Sunday, February 8, 2009

US/UK Cover-up on Torture, While Conditions Worsen at Guantanamo (Updated)

Controversy continues to mount over the suppression of key evidence of U.S. torture in the case of Ethiopian national, Binyam Mohamed, at the suspected behest of the Obama administration. UK High Court judges in the case wanted to release the evidence, but Foreign Secretary David Miliband prevented this, saying it would harm UK intelligence cooperation with the United States. The U.S. reputedly threatened a break in cooperation with British intelligence services if the torture evidence, which is part of a CIA file, was released. (Update: The Age has now published documentary evidence of the U.S. threat -- see below. H/T to Patriot Daily News Clearinghouse.)

Whatever threats were made, after the suppression of the evidence, and in the face of the protest by the UK judges, the Obama administration told BBC News it was grateful for the cooperation, i.e., the cover-up.
In a statement, the White House said it "thanked the UK government for its continued commitment to protect sensitive national security information".

It added that this would "preserve the long-standing intelligence sharing relationship that enables both countries to protect their citizens".
The UK ruling on the torture evidence was made in response to a legal challenge to the secrecy made by Associated Press, the Guardian, BBC and The New York Times, among other news organizations.

The controversy has made headlines in the UK, but U.S. media has remained compliantly mute, and that includes much of the blogging community. I could find almost no references to the Obama administrations response to BBC, except at Raw Story, and inside a blistering protest statement made ACLU's Anthony Romero. And among top name bloggers, only Chris Floyd and Glenn Greenwald noted the heavy-handed U.S. attempt. Floyd rightly assailed the supposedly liberal Democratic administration for acting "to preserve the presidential 'prerogatives' that Bush asserted to justify torture, eavesdropping and aggression."

But the story won't die, and today's Sunday Telegraph reports that, as suspected by some, the British were only too happy to suppress torture evidence because it clearly reveals the cooperation of British intelligence officers in the torture interrogation.
Material in a CIA dossier on Mr Mohamed that was blacked out by High Court judges contained details of how British intelligence officers supplied information to his captors and contributed questions while he was brutally tortured, The Sunday Telegraph has learned.

Intelligence sources have revealed that spy chiefs put pressure on Mr Miliband to do nothing that would leave serving MI6 officers open to prosecution, or to jeopardise relations with the CIA, which is passing them "top notch" information on British terrorist suspects from its own informers in Britain....

The 25 lines edited out of the court papers contained details of how Mr Mohamed's genitals were sliced with a scalpel and other torture methods so extreme that waterboarding, the controversial technique of simulated drowning, "is very far down the list of things they did," the official said.

The British newspaper The Age has published excerpts from copies of letters from the U.S. State Department to the British Foreign Service. The letters were apparently obtained by Britain's Channel 4.

"I write with respect to proceedings … regarding Mr Binyam Mohamed," the letter said. "We note the classified documents identified in your letters of June 16 and August 1, 2008, to the acting general counsel of the Department of Defence … the public disclosure of these documents or of the information contained therein is likely to result in serious damage to US national security and could harm … intelligence information sharing arrangements between our two governments."

Channel 4 revealed that a week later the State Department wrote again to the Foreign Office to make clear the consequences if British courts released the paperwork detailing allegations of torture by US and British intelligence services.

"To the extent the UK proceedings are currently aimed at ensuring that the documents at issue will be before the convening authority before she makes her referral decision, this development further demonstrates the relief sought through these proceedings has been otherwise accomplished and no further action by the court is required," the letter said.
The Democratic Party backers of both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama had better ponder the meaning of these words, and ponder carefully. Do you really want to sell out torture victims and justice for good feelings and a handful of favorite programs?

Worsening Brutality at Guantánamo

Meanwhile, the UK Guardian is reporting that conditions are worsening for inmates at Guantanamo in the first weeks of Obama's administration.
[U.S. military attorney Lieutenant-Colonel Yvonne] Bradley, a US military attorney for 20 years, will reveal [in court on Monday] that Mohamed, 31, is dying in his Guantánamo cell and that conditions inside the Cuban prison camp have deteriorated badly since Barack Obama took office. Fifty of its 260 detainees are on hunger strike and, say witnesses, are being strapped to chairs and force-fed, with those who resist being beaten. At least 20 are described as being so unhealthy they are on a "critical list", according to Bradley....

"The JTF [the Joint Task Force running Guantánamo] are not commenting because they do not want the public to know what is going on," [Bradley said].

"Binyam has witnessed people being forcibly extracted from their cell. Swat teams in police gear come in and take the person out; if they resist, they are force-fed and then beaten. Binyam has seen this and has not witnessed this before. Guantánamo Bay is in the grip of a mass hunger strike and the numbers are growing; things are worsening.
Even more, the Guardian reports suspicions that some in the U.S. intelligence community would prefer to see Binyam die, so he can not testify to what he has seen and endured, and to prevent a lawsuit against U.S. and British authorities. One wonders if, like the Nazis who turned even more savagely against concentration camp prisoners as Allied armies bore down upon the fascist forces, JTF at Guantanamo isn't becoming more brutal in anticipation of its own less fiery, more juridical form of Götterdämmerung.

