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Federal Court to Obama DOJ: ‘State Secrets’ Excuse is Bogus, Torture Victims’ Lawsuit Can Proceed April 28, 2009

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 jeppesen-supports-torture

Posted by Liliana Segura, AlterNet at 1:39 PM on April 28, 2009, www.alternet.org

In a crucial defeat for the Obama administration, an ACLU lawsuit on behalf of five victims of extraordinary rendition will move forward.

In February, lawyers for the Obama administration dismayed many of his supporters by attempting to block a lawsuit on behalf of five victims of  extraordinary rendition on the same bogus “state secrets” grounds so often invoked by his predecessor.

“This case cannot be litigated,” Department of Justice lawyer Douglas Letter argued at the time. “The judges shouldn’t play with fire in this national security situation.”

This claim, a throwback to the shameless secrecy and fearmongering of the Bush era, was devastating to those who had hoped that the Obama presidency would mark a shift towards seeking justice for the countless men wrongfully swept up in the early days of the so-called “war on terror” — and accountability for those who sanctioned their torture.

As I explained at the time:

 

 

The case was Mohamed et al. v. Jeppesen Dataplan, a lawsuit originally brought in 2007 by the ACLU on behalf of five victims of extraordinary rendition, the notorious CIA program in which terror suspects are kidnapped, thrown on a plane and flown to another country to be tortured and interrogated.

Jeppesen Dataplan, a subsidiary of Boeing, is said to have provided the logistical support for the rendition of all five plaintiffs, among them, Binyam Mohamed, an Ethiopian national who, in July 2002, was taken from Pakistan to Morocco, where for 18 months he was imprisoned and brutally tortured, including being cut with razorblades on his testicles. Mohamed was later sent to Guantanamo Bay, where he supposedly awaits imminent plans for his release. He has never stood trial.

 

 

Two weeks later — and seven years after his initial capture — Binyam Mohamed was finally released.

 

 

“The very people who I had hoped would come to my rescue, I later realized, had allied themselves with my abusers,” he said in a statement released upon his arrival to Britain.

 

 

Likewise, the same administration many hoped would finally allow torture victims to have their day in court instead has followed the Bush administration’s footsteps by seeking to block their lawsuits.

Today, however, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit came down on the side of Mohamed and his fellow plaintiffs, ruling that the ACLU case against Jeppesen Dataplan can move forward.

“The Executive’s national security prerogatives are not the only weighty constitutional values at stake,” the court concluded, quoting the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark opinion in Boumediene v. Bush that security depends on the “freedom from arbitrary and unlawful restraint and the personal liberty that is secured by adhering to the separation of powers.”

 

 

According to the court’s decision, the government can only use the state secrets privilege with respect to specific evidence, not to throw out the lawsuit itself.

In a statement released today by the ACLU, staff attorney Ben Wizner, who argued the case for the plaintiffs, said, “This historic decision marks the beginning, not the end, of this litigation. Our clients, who are among the hundreds of victims of torture under the Bush administration, have waited for years just to get a foot in the courthouse door. Now, at long last, they will have their day in court. Today’s ruling demolishes once and for all the legal fiction, advanced by the Bush administration and continued by the Obama administration, that facts known throughout the world could be deemed ‘secrets’ in a court of law.”

“I am happy to hear this news,” said Bisher Al-Rawi, a plaintiff in this case who was released from Guantánamo last year without ever having been charged with a crime. “We have made a huge step forward in our quest for justice.”

 

 

The ACLU has more.

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Obama Lawyers Invoke “State Secrets” to Block Warrantless Spying Lawsuit April 6, 2009

Posted by rogerhollander in Barack Obama, Criminal Justice, Torture.
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Posted by Liliana Segura, AlterNet at 10:15 AM on April 6, 2009.

It’s not the first time Obama’s DOJ has employed the tactic so often used by the Bush administration to block accountability for government crimes.

Oops, they did it again: lawyers for Barack Obama’s Department of Justice have invoked the “state secrets” privilege to block a lawsuit seeking to reverse one of the most scandalous policies of the Bush administration.

