Torture victim vindicated

Maher Arar, a Syrian-born Canadian citizen, took his wife and two children on a beach vacation in Tunisia in September 2002. But he flew home alone early for his job as a software engineer. On a stopover at JFK Airport in New York en route to Montreal, Mr. Arar, now 36, was seized and interrogated by U.S. border agents. Informed by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police that Arar was suspected of Islamic extremism, U.S. intelligence officials held him incommunicado from his family for two weeks. Under the Bush administration’s program of “extraordinary rendition,” Arar was then sent to Syria, where he was tortured into signing a false confession. After 10 months in a rat-infested, underground cell the size of a grave, he was released without charge.

Since Arar’s return home, the Canadian government committed itself to investigating its role in this outrage. A two-year Commission of Inquiry led by Justice Dennis O’Connor found that a secret RCMP unit created shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, was responsible for first incorrectly labeling Arar as a terrorist and then overstating its case against him in documents given to the U.S. The head of the RCMP resigned over the incident.

On January 26, Prime Minister Stephen Harper publicly apologized for any role Canadian officials played in Arar’s terrifying ordeal. Canada agreed to compensate Arar $10.5 million plus $1 million for legal fees. As part of the negotiated settlement, PM Harper says his government accepts all 23 recommendations of the Commission of Inquiry, including an independent review of all RCMP information-sharing practices and the development of procedures for dealing with Canadians imprisoned overseas. “We cannot go back and fix the injustice that occurred to Mr. Arar, but we can make changes to lessen the likelihood that something like this will ever happen again,” Harper said.

In a press conference, Maher Arar said, “My suffering, the suffering of my family, did not end when I was released. The struggle to clear my name has been long and hard. My kids have suffered silently, and I feel that I owe them a lot.”

While Arar has been cleared of any suspicions in Canada, the U.S. government still has him, his wife and his children on a watch list so that they cannot travel in or over the United States or its territories. Arar said he avoids U.S. airspace as much as possible because he is afraid that the plane might have problems and have to land in the U.S., which might begin his ordeal all over again.

Mr. Arar is currently suing the U.S. government over his deportation to certain torture in Syria. The administration has stymied his lawsuit by claiming that to allow it to go forward would jeopardize U.S. state secrets. Perhaps most galling, even though it is an open secret that we send people to other countries for interrogation where they are sure to be tortured, the White House continues to claim that our actions are consistent with the Convention Against Torture—a treaty that explicitly prohibits such conduct.

The Arar case is the perfect storm of Bush administration arrogance and dishonesty, coalescing with its utter disregard for the principles of due process and human rights that once were the foundation of our republic. The contrast between the model of responsible and responsive governance in Canada and the defensive, lying posture of the White House on this matter of national character is one answer to the question: Why does the rest of the world hate us?

– edited from Brock Press (Canada) and the Salt Lake Tribune
PeaceMeal, May/June 2007

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

New law absolves Bush of war crimes

President Bush has succeeded in quietly pardoning himself and other members of his Administration of any crimes connected with the past torture and mistreatment of U.S. detainees. The “pardon” provision is buried in the Military Commissions Act of 2006 just passed by the House and Senate — Bush’s legislation to create new military tribunals and rules for terrorist detainees.

The new law strips detainees of the habeas corpus right to challenge their detention in court and allows evidence seized in this country or abroad without a search warrant to be admitted in trials. It broadens the definition of enemy combatants to include noncitizens living legally in the United States and in foreign countries as well as anyone — U.S. citizens included — who meets criteria defined by the president or secretary of defense.

In addition, the legislation weakens the War Crimes Act of 1996, a federal law that makes it a crime to mistreat detainees in violation of the Geneva Conventions. The legislation bans the most extreme interrogation methods used by the CIA and military, such as waterboarding — a technique used to simulate drowning, but it leaves a loophole for the president to determine the limits of torture by allowing him to set specific interrogation techniques. The bill not only allows the president to determine the meaning and application of the Geneva Conventions; it also strips the courts of jurisdiction to hear challenges to his interpretation. An amendment intended to prompt the Administration to say publicly what techniques it considers out of bounds failed.

