Now out in paperback: The United States and Torture - A "gripping, interdisciplinary work" - see NYU Press.
"the best collection of essays on the topic" (Erwin Chemerinksy, Dean, UC Irvine Law School)
"an extraordinarily important book" (John W. Dean, Nixon White House counsel)

Order Rules of Disengagement“on the side of US service members who didn't check their conscience - and their sense of honor - at the door when they signed up." - see Truthout review.

Also, order Cowboy Republic - Makes the case for prosecuting Bush officials "with equisite legal detail" in "straightforward, everyman language" - see William Fisher review.

View Featured Broadcasts on Google and Professor Cohn's congressional testimony, interview on C-SPAN Book TV and
San Diego's "No War With Syria" rally.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Five "High-Value" Guantanamo Detainees Improperly Presumed Guilty

It is a bedrock principle of our system of justice that everyone who is charged with a crime is presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty. That includes "high-value detainees" awaiting trial in Guantánamo's military commissions. Yet pre-trial hearings held June 17-21 in the cases of five men charged with planning the 9/11 attacks revealed a clear presumption of guilt on the part of the government. Khalid Shaikh Mohammad, Walid Muhammad Salih Mubarak bin 'Attash, Ramzi bin al Shaibah, Ammar al Baluch, and Mustafa Ahmed Adam al Hawsawi have been charged with crimes for which they could be sentenced to death. Regardless of the emotions surrounding the terrorist attacks, these defendants must be treated fairly, in accordance with the law.

The issues litigated in the hearings included undue influence exerted on the military commission by political leaders, defects in the charging process, government violation of the attorney-client privilege, the right of the accused to exculpatory evidence in the hands of the International Committee of the Red Cross, and the exclusion of the accused from some pre-trial hearings. Judge James Pohl, who presides over these cases, took the motions under advisement. That means he postponed ruling on them until later. Although one defendant filed a motion to prevent the government from force-feeding him, that motion was not heard.

Undue influence in the charging process

Defense attorneys argued that high government officials exerted undue influence on the charging of their clients. The Military Commissions Act (MCA) expressly prohibits "any person" from unlawfully influencing or coercing the action of a military commission. Yet top US officials proclaimed the guilt of some of the defendants before they were charged and their cases set for trial in the military commissions. President George W. Bush made more than 30 public statements directly implicating Khalid Shaikh Mohammad in the 9/11 attacks; some of Bush's statements also named Ramzi bin al Shaibah and Mustafa Ahmed Adam al Hawsawi. Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld and White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer made similar statements. President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, and Attorney General Eric Holder referred to the defendants as "terrorists." Holder named all five defendants as "9/11 conspirators." Obama and White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs specifically referred to Mohammad, as did Sens. John McCain (R-Arizona) and Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina). The guilt of the defendants, all of whom face the death penalty, was pre-determined. 

Defects in the charging process

Mohammed al Qahtani was charged in 2008 along with the five defendants in the present case. But Susan Crawford, the former Convening Authority (CA) - who decides whether and what to charge against defendants in military commissions - determined that al Qahtani's case should not be referred for prosecution. The CA found that "[w]e tortured [Mohammed al] Qahtani ... His treatment met the legal definition of torture. And that's why I did not refer the case" for prosecution.

Torture of the present defendants may well have affected the decision to charge them as well, and particularly, whether to seek the death penalty (capital charges). CA Adm. Bruce MacDonald testified that a capital referral was not a foregone conclusion. But defense counsel were prevented from effectively developing that information.

The Sixth Amendment to the Constitution assures the right to effective assistance of counsel when the government is considering whether to pursue the death penalty. Yet the period preceding the formal charging of these defendants was replete with insurmountable obstacles to "learned counsel," making their assignment meaningless. Under the MCA, defendants have the right to learned counsel, who are learned in applicable law relating to capital cases, to ensure defendants are effectively represented. But several roadblocks to their representation rendered their assignment mere window-dressing.

Learned counsel were denied timely security clearances, so they were unable to meet with their clients or read 1,500 pages of classified documents. The denial of access to the clients damaged the attorney-client relationship and prevented the defense from building rapport, which is essential in eliciting from the accused facts and circumstances that could lessen his culpability or establish actual innocence.

Because professionals known as "mitigation specialists" were also denied security clearances, they, too, could not meet with the accused to assist in the gathering of information the defense could submit to prevent their clients from being charged with the death penalty. According to American Bar Association Guidelines, a mitigation specialist is considered: "an indispensable member of the defense team throughout all capital proceedings. Mitigation specialists possess clinical and information-gathering skills and training that most lawyers simply do not have."

Furthermore, the accused were denied qualified and security-cleared translators, and one defendant had no case investigator until weeks before the charges were referred to the commission. Finally, there was a total obstruction of privileged attorney-client communications.

Thus, counsel were stymied in their efforts to effectively communicate with their clients about their detention, interrogation and torture by the US government, life history, current and past mental statuses, current location of their family, and the whereabouts of any educational, medical, or other records.

Government violation of the attorney-client privilege and interference with the right to counsel

The attorney-client privilege is the oldest privilege for confidential communications in the common law. Yet defense attorneys are prevented from bringing written work product to client meetings without revealing the contents to the government, unless they are signed or written by the defense team. Counsel are forced to rely on their memories to discuss complex legal issues.

Because of the government's ongoing interference with the attorney-client privilege, bin 'Attash had not received written privileged communication from his defense counsel from October 2011 until May 2012, when counsel filed a motion barring invasion of attorney-client communications. This caused "profound damage to the relationship between Mr. bin 'Attash and his counsel."

In addition, prison authorities established a "privilege team" to screen items prisoners could have in their cells to prevent their possession of "informational contraband"(which is given such a broad definition it could include media reports on efforts to close Guantánamo). But the review team includes intelligence agents, and they need not keep the information confidential.

Lawyers are forbidden from talking about "historical perspectives or [having] discussions of jihadist activities" or "information about current or former detention personnel" with their clients. Thus, Mohammad's lawyer cannot ask his client why he may have plotted against the United States or who might have tortured him in the CIA black sites. Al Baluchi's attorney is precluded from comparing his client's alleged role in the offense with conspirators in other acts of terrorism who have and have not faced the death penalty. This is a serious interference with the defendant's ability to present a defense.

Judge Pohl will likely issue new rules regarding attorney-client communications as early as this month.

Defense right to material in possession of International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)

The ICRC is an independent, neutral and impartial humanitarian organization. The Geneva Conventions contain a mandate for the ICRC to provide protection and assistance to victims of armed conflict and other situations of violence. ICRC's confidential information must be kept confidential. All recipients of ICRC reports, including US authorities, are obligated to protect and abide by ICRC's confidentiality. They are precluded from disclosing any confidential information in judicial or other legal proceedings.

Since 2002, the ICRC has visited detainees at Guantánamo. The ICRC engages in a confidential dialogue with the government about the conditions of confinement at Guantánamo. It also engages in confidential private interviews with detainees. The ICRC maintains its access, and its status of neutrality, because it guarantees confidentiality. But the ICRC can decide to turn over some of its material at its discretion.

The defense made a motion to compel the government to produce all correspondence between the ICRC and the Department of Defense regarding the conditions of confinement of the accused, including all ICRC reports, records and memoranda.

The prosecution argued "somewhat presumptuously" (in the ICRC's words) that it should be able to review all confidential ICRC material to determine what should be provided to the defense.

