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This article, by Jeremy Scahill, was published by The Nation, October 22, 2009
On Wednesday, a federal judge rejected a series of arguments by lawyers for the mercenary firm formerly known as Blackwater seeking to dismiss five high-stakes war crimes cases brought by Iraqi victims against both the company and its owner, Erik Prince. At the same time, Judge T.S. Ellis III sent the Iraqis' lawyers back to the legal drawing board to amend and refile their cases, saying that the Iraqi plaintiffs need to provide more specific details on the alleged crimes before a final decision can be made on whether or not the lawsuits will proceed.
"We were very pleased with the ruling," says Susan Burke, the lead attorney for the Iraqis. Burke, who filed the lawsuits in cooperation with the Center for Constitutional Rights, is now preparing to re-file the suits. Blackwater's spokesperson Stacy DeLuke said, "We are confident that [the plaintiffs] will not be able to meet the high standard specified in Judge Ellis's opinion."
Ellis's ruling was not necessarily a response to faulty pleadings by the Iraqis' lawyers but rather appears to be the result of a Supreme Court decision that came down after the Blackwater cases were originally filed. In a 5-4 ruling in May 2009 in Ashcroft v. Iqbal, the court reversed decades of case law and imposed much more stringent standards for plaintiffs' documentation of facts before going to trial. According to Ellis's ruling, which cites Iqbal, the Iraqis must now file complaints that meet these new standards.
Judge Ellis, a Reagan appointee with a mixed record on national security issues, rejected several of the central arguments Blackwater made in its motion to dismiss, namely the company's contention that it cannot be sued by the Iraqis under US law and that the company should not be subjected to potential punitive damages in the cases. The Iraqi victims brought their suits under the Alien Tort Statute, which allows for litigation in US courts for violations of fundamental human rights committed overseas by individuals or corporations with a US presence. Ellis said that Blackwater's argument that it cannot be sued under the ATS is "unavailing," adding that corporations and individuals can both be held responsible for crimes and torts. He said bluntly that "claims alleging direct corporate liability for war crimes" are legitimate under the statute.
Ellis also rejected Blackwater's argument that "conduct constitutes a war crime only if it is perpetrated in furtherance of a 'military objective' rather than for economic or ideological reasons." Ellis said that under Blackwater's logic "it is arguable that nobody who receives a paycheck would ever be liable for war crimes. Moreover, so narrow is the scope of [Blackwater's] standard that it would exclude murders of civilians committed by soldiers where there was no legitimate 'military objective' for committing the murders."
"What is important here is that the judge is saying that violations of war crimes can be committed by private people or corporations," says Michael Ratner, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights. He said Ellis's ruling is "an affirmation of the precedent set by CCR thirty years ago" when it brought the first successful Alien Tort suit in 200 years "that those who engage in violations of fundamental human rights abroad can be held liable in the US." Ellis's ruling, he says, "is sympathetic to the idea that the Blackwater case is an appropriate use of the law."
But Ellis also ruled that the Iraqi plaintiffs failed to provide sufficient specific details linking Blackwater's owner Erik Prince to the alleged murders and other crimes in Iraq. In order for the case to proceed against Prince, Ellis wrote, "the complaints must state facts that would allow a trier of fact plausibly to infer that Prince intentionally killed or inflicted serious bodily harm on innocent civilians during an armed conflict and in the context of and in association with that armed conflict." The plaintiffs, Ellis ruled, "have failed to meet this burden."
In a hearing on August 28, Burke said that she has evidence that Prince ordered or directed the killings of innocent Iraqis and at that time asked Judge Ellis permission to later amend her cases if Ellis ruled that, in light of the Iqbal decision, such information was necessary for the cases to proceed. In his ruling, Ellis granted Burke's request in four of the five cases. In one case, involving the alleged murder of a bodyguard for the Iraqi vice president by a drunken Blackwater operative, Andrew Moonen, on Christmas Eve 2006 inside the Green Zone, Ellis found that there was insufficient evidence to suggest Prince "intