How Outraged Is the Obama Administration About Torture?

Originally Published in Truth-Out, 01/05/15

In early December, the Senate Intelligence Committee released the executive summary of a report documenting the CIA’s involvement in torture during the Bush administration, both detailing the graphic horror of the torture itself and exposing the flimsiness of justifications then offered for torture. In response, the Obama administration has issued some eloquent statements that combine moral outrage with magnanimous-sounding encouragements that we all learn from without dwelling upon the misdeeds of the US government in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, attacks. This is insincere and misleading for two reasons.

First, the Obama administration has protected all Bush administration culprits from legal punishment and almost all from investigation, thus precluding the honest national self-examination necessary to accomplish what Obama calls “moving forward.” Furthermore, contrary to the current US media consensus that the Obama administration banned torture in 2009, the US government has continued various forms of torture throughout Obama’s time in office. There has not been a fundamental change since the Bush era in the policy framework for counteracting the impulse to torture for intelligence in the face of imminent threats; suspects have merely been tortured in different locations and through a slightly altered bureaucratic process.

Although Obama promised during his 2008 campaign to “immediately review the information that’s already there” relevant to leading prosecutions against Bush administration torturers, he immediately – that is, within his first few months in power – stated opposite intentions. Glenn Greenwald has documented how the Obama administration, after initially declaring legal immunity for all CIA operatives who tortured under the orders of the Department of Justice (DOJ), subsequently feigned pangs of conscience in 2009 at the revelation of 100 different cases of torture that went beyond even DOJ permissions. These cases involved some of the abuses now detailed in the Senate report, including threatening a prisoner with a power drill, mock execution and threatening to rape prisoners’ relatives. After two years of “investigation,” Attorney General Eric Holder announced in 2011 that he had decided not to bring charges in any of these cases, except for two. In both of these cases, which pertained to severe and fatal torture in CIA black sites, Holder promptly decided to drop all charges.

This discrepancy between pre-inauguration promises and post-inauguration decisions is perhaps attributable to insincerity on the campaign trail, or perhaps to a post-election adaptation to the internal dynamics of federal politics. In James Mann’s 2012 book The Obamians, Mann recounts an effort in 2009 that CIA leadership at the time privately referred to as the “Aw, shit” campaign. According to Mann, Michael Hayden may have pressured Obama into abandoning his pre-election promise in favor of continued widespread application of “enhanced interrogation techniques.” The name derives from the hope among CIA bureaucrats that Obama would hear their advice and subsequently say “Aw, shit” to himself, upon reluctantly realizing the wisdom of what he was told. There is no conclusive evidence that this is what inspired Obama to retain and expand Bush-era torture policies. For whatever reason, Obama replaced Hayden and publicly claimed to ban torture while pardoning Bush-era offenders and continuing to torture.

Obama issued executive order 13491 in 2009, which is commonly regarded as having ended US-directed torture. The executive order repudiated torture as defined in federal and international law, ordered the closure of CIA-managed detention facilities in foreign countries “as expeditiously as possible” and set up a task force to “study and evaluate” whether extraordinary rendition – the practice of turning over detainees to foreign governments committed to US anti-terror objectives – “provide[s] an appropriate means of acquiring the intelligence necessary to protect the nation,” and to make sure that extraordinarily rendered subjects were not being tortured. To evaluate the seriousness of this order, we have to review the administration’s subsequent actions concerning the treatment of detainees both in detention facilities managed directly by the US government and in detention facilities operated by foreign governments on the US government’s behalf. Take even a brief look at the wording of the order: an essentially empty promise to “study and evaluate” extraordinary rendition, and a qualification that the term “detention facility” does not apply to CIA-managed facilities that hold individuals on a “short-term, transitory basis.” These provisions suggest, as has been confirmed, that the declaration was designed to lay the groundwork for a policy of transferring detainees, after a temporary limbo in CIA detention, to detention centers operated by foreign governments.