There is a tension between the ICRC's insistence on confidentiality, the government's security concerns and the defendants' right to exculpatory evidence under the Due Process Clause. The Supreme Court ruled in Brady v. Maryland that prosecutors must disclose materially exculpatory evidence in the government's possession to the defense. That includes any evidence that goes toward negating a defendant's guilt, that would reduce a defendant's potential sentence, or evidence bearing on the credibility of a witness. Moreover, defense counsel argued that since this is a death case, there should be more favorable procedures for the defense. The prospect of an execution, without full disclosure of mitigating evidence, would shock a foreign government as much, if not more than, the provision of ICRC materials.

Exclusion of accused during closed pretrial hearings

Defense counsel objected to the exclusion of their clients during closed pretrial proceedings. The prosecution maintained that defendants must be excluded from hearings in which classified material is discussed. The MCA guarantees the right of the accused to be present at all hearings unless he is disruptive or during deliberations. The defense argued that defendants should be allowed to attend hearings in which classified information is discussed, if the information came from the accused himself. For example, Mohammad's attorney wants his client to be present when they discuss his torture. The government waterboarded Mohammad 183 times at the CIA black site. Hearings were held from which the accused were excluded.

Motion to prevent force-feeding

Learned counsel for Hawsawi filed a motion to prevent the government from force-feeding his client, or in the alternative, to be notified in advance and given an opportunity to be heard before any force-feeding is employed. Hawsawi has been participating in the hunger strike at Guantánamo, but has not yet been force-fed. His counsel argued that "Mr. Hawsawi has been peacefully protesting by refusing food, on and off, for months now. Given his slender build and already relatively low body weight, it is entirely plausible that forced feeding is imminent." This motion was not argued at the hearings because the judge found it premature, as Hawsawi is not being force-fed yet.

Of the 166 detainees remaining at Guantánamo, 104 are participating in the hunger strike, and 44 are being force-fed. The written procedures refer to force-feeding as "re-feeding." Although they contain a few redactions (material blacked out), the pages that describe the procedure for "re-feeding" are totally redacted.

In 2006, the United Nations Human Rights Commission concluded that the violent force-feeding of detainees at Guantánamo amounted to torture. The Obama administration is also violently force-feeding detainees. The Constitution Project's Task Force on Detainee Treatment found that "improper coercive involuntary feedings" were being undertaken with "physically forced nasogastric tube feedings of detainees who were completely restrained." Boston University Professor George Annas, who co-authored a recent article in The New England Journal of Medicine, characterized the method of force-feeding being used on Democracy NOW!, as a "very violent type of force-feeding." The American Medical Association and the World Medical Association have declared that force-feeding should not be used on a prisoner who is competent to refuse food.

On May 1, 2013, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner on Human Rights wrote to the US government:

[I]t is unjustifiable to engage in forced feeding of individuals contrary to their informed and voluntary refusal of such a measure. Moreover, hunger strikers should be protected from all forms of coercion, even more so when this is done through force and in some cases through physical violence. Health care personnel may not apply undue pressure of any sort on individuals who have opted for the extreme recourse of a hunger strike. Nor is it acceptable to use threats of forced feeding or other types of physical or psychological coercion against individuals who have voluntarily decided to go on a hunger strike.

Four detainees filed a motion in a Washington DC federal court on June 30 to stop them from being force-fed and force-medicated with Reglan, a drug that can cause severe neurological disorders. Reprieve brought the motion on behalf of Shaker Aamer, Nabil Hadjarab, Ahmed Belbacha and Abu Wa'el Dhiab, all of whom have been cleared for release from Guantanamo.

Looking ahead

Trials in these cases will not begin before 2015. President Obama should halt all military commission proceedings and announce that the trials will be held in federal civilian courts, which have shown they are more than capable of prosecuting terrorism cases. As demonstrated in both this piece and the one I wrote about al Nashiri's pretrial hearings, justice is impossible to achieve in military commissions, where guilt is a foregone conclusion.

This first appeared on Truthout.

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Sunday, June 30, 2013

Snowden's Case for Asylum: An Interview With Marjorie Cohn

Despite U.S. government pressure, Russian President Vladimir Putin is balking at demands that he extradite Edward Snowden from Moscow to face espionage charges for leaking secrets about America’s global surveillance operations. Still, Snowden’s status remains dicey, as Marjorie Cohn explains to Dennis J Bernstein.

By Dennis J Bernstein

The U.S. government is putting on a full-court press to track down, arrest and prosecute Edward Snowden for blowing the whistle on the National Security Agency’s massive collection of data on phone calls by Americans and Internet use by foreigners.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry urged Russia to “do the right thing,” block Snowden from leaving Moscow, and instead turn him over to the United States for prosecution. Talking to reporters in New Delhi, India, Kerry said, “We think it is very important in terms of our relationship. We think it is very important in terms of rule of law. There are important standards.” Russian President Vladimir Putin.

But Marjorie Cohn, professor at Thomas Jefferson School of Law, said there is another rule of law, international law, that may give the 30-year-old systems analyst a path to political asylum. Cohn said Snowden could cite “a well-founded fear of persecution” based on the mistreatment of fellow whistleblower Bradley Manning. Professor Cohn spoke about the Snowden case to Dennis J Bernstein on Monday on the Flashpoints show on Pacifica Radio:

DB: Why don’t you begin with an overview of the case, and how you see it.

MC: Edward Snowden revealed a secret program of massive spying on Americans and people all around the world and turned them [documents] over to the Guardian and Washington Post. Then he went to Hong Kong, which is where he was until he left [on Sunday]. The U.S. government is going to charge him under the Espionage Act with crimes that could garner him 30 years, or even life in prison if they decide to add extra charges.

The Obama administration has gone after whistleblowers in an unprecedented manner, filing charges against eight people under the Espionage Act, more than twice all prior presidents combined. Most recently, the firestorm around Mr. Snowden is about whether he will be extradited back to the U.S. to stand trial on these charges. He was in Hong Kong, left and stopped in Moscow. There have been reports that he might go to Ecuador where he applied for political asylum and he did confer with officials from the Ecuadoran government when he was in Russia.

He could be extradited, sent back to the U.S. for trial, either by Russia or any country he passes through on the way to Ecuador. Or Ecuador could extradite him back to the U.S. Russia and the U.S. do not have an extradition treaty, but the U.S. has extradited seven Russian prisoners in the last two years. A country can refuse extradition when the offense is political in nature. He would be charged under the Espionage Act and espionage is a classic political act that gives rise to a refusal of extradition, so they could refuse extradition on those grounds.

There’s also a provision in the Convention against Torture called "non-refoulement" that forbids extradition of a person to a country where there are substantial grounds to believe he would be in danger of being tortured. Since Bradley Manning, another prominent whistleblower, was tortured by being held in solitary confinement for nine months, a country could conclude Edward Snowden might be subjected to the same fate, and deny extradition on that ground.

Also a country has an obligation to refuse extradition when it would violate fundamental rights. The right to be free from torture and cruel treatment is a fundamental right. Under the refugee convention, Ecuador or Iceland, where he’s applied for asylum as well, or any country, could grant Snowden political asylum if he can show he has a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of political opinion in the U.S. He probably could make that showing in one of those countries. At this point it’s very fluid.

The Johannesburg Principles of national security, freedom of expression and access to information, which were issued in 1996 provide, “No person may be punished on national security grounds for disclosure of information if the public interest in knowing the information outweighs the harm from the disclosure.” It’s important to be talking about that. What did Edward Snowden do? Did he harm the national security?

There have been claims that terrorist attacks were thwarted by the massive dragnet surveillance Snowden exposed, but Senators [Mark] Udall and [Ron] Wyden, who have been on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and looking at this classified information for years, say that’s not true. The intelligence that is the most useful for foiling these plots is traditional intelligence and not a dragnet surveillance where they listen in to people’s phone calls and track what kinds of places they visit on the internet.

