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February 16, 2009

Lawsuit Sheds More Light on Terror War Abuses

by William Fisher

Three human rights groups have released documents that they say reveal close cooperation between the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in rendering terrorism suspects to secret prisons, creating "ghost prisoners" by concealing their identities from the Red Cross, and delaying their release to counter negative publicity about their treatment at Guántanamo Bay.

Close to a thousand pages of documents were obtained through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit brought by Amnesty International USA (AIUSA), the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), and New York University's Center for Human Rights and Global Justice (CHRGJ). The suit, dating from 2004, seeks the disclosure of government documents relating to secret detention, extraordinary rendition, and torture.

At a press conference earlier this week, the groups revealed that the newly released documents confirm the existence of "black site" prisons at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan and in Iraq; affirm the DOD's cooperation with the CIA's "ghost" detention program; and show one case where the DOD sought to delay the release of Guantánamo prisoners who were scheduled to be sent home in order to avoid bad press.

"These newly released documents confirm our suspicion that the tentacles of the CIA's abusive program reached across agency lines," said Margaret Satterthwaite, director of the CHRGJ. "In fact, it is increasingly obvious that defense officials engaged in legal gymnastics to find ways to cooperate with the CIA's activities."

"A full accounting of all agencies must now take place to ensure that future abuses don't continue under a different guise," she said.

While most of the documents simply contain news articles, there were several significant disclosures from the DOD.

A February 2006 e-mail to members of the DOD's Transportation Command discusses how to deal with the bad press the U.S. was receiving over its detention facilities. It said the U.S. was "getting creamed" on human rights issues sparked by "coverage of the United Nations Rapporteur's report on Guantanamo, plus lingering interest in Abu Ghraib photos." These developments add up to "the U.S. taking a big hit on the issues of human rights and respect for the rule of law, the e-mail said." It cited criticism of the U.S. in blogs and discussion boards.

"America has lost its prestige," a blogger from Yemen wrote. "Every year the world waits for the annual U.S. State Department report on human rights. Today, it is America that awaits the world's opinion of its human rights policy. From Gitmo, to Abu Ghraib, to secret prisons in Europe, the world accuses America of not respecting human rights."

To temper the bad PR, the e-mail suggests delaying the release of prisoners at Gitmo "for 45 days or so until things die down. Otherwise we are likely to have a hero's [sic] welcome awaiting the detainees when they arrive."

The e-mail adds, "It would probably be preferable if we could deliver these detainees in something smaller and more discreet than a T tail," a larger aircraft with a T-shaped tail wing.

"It is astonishing that the government may have delayed releasing men from Guantánamo in order to avoid bad press," said CCR attorney Gitanjali Gutierrez, who represents many of the men held in Guantánamo and has made 30 trips to the base since 2004. "Proposing to hold men for a month and a half after they were deemed releasable is inexcusable. The Obama administration should avoid repeating this injustice and release the innocent individuals with all due haste."

In a second document, one heavily redacted page mentions an "undisclosed detention facility" at Bagram.

Another highlights how the Geneva Conventions can be interpreted to allow the CIA and the DOD to "ghost" detainees' identities so they can be denied a visit from the International Committee of the Red Cross. The organizations charged that the document, entitled "Applicability of Geneva Conventions to 'Ghost Detainees' in Iraq," shows that the DOD interpreted the "security internee" provisions of the Geneva Conventions to allow for "ghosting" of detainees by prohibiting the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) from visiting.

It also shows that the DOD recognized that indefinitely prohibiting the ICRC from visiting or failing to notify the ICRC of the existence of detainees was illegal under the Geneva Conventions, the groups said.

A 2005 document labeled a "Detainee Update" presentation dealt with Internment Serial Number Policy (ISN). The organizations said, "It shows that the DOD did not, as a matter of course, register detainees with the ICRC until they had been in custody for up to 14 days and that authorization was sought to hold some individuals for up to 30 days without ISN/registry with ICRC to 'maximize intelligence collection,'" even though "there is some disagreement as to legal basis to go beyond 14 days."

The groups said these policies "demonstrate the ease with which the CIA could have used DOD facilities as 'sorting facilities' without having to worry about ICRC oversight or revelation of the ghost detainee program."

Records from a Detainee Senior Leadership Oversight Council meeting contain references to a previously unreleased section of the Church Report and discuss the need for the DOD to develop and enforce guidelines governing their relationship with "Other Government Agencies," including the CIA, in order to regulate interrogation and other operations overseas.

The organizations claimed that these documents demonstrate that the DOD and CIA were in an ad hoc relationship, "apparently unconstrained by formal guidelines."

The lawsuit is based on Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests dating back to 2004. Previous government releases also included documents largely already in the public record, including, in one instance, a copy of the Geneva Conventions. This is the first time the DOD has provided any documents in response.

"Out of thousands of pages, most of what might be of interest was redacted," said Tom Parker, policy director for counterterrorism, terrorism, and human rights at AIUSA.

"While the sheer number of pages creates the appearance of transparency, it is clear this is only the tip of the iceberg and that the government agencies have not complied with spirit of President Obama's memo on Freedom of Information Act [FOIA] requests. We call on Attorney General Eric Holder and the Obama administration to put teeth into the memo and work actively to comply with FOIA requests."

In his first week in office, President Obama signed an order closing the Guantanamo detention facility in Cuba within a year and prohibiting CIA secret prisons. However, the order allows the CIA to detain people temporarily. Obama also pledged increased openness and transparency during his administration.

It is not known whether the Pentagon or the CIA still hold "ghost detainees," Satterthwaite said, referring to people housed at secret facilities.

(Inter Press Service)

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  • William Fisher writes for Inter Press Service.

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