The new law waters down the specification of torture under the War Crimes Act and also makes the weaker definition retroactive to Sept. 11, 2001. Ostensibly providing immunity from prosecution to CIA interrogators for past offenses, that provision also covers the president and other officials because it applies to any U.S. national.

Avoiding prosecution under the War Crimes Act has been an obsession of the Bush Administration since shortly after 9/11. In a January 2002 memorandum to the president, then-White House Counsel and now-Attorney General Alberto Gonzales pointed out the problem of prosecution for detainee mistreatment under the War Crimes Act. Gonzales understood that the specter of prosecution could hang over top Administration officials involved in detainee torture throughout their lives. Because there is no statute of limitations in cases where death resulted from the mistreatment, prosecutors far into the future, not appointed by Bush or beholden to him, would be making the decisions whether to prosecute.

Republicans argued that the new legislation would provide the necessary tools to fight a new kind of enemy. Democrats argued that the changes were being rushed through for political gain close to a major election and that they would fundamentally threaten the foundations of the American legal system and come back to haunt lawmakers as one of the greatest mistakes in history.

Overall, the new bill reallocates power among the branches of government, taking authority away from the judiciary and handing it to the president. Lawsuits challenging the legislation are inevitable, and critics — even Republicans — say substantial parts of it may well be rejected by the Supreme Court.

– compiled from the Chicago Sun-Times and The New York Times
PeaceMeal, Sept/October 2006

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

bukovsky.jpg (2753 bytes)Torture’s long shadow

by Vladimir Bukovsky

Cambridge, England – One nasty morning, Comrade Stalin discovered that his favorite pipe was missing. Naturally, he called in his henchman, Lavrenti Beria, and instructed him to find the pipe. A few hours later, Stalin found it in his desk and called off the search. “But, Comrade Stalin,” stammered Beria, “five suspects have already confessed to stealing it.”

This joke, whispered among those who trusted each other when I was a kid in Moscow in the 1950s, is perhaps the best contribution I can make to the current argument in Washington about legislation banning torture and inhumane treatment of suspected terrorists captured abroad. Now that President Bush has made a public show of endorsing Sen. John McCain’s amendment, it would seem that the debate is ending. But that the debate occurred at all, and that prominent figures are willing to entertain the idea, is perplexing and alarming to me. I have seen what happens to a society that becomes enamored of such methods in its quest for greater security; it takes more than words and political compromise to beat back the impulse.

This is a new debate for Americans, but there is no need for you to reinvent the wheel. Most nations can provide you with volumes on the subject. Indeed, with the exception of the Black Death, torture is the oldest scourge on our planet. That is why there are so many conventions against it. Every Russian czar after Peter the Great abolished torture upon being enthroned, and every time his successor had to abolish it all over again. The czars were hardly bleeding-heart liberals, but long experience in the use of these “interrogation” practices in Russia had taught them that once condoned, torture will destroy their security apparatus. They understood that torture is the professional disease of any investigative machinery.

Apart from sheer frustration and other adrenaline-related emotions, investigators in hot pursuit have enormous temptation to use force to break the will of their prey because they believe that, metaphorically speaking, they have a “ticking bomb” case on their hands. But, much as a good hunter trains his hounds to bring the game to him rather than eating it, a good ruler has to restrain his henchmen from devouring the prey, lest he be left empty-handed.

Investigation is a subtle process, requiring patience and fine analytical ability, as well as skill in cultivating one’s sources. When torture is condoned, these rare talented people leave the service, having been outstripped by less gifted colleagues with their quick-fix methods, and the service itself degenerates into a playground for sadists. Thus, in its heyday, Joseph Stalin’s notorious NKVD (the Soviet secret police) became nothing more than an army of butchers terrorizing the whole country, but incapable of solving the simplest of crimes. And once the NKVD went into high gear, not even Stalin could stop it at will. He finally succeeded only by turning the fury of the NKVD against itself. He ordered his chief NKVD henchman, Nikolai Yezhov (Beria’s predecessor), to be arrested together with his closest aides.