Even if they are not listening in on the content of the phone calls or reading the content of the messages, the fact that they are profiling, coming up with so-called patterns based upon the websites people visit or the people they call could be a tremendous invasion of privacy and lead to a lot of false intelligence. 

DB: The scuttlebutt in the press today talks about how Snowden’s lack of character is reflected by his choice of going to one of the U.S. enemies, Ecuador, Cuba or Russia.

MC: Quite frankly, if the U.S. didn’t have such an antagonistic and ill-advised policy against countries like Venezuela and Cuba, even Ecuador, then these countries would probably be extraditing him back to the United States. But when the United States pursues the kinds of policies it does in Latin America, it alienates progressive governments, like Ecuador, which has a democratic, not tyrannical government. 

Let’s keep in mind that In the 70s and 80s, the U.S. was supporting all the tyrannical countries in Latin America that were kidnapping, disappearing, torturing and murdering people. But it’s hard to blame these governments for not being willing to jump to whatever the U.S. says. According to Michael Ratner, a lawyer for Julian Assange, the Obama administration is bullying countries all over the world so they can get Ed Snowden rendered to the U.S. where he can be prosecuted.

Certainly the U.S. government is known for its bullying. It has bullied countries that signed the Rome Statute for the International Criminal Court [ICC] – bullied them into not turning Americans over to the court if Americans are found in those countries. The Bush administration certainly bullied countries about the ICC. Even the Obama administration has, if not by bullying, influenced Spain to drop charges under universal jurisdiction against the six Bush torture lawyers. That could be a form of bullying.

The U.S. has been notorious for bullying countries, especially smaller countries, for years – they are blackmailed into believing they will lose foreign assistance from the U.S. if they don’t do what the U.S. wants. When Americans are asked in the polls about what Edward Snowden did, and they think about it personally – do we want the government monitoring our personal communications – they are very much against these massive spying programs and not so critical of Edward Snowden.

It’s important that the independent media bring what is happening to the people so they are not just left with sound bites from the corporate media that will paint Snowden as a traitor because he violated national security that keeps us safe from terrorist attacks. We heard that all through the Bush administration and it certainly didn’t make us any safer than we would have been otherwise. It probably makes us less safe since there’s so much hatred for the U.S. since we invaded and killed so many people in Iraq and Afghanistan. The extensive torture, Guantanamo, the drone strikes, which have been stepped up during the Obama administration, have all created much more hatred against the United States.

DB: Is there any precedent, any case you could make that this man acted for the greater good of society?

MC: A precedent is Dan Ellsberg who leaked the Pentagon Papers, which revealed what was going on in the Vietnam War and helped ultimately end that war. You could say that was for the greater good. Also, Bradley Manning leaked evidence of war crimes, the collateral murder video, among other things, which showed commission of war crimes as defined by the Geneva Conventions, by people in the U.S. Army. Yes, there is precedent for this.

DB: Do you think the U.S. is going to figure out a way to get him? Would they be breaking international law if they sent a pick-up team to get him, wherever he was?

MC: Yes, they would. He needs very tight security wherever he is because it’s not beyond belief to think some thugs could kidnap him and render him to the U.S.

DB: Is there any legal justification for the U.S. to do that?

MC: No, but somebody could do it and say they weren’t working for the government. The government could say he’s a traitor and we need to bring him to justice in our country and he is being shielded.

DB: So he can be kidnapped and left somewhere the U.S. could get him? The U.S. could say, “We didn’t get him. We found him here.”

MC: That’s possible.

Dennis J Bernstein is a host of “Flashpoints” on the Pacifica radio network and the author of Special Ed: Voices from a Hidden Classroom. You can access the audio archives at

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Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Former CIA Employee, Snowden, Blows Whistle on NSA's Dragnet Surveillance

Just as Bradley Manning's court-martial was getting underway, another brave whistleblower dropped a bombshell into the media: The Obama administration is collecting data on every telephone call we make. Nearly 64 years to the day after George Orwell published his prescient book 1984, we have learned that the "Thought Police" are indeed watching every one of us. "They quite literally can watch your ideas form as you type," Edward Snowden told the Washington Post.

A former undercover CIA employee who has worked at the National Security Agency (NSA) for four years, Snowden provided a secret order of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to the Guardian. The order requires Verizon on an "ongoing daily basis" to provide the NSA information about all phone calls in its system both in the United States and other countries. Glenn Greenwald wrote that it "shows for the first time that under the Obama administration the communication records of millions of U.S. citizens are being collected indiscriminately and in bulk - regardless of whether they are suspected of any wrongdoing." That secret order is scheduled for declassification on April 12, 2038.

The order, issued under Section 215 of the Patriot Act, mandates that Verizon provide daily phone records for all "communications (i) between the United States and abroad; or (ii) wholly within the United States, including local telephone calls." The government is collecting "metadata" on our phone communications. That is, the identities of the sender and recipient, and the date, time, duration, place, and unique identifiers of the communication. Administration officials defending the program claim they are not reading the content of our calls.

But, as ACLU's Ben Wizner and Jay Stanley note, "Even without intercepting the content of communications, the government can use metadata to learn our most intimate secrets - anything from whether we have a drinking problem to whether we're gay or straight ... The 'who,' 'when' and 'how frequently' of communications are often more revealing than what is said or written." For example, "Repeated calls to Alcoholics Anonymous, hotlines for gay teens, abortion clinics or a gambling bookie may tell you all you need to know about a person's problem." And, they add, "URLs often contain content - such as search terms embedded within them," so that "the very fact that we've visited a page with a URL such as '' can be every bit as revealing as the content of an email message."

"Under the Bush administration, officials in security agencies had disclosed to reporters the large-scale collection of call records data by the NSA," Greenwald wrote, "but this is the first time significant and top-secret documents have revealed the continuation of the practice on a massive scale under President Obama." He added, "The unlimited nature of the records being handed over to the NSA is extremely unusual. FISA court orders typically direct the production of records pertaining to a specific named target who is suspected of being an agent of a terrorist group or foreign state, or a finite set of individually named targets."

Ron Wyden and Mark Udall, members of the Senate select committee on intelligence, have been reviewing secret intelligence collections operations for a long time. "We believe most Americans would be stunned to learn the details of how these secret court opinions have interpreted Section 215 of the Patriot Act," they wrote in a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder last year.

"After years of review," Wyden and Udall wrote after Snowden's revelations, "we believe statements that this very broad Patriot Act collection has been 'a critical tool in protecting the nation' do not appear to hold up under close scrutiny. We remain unconvinced that the secret Patriot Act collection has actually provided any uniquely valuable intelligence." They added, "As far as we can see, all of the useful information that it has provided appears to have also been available through other collection methods that do not violate the privacy of law-abiding Americans in the way that the Patriot Act collection does."

According to Wyden and Udall, "When Americans call their friends and family, whom they call, when they call, and where they call from is private information. We believe the large-scale collection of this information by the government has a very significant impact on Americans' privacy, whether senior government officials recognize that fact or not."

In addition, Greenwald, and the Washington Post, reported on the existence of PRISM, the NSA's Internet surveillance system that collects data from Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube and Apple. Established pursuant to Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) and the 2008 FISA Amendments Act, PRISM allows national security officials to collect material including search history, the content of emails, file transfers and live chats, if targeted at foreigners "reasonably believed" to be abroad, even if the surveillance takes place on US soil. The law forbids intentionally targeting data collection at American citizens or anyone in the United States. But, according to Greenwald, "The law allows for the targeting of any customers of participating firms who live outside the US, or those Americans whose communications include people outside the US."

According to materials obtained by the Post, "NSA reporting increasingly relies on PRISM" as its primary source of raw material, and accounts for one in seven intelligence reports.