It would be unsurprising – as well as morally and legally insignificant – if most or all CIA sites closed down in order to make extraordinary rendition a centerpiece of counterterrorism intelligence. In truth, several of these sites remained open at least partway into the Obama presidency and probably do to this day. In the first place, the order applied only to secret prisons run by the CIA and not those run by the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), which answers to the Department of Defense. In 2010, one JSOC prison at the Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan was reported to have been a hub of inhumane treatment methods like forced nudity and sleep deprivation (p. 21) since Obama’s election. Part of the prison was transferred in 2012to the government of Afghanistan for detaining and interrogating Afghan suspects, while part was kept for the US military for handling foreign suspects. This prison is still open and continued, as it always had, to refuse observation by international human rights organizations, up until its transfer to Afghan ownership just after the release of the Senate report.

Also, at least as late as 2011, JSOC was operating 20 temporary holding sites in Afghanistan, where detainees were interrogated anywhere from two weeks, as the Pentagon officially claims, to as many as nine weeks. Furthermore, we know fromJeremy Scahill’s reporting, corroborated by US and Somali officials, of a secret prison in Somalia, nominally under Somalian management, but essentially run by the CIA, which directly participates in interrogations. Detainees are held in secret for long periods of time. It would be naïve to doubt that detainees are tortured at these unsupervised foreign facilities.

As mentioned, the Obama administration also tortures through foreign proxies. Extraordinary rendition began under Bill Clinton, who used the practice sometimes prior to prosecuting a terror suspect in the United States, while in other cases, as has since become the norm, he employed it to extract information through torture with no intention or prospect of legally prosecuting an individual (p. 14). Despite affirming the importance of international law in Obama’s 2009 anti-torture executive order, the president continues violating international law, including Article 3 common to the four Geneva Conventions and the UN Convention Against Torture – the United States is a party to both. In fact, the administration violated the latter, for instance, in three different ways: by subjecting detainees to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment; by failing to investigate cases where such treatment was probable; and by transferring detainees to foreign countries that are likely to employ torture. The Middle Eastern and African countries to which terror suspects are rendered certainly fit the latter description.

We have every reason to believe that detainees are being tortured in places to which they are rendered. In the first place, the “task force” report about extraordinary rendition promised in the executive order was never made public. Furthermore, the Obama administration decided, in an unserious attempt to prevent torture, to rely on assurances on humane treatment of detainees from recipient countries, and post-transfer monitoring of detainees, neither of which were effective in preventing torture in Bush-era extraordinary rendition torture cases (p. 20).

Inhumane treatment against individuals in foreign custody is clearly an ongoing phenomenon. In 2011, an American teenager was beaten by interrogators in Kuwait with the instruction and cooperation of the US government. A similar incidentoccurred in 2010 with rendered detainee Gulet Mohammed. Yahya Weheli, a US citizen, was interrogated without due process by US officials in 2010 in the US Embassy in Cairo, and, according to his account, beaten and interrogated afterward by Egyptian police asking the same question that he had been asked by US officials. In 2010, another US citizen, Sharif Mobley was captured in Yemen in coordination with the United States, over suspicion of his ties to al-Qaeda. He has been held and tortured in secret for most of the time since then without counsel, charges or trial. This is apparently one in a pattern of cases in which the US government has held and interrogated US citizens returning from Yemen without due process. These are just the cases we know about. The fact of the essentially secret character of extraordinary rendition, combined with the existence of an official policy focusing on extraordinary rendition over direct custody of terror suspects, virtually guarantees that there are many cases of torture of which we are not yet aware.

Furthermore, to revisit a tired issue, despite the current administration’s initial promises to the contrary, Guantánamo Bay remains open and has furthermore remained culpable in exactly the ways that made it a problematic and disliked institution under the Bush administration. As Georgetown law professor Geoffrey Stone has argued, the essential legal controversy regarding Guantánamo is the presence of detainees whom the US government has judged to be dangerous, but has treated in such a way in the course of their preventative detention that they cannot be convicted in court. While Obama dishonestly claimed that the reason for not shutting down the facility was legislative Republican obstruction, his proposed solution to the Guantánamo problem prior to such “obstruction” was to relocate the prison to Illinois while retaining its policy of indefinite detention – a non-solution. Under this plan, some detainees were also supposed to be tried in military tribunals, which do not provide any meaningful due process. Some 155 detainees remain in this prison, frequently subjected to painful force-feeding procedures, among other indignities.