So, why would democratically elected leaders of the United States ever want to legalize what a succession of Russian monarchs strove to abolish? I have no answer to this question, but I do know that if Vice President Cheney is right and that some “cruel, inhumane or degrading” (CID) treatment of captives is a necessary tool for winning the war on terrorism, then the war is lost already. As someone who has been on the receiving end of the “treatment” under discussion, let me tell you that trying to make a distinction between torture and CID techniques is ridiculous.

Now it appears that sleep deprivation, as used on Guantanamo Bay captives, is “only” CID. Well, congratulations, comrades! It was exactly this method that the NKVD used to produce those spectacular confessions in Stalin’s “show trials” of the 1930s. At the end, the victim would sign any confession without even understanding what he had signed.

I know from my own experience that interrogation is an intensely personal confrontation, a duel of wills. This is precisely why torture occurs even when it is explicitly forbidden. How, then, can you force your officers and your young people in the CIA to commit acts that will scar them forever? For scarred they will be. Take my word.

Today, when the White House lawyers seem preoccupied with contriving a way to stem the flow of possible lawsuits from former detainees, I strongly recommend that they think about another flood of suits — from the men and women in your armed services or the CIA agents who have been or will be engaged in CID practices. Our rich experience in Russia has shown that many will become alcoholics or drug addicts, violent criminals or, at the very least, despotic and abusive fathers and mothers.

If America’s leaders want to hunt terrorists while transforming dictatorships into democracies, they must recognize that torture, which includes CID, has historically been an instrument of oppression — not an instrument of investigation or of intelligence gathering. No country needs to invent how to “legalize” torture; the problem is rather how to stop it from happening.

Vladimir Bukovsky, 63, spent nearly 12 years in Soviet prisons, labor camps and psychiatric hospitals for nonviolent human rights activities. He is the author of several books, including "Judgment in Moscow," and has lived primarily in Cambridge, England, since 1976. His article is edited from The Washington Post, 18 Dec. 2005, and was reprinted in PeaceMeal, Sept/October 2006.

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

Revisiting Abu Ghraib

After two years of relative silence, there is suddenly new interest in asking questions about Abu Ghraib prison. The Bush administration, which recently announced plans to shut the notorious prison and transfer detainees to other sites in Iraq, would like the world to believe that it has dealt with the abuse and that it's time to move on. But questions about what took place there — and who was responsible — won't end with Abu Ghraib's closure.

A spokesman for the Army's Criminal Investigation Command (CID) recently told Salon that the agency has reopened its investigation into Abu Ghraib "to pursue some additional information," after having called the case closed in October 2005. CID is the agency to which Spc. Joseph Darby handed over the first horrific images of detainee abuse at Abu Ghraib on Jan. 13, 2004.

An Army dog handler, Sgt. Michael Smith, 24, was sentenced March 22 to six months behind bars for using his snarling Belgian shepherd to torment prisoners at Abu Ghraib for his own amusement. Convicted of five charges including maltreatment of prisoners, Sgt. Smith could have gotten 8½ years in prison. Lawyers for Smith argued that he was only implementing policies approved by his superiors to soften up prisoners for interrogation. Smith said he wished he had gotten his orders in writing.

The Army recently blocked the retirement of Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller, the former Guantánamo, Cuba interrogation commander who allegedly brought tougher intelligence tactics to Abu Ghraib, pursuant to a request by two senators that he be kept on active duty so that he could face further questioning for his role in the detainee abuse scandal. Miller refused to testify at the dog-handler trials, invoking the military equivalent of the Fifth Amendment to shield himself from self-incrimination.

However, Col. Thomas Pappas, former commander of military intelligence at Abu Ghraib, has charged that Miller introduced the use of dogs and other harsh tactics at the prison. Col. Pappas was granted immunity from prosecution in exchange for his testimony at the trial of Sgt. Michael Smith.

U.S. Army Reserve Capt. Christopher Brinson is fighting a reprimand he received for his role in the abuse. Brinson, currently an aide to Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), supervised military police Cpl. Charles A. Graner Jr. — one of the ringleaders of the abuse, who was court-martialed and sentenced to 10 years in prison — and some of the other guards who have been convicted in the scandal. Brinson joins a growing chorus of Abu Ghraib figures who blame the higher command structure for what happened at the prison.