After the surveillance became public, a senior intelligence official who spoke anonymously to the New York Times claimed that PRISM thwarted a 2009 plot by Najibullah Zazi to bomb the New York City subway system. But public legal documents reveal that "old-fashioned police work, not data mining, was the tool that led counterterrorism agents to arrest Zazi," according to Ben Smith at BuzzFeed. 

Snowden revealed the secret information because, he said, "What they're doing" poses "an existential threat to democracy." He leaked the documents at great risk to himself. "I'm willing to sacrifice [his home and family] because I can't in good conscience allow the US government to destroy privacy, internet freedom and basic liberties for people around the world with this massive surveillance machine they're secretly building."

Snowden said, "Everyone, everywhere now understands how bad things have gotten - and they're talking about it. They have the power to decide for themselves whether they are willing to sacrifice their privacy to the surveillance state."

The contrast between liberty and security is not a new one. Benjamin Franklin warned, "They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor security." Throughout our history, we have grappled with this apparent tension. Unfortunately, all too often, we have lost our liberties - with no tangible benefit.

Senator Dianne Feinstein, chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, defended the massive intelligence-gathering program, while admitting she did not know how the collected data was being used. The New York Times called her defense "absurd." Greenwald tweeted, "The reason there are leakers is precisely because the govt is filled with people like Dianne Feinstein who do horrendous things in secret."

When Obama ran for president in 2008, he promised change - change from the policies of the Bush administration. The only change he has made in the Bush surveillance policy is to increase it to dragnet-like proportions.

Both Congress - by dutifully rubber-stamping the executive's requests for almost unlimited snooping powers - and the courts - by affirming those policies - have acquiesced in the unprecedented surveillance of us all. It thus remains for We the People to pressure the government to heed Benjamin Franklin's chilling admonition. As Snowden said, "It's important to send a message to government that people will not be intimidated." If we don't, we will live in nothing less than a police state.

This first appeared on Truthout.

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Guantanamo Prisoner Al-Nashiri's Case Demonstrates Unfairness of Military Commissions

The issue of terrorism has been front and center in the national discourse since 9/11. Guantánamo has become a symbol of US hypocrisy on human rights.

Lawyers handling the criminal case of Guantánamo prisoner Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri argued several pre-trial motions last week. But just as they raised some fascinating legal issues, the hearings revealed the basic unfairness of the military commissions for adjudicating criminal cases. People can be put to death after a trial that affords a reduced level of due process.

Defense motions raised issues of whether the Sixth Amendment's Confrontation Clause applies in military commissions; whether a military commission can legally try defendants for the crimes of conspiracy and terrorism; whether the government has been eavesdropping on confidential attorney-client communications; whether the accused can be excluded from pre-trial sessions in which classified information is discussed; whether the defense is entitled to parity with the prosecution in subpoenaing witnesses; and how much discovery the prosecution must turn over to the defense. Judge James Pohl took the motions under advisement. That means he postponed ruling on them until later.

In 2006, in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, the Supreme Court struck down the military commissions President Bush established in 2001 because their procedures did not comply with the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) and the Geneva Conventions. The Court ruled that members of al-Qaeda are entitled to the protections of Geneva's Common Article 3, which includes being protected from the "passing of sentences and the carrying out of executions without previous judgment pronounced by a regularly constituted court, affording all the judicial guarantees which are recognized as indispensable by civilized peoples."

The Hamdan Court also said the commissions must follow procedural rules that basically parallel courts-martial proceedings under the UCMJ. Yet the Military Commissions Act of 2009 (MCA) [sec. 948b] says the UCMJ "does not, by its terms, apply to trial by military commissions except as specifically provided in this chapter." It declares that this chapter is "based upon the procedures for trial by general courts-martial under [the UCMJ], " but it also provides that "[j]udicial construction and application of [the UCMJ], while instructive, is therefore not of its own force binding on military commissions." It remains to be seen whether the new, improved military commissions will pass constitutional muster if and when they get to the Supreme Court.

The Defendant's Right to Confront Witnesses Against Him

The defense sought a ruling from the judge that the Confrontation Clause of the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution applies in this military commission in which the accused can get the death penalty. In Boumediene v. Bush, the Supreme Court ruled that Guantánamo detainees have a constitutional right to habeas corpus, since, although Guantánamo is on Cuban soil, the United States exercises complete jurisdiction and control over the US base there. Thus, the al-Nashiri defense argued, other constitutional rights, including the right to confrontation, apply in military commissions held at Guantánamo.

The Confrontation Clause gives the accused in a criminal case the right to confront and cross-examine witnesses against him. When the prosecution presents hearsay statements of unavailable witnesses, the accused is denied the right of cross-examination. As Justice Scalia wrote in the leading Confrontation Clause case, Crawford v. Washington, the Clause "commands, not that evidence be reliable, but that reliability be assessed in a particular manner: by testing in the crucible of cross-examination."

Hearsay is a statement that was made out of court but later offered at a hearing to prove the truth of the matter asserted in the statement. Although hearsay is presumed inadmissible unless it fits one of the exceptions in federal courts, the Military Commission Act (MCA) makes it easier to secure the admission of hearsay in military commission trials.

The Federal Rules of Evidence contain several exceptions to the ban on hearsay evidence, and many of them require that the person who made the hearsay statement be unavailable to testify at the present hearing. But when the proponent of the hearsay statement wrongfully procures the unavailability of the absent witness, the exception won't be available as a vehicle to admit hearsay statement. This is called forfeiture by wrongdoing. 

The prosecution wants to use the testimony of Fahd al-Quso against al-Nashiri. Al-Quso is unavailable to attend the trial because the US government killed him in a drone strike last year in Yemen. Thus it could be argued that the prosecution (the government) wrongly procured al-Quso's unavailability by killing him.

In Giles v. California, the Supreme Court held that in order for forfeiture by wrongdoing to prevent the admission of a hearsay statement, the proponent of the statement must have killed the witness to prevent him from testifying. Thus, the defense will have to prove that the government killed al-Quso to prevent him from testifying against al-Nashiri.

The defense argued that the prosecution's evidence will seemingly be full of unreliable double- and triple-hearsay (for example, "he said she said that he said X"). FBI reports in these cases typically contain hearsay statements of witnesses from Yemen, Afghanistan or Pakistan who are not available for trial.

The Constitution governs courts-martial and the evidentiary rules courts-martial use largely follow the Federal Rules of Evidence. Thus, it should be a no-brainer that the Constitution's Confrontation Clause would apply in military commissions. Nevertheless, Judge Pohl seemed inclined to decide on a case-by-case basis.

The Crimes of Conspiracy and Terrorism Are Not Triable Under the Law of War

The defense asked the judge to dismiss the conspiracy and terrorism charges against al-Nashiri. Military commissions were established to try war crimes. The commissions are bound by Congress' power to "define and punish ... Offenses against the Law of Nations." In order to vest a military commission with jurisdiction over an offense, it must be an established offense of that subset of the law of nations known as the law of war.

Conspiracy is not part of the law of war. A plurality of the Supreme Court stated in Hamdan that conspiracy is not a war crime under the traditional law of war. Terrorism is also absent from the law of war. In Tel-Oren v. Libyan Arab Republic, the DC Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed that terrorism itself is not an offense against the law of nations. The Second Circuit reaffirmed the lasting force of Tel-Oren in United States v. Yousef.

Salim Hamdan was tried under the Military Commissions Act of 2006. He was acquitted of conspiracy but convicted of providing material support for terrorism for acts done between 1996 and 2001. He appealed and, in 2012, in Hamdan II, a three-judge panel of the DC Circuit Court of Appeals reversed his material support conviction, holding that the 2006 MCA did not intend to criminalize pre-2006 conduct that was not considered a violation of the international laws of war. The panel concluded that material support was not a violation of the international law of war. 

