I heard you like black sites

Hey Donald, I heard you were reconsidering CIA  black sites overseas. I have a few notes for you. It will take more than 140 characters or less to explain the obligations of human rights law under counter terrorism, but I am hoping against hope you will pay more attention to this than you do your own intelligence briefings. 

Let us first agree on what we colloquially refer to as a “CIA black site”: those are secret prisons, detention facilities operated by the Central Intelligence Agency in which detainees are held incommunicado (without access to a lawyer, without knowledge for the International Committee of the Red Cross), for indefinite amounts of time, without charge or trial, and subjected to ill-treatment and torture for the purpose of interrogation. Those “black sites” – a shameful collection of legal black holes, where truth, memory and sunlight never shine – were built overseas.

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The reason they were built overseas is because of legality. This is no secret our profession bypassed ethics (albeit successfully, to our greatest dismay and fatal sadness) in the name of a government-led and government-approved definition of security. The Convention Against Torture, adopted by the General Assembly in 1984, holds torture as an absolute prohibition. The reservations emitted by the US Congress during the ratification process in 1992 established a definition that made torture only possible overseas, outside US jurisdiction – physical custody or control of another party. And thus, Donald, if you want to lift the ban on the use of torture on terrorism detainees, you will need partner countries to assist you in reviving a horror that is very much present: 41 men are still held in Guantanamo Bay, after having transited through one of those sites. I am here to tell you that you will not get what you want, at least not from European member-states. See, we have obligations to uphold: we have a Court tasked with trying violations, and an entire supranational Committee which mission is to ensure the enforcement of this Court’s judgments.

In a hearing in that same Court in December 2013, UN Special Rapporteur on human rights while countering terrorism, Ben Emmerson QC, described the CIA Rendition, Detention and Interrogation (RDI) programme as a “vast conspiracy”. It is: the number countries that have assisted the United States illustrate a form of international deference to the war on terror and the damage it spurred, to the detriment of efficacy and human rights. The Parliamentary Assembly of Council of Europe (PACE) has conducted two investigations into states’ collusion with the CIA, one via the rapporteur Dick Marty in 2006, and another via the rapporteur Claudio Fava in 2007. Both yielded reports that represent a seminal work of independent parliamentary scrutiny. In early 2016, the European Parliament closed its investigation, reaching the same conclusion: not only were states aware that this was happening, they chose not to collaborate with investigations, and raised classification issues. All of this works in the Trump administration’s favour. A culture of secrecy largely cultivated under transnational security agreements; his Democratic predecessor’s distaste of judicial scrutiny and accountability; a conflict in Syria that never ends, creating millions of refugees and destabilising the entire region. A celebrity fascist was elected because Americans, on top of being angry, were afraid. Europeans, on top of being afraid, are also angry at what took place in Paris, Brussels, Ankara, and Berlin, to name a few.

Ireland, the United Kingdom, Romania, Poland, Lithuania, Italy, Macedonia did everything from facilitating the CIA jets’ refuel, to building black sites on their own territory. To this day, only Italy has carried out a domestic investigation into its own intelligence services’ collaboration with the CIA, resulting in the conviction of CIA agents in absentia. The case itself is fraught with procedural errors, deliberate smokescreens, and abusive use of state secrets. Poland has been found guilty by the Court, and now finds itself in the position to ensure Al-Nashiri’s trial and sentence. None of those states have disclosed the agreement – called a memorandum of understanding (MoU) – with the Court, presumably to preserve their special relationship to the CIA, invoking the absolute necessity to remain on the US’ good side while they seek to participate in the purported “eradication” of terrorism. All of this, again, works in the US’ favour. Except for this tiny, insignificant, fraction of a detail: the rule of law.

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Now, we know. It’s been a long, painful and traumatic road since the first rumours, investigations, and articles about secret Gulfstream IV jets flying unidentified “detainee combatants” from one secret prison to another first came light. The European Court of Human Rights has issued a judgment that clarifies that, even in the absence of disclosure of those MoUs, there had been enough substantiated and corroborated evidence published in the press and through legal and academic research to make a conclusive finding on a gross violation of human rights law. A report compiled by the Senate Special Committee on Intelligence (SSCI), still classified but with its executive summary released in December 2014, remains an formidable excercise of domestic parliamentary scrutiny. The SSCI report, dubbed the CIA torture report, reveals the location of several black sites, the budget the CIA required to carry out that programme, in addition to recordings of interrogation sessions, legal memos in preparation of the establishment of the policy, and photos obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. The question, at this point, is whether the truth is as objective as it should be, and if its existence can replace accountability.

For all the bragging and boasting about enjoying the infliction of long term and damaging suffering on other human beings, for all the speeches given at Langley on extending covert operations, you have not created anything. You are simply considering lifting a ban on a period of American history that has not seen any closure because of an admission the government had “tortured some folks”. The United States is still in violation of UNCAT for refusing to prosecute officials that have authorized the use of torture. For the lawyers, this has led to successful careers. For the military, “harsh interrogation” is still present in the books. The black sites, meanwhile, enjoy a second life: the building in Temara, Morocco, has been used, once the CIA had left the premises, by the domestic intelligence agency to torture dissidents. Wherever the CIA has visited and stayed, visible scars are identifiable. Wherever the CIA tortured in secret, the impunity is perpetuated. Lifting the ban Obama enforced in 2009 isn’t the hawkish, vicious, cynical, dangerous and violent regime the Electoral College wished into existence. It is a pathetic, weak, ignorant, and self-destructive vision of counter-terrorism.

Torture is not efficient. Torture does not provide reliable intelligence. Torture has never made a country safer. Torture has never facilitated the end to illegitimate political violence. The unlawful detention of hundreds of men, some of them sold to US forces by bounty hunters and acknowledged as having suffered on the basis of false information, testimonies or mistaken identity, has provided ammunition for insurgency, has encouraged the use of imagery for the dissemination of similarly atrocious behaviour, and has stripped the United States and participating countries of any legitimacy in denouncing, and acting against, other states engaging in such horrific operations. It has reawakened the trauma of those same interrogation methods used in Northern Ireland at the height of its own conflict, mentioned in the footnote of a legal memorandum discussing, at length, how much pain can be inflicted on a human being without crossing an admittedly arbitrary threshold. You are not making America great again, Donald. You are simply returning to a very recent place in time when large-scale, international security operations were launched to the detriment of the rights of the victims, circumventing international law and international institutions, in the name of an irrational appetite for vengeance.

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Whatever the domestic framework, if you attempt to hire John Yoo again, will be hindered by the current National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), through an amendment introduced by Sen. Dianne Feinstein; it will be blocked by the Detainee Treatment Act (DTA), both texts acknowledging the veracity of reports of the CIA’s conduct, and furthering the importance of ECtHR rulings against offending states. But most importantly, torture is an absolute prohibition; a war crime; indefinite detention without charge, the refusal of access to a lawyer, the denial of access to the ICRC, the removal of detainees to a military base, are violations of both humanitarian law and human rights law; several protocols of the Military Commissions Act (2006) violating fair trial rules. Donald, this is simple: the only national security position you are entitled to take in regards to the RDI programme is instructing the Department of Justice to prosecute officials that have created the programme, the private contractors that have devised interrogation methods, the intelligence agents that have supervised it and carried it out, as well as cooperating in every possible way with every request emitted by the ECtHR in order for our organization to respect our own obligations. Anything else would be in violation of international law; and every step of the way, there will be lawyers, legal academics, researchers, and journalists ready to expose the mechanisms you will use, because we know them by now.

You will drown under the weight of lawsuits, and you are already at odds with the medical professionals that had once assisted the 43rd President of the United States. For every government lawyer that will attempt to argue our role, as international human rights lawyers, is illegitimate foreign interference, that we are a fifth column, there will be the survivors of Guantanamo Bay to testify of what they have been through, there will be the families of victims of terrorism that seek fair redress, and there will be judicial oversight of counter-terrorism operations reaffirming that efficiency is a human rights obligation resting upon states. Including the United States. Including you, as the depositary of executive authority.

The only way to rid your administration of those pesky international lawyers such as myself is to comply with international law. There is no way around it. To quote the wonderful Linda Sarsour, a Palestinian-American who marched against you in DC, “I will respect the presidency, but I will not respect this president”. On this note, I bid you good night, Donald, and there is no need to tweet at me at 2 in the morning. 

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The case for re-opening the Gibson Inquiry

“They were accusing me of fighting with Bin Laden in the battle of Tora Bora; of being in charge of weapons stores; of being a terrorist recruiter – though I’d only been in Afghanistan for a few weeks. I start to try to talk but everybody is just shouting and screaming around me. Then suddenly I feel it – douff – this American guy grabs me by the head, and he slams it backwards against the wall. In my mind I think I must try to save my head so I tried to bring it forwards, but as soon as I do he grabs it again and bashes it: douff, then back again, douff, douff, douff.”

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In a interview with the Daily Mail published on December 12, 2015, Shaker Aamer reenacts being hogtied during interrogations at Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan.

Shaker Aamer may be one of the most notorious of Guantanamo detainees, imprisoned on a naval base that once housed more than 700 “enemy combatants” in the so-called war on terror. The ordeal he suffered at the hands of US interrogators during 13 years of detention, as a British national, will not be the subject of a legal challenge against the United Kingdom he accuses of collaborating with his captors: “I do not want to prosecute anybody. I do not want anybody to be asked about what his role [was] in the past. I just want people to tell the truth (…) I don’t believe the court will bring justice because of what happened in the past.

Although we seem to know quite more about him than we do about other prisoners, there is a still a lot that remains unknown, mostly the treatment to which he has been subjected. An independent psychiatric evaluation ordered by his lawyers in late 2013 and released in early 2014 paints a picture of non-therapeutic medical administration, force-feeding, repeated beatings, and submission to the infamous “enhanced interrogation techniques”, or EITs, investigated by the US Senate’s intelligence committee.

Shaker Aamer is not the only victim of British collusion in the CIA’s rendition, detention and interrogation (RDI) program. Belhaj, a dissident who fled Gaddafi’s Libya, was flown back and thrown into the jails were he was submitted to torture, courtesy of the MI-6. Several other detainees recall being transferred to Guantanamo via the base in Diego Garcia, a British overseas territory. Shaker’s prolonged detention – he was cleared for release twice, in 2008 under Bush and in 2009 under Obama, only to see British soil in October 30, 2015 – gained political traction and mass outrage thanks to media coverage and a strong push in Parliament. For a decade, the UK government has replied to calls for information with the same line: that they had sought assurances from the US government that the last remaining British national was receiving fair treatment, and that any conditions of release, if it was to take place, would be solely a matter for US authorities. For a long while, campaigners for Shaker thought he would die in Cuba, without charges, without a trial, and submitted to abject treatment.

Shaker Aamer survived, and is now reunited with his wife, three sons, and daughter. It is a testament to his resilience that he is capable of recalling what he was forced to endure, and feels ready to speak. Many, including former Scottish first minister Alex Salmond, called for former Prime Minister Tony Blair and his former Foreign Secretary Jack Straw to answer questions on Aamer’s detention and continued collaboration with US authorities under the cloak of the “special relationship” that has come to signify gross human rights violations; it is absolutely necessary that the truth emerges. This would not, however, be the first attempt. The Detainee Inquiry, also referred to as the Gibson inquiry, shelved in 2012, released an incomplete report in December 2013 that left many questions unanswered, while raising brand new ones that some feared would never be addressed. The document isn’t as unnecessary and useless as its harshest critics claim. While not shedding light on many areas touching on intelligence-sharing and the modus operandi of British security services in their relationship with American counterparts, it clearly identifies key issues. 

Shaker Aamer’s release, his accusations against the British government, against Tony Blair, and the security services are an opportunity to open an inquiry – not just on Aamer’s detention, but on collaboration in the RDI program as a whole. The momentum is one not to be missed: in addition to Shaker’s release, it has been a year since the US Senate (SSCI) released the executive summary of its own investigation of the CIA torture program; the European Parliament, through a resolution passed in February 2015, has also launched a third inquiry into EU member states’ participation, and accountability systems, in the 8 year long program that claimed many lives and remains a kafkaesque nightmare to this day. It should therefore not be an insurmountable obstacle for British officials: the blueprint already exists.

“We tortured some folks”: A question of truth

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Obama, during a White House press conference on August 1st, 2014: “When we engaged in some of these enhanced interrogation techniques, techniques and that I believe and I think any fair minded person would believe were torture, we crossed a line. And that needs to be understood and accepted.”

 

The Convention Against Torture specifically provides mechanisms of accountability at domestic and international level; most importantly, it makes it an obligation to investigate, prosecute and sentence perpetrators of what is considered an absolute prohibition. Obama’s 2014 speech and that saddening line, “we tortured some folks”, urging the general public to make political amends but move on beyond a previous administration having simply erred in pushing interrogation to the brink of torture, is not enough. It is not satisfying the legal standard. It is not satisfying in terms of moral responsibility. It is not looking at the ethics of the Yoo and Bybee memos. As national organizations engaged in a years-long battle to face their own collaboration, as the APA did, finally passing a motion this summer to ban its members’ participation in interrogations conducted by the CIA and/or the Pentagon, there is simply silence at the highest level of the executive.

There is no US exceptionalism. Everywhere, a blanket denial is applied to any attempt to investigate CIA rendition and the torture of terrorism suspects worldwide. Chastised by the European Court of Human Rights in a July 2014 judgement for negative inference, Poland continues to deny it has ever been complicit in the Stare Kiejkuty black site that once covered up the detention and torture of at least Al-Nashiri and Abu Zubaydah. Ireland, which would have let the CIA’s Gulfstream IV jets land at Shannon Airport for refuel, has arrested two of its TDs (members of Parliament) for trespassing as they investigated. Romanian authorities have also denied knowledge of CIA activities despite Bright Light being located in the basement of Bucharest’s City Hall. The second EU report on collaboration in rendition, compiled by rapporteur Claudio Fava in 2007, lists the names of heads of states and defense secretaries who refused to testify before him in the course of his inquiry, citing national security exemptions. The latest hearing led by the European Parliament’s committee investigating rendition has also recited a long list of states and their officials refusing to collaborate or continuing the now well-rehearsed line that the CIA would have operated for years in at least 14 European member states without anyone’s knowledge.