Salon has obtained and posted online the Army's forensic report of what happened at Abu Ghraib: dates, times, places, cameras and, in some cases, identities of the detainees and soldiers involved in the abuse. Included is an archive of 279 photos and 19 videos of Abu Ghraib abuse first gathered by the CID, along with information drawn from the CID's own timeline of the events depicted. See:

– edited from, 30 March 2006, and The Associated Press
PeaceMeal March/April 2006

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

U.S. losing friends over torture

by Edward M. Gomez

The seemingly unstoppable pattern of lies and lying about their lies that has become the hallmark of George W. Bush and his administration’s top officials, spokespersons, and supporters in the media reached something of a bizarre apotheosis the second week of November. As news analyst Michael Gawenda, writing in the Australian daily The Age, noted incredulously, “When the president of the United States, under repeated questioning and under pressure, has to declare, as he did [during a stop in Panama], ‘We do not torture,’ you know that even his allies in Congress no longer believe him.”

Bush’s Panama performance was “a sad spectacle,” snapped The Economist, the respected British news magazine that had endorsed Bush in the 2000 election. A stinging editorial, “How to Lose Friends and Alienate People,” criticized the way Bush administration officials have handled the torture controversy. Their approach, the publication scoffed, “beggars belief.”

Not lost on many foreign observers is the unmistakable — and now well-documented — role Vice President Dick Cheney has played in formulating and tirelessly advocating the Bush administration’s torture policy. In the Jamaica Observer, columnist Wayne Brown wrote: “I don’t know how else to put this: Is ... Dick Cheney mad? And has his titular boss, G.W. Bush, started all unawares down the road to impeachment? It may be too soon to answer those questions, but not to begin asking them.”

A commentator in Saudi Arabia’s Arab News, citing the U.S. military prison camp at Guantánamo, Cuba, noted: “By all accounts, appalling torture and ill treatment were committed against detainees, who were denied due process, prisoner-of-war status, and the protection of the Geneva Conventions. Reportedly, dozens of suicide attempts and massive ‘self-harm action’ were thwarted by the military when detainees tried to hang themselves with bedding or clothing, with one attempt resulting in permanent brain damage.” Similarly, The Washington Post’s revelation that “the C.I.A. maintains a string of jails [in Eastern European countries], where it can keep people indefinitely and in secret, only heightens the suspicion that ... Cheney wants the agency to keep using ‘enhanced interrogation techniques.’ These include ‘waterboarding,’ or making a man think he is drowning.”

Revelations of torture carried out by U.S. personnel overseas “are all the more shocking because the United States, given its unrivaled status as a big power, sets the tone for what is acceptable behavior for other governments worldwide,” an Arab News commentator observed. “When it is dismissive of the rule of law and the sanctity of human rights ... it grants license to other governments to commit similar abuses, like those in Israel and Uzbekistan, Syria and Nepal.”

The Economist admonished: “[T]he loss to America in terms of public opinion [is] clear and horrifically large. Abu Ghraib was a gift to the insurgency in Iraq; Guantánamo Bay and its dubious military commissions ... have acted as recruiting sergeants for al-Qaeda around the world. In the cold war, America championed the Helsinki human-rights accords. This time, the world’s most magnificent democracy is struggling against vile terrorists who thought nothing of slaughtering thousands of innocent civilians — and yet the [Bush] administration has somehow contrived to turn America’s own human-rights record into a subject of legitimate debate.”

As The Age’s Gawenda puts it, that debate over the Bush administration’s tolerance of — or apparent enthusiasm for — torture and the fact that such activity by Americans is being carried out at all is “about chickens coming home to roost. It’s about the growing realization in America that the systematic abuse and torture of prisoners and detainees held by the U.S. around the world is a direct consequence of administration policies and directives.”

For the Jamaica Observer’s Wayne Brown, Bush’s “we do not torture” utterance was “a lie so stark, so beyond-brazen, that one cringed to watch him say it.” Ultimately, the Jamaican columnist also lamented “[t]he belated explosion of American shame over ... Bush’s torture policy ... for which his presidency will be remembered, along with the unprovoked attack which destroyed a whole country — and has so far gotten 15,000 American boys killed or crippled.”