In a motion filed in a San Francisco court on Friday, attorneys for the Obama administration moved to dismiss a challenge to the National Security Agency’s notorious warrantless wiretapping program. “The information implicated by this case, which concerns how the United States seeks to detect and prevent terrorist attacks, would cause exceptionally grave harm to national security,” DOJ lawyers argued in the 36-page brief, echoing an argument made ad nauseum by the Bush administration.

 

 

The case, Jewel v. NSA, was filed in September of 2008 on behalf of five AT&T customers “to stop the illegal, unconstitutional, and ongoing dragnet surveillance of their communications and communications records,” according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the civil liberties organization that brought forth the suit. “Evidence in the case includes undisputed documents provided by former AT&T telecommunications technician Mark Klein showing AT&T has routed copies of Internet traffic to a secret room in San Francisco controlled by the NSA.”

Klein, the whistleblower who blew the lid off AT&T’s participation in the NSA spying program, was an employee at AT&T for 22 years but showed no qualms about exposing the company. “If they’ve done something massively illegal and unconstitutional — well, they should suffer the consequences,” Klein told the Washington Post in 2007. Teaming up with EFF, Klein has played a critical role in furnishing the evidence for multiple lawsuits brought against the NSA’s spying program, including Hepting v. AT&T, a class-action lawsuit against AT&T itself. (That case was brought forth in 2006, before Congress passed legislation granting immunity to telecoms that participated in the government’s warrantless wiretapping program.)

Although Jewel v. NSA is not a lawsuit against AT&T, the DOJ’s court motion displays its full support for the company. “All of plaintiffs’ claims require the disclosure of whether or not AT&T assisted the Government in alleged intelligence activities, and the (Director of National Intelligence) again has demonstrated that disclosure of whether the NSA has an intelligence relationship with a particular private company would also cause exceptional harm to national security”

It may have been fantasy to imagine that the Obama DOJ would allow AT&T — whose corporate logo graced the official goody bags at the Democratic National Convention this summer — to be at all vulnerable to litigation for its role in the warrantless wiretapping scheme, particularly after Obama himself cast a vote for telecom immunity. But its invoking of the state secrets privilege is a disturbing move — particularly because it is not the first time it has done so.

 

 

On Monday EFF sent out a press release condemning the Obama administration’s use of state secrets privilege to conceal the government’s criminal activity. “President Obama promised the American people a new era of transparency, accountability, and respect for civil liberties,” Senior Staff Attorney Kevin Bankston said in a written statement. “But with the Obama Justice Department continuing the Bush administration’s cover-up of the National Security Agency’s dragnet surveillance of millions of Americans, and insisting that the much-publicized warrantless wiretapping program is still a ‘secret’ that cannot be reviewed by the courts, it feels like deja vu all over again.”

Why is the Obama Administration Protecting Bush Officials?

Over e-mail, Cindy Cohn, legal director of EFF, called the legal filing by Obama’s DOJ “very significant.” “Obama is attempting to block the courts from considering serious constitutional issues raised in this case entirely,” she said. “This is the sort of disdain for the rule of law and the role of the courts that he campaigned against.”

 

 

Cohn added, “It’s also a continuation of the outrageous secrecy claims that Bush was criticized for — after all, the warrantless wiretapping is hardly a secret. We presented a box of Congressional testimony, Congressional admissions, news stories, and even a few books to the court describing it. The argument that this is still a secret really strains belief.”

 

 

Jewel v. NSA is not just a lawsuit against the NSA. It is also a lawsuit against the individuals who created the government’s spying program, including George W. Bush and his senior staff.

 

 

As Raw Story’s John Byrne points out, “in attempting to block a San Fransisco court from reviewing documents relating to the NSA program, the Obama Administration is also protecting other individuals named as defendants in the suit: Vice President Dick Cheney, former Cheney chief of staff David Addington and former Bush Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.” These, of course, are the same individuals many Americans would like to see prosecuted for their role in implementing the government’s “harsh interrogation” policies. But on the question of torture, the Obama administration has shown no inclination to bring former Bush officials to account.