The battle must continue; the right to truth must be achieved, and if judicial activism seems to be on the side of some inquests – for instance, the Al-Hawsawi case in Lithuania – it’s representative instances in democracies that most often push against the executive Glomar responses and insist on transparency. In the UK, the Joint Committee on Human Rights conducted a public hearing in March 2014 questioning the little mechanisms of accountability and transparency in war on terror, revealing most MPs do not possess the necessary security clearance to access documents related to the activities of intelligence agencies. In France, however, the push was external – through the lawsuit of two former Guantanamo detainees of dual French and Moroccan citizenship seeking reparations for their treatment before French courts. The proceedings long stalled due to French judicial authorities showing reluctance to demand cooperation from US officials, but eventually summoned the former Guantanamo chief, Gen. Miller, to testify. The process is still ongoing. Italy famously convicted 12 CIA agents in abstentia for the rendition of Abu Omar, abducted in Milan, but the Italian Prosecutor failed to obtain convictions for agents of the SISMi, citing state secrets opposition.

The work of an inquiry as vast and difficult as that of the Gibson Inquiry requires time; and time requires the push for action to be maintained. However, the lack of accountability and the complete culture of impunity has left the idea of torture to fester and arise at the first sign of revived trauma. While the release of the SSCI report was celebrated, and for good cause, despite only being a partially redacted executive summary, the results – shocking, nauseating, and a surprise for some – did not yield an charges, let alone convictions. No investigation has been launched. Torture leaves traces. It seeps into the fabric of society in a way that leaves it permanently tainted, and seeks to re-appear after any apparent vulnerability. Without accountability for crimes of torture, the lingering question masquerading as a legitimate debate – does torture work? – continues to be omnipresent and places anti-torture advocates and victims in a situation of having to defend their innocence, as if anything could have justified the treatment they suffered.

And so it happened following the November 13 attacks on Paris, in which 130 people died in the city of lights, the largest attack on French soil since World War II. Suddenly, the threat posed by ISIS, until then elusive on western territories, became very real, and the state response to it, inflated at a high and perhaps unnecessarily rapid rate. In the US Congress, debating a possible new authorization for the use of military force (AUMF) against this new traveling, transnational enemy, Senator Lindsay Graham opposed the closing of Guantanamo; his colleagues reiterated the tired argument of the necessity and efficiency of torture in the face of such a grave threat. Until the truth comes out and is maintained in the public discourse, at government and popular level, that acts of torture are unspeakable ignominies that do not belong in a democratic society, torture will continue to be perpetrated. It will not just be applied to a foreign, distant enemy in covert, extraterritorial prisons: the mechanisms and protocols might also be used by domestic law enforcement against citizens, so convenient the practice is to obtain confessions and recruit informants. Torture, once granted right of passage on a society, tends to stay, unless it is effectively, with the gravitas that it deserves, condemned unequivocally.

An amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) in the US, proposed by Sen. Feinstein, who was Chair of the committee investigating CIA torture, bans the use of torture in the US in the conduct of war – but as psychologist and former APA member Dr. Jeffrey Kaye explains, this does not remove the methods detailed in the Army Field Manual’s Appendix M, nor does it change the 1990 Congressional reservations emitted during the process of ratification of the Convention Against Torture: as long as those are maintained, the US understanding of what constitutes torture and where it applies are in stark contradiction with the requirements of the UN Committee Against Torture, as mentioned in the country’s 2014 review.

While EU member states are bound to the European Convention on Human Rights, banning torture as well as cruel, unusual and degrading treatment in its Article 3, the available domestic remedies are not being used to their full potential, and it is likely that the ECHR’s caseload on CIA rendition cases will continue to increase as Guantanamo and/or Bagram detainees possibly access a lawyer. None of that is new for the European Union, as “legacy” cases – historical inquiries – related to British military intelligence activities in Northern Ireland between 1971 and 1998 are only just emerging. This includes the documents provided by the British government to that same Court of human rights, in an application made by the Republic of Ireland against the United Kingdom. In 1978, the ECtHR ruled that those methods of coercion during interrogation did not amount to torture. 23 years later, the US would use this decision, and British past counter-terrorism policies, to justify and legitimize theirs.

“A slap and a tickle”: from Northern Ireland to the Bradbury memo

96. Twelve persons arrested on 9 August 1971 and two persons arrested in October 1971 were singled out and taken to one or more unidentified centres. There, between 11 to 17 August and 11 to 18 October respectively, they were submitted to a form of “interrogation in depth” which involved the combined application of five particular techniques.

These methods, sometimes termed “disorientation” or “sensory deprivation” techniques, were not used in any cases other than the fourteen so indicated above. It emerges from the Commission’s establishment of the facts that the techniques consisted of:

(a) wall-standing: forcing the detainees to remain for periods of some hours in a “stress position”, described by those who underwent it as being “spread eagled against the wall, with their fingers put high above the head against the wall, the legs spread apart and the feet back, causing them to stand on their toes with the weight of the body mainly on the fingers”;

(b) hooding: putting a black or navy coloured bag over the detainees’ heads and, at least initially, keeping it there all the time except during interrogation;

(c) subjection to noise: pending their interrogations, holding the detainees in a room where there was a continuous loud and hissing noise;

(d) deprivation of sleep: pending their interrogations, depriving the detainees of sleep;

(e) deprivation of food and drink: subjecting the detainees to a reduced diet during their stay at the centre and pending interrogations.

The Commission’s findings as to the manner and effects of the application of these techniques on two particular case-witnesses are referred to below at paragraph 104.

97. From the start, it has been conceded by the respondent Government that the use of the five techniques was authorised at “high level”. Although never committed to writing or authorised in any official document, the techniques had been orally taught to members of the RUC by the English Intelligence Centre at a seminar held in April 1971.

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Nine of the Hooded Men. (c) The Irish Times, December 2014

Those methods, here described in para. 96 and 97 of the ECtHR ruling in the Ireland v United Kingdom case (referred to as the “Hooded Men” case, as the applicants would come to be called) bear striking resemblance to methods employed by the CIA as described in a 2004 internal memo, partially declassified in 2009. It was around the same period that the “torture memos“, authored by government lawyers Yoo and Bybee, would be released, showing reliance on the legal decision (footnote 37) rendered by the Strasbourg Court in 1978 that these interrogation techniques, while in breach of the Convention, did not amount to torture.

Blurring the lines is exactly what the CIA did, has done, and continues to do when it comes to defending its rendition program. While the SSCI report’s executive summary goes in somewhat excruciating detail, it is because it is necessary to decide whether or not the Court has raised the threshold of that dotted line between cruel, unusual and degrading punishment, and torture as defined by the 1984 UN Convention. It became extremely convenient when CIA black sites routinely used sensory deprivation, “noise torture”, and methods of rapport-building with interrogators aimed at provoking psychological disorientation. In a paper called “Torturing the brain“, published in 2009, neuroscientist Shane O’Mara, a researcher at Trinity College Dublin, explains that those methods are not just coercion with the purpose of obtaining information; the long-term effects can affect the neurological structure and chemistry of the brain. O’Mara, whose book released at the end of November this year aims at answering in a scientific manner the never-ending fallacy of the efficiency of torture, may have provided information changing the threshold of acceptable treatment.

Relying on the 1978 ECtHR decision will soon prove difficult for the CIA and other advocates of the rendition program, in the US and overseas: a RTE investigation, “The Torture Files“, based on research conducted over decades by Northern Ireland-based legal charity the Pat Finucane Centre, showed that the British government deliberately misled the Court by handing over incomplete documentation on those methods. Ireland has agreed, in December 2014, to support re-opening of the case, currently under judicial review in Belfast. Because the CIA rendition program and the SERE protocols in place in Guantanamo strongly rely on the MI-5 activities in Ulster, a revision of the past, the legacy of early counter-terrorism legislations, orders, and directives in Europe will affect the process of accountability across the world; the methods of intelligence gathering will be revised, and the permanent political rhetoric surrounding the so-called exemption to the prohibition of torture – terrorism – now can be dismantled. It was affirmed in the judgement that the use of torture on suspected IRA members – whether they proved to be confirmed IRA or not – further radicalized the organisation and prolonged the war: the response to the introduction of the Internment in 1971 – administrative terrorism detention without charge – “surprised” the British government by its effects on a population already considering itself at siege.

In an opinion piece penned by Sen. Feinstein and published by the New York Times in November, the Senator calls for the closure of Guantanamo, speeding up the military commissions process, the enforcement of the decisions of the parole review boards, and, ultimately, end a program and a policy of detention that she admits has become in itself a national security threat. Referring to ISIS dressing up their hostages in orange jumpsuits similar to those worn by Guantanamo detainees, she concludes that ill-treatment, abuse of power, unlawful detention, and general conduct of counter-terrorism outside of legal framework provided by the Geneva Conventions contributes to legitimizing violent response against US forces wherever they are deployed.

It is necessary to specify that the policy the ECtHR details in the introduction to its final judgement was ended in 1974, but torture and ill-treatment by military intelligence continued in Northern Ireland well until a successful peace process could be implemented. The threat posed by the IRA was considered too much of a risk for civilians, both in Ulster and in England, that any method to infiltrate the organisation or obtain information from suspects when captured was politically endorsed. Several euphemisms, again, not unlike that of “enhanced interrogation techniques”, were used by British authorities to hide the dangerous and horrifying reality of their actions. It took Northern Ireland that long to face its past and accept to dig into it, regardless of how scared it was of what it’d find; but there can be no peace without justice, and no justice without truth. From both sides of the Atlantic, western states have to ensure, the sooner the better, that accountability for the crimes they committed in the name of their security is underway. Obama’s desire to turn over a new leaf and continue down its path is unsustainable. The United Kingdom, in 2015, has now failed two opportunities to stop its practice of torture in the name of counter-terrorism. Re-opening the inquiry in parallel to supporting the investigation of legacy cases in Northern Ireland would be unprecedented, but historically significant.

The duty of investigation as guarantee of no-recurrence

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A bomb exploded outside the MI-5 Palace Barracks in Holywood, Northern Ireland, in 2010. R-IRA claimed responsibility for the attack. (c) The Irish Times

 

“There is a need for mechanisms which are apt to examine the more structural and systemic dimensions of the rights violations and abuses of the ‘Troubles’. Such mechanisms should be in addition to, not as a substitute for, procedures that might bring satisfaction to victims in terms of truth and justice.” (…)

The human rights expert cautioned that cases leading to death have received most of the attention, leaving out serious other violations, ranging from illegal detention to serious injury and torture, among others.  “These victims, many of them in situations of particular vulnerability, and they deserve urgent attention,” he underscored.

“I am calling for a comprehensive redress and prevention policy, which must encompass also strategic work towards an integrated schooling system, including on history teaching, the establishment of a trustworthy entity to deal with records and archives on the ‘Troubles’ and more emphasis on psychosocial support to victims and their families.”

This statement from Pablo de Greiff, the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to truth, justice, reparations and guarantees of non-recurrence was released via the Human Rights Council on November 19, 2015 following a 10-day visit in England and Northern Ireland. Such a position as independent expert of the UN Special Procedures mechanisms highlights truth and justice as fundamental rights, pillars of the guarantee of non-recurrence, which translates into accountability as an institutional duty not to engage in those violations in the future.

The duty of investigation is set out in Article 2 of the ECHR; it demands, requires, places an obligation upon member states to seek truth and justice in any exposed and alleged violation of human rights as set out within the Convention. Northern Ireland has relied on Article 2 to maintain the possibility of opening “legacy cases” in its domestic courts, a process under threat by the current Cameron government to repeal the 1998 Human Rights Act, repeal its territories from the jurisdiction of the Convention – this includes Northern Ireland, as national security issues do not benefit from devolution.

As mentioned before, the responsibility to investigate and prosecute perpetrators of torture is also set out in the 1984 UN Convention Against Torture, in both article 4 and article 12. The focus on the responsibility, the requirement to investigate is framed as just as important as the need to prevent from being committed. The language is, at first sight, difficult to interpret outside and beyond what was intended by the authors of the Convention, but the US and the UK maintained a political appearance of compliance through blanket denial and loose interpretation. The discourse surrounding political necessity to answer to hideous crimes of terrorism has become the equally as hideous necessity to commit torture, to the point even well-established lawyers felt comfortable detailing a proposal for torture under judicial warrant. Article 2 (2) is very clear: there is no exemption to the absolute prohibition.

UK Home Secretary Theresa May has several times invoked the fact that ISIS posed an unprecedented threat to the security of the United Kingdom and the safety of its citizens and residents. This implies that, despite the threat of violence being more significant than the actual acts of violence themselves on UK territory, ISIS would pose a bigger and more politically consequential threat than the IRA ever did during the Long War. Not only would this place the Terror Orders and the Prevention of Terrorism Acts in a context, not just of constant legal derogations in the name of counter terrorism, but also of political legitimacy in order to respond in proportional terms to IRA actions; it would also make the ISIS threat bigger, therefore the response stronger, more powerful, intrusive, and less likely to be limited and space and time, or subjected to parliamentary or judicial review. The fear that ISIS provokes in western country is so intense that it is reviving what Europe thought it had buried several decades ago.

The report of the Gibson Inquiry identified 30 (!) issues it would have wished to investigate, ranging from unease at raising the issue of torture with the “partner” (the US) to knowledge of the RDI programme from the executive. All 30 issues are paramount to determining criminal responsibility under domestic and international law. All 30 issues remain relevant to this day, as President Obama seeks – and fails – to close Guantanamo, and the UK seeks – and fails – to hold itself compliant with international humanitarian and human rights law while still creating areas of exemption. Through revisiting the Gibson Inquiry report and use it as a basis to re-launch the detainee inquiry, the UK could find itself in the unprecedented position to establish its own domestic system of accountability, truth-seeking, and transparency in the conduct of the war on terror – in line with the abuses it committed in the past and has yet to condemn at judicial level. With Shaker Aamer free, and 6 UK applicants seeking redress and truth in their own rendition to Guantanamo, there is a political responsibility not to let that time window close – and a legal duty to uphold.