The Senate report is a valuable public confirmation of facts mostly already known about Bush-era torture. However, the report’s release has been accompanied by a dangerous false narrative, according to which torture is a past crime and a crime exclusive to the Republican Party. But torture is evidently ongoing, and is and has been a bipartisan US policy. This partisan political narrative, crafted by legislative Democrats with short-term, self-interested political motives, needs to be replaced by urgent dialogue about and legislative action to halt the troubling and ongoing expansion of the US government’s global torture regime.

What About the Other Iraqi Militias?

Originall Printed in Truth-Out, 11/11/14

The Dominant ISIS Narrative

Ever since ISIS appeared on the mainstream media’s radar several months ago, stories of massacres by ISIS have dominated US news. A review of just the news at the end of October and beginning of November turns up numerous stories with the same content and purpose – to demonstrate the barbarity of the US government’s current enemy in the region. The New York Times noted on October 27 that ISIS is a prime suspect in a suicide bombing in Jurf al-Skhar that killed at least 38. On October 30, The New York Times ran a story on ISIS’s violence against the Sunni Albu Nimr tribe west of Baghdad, a story picked up the next day by Time. On November 1, both NBC and Fox covered the killing of 50 tribesmen in Anbar province.

Needless to say, these are horrible atrocities; but that is not why they are being reported. These stories are making US news because they offer justification for the most recent phase of the US invasion and vindicate the occupation as a whole. Stories of atrocities committed by Islamist militias allied with the United States in the fight against ISIS are being sparsely reported. An October Amnesty International report reveals frequent massacres by Iraqi Shiite militias, currently pardoned and protected in their crimes by the Iraqi and US governments, because of these militias’ direct connection to the Iraqi government and because of their common opposition to ISIS.

This study was acknowledged by several news outlets on the day of its release, but reporting since then has generally reverted to its former narrative, oriented around the destruction caused by ISIS and the dire need for US assistance, with very little mention of the dangers posed by these Shiite militias. There has certainly been little if any mention of the fact that these militias have been instrumentalized and protected by the Iraqi government long before ISIS. (Amnesty International report, p. 17) And the larger lesson suggested by this report – that the United States is a major contributor to the violent situation in Iraq, having both instigated the civil war to begin with and supported and protected some of the most bloodthirsty participants who emerged – has escaped notice by major media. Stories of violence by Shiite militias appear in isolated and occasional reporting, far outnumbered by stories, contextualized in a larger news narrative, detailing the crimes of ISIS.

Amnesty International Report Challenges the Dominant Narrative

The Amnesty International report mentions numerous instances of violence by militant groups opposed to ISIS, such as the Badr brigades, the Mahdi Army, the Madhi Army offshoot, Sarayah al-Salam (Peace Brigade), Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (League of the Righteous), and the Hizbullah Brigades, in the Sunni cities of Samarra and Kirkuk. These groups have participated in frequent attacks against and abductions of, mostly Sunni, civilians, sometimes as retaliation against similar attacks by ISIS (p. 11) and other times with financial motives. (p. 6)

There are more than 170 confirmed cases of young men being abducted from the city of Samarra since June, all of whom have been either confirmed dead or not seen since. More than 30 of these men were abducted and killed on a single day in June. (p. 10) A report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) earlier this year told a similar story. HRW documented 61 killings of Sunni men in the first week of July in the Baghdad, Diyala and Hilla provinces. At least 48 were killed in March and April in the vicinity of Baghdad. Mass executions of Sunnis have also been a frequent occurrence; for example, 53 were found bound and shot north of Hilla in July. Moreover, any body count will be an understatement because many people disappear without any conclusive indication of the identity of the perpetrator or whereabouts of the victim and because the Iraqi government prevents investigations into these matters.