Ali Hamza Ahmad Suliman al-Bahlul was convicted of conspiracy by military commission. A three-judge panel of the DC Circuit reversed his conviction but the entire DC Circuit decided to hear the appeal. So this issue is currently pending in the Court of Appeals in Al-Bahlul.

These issues may well get to the Supreme Court. If prosecutors are foreclosed from charging conspiracy and terrorism in the military commissions, they may only be able to try high-level terrorism suspects in the commissions, for crimes such as murder, attacking civilians and hijacking. It is the "smaller fish" who have been charged with conspiracy and terrorism.

The prosecution asked the judge to dismiss the conspiracy charge against al-Nashiri but then tried to "bargain" with the defense and the judge to allow jury instructions on vicarious liability. That would mean that al-Nashiri could be convicted even if he didn't personally carry out the crimes charged. The defense was adamantly opposed to the prosecutor's proposed bargain.

Eavesdropping on Confidential Attorney-Client Communications

In February, it was revealed that the rooms in which attorneys meet with their clients at Guantánamo were equipped with listening devices made to look like smoke detectors (even though smoking is not allowed there). The attorney-client privilege is part of federal law, and the Supreme Court has interpreted the right to counsel under the Sixth Amendment to include the right to effective counsel. It is well established that an accused does not enjoy the effective aid of counsel if he is denied the right of private consultation with him. Yet there is no provision in the MCA that addresses the monitoring of communications between the accused and his attorney.

At the hearing last week, the defense asked Judge Pohl to temporarily suspend the proceedings until the defense could be fully informed of the extent of any third party monitoring of defense communications during legal visits with their clients. The defense also asked that necessary precautions be taken to ensure that such monitoring not take place in the future.

Neither of the two witnesses who testified at the hearing had knowledge of any eavesdropping on defense communications. But Navy Capt. Thomas Welsh, the Staff Judge Advocate for the Joint Task Force Guantanamo Bay (JTF-GTMO) testified that guards denied to defense counsel that any monitoring occurred because they feared they "could end up in court." The defense raised dangers of such an "insecure" system.

Right of Accused to Be Present at All Hearings

A classified defense motion was heard in a secret session. The motion asked the judge to order the government to reveal information "related to the arrest, detention and interrogation" of al-Nashiri. Evidence obtained by torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment is inadmissible in military commissions. Although al-Nashiri was tortured for several years while in custody at the CIA black sites, the judge said that al-Nashiri was not himself the source of the classified material at issue.

The defense sought to prevent al-Nashiri from being removed from the courtroom during closed sessions. If the accused is not allowed to hear the evidence, he could not assist his counsel in objecting to legally objectionable material. Richard Kammen, al-Nashiri's lead attorney, said: "Let's say in a hearing the government presents something in good faith that is simply untrue. Let's say some agency gives them incorrect information. He will never be in a position to say to us, 'That's not true.' And waiting til trial is way, way, way too late in a capital case."

The UCMJ gives the accused the right to be present during all proceedings except jury deliberations. The MCA does not provide for the exclusion of the accused from any part of the trial unless he is disruptive, and classified information cannot be presented to the jury unless it is disclosed to the accused.

The Right of the Accused to Subpoena Witnesses

The defense requested that it be permitted to subpoena witnesses without requiring that the prosecution preview them. In the alternative, the defense asked for the right to see the prosecution's witness list. The MCA provides, "The opportunity to obtain witnesses and evidence shall be comparable to the opportunity available to a criminal defendant in a court of the United States." The defense is seeking parity with the prosecution to protect the defendant's right to a fair trial.

Providing Defense Counsel With Discovery Provided to Habeas Counsel

There are about 3,000-4,000 documents that the government turned over to al-Nashiri's lawyer in his habeas corpus (civil) proceeding. The documents are currently under a protective order. In Boumediene, the Supreme Court held that a habeas court must have the authority to admit and consider relevant exculpatory evidence. Defense counsel in al-Nashiri's military commission want discovery of those documents because they may contain potentially exculpatory information. The prosecution's burden to produce discovery information in a capital case is greater than that in a civil proceeding. Moreover, the MCA says the accused is entitled to exculpatory and mitigating information known to the prosecution.

Scope of Exculpatory Evidence Provided in Discovery

The prosecution sent out to government agencies Prudential Search Requests requesting "information or documents potentially material to the preparation of the defense," yet the prosecution refuses to provide the defense with all of the material it received. The prosecution says that in death penalty cases, mitigation evidence is "limited to evidence of an accused's character, background, and the circumstances of the offense." But the Supreme Court has defined mitigating evidence as "evidence which tends logically to prove or disprove some fact or circumstance which a fact-finder could reasonably deem to have mitigating value. Thus, a State cannot bar the consideration of ... evidence if the sentence could reasonably find that it warrants a sentence less than death." The prosecution is demanding the defense demonstrate that discovery is necessary, but the defense argues that the law provides for liberal discovery in order to protect the right to a fair trial.

Military Commissions Provide a Reduced Level of Due Process

Since Bush established the first military commissions in 2001, they have been controversial, so much so that the Supreme Court struck them down and Congress re-enacted them twice - once in 2006 and again in 2009 - providing slightly more due process each time. But the level of justice military commissions furnish remains inferior to that afforded in federal courts and military courts-martial. President Obama suspended the military commissions upon taking office in January 2009 in order to review whether to continue using them. In July of that year, he decided that military commissions were an appropriate forum for trying some cases involving alleged violations of the laws of war, even though he preferred federal criminal courts for detainee trials. Obama apparently chose political expediency over considerations of justice.

This article first appeared on Truthout

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Friday, May 24, 2013

Guantanamo, Drone Strikes and the Non-War Terror War: Obama Speaks

As one of the 1,200-plus signatories to the full-page ad that appeared in The New York Times, calling for the closure of Guantanamo, I was disappointed in President Barack Obama's speech Thursday on counterterrorism, drones and Guantanamo.

Torture and Indefinite Detention at Guantanamo

In a carefully crafted - at times defensive, discourse, Obama said, "In some cases, I believe we compromised our basic values - by using torture to interrogate our enemies and detaining individuals in a way that ran counter to the rule of law," adding, "We unequivocally banned torture." But Obama failed to note that the United Nations Human Rights Commission determined in 2006 that the violent force-feeding of detainees at Guantanamo amounted to torture and that he has continued that policy. More than half the remaining detainees are refusing food to protest their treatment and indefinite detention, many having been held for more than a decade with no criminal charges. In only a brief, but telling, mention of his administration's violent force-feeding of hunger strikers at Guantanamo, Obama asked, "Is that who we are? Is that something that our founders foresaw? Is that the America we want to leave to our children? Our sense of justice is stronger than that."

One would hope that Obama's sense of justice would prevent him from allowing the tortuous force-feeding of people like Nabil Nadjarab, who has said, "To be force-fed is unnatural, and it feels like my body is not real. They put you on a chair - it reminds me of an execution chair. Your legs, arms and shoulders are tied with belts. If you refuse to let them put the tube in, they force your head back . . . [it is very risky] because if the tube goes in the wrong way, the liquid might get into your lungs. I know some who have developed infections in the nose. They now have to keep tubes in their noses permanently." British resident Shaker Aamer reported being subjected to sleep deprivation and being dragged around like an animal at Guantanamo. David Remes, who represents two detainees, reported "shocking" genital searches "designed to deter" detainees from meeting with their lawyers. The "new military policy," said Remes, "is to sexually abuse them in searches."

And Obama asks, "Is that who we are?"

