Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Obama's Executive Orders on Guantanamo and the Question of Prosecutions

+++ Update: Here's a link to the draft executive order's text +++

Like attacking a hydra with many heads, the new administration is planning to take its first whacks at the torture regime set up by the Bush Administration. It's most infamous manifestation lies 90 miles off the U.S. coast at Guantanamo Naval Base, Cuba.

Today, the government ordered a 120-day suspension of the military tribunal hearings of the Guantanamo detainees, as well as lesser delays in habeas hearings filed by attorneys on behalf of some of the prisoners.

Now, breaking news reported at ABC News, reports that tomorrow we will see three executive orders issued by President Obama aimed at the closure of Guantanamo "within a year", and promising immediate changes in the procedures and policies surrounding interrogation of detainees, and the conditions of their detention.

The ABC article is vague on whether the CIA will be included as regards changes in interrogation policies.
It is unlikely, but possible, that the new administration would in the first week expressly prohibit some interrogation techniques or refer to new legal parameters for the CIA program.
Of late, legislation has been introduced into Congress that would hold all U.S. interrogations, including those held by the CIA, to guidelines established in the Army Field Manual. The recent version of the manual is, despite assurances by former Bush administration, Pentagon, and some human rights officials, seriously flawed, allowing for solitary confinement/isolation, sleep and sensory deprivation, and manipulation and creation of fears, among other coercive interrogation techniques. Physicians for Human Rights and The Constitution Project have both called for serious revision to the manual.

The Executive Director for Center for Constitutional Rights, Vincent Warren, was quick to respond to news of the proposed executive order to close Guantanamo. (CCR has been the central organization in organizing the defense of the Guantanamo detainees, gathering over 400 pro bono attorneys from all over the U.S. to help represent them.
"It only took days to put these men in Guantanamo, it shouldn't take a year to get them out.

We are proud that President Obama made addressing Guantanamo one of his first acts in office. Yet we are disappointed that he outlined no concrete steps for closing the base and gave his administration an entire year to sort out its plans - meaning that some men could have been detained indefinitely in terrible conditions for eight full years. Surely he could do better.

President Obama should commit to dismantling the military commissions, not just suspending them, and to prosecuting any cases before federal criminal courts - real courts with real laws."
A lot of the discussion about closing Guantanamo has to do with the disposition of its prisoners, how or where they would be tried, where they would go if released, etc. Outside of these important questions, the existence of these men, many or most of them who have been tortured, held without rights, is an embarrassment and an accusation against the system that kidnapped many of them and then held them incommunicado for years, with no right of redress, without charges, without hope. They were held in abusive conditions that amount to psychological torture. Many of them were tortured under interrogation.

Despite some recent releases, there are over 240 prisoners still languishing at Guantanamo, and over 600 at Baghram Air Base in Afghanistan. A true accounting of the number of prisoners held by the military and CIA is not available.

What do the proposed executive orders from Obama portend? Until we see the final drafts, it may be presumptuous to say. But while they mark a real change from the policies of the Bush administration, it is not clear how far they will really go. Will the CIA be forced to give up their "enhanced interrogation techniques", i.e., their right really to do what they damn well please when they interrogate prisoners, up to and including torture (even if they swear they never torture, that waterboarding, for instance, is not torture, etc.)? What procedures are proposed for the closure of Guantanamo? Will habeas be fully restored? Will isolation as a matter of policy, and other abusive procedures at Guantanamo be ended? What will be the standard for interrogation? Will the military commissions be ended?

The Prosecutions Issue

The story of the unraveling of the torture network built by Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, the CIA and others, will take place in the light of an ongoing push by many for prosecutions of Bush administration officials for torture. Obama has indicated he is not disposed to pursue such prosecution. It's possible, as the ACLU has proposed, that ongoing investigations left over from the spate of Bush WH scandals will metamorphosize into something bigger, a large scale investigation into wrong-doing by the administration or the Pentagon/CIA.

Hence, according to the New York Times:
Obama is facing even more intense pressure from liberal, human-rights and civil-liberties groups to allow some kind of investigation into the Bush administration's terrorism policies.

Chris Anders, senior legislative counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union, said it would be a simple matter to start such an inquiry because the Justice Department's special prosecutor, John Durham, is already investigating whether the CIA acted illegally when it destroyed videotapes of its harsh interrogations. Anders said Durham's mandate could be expanded to look into whether the interrogations depicted on the tapes were illegal.
Most recently, according to a Reuters report earlier this month, Durham stated in a court filing that his probe of the CIA destruction of videotapes of the "harsh" interrogations of Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri was nearing an end. "A considerable portion" of the work is now done, but some witnesses still need to be interviewed. (Link to Durham's filing)

Durham made the court filing as part of a FOIA lawsuit by the James Madison Project requesting a release of the documents associated with the tapes destruction. The CIA had asked the court for a delay until February 28, the latest date Durham states his investigation will be finished. According to Secrecy News, a section of the website for Federation of American Scientists:
Key details of the pending criminal investigation have been redacted from Mr. Durham’s affidavit, including the number of witnesses interviewed and the volume of documents examined to date....

Mr. Durham noted that “in many instances,” delays have resulted from witness requests for legal representation and the need to get witness attorneys cleared. In some cases, the government officials involved have retired and have been “read out” of the highly compartmented intelligence programs in question, and it has taken additional time to have their credentials reinstated, he said.
Expanding the Durham investigation seems like a long-shot, but who knows what will be in that FOIA release when it finally comes? The bulk of the Democratic leadership is surely afraid of what an investigation might bring, due to reports of the complicity of some of the Democratic leadership, particularly Nancy Pelosi, Jane Harman and Jay Rockerfeller, in the approval of some of the torture program.

The next couple of months -- I never get tired of repeating -- will be key in the struggle to hold the torturers accountable, and to bring real, lasting change to the system that has brought the United States to the status of pariah nation by the use of torture, and by the cover-up of such use.

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