Read the full Detainee Inquiry December 2013 report here

Read the Interim Report of the European Parliament inquiry on CIA rendition here

Read the Marty Report on EU member states and CIA rendition, 2006

Read the Fava Report on EU member states and CIA rendition, 2007

Read the executive summary of the SSCI report on the CIA rendition program, 2014

 

The collective consciousness and the lingering spectre of torture

Col. Larry James, chief psychologist at Guantanamo, 2003; director of the Behavioral Science Unit at Abu Ghraib, 2004. Retrieved at Newsweek, August 2015

More than the release of the Senate’s “torture report”, one of the defining moments of the American public’s reaction to the CIA’s rendition, detention and interrogation (RDI) program was the moment the New York Times decided to stop using the euphemism of “enhanced interrogation techniques” to describe what was and is blatantly torture. Executive editor Dean Baquet wrote in August 2014,

The word “torture” had a specialized legal meaning as well as a plain-English one. While the methods set off a national debate, the Justice Department insisted that the techniques did not rise to the legal definition of “torture.” The Times described what we knew of the program but avoided a label that was still in dispute, instead using terms like harsh or brutal interrogation methods. (…) Over time, the landscape has shifted. Far more is now understood, such as that the C.I.A. inflicted the suffocation technique called waterboarding 183 times on a single detainee (…) Given those changes, reporters urged that The Times recalibrate its language. I agreed. So from now on, The Times will use the word “torture” to describe incidents in which we know for sure that interrogators inflicted pain on a prisoner in an effort to get information.

I was reminded of this while reading a piece called “Lives by omission” in the latest issue of Harper’s. J.M. Coetzee published exchanges with psychotherapist Arabella Kurtz on the parallels between fiction and psychotherapy. In this particular excerpt, they examine the process of repression, that Freud explained distinguished human beings from beasts. Coetzee writes, “What we gain in repressing what we do not want to remember we have to pay for with the subterranean poisoning of other aspects of our lives.” Later, he provides a torture analogy:

But is it true that repression necessarily fails? To give an extreme example, certain people who have committed vile acts – torture, murder – seem able to construct life stories (memories) for themselves out of selected fragments of the real (the long hours they had to work, the gratitude of their superiors, the promotions and medals  they received) and to live with and by such memories, while repressing all the ugliness. Classical theory, at least in its popular version, says that such people have unhappy relations with their wives and children. It says they suffer from nightmares. It says that they are secretly haunted by the cries of their victims – by what they try and fail to repress of their “real” past. And indeed, if you put a torturer on trial or if you compel him to undergo a course of psychic rehabilitation, he may begin to recollect those “repressed” cries.

If we see the construction of a personal narrative when committing “vile acts” – and there is no doubt that the operatives, government agents or contractors, that have taken part in the RDI program have committed vile acts – as a success of the psychological process of repression, it is difficult then to legally extract an individual responsibility for said crimes. Or is it? Yes, the gratitude of the superiors, the constant political rhetoric around the efficiency of torture, supposedly scientifically supported and pushed by legal celebrities such as torture-by-warrant proponent Alan Dershowitz – provide comfort, containment, and eventually, a levee against the perhaps inevitable wound inside the human psyche that remains after the crime, a wound that extends to the whole of humanity, as Dostoevsky expressed so well.

When Col. Larry James, former chief psychologist at Guantanamo, responded – reacted – to the APA motion banning its members from colluding with the CIA and the Pentagon on interrogation techniques, he did so by claiming the motion, the legal opinion of which I have written, holds “negative consequences”. In the APA debate taking hold before the vote, James asked:

So I need to know: Does international law supersede U.S. law? Because if the answer to that is yes, this has dire negative consequences for all federal employees, particularly in the VA and the department of homeland defense.

APA president-elect Susan McDaniel said the vote was to “reset our moral compass”. And yet, there is a continued willingness to push a narrative of efficiency and most importantly necessity from which a portion of the US public had started to distance themselves. Even the paper of record had a moment of reckoning with the ubiquitous use of comfortable and convenient paraphrases – enhanced interrogation techniques – realizing their responsibility in the dissonance between public political discourse lied in telling the truth as it stood and stands, not furthering the lie. There is no way of knowing whether Col. James, as a public persona, aligns with Larry James, the private individual, on the issue of torture. Another aspect of the APA motion was that it stopped providing the CIA and the Pentagon with their medical crutch, a huge part of their justification for their actions; it also confronted APA members with themselves, their actions, and their beliefs, depending on how well rooted they were. As sole dissenter, Larry James isolated himself in a landmark decision that will affect future operations of US intelligence agencies and their collaborators. He placed himself on a different shelf, aligned himself with the US’ interpretation of the Convention Against Torture that was laid out by John Yoo. He worried about criminal responsibility if the APA took a position on the absolute prohibition that aligned with international law, not with the American political context of the war on terror.

Human rights law is not rhetorical. It was not written as such and is a difficult area of practice. It is often mentioned that legal positivism is a question of morality, conscience and interpretation – all of which being subjective – but it was meant to translate into effective and immediate remedies for those affected by the violations of these peremptory norms. The prohibition of torture, although it is an intersectional and interdisciplinary issue to approach, is no different. It is part of this body of law that holds within it the fundamental principles of humanism and a loaded collective memory. Speaking of the prohibition of torture as the absolute that it is has been derided to great extent since 9/11, as being unpractical and inapplicable on the ground. The role of the APA in supporting torture was to create a sound argument for exemption, a legally acceptable derogation, hitting back at IHRL for existing outside of a reality of constant violence, fear, and imminent threats. The world had changed, we were told; it took a turn for the worst; we would not be much of a society if we did not do whatever it takes into protect each other from those external and shapeless monsters that are jeopardizing all this stability we have created. Torture is a collateral crime; it is the result of our back against the wall; it is an answer of last resort that no one wishes to brag about, but still needs to use when – we are told – all other methods failed.

Few images of British national and Guantanamo detainee Shaker Aamer exist. He insisted that this one, depicting him smiling, was the one use in coverage of his case. Aamer, who should be released by the end October, is still on hunger strike.

But the prohibition of torture is an absolute; human rights law resists against political derogations; and the truth lies outside the scope of Col. James’ arguments. We have had an opportunity to look at this torture-we-dared-not-speak-of in 2006 and 2007 through European Parliament rapporteurs Dick Marty and Claudio Fava. Their work failed to challenge overseas. Europeans, their commitment to the rule of law and their stubborn refusal to accept a war paradigm for counter terrorism will have to wait until Bin Laden is killed. It did not matter. Those reports were academic, had gaping holes where ministers were supposed to testify, untimely, and pitted natural allies against one another on questions of principle.

Feinstein’s report shifted the attention away from the purported accomplishments of special forces overseas to what they were doing in “black sites”, in Bagram, in Guantanamo, and everywhere else. It showed the general public, weary of battles of words, a side to their endless but righteous war they were not ready to face. The backlash has yet to be immense. President Obama admitted the US “tortured some folks”, and there are still no charges, no indictment. There had been a suspension of the repression, a brief moment of lucidity, during which the horror was contemplated. In those moments, there are no nuances. There are no spectrums of opinion; there is no gradual assessment. We are horrified, or we are not. It is a choice. It is fundamental to frame it as a choice, because for the first time, the general public – not lawyers, not activists, not officials-speaking-on-condition-of-anonymity – were in the know. There was an incomplete, yes, but sufficient glance at the truth. We can stare at it, as the APA did, 6 years after the first draft of the motion was submitted, and act on it, fight, struggle, and scratch beneath the surface; or we can turn away. We can pretend those practices were small moments between brackets of our collective history; a bygone footnote of a much bigger context.

The “Hooded Men”, with their legal team and Fr. Murray. Retrieved at the IrishPost, October 2015.

But if it needs repression to be worked out, it is much more important than a footnote. Repression is a tool that shapes one’s identity. The piece I quoted before imagines what a torturer on trial would face, a sort of crash course in psychoanalysis: “… If memory is malleable in one direction, obliterating what disturbs the subject, it is surely malleable in the opposite direction too.” And if the rule of action and reaction also applies to the human psyche – for a stone to roll on a plane surface, it needs a force to project its weight forward – that crucial moment in our collective memory has yet to happen. The catharsis we expected from the passing of the APA motion did not take place. The administration did not take note. The UN committee against torture continues to plead for acknowledgement, truth, accountability, reparations. Those are not symbolic; truth and accountability can begin a process of healing, and of returning to the roots of the absolute prohibition. There is still much we need to know. We need access to the medical files of Guantanamo detainees; we need the stories of those detained at Bagram; we need the memoranda of understanding between the CIA and collaborating countries to understand how the US persuaded member states to take part in the program, from simple material support – Ireland lending the Shannon airport airfield for refuel – to construction and maintenance of sites in Poland, Lithuania, Romania and many other places. Ben Emmerson called the rendition private a vast international conspiracy. How the Obama administration expects us to forgive and forget is just as unclear. Or maybe the expectations are so low in what our collective threshold of tolerance is, that it becomes acceptable to whitewash a crime of this magnitude.

As the countdown has started on the 30 days during which Congress can oppose the release of long time detainee and British national Shaker Aamer, the question of the motive for his prolonged incarceration – he was cleared for release twice, in 2007 and 2008 – rises again. It is unclear how much we will know about his medical history between his capture and his release, whether medical professionals in London will have access to to treat him, if he will be able or willing to speak. Andy Worthington, a journalist who has spearheaded the campaign for his release, has often pondered whether Aamer was the detainee who knew or saw too much. What this effectively means, we are still not sure. Aamer’s lawyer, Clive Stafford Smith, warned us in an op-ed that a campaign of misinformation seeking to justify the treatment inflicted upon a man never charged with a crime and sold to US authorities by local warlords in Afghanistan would begin. We have a duty not to repress what we know of Shaker Aamer’s torture. We have a duty to resist and endure a debate that should last, no matter how nauseating the details and painful the recollections, until we have full accountability.

When the authors of the APA motion first contacted me, they mentioned my background: I grew up in Belfast, Northern Ireland, under British counter terrorism policies that included the use of torture. It has been part of our small, local, contained history – or so we thought: the evolution of psychological torture, from Kubark to Belfast to Bagram, is now established as linear. On November 30, the judicial review for the case known as the “Hooded Men” will open in the city, and the battle for public versus withheld information will continue to rage. There is a responsibility that lies with those of us who have seen the future of a policy of impunity not to see it reemerge elsewhere.

And this responsibility isn’t rhetorical either.

CIA torture and the Control Principle

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Portion of the report of the Gibson Inquiry, published on December 19, 2013. The Gibson Inquiry has closed document review in 2012. (1)

 

In 2010, he British High Court, represented by Lord Chief Justice John Thomas dismissed an appeal from the Foreign Secretary in the Binyam Mohamed case and addressed the issue of the UK intelligence services’ use of torture at the behest of the US War on Terror head on. At the time, this seemed a proper, relevant, and necessary illustration of the judiciary’s independence and its need to place executive authority under review. The UK had covered its counter-terrorism operations with a cloud of exemptions, derogations, and immunity since 2000. It went so far as amending laws to create new sanctions, using prerogatives as orders, classifying material which assisted in wrongdoing, and, in the case of the judicial branch, refusing to sit on the operations of a friendly nation-state on the theory that doing so would violate jus gentium—despite the government’s admission of “serious” violations of international law. The British High Court’s ruling was important then, but after the Gibson Inquiry into MI-5 / MI-6 collusion with the CIA closed in 2012, it is even more important now, when hypervigilance, hyperclassification, and multiplying extrajudicial orders give the impression that everything is out of our control, out of our sight, left thoroughly unchecked, and cannot be stopped.

The United States is justifiably focused on the circus-like saga surrounding the release of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s CIA torture report. The very Senate Committee that created the 6,800-page report voted for its release, but a White House paralysed by the possible consequences of its release and a CIA unwilling to accept, reveal, investigate, prosecute, amend, reconcile, or apologize for its part in US torture still block and red-tape the report at every level. However, we seem to forget that 53 other nations were involved in the CIA’s rendition program. If supranational courts have forced some nations to face the reality of collusion and investigate the crimes committed by their leaders, others are in a permanent and affirmed state of denial. As for the UK, the CIA itself has acknowledged that its idea for world domination through torture could not have reached the heights it did without the help of Her Majesty’s most trusted agents. The pressure is on all the way through Westminster, and in the pages of the Telegraph.

Binyam Mohamed, from Ethiopia and UK national, detained at Guantanamo between 2004 and 2009. Here, upon his release. (via The Guardian)

 

The Binyam Mohamed ruling contains a lot that deserves a closer look, or at least another look, with the gift of hindsight. Ideologies, secrets, backdoors, and public acknowledgements—you can find it all if you address the Control Principle and uphold open justice.

 

Fighting secrecy in courts: PII certificates

Intelligence operations that touch on important foreign relations rarely suffer any disclosures. The few leaks that do happen are mostly unauthorized. Many are severely condemned, and almost all become a source of concern for both the subject of the disclosure, whose dubious actions are exposed to the world, and its source, who is vilified and criminalised. However, it is crucial to uphold the independence of the judiciary. The right to truth cannot take a back seat to foreign policy interests, especially in the face of gross human rights violations. Faced with the difficulty of ruling against a pressured and pressuring executive authority and the overarching need to address a case of torture so severe it involved at least four different sovereign states, the High Court weighed in on a conflict of principles that would define the legal battles surrounding the War on Terror: public interest versus lasting foreign cooperation.

1. Is there “uncertainty” in the US/UK relationship?

It is almost impossible to weigh the importance of the UK/US relationship while their intelligence cooperation agreement is still classified. UKUSA – born out of the 1944 “BRUSA Circuit” and famous for spawning the Five Eyes signals-intelligence alliance in 1955 – has defined a transatlantic partnership that predates the War on Terror, and even the Cold War. Seemingly intended to create a rapprochement between Europe and the US after World War II, UKUSA often isolates the rest of the continent to the benefit of a sprawling group of intelligence services —MI-5, MI-6, GCHQ, SAS—serving, aiding, and completely abetting the CIA in its activities overseas. It is preposterous to assume there is any sort of uncertainty in the US/UK relationship, but a legal decision is likely to make precedent if it somehow undermines the principles of secrecy and national security that currently define executive authority in counter-terrorism and military deployment. Such a ruling would undermine the common assumption that intelligence operations are the executive’s sole prerogative and that the judicial will defer to the executive in gauging their importance.

