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Alfred McCoy: Perfecting Illegality

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Just two weeks later, on September 12, 2011, former FBI counterterror agent Ali Soufan released his own memoirs, stating that he was the one who started the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah back in 2002, using empathetic, non-torture techniques that quickly gained "important actionable intelligence" about "the role of KSM [Khalid Sheikh Mohammed] as the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks."

Angered by the FBI's success, CIA director George Tenet dispatched his own interrogators from Washington led by Dr. James Mitchell, the former SERE psychologist who had developed the agency's harsh "enhanced techniques." As the CIA team moved up the "force continuum" from "low-level sleep deprivation" to nudity, noise barrage, and the use of a claustrophobic confinement box, Dr. Mitchell's harsh methods got "no information."

By contrast, at each step in this escalating abuse, Ali Soufan was brought back for more quiet questioning in Arabic that coaxed out all the valuable intelligence Zubaydah had to offer. The results of this ad hoc scientific test were blindingly clear: FBI empathy was consistently effective, while CIA coercion proved counterproductive.

But this fundamental yet fragile truth has been obscured by CIA censorship and neoconservative casuistry. Cheney's secondhand account completely omitted the FBI presence. Moreover, the CIA demanded 181 pages of excisions from Ali Soufan's memoirs that reduced his chapters about this interrogation experience to a maze of blackened lines no regular reader can understand.

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The agency's attempt to rewrite the past has continued into the present. Just last April, Jose Rodriguez, former chief of CIA Clandestine Services, published his uncensored memoirs under the provocative title Hard Measures: How Aggressive C.I.A. Actions after 9/11 Saved American Lives. In a promotional television interview, he called FBI claims of success with empathetic methods "bullshit."

With the past largely rewritten to assure Americans that the CIA's "enhanced interrogation" had worked, the perpetrators of torture were home free and the process of impunity and immunity established for future use.

Rendition Under Obama

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Apart from these Republican pressures, President Obama's own aggressive views on national security have contributed to an undeniable continuity with many of his predecessor's most controversial policies. Not only has he preserved the controversial military commissions at Guantanamo and fought the courts to block civil suits against torture perpetrators, he has, above all, authorized continuing CIA rendition flights.

During the 2008 presidential campaign, Obama went beyond any other candidate in offering unqualified opposition to both direct and indirect U.S. involvement in torture. "We have to be clear and unequivocal. We do not torture, period," he said, adding, "That will be my position as president. That includes, by the way, renditions."

Only days after his January 2009 inauguration, Obama issued a dramatic executive order ending the CIA's coercive techniques, but it turned out to include a large loophole that preserved the agency's role in extraordinary renditions. Amid his order's ringing rhetoric about compliance with the Geneva conventions and assuring "humane treatment of individuals in United States custody," the president issued a clear and unequivocal order that "the CIA shall close as expeditiously as possible any detention facilities that it currently operates and shall not operate any such detention facility in the future." But when the CIA's counsel objected that this blanket prohibition would also "take us out of the rendition business," Obama added a footnote with a small but significant qualification: "The terms "detention facilities' and "detention facility' in... this order do not refer to facilities used only to hold people on a short-term, transitory basis." Through the slippery legalese of this definition, Obama thus allowed the CIA continue its rendition flights of terror suspects to allied nations for possible torture.

Moreover, in February 2009, Obama's incoming CIA director Leon Panetta announced that the agency would indeed continue the practice "in renditions where we returned an individual to the jurisdiction of another country, and they exercised their rights" to prosecute him under their laws. I think," he added, ignoring the U.N. anti-torture convention's strict conditions for this practice, "that is an appropriate use of rendition."

As the CIA expanded covert operations inside Somalia under Obama, its renditions of terror suspects from neighboring East African nations continued just as they had under Bush.  In July 2009, for example, Kenyan police snatched an al-Qaeda suspect, Ahmed Abdullahi Hassan, from a Nairobi slum and delivered him to that city's airport for a CIA flight to Mogadishu. There he joined dozens of prisoners grabbed off the streets of Kenya inside "The Hole" -- a filthy underground prison buried in the windowless basement of Somalia's National Security Agency. While Somali guards (paid for with U.S. funds) ran the prison, CIA operatives, reported the Nation's Jeremy Scahill, have open access for extended interrogation.

Obama also allowed the continuation of a policy adopted after the Abu Ghraib scandal: outsourcing incarceration to local allies in Afghanistan and Iraq while ignoring human rights abuses there. Although the U.S. military received 1,365 reports about the torture of detainees by Iraqi forces between May 2004 and December 2009, a period that included Obama's first full year in office, American officers refused to take action, even though the abuses reported were often extreme.

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Simultaneously, Washington's Afghan allies increasingly turned to torture after the Abu Ghraib scandal prompted U.S. officials to transfer most interrogation to local authorities. After interviewing 324 detainees held by Afghanistan's National Directorate of Security (NDS) in 2011, the U.N. found that "torture is practiced systematically in a number of NDS detention facilities throughout Afghanistan." At the Directorate's prison in Kandahar one interrogator told a detainee before starting to torture him, "You should confess what you have done in the past as Taliban; even stones confess here."

Although such reports prompted both British and Canadian forces to curtail prisoner transfers, the U.S. military continues to turn over detainees to Afghan authorities -- a policy that, commented the New York Times, "raises serious questions about potential complicity of American officials."

How to Unclog the System of Justice One Drone at a Time

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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