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U.S. Legal Actions, UK Inquiry: Noose Tightens on Torture Criminals

Before taking up the question of the UK torture inquiry, announced the other day, we should consider other important developments on the anti-torture front today.

Omar Khadr, captured as a child, abused, mistreated and tortured for years at Guantanamo, has fired his military attorneys — most likely because he seeks some method to exert control over his situation. God knows how we would respond if placed in his situation.

Meanwhile, Daniel Shulman at Mother Jones has posted an article describing two new actions taken to strip licensure from two former Guantanamo psychologists, Major John Leso and retired Colonel Larry James. James is now dean of the professional psychology program at Wright State University in Ohio, and was the subject of a complaint against him in Louisiana, which was dismissed by the Louisiana State Board of Examiners of Psychologists, and subsequently brought to the Louisiana Court of Appeal. Leso is the infamous "Maj. L" in the interrogation log released by Time Magazine some years ago in the torture case of Mohammed Al-Qahtani.

Both Leso and James were members of the Behavioral Science Consultant Team, or BSCT, at Guantanamo. Indeed, James was in charge of the BSCT while he was there. The complaint against Leso, filed by the Center for Justice and Accountability, can be viewed here. The James filing — the work of Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic — is available in PDF format.

These filings were separate from yet another complaint, this one filed with the Texas State Board of Examiners of Psychologists, against James Mitchell, one of the principals for CIA torture contractors Mitchell-Jessen and Associates, who has also been identified as one of the interrogators involved in reverse-engineering SERE techniques for the interrogation-cum-torture experiments made upon Abu Zubaydah in the spring and summer of 2002. (PDF link to full document here.)

These actions have been taken in the context of the refusal of the Obama administration to undertake the necessary criminal investigations against the work of torturers under governmental employ during the Bush/Cheney era. While there is a secret investigation supposedly underway in the Senate’s Select Committee on Intelligence, congressional oversight and action on the subject of interrogations has been minimal. While the Senate Armed Services Committee conducted a wide-ranging investigation of the spread of SERE-style torture in the military, the committee refuses to release a less-redacted version of their report, and moreover, issued their findings without recommendations. Even worse, they allowed SERE psychologists, like James Mitchell, to remain in charge of Special Operations battlefield interrogations and detention.

Keeping the lid on the torture scandal is the SOP of the Obama administration lately. According to a July 2 report by Mike Scarcella at The Blog of Legal Times, the Holder Justice Department has filed hundreds of papers in court arguing against an ACLU suit "that blacked-out passages in the [Office of Professional Responsibility] report [on the Office of Legal Counsel torture memos] should remain confidential in the interest of national security and the privacy of government lawyers."

It is in the context over this war over information and accountability that we must look across the Atlantic to see what is unfolding in the United Kingdom, where the new British administration of Prime Minister David Cameron (with coalition partner Nick Clegg) announced that there would be a "judge-led investigation" of the complicity of UK intelligence personnel in the torture of detainees in the U.S.-led rampage that incarcerated an untold number of prisoners, rendered them to countries that would torture, or sent them into CIA secret prisons. These crimes were committed in part to coerce "intelligence" and confessions that would link Saddam Hussein to Al Qaeda, the better to drum up fake evidence to justify an unprovoked attack upon Iraq.

UK Torture Inquiry Questions

The announcement of the UK inquiry has been met with a mostly uncritical positive reception in the U.S. And who can blame the American human rights, anti-torture and civil liberties movement? They’ve had to put up with the "don’t look back" policy of President Obama, not to mention the latter’s embrace of Bush-era positions on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, indefinite detention, support for the Army Field Manual’s Appendix M, governmental secrecy, and even this administration’s own operation of black site prisons (run now by JSOC, not, apparently, the CIA).

A press release by the ACLU captured the general attitude of U.S. opponents of the Pentagon/CIA torture program:

"An investigation into the role of government personnel in the abuse and torture of prisoners is exactly what the Obama administration should be initiating. And while we welcome Prime Minister Cameron’s commitment to ensuring that torture survivors are acknowledged and compensated, this announcement also serves as a reminder of how little has been done here in the United States to reckon with the abuses of the last nine years," said Jameel Jaffer, ACLU Deputy Legal Director.

While the sentiment is understandable (see a similar statement by Tom Parker at Amnesty International), even though we dearly need an investigation, it is not certain that the UK inquiry is exactly what the doctor ordered. The British press and human rights agencies, while approving of Cameron/Clegg’s decision to make good on their campaign promise and initiate an investigation into UK intelligence services complicity with torture, are dubious about the details of how the investigation will proceed.

For one thing, proceedings will be held in secret. While the three-person investigating panel will have ample access to UK documents, they will not be allowed to study U.S. documents. Moreover, the inquiry cannot begin until all current criminal and civil complaints are settled. This led U.S. blogger-commentator Marcy Wheeler to wonder if the inquiry weren’t meant in part to limit the disclosures that could still surface if the cases now outstanding were adjudicated fully.

The investigation panel is supposed to include Dame Janet Paraskeva, head of the civil service commissioners, and retired journalist Peter Riddell. No less a UK government critic than Craig Murray finds these two to be independent-minded and fair (though some question their experience in these matters). But Murray — and as we’ll see, many others — is concerned about the ex-judge Sir Peter Gibson, named to head the investigation.