The Iraqi government does so because all of these groups have direct ties to the government of Iraq. Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki has actually hired these groups as security forces to police Baghdad. The head of the Badr organization, Hadi al-Amiri, was the minister of transportation until September 2014. (p. 17) Besides the kidnappings and murders mentioned, these Shiite militias have been known to make illegal arrests on behalf of the state. (HRW report) As Amnesty International reports, the government disguises militia fighters as members of the army, while giving them license to take far more damaging actions than ordinary soldiers and excusing them from the military oversight mechanisms to which official soldiers are, at least in theory, accountable. (p. 17)

The Larger Lesson

There is a saying that war makes strange bedfellows. Sometimes this is the result of a warring power with an unavoidable mission allying out of necessity with whatever parties share a vital interest. However, in wars of choice, like this 12-year-old war in Iraq, such strategic decisions amount to a decision to participate in wrongdoing in order to acquire greater international power. For obvious reasons, military intervention is always accompanied by state propaganda villainizing opponents of the intervening state – and finding monsters in, depending on the targeted party, governments or rebel movements, is rarely challenging. As is common in situations of violent conflict, ISIS is apparently just one of many psychopathic parties, both state and nonstate, currently wreaking havoc in that war-torn country. The United States has sided with some and fought against others.

The point of discussing these crimes is not to establish that the government and Shiite militias kill more than ISIS. This would be hard to prove conclusively and would also be beside the point. The point is to acknowledge the responsibility of the US government, and thus indirectly our responsibility, for whatever volume of unnecessary violence the United States happens to be involved in Iraq. This present strife among various militias must, first of all, be placed in the context of a civil war apparently resulting from the United States’ decision to destroy the previous government and try to rebuild a US-friendly civil order from scratch. The US government subsequently chose to join forces with mass-murdering fundamentalist militias not markedly different from ISIS.

This type behavior has precedents. It is easy to understand why an intervening power would gravitate toward whatever established centers of power, however morally bankrupt, happen to share interests in an unstable political situation. For instance, CIA support of the Nicaraguan anti-communist forces in the 1980s involved encouraging murderous drug lords, the most obvious counter-power to the state in Latin America, to sell cocaine to crack dealers in Los Angeles in order to fund violence in Nicaragua. The CIA also famously gave Osama bin Laden valuable experience organizing terrorism against the Soviet army in Afghanistan. Policy decisions like these will recur until we find a way to stop generating and supporting US leaders who engage in wars of choice.

US Shifts Blame to Afghan Government for Exploding Central Asian Opium Trade

Originally Published in Truthout


The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), an office created by Congress in 2008 to oversee waste and fraud in US government expenditures in Afghanistan, released a report in October communicating that Afghanistan poppy production reached an unprecedented high point in 2013, even while being preceded by more than a decade of prodigious production.

This is despite the fact that the US government has devoted $7.6 billion to squashing the booming opium trade since its revival at the start of the US invasion.

The report was published along with an invitation to written responses from various departments of the US government, responses that unanimously blamed the situation on the US puppet government in Afghanistan, stating that it had not assisted aggressively enough with counter-narcotics efforts. The idea of the US government denying responsibility for the misdeeds of a state it installed through a rigged election to promote the objectives of the occupation, is absurd on its face. A review of the history of US involvement in the Central Asian opium trade up through the 2001 intervention, however, reveals even deeper responsibility.

Causes of Increased Opium Production Since 2001

As the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime reported this year, dramatically increased opium production since 2001 in Afghanistan is one of the primary causesof a current surge in heroin use throughout Europe and Asia.

This most recent explosion in cultivation and sale of poppy is due, first of all, to the overthrow of the Taliban, which had, with the pressure and assistance of the UN, enforced a brief but successful opium ban in 2000. UN research released just a week after the invasion began reported poppy production as being down by 91 percent since 2000. The subsequent opium explosion is attributable also to the importance of the poppy crop as a funding source both for the Taliban insurgency and for corrupt officials at all levels of the Karzai administration.

The US government has attempted various methods of reducing opium production, from eradicating opium fields to providing farmers with alternative crops, to prosecuting traffickers and confiscating their product. Evidently, none of these methods has had an impact, most fundamentally because demand for opium from international consumers, as well as the demand of the Taliban and the state for bribes from this pool of profit, has remained unaffected.

