Tag Archives: torture

Egypt: Exchanging a Dictator for a Torturer

As it now stands, the United States appears content to contemplate exchanging Hosni Mubarak for Egypt’s new Vice President, Omar Suleiman, the Egyptian spy master–that is, one dictator for another– to maintain the status quo. Of course, Israel must sign off on this deal, assuring the U.S. that Egypt can remain as its main base in the region, straddling as it does North Africa and the Middle East. Without it, the U.S. would most definitely have to rethink its entire neo-colonial policies  in the region.

As for Suleiman, he looks to be a  nasty piece of work.  Agence France Press has pulled together the basics:

For US intelligence officials, he has been a trusted partner willing to go after Islamist militants without hesitation, targeting homegrown radical groups Gamaa Islamiya and Jihad after they carried out a string of attacks on foreigners.A product of the US-Egyptian relationship, Suleiman underwent training in the 1980s at the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare School and Center at Fort Bragg in North Carolina….

After taking over as spy director, Suleiman oversaw an agreement with the United States in 1995 that allowed for suspected militants to be secretly transferred to Egypt for questioning, according to the book “Ghost Plane” by journalist Stephen Grey. ..

In the run-up to the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, the CIA relied on Suleiman to accept the transfer of a detainee known as Ibn Sheikh al-Libi, who US officials hoped could prove a link between Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Al-Qaeda.The suspect was bound and blindfolded and flown to Cairo, where the CIA believed their longtime ally Suleiman would ensure a successful interrogation, according to “The One Percent Doctrine” by author Ron Suskind.A US Senate report in 2006 describes how the detainee was locked in a cage for hours and beaten, with Egyptian authorities pushing him to confirm alleged connections between Al-Qaeda and Saddam.Libi eventually told his interrogators that the then Iraqi regime was moving to provide Al-Qaeda with biological and chemical weapons.When the then US secretary of state Colin Powell made the case for war before the United Nations, he referred to details of Libi’s confession.The detainee eventually recanted his account.

Thus our loyal ally Egypt provided the fake information used by the United States to go to war in Iraq.

Stephen Soldz of the Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis and  co-founder of the Coalition for an Ethical Psychology  provided the following excerpts from authors who discussed Sulieman.

Jane Mayer, in The Dark Side, pointed to Suleiman’s role in the rendition program:

Each rendition was authorized at the very top levels of both governments….The long-serving chief of the Egyptian central intelligence agency, Omar Suleiman, negotiated directly with top Agency officials.  [Former U.S. Ambassador to Egypt] Walker described the Egyptian counterpart, Suleiman, as “very bright, very realistic,” adding that he was cognizant that there was a downside to “some of the negative things that the Egyptians engaged in, of torture and so on. But he was not squeamish, by the way” (pp. 113).

Stephen Grey, in Ghost Plane, his investigative work on the rendition program, also points to Suleiman as central to the program:

To negotiate these assurances [that the Egyptians wouldn’t “torture” the prisoner delivered for torture] the CIA dealt principally in Egypt through Omar Suleiman, the chief of the Egyptian general intelligence service (EGIS) since 1993. It was he who arranged the meetings with the Egyptian interior ministry…. Suleiman, who understood English well, was an urbane and sophisticated man. Others told me that for years Suleiman was America’s chief interlocutor with the Egyptian regime — the main channel to President Hosni Mubarak himself, even on matters far removed from intelligence and security.

Suleiman’s role in the rendition program was also highlighted in a Wikileaks cable:

the context of the close and sustained cooperation between the USG and GOE on counterterrorism, Post believes that the written GOE assurances regarding the return of three Egyptians detained at Guantanamo (reftel) represent the firm commitment of the GOE to adhere to the requested principles. These assurances were passed directly from Egyptian General Intelligence Service (EGIS) Chief Soliman through liaison channels — the most effective communication path on this issue. General Soliman’s word is the GOE’s guarantee, and the GOE’s track record of cooperation on CT issues lends further support to this assessment. End summary.

