed Doctrine

Tom Englehardt:

On June 1, 2002, George W. Bush gave the commencement address at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. The Afghan War was then being hailed as a triumph and the invasion of Iraq just beginning to loom on the horizon. That day, after insisting the U.S. had “no empire to extend or utopia to establish,” the President laid out a vision of how the U.S. was to operate globally, facing “a threat with no precedent” — al-Qaeda-style terrorism in a world of weapons of mass destruction.

After indicating that “terror cells” were to be targeted in up to 60 countries, he offered a breathtakingly radical basis for the pursuit of American interests:

“We cannot put our faith in the word of tyrants, who solemnly sign non-proliferation treaties, and then systemically break them. If we wait for threats to fully materialize, we will have waited too long… [T]he war on terror will not be won on the defensive. We must take the battle to the enemy, disrupt his plans, and confront the worst threats before they emerge. In the world we have entered, the only path to safety is the path of action. And this nation will act… Our security will require transforming the military you will lead — a military that must be ready to strike at a moment’s notice in any dark corner of the world.”

This would later be known as Vice President Dick Cheney’s “one percent doctrine” — even a 1% chance of an attack on the U.S., especially involving weapons of mass destruction, must be dealt with militarily as if it were a certainty. It may have been the rashest formula for “preventive” or “aggressive” war offered in the modern era.

The President and his neocon backers were then riding high. Some were even talking up the United States as a “new Rome,” greater even than imperial Britain. For them, global control had a single prerequisite: the possession of overwhelming military force. With American military power unimpeachably #1, global domination followed logically. As Bush put it that day, in a statement unique in the annals of our history: “America has, and intends to keep, military strengths beyond challenge — thereby making the destabilizing arms races of other eras pointless, and limiting rivalries to trade and other pursuits of peace.”

In other words, a planet of Great Powers was all over and it was time for the rest of the world to get used to it. Like the wimps they were, other nations could “trade” and pursue “peace.” For its pure folly, not to say its misunderstanding of the nature of power on our planet, it remains a statement that should still take anyone’s breath away.

Read the whole thing at tomdispatch

Lotsa things Bush has said and done take my breath away.  What’s shocking to me is that many Americans seem to be breathing quite comfortably.

Torture for Another Purpose

More on US torture of its prisoners of war:

A chart of the Chinese methods [of torture], compiled in 1957 by an American sociologist, lists the methods, among them, “Sleep Deprivation,” “Semi-Starvation,” “Filthy, Infested Surroundings,” “Prolonged Constraint,” and “Exposure.”

The effects are listed, too: “Makes Victim Dependent on Interrogator,” “Weakens Mental and Physical Ability to Resist,” “Reduces Prisoner to ‘Animal Level’ Concerns,” and others.

On July 2, The New York Times reported that the chart had made a surprise return appearance, this time at Guantanamo Bay, where in 2002 it was used in a course to teach our military interrogators “Coercive Management Techniques,” to be used when interrogating detainees held there as prisoners in the “war on terror.”

In other words, we had adopted the inhumane tactics of enemies past, tactics we once were quick to call torture. Tactics created not to get at the truth but to manufacture lies that we then characterize as credible.

How can we expect this to be an effective way to extract real information from terrorists?

Since the accuracy and thus, usefulness, of information gathered after torturing one’s chosen victim has long been caste into extreme disrepute, does anyone besides me think that it has another purpose?  As in, an attempt to terrorize not only present-day captives, but also potential prisoners?  Surely no one, not even Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld ever thought to keep all this entirely under wraps.  Maybe that was never the intent.  Payback to the detainees, payback to the nations disputing with the US, overall humiliation and demoralization of anyone who would dare to attack America, in word or deed?  Or just a flat-out expression of sadistic vengeance for 9/11, perhaps in the belief that Americans wouldn’t notice much, or mind even if they noticed?

Or, in line with the notion of “coercive management”, is this just one more tool in the box for managing a large prison population?

I’m more and more inclined to believe something of the sort.

Legal Problems with Torture

Jane Mayer, author of The Dark Side: The Inside Story Of How The War On Terror Turned Into A War On American Ideals, on Bill Moyers’ Journal:

… to say that there’s a special exception here: we won’t torture except when we will torture, is a legal problem.

Yup.  Not much of a standard is it?

Mayer is good stuff.  Transcript of the interview here

UPDATE:  Jane Mayer at the New York Review of Books –

Seven years after al-Qaeda’s attacks on America, as the Bush administration slips into history, it is clear that what began on September 11, 2001, as a battle for America’s security became, and continues to be, a battle for the country’s soul.