Actually, a plausible argument can be made that directly seizing crops increases profits acquired by the higher-skilled smugglers then required, which in turn makes available a larger source of funds for corrupting the agents of the state, who ensure the safe passage of crops to the market. Corruption apparently reaches higher levels of government as well.

Narcotics-Related Corruption Within the Afghan State

A January report by SIGAR indicated that Afghanistan’s banking system is thoroughly opaque and unregulated [introductory summary]. This strongly suggests, as does old news, that Afghanistan’s banking system is a vehicle for money laundering and drug trafficking. Afghanistan’s capital is home to a number of luxurious estates owned by government officials, estates referred to by the locals as “poppy palaces,” all of which are far too expensive for the salary of a government employee.

The US Department of State itself acknowledged systematic involvement in the opium drug trade by officials at all levels of government in a 2009 report. Karzai has consistently resisted attempts at oversight, even banning US advisors from working with the central bank in 2011. Earlier this year, Karzai also resisted an effort at international oversight of Afghanistan’s banking system; according to Rangin Dadfar Spanta, Karzai’s national security adviser, he did so because of provisions in the currently proposed anti-laundering bill that would impose regulations to prevent misuse of the banks by political figures and their family members and close associates.

None of this is surprising, given Karzai’s history with the Northern Alliance, an anti-Taliban group formed in the ’90s, known for its involvement in the drug trade, and given the prominence in Karzai’s government of Northern Alliance warlords. Shortly after the fall of the Taliban, Karzai instituted a national holiday celebrating Ahmad Shah Massoud, the military commander of the Northern Alliance. He includedMassoud’s younger brother in his first cabinet, as well as Northern Alliance members as foreign and interior ministers. This was apparently intended and approved by the US government, which rigged the elections by intimidating Karzai’s electoral opponents.

Origins of the Problem: Opium in the CIA’s war vs. USSR

Northern Alliance involvement in the drug trade is common knowledge. Notably, during the brief period before the invasion in which opium production was suppressed, the only parts of the country where it persisted were in Northern Alliance-controlled regions. But Afghanistan’s role as an international opium supplier actually predates the Northern Alliance.

During the Soviet-Afghanistian conflict, in which the US government armed and trained radical Islamist Mujahadeen fighters against the Soviets, Karzai was a CIA contractor tasked with funneling US aid to the Taliban through the laundering of drug money. The CIA and Pakistani Intelligence partnered in sheltering and encouraging opium production during this period to fund these radical Islamist opponents of the Soviet state. Furthermore, at the time, the US-supported Taliban forced farmers to produce opium as a tax to support the anti-Soviet effort, a practice in which the Taliban still engages.

Charles Cogan, the orchestrator of the CIA operation in Afghanistan in the ’80s,explained the strategy essentially as one of giving priority to the anticommunist fight over the anti-drug fight.

“Our main mission was to do as much damage as possible to the Soviets. We didn’t really have the resources or the time to devote to an investigation of the drug trade.”

This was an informative admission, but was also somewhat misleading: The CIA did not fail to investigate the drug trade in Central Asia – the intelligence agency actively fostered it. In fact, before the Soviet-Afghanistan war, the opium trade was much smaller and contained within the region; and there was certainly no heroin coming out of Afghanistan. The Soviet-Afghanistan war coincided with a dramatic and sudden increase in opium production for international markets. There was nothing before the 1980s remotely resembling the truly unprecedented current heroin trade, which has caused addiction epidemics all over Europe and Asia.

The blame-shifting game the US government is playing in response to this report is clearly a cynical lie. It is in a sense true that the government of Afghanistan is not doing much to stop the opium trade. But the US installed this government with full knowledge of the fact that it would be run by drug lords, and the participation of Afghanistan in the international heroin trade is a phenomenon directly traceable to earlier US intervention. And the report itself, while effectively exposing waste of taxpayer money, is intentionally ahistorical in its criticism, contextualizing its investigation of the opium problem in post-2001 Afghanistan.

Let us not forget the whole story behind how it came to be that the American taxpayer is subsidizing the international heroin epidemic.