Obama did not say he would close Guantanamo. He criticized Congress for placing restrictions on transferring detainees who have been cleared for release, although he signed the legislation Congress passed. To his credit, Obama lifted the moratorium on detainee transfers to Yemen and appointed a new senior envoy at the State Department and Department of Defense to oversee detainee transfers to third countries. But Obama did not pledge to use the waiver provision contained in Section 1028(d) of the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act that would allow the Secretary of Defense to authorize transfers when it is in the national security interest of the United States. Nor did he promise to stop blocking the release of detainees cleared by habeas corpus proceedings. 

The Non-War Terror War

Obama explained how he plans to continue his war on terror without calling it a war on terror. He stated, "Under domestic law and international law, the United States is at war with al Qaeda, the Taliban and their associated forces."

While also saying, "Beyond Afghanistan, we must define our effort not as a boundless 'global war on terror' - but rather as a series of persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks of violent extremists that threaten America," Obama listed Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and Mali as places the United States is involved in fighting terror. Because, he said, "we are at war with an organization that right now would kill as many Americans as they could if we did not stop them first," Obama concluded, "This is a just war - a war waged proportionally, in last resort and in self-defense."

Obama understands that not all wars are just wars. He was referring to, but misapplied, three principles of international law that govern the use of military force. Proportionality means that an attack cannot be excessive in relation to the anticipated military advantage. Yet when drones are used to take out convoys, large numbers of civilians will be, and have been, killed. Last resort means that a country may resort to war only if it has exhausted all peaceful alternatives to resolving the conflict. By assassinating rather than capturing suspected terrorists and bringing them to trial, Obama has not used military force as a last resort. And self-defense is defined by the leading Caroline Case of 1837, which said that the "necessity for self-defense must be instant, overwhelming, leaving no choice of means and no moment for deliberation." The Obama administration has provided no evidence that the people it targeted were about to launch an imminent attack on the United States.

New Rules for Drone Strikes?

Although he defended the use of drones and targeted killing, Obama proclaimed, "America does not take strikes when we have the ability to capture individual terrorists - our preference is always to detain, interrogate and prosecute them." Yet, 4,700 people have been killed by drone strikes, only two percent of whom were high-level terrorist suspects. And Obama has added only one person to the detention rolls at Guantanamo since he took office. "This [Obama] government has decided that instead of detaining members of al-Qaida [at Guatanamo] they are going to kill him," according to John Bellinger, who formulated the Bush administration drone policy.

Obama referred to the killing of Osama bin Laden as exceptional because "capture, although our preference, was remote." Yet it was clear when the US soldiers arrived at bin Laden's compound that the people there were unarmed and bin Laden could have been captured. Obama admitted, "The cost to our relationship with Pakistan - and the backlash among the Pakistani public over encroachment on their territory - was so severe that we are now just beginning to rebuild this important partnership." Indeed, in light of Pakistan's considerable arsenal of nuclear weapons, Obama took a substantial risk to our national security in breaching Pakistan's sovereignty by his assassination operation.

Ben Emmerson, UN special rapporteur on counterterrorism and human rights, said the drone strikes in Pakistan violate international law. "As a matter of international law, the US drone campaign in Pakistan . . . is being conducted without the consent of the elected representatives of the people or the legitimate government of the state," he noted. Obama said we are "narrowly targeting our action against those who want to kill us." He did not address his administration's policy of using drone strikes to kill rescuers and attendees at funerals after the original strike killings.

The day before his speech, Obama signed a Presidential Policy Guidance, which he said, provides "clear guidelines, oversight and accountability." As Obama delivered his speech, the White House issued a Fact Sheet regarding policies and procedures for counterterrorism operations, but did not release the policy guidance itself. That Fact Sheet says, "The policy of the United States is not to use lethal force when it is feasible to capture a terrorist suspect." It provides that "lethal force will be used outside areas of active hostilities" only when certain preconditions are met. But it does not define "areas of active hostilities."

Preconditions for using lethal force include:

1. The requirement of a "legal basis" for the use of lethal force. It does not define whether "legal basis" means complying with ratified treaties, including the UN Charter, which prohibits the use of military force except in self-defense or when approved by the Security Council.

2. The target must pose a "continuing, imminent threat to US persons." The Fact Sheet does not define "continuing" or "imminent." The recently leaked Department of Justice White Paper says that a US citizen can be killed even when there is no "clear evidence that a specific attack on US persons and interests will take place in the immediate future."

3. There must be "near certainty" that the terrorist target is present. Neither the Fact Sheet nor Obama in his speech addressed whether the administration will continue "signature strikes" (known as crowd killings), which don't target individuals but rather areas of suspicious activity.

4. There must be "near certainty" that noncombatants will not be injured or killed. This is apparently a departure from present practice, as numerous noncombatants have been killed in US drone strikes. The Fact Sheet changes the current policy of defining noncombatants as all men of military age in a strike zone "unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent."

5. There must be an assessment that "capture is not feasible" at the time of the operation. It is unclear what feasibility means. The White Paper appears to indicate that "infeasible" means inconvenient.

6. There must be an assessment that relevant governmental authorities in the country where the attack is contemplated cannot or will not effectively address the "threat to US persons," which is left undefined.

7. There must be an assessment that no other reasonable alternatives exist to address the "threat to US persons," also left undefined.

Finally, the Fact Sheet would excuse these preconditions when the president takes action "in extraordinary circumstances" which are "both lawful and necessary to protect the United States or its allies." There is no definition of "extraordinary circumstances."

A few days before Obama's speech, Attorney General Eric Holder publicly acknowledged the killing of four US citizens, only one of which - Anwar Awlaki - was actually targeted, in 2011. That means 75 percent were "collateral damage," including Awlaki's 16-year-old son, Abdulrahman. In his speech, after affirming that a US citizen cannot be targeted and killed without due process (arrest and trial), Obama claimed that Awlaki was involved in terrorist plots in 2009 and 2010; this is long before Obama ordered that he be killed by drone strike in 2011, which would appear to violate the "imminence" requirement. Indeed, Lt. Col. Tony Schaefer, a former Army Intelligence officer, said on MSNBC that Awlaki could have been captured but the administration made a decision to kill instead of capture him. 

The use of drones and targeted assassination and the continuing existence of Guantanamo engender hatred against the United States. Farea al-Muslimi, a Yemeni man who testified before the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights, spoke about how his friends and neighbors reacted to a recent drone strike in his neighborhood. "Now, however, when they think of America, they think of the fear they feel at the drones over their heads. What the violent militants had failed to achieve, one drone strike accomplished in an instant."

The Unanswered Questions

During Obama's speech, Code Pink's Medea Benjamin yelled out several questions before being escorted out of the room.

She asked the President:

* What about the indefinite detention?

* What about the 102 hunger strikers? 

* What about the killing of 16-year-old Abdulrahman al-Awlaki? Why was he killed?

* Can you tell the Muslim people their lives are as precious as our lives?

* Can you stop the signature strikes that are killing people on the basis of suspicious activities?

* Will you apologize to the thousands of Muslims that you have killed?

* Will you compensate the innocent family victims? That will make us safer here at home.

* Can you take the drones out of the hands of the CIA?

* You are commander-in-chief. You can close Guantanamo today! You can release those 86 prisoners [cleared for release]. It's been 11 years.

* I love my country. I love the rule of law. 

* Abide by the rule of law. You're a constitutional lawyer.

Obama responded, "I'm willing to cut the young lady who interrupted me some slack because it's worth being passionate about. . . . The voice of that woman is worth paying attention to." But he went on to say he obviously doesn't agree with much of what she said. One wonders what parts he does agree with.

This article first appeared on Truthout.