But the case of Binyam Mohamed proved that a need for judicial review was pressing, that the scope of the CIA rendition and torture program was so vast it could not stand to remain unchecked much longer. The pages-long ruling endlessly debates the hypothetical consequences of disclosing intelligence operations that led Binyam Mohamed’s detention at Guantanamo—the detention of a man who ceaselessly claimed to be innocent and suffered hell at the hands of agents never bound by habeas rules. Here is the core of the debate:

Making it “. . . clear that the US Government’s position is that, if the redacted paragraphs are made public, then the US Government will reevaluate its intelligence-sharing relationship with the UK with the real risk that it would reduce the intelligence provided. It was and remains (so far as we are aware) the judgement of the Foreign Secretary that the US Government might carry that threat out and this would seriously prejudice the national security of the UK.” (paragraph 87, quoting paragraph 62 of the judgement)

The Foreign Secretary asserted very clearly that the intelligence-sharing agreement is not necessarily based on a needs assessment and equality in providing information but is deeply rooted in complete codependence which he must protect above all else—including, it seems, from the judiciary’s authority over wrongdoing committed by services under executive power. In fourth judgement, the Court ruled that exposing the truth was one valid concern in a case that was arguably necessary to place in the public domain due to the grave violations it illustrated. However, the threat of the US turning its back on the UK due to a breach of trust by pulling out of UKUSA was an even concern than the condition of Binyam Mohamed and countless other victims of the War on Terror, from Kabul to Rabat, from Bucarest to Cuba. The fourth judgement made clear that executive interests supersede human rights law:

Whatever views may be held as to the continuing threat made by the Government of the US to prevent a short summary of the treatment of Mr. Mohamed being put into the public domain by this court, it would not, in all the circumstances we have set out and in the light of the action taken, be in the public interest to expose the UK to what the Foreign Secretary still considers to be the real risk of the loss of intelligence so vital to the safety of our day to day life. If the information in the redacted paragraphs which we consider so important to the rule of law . . . it must now be for the US Government to consider changing its position or itself putting that information into the public domain. (Para. 107)

Simply put, the consequences would be so grave to the UK that the Court refused to take such a responsibility and instead let the US decide whether to ultimately reveal—or maintain as classified—information in a case against a UK agency concerning UK agency wrongdoing and presented in a UK court of law.

US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton (l) and UK Foreign Secretary William Hague (r), July 2011 (Reuters)

This is the extent of the Control Principle. It is so unbelievably central to the mere survival of the imperialist island that it is willing to sacrifice fundamental rights and detach parts of its democratic principles in order to maintain core agreements that are essential to maintaining the executive authority in power. UKUSA is more than an intelligence sharing agreement; as its acronym suggests, it is an almost literal blood-sharing treaty on which the national security and foreign policy of the two most influential world powers is based. The fourth judgement made it clear that the Foreign Secretary would not risk weakening the UK’s life force just for some man whose identity was so unimportant that his alleged crimes barely warranted address in a court of law.

2. Is disclosure a breach of trust?

How much trust does the US and the UK vest in UKUSA, and what measures can hold operations created and carried out under its provisions accountable to justice?
According to the Control Principle, the country that provide information is responsible for its confidentiality, never the country that receives the information. If one end is closed, the other is open, by principle. In reality, however, this principle is often subject to political affiliations, bilateral agreements, and traditional respect for the classification and secrecy inherent to intelligence sharing protocols. A country that provided another with information might consider the receiving country revealing its methods, sources, or content a breach of bilateral agreements that could harm the vital foreign interests in the name of which the US and the UK have colluded on many recent foreign intelligence cases—the GCHQ/CIA case of a drone strike in Pakistan in Noor Khan v. Secretary of State, for example. LJ Thomas was right in asserting that, in matters of national security, the judicial branch defers to the executive, which is traditionally responsible for diplomatic, military, and intelligence decisions. However, the judicial also has a democratic right to check and balance powers granted to the executive—be they constitutional powers, like national security, or extraordinary powers beyond legislation in times of exemption, like counter terrorism—by intervening in time of wrongdoing. In this capacity, the judicial has the authority to place the control principle under review.

The difficulty in addressing the circumstances of Binyam Mohamed’s arrest, detention, interrogation, and torture lays with the fact doing so would reveal the working relationships between the UK and the US in the War on Terror. Weighing the confidentiality of intelligence-sharing protocols against the need for open justice, however, LJ Thomas carefully crafted what he referred to as “an exercise in judicial patience.” He detailed his very thought process based on questions of principle, on one hand, and previous jurisprudence justifying an extraordinary case of release and publication, on the other. The Foreign Secretary, William Hague, immediately submitted public immunity certificates in order to protect the confidentiality of UKUSA. Here, collusion between the UK and the US was more than an allegation; the court factually asserted it, with LJ Thomas himself referring to UKUSA, although not by name but by content, saying it was “no secret” that the text existed and that it was still in operation:

It is no secret—and indeed it has been an unbroken theme of the Foreign Secretary’s position—that there is a close intelligence sharing arrangement between the UK and the USA. If the redacted paragraphs do not themselves contain secret or intelligence material, and the intelligence-sharing arrangements between the UK and the USA are publicly declared, one may enquire why the redaction is necessary. In essence it comes to this: Unless the control principle prevails, the intelligence-sharing arrangements between the USA and the UK will be reviewed, and the following review may, not will, become less “productive” to presumably, the disadvantage of both countries, although I shall assume to the much greater disadvantage of the UK. The Foreign Secretary believes that such consequences will inevitably follow any contravention of the control principle, whatever the circumstances in which or the reasons for the court’s decision that it should be disapplied. The difficulty therefore arises from the control principle itself, and its application in troubled times.

Sir Richard Dearlove, chief of secret intelligence from 1999 to 2004, who recently made headlines for demanding more oversight of UK intelligence operations (2)

What LJ Thomas mentions may not be known conventionally or acknowledged officially, but it has been a constant in diplomatic relations for a long time, disseminated through conversations with journalists and in legal analyses: UKUSA exists, and both government have highlighted and perhaps even reinforced it in the “troubled times” that are the War on Terror. The control principle would allow the UK to breach UKUSA’s promises of confidentiality unless the Foreign Secretary could sufficiently prove that disclosure would be extremely damaging – not just the information itself, but the fact that a judicial court of the UK would release the information in its own sovereign right without the US’s prior consent. Jonathan Sumption QC, speaking on behalf of the Foreign Secretary, argued that such a disclosure would be “profoundly damaging to the interests of this country” and even “irresponsible”. As for the Foreign Secretary himself, in his Summary Grounds of Resistance to support his demand for public immunity, he never fell short of emphatic qualifiers:

. . . the claim was said to be “unarguable,” and the allegation that the UK government had been “mixed up” in, so as to facilitate it, the alleged wrongdoing (by USA authorities) is untrue”. It was averred that “no department or agency of the UK government was involved in the claimant’s alleged torture in Morocco and Afghanistan. Nor has the UK government done anything to facilitate the Claimant being subjected to torture.” The contention was effectively repeated in the Detailed Grounds of Resistance: “[T]he pleaded case on facilitation wholly fails.”

The Court refused Binyam Mohamed, who knew UK agents were present during his interrogation and may have facilitated his seizure, the right to access documents pertaining to his detention, in complete violation of open justice. Mohamed’s lawyers rooted their claim for disclosure of those documents—not only to the claimant but also to anyone having access to the ruling, which is everyone—in a 35-year-old principle in the case Norwich Pharmacal Co. Formulated in circumstances far different from the gruesome and harrowing complexities of the rendition program, that principle maintains that the perpetrator in a situation of facilitation, even involuntary, must cooperate in the course of justice:

If through no fault of his own a person gets mixed up in the tortious acts of others as to facilitate their wrongdoing, he may incur no personal liability but he comes under a duty to assist the person who has been wronged by giving him full information and disclosing the identity of the wrongdoers. . . . Justice requires that he should co-operate in righting the wrong if he unwittingly facilitated its perpetration.

What Norwich defines is not even collusion. It does not require intent and does not even demand liability from the third party. Still, it view disclosure as justified and part of the course of reparative justice. The Foreign Secretary’s response seems disproportionate. He did not wish to to protect the public from finding out that the UK collaborated in torture. Rather, he simply did not wish to disclose information related to the intelligence activities of another nation—even intelligence activities inflicted on the body of a British national. What is now a question of “vital foreign interest” darkens and becomes more ominous by the minute: it seems that preserving UKUSA is more important than the rules of law that bind the Foreign Secretary—not only in his position of governance, but, as LJ Thomas said, as any other litigant. If Norwich applies to a severe case of premeditated collusion resulting in gross human rights violations, and it surely does, then it reinforces the demand for disclosure. Redacted paragraphs related to the surveillance and arrest of Binyam Mohamed show that the UK did not “involuntarily facilitate” the actions of the CIA. Rather, the CIA was aiding the UK in apprehending a suspect they believed was a threat to the UK because they believed threats to UK national security also posed threats to the US. This is how Binyam Mohamed ended up in Guantanamo Bay:

(i) The SyS and the SIS were interested in (Mr. Mohamed) because of his residence in the United Kingdom, his connection with suspected persons in the United Kingdom, the period of time spent in Pakistan and Afghanistan, those whom he was said to have been with and the gravity of the allegations made against him at the time.

(ii) We have no doubt that, on the basis of that information, the SIS and SyS were right to conclude that [Mr. Mohamed] was a person of great potential significance and a serious potential threat to the national security of the United Kingdom. There was therefore every reason to seek to obtain as much intelligence from him as was possible in accordance with the rule of law and to cooperate as fully as possible with the US authorities to that end.

The problem is that gathering intelligence in accordance with the rule of law excludes the concept of full cooperation with the US authorities when it comes to terrorist suspects in the War on Terror. Continuing:

(iii) It was clear from reports that (Mr. Mohamed) was held incommunicado from 10 April 2002 whilst a series of interviews were conducted by the US authorities in April 2002, during which he had asked for a lawyer and had been refused . . .

(ix) By 20 September 2002, it was clear to the SyS that (Mr, Mohamed) was being held at a covert location (either by the authorities of the United States or under direct control of the United States) which was not a US military facility, such as Bagram. It is clear to us that they knew that he was not in a regular US facility, that the facility in which he was being detained and questioned was that of a foreign government (other than Afghanistan) and that the US authorities had direct access to information being obtained from him.

Aerial view of the Salt Pit, a CIA black site just north of Kabul, Afghanistan

Of course, UKUSA is not solely responsible for what happened to Binyam Mohamed and countless others whose rights were denied to prosecute the War on Terror. The CIA rendition program encompassed 54 countries, including the United States, all of which cooperated willfully and with the acquiescence of local authorities. To various degrees, all 54 work under intelligence sharing agreements similar to UKUSA. What makes UKUSA so special is the very specific nature of the diplomatic, military, political, and legal relations between the UK and the US—a deep entrenchment enshrined in an agreement dating initially to 1940. Each country has proved to be invaluable to the other. They are, in fact, almost incestuous. If current relations between the UK and the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) are more than glacial, the government can only halt the rule of law and judicial review of intelligence-sharing agreements using political and diplomatic protocols. The political normalcy of “vital foreign interests” regarding intelligence gathering and sharing are now even more important to the activities exercised and practiced by the executive of both nations involved in the bilateral agreement. The content of UKUSA is classified. Having been placed to the forefront of current conversation due to being the genesis of the Five Eyes program, UKUSA contains much more—and the very fact that it exists may in itself become an objection to the understanding that intelligence principles are sacred and far beyond the concept of public interest.

The language that the Foreign Secretary used to justify his public immunity certificate may be vague in rhetoric, but it is vastly telling in its interpretation. In paragraph 45 of the ruling, LJ Thomas contemplates the arguments the government brought forward and questions the very nature of UK-USA relations, so necessary that they can apparently destroy political stability:

The Foreign Secretary’s first PII certificate referred to the uncertainty which would be introduced into the working relationship between this country and the USA if the disclosure were ordered. The second PII certificate stated in terms that “disclosure of US intelligence information by order of our Courts would breach the trust and the fundamental requirement for confidentiality that lies at the heart of the UK’s liaison relationship with the US intelligence agencies. . . . It is not simply confidentiality and the secrecy of intelligence material that is an issue, however, but also the issue of the control that one government has over the intelligence information that it shares with another government in the expectation of confidentiality. . . . Breaching this principle will have significant implications that run far more broadly than this case.”

It is difficult at this stage not to simply demand the full disclosure of UKUSA in order to understand these “significant implications,” highlighted so strongly that they almost demand that we ask the question of what exactly is at stake. LJ Thomas’s ruling precipitated a hypocritical, voluntary disclosure of the 1955 version of the agreement, displayed on the NSA website as a quaint historical relic from the early days of the Cold War. The second part of this paragraph seems to let LJ Thomas know that he is facing something that is much bigger than his actual mandate:

The third PII certificate, acknowledging that the UK courts had power “in principle to disclose information provided by a foreign liaison service or derived from such information without the consent of the provider (and even against its expressed will),” concluded that the exercise of the power would be “extraordinary.” That was close to the Foreign Secretary’s assertion in the meeting with Secretary of State Clinton on 12 May that “the British Government would continue to make the case that it continued to be an inviolable principle of intelligence co-operation that we did not give away other people’s secrets.” An “inviolable” principle does not appear to acknowledge or permit any exceptions. Expressed in this way, the control principle assumes a level of primacy which diminishes the responsibility of the court as the ultimate decision-marker virtually to extinction.

LJ Thomas, who does not sound amused in the slightest by the blood promises exchanged between two Foreign Affairs peers, essentially understands that intelligence supersedes the rule of law in a way that can suffer no judicial review. But if the “international conspiracy” of the CIA rendition program is not extraordinary then what is?

CIA rendition map trajectory: including black sites, refuel stops, and detention zones (Europe, North Africa). Chart by Trevor Paglen

 

“the exercise of the control principle would be extraordinary.”

This decision matters because of the control principle that prevents disclosure on one end while authorizing it — in principle — on the other. When it comes to rendition and torture programs, the tendency to cover accessed, accessible, and processed information is US-centric. As the CIA’s activities have came under increasing congressional review, politicians and journalists have largely framed them as matters of strict American concern, and, more importantly, American accountability. They dominate US-based media, which perceive them only through an American prism. As a result, politicians and public alike have come to see issues like how the government has classified the CIA torture report and which branch of government has the hypothetical authority to release it only as US problem. Most media outlets completely omit the 53 other sovereign nation-states that cooperated with the CIA, with the exception of a handful of unconventional journalists unafraid of tapping into raw sources.

But investigations all over the world have released information about the program in various batches. US news outlets initiated a few—most notably a 2007 report from ABC news that itself precipitated investigations in Lithuania. The UK has managed to keep the degree of its involvement in the CIA torture program largely under wraps for two reasons. First, legislative review has been slow because many MPs do not possess the security clearance necessary to access relevant material on MI-6, MI-5 activities, hindering legislative review. Second, it is impossible for UK courts to sit on the activities, especially intelligence-related activities, of other sovereign states. If the latter is a well-enshrined principle of international law, the former is a worrisome indictment of an overwhelming national security principle overriding basic democratic checks and balances. This is a sore point in the UK, where judicial deference in matters of national security has been put to the test, each time with respect to UKUSA.