“Shortly after 9/11, Australian citizen Mamdouh Habib was captured by Pakistani security forces and, under US pressure, torture by Pakistanis,” writes Soldz. “He was then rendered (with an Australian diplomat watching) by CIA operatives to Egypt, a not uncommon practice. In Egypt, Habib merited Suleiman’s personal attention. As related by Richard Neville, based on Habib’s memoir”:

Habib was interrogated by the country’s Intelligence Director, General Omar Suleiman…. Suleiman took a personal interest in anyone suspected of links with Al Qaeda. As Habib had visited Afghanistan shortly before  9/11, he was under suspicion. Habib was repeatedly zapped with high-voltage electricity, immersed in water up to his nostrils, beaten, his fingers were broken and he was hung from metal hooks. That treatment wasn’t enough for Suleiman, so:

To loosen Habib’s tongue, Suleiman ordered a guard to murder a gruesomely shackled Turkistan prisoner in front of Habib – and he did, with a vicious karate kick.

After Suleiman’s men extracted Habib’s confession, he was transferred back to US custody, where he eventually was imprisoned at Guantanamo. His “confession” was then used as evidence in his Guantanamo trial.

New Site: Solitary Watch

Readers of Unsilent Generation will know that I’ve written before on prison reform issues, aging behind bars, and the case of the Angola 3, which involves men who have spent decades in solitary confinement. I’ve now launched a new web site, in collaboration with writer and editor Jean Casella, called Solitary Watch News.

Solitary Watch News site is part of an emerging project called Solitary Watch, which will serve as the first centralized source of information on solitary confinement in the United States. The full Solitary Watch web site–which will be hosted by the Virginia Capital Case Clearinghouse (VC3), a clinical program of the Washington and Lee University School of Law in Lexington, Virginia directed by veteran death penalty attorney David Bruck–will be launched in the spring of 2010.

Why Solitary Watch?

Many Americans have recoiled from the treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, and polls show that a clear majority oppose the use of torture under any circumstances, even on foreign terrorism suspects. Yet conditions of confinement in U.S. prisons and jails that transgress the boundaries of humane treatment have produced little outcry.  

The use of solitary confinement in the United States provides the clearest example of this situtation.  Solitary confinement has grown dramatically in the past two decades. Today, at least 25,000 prisoners are being held in long-term lockdown in the nation’s ”supermax” facilities; some 50,000 to 80,000 more are held in isolation in “administrative segregation” or “special housing” units at other facilities. In other words, on any given day, as many as 100,000 people are living in solitary confinement in America’s prisons. This widespread practice has received scant media attention, and has yet to find a place in the public discourse or on political platforms.

Solitary Watch is conceived as an innovative public web site aimed at bringing this issue out of the shadows and into the light of the public square. The mission of Solitary Watch is to provide the public—as well as practicing attorneys, legal scholars, law enforcement and corrections officers, policymakers, educators, advocates, and prisoners–with the first comprehensive source of information on solitary confinement in the United States. Combining a database compiled through state-by-state research with background, analysis, and breaking news, the site will serve as an information clearinghouse, educational resource, and online community.

Why now?

This project is being launched at a pivotal moment, coinciding with several important developments in U.S. criminal justice. As Americans’ support for executions wanes in the wake of numerous exonerations and excessive costs, the alternative punishment of choice seems to be long-term solitary confinement, whether on prison death rows or in supermax lockdown units. Solitary confinement also awaits accused and convicted terrorists as they are transferred onto American soil from Guantanamo and elsewhere. Finally, in the absence of appropriate medical care, solitary confinement has increasingly been used as a way to control and warehouse mentally ill prisoners. As these trends continue, there will be an increasing need for a comprehensive, reliable source of information on this practice, and on the many practical, legal, and ethical questions it raises.

I hope you will visit the site and subscribe to Solitary Watch News at http://solitarywatch.wordpress.com/.

Life in Lockdown

AGING BEHIND BARS SERIES

Note: For several months, as part of my work for Mother Jones, I have been covering the case of the Angola 3, which involves men in their sixties who have been in solitary confinement for going on four decades. You can read my earlier story on the subject here. Other Unsilent Generation posts on aging behind bars can be found here and here.

Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox are believed to have been held in solitary confinement for longer than any inmate in America—37 years, to be precise, nearly all of them spent in 6-by-9 cells at Louisiana’s notorious Angola prison. For 23 hours a day, they pass the time in their cells as best they can. For one hour, they are allowed out to take a shower or a stroll along the cell block. Three days a week, they can use that hour to exercise alone in a fenced yard, as long as the weather is good.