Quite the opposite. In February Obama lawyers used the same “state secrets” tactic to block a lawsuit brought by the ACLU on behalf of five victims of extraordinary rendition — the CIA’s famed kidnap and torture program. “This case cannot be litigated,” Department of Justice lawyer Douglas Letter declared on February 9th, arguing that the case, Mohamed et al. v. Jeppesen Dataplan, should be thrown out. “The judges shouldn’t play with fire in this national security situation.”

ACLU director Anthony Romero decried the move. “Eric Holder’s Justice Department stood up in court today and said that it would continue the Bush policy of invoking state secrets to hide the reprehensible history of torture, rendition and the most grievous human rights violations committed by the American government.”

 

 

Now, warrantless spying can be added to the list.

 

 

“In our case we have no reason to believe that the warrantless wiretapping has ended,” said Cohn, “so at some point we have to call it Obama’s warrantless wiretapping.”

Liliana Segura is a staff writer and editor of AlterNet’s Rights and Liberties and War on Iraq Special Coverage.

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Rendition is a Horrible, Violent Crime in Any Form — It Should Not Be U.S. Policy February 18, 2009

Posted by rogerhollander in Criminal Justice, Torture.
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Marjorie Cohn, Jurist Legal News and Research. Posted February 16, 2009.

www.alternet.org

The U.S. government should disclose the names, fate, and whereabouts of all persons rendered by the CIA since 2001.

Binyam Mohamed, an Ethiopian residing in Britain, said he was tortured after being sent to Morocco and Afghanistan in 2002 by the U.S. government. Mohamed was transferred to Guantánamo in 2004 and all terrorism charges against him were dismissed last year. Mohamed was a victim of extraordinary rendition, in which a person is abducted without any legal proceedings and transferred to a foreign country for detention and interrogation, often tortured.

Mohamed and four other plaintiffs are accusing Boeing subsidiary Jeppesen Dataplan, Inc. of flying them to other countries and secret CIA camps where they were tortured. In Mohamed’s case, two British justices accused the Bush administration of pressuring the British government to block the release of evidence that was “relevant to allegations of torture” of Mohamed.

Twenty-five lines edited out of the court documents included details about how Mohamed’s genitals were sliced with a scalpel as well as other torture methods so extreme that waterboarding “is very far down the list of things they did,” according to a British official quoted by the Telegraph (UK).

The plaintiffs’ complaint quotes a former Jeppesen employee as saying, “We do all of the extraordinary rendition flights – you know, the torture flights.” A senior company official also apparently admitted the company transported people to countries where they would be tortured.

Obama’s Justice Department appeared before a three-judge panel of the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Monday in the Jeppesen lawsuit. But instead of making a clean break with the dark policies of the Bush years, the Obama administration claimed the same “state secrets” privilege that Bush used to block inquiry into his policies of torture and illegal surveillance. Claiming that the extraordinary rendition program is a state secret is disingenuous since it is has been extensively documented in the media.

“This was an opportunity for the new administration to act on its condemnation of torture and rendition, but instead it has chosen to stay the course,” said the ACLU’s Ben Wizner, counsel for the five men.

If the judges accept Obama’s state secrets claim, these men will be denied their day in court and precluded from any recovery for the damages they suffered as a result of extraordinary rendition.

Two and a half weeks before Obama’s representative appeared in the Jeppesen case, the new President had signed Executive Order 13491. It established a special task force “to study and evaluate the practices of transferring individuals to other nations in order to ensure that such practices comply with the domestic laws, international obligations, and policies of the United States and do not result in the transfer of individuals to other nations to face torture or otherwise for the purpose, or with the effect, of undermining or circumventing the commitments or obligations of the United States to ensure the humane treatment of individuals in its custody or control.”

This order prohibits extraordinary rendition. It also ensures humane treatment of persons in U.S. custody or control. But it doesn’t specifically guarantee that prisoners the United States renders to other countries will be free from cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment that doesn’t amount to torture. It does, however, aim to ensure that our government’s practices of transferring people to other countries complies with U.S. laws and policies, including our obligations under international law.