In an increasingly violent world, it may be that the price of Bush’s torture policy is merely waiting to be extracted. That payback will come if or when any of America’s growing number of enemies ever captures any U.S. soldiers or other personnel and mistreats them. If or when that day comes, Washington will have no good argument to make about the illegality of the horror.

Author, artist, and critic Edward M. Gomez is a former diplomat and multi-lingual correspondent for TIME magazine. His article (edited here) was posted on SF, Nov. 15, 2005.

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

‘Quaint’ Gonzales must go

The Senate must reject President Bush’s nomination of Alberto Gonzales to succeed John Ashcroft as Attorney General of the United States. No amount of explaining by Mr. Gonzales can eradicate the shameful record that makes him unfit to be America’s chief law-enforcement officer. Mr. Gonzales’s advisory memos, which factored into the White House decision to set aside the Geneva Conventions and other laws as part of the global war on terrorism, have documented his willingness to sacrifice the rule of law for the political positions of his boss.

As White House counsel, Mr. Gonzales played a key role in pushing the administration to brand the Geneva Conventions "obsolete" and "quaint" and to unilaterally declare them inapplicable to al-Qaida and the Taliban. He also played a key role in the decision to use Guantanamo Bay as a global detention facility because it was believed to be outside the reach of U.S. courts and the rule of law. The U.S. Supreme Court held otherwise in June 2004.

Perhaps most disturbingly, Mr. Gonzales sat at the apex of the storm that swirled within the Bush administration’s legal ranks over the use of "coercive interrogation" practices and torture to extract information from detainees in Cuba, Afghanistan, and Iraq. One of the "torture memos," produced for Gonzales by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, argued that the president had power outside of the Constitution as commander in chief to nullify both the Geneva Conventions and the federal war crimes statute whenever he deemed it necessary. Another memo, produced by the Defense Department’s lawyers, opined that an interrogator was "guilty of torture only if he act[ed] with the express purpose of inflicting severe pain or suffering on a person within his custody or physical control." Together, these legal memoranda and policies adopted by the Bush administration on Mr. Gonzales’s watch had the effect of eviscerating the nation’s institutional, moral, and legal constraints on the treatment and interrogation of prisoners.

President Bush and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld may not have personally ordered the abuses at Abu Ghraib, but on advice from lawyers like Mr. Gonzales, they adopted policies that set the conditions for those abuses and for the worst scandal to affect the U.S. government since Watergate. Inquiry into Mr. Gonzales’s role in creating the Administration’s flawed legal policies in the war on terrorism has so far been prevented by President Bush with a variety of legal tactics, including claims of executive privilege and attorney-client privilege.

And despite the incredible damage done by this scandal to our country’s political and moral standing in the world, not to mention our prospects of winning the hearts and minds of people in the Middle East, no one of any significance has yet answered for these policies. On the contrary, it appears many of the lawyers responsible for Abu Ghraib have been rewarded: Office of Legal Counsel chief Jay Bybee now sits as a judge on the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals; Pentagon General Counsel William Haynes II was nominated (but not confirmed) for a seat on the 4th Circuit; and now Mr.Gonzales is in line to be promoted, too.

The Gonzales nomination is being actively opposed by Veterans for Common Sense, an organization comprising military veterans who have served in every U.S. conflict since 1941. VCS believes that approval of this nomination will do harm to the United States’ standing in the world and further damage the honor of the U.S. military, which has already suffered as a result of the torture scandal in Iraq. Secretary of State (and former General) Colin Powell himself rebutted one of Mr. Gonzales’s memos. Powell correctly noted that by failing to apply the Geneva Conventions to our enemies, we not only fail to take the high moral ground, but place our own troops at risk of being treated in like manner.

Confirmation hearings on the Gonzales nomination are expected in January 2005. We encourage you to write personal letters to your Senators opposing the nomination.

– information from and Veterans for Common Sense
PeaceMeal Nov/December 2004

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)