Wallace and Woodfox were originally sent to Angola for armed robbery offenses in the early 1970s. When a young guard named Brent Miller was stabbed to death in 1972, Wallace and Woodfox were convicted of his murder and sentenced to life imprisonment, although, as courts have since acknowledged, there were numerous flaws with their trials: faulty evidence, manufactured testimony, and bribed witnesses, as well as inadequate legal representation and discriminatory jury selection. Along with another prisoner, Robert King, the men became known as the Angola 3, and for three decades they protested their innocence in court, maintaining that they had been targeted because they had helped found a Black Panthers chapter at Angola and were organizing for better conditions at the prison. 

In recent years a federal judge ordered Louisiana to release Woodfox and give him a new trial; another judge recommended a new trial for Wallace. (King was released in 2001 when a judge overturned his conviction, after he had spent 29 years in solitary.) Yet the state has mounted endless appeals and procedural roadblocks to keep the pair locked away. Wallace and Woodfox are now 68 and 62, respectively.

After my requests to interview both men were denied, I began a correspondence with them. Their letters reveal a sense of resolve amid the bleakness of their situation. “I use stacks of books for exercise and thereafter I am either writing or reading. I have no time for foolishness. It’s really that serious. I am in a struggle against the state of Louisiana on two strategic fronts, and hear me when I tell you they are not fighting fair,” Wallace wrote to me recently. “The sense of hopelessness is endless and if not fought can break a person! (I bend, but don’t break!)” Woodfox wrote.

In a recent article in The New Yorker, Atul Gawande made a persuasive case that solitary confinement is a form of torture. He cited lab studies in which baby monkeys raised in isolation became “profoundly disturbed, given to staring blankly and rocking in place for long periods, circling their cages repetitively, and mutilating themselves.” Humans, it turns out, experience similarly acute anguish when deprived of social contact. When Gawande examined the cases of prisoners who had been kept alone for prolonged periods, he found that they disintegrated, mentally and physically. They became depressed, hallucinated, were unable to remember basic facts, and in some instances became catatonic. “Without sustained social interaction,” Gawande concluded, “the human brain may become as impaired as one that has incurred a traumatic injury.”

The use of so-called extended lockdown has grown exponentially since the 1980s and is now an almost routine part of the American criminal justice system. The practice has been denounced by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, among others. Yet it has never aroused much public opposition, even among progressives who are outraged by reports of psychological abuse from Guantanamo or Abu Ghraib.

For the past decade, the Angola 3 have also challenged the use of solitary confinement in a civil lawsuit in federal court, arguing that it violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of “cruel and unusual punishment.” For years, this case went nowhere. But on April 3, a federal magistrate judge at the US District Court in Baton Rouge allowed the lawsuit to proceed. It will likely be heard in the fall, and if the court makes a broad ruling in favor of the plaintiffs, it could potentially affect the more than 25,000 prisoners who live in complete isolation in supermax prisons or lockdown units around the country.

Click here to read the rest of the article.

Cheney’s Bunker Mentality: The Vice President, the Constitution, and 9/11

Say what you will about Dick Cheney, at least he’s consistent. While he was in office, the Vice President made a practice of exploiting the fear and loss wrought by the 9/11 attacks to advance his own political agenda–and he’s still doing it now. During his speech at the American Enterprise Institute on Thursday, according to Dana Milbank’s calculations in the Washington Post, “Cheney used the word ‘attack’ 19 times, ‘danger’ and ‘threat’ six times apiece, and 9/11 an impressive 27 times.”

In this putative rebuttal to Obama speech on national security, Cheney described how he spent the morning of 9/11 “in a fortified White House command post,” receiving “the reports and images that so many Americans remember from that day,” and then declared:

In the years since, I’ve heard occasional speculation that I’m a different man after 9/11. I wouldn’t say that. But I’ll freely admit that watching a coordinated, devastating attack on our country from an underground bunker at the White House can affect how you view your responsibilities.

Since he’s evoking his experience as a rationalization for torture, this might be a good time to review exactly what it was that Cheney was doing in the bunker on that terrible day. Here again, consistency is the rule: A preponderance of evidence points to the fact that Dick Cheney spent the morning of September 11, 2001, violating the Constitution of the United States.