One of those laws is the International Covenant on Civil Political Rights (ICCPR), a treaty the United States ratified in 1992. Article 7 of the ICCPR prohibits the States Parties from subjecting persons “to torture or to cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment.” The UN Human Rights Committee, which is the body that monitors the ICCPR, has interpreted that prohibition to forbid States Parties from exposing “individuals to the danger of torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment upon return to another country by way of their extradition, expulsion or refoulement.”

Order 13491 also mandates, “The CIA shall close as expeditiously as possible any detention facilities that it currently operates and shall not operate any such detention facility in the future.” The order does not define “expeditiously” and the definitional section of the order says that the terms ‘detention facilities’ and ‘detention facility’ “do not refer to facilities used only to hold people on a short-term, transitory basis.” Once again, “short term” and “transitory” are not defined.

In his confirmation hearing, Attorney General Eric Holder categorically stated that the United States should not turn over an individual to a country where we have reason to believe he will be tortured. Leon Panetta, nominee for CIA director, went further last week and interpreted Order 13491 as forbidding “that kind of extraordinary rendition, where we send someone for the purposes of torture or for actions by another country that violate our human values.”

But alarmingly, Panetta appeared to champion the same standard used by the Bush administration, which reportedly engaged in extraordinary rendition 100 to 150 times as of March 2005. After September 11, 2001, President Bush issued a classified directive that expanded the CIA’s authority to render terrorist suspects to other States. Former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said the CIA and the State Department received assurances that prisoners will be treated humanely. “I will seek the same kinds of assurances that they will not be treated inhumanely,” Panetta told the senators.

Gonzales had admitted, however, “We can’t fully control what that country might do. We obviously expect a country to whom we have rendered a detainee to comply with their representations to us . . . If you’re asking me, ‘Does a country always comply?’ I don’t have an answer to that.”

The answer is no. Binyam Mohamed’s case is apparently the tip of the iceberg. Maher Arar, a Canadian born in Syria, was apprehended by U.S. authorities in New York on September 26, 2002, and transported to Syria, where he was brutally tortured for months. Arar used an Arabic expression to describe the pain he experienced: “you forget the milk that you have been fed from the breast of your mother.” The Canadian government later exonerated Arar of any terrorist ties. In another instance, thirteen CIA operatives were arrested in Italy for kidnapping an Egyptian, Abu Omar, in Milan and transporting him to Cairo where he was tortured.

Panetta made clear that the CIA will continue to engage in rendition to detain and interrogate terrorism suspects and transfer them to other countries. “If we capture a high-value prisoner,” he said, “I believe we have the right to hold that individual temporarily to be able to debrief that individual and make sure that individual is properly incarcerated.” No clarification of how long is “temporarily” or what “debrief” would mean.

When Sen. Christopher Bond (R-Mo.) asked about the Clinton administration’s use of the CIA to transfer prisoners to countries where they were later executed, Panetta replied, “I think that is an appropriate use of rendition.” Jane Mayer, columnist for the New Yorker, has documented numerous instances of extraordinary rendition during the Clinton administration, including cases in which suspects were executed in the country to which the United States had rendered them. Once when Richard Clarke, President Clinton’s chief counter-terrorism adviser on the National Security Council, “proposed a snatch,” Vice-President Al Gore said, “That’s a no-brainer. Of course it’s a violation of international law, that’s why it’s a covert action. The guy is a terrorist. Go grab his ass.”

There is a slippery slope between ordinary rendition and extraordinary rendition. “Rendition has to end,” Michael Ratner, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, recently told Amy Goodman on Democracy Now!: “Rendition is a violation of sovereignty. It’s a kidnapping. It’s force and violence.” Ratner queried whether Cuba could enter the United States and take Luis Posada, the man responsible for blowing up a commercial Cuban airline in 1976 and killing 73 people. Or whether the United States could go down to Cuba and kidnap Assata Shakur, who escaped a murder charge in New Jersey.