Put shortly, it might be possible to release information on CIA activities by looking at what the CIA requested from other agencies.

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The distrust inherent in intelligence communities raises the question of trust not between the government and the governed, but between governments themselves. Failing to uphold that secrecy by disclosing another nation’s intelligence, in violation of a classified intelligence-sharing agreement, would effectively destroy that agreement and undermine the credibility of the intelligence both nations share. If a nation sees its partner in an intelligence-sharing agreement as untrustworthy then it is unlikely to share intelligence high quality or value. A study on intelligence sharing in counter-terrorism by J. Walsh explains this in some detail:

. . . This understandable concern with security opens the possibility that shared intelligence might be of questionable reliability. States sometimes forgo the benefits they would accrue from defection in the short run in order to maintain their reputation for honest dealing. But concerns about security also complicate efforts to reassure partners by undertaking publicly observable commitments that, if violated, would undermine a government’s reputation. The details of most intelligence sharing agreements are kept secret from third parties. This makes it difficult for one partner to harm another’s reputation through an accusation of defection, since doing so necessitates revealing details about the intelligence that has or was supposed to have been shared.

The question remains as to whether the US would consider a judicial review of the intelligence—not the UKUSA intelligence agreement itself—to be a violation of the UKUSA agreement if it is part of a domestic judicial review rather than an investigation by a supranational or international court. The Foreign Secretary will not wait for an answer to that question. Defection is an issue of the state’s reliability at home and abroad. As the above table from Walsh’s study points out, the “transaction cost” is low because the US sees EU nations as trustworthy, reliable, and committed to achieving its same goals in the the War on Terror. After all, anything that could be a potential threat to the US could also threaten EU nations. From the nature of intelligence sharing and intelligence operations between the US and EU states, Walsh concludes,

. . . the gains that each state secures from sharing are larger than the expected cost of defection by the other state. Sharing should be straightforward to arrange here, and the participating states should focus on developing technical mechanisms—such as shared databases, common security procedures, joint training of personnel, and so on- that allows them to share information efficiently.

Applying this to the rendition program definitely extends to way more than collecting surveillance data: It is about the financial cost of deploying specially trained troops, training local armed forces (from law enforcement to paramilitaries), and sharing a defence apparatus. In short, allied states demand support not just from intelligence agencies but also from state departments, defence departments, and judicial departments—branches of the executive normally separated in their actions and subjected to different budgets.

Attempts to obtain documents related to CIA activities will fail outside of the US, whether they are pursued through legislative or judicial review. But the CIA never worked alone. A 2004 internal report requested by the Office of General Counsel acknowledge that the agency’s torture and rendition programs could not have worked as well as they did had so many other nations not collaborated so willingly. The extent of collaboration in Europe is staggering: Two reports—by rapporteurs Marty in 2006 and Fava in 2007—managed to track down rendition flights, prison names, and even the duration of detention. Most of what we actually know of the CIA’s torture program is in the possession of the EU Parliament and the European Court of Human Rights, where, in December 2013, Ben Emmerson referred to the program as “the largest international conspiracy.” Assuming that Sen. Dianne Feinstein holds and controls the only body of information regarding the torture program is a mistake. Collaborating agencies can disclose what the CIA will not, and nations in which the CIA operated can request it for review. If the CIA’s High-Value Detainee program simplistically could evade responsibility through extraterritoriality, it may have committed the expensive mistake of ignoring the importance future administrations in the countries where it operated would place on the right to truth.

What matters in the intelligence-sharing relationship is who in a bilateral agreement has the power, the control. Who has the resources, political and financial, to ensure compliance every step of the way. Who, in short, is the dominant state. Exercising the control principle on the UK front would result in controlled, lawful release of information about the CIA rendition program. That would imply that the UK is the dominant state in the US-UK relationship—that it has full sovereignty and dominance over its intelligence agencies and is capable of acting unilaterally and individually without asking for the CIA’s prior consent. In a paragraph cited above, however, Thomas presumes that violating UKUSA would be more damaging to the UK. That effectively means that the CIA controls the UK’s compliance in its counter-terrorism operations:

Dominant states must pay costs to manage a hierarchy as well. They must devote resources to closely monitoring subordinates’ compliance, to providing the benefits outlined in their agreement to share, and to punishing defection. For one state to effectively play the role of the dominant partner, it must control considerable political and economic resources of value to the subordinate state. Such power resources allow the dominant state to offer more valuable benefits and to more credibly threaten effective punishment when it detects defection. . . . Agreeing to . . . riskier forms of cooperation signals to the subordinate that the dominant state is reasonably secure that their hierarchical arrangement will work effectively.

Since UKUSA is still classified, the door is wide open for wild speculation on what the credible punishment can be in case of defection—or assimilated defection, should a Foreign Secretary fail to obtain a PII certificate like in the Binyam Mohamed case. More relevant, however, is the extent to which the UK and other states cooperated with the CIA’s torture and rendition program. Providing intelligence, detaching agents, deploying armed forces, and providing resources both material (planes, secure landings trips in airports) and political (corruption of governing agents to ensure silence, creation of prisons outside the legal system, interference and tampering with evidence during inquiries) all count as “riskier forms of cooperation.” As the dominant state, the US must be confident in its hierarchical system. But why? In order to answer that question, we need to see the UKUSA agreement.

Screen shot 2014-06-03 at 16.31.25

First page of the 1955 UKUSA Agreement, declassified in 2010. (3)

Can we look elsewhere for disclosure of CIA activities under the rendition program?

We also need subordinate states to exercise their own right of control. As long as the executive branch sees independent judicial review as a sign of defection, arguments like those put forward by the Foreign Secretary will always halt investigation and attempt to either scare judges into demanding release of information or maintain permanent confidentiality by creating closed submissions and closed rulings. If secret courts provide secret rulings on secret documentation, the end result will be the same—democratic accountability for violations committed by intelligence agencies will remain at absolutely zero.

Requesting accountability is a daunting, seemingly endless task. Patching together information on systematic and widespread human rights violations on each corner of the globe is a harrowing, Kafkaesque game of fill-in-the-blanks, with officials flat-out denying implication in the face of irrefutable evidence. And there is always the horrifying possibility of finding more than we dug for. Looking at the rendition and torture programs through a single national prism focuses only on a tiny portion of what that contains. Ultimately, it is a disservice to the hope for international prosecution.

Waiting for local judicial administrations to run their course, and fall on the desk of a judge with Thomas’s value system, may sound pointless. However, it might prove more effective than waiting for the US Congress to hold its previous administrations to account. If the EU Parliament reports were comprehensive enough to launch investigations into member-states, the path to figure out the extent of cooperation in nations still in denial is to find a way, through open justice, to release intelligence-sharing agreements. As LJ Thomas writes (emphasis mine),

[T]he confidentiality principle is indeed subject to the clear limitation that the government and intelligence services can never provide the country which provides intelligence with an unconditional guarantee that the confidentiality principle will never be set aside if the courts conclude that the interests of justice make it necessary and appropriate to do so.

Although the Foreign Secretary accepts that the principle is not absolute, he contends that, having made his own examination of the overall interests of justice, the control principle should be upheld. . . . I have been unable to eradicate the impression that we are being invited to accept that once the Foreign Secretary has made his judgement . . . that should be that. However, although in the context of public safety it is axiomatic that his views are entitled to the utmost respect, they cannot command the unquestioning acquiescence of the court.

Some in both the UK and the US have put forward that any disclosure of any kind based on any value or principle, be it personal or enshrined in law, can’t justified because of national security concerns. It is however important to ensure that the exercise of open justice and national security are not mutually exclusive. No one in the business of holding intelligence agencies legally accountable for their actions has ever contended that national security is a baseless construct for the containment of outside insurgency dating to imperialistic times. Global terrorism is real, and threats exist. We have thwarted some, and we have avoided others. But in an era where the word “terrorism” has been rendered virtually meaningless from overuse and the phrase “national security” has been thrown at both congressional and judicial reviews to order members of government’s silence and assent, it is hardly radical to request thorough oversight of counter-terrorism operations. In fact, it is an act of patriotism that highly regards the safety and security of fellow citizens. State hypervigilance is never a sign of a healthy democracy or a transparent society. It is a sign of paranoia that conflates of security with the status quo. An independent legislative review complete with muscular courts can restore not only political normalcy with temporary derogations but also help disclose information safely and in the interest of domestic prosecution of government abuses.

The CIA torture program has encompassed so many administrations and requested the skills and assets of so many agents worldwide that its investigation cannot be restricted to the US. Other states in intelligence-sharing agreements with the US must replicate Thomas’s actions. Each and every one of these countries has various degrees of dominance and subordination with the US and can exercise the control principle to release information on their activities and CIA demands should the US never be able to release its report. When it comes to intelligence sharing agreements, the US will lose its position of dominance.

 

 

 

(1). The Gibson Inquiry’s report has proved unsatisfactory on many levels. On the subject of rendition, it considers that the Marty and Fava reports are inconclusive and facts are unchecked. As the Inquiry itself stated, “The report does not find facts or reach conclusions. It is based on the scrutiny of documents, no witness has yet had the opportunity to explain or add to this information”. It is, therefore, thoroughly incomplete. Sir Peter Gibson himself acknowledged the report raised just as many questions.

(2). In an ironic twist surely not lost on anyone, Dearlove was referred to as the UK’s “own Snowden” in July 2013, when he revealed being in the process of penning a book detailing the events leading up to the Iraq war from his own perspective. Given the stalled state of the Chilcot Inquiry, Dearlove’s book could be a bombshell. A year later, Dearlove then demands more oversight for MI-6 and MI-5 operations, right after Sir Mark, ISC, was summoned to the Home Affairs Committee.

(3). The history of UKUSA from 1943 to 1955 is now available on the NSA website since 2010. The full declassified .pdf is here – Cold War centric infographics that seem to imply UKUSA is a relic of McCarthyism are on the National Archives website.

“We need the powers and the resources to expose the truth”

David Anderson QC (left), independent terrorism legislation reviewer. Ben Emmerson QC (right), UN Special Rapporteur on human rights while countering terrorism

On Wednesday, March 26, the Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) convened on Westminster with the heaviest agenda of the parliamentary year so far – scrutiny of human rights compliance with counter-terrorism laws, protocols and their application. Following just  a week after another committee (Home Affairs) took great paints to summon Sir Mark Waller over GCHQ activities – and concluded that the little if any scrutiny granted to intelligence activity and data collection was far below a democratic threshold – the JCHR intended to make an inventory of the most pressing issues facing the human rights community in regards to counter-terrorism laws in the UK, enforced domestically and abroad. Present where David Anderson QC, an amicable, straight-forward and honest reviewer aware of his possibilities and difficulties as independent reviewer of terrorism legislation; and the both ubiquitous and far too rare Ben Emmerson QC, Special Rapporteur on Human Rights while Countering Terrorism.

As the UK slowly emerges from the deep slumber induced by the shock of the Snowden revelations, and intends to bring forward a semblance of a healthy democratic debate surrounding the overwhelming powers granted under its anti-terrorism legislation – from Parliament-embraced measures to unchecked use of executive power – this hearing was more formal that the Home Affairs’ submission to Sir Mark sought to be. Anderson and Emmerson, both tasked with a position that requires more than annual reports and evidence submission, highlighted not only the domestic inconsistencies of counter-terrorism legislation both in regards to constitutional safeguards but European legal compliance, but the international implications of the UK armed forces abroad – and even more to the point, the UK collusion with the US drone war.

Both Anderson and Emmerson were asked, as a preamble, to identify three key issues arising from abuses of counter-terrorism legislation – and both agreed on all three, their pressing need to be addressed, and the importance of a legislative scrutiny. Not respecting their own order, this write-up of the hearing seeks to re-affirm the basic principles of human rights compliance in counter-terrorism activities. Despite the current climate and the domestic policies seemingly asserting that the two are mutually exclusive, that conditions of necessity and proportionality involve derogations, and that national security imperatives supersede all – Anderson and Emmerson were both unequivocal in the belief that unless regular scrutiny, legislative and judicial review, and transparency prevail in a democratic country seeking to combat the extremely real of terrorism, abuses would be just as well shared by the nation-state violating the principles it had originally vowed to uphold.

Definition of terrorism

The question arose in the context of the Miranda v Home Secretary ruling in February, in which it had been effectively denounced and illustrated that section 40 (1) (b) of the ATCSA was too broad, too vague and unchecked to be efficient and free of possible discretionary, discriminatory abuses. As Emmerson remarked, the UK’s situation in defining terrorism – or failing to appropriately do so – is hardly unique. Many states, most of them being western democracies grappling with more or less open conflict in MENA or South East Asia, have definitions of what constitutes terrorism that are adaptable, subjected to interpretation, often not legislative. Anderson noted that he intended to revisit the definition incorporated into the ATCSA, if only in the light of the Miranda verdict – although the High Court ruling only emphasized that this became necessary, as opposed to shedding a light on an issue no one addressed. Continuing, “in the old days, terrorism was simple”, referring to the usual and perhaps now obsolete decision that terrorism was an act of violence perpetrated in order to achieve a certain political aim. The definition of ethnopolitical terrorism, a type of conflict Northern Ireland declared for decades, may no longer fit such a clear-cut bill: what has become a political means to achieve? Is the goal of the political action the strict act of self-determination, or can wanton destruction (of both property and persons) be considered terrorism? Should it be foreign or domestic? Should be carried by an organisation or an isolated individual? In the attempt to cover all bases, 40 (1) (b) covered, in fact, all bases, even those that perhaps should never be criminalized to the full extent of the overreaching powers of couter-terrorism legislation.

Ben Emmerson

Maybe more to the point – and this was said as an aside, despite its importance – a broad definition of terrorism could apply to state actors as well as it could to organisations and individuals. Emmerson:

This definition (…) criminalises conduct too broadly. The purported safeguards against abuses can’t be used against executive orders, that remain unchallenged. If you apply this definition, it could apply to British armed forces overseas.

Although it remains quite unsure as to how many eyebrows were effectively raised following this statement, Emmerson continued on the difficulties of applying a terrorism charge ex post facto. “This is not consistent with our constitutional principles”, he concluded, which will later be raised once more in the evolution of the legal context of counter-terrorism.