I wrote about the subject in my 2005 book The Five Unanswered Questions About 9/11. Based on the 9/11 Commission Report and a number of other sources (all of them public), I offered an account of how Cheney swept aside the Constitution, the laws governing military action, and a host of expert advisors, in the atmosphere of a palace coup. While President Bush was being shuttled around on Air Force One, the Vice President took charge of the country. Here’s an excerpt from the book:

Presidential power is supposed to reside not in the Oval Office, but with the man, wherever he happens to be–whether in a remote military bunker or an elementary school classroom, or in the skies aboard Air Force One. But if any locus of government power existed on 9/11, it was not with President Bush, but rather in the Presidential Emergency Operations Center (PEOC), the bunker beneath the East Wing of the White House, where Vice President Dick Cheney arrived, by his own account, shortly before 10:00 a.m.

Cheney was not alone in the PEOC, but his companions appear to have remained largely silent, deferring in all things to the Vice President. Secretary of Transportation Norman Minetta, who had oversight of the Federal Aviation Administration, made his way to the bunker but didn’t do much there. (He later told the 9/11 Commission that he had ordered all planes grounded at 9:45–but this decision was actually made independently by FAA National Operations Manager Ben Sliney, who was in his first day on the job.) National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice, always highly political and extremely deferential, remained low-key during what should have been a pivotal moment for her office. 

The others who joined Cheney in the PEOC were not experts on terrorism, national security, civilian aviation, or military tactics, but a group of key right-wing political operatives. They included conservative media celebrity and then White House “counselor” Mary Matalin and longtime Bush campaign crony and White House Communications Director Karen Hughes, as well as Cheney’s Chief of Staff, Scooter Libby, a leading neocon foreign policy strategist, and Cheney’s wife, Lynne, a powerful conservative ideologue in her own right, who was escorted to her husband’s side by the Secret Service.

Dick Cheney in the White House bunker, speaking to administration officials including (from left) Joshua Bolten, Karen Hughes, Mary Matalin (standing), Condoleezza Rice and I. Lewis ‘Scooter’ Libby. Source: David Bohrer / White House

Dick Cheney in the White House bunker, speaking to administration officials including (from left) Joshua Bolten, Karen Hughes, Mary Matalin, Condoleezza Rice and I. Lewis ‘Scooter’ Libby. Source: David Bohrer / White House

According to “counterterrorism czar” Richard Clarke, a lone holdover from the previous administration, the PEOC was connected by telephone to a videoconference going on in the West Wing’s Situation Room. This conference, at various points, included high-ranking officials from the Defense and State Departments, Joint Chiefs of Staff, Attorney General’s office, CIA, FBI, and FAA. Within half an hour of the second WTC attack, teleconferences had also been established by the FAA and the Pentagon’s National Military Command Center (NMCC).

But the the far more political group in the East Wing’s PEOC seems to have had little use for Clarke’s gathering of experts. In his book Against All Enemies, Clarke reports that someone in the PEOC later told him that attempts to listen in on the West Wing videoconference on speakerphone were impeded “because Mrs. Cheney keeps turning down the volume on you so she can hear CNN . . . and the Vice President keeps hanging up the open line to you.”

The central decision faced by whoever took command that day, after the WTC attacks were a known fact, was a momentous one: Should the United States military be ordered to shoot down commercial airplanes full of civilian passengers, so that they, too, would not be used as missiles–most likely, it appeared, against targets in Washington, D.C.?

Under the law, in this or any other crisis requiring a military response, the decision to engage the military must be made by the President, as Commander-in-Chief. He gives his orders to the Secretary of Defense, who is supposed to implement these orders by passing them on to the relevant battle commands. In this chain of command, the Vice President has no place whatsoever. According to the 25th Amendment to the Constitution, crafted following the Kennedy assassination, the Vice President could claim such a place only if the President were for some reason “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office”–and even then, only with the support of the cabinet and concurrence of the Congress.

Even if he’d never read the Constitution, Dick Cheney could not have been ignorant of these rules. The military chain of command is not some remote or obscure formula. Long on the books, it was reinforced and clarified in the Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986, debated and passed while Cheney was a member of Congress. Cheney also served as Secretary of Defense under the first George Bush–and surely would have paled at the thought of Vice President Dan Quayle giving out orders to shoot down planes.