Moreover, “renditions for the most part weren’t very productive,” a former CIA official told the Los Angeles Times. After a prisoner was turned over to authorities in Egypt, Jordan or another country, the CIA had very little influence over how prisoners were treated and whether they were ultimately released.

The U.S. government should disclose the identities, fate, and current whereabouts of all persons detained by the CIA or rendered to foreign custody by the CIA since 2001. Those who ordered renditions should be prosecuted. And the special task force should recommend, and Obama should agree to, an end to all renditions.

A Call to End All Renditions February 11, 2009

Posted by rogerhollander in Criminal Justice, Torture.
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by Marjorie Cohn

Binyam Mohamed, an Ethiopian residing in Britain, said he was tortured after being sent to Morocco and Afghanistan in 2002 by the U.S. government. Mohamed was transferred to Guantánamo in 2004 and all terrorism charges against him were dismissed last year. Mohamed was a victim of extraordinary rendition, in which a person is abducted without any legal proceedings and transferred to a foreign country for detention and interrogation, often tortured.

Mohamed and four other plaintiffs are accusing Boeing subsidiary Jeppesen Dataplan, Inc. of flying them to other countries and secret CIA camps where they were tortured. In Mohamed’s case, two British justices accused the Bush administration of pressuring the British government to block the release of evidence that was “relevant to allegations of torture” of Mohamed.

Twenty-five lines edited out of the court documents included details about how Mohamed’s genitals were sliced with a scalpel as well as other torture methods so extreme that waterboarding “is very far down the list of things they did,” according to a British official quoted by the Telegraph (UK).

The plaintiffs’ complaint quotes a former Jeppesen employee as saying, “We do all of the extraordinary rendition flights – you know, the torture flights.” A senior company official also apparently admitted the company transported people to countries where they would be tortured.

Obama’s Justice Department appeared before a three-judge panel of the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Monday in the Jeppesen lawsuit. But instead of making a clean break with the dark policies of the Bush years, the Obama administration claimed the same “state secrets” privilege that Bush used to block inquiry into his policies of torture and illegal surveillance. Claiming that the extraordinary rendition program is a state secret is disingenuous since it is has been extensively documented in the media.

“This was an opportunity for the new administration to act on its condemnation of torture and rendition, but instead it has chosen to stay the course,” said the ACLU’s Ben Wizner, counsel for the five men.

If the judges accept Obama’s state secrets claim, these men will be denied their day in court and precluded from any recovery for the damages they suffered as a result of extraordinary rendition.

Two and a half weeks before Obama’s representative appeared in the Jeppesen case, the new President had signed Executive Order 13491. It established a special task force “to study and evaluate the practices of transferring individuals to other nations in order to ensure that such practices comply with the domestic laws, international obligations, and policies of the United States and do not result in the transfer of individuals to other nations to face torture or otherwise for the purpose, or with the effect, of undermining or circumventing the commitments or obligations of the United States to ensure the humane treatment of individuals in its custody or control.”

This order prohibits extraordinary rendition. It also ensures humane treatment of persons in U.S. custody or control. But it doesn’t specifically guarantee that prisoners the United States renders to other countries will be free from cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment that doesn’t amount to torture. It does, however, aim to ensure that our government’s practices of transferring people to other countries complies with U.S. laws and policies, including our obligations under international law.

One of those laws is the International Covenant on Civil Political Rights (ICCPR), a treaty the United States ratified in 1992. Article 7 of the ICCPR prohibits the States Parties from subjecting persons “to torture or to cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment.” The UN Human Rights Committee, which is the body that monitors the ICCPR, has interpreted that prohibition to forbid States Parties from exposing “individuals to the danger of torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment upon return to another country by way of their extradition, expulsion or refoulement.”

Order 13491 also mandates, “The CIA shall close as expeditiously as possible any detention facilities that it currently operates and shall not operate any such detention facility in the future.” The order does not define “expeditiously” and the definitional section of the order says that the terms ‘detention facilities’ and ‘detention facility’ “do not refer to facilities used only to hold people on a short-term, transitory basis.” Once again, “short term” and “transitory” are not defined.