What was at the core of the Miranda case, indeed, was the extension of counter terrorism legislation to journalism – and the fact that carrying material that could be deemed harmful to national security; knowing, carrying, transporting, or transferring information deemed harmful; and publishing said information is now subjected to a terrorism charge. If journalists have now become a preferred target for outlandish counter terrorism laws that are only a front for clearly criminalizing dissent, the goal of extending these powers – which include prolonged detention, seizure of property, prolonged interrogation often as a result of long standing surveillance – to journalists, protected by the ECHR, the ICCPR and domestic mechanisms of press freedom, has a dangerous aspect that has forced one member of the JCHR to ask both barristers if journalism, and being a journalist, should be defined in order to create a framework that would escape the claws of counter-terrorism legislation. But being a journalist is not simply a profession on a card, not simply a career; it is the act of researching information and publishing it. In the digital era, an individual that may not necessarily be a career journalist, would not necessarily identify as such, or would not be hired full time and under contract by a newspaper organisation, can indeed act as a journalist and publish as such. Those individuals also deserve the protection of Article 10, and hold the right to a public interest defense.

Emmerson did not mention the Johannesburg Principles; instead, he referred to a more recent convention – principles laid out that goes through both domestic and comparative law in order to provide the best media protection possible, as well as enriching the legal mechanisms and recourses for whistleblowers… including those engaging in unauthorized disclosures. It is of Emmerson’s “robust view”, as he puts it – which may be robust in a vacuum, but necessary in the context – to foster and favour an environment in which the media plays a role of governing accountability and providing a healthy debate in the name of public interest. If the question of transparency has popped in a few times during the short hearing, it has however made a lasting impact – Westminster has now effectively held two parliamentary hearings during which observers, national, domestic workers in different fields, have assessed the Snowden disclosures not only as being in the public interest of the United Kingdom, but also having a much broader, international scope – which forces the national government in this situation, not only to address its own population in regards to the domestic spying apparatus in place, but to answer to the duties and responsibilities each nation has toward the others with which it engages.

Glenn Greenwald after finding out about Scotland Yard’s “Ports Circulation Sheet” related to the arrest and detention of his partner, David Miranda.

(If the Snowden revelations damaged more than two governments’ abilities to be trusted by their own population, we may not know in the immediate; US journalist Jason Leopold, who has filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for a DIA document supposedly reporting on the “grave damage” the Guardian publication would have caused has been met with an “exceptional circumstances” excuse, seeking additional time to process his request. Considering the discourse on the so-called lethal effects of the NSA disclosures at home and abroad, one would be under the belief that the DIA would want this report out there, for everyone to stop considering Snowden a hero. Alas, this is not the case; and the notion of public interest in the face of grave human rights violations remain.)

Anderson, who has had first hand experience in observing press freedom and its restrictions elsewhere while on a mission for the Council of Europe (CoE), has reported that instances of restrictive definitions of what constitutes journalism and who can be considered a journalist, with the legal protections attributed to the title, more than often led to press freedom violations. He referred to the Levison case, another ominous jurisprudence for the United Kingdom. Although Anderson’s point was brief, if his intent was to suggest press freedom ought not to be restricted on matters of principle to avoid civil liberties violations (as opposed to restricting them for opaque national security matters), it was very well conveyed. The concerns raised by the JCHR was not in the strict and immediate future of the Miranda ruling, which is still under ongoing litigation, but just as dangerous and pervasive chilling effect it has on freedom of expression, opinion, and access to information. Emmerson, who never sought to wax poetic and engage in rhetorical battles of sorts on political linguistics, stated that national security was in fact used as an excuse to intimidate and silence the press. This goes hand in hand with recent declarations by UN Rapporteur Frank La Rue on the chilling effects of prosecution of whistleblowers. Anderson, who explained that national security was “notoriously undefined”, took issue with unquestionable, unchallenged and unscrutinized executive orders – as well as the Royal Prerogative – which, as a terrorism reviewer, leaves those unilateral decisions outside of his purview. It became clear at this point of the hearing that a legislative review of counter-terrorism, powers granted by Parliament and possibility to curtail, democratically, exceptional powers granted to the executive, could be what the UK – and by extension, the US – need.

CIA rendition program

A long-lasting thorn in Ben Emmerson’s side, the release of the Gibson Inquiry echoes the current theater drama on the other side of the Atlantic, as Sen. Feinstein struggles with the CIA, her own demons, and getting the votes to hypothetically release the CIA torture report. The Gibson Inquiry, named after Sir Peter Gibson, tasked to investigate the role of British intelligence forces into the CIA torture program, has notoriously been stalling for years. Then transferred to the Intelligence Services Committee (ISC), David Cameron, as a campaign promise, sought to take it away from Lord Gibson and handing it out to the ISC. He famously said, in 2010:

I do not think for a moment that we should believe that the ISC should be doing this piece of work. For public confidence, and for independence from parliament, party and government, it is right to have a judge-led inquiry. That is what we need to get to the bottom of the case. The fact that it is led by a judge will help ensure that we get it done properly.

A statement made on December 19, 2013 and released to David Cameron said the report concluded that matters needed “further investigation”. However, the ISC has been heavily criticized for failing to conduct proper oversight into the activities of intelligence services; in this case, the only released information concerned the MI-6 collusion with Gaddafi, which resulted in the rendition and torture of two Libyan opposition leaders in 2004. Handing the Gibson inquiry to a committee that lacks powers and resources to conduct a truly independent and thorough inquiry has been perceived by members of human rights groups as a willingness to whitewash the activities of the MI-5 and MI-6. As the ISC reviewer himself, Sir Mark, proved at his own hearing last week, the reviewer has little to no power over GCHQ; is massively understaffed; does not possess the power to compel evidence or summon witnesses; any evidence provided will be heavily redacted if ever possibly released at all. Emmerson, who expressed his frustration over the procedural limitations of the inquiry over and over again, re-affirmed the need to absolutely lift any roadblocks standing before the ISC “so the Committee can do its job”:

Individuals concerned by the inquiry boycotted it – but those who committed crimes need to be exposed. The Committee needs to have the powers and resources to expose the truth.

When asked if the ISC would ever face a conflict of interest in the conduct of a review that is neither legislative nor judicial, Emmerson expressed a commitment to oversight that is refreshing in an era of hyper-classification and constant executive-led belittling of calls for transparency. The Rapporteur then made a statement that sounds like stating the obvious, a truth that many democratic regimes may have held as self-evident, that is, until someone blows the whistle on works behind the scenes: that oversight is a traditional mechanism in advanced democracies. It is the one tool of accountability that can be relied upon especially when exercised by the very representatives of the people (legislative) and/or by an absolute separate branch of government (judicial). Only a lack of oversight, or a demonstration of powerless or virtually pointless oversight can reveal that separation of powers or excessive executive control has undermined the constitutional principles of society. As to whether any inquiry, inquiry report or conclusions should lead to prosecution, Emmerson believes that a strong judicial component to an inquiry could be an asset to conducting an investigation into intelligence services – as the judicial hand might be seen as stronger and less subjected to influence.

In light of Sir Mark’s testimony – which, again, he performed extremely reluctantly – the issue of transparency not only in intelligence itself, but in the conduct of oversight was raised. Although both Emmerson and Anderson mentioned the concept of “responsible journalism” earlier in the hearing, the necessity for information and the right to truth was once again made in front of a legislative body (emphasis mine):

It is always difficult to decide [ on release ] when dealing with sensitive information, to decide if privacy is justified. But what the committee is tasked with, parts are capable of being held in public. All that can be safely in the public domain should be in the public domain.

Unmanned aircrafts, targeted killings and undeclared battlefields

It was surprising to hear members of the JCHR being surprised that the use of drones made Anderson and Emmerson’s top three counter-terrorism issues list. Following an extremely brutal yet absolutely necessary report three weeks ago, which seemingly went half unnoticed even in the list of proposals it laid out in its conclusion, Emmerson provided the committee with what Anderson later referred to as a “masterclass on drones”. No stranger to their use in undeclared battlefields and the massive human rights violations they committed – pre emptive killings, unsanctioned use of military force, civilian killings and the absolute classification over their intelligence collection methods, their trajectory, and little known about their operating bases, it was no wonder that Emmerson’s tenure at the UN would prominently feature his lengthy field research in Pakistan and Yemen in order to amass the information that no one else would release to him, despite his position, that one would assume significant enough to warrant cooperation.

Alas.

Know Your Drone

Emmerson identified four key concerns, which he outlined in concise but harsh terms:

1) this is a 21st century weapon designed for asymmetrical armed conflict. As a counter-insurgency tool, which is what it is branded to be, it is of very little use and effect.

2) the Committee was right in saying that with the technology at our disposal, and the capacity to place suspects under 24/7 surveillance, it is in fact possible to protect the right to life closer to a zero-collateral damage than ever before – tools of precise targets, even more surgical strikes, and threat removal. Instead, the use of drones have illustrated reckless endangerment, and have destroyed said right to life.

3) Most of the difficulty that arises from the counter-terrorism and human rights study of the use of drones is that they often operate outside of the theaters of traditional armed conflict. Their constant hovering over Yemen, Pakistan and Somalia, nations with no declared war against the US or the UK, force precedence in areas of international law where there is nothing even remotely close to a political or legal consensus.

4) Drones are operated by the CIA.

Presenting this quote without further comment:

I don’t know who originally thought it was a smart idea to hand drones in a campaign of waging war through the air to an organisation bound by the rules of neither-confirm-nor-deny. (…) I’d rather give MI-6 a fleet of aircrafts and let them go off and do whatever they needed to do.

The complete lack of transparency even in answering simple questions from journalists and lawyers is what makes the CIA such an unpractical and dangerous organisation to direct and lead unmanned aircrafts – remotely based pilots distanced and detached from the battlefield, the realities of the insurgency and the bloodshed of the bombs they let off. The historical culture of classification and secrecy held by the CIA, the topic of which is often source of heavy-handed satire and conspiracy theories is an issue in and of itself. Abuses do arise, but in the hands of the CIA, they are effectively removed from any tool of accountability for the civilians affected by their practices; the wounded as well as the killed. The effort to transfer the direction of drones from the CIA to the Department of Justice (DoJ) was a step in the right direction, but hindered. Emmerson however noticed that since John Brennan took over as head of the CIA, Pakistan enjoyed a period of relief from the death machines. (Sadly, this has not proven true for Yemen).

Picking apart Emmerson’s new report draws the eye on his rhetorical questioning on a proposed change of international law (!) and accountability systems of counter-terrorism (!!) to fit the current and evolving framework of the counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency methods the US and UK are practising in the name of their endless War on Terror. Reducing it to the simplest possible question due to the nature of the hearing and its limited duration, Emmerson was asked to answer whether war should be redefined. This, however, was not rhetorical. Stating that this is a complex issue – and I would argue, the most complex international criminal issue of our time, one I have been working on for ages – there is no consensus among states, or even among lawyers. The Geneva Conventions are and should remain the guiding principles of the law of warfare; but the nature of conflicts themselves have evolved far away from our traditional and historical definition of what constitutes an international armed conflict. Most of the battle zones, these days, are asymmetrical battlefields – meaning, in broad and simple terms, a nation-state against a more or less borderless organisation. Henceforth, the targeted laws of international humanitarian concepts are harder and harder to apply. Jurisdiction is an ongoing concern in matters of judicial accountability. Classification is the biggest fear in matters of political accountability. If counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism are often confused in media coverage, it is because the definition of what constitutes a legitimate military target not only varies according to the country in which the fight is taking place, but also the rules of engagement (for armed forces); the duty handbook (for private military contractors), and legislation once one policy expires or there is a change in administration. The questions Ben Emmerson asked at the end of the report, which asked states involved in the War on Terror to not only answer his calls for transparency and release of information, will be subjected to a vote at the United Nations shortly, recommending the establishment of a committee that would hear states and their own national, domestic and political vision of counter-terrorism, human rights compliance, and the legal systems of accountability they would recognize.

As I said, Emmerson’s report was a brutal read; and if some states decided to play the game and submit themselves to Emmerson’s questioning – the future will tell the degree of truthfulness involved – the Rapporteur was quick to point out that the UK was “not terribly keen” to submit themselves to the Human Rights Council. In itself, it is immensely telling.

Home Secretary Theresa May

Citizenship deprivation, executive powers

When mentioning the awfully limited and comically useless powers of Sir Mark Waller, it was unbelievable to conceive that David Anderson would face oversight issues. Indeed, his body of work as a reviewer is comprehensive, transparent, available and accessible. However, in the recent decisions made by the Secretary of State and Home Secretary, regarding immigration, deportation and revoking powers, Anderson admitted he had no review powers – those fell under immigration ministry oversight. However, one concern was a power that had been long lost and was somehow revived in the last twelve months: revoking a passport. Since April 2013, 14 passports have been revoked under powers granted by the Royal Prerogative, another unilateral executive power not subjected to review. (We remember activist Moazzam Begg’s passport being confiscated upon return from a humanitarian trip to Syria, not long before being arrested and detained by the anti-terrorism unit of Birmingham Police).

But again, the bigger picture remains the same: it is an issue of transparency and accountability. Theresa May’s citizenship deprivation scheme, detailed here at length by journalist Aviva Stahl, have obscured motives yet terrifyingly clear results. Left vulnerable, without diplomatic assurance and the protection of the right of abode, statelessness effectively makes individuals vulnerable to gross human rights violations – historical instances in the previous centuries having led to the 1954 Convention on the status of stateless persons. Although the power of revoking citizenship is a prerogative of any member state, the necessity to ensure that the individual is not only entitled to powers of appeal of the decision but also has another citizenship or state willing to grant asylum once the decision made should be a duty incumbent to any state party to that treaty. Emmerson, falling into the footsteps of a House of Lords hearing last week during which the scheme was debated, in the light of two individuals murdered by a drone strike directly following the revoking of their citizenship, reaffirmed that international law had to prevail in a climate of perpetual and ubiquitous conflict during which individuals are not to be left without possibility of refuge. However, the follow-up question was met with concerns for the security of the United Kingdom, not an appreciation of the human rights of individuals, regardless of their alleged or confirmed criminal status. Emmerson, again:

Those singled out for a crime that is wholly public – on notice from the government and the services that watch them – are those posing the least threat. This is a radical power, and it makes one wonder what someone did to deserve such a measure.

Anderson, who has consistently and abundantly worked on TPIMs, was happy to report there were none enforced currently; there should be an emphasis on prosecution in matters of criminal wrongdoing, as opposed to executive orders in matters of security. Are the TPIMs really that efficient in terms of counter-terrorism prevention? Are executive powers a deterrent to criminal activity? What can be a deterrent? Wouldn’t the appropriate behavior to work on the roots of terrorism – explained and detailed in the UN 2006 global counter-terrorism strategy – as opposed to immediately and profusely rely on executive powers, unchallenged and unchecked, to provide national security?