The 76-year-old Gibson is an odd choice, especially, as John Ware at BBC Panorama put it, "for an inquiry deemed to be fully independent." He is closely linked to intelligence circles, as he is Intelligence Services Commissioner, responsible for monitoring secret bugging operations by MI5, MI6 and GCHQ (Britain’s version of the NSA). In the past, Gibson has refused to say how many instances of bugging have taken place, because it would “assist those hostile to the UK”. There has also been some criticism regarding Gibson’s propensity for secrecy.

Peter Oborne at the UK Daily Mail has more to say about Gibson and "judge-led" "independent inquiries:

Sir Peter is a thoroughly acceptable figure to British spies because he has been Commissioner of the Intelligence Services since 2006, and was reappointed only last year.

Most of his work is carried out away from the public eye, but I have heard no reports of Sir Peter asking probing questions of MI5 and MI6 bosses over the past few years, despite the publication of a mass of troubling material during that period.

This is not the first time Gibson has been asked to head a secretive investigation, as he also led the inquiry into the 1998 IRA Omagh bombing, after a BBC report that GCHQ withheld info from the police that could have led to an interdiction of the bombers. The report itself was, of course, kept secret, but there were many questions about how Gibson conducted the affair. According to John Ware:

Sir Peter’s report, published in January 2009, angered relatives of Omagh’s victims and survivors when it focused only on whether the Omagh bombing could have been stopped. He concluded it could not have been.

Sir Peter later acknowledged he "deliberately did not" investigate why intercepts that he found had been shared between GCHQ and Special Branch were not also shared with the CID.

He told MPs on the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee (NIAC) that he had not seen it as part of his remit to "go into questions like why certain things were done or not done".

An mixture of hopefulness and ominous foreboding emanates from British anti-torture human rights groups. Addressing worries that the inquiry will focus on lower-level interrogators and let government officials like former Prime Minister Tony Blair off the hook, London director of Human Rights Watch said, "To be credible and to get to the bottom of what went wrong, any inquiry must be as public as possible, examine all cases of alleged complicity that are brought to its attention and examine the degree to which decisions by UK ministers and officials contributed to abuse."

The British human rights group, Reprieve, who like the U.S. Center for Constitutional Rights, sponsors many attorneys currently defending Guantanamo prisoners, noted a number of concerns about the proposed inquiry. Top on the list of concerns is the pervasive secrecy surrounding the investigation. Not only will they be held in secret, but only the Prime Minister can decide what will be made public in the proceedings or final report. "Under the Government’s plan," Reprieve reports, "there is no formal mechanism for civil participation — so Reprieve and other civil organisation[s] will not be allowed access to documents and proceedings."

Another outstanding demand is that the government produce the old, secret official policy that governed UK intelligence agents. The new policy, itself recently published, still allows unnamed "ministers" the ability to approve "cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment": "…a wide spectrum of conduct and different considerations and legal principles may apply depending on the circumstances and facts of each case." What, Reprieve asks, were in the old rules, if these are the new rules? Any real inquiry would make this public.

What Now?

The no-accountability policy of the Obama administration has proven bankrupt, and recent legal actions taken against Leso, James, and Mitchell are laudable and hopefully will provide a decent chill among those health care providers who serviced (or still serve) the CIA and Pentagon torture and human experimentation programs. The UK inquiry certainly is a response to a societal repulsion in Great Britain against crimes against humanity, and perhaps, at a remove, to the widespread hatred of Britain’s participation in the U.S.-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But it would be naive to believe that the British government, which sees itself as the best ally of the U.S. intelligence services, will open itself up to the kind of scrutiny needed — not without a fight. To agree to the form in which the investigation is now proposed threatens to direct the fight for accountability and justice into a blind alley. As Peter Oborne reminds us, we should remember that other "judge-led" inquiry/cover-up in 2003, when "Lord Hutton’s investigation into the death of government scientist David Kelly… failed to ask the right questions, while reaching conclusions that flew in the face of evidence."

In addition, instead of sparking a renewed bid for a real investigation in the U.S., which is the fond hope of many anti-torture activists, a limited hang-out in the UK will only stifle the movement for accountability in the U.S., as enthusiasm for an open inquiry and prosecutions of high government officials is buried by demoralization and a feeling of futility.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Activists can support the moves by Britain to have an investigation into Britain’s role in torture, while demanding that it be a real investigation, with open, televised hearings (as much as is feasible), the inclusion of civil organizations, such as Reprieve, and a published protocol that includes a programmatic insistence that all lines of evidence will be followed, no matter how high up the governmental ladder such inquiry leads, and no matter what other countries’ crimes may also be implicated. One could start by refusing to accept the appointment of Peter Gibson as head of the investigating panel.

Those who sponsored, support, and defend the torture and rendition programs of the past ten years must feel the noose of real justice tightening ever further around them, and they will fight with all their might and subterfuge to protect themselves and the monopoly of state violence and terror they administer. We must take this opportunity and push even harder to have a real investigation, one that will truly bring justice, and a giant step toward the complete abolition of torture and cruel, inhuman, degrading treatment of prisoners everywhere. That was the program of the European and American Enlightenment, and over 200 years later, it must be our program, too.

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Jeff Kaye

Jeff Kaye

Jeffrey Kaye is a retired psychologist who has worked professionally with torture victims and asylum applicants. Active in the anti-torture movement since 2006, he has his own blog, Invictus, previously wrote regularly for Firedoglake’s The Dissenter, as well as at The Guardian, Truthout, Alternet, and The Public Record. He is the author of Cover-Up at Guantanamo, a new book examining declassified files on treatment of prisoners at the Guantanamo detention camp.