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Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Killer Drone Attacks Illegal, Counter-Productive

By Marjorie Cohn and Jeanne Mirer

The Bush administration detained and tortured suspected militants; the Obama administration assassinates them. Both practices not only visit more hatred upon the United States; they are also illegal. Our laws and treaties prohibit torture. The Constitution forbids the government from depriving any person of life without due process of law; that is, arrest and fair trial. Yet President Obama has approved the killing of people, many of whom were not even identified before the kill order was given.

Jo Becker and Scott Shane reported in the New York Times that Obama maintains a “kill list.” After consulting with his counterterrorism adviser John O. Brennan, Obama personally makes the decision to have individuals executed. Brennan was closely identified with torture, secret prisons, and extraordinary rendition during the Bush administration. The Times story, based on interviews with three dozen current and former Obama advisers, reports that “Mr. Obama has avoided the complications of detention by deciding, in effect, to take no prisoners alive. While scores of suspects have been killed under Mr. Obama, only one has been taken into U.S. custody” because he doesn’t want to add new prisoners to Guantanamo.

The leak of the kill list angered Republicans, evidently because they believe it demonstrates Obama’s “strength” in foreign policy. Some progressives who do not fully understand the profound illegality of drone attacks find them preferable to the United States’ all out invasions of more countries. We all need to understand that the unlawful precedent the United States is setting with its use of killer drones not only undermines the rule of law; it also will prevent the United States from reasonably objecting when other countries that obtain drone technology develop “kill lists” of persons those countries believe represent threats to them.

On June 15, for the first time, Obama publicly acknowledged that his administration is engaging in “direct action” in Yemen and Somalia. Although the United States is not at war with either country, George W. Bush’s “War on Terror” has morphed into Obama’s “War on Al Qaeda.” Obama’s “war” has been used as an excuse to assassinate anyone anywhere in the world whenever the President gives the order.

But “there is not a distinct entity called Al Qaeda that provides a sound basis for defining and delimiting an authorized use of force,” according to Paul P. Pillar, deputy director of the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center from 1997 to 1999. The United States is not at war with Yemen and Somalia. Even if Obama identifies certain people living in Yemen or Somalia as members of Al-Qaeda who are desirous of committing acts of terror against the people of the United States, there is no basis in law for our government to declare war on individuals it considers a threat. The United States has legal means to indict and extradite, both under U.S. and international law.

Since 2004, some 300 drone strikes have been launched in Pakistan. Twenty percent of the resulting deaths are believed to have been civilians. The Pakistan Human Rights Commission says U.S. drone strikes were responsible for at least 957 deaths in Pakistan in 2010.

In the three and one-half years since Obama took office, between 282 and 585 civilians have been killed, including more than 60 children. “The CIA’s drone campaign has killed dozens of civilians who had gone to rescue victims or who were attending funerals,” a new report by the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism found.

But, according to the Times article, Obama has developed a creative way to count civilian casualties. All military-age men killed in a drone strike zone are considered to be combatants, “unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.” As a result, Brennan reported last year that not one civilian had been killed during one year of strikes. An administration official recently claimed that the number of civilians killed by drone strikes in Pakistan was in the “single digits.” Three former senior intelligence officials told the Times that they couldn’t believe the number could be so low.

Obama, who has been targeting “suspected militants” (called “personality strikes”) in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, even killing U.S. citizens, has authorized expanded drone attacks - whenever there are suspicious “patterns of behavior” at sites controlled by a terrorist group. These are known as “signature strikes.” That means bombs are being dropped on un-identified people who are in an area where suspicious activity has taken place. This goes beyond the illegal practice of “targeted killing.” People are being killed without even being an identified target.

The administration justifies its use of armed drones with reference to the Authorization for the Use of Military Force that Congress passed just days after the September 11 attacks. In the AUMF, Congress authorized force against groups and countries that had supported the terrorist strikes. But Congress rejected the Bush administration’s request for open-ended military authority “to deter and preempt any future acts of terrorism or aggression against the United States.” Deterrence and preemption are exactly what Obama is trying to accomplish by sending robots to kill “suspected militants” or those who happen to be present in an area where suspicious activity has taken place.

Moreover, in the National Defense Authorization Act of 2012, Congress specifically declared, “Nothing in this section is intended to . . . expand the authority of the President or the scope of the Authorization for the Use of Military Force [of September 2001].”

Drone attacks also violate well-established principles of international law. A targeted killing is defined as the “intentional, premeditated, and deliberate use of lethal force . . . against a specific individual who is not in the physical custody of the perpetrator,” according to Philip Alston, former UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary, or Arbitrary Executions. Targeted or political assassinations – sometimes known as extra-judicial executions – run afoul of the Geneva Conventions, which include willful killing as a grave breach. Grave breaches of Geneva are punishable as war crimes under the U.S. War Crimes Act.

Christof Heyns, the current UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary, or Arbitrary Executions, expressed grave concern about the targeted killings, saying they may constitute war crimes. He called on the Obama administration to explain how its drone strikes comport with international law, specify the bases for decisions to kill rather than capture particular individuals, and whether the State in which the killing takes place has given consent. Heyns further asked for specification of the procedural safeguards in place, if any, to ensure in advance of drone killings that they comply with international law. He also wanted to know what measures the U.S. government takes after any such killing to ensure that its legal and factual analysis was accurate and, if not, the remedial measures it would take, including justice and reparations for victims and their families. Although Heyns’ predecessor made similar requests, Heyns said the United States has not provided a satisfactory response.

Heyns also called on the U.S. government to make public the number of civilians collaterally killed as a result of drone attacks, and the measures in place to prevent such casualties. Once again, Heyns said the United States has not satisfactorily responded to a prior query for such information.

Likewise, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay recently declared that U.S. drone attacks in Pakistan violate the international law principles of proportionality and distinction. Proportionality means that an attack cannot be excessive in relation to the anticipated military advantage sought. Distinction requires that the attack be directed only at a legitimate military target.

The United States has ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The ICCPR states: “Every human being has the inherent right to life. This right shall be protected by law. No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his life.” The Covenant also guarantees those accused of a crime the right to be presumed innocent and to a fair trial by an impartial tribunal. Targeted killings abrogate these rights.

Self defense under Article 51 of the United Nations Charter is a narrow exception to the Charter’s prohibition of the use of force or the threat of force to settle international disputes. Countries may engage in individual or collective self-defense only in the face of an armed attack. To the extent the United States claims the right to kill suspected terrorists or their allies before they act, there must exist "a necessity of self-defence, instant, overwhelming, leaving no choice of means, and no moment for deliberation,” under the well-established Caroline Case. Obama’s drone attacks do not meet this standard.

The United States’ resort to ever increasing targeted killings is a direct result of the “War on Terror” the Bush administration declared after 9/11. Bush declared a perpetual war on a tactic and claimed all Al-Qaeda and Taliban are terrorists who may be preemptively killed as a form of self defense, rather than being arrested and tried for criminal acts. Although he does not use the phrase “War on Terror,” Obama has continued and even extended this policy. It is the product of a powerful military industrial complex in the United States which sees the use of force as the first step to resolving disputes rather than a last resort, notwithstanding the strictures of the UN Charter.

This practice sets a dangerous precedent. Heyns opined that “any Government could, under the cover of counter-terrorism imperatives, decide to target and kill an individual on the territory of any State if it considers that said individual constitutes a threat.” Heyns also cited information that indicates “the attacks increasingly fuel protests among the population.” Heyns said the “lack of transparency” and “dangerous precedent” that drone attacks represent “remain of grave concern.”