U.S. anti-torture and human rights activists, and progressives of all kinds, must demand the immediate closure of Guantanamo. Prisoners who have been imprisoned for years must be released, lacking any evidence of their danger, which can be reviewed promptly by a U.S. judge. Those for whom there may be evidence of crimes can be turned over to the U.S. justice system for timely and swift trial under the laws of the country's standing courts.

The Difficulty of Eradicating Torture

Torture is more than just the destruction of a human being's body or psyche. It destroys whole nations and cultures. The Bush administration accelerated trends in U.S. use of torture and coercion that go back over fifty years, from the CIA MK-ULTRA program to the joint U.S./South Vietnamese torture-assassination Phoenix Program in Vietnam that killed tens of thousands and tortured tens of thousands more, to the training of foreign torturers by the U.S. military.

Whatever the intentions of Barack Obama, there is an entrenched culture now within the military and in the intelligence agencies of the United States, and also of some its allies, that relies on coercion and terror to enforce their rule and their power. The fight over this must be taken into the open, with demands to declassify all but the most current and sensitive documents that relate to interrogations and torture. If there is no imminent danger to the United States then there is no reason to hold any such documention secret. Names, if necessary, can always be blacked out.

All too often the news about torture takes on an unreal air, as the dark irrationalities behind it are obscured by legalistic arguments and political infighting. Hence, I want to close with an up-close look at the man whose name is most in the news about torture right now, Binyam Mohamed. The biography that follows is from the the British human rights group Reprieve, who has provided legal representation for Mr. Mohamed in the United Kingdom. While a horrifying story, it can also be read as tale of remarkable survival against barbaric treatment and torture by the United States and their rendition proxies. Currently Mr. Mohamed, still a prisoner at Guantanamo, is on a hunger strike. It is expected by many that he will be released from Guantanamo next week... if he doesn't die first.
Binyam Mohamed was born in Ethiopia and came to Britain in 1994, where he lived for seven years, sought political asylum and was given leave to remain while his case was resolved.

While travelling in Pakistan, Binyam was arrested on a visa violation and turned over to the US authorities. When they refused to let him go, he asked what crime he had committed, and insisted on having a lawyer if he was going to be interrogated. The FBI told him, ‘The rules have changed. You don’t get a lawyer.’

Binyam refused to speak to them. British agents then confirmed his identity to the US authorities and he was warned that he would be taken to a Middle Eastern country for harsh treatment.

On 21 July 2002, Binyam was rendered to Morocco on a CIA plane. He was held there for 18 months in appalling conditions. To ensure his confession, his Moroccan captors tortured him, stripping him naked and cutting him with a scalpel on his chest and penis. Despite this, Binyam said that his lowest point came when his interrogators asked him questions about his life in London, which he realized could only have been provided by the British intelligence services, and he realized that he had been betrayed by the country in which he had sought asylum.

Binyam’s ordeal in Morocco continued for about 18 months until January 2004, when he was transferred to the ‘Dark Prison’ near Kabul, Afghanistan, a secret prison run by the CIA, which resembled a medieval dungeon with the addition of extremely loud 24-hour music and noise.

Speaking of his time in the ‘Dark Prison’, Binyam said:

“It was pitch black, no lights on in the rooms for most of the time. They hung me up for two days. My legs had swollen. My wrists and hands had gone numb. There was loud music, Slim Shady [by Eminem] and Dr. Dre for 20 days. Then they changed the sounds to horrible ghost laughter and Halloween sounds. At one point, I was chained to the rails for a fortnight. The CIA worked on people, including me, day and night. Plenty lost their minds. I could hear people knocking their heads against the walls and the doors, screaming their heads off.”

From there he was taken to the US military prison at Bagram airbase, and finally, in September 2004, to Guantánamo Bay, where he remains.

In June 2008, the US Department of Defense put Binyam forward for trial by military commission, a novel legal system, conceived in November 2001, which was described by Lord Steyn, a British law lord, as a “kangaroo court.”

In the same month, lawyers at Reprieve, working with colleagues at Leigh Day & Co., sued the British government, demanding that they turn over evidence that could help prove both his innocence and the extent of his torture.

Clive Stafford Smith, Reprieve’s Director, said:

“I visited Binyam in Guantanamo just a week ago and he is in a very bad state. Surely the least the British government can do is insist that no British resident be charged in a kangaroo court based on evidence tortured out of him with a razor blade. If Binyam’s trial by military commission proceeds, all it will produce is evidence not of terrorism, but of torture, which will embarrass both the British and the American governments.”

A judicial review of Binyam’s case took place in the high court at the end of July 2008. The result, which will determine whether or not the British government is obliged to hand over evidence relating to Binyam’s rendition and torture, is expected in mid-August.

Letters to Binyam should be sent to:
Binyam Mohamed
ISN 1458
Camp Delta
US Naval Base Guantánamo Bay
Washington, DC 20355
Late additions to this posting: A video interview with Shami Chakrabarti, Director of Liberty (formerly the British National Council for Civil Liberties), talking on the Binyam Mohamed case (see embed), and an editorial from the L.A. Times blasting the government on rendition and the "state secrets" privilege. Thanks to buhdydharma for these links!

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