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May 8, 2008

Abuse Claims Mount Against Pentagon, Contractors


by William Fisher

As human rights groups demanded the release of a report on a long-running investigation of the role of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in the unlawful interrogations of detainees in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantánamo Bay, new torture claims were leveled at two U.S. military contractors by a former Abu Ghraib "ghost" detainee who was wrongly imprisoned and later released without charge.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a Freedom of Information Act request this week with the Departments of Justice and Defense demanding release of a report by the Justice Department's Office of Inspector General (OIG), which the group says has been completed for months but blocked by the Defense Department.

The OIG investigation was initiated in 2005 after the ACLU obtained documents in which FBI agents described interrogations that they had witnessed at Guantánamo Bay.

While the documents were most notable for their description of illegal interrogation methods used by military interrogators, they also raised serious questions about the FBI's participation in abusive interrogations, the actions of FBI personnel who witnessed abusive interrogations, and the response of FBI officials to reports of abuse.

Testifying before a congressional committee last week, FBI Director Robert Mueller denied that the FBI participated in any of the interrogations. The Defense Department has said the OIG's report must be reviewed and redacted to eliminate classified information before it can be made public.

The OIG report and all documents related to this investigation is part of a broader effort to uncover information about the George W. Bush administration's torture policies. To date, more than 100,000 pages of government documents have been released in response to the ACLU's lawsuit enforcing the request – including the Bush administration's 2003 "torture memo" written by John Yoo when he was a deputy at the DOJ's Office of Legal Counsel.

This week, Yoo – under threat of subpoena – agreed to testify voluntarily before a congressional committee investigating the legal basis used to justify the Bush administration's torture policies.

Jameel Jaffer, director of the ACLU's National Security Project, told IPS, "The inspector general completed this report many months ago. The problem is with the Defense Department, which is using its classification review as a pretext for delaying the report's release. In this case as in many others, the Defense Department is misusing its classification authority to suppress information about the abuse and torture of prisoners."

"There's no good reason why the report should be withheld from the public," Jaffer said. "It's being withheld not for legitimate security reasons, but in order to protect high-level government officials from embarrassment, criticism, and possibly even criminal prosecution."

In related developments, the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), an advocacy group, leveled new torture claims against two U.S. military contractors by a former Abu Ghraib "ghost" detainee, and labeled as "wholly inadequate" a single page unclassified summary of the OIG's report released on the case of Maher Arar, the Canadian rendition victim "rendered" by U.S. authorities to be tortured in Syria for 10 months more than five years ago.

In a letter to the OIG, CCR lawyers contrasted the one-page summary with the Canadian public inquiry, which released two public reports after a two-year investigation. The Canadian Government issued a formal apology to Arar and paid him $10 million. It was the Royal Canadian Mounted Police that provided U.S. authorities with information that Arar was a suspected terrorist.

Arar attempted to sue the U.S. government, but his case was dismissed after the government invoked the so-called "state secrets privilege," which bars from the courts information that would compromise national security. The letter charges that the delay of the OIG report's release has been reportedly "due to efforts by very senior Department of Justice (DOJ) officials to suppress it" because it would expose "serious misconduct."

It added that "the continued delay in releasing report calls into serious question the independence of the DHS OIG."

Arar said, "By suppressing the report and issuing one page of publicly available information, this U.S. administration adds insult to injury. This 'summary' raises more questions than answers about the government's behavior, and does not answer the central question – why I was sent to Syria to be tortured."

The suit against the contractors, filed last week in Los Angeles federal court on behalf of Emad al-Janabi, a 43-year-old Iraqi blacksmith, alleges that Janabi was wrongly imprisoned, beaten, and forced from his home by people in U.S. military uniforms and civilian clothing in September 2003. He was released from Abu Ghraib without charge in July 2004.

The defendants are contractors CACI International Inc. and CACI Premier Technology Inc., of Arlington, Va.; L-3 Communications Titan Corporation, of San Diego, Calif.; and former CACI contractor Steven Stefanowicz, a Los Angeles resident known at Abu Ghraib as "Big Steve."

The suit charges that the contractors subjected Janabi to physical and mental torture in sessions where the defendants acted as interrogators and translators. It alleges the contractors transported him to a detainee site in a wooden box and covered with a hood; scarred his face when his eyes were clawed by an interrogator; exposed him to a mock execution of his brother and nephew; hung him upside down with his feet chained to the steel slats of a bunk bed until he lost consciousness; and repeatedly deprived him of food and sleep and threatened him with dogs.

In October 2003, during a surprise inspection of Abu Ghraib, the International Committee of the Red Cross discovered Janabi naked, chained, and bruised in a cell in the "hard site" of the prison. He was a so-called "ghost detainee" who was intentionally hidden from the Red Cross on subsequent inspections and held without appearing on the prisoner lists.

The lawsuit – which alleges multiple violations of U.S. law, including torture, war crimes, and civil conspiracy – notes that CACI provided interrogators used at Abu Ghraib and that L-3 employed all translators used there. Stefanowicz was linked to Abu Ghraib abuses in military court martial proceedings and was said to have directed low-level U.S. military personnel in detainee interrogations.

The lawsuit also alleges that a newly published book, Our Good Name, by CACI Chairman J.P. (Jack) London, reveals that CACI's internal investigation failed to include any interviews of detainees or of a former employee whistleblower. According to the lawsuit, "CACI has repeatedly made, and continues to make, knowingly false statements to the effect that none of its employees was involved in torturing prisoners."

In fact, co-conspirators have admitted that Big Steve and several other corporate employees "were involved in the torture," and at least one publicly released Abu Ghraib photograph shows a former CACI employee interrogating a prisoner in a dangerous and harmful stress position not authorized by relevant military regulations governing interrogation.

In the U.S. Congress, the Senate Intelligence Committee voted last week to limit Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) interrogators to techniques approved by the military, which would effectively bar them from waterboarding prisoners, congressional officials said.

The vote on an amendment by Sen. Diane Feinstein, a Democrat from California, taken behind closed doors as the committee debated legislation to authorize money for intelligence operations in 2009, marks at least the second attempt by intelligence overseers in Congress to regulate CIA questioning of detainees.

President Bush vetoed the 2008 intelligence authorization bill in March because it included the same curbs on questioning techniques. This interrogation provision, if passed by the full Senate and House, would likely face the same fate.

(Inter Press Service)

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  • William Fisher writes for Inter Press Service.

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