Drone strikes are also counterproductive. They breed increased resentment against the United States and lead to the recruitment of more terrorists. “Drones have replaced Guantanamo as the recruiting tool of choice for militants,” Becker and Shane wrote in the Times article. They quoted Faisal Shahzad, who, while pleading guilty to trying to detonate a bomb in Times Square, told the judge, “When the drones hit, they don’t see children.” Pakistani ambassador Zamir Akram told the Geneva Forum last week that the drone attacks are illegal and violate the sovereignty of Pakistan, “not to mention being counter-productive.” He added, “thousands of innocent people, including women and children, have been murdered in these indiscriminate attacks.”

Becker and Shane noted, “[Obama’s] focus on strikes has made it impossible to forge, for now, the new relationship with the Muslim world that he had envisioned. Both Pakistan and Yemen are arguably less stable and more hostile to the United States than when Mr. Obama became president. Justly or not, drones have become a provocative symbol of American power, running roughshod over national sovereignty and killing innocents.”

Ibrahim Mothana, who wrote an op-ed in the Times titled “How Drones Help Al Qaeda,” agrees. “Drone strikes are causing more and more Yemenis to hate America and join radical militants; they are not driven by ideology but rather by a sense of revenge and despair,” Mothana observed.

It is time to halt this dangerous and illegal practice.  

Jeanne Mirer, a contributor to "The United States and Torture: Interrogation, Incarceration, and Abuse," is an attorney in New York City and president of the International Association of Democratic Lawyers.

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Monday, June 25, 2012

Hope Dies at Guantánamo

The tragic case of Adnan Farhan Abdul Latif hit a dead end when the US Supreme Court issued an order refusing to hear his case last week. Latif, a Yemeni man, has been imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay since January 2002, after being detained while traveling to seek medical treatment.

Latif had suffered serious head injuries as the result of a car accident in 1994, and the Yemeni government paid for him to receive treatment in Jordan at that time. But his medical problems persisted, and in 1999 Yemen's Ministry of Public Health recommended that Latif undergo tests, therapy and surgical procedures at his own expense. Unable to afford it, Latif said he left Yemen in 2001 with the help of a charitable worker to seek free medical treatment in Pakistan. When he was picked up in Afghanistan — on his way to Pakistan — and transferred to US custody in December 2001, Latif had his medical records with him.

After a kangaroo court proceeding, a Combatant Status Review Tribunal at Guantanamo declared Latif to be an "enemy combatant." He was not allowed to attend the hearing, nor was he permitted to see the evidence against him. Instead of a lawyer, he was given a "Personal Representative" — a military officer who did not represent Latif's interests.

Four years ago, the Supreme Court rejected the Bush administration's argument that the detainees at Guantanamo had no right to contest the legality of their confinement in US courts. In Boumediene v. Bush, the Court upheld the habeas corpus rights of the detainees, saying they must be given "a meaningful opportunity" to challenge their detention.

Latif petitioned a federal district court for a writ of habeas corpus. The Obama administration opposed the petition, relying on information from an interrogation report. Large sections of the report were blacked out, so it is difficult to know exactly what the report says. But we do know that, according to the report, Latif admitted to being recruited for jihad, receiving weapons training from the Taliban and serving on the front line with other Taliban troops. Latif said his interrogators garbled his words so that their summary bears no relation to what he actually said.

In the US District Court for the District of Columbia, Judge Henry Kennedy granted Latif's habeas petition, concluding that it could not "credit the information [in the Report] because there is serious question as to whether the [Report] accurately reflects Latif's words, the incriminating facts in the [Report] are not corroborated, and Latif has presented a plausible alternative story to explain his travel." It troubled Judge Kennedy that, "[n]o other detainee saw Latif at a training camp or in battle. No other detainee told interrogators that he fled from Afghanistan to Pakistan, from Tora Bora or any other location, with Latif. No other type of evidence links Latif to Al Qaeda, the Taliban, a guest house, or a training camp."

Particularly significant to Judge Kennedy was that the "fundamentals [of Latif's story] have remained the same." More than a dozen interrogation summaries and statements contained "[Latif's] adamant denials of any involvement with al Qaida [sic] or the Taliban; his serious head injury from a car accident in Yemen; his inability to pay for the necessary medical treatment; and his expectation and hope that [the charitable worker] would get him free medical care."

Judge Kennedy also reasoned that errors in the report support "an inference that poor translation, sloppy note taking . . . [blacked out] . . . or some combination of those factors resulted in an incorrect summary of Latif's words." The fact that Latif was found in possession of his medical papers when seized, according to the judge, "corroborat[ed]" Latif's "plausible" story.

The government appealed the district court ruling to the conservative US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, which reversed the grant of habeas corpus. The appellate court admitted that the interrogation report was "prepared in stressful and chaotic conditions, filtered through interpreters, subject to transcription errors, and heavily redacted [parts blacked out] for national security purposes." But for the first time, the DC Circuit held that government reports must be accorded a "presumption of regularity." That means they will be presumed to be true unless the detainee can rebut that

Judge Janice Rogers Brown, who wrote the opinion for the two judges in the majority on the three-judge appellate panel, twisted Boumediene's statement that "innovation" could be used in habeas corpusproceedings into a "presumption of regularity" in government reports. Judge Brown criticized "Boumediene's airy suppositions."

The dissenting appellate judge, David S. Tatel, noted that, in practice, the presumption of regularity will compel courts to rubber-stamp government detentions because "it suggest[s] that whatever the government says must be true." He concluded that the report in Latif's case was inherently unreliable because "it contain[s] multiple layers of hearsay." Judge Tatel accused the majority of denying Latif the "meaningful opportunity" to contest the lawfulness of his detention that Boumediene guarantees.

When seven detainees whose petitions had been denied by the DC Circuit, including Latif, took their cases to the Supreme Court, they hoped the high court would do justice. During the Bush administration, the Court had struck down illegal and unjust executive policies. These included the denial of habeas corpus rights to Guantanamo detainees, the refusal to afford due process to US citizens caught in the "war on terror" and theholding of military commissions because they violated the Uniform Code of Military Justice and theGeneva Conventions.

But hope for justice died last week when the Court refused to even consider the propriety of the appellate court's denial of habeas corpus to those seven detainees. Henceforth, detainees who lose in the DC Circuit cannot expect the Supreme Court to give them relief. Their last stop will be at one of the most right-wing circuits in the country, which overturns or delays all release orders by federal judges if the government objects.

The Supreme Court's refusal to review the appellate court decisions in these cases has rendered Boumedienea dead letter. Since 2008, two-thirds of detainees who have filed habeas corpus petitions have won at the district court level, yet not one of them has been released by judicial order. Judge Tatel wrote that "it is hard to see what is left of the Supreme Court's command in Boumediene that habeas review be 'meaningful.'"

Like many men at Guantanamo, Latif went on a hunger strike to assert the only power he had in the face of utter hopelessness — the power to refuse food. He was force-fed for three months, which, he says, "is like having a dagger shoved down your throat." As attorney Marc D. Falkoff writes in his chapter about Latif inThe United States and Torture: Interrogation, Incarceration, and Abuse, "[t]he United Nations Commission on Human Rights calls this torture."

Of the 800 men and boys held at Guantanamo since 2002, 169 remain. Of those prisoners, 87 have had their release approved by military review boards established during the Bush administration, and later by the Guantanamo Review Task Force established by President Obama in 2009. Yet they continue to languish in the prison camp.

In her opinion, Judge Brown wrote, "Luckily, this is a shrinking category of cases. The ranks of Guantanamo detainees will not be replenished." Indeed, Obama has sent only one new prisoner to Guantanamo. His strategy is to assassinate "suspected militants" or people present in "suspicious areas" with drones, obviating the necessity of incarcerating them and dealing with their detention in court. As Judge Brown ominously observed, "Boumediene's logic is compelling: take no prisoners. Point taken."

This piece first appeared on Jurist.

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