Bush’s Ally

From John Bloom at the Globe and Mail:

President Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan is a refreshingly old-fashioned despot. He favours one-party rule, a police state based on fear, secret surveillance, summary arrest and interrogation of anyone too religious, rubber truncheons, electroshock treatment, needles under the fingernails, and, at least once, the boiling alive of a recalcitrant witness. Meanwhile, he makes long speeches to his parliament about how all opposition is treason and his enemies must be dismembered: “I’m prepared to rip off the heads of 200 people, to sacrifice their lives, in order to save peace and calm in the republic; if my child chose such a path, I myself would rip off his head.”

His megalomania is worthy of Tamerlane, the 14th-century Central Asian conqueror, statues of whom he has erected across Uzbekistan.

Since 2002, Mr. Karimov has been an ally of the U.S. in the “war on terror.” His website shows him in the company of George W. Bush and leading members of the Bush administration. Ever since he gave the U.S. control of his Khanbad military base in March, 2002, money, generals and congressmen have all poured in.

Earlier this year, Mr. Karimov promised to promote universal press freedom, in order to get European Union sanctions lifted. On June 2, he welcomed Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher, ostensibly to talk about increased aid and human rights, an area in which Mr. Boucher announced that Uzbekistan was showing progress.

The rest is here

“Der Spiegel” on Obama

Gerhard Spörl thinks Obama will be Number 44, but doesn’t sound completely impressed:

It was a ton to absorb — and what a stupendous ride through world history: the story of his own family, the Berlin Airlift, terrorists, poorly secured nuclear material, the polar caps, World War II, America’s errors, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, freedom. It’s amazing one could even pack such a potpourri of issues into sentences and then succeed in squeezing them all into the space of a speech that lasted less than 30 minutes.

So what still sticks? That Barack Obama is a passionate politician who is fixated on and takes very seriously his desire for a bit of uptopia and a better world. That he is an impressive speaker who knows how to casually draw his audience into his image of the world — one who doesn’t have any need to resort to the kind of cheap effects that tend to prompt the uproarious applause of an audience. That he is a typical American — an idealist in the true spirit of the American success story who is now very casually making his claim to become something akin to the president of the world.

He also could have said: We are a world power, the only one that exists on this planet at the moment, and I am going to act as if that were the case. But you’re also allowed to participate in the attempt to try to save the world — at least a bit of it.


George W. Bush is yesterday, the Texas version of the arrogant world power. Obama is all about today: the “everybody really just wants to be brothers and save the world” utopia. As for us, we who sometimes admire and sometimes curse this somewhat anemic, pragmatic democracy, we will have to quickly get used to Barack Obama, the new leader of a lofty democracy that loves those big nice words — words that warm our hearts and alarm our minds.  

Let’s allow ourselves to be warmed today, by this man at the Victory Column. Then we’ll take a further look.

Then there’s this from Gregor Peter Schmitz:

Obama’s advisors had long feared that his speech would play off as too “European” back home in the US. So it was peppered with phrases that could easily have been uttered by current US President George W. Bush. The aim was singular: to present the Europeans with a clear picture of the new challenges of the 20th century.

Obama spoke about terrorists who studied at university in Hamburg. About poorly secured nuclear material in Russia that could fall into the wrong hands and be used in Paris. About poverty in Somalia that could breed the terror of tomorrow.

It certain that in this part of the speech, Obama makes allowances for issues he knows play well with the Europeans. He dreams of a world without nuclear weapons. He is establishing a new tenor on the issue of climate change, which the current US administration continued to deny even existed until only recently. “Let us resolve that all nations, including my own, will act with the same seriousness of purpose as has your nation, and reduce the carbon we send into our atmosphere,” he said. The line drew the greatest applause of any other sentence he delivered in his speech.

But then he also spoke of the demands people in Europe had been expecting in his speech: 

  • More European aid in Afghanistan. “America can not do this alone,” he said. “The Afghan people need our troops and your troops.”  
  • Additional European support in Iraq: “The whole world should support the millions of Iraqis who seek to rebuild their lives, even as we pass responsibility to the Iraqi government and finally bring this war to a close.”  
  • Greater European participation in the war on terror — which won’t end under a President Obama, either. “If we could create NATO to face down the Soviet Union, we can join in a new and global partnership to dismantle the networks that have struck in Madrid and Amman; in London and Bali; in Washington and New York.”  

But what, precisely, is that supposed to mean? How many troops in Afghanistan? What kind of support for Iraq? And what will his new strategy against terrorists entail?

So far Obama has provided scarce details — and he has generated criticism in the US for not being more forthcoming with his ideas. For days now, his advisors have been warning that Obama is still just a presidential candidate and not the president. As such, he can only speak generally about his vision, and he can’t make any concrete policy proposals. But perhaps he also went too far in announcing that this was going to be a “keynote speech on trans-Atlantic” relations.