Crux of the matter remained that scrutiny of executive powers and executive services – intelligence and use of military force in matters of counter-terrorism – require that the other branches of government obtain at least equal power to the executive as opposed to being subjected to disclosure exemptions, classification refusals, and clearance denials when accessing material, evidence, and individual that would facilitate the conduct of their work. Anderson suggested that members of Parliament engaged in legislative review should be granted security clearance to access GCHQ / MI-6 material – or at least, be treated as if they did. “It is the only way we can debate information in a meaningful way”, he said, in yet another significant effort by a terrorism specialist to emphasize the necessity for clarity and transparency in the healthy course of democracy. Emmerson concluded that oversight was not working as it well as it should be, but thankfully, we could rely on a momentum, at international level, to create direct obligations upon member-states to abide by human rights provisions in the course of intelligence gatherings and counter-terrorism.

And we hope it doesn’t stop.

 

Judicial activism and the right to truth: al-Hawsawi and Lithuania

Mustafa al-Hawsawi, 2012

Last month, an extremely important case hearing took place in Strasbourg, at the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR). It detailed the collusion of the government of Poland with the CIA in creating a secret prison on its territory, in which prisoners were detained, interrogated, tortured, then shipped to the United States on unchartered flights before being detained again at the horrific naval base of Guantanamo Bay. The worst illustration of a lethal EU-US partnership in the so-called War on Terror was finally exposed, after much obstacles were removed. Lack of transparency, hyperclassification, judicial deference, protection of “vital foreign interests”, and the usual disdain for the basic fundamental rights of terror suspects have led to a considerable delay in trying the Guantanamo Bay inmates, but also to broadcast in a court of law the crimes committed by the nation states and their agents. In the fight against terrorism, counter-terrorism is also on trial.

The establishment of CIA black sites on European soil has been a profound source of shame, a delicate diplomatic issue. Yet a comprehensive document dating back to 2006, the Marty Report, commissioned by the European Parliament to investigate and assess the extent of member-states collaborating with the CIA , brought to light how massive the scale of cooperation has been. If the case of Poland has become a textbook situation for collusion –  from paying airport employees in cash to hide departing flights to the US, to refusing access to classified documentation to defence lawyers – it is important to keep in mind it is not an isolated situation. This week, Lithuania has managed to score a victory in its judicial battle within its own domestic courts, without the help of Strasbourg, in a case that highlights two fundamental difficulties and hurdles in the prosecution of the CIA torture program: not only had the Lithuanian prosecutor refused, twice,  to open an investigation into the prison located in the small village of Antaviliai, but all the information used to re-open the case was not governmental documentation at all – it was journalistic investigation made public that had allowed to provide new information.

Mustafa Al-Hawsawi is a Saudi national, currently detained in Guantanamo Bay as a high value detainee and faces trial by a military commission for his role as a financial backer of the 9/11 attack. He was captured in 2003 in Rawalpindi, Pakistan. According to him, he was then transferred to Lithuania where he was handed to US authorities, subjected to torture and disappeared – he would have remained in the secret prison for two whole years, between 2004 and 2006. It’s only then, in September 2006, that US officials formally acknowledged his detention at Guantanamo Bay. As a high-value detainee, Al-Hawsawi was at a much higher risk of torture than any other inmate, according to a report by the ICRC; later, Ben Emmerson, the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights while countering terrorism – who filed as a third party in the Abu Zubaydah v Poland case – reported, in 2013, that the situation of CIA black sites and the practice of extraordinary rendition for terror suspects involved 54 nation states total, from Lithuania to Morocco and from Poland to Thailand.

The forest on the road from Vilnius to Antaviliai, Lithuania

Thanks to investigative journalist Jason Leopold, we know much more about the arrest, disappearance, detention and torture of Abu Zubaydah than we could have ever hope to find if we had followed the often blocked, often stonewalled round of a traditional legal investigation. In the case of Al-Hawsawi, the road was paved with ill-intentions, over a five-year period: in 2009, an initial investigation into the case was made thanks to a report by ABC news, yet charges were dropped seemingly due to lack of evidence. Back then, Defense Minister Rasa Junkeviciene had released this statement:

“Prosecutors need facts. This is how I understand their decision. One shouldn’t forget that this is not only a Lithuanian issue, and if other states fail to give necessary information, or people who know something also don’t want to give information, then in fact it’s pretty hard to say something.”

Although this sounds logical and a fair assessment of how charges could be dropped in a case of serious violations of international law, this highlights the difficulty to access information when so much redaction, red tape or complete classification of material can not be accessible through the classic and regular means of transfer of information in a transnational case. It was obvious that due to the lack of compliance displayed by the United States at the time, further investigation into the lost two years of Al-Hawsawi’s life would lead to empty boxes, unaccessible documentation, or even possibly a request not to look further into this case. However, thanks to the ABC News report, the Lithuanian Parliament created a committee tasked with investigating the alleged CIA black site. And they found one. In fact, they found two. But those were empty, and there was absolutely no written trace, documentation, or evidence made available to them that any prisoners under any authority had been brought to those sites.

Former president Valdus Adamkus and former prime minister Algirdas Brazauskas, the executive authority in place at the time, denied any allegations. The investigation, which came to a screeching halt in 2011, had however unearthed some pretty disturbing evidence, that, linked to other similar cases of detention and torture at CIA black sites, could determine a pretty serious pattern of corrupting local officials, building sites in remote rural areas, and circumventing airport rules for flights to depart and land unsuspected. According to the Prime Minister, who took part in the committee:

The committee also said that five airplanes “linked to the CIA” landed in Vilnius and Palanga airports from 2002-2005, and on at least two occasions border procedures were bypassed with the help of high-ranking Lithuanian State Security officials.

As I wrote in December following the Abu Zubaydah hearing, which I attended, the facts of the case soberly enunciated by the lead counsel, Ms. Singh, illustrated one thing – that it would have been impossible for the CIA to have operated in Poland without national officials knowing about the site. In fact, as it was said then – “not only should Poland know, but Poland did know.” Ms. Singh recounts the different steps taken into the detention and rendition of Abu Zubaydah:

Singh insisted that Poland was not only guilty of facilitating the detention of Al-Nashiri, but also to actively cover-up US rendition flights, and not act under the law when they knowingly assisted the torture of the applicants. Payment of fees to CIA officials, extra bonuses in cash granted to Polish officials and airport workers who assisted in the cover up and departure of rendition flights  have all been documented by what the counsel asserted were credible sources, while Poland carried out claiming that bias from witnesses and anonymity of testimonies made them, apparently, unreceivable. Singh added, in a moment that sent a chill down the audience’s spine, that there had even been agreements between Polish and US officials as to the procedure to adopt should a prisoner die during the detention.

al-Hawsawi at his arraignment in 2008. (c) Janet Hamlin

If Poland appeared to have maintained a political facade since the case was first brought to its attention in 2008, things were not sailing smooth with Lithuania: the Foreign Minister resigned in 2010 over the black site investigation. Back then, President Grybauskaite had publicly acknowledged she knew about the presence of CIA black sites in the country, but following the Parliament report lacking information regarding prisoners, their identity, and travel dates to the prison, Usackas, then Foreign Minister, strongly dismissed all allegations that any torture site, CIA-operated or otherwise, had detained prisoners. Grybauskaite said she had lost trust in the members of her government at the time, and asked her Prime Minister to dismiss Usackas. Usackas, in turn, resigned from his position.

In 2011, Amnesty International obtained information that was relevant to the case and urged Lithuania to re-open an investigation into the secret prison. The claim made during the Abu Zubaydah hearing that an investigation into collaboration with the CIA was “politically inconvenient” echoes the case of Lithuania. It appears that the Parliament report should have consisted in enough evidence to either admit or dismiss the case in court. Since the report could neither assess the presence of prisoners nor the knowledge of executive officials at the time, counsel for Al-Hawsawi relied on investigative missions and victims’ testimonies to provide new information to the Court. The admissibility of this evidence was contested by the Prosecutor. In Poland, lawyers for the government alleged that media publicity and “interference” (sic) with the investigation had made it difficult to carry on in what they believe would be a consistent and objective manner; that NGOs were pressing an agenda on Poland to prosecute human rights violations they weren’t sure existed. The issue of transparency and the obtention of material outside the realm of the legislative inquiry or the executive’s agreement to disclosure is yet another pattern in the prosecution of CIA crimes. Disclosures, both prosecutors argued, are premature, and affect the course of the inquiry by being influential.

They’re influential because they expose the failure of the authority to comply with the judicial inquiry.

In the case of Lithuania, however, the prosecution failed short of upholding the important role of journalistic investigation and obtention of victims in the care of human rights-focused organisations. Says Joe Margulies, a professor of law at Northwestern and counsel for one of the victims, said in 2011:

“[t]he Prosecutor is trying to deflect blame for the failure of his investigation onto NGOs and the media. It’s ironic that an official investigation into a secret torture facility should claim to be thwarted because the media is insufficiently transparent.”

In September of last year, things moved at an incredibly fast pace. Basing their evidence on publicly available information such as EU Parliament reports, flight data gathered by NGOs Reprieve and REDRESS, the counsels submitted a new complaint calling for a new investigation into the detention of Al-Hawsawi. The complaint explained that a thorough and effective investigation had to be made to “secure evidence, seek clarification, seek urgent preservation and disclosure of all relevant evidence, and identify all officials involved in the alleged violations with a view of ensuring they are prosecuted.”

Ben Emmerson, QC

The importance and effect of publicly available information and thorough disclosure could not be stressed enough in this case. The similar that has emerged against Poland will pave the way for those that will surely follow. Ben Emmerson had re-affirmed his commitment to the right to truth as a universal human right and a cornerstone of the legal commitments binding on all member-states not just at the Council of Europe, but at the United Nations. From our piece on Abu-Zubaydah, again:

“the right to truth is collective. Information is essential to a democratic system – in the context of human rights violations, there needs to be a clarification of the circumstances, of context, of policies, and of the institutional failures that let those happen in order to restore confidence in the system. The right to know what happened is fundamental for participatory decision-making in society.” It may appear counter-intuitive, Emmerson continued, “to conventional lawyers – but once it is recognized, every individual is entitled to invoke that right.”

The month following the filing, the Prosecutor informed both NGOs that he refused to launch an investigation. They immediately appealed his decision. The EU Parliament in Strasbourg adopted a resolution on October 10, 2013 urging Lithuania to re-open an investigation into CIA black sites, in regards to 4 cases already pending at the ECtHR, and a fifth application made in a domestic court in Italy:

whereas Parliament has condemned the US-led CIA rendition and secret detention programmes involving multiple human rights violations, including unlawful and arbitrary detention, torture and other ill-treatment, violations of the non-refoulement principle, and enforced disappearance through the use of European airspace and territory by the CIA; whereas Parliament has repeatedly called for full investigations into the collaboration of national governments and agencies with the CIA programmes;

whereas the Lithuanian authorities have reiterated their commitment to reopening the criminal investigation into Lithuania’s involvement in the CIA programme if new elements emerge, but still have not done so;

Reiterates its call on those Member States which have not fulfilled their positive obligation to conduct independent and effective inquiries to investigate human rights violations, taking into account all the new evidence that has come to light, and to disclose all necessary information on all suspect planes associated with the CIA and their territory; calls in particular on the Member States to investigate whether operations have taken place whereby people have been held under the CIA programme in secret facilities on their territory; calls on the Member States concerned (France, Italy, Lithuania, Poland, Romania and Sweden) to respond to the letters sent by the UN Special Procedures;

In this staunchly strong-worded resolution, which urges member states to launch thorough and detailed investigations from government records to phone records, and even forensic investigations at the prison sites themselves, the EU Parliament follows a trend of transparency regarding the collaboration with CIA of EU member states, and has called on every member states not to just comply with recommendations and requests of the ECtHR, but also those made at the UN. The practice of rendition and black sites by the CIA is not an American concern; it is a worldwide concern, that must be addressed by all member states.
In spite of this call, the appeal was just as quickly dismissed.  Yet another one was made, in a remarkable show of consistency and perseverance in the pursuit of truth and justice – and this time, the Vilnius Regional Court upheld the demand for an investigation, and the case is now re-opened. The Regional Court claimed that previous dismissal by the Prosecutor General had been “groundless”.  Julia Hall, Amnesty International’s expert on counter-terrorism and human rights, was justifiably and understandably delighted with the news. The persistence of the counsel for Al-Hawsawi must be commanded. In a statement released shortly following the decision of the Vilnius Regional Court,
“The Lithuanian government and Prosecutor General must now open a full and effective investigation into Mustafa al-Hawsawi’s claims and ensure that any other individuals who have alleged that they were held in secret CIA detention there are afforded the same right.”
As of today, investigative journalist Jason Leopold, whose thorough body of work includes the obtention and publication of the diaries of Abu-Zubaydah, clearly detailing his arrest, detention, and torture, has filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit to obtain a copy of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s torture report and CIA activities, chaired by Senator Dianne Feinstein. This is the exact same report that Ben Emmerson asked to be released in this UN report from March 1, 2013; a situation he called “a pressing concern”.  After Leopold’s amended claim, a response came, a peculiar and unusual one: his request was denied; the Senator has “full control” over the report and its hypothetical release. The Court argued it had no jurisdiction over Leopold’s claim. The Senate’s torture report will not be released anytime soon.

Al-Hawsawi is still detained in Guantanamo. NGO REDRESS, represented pro-bono in the case, filed a motion on October 17, 2013 to submit against the classification regime blocking them from accepting complaints to third countries, hindering the investigations in the case, which amounts to a violation of his right to a fair trial. On November 27, 2013, the military judge denied the motion.

Al-Nashiri, Abu Zubaydah v Poland: the right to truth

Abu Zubaydah, whose eye was removed by the CIA during detention

“the hearing (…) lasted far beyond the usual 90 minutes. It lasted over three hours.”

On December 2nd, 2013, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) held an in camera hearing in the cases of two Guantanamo detainees, Al-Nashiri and Abu Zubaydah, petitioning against Poland for facilitating their detention, torture, and rendition to the United States where they have been detained – without charge – ever since. Their lawyers, representing them in the European institution based in Strasbourg, France, filed simultaneously, allowing their cases to merge and form a more cohesive pattern against the use of what Europe has referred to “black sites” of the CIA: detention sites, secret prisons, located in remote areas, where local law enforcement either turned a blind eye or thoroughly collaborated with American intelligence on suspects of terrorism in the vague, overwhelming and never ending “War on Terror”. During that hearing, representatives of the Polish government, Judges and counsels for both applicants heard testimonies from expert witnesses on the use of torture on the applicants and the specially chartered flights that took them from Thailand to Poland, and from Poland to the United States.

