|President Barack Obama's promise of a more open government faces a new test this week as his administration weighs whether to release details of a May 2004 internal CIA report about the agency's use of torture, including how at least three detainees were killed in Afghanistan and Iraq. |
The secret findings of CIA Inspector General John Helgerson led to eight criminal referrals to the Justice Department for homicide and other misconduct, but those cases languished as Vice President Dick Cheney reportedly intervened to constrain Helgerson's inquiries.
Heavily redacted portions of Helgerson's report were released to the American Civil Liberties Union in May 2008 in response to a Freedom of Information Act request, but the ACLU appealed the Bush administration's extensive deletions and the Obama administration agreed to respond to that appeal by Friday.
As with other recent battles over openness, the CIA is opposing any significant release of new information arguing that it would jeopardize sources and methods. Obama will have to decide whether to overrule CIA objections as he did in April when he released four Justice Department memos justifying torture.
However, more recently – in May and June – Obama has sided with U.S. officials wanting to keep evidence of detainee abuse away from the public. In May, Obama refused to release photos of U.S. military mistreatment of prisoners, and in June, he allowed the CIA to resist releasing documents relating to its destruction of 92 interrogation videotapes.
The ACLU's appeal of the redactions from Helgerson's report will test whether Obama's retreat on openness includes concealing evidence of homicides.
In her 2008 book The Dark Side and in an earlier investigative report for The New Yorker, reporter Jane Mayer wrote that Helgerson was investigating at least three deaths of prisoners held by the CIA in Afghanistan and Iraq. One of those prisoners was Manadel al-Jamadi, who was captured by Navy SEALs outside Baghdad in November 2003.
She added: "After being removed from his house, Jamadi was manhandled by several of the SEALs, who gave him a black eye and a cut on his face; he was then transferred to CIA custody, for interrogation at Abu Ghraib. According to witnesses, Jamadi was walking and speaking when he arrived at the prison. He was taken to a shower room for interrogation. Some forty-five minutes later, he was dead."
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"The behavior it described, another knowledgeable source said, raised concerns not just about the detainees but also about the Americans who had inflicted the abuse, one of whom seemed to have become frighteningly dehumanized," Mayer wrote. "The source said, 'You couldn't read the documents without wondering, 'Why didn't someone say, "Stop!'""
In an interview with Harper's magazine last year, Mayer said Helgerson "investigated several alleged homicides involving CIA detainees" and forwarded several of those cases "to the Justice Department for further consideration and potential prosecution."
"Why have there been no charges filed? It's a question to which one would expect that Congress and the public would like some answers," Mayer said. "Sources suggested to me that... it is highly uncomfortable for top Bush Justice officials to prosecute these cases because, inevitably, it means shining a light on what those same officials sanctioned."
One possible reason that the Justice Department investigations went nowhere was that Vice President Cheney intervened and demanded that Helgerson meet with him privately about his investigation. Mayer characterized Cheney's interaction with Helgerson as highly unusual.
Cheney's "reaction to this first, carefully documented in-house study concluding that the CIA's secret program was most likely criminal was to summon the Inspector General to his office for a private chat," Mayer wrote.
"The Inspector General is supposed to function as an independent overseer, free from political pressure, but Cheney summoned the CIA Inspector General more than once to his office."
"The CIA refused to provide the requested documents to Rockefeller. But the Democratic senator's mention of the videotapes undoubtedly sent a shiver through the Agency, as did a second request he made for these documents to [CIA Director Porter] Goss in September 2005."
CIA destroyed the 92 interrogation videotapes in November 2005.
Helgerson's report has been sought by members of Congress and civil liberties organizations for some time. Justice Department torture memos released in April contain several footnotes to the inspector general's report noting the watchdog's concerns about the fact that interrogators strayed from the legal limits set forth in the memos on how specific interrogation methods could be used.
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