But Vice President Cheney did, in fact, issue orders for military fighters to shoot down commercial jets on the morning of September 11. He told the 9/11 Commission, and has repeatedly told others, that he was authorized by the President in advance to give these orders. Evidence of this prior authorization is unsubstantiated and contradictory. At their own insistence, Cheney and Bush spoke to the 9/11 Commission together, in private session, and not under oath. And the Commission itself was often timid and circumspect when it came to challenging the administration or getting to the bottom of things. But even the carefully worded account in the 9/11 Commission Report, while it stops short of any conclusions or accusations, nonetheless leaves ample room for doubt.

According to the report, Bush and Cheney kept in touch that morning “not by an open line of communication, but through a series of calls.” The report says Bush told the Commission he was “frustrated with poor communications that morning. He could not reach key officials, including Secretary Rumsfeld, for a period of time. The line to the White House shelter conference room–and the Vice President–kept cutting off.”

Cheney told the Commission that he placed a call to Bush just before 10 a.m., when he arrived in the PEOC bunker. He said that the Air Force was trying to set up a combat air patrol (CAP) over Washington, and that he called to establish the rules of engagement for the CAP. Cheney reported telling Bush that the pilots would need authority “to shoot if the plane did not divert.” The report continues: “He said the President signed off on that concept. The President said he remembered such a conversation, and that it reminded him of when he had been an interceptor pilot. The President emphasized to us that he had authorized the shootdown of hijacked aircraft.”

Press accounts have also quoted Bush’s later recollections of the conversation. After Cheney recommended that he authorize the shootdowns, Bush declared, “I said, ‘You bet.’ There was a little discussion, but not much.”

The only person who remembers hearing the Vice President speak to the President at that time is the ever-faithful Condoleeza Rice. She testified to the Commission that she “remembered hearing him inform the President, ‘Sir, the CAPS are up. Sir, they’re going to want to know what to do.’ Then she recalled hearing him say, ‘Yes, Sir.’”

The Commission delicately concluded: “Among the sources that reflect other important events of that morning, there is no documentary evidence for this call, but the relevant sources are incomplete.” They added that others surrounding the Vice President, including his Chief of Staff and his wife, “did not note a call between the President and Vice President” at that time. According to one report in Newsweek, some of the Commission’s staff “flat out didn’t believe the call ever took place,” and expressed their skepticism in an early draft of their staff report. And one staff member said that pressure from the White House had led to the report being “watered down.”

Shortly after 10:10 a.m., the bunker began receiving reports of a plane headed for Washington. These reports came from the Secret Service, which was getting information directly from the FAA–incorrect information, as it turned out, since the aircraft in question was Flight 93, which at that moment was wobbling through the skies over Western Pennsylvania as its passengers fought their hijackers for control. An aide told Cheney it was only 80 miles away from Washington, and asked him to authorize a shootdown.

According to the 9/11 Report, Cheney’s “reaction was described by Scooter Libby as quick and decisive, ‘in about the time it takes a batter to decide to swing.’” Cheney repeated the shootdown order a few minutes later, after hearing that the plane was now 60 miles out.

The only recorded challenge of any kind to Cheney’s conduct came from Joshua Bolton, then the White House Deputy Chief of Staff. Bolton told the Commission that he “watched the exchanges and, after what he called ‘a quiet moment,’ suggested that the Vice President get in touch with the President and confirm the engage order. Bolton told us he wanted to make sure the President was told that the Vice President had executed the order. He said he had not heard any prior discussion on the subject with the President.” Cheney put through the call at 10:18. This call, made after the order had already been given, is well documented, unlike earlier communications. Bush, of course, concurred with Cheney’s decision.

Due to various communication problems, Cheney’s orders were never received by the pilots over Washington. This is perhaps just as well: Shortly after this episode, at about 10:30, Cheney got word of another plane just five miles away, and immediately gave orders to “take it out.” The Vice President, as it later turned out, had commanded military fighter jets to shoot down a low-flying Medevac helicopter.

In any case, the orders were moot. By the time they were issued, the passengers on Flight 93 had already done what their government failed to do: As their leaders hunkered down in safety, this handful of ordinary Americans had wrestled their plane to a crash landing, sacrificing their own lives in order to protect their nation’s capital and their compatriots on the ground.