The following day, the hearing consisted in the Polish government forming an argument before the Court as to whether its domestic investigation of the allegations – launched in 2008 – had met the standards of fairness, length and equity required by the European Covenant of Human Rights. Beyond the strict legality of the argument, lawyers for both parties – and especially their Polish advisors – were unequivocally denouncing the political pressure exerted on the Polish government and its intelligence officials onto the Department of Justice, where the investigation has been lingering for five years now, and seeing no sign of ever coming into a close. Nowak-Far, the Under-Secretary of State for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, opened the seance with a somewhat unassured claim that “trust must be established” that resolution of the investigation would be made domestically; that the Polish government had no intention of burying the case under paperwork or, as counsel suggested, the weight of classified information pertaining to intelligence activities, not only on Polish territory, but also per their agreement with US intelligence officials. Quickly into Nowak-Far’s argument, the issue of secrecy reared its ugly head, in a constructed speech that is all too frequent in the current climate of foreign affairs. Poland, which had requested that the hearings be made behind closed doors – subsequently refused by the ECHR, as per their rules of transparency – lamented that “media pressure, public pressure” were affecting the investigation, meant to be objective and impartial. According to Nowak-Far, Poland is, since 2008, still collecting evidence of the rendition of torture of the applicants, and believes any disclosure or even recourses to a superior Court is “premature”. There was an definite sentiment of wishing to keep the ECHR away from Polish proceedings, and to attribute to the Polish government, and its discretionary use of government secrecy, the right to dispose of the investigation in a manner that they felt was “convenient”. This adjective would be often used against them by the applicants’ legal counsel during the course of the hearing, which lasted far beyond the usual 90 minutes. It lasted over three hours.

No matter how intensive the preparations of the Polish government – by Nowak-Far, at first, later followed by Sliwa, Deputy Krakow Prosecutor of Appeal – it could not manage to hide the blatant and outstanding inconsistencies of the case. From the moment the use of rendition had emerged for Al-Nashiri and Abu Zubaydah, in 2005, it took three additional years for Poland to launch an investigation, a delay that is unacceptable under European standards and especially outrageous given the violations committed by Poland. The second issue was the considerable amount of classified information that was not even made accessible to legal counsel. The entire case is shrouded is secrecy, cloaked with political intrigue, and veiled by the notion of national security – Poland’s and the United States’. At the heart of the Al-Nashiri and Abu Zubaydah case lies the concept of whether national security, its intrigues, its myths, its almost occult following bequeaths the violation – gross and systematic – of human rights not only on European territory, but later on United States territory after leaving the European Union (the Covenant strictly forbids the extradition of any citizen if said alleged criminal is at risk of unfair trial, torture or capital punishment.) Poland has tried its hardest to delay the investigation, to the point of even changing prosecutors on three different occasions, one while one prosecutor was hearing M. Pietrzak, one of the counsels for Al-Nashiri. What the Court heard on December 3rd was nothing short of sheer incompetency in the part of the Polish administration to meet the human rights standards it failed to uphold while the secret prison while still active under CIA supervision. The representatives of the government of Poland looked worried and at a loss for words when counsel after counsel addressed the Court with damning tales of their relationship with the Polish Department of Justice, which spoke volumes as to the ways in which an executive power can go to hide what could be to its disservice.

the European Court of Human Rights, the morning of the hearing.

“Poland not only should have known, but Poland did know”

What emerged from both counsels was fierce determination and the appeal that a sovereign Court might work in their favor. Ms. Singh, counsel to Al-Nashiri, opened the proceedings on the applicant’s side with a powerful and focused call to administer justice in a case that has failed to see any protection of the rule of law for its applicants. The Court, she said, would be the first to “meaningfully address the issue of torture”. In a passionate call to “end the impunity”, she re-assessed the “cogent, credible and categoric testimony” heard during the previous day’s hearing that Al-Nashiri had indeed been transported to Poland, sent to a secret prison built specifically for those practices, detained, then sent back to the United States where he remains today. Legal counsels have even obtained documents from both CIA and USG that attest to that effect – while Poland neither confirms nor denies the accusations, it remains vague and unassertive as to whether it has indeed participated in activities under US auspices. In the case of rendition, Singh insisted that Poland was not only guilty of facilitating the detention of Al-Nashiri, but also to actively cover-up US rendition flights, and not act under the law when they knowingly assisted the torture of the applicants. Payment of fees to CIA officials, extra bonuses in cash granted to Polish officials and airport workers who assisted in the cover up and departure of rendition flights  have all been documented by what the counsel asserted were credible sources, while Poland carried out claiming that bias from witnesses and anonymity of testimonies made them, apparently, unreceivable. Singh added, in a moment that sent a chill down the audience’s spine, that there had even been agreements between Polish and US officials as to the procedure to adopt should a prisoner die during the detention.

M. Pietrzak’s characterisation of a “politically inconvenient” investigation for Poland was echoed by M. Hughes, representing Abu Zubaydah. The applicant, being in detention in Guantanamo Bay for over a decade without being charged, is now, according to his counsel, in “debilitating conditions”. Those crimes were committed by state agents acting, according to M. Hughes, in the name of state secrecy. The counsel insisted that the Court takes into account the severe aspect of the case, which is that those violations of fundamental human rights were committed by state agents, for a nation represented at the Council of Europe. The responsibility is born by the government of Poland, acting in complicity with the United States. The “effective remedy” promised by the rule of law by which each Council of Europe member state is require to abide has not been delivered by Poland, which failed to conduct any fact-finding mission; all the evidence presented, beyond a reasonable doubt, came from independent sources – human rights organisations, investigative journalists – while Polish state agents were placed at the disposal at the CIA under what M. Hughes called “open-ended means”, clearly indicating that Poland had no interest in ever trying to reign in or limit the scope of CIA activities on its territories, no matter how grave the violations and difficult the cover-up operation. The responsibility of the state, he said, can’t be denied. “Poland not only should have known”, he concluded, “but Poland did know”.

Ben Emmerson, QC – UN Special Rapporteur of Human Rights While Countering Terrorism (un.org)

The intensity of the hearing, however, was only matched by the presence of Ben Emmerson, United Nations Special Rapporteur to the protection of human rights while countering terrorism, an issue that has required his expertise a little too often in recent years. Mr. Emmerson, attending the hearing as a third party, insisted on offering his comments to the Court, in a way that took the case out of the legalist field that Poland wished it had maintained, and into a broader and wider scope that question not just the treatment of Al-Nashiri and Abu Zubaydah by Polish and American forces, but also the question of secrecy, confidentiality, classification of information, and access to legal counsel and representation. Mr. Emmerson attended the hearing in order to affirm and perhaps re-affirm the United Nations’ Human Rights Council’s commitment to the right to truth – both as an individual and collective component. In this he wishes to address the ECHR as “we speak in one voice in the understanding of this right”. The role that this case will play in jurisprudence recent and future will be not only to guarantee that the public may know about the suffering of the applicants, “but of other victims, of similar crimes, as members of the public have the right to know what happened”. This declaration comes in direct, diametrical opposition to the wishes of the government of Poland, repeatedly asking, begetting the Court to not let the details of the hearings be reported in the press, not let members of the public attend the hearings, and even blocking lawyers from accessing classified information – information that M. Pietrzak said “should not even be classified”. Both counsels have admitted to having been allowed to access classified information on only two occasions – one for only three hours, the second for fifteen minutes (!) without possibility of photocopy, remote access, and transportation of files. Mr. Emmerson, and through him the United Nations’ Human Rights Council, believe that the accountability of state officials in what he qualified to be “gross and systematic human rights violations” could only be achieved through transparency.

This hearing, and the case of those two applicants before the Court on this December day, is in the direct following of a process of seeking the truth since the Bush-era conspiracy of extrajudicial rendition and extrajudicial processes of suspects of terrorism. In recent years, however, through various jurisdictions, the process has “sped up”, and has implicated an extraordinary number of member-states, besides the United States (54 in total so far). In the high value target program of the CIA, the use of torture was systematic. Mr. Emmerson was deliberately choosing short sentences, and maximum-impact wording for an intervention that was unprecedented in the ECHR. “I use the word torture without hesitation”, he said. “I do not recognize the CIA term of ‘enhanced interrogation'”, this euphemism destined to cover the blithe horror that torture conveys. The judicial proceedings in Italy this year, against the CIA rendition program involving Italian intelligence officers accused of cooperating with the CIA, “was nothing more and nothing less than a straightforward application of the rule of law that bounds each member of the United Nations”. Although Mr. Emmerson strongly encourages the multiplication of proceedings regarding rendition, he expressed his “regret” at the still unbelievable scope of the crimes committed under what he dubbed “an international conspiracy”.

Mr. Emmerson focused on the main issue that riled up the legal counsels of both applicants: that evidence had to be found from outside sources than the Polish investigation, and that every shred of detail they were legally supposed to access was barred from classification and national secrecy. At this stage, Mr. Emmerson explained he formally submitted to the Court a copy of the 2011 Feinstein report – the result of a Senate Intelligence Committee investigation into the CIA high value target program, which Feinstein herself qualified of a “regrettable mistake” (sic). The frustration of the constant impunity and lack of accountability of heads of state on issues of national security may be the biggest issue in violations of international human rights law to this day; the presence of a United Nations Special Rapporteur at a ECHR hearing only highlights further the necessity to reach a common and global agreement on the superiority of fundamental human rights above issues of national security, especially when said national security fails to abide by standards of human rights law when countering terrorism – a post specifically personified by Mr. Emmerson, and a question that the ECHR answered in 2002, releasing a set of guidelines for member states following a series of petition for human rights violations by the United Kingdom under their Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act (ATCSA) 2000. Mr. Emmerson was delighted to also announce that a report on similar activities and collusion in the United Kingdom had been made by Lord Gibson, and the publication was imminent; not in a matter of months, he said, but in a matter of days, in what may be the most comprehensive overview of British and American intelligence cooperation in these matters.

Back in March, Mr. Emmerson took to the Guardian to express his commitment to uncover the truth behind the practice of rendition, and presented a report to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva calling for the United States, as well as the United Kingdom, to release information regarding the practice under the Bush Administration. The evidence, he said, must also contain what has been exposed by The Guardian and the BBC. It is important to be reminded of this editorial for two reasons: one, the Obama Administration has carried on the practices of the Bush Administration, not only in matters of rendition, but in matters of complete secrecy, of national security classification, of lack of transparency, of covert operations and of extrajudicial techniques of interrogation specifically and counter-terrorism more generally. The accountability that is requested by Mr. Emmerson should of course date back to the first days of the Patriot Act but also continue under the policies of President Obama, whose actions in Pakistan, Yemen, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, and in the military base of Guantanamo Bay must be uncovered, released, exposed in full, in matters of public interest. What makes Mr. Emmerson’s battle for transparency under the Obama Administration so difficult is the current climate is to destroy, intimidate, detain and charge whistleblowers, from Edward Snowden to the tragic case of Chelsea Manning, the recent imprisonment of Jeremy Hammond and the war on the PayPal 14 – the financing behind WikiLeaks. The war on information is no longer a myth or a strange paranoia roaring an ugly head around newrooms. It’s effective and, in its pursuit of Chelsea Manning in military trials, also defers to military commissions digging through charges of espionage and conspiracy: the Administration is, in fact, at war, and not only with those evanescent, vague and ubiquitous terrorists. It is at war against its very own constitutional principles. The second point to emerge in Mr. Emmerson’s quest for accountability in human rights violations is what he calls the “right to truth”. This right to truth is in direct opposition to the current culture of secrecy, of executive authority bypassing regular legislation, of presidential edict avoiding democratic voting, and the extreme militarisation of law enforcement that serves to silence the dissent.

Extent of the damage (washingtonpost.com)

“Confidentiality in no way absolves them of responsibility.”

The point of contention, which should be addressed by the Court in its deliberation, was whether the right to truth – accorded to the applicant receiving victim status – could be extended to the general public. If, in the Del Prada Rio v Spain case, the ECHR granted a personal right to truth to the applicant, the UN wishes for this to be extended to the collective in the name of freedom of information and access to information. The CIA high value target program can be traced back to a foreign policy of systematic violations and enforced disappearances dating back to Latin America in the early 1980s. The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression said it clearly – “the right to truth is collective. Information is essential to a democratic system – in the context of human rights violations, there needs to be a clarification of the circumstances, of context, of policies, and of the institutional failures that let those happen in order to restore confidence in the system. The right to know what happened is fundamental for participatory decision-making in society.” It may appear counter-intuitive, Emmerson continued, “to conventional lawyers – but once it is recognized, every individual is entitled to invoke that right.” The exposure of grave and systematic violations can not be dependent on the willingness or the disposal of a victim to launch proceedings – the victim, or if deceased, their family, which can be found reluctant to seek judicial redress for various reasons. It is therefore up to the citizenry and specifically the members of the media to invoke the right to freedom of information in cases of systematic violations as to ensure the accountability of the guilty. The presence of the United Nations at the hearing was to be placed in a political and security context. It did not need to reaffirm the commitment to human rights law, embedded into the ECHR; it needs to address the global, international risk of being faced with constant classification of information in the face of important proceedings that need to establish the fundamental and non-derogating character of human rights. Emmerson insisted: “the success of initiatives to counter terrorism depends on persuading societies that democratic governments are committed to the rule of law and respecting human rights. To end impunity.” With a snark it was hard to conceal, he insisted it was “hard to win the hearts and minds” when horrible crimes are committed under the cloak of executive authority.

The United Nations Special Rapporteur ended his intervention by stating that freedom of information and human rights violations are intrinsically intertwined. The right to an effective remedy implies the right to open proceedings, and open proceedings imply access to information, which all lead to the right to truth. The United Kingdom, which has refused to enshrined Article 13 of the Covenant in domestic law, will soon bear the full responsibility of the implication of human rights violations.

Ms. Singh, in conclusive arguments, followed in the path of the Special Rapporteur insisting on Poland trying to “obscure the truth”. The longer the delay, the more difficult it is for the legal counsel to access witnesses, to extract testimonies, and to provide evidence. The facts presented at the in camera hearing were not contestable, she explained, “because they are true”. Mr. Hughes carried on: “Poland is unwilling to face reality. Confidentiality in no way absolves them of responsibility.”