In his confirmation hearing, Attorney General Eric Holder categorically stated that the United States should not turn over an individual to a country where we have reason to believe he will be tortured. Leon Panetta, nominee for CIA director, went further last week and interpreted Order 13491 as forbidding “that kind of extraordinary rendition, where we send someone for the purposes of torture or for actions by another country that violate our human values.”

But alarmingly, Panetta appeared to champion the same standard used by the Bush administration, which reportedly engaged in extraordinary rendition 100 to 150 times as of March 2005. After September 11, 2001, President Bush issued a classified directive that expanded the CIA’s authority to render terrorist suspects to other States. Former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said the CIA and the State Department received assurances that prisoners will be treated humanely. “I will seek the same kinds of assurances that they will not be treated inhumanely,” Panetta told the senators.

Gonzales had admitted, however, “We can’t fully control what that country might do. We obviously expect a country to whom we have rendered a detainee to comply with their representations to us . . . If you’re asking me, ‘Does a country always comply?’ I don’t have an answer to that.”

The answer is no. Binyam Mohamed’s case is apparently the tip of the iceberg. Maher Arar, a Canadian born in Syria, was apprehended by U.S. authorities in New York on September 26, 2002, and transported to Syria, where he was brutally tortured for months. Arar used an Arabic expression to describe the pain he experienced: “you forget the milk that you have been fed from the breast of your mother.” The Canadian government later exonerated Arar of any terrorist ties. In another instance, thirteen CIA operatives were arrested in Italy for kidnapping an Egyptian, Abu Omar, in Milan and transporting him to Cairo where he was tortured.

Panetta made clear that the CIA will continue to engage in rendition to detain and interrogate terrorism suspects and transfer them to other countries. “If we capture a high-value prisoner,” he said, “I believe we have the right to hold that individual temporarily to be able to debrief that individual and make sure that individual is properly incarcerated.” No clarification of how long is “temporarily” or what “debrief” would mean.

When Sen. Christopher Bond (R-Mo.) asked about the Clinton administration’s use of the CIA to transfer prisoners to countries where they were later executed, Panetta replied, “I think that is an appropriate use of rendition.” Jane Mayer, columnist for the New Yorker, has documented numerous instances of extraordinary rendition during the Clinton administration, including cases in which suspects were executed in the country to which the United States had rendered them. Once when Richard Clarke, President Clinton’s chief counter-terrorism adviser on the National Security Council, “proposed a snatch,” Vice-President Al Gore said, “That’s a no-brainer. Of course it’s a violation of international law, that’s why it’s a covert action. The guy is a terrorist. Go grab his ass.”

There is a slippery slope between ordinary rendition and extraordinary rendition. “Rendition has to end,” Michael Ratner, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, recently told Amy Goodman on Democracy Now!: “Rendition is a violation of sovereignty. It’s a kidnapping. It’s force and violence.” Ratner queried whether Cuba could enter the United States and take Luis Posada, the man responsible for blowing up a commercial Cuban airline in 1976 and killing 73 people. Or whether the United States could go down to Cuba and kidnap Assata Shakur, who escaped a murder charge in New Jersey.

Moreover, “renditions for the most part weren’t very productive,” a former CIA official told the Los Angeles Times. After a prisoner was turned over to authorities in Egypt, Jordan or another country, the CIA had very little influence over how prisoners were treated and whether they were ultimately released.

The U.S. government should disclose the identities, fate, and current whereabouts of all persons detained by the CIA or rendered to foreign custody by the CIA since 2001. Those who ordered renditions should be prosecuted. And the special task force should recommend, and Obama should agree to, an end to all renditions.

Marjorie Cohn is a professor at Thomas Jefferson School of Law and president of the National Lawyers Guild. She is the author of Cowboy Republic: Six Ways the Bush Gang Has Defied the Law. Her new book, Rules of Disengagement: The Politics and Honor of Military Dissent (with Kathleen Gilberd), will be published in April 2009. Her articles are archived at http://www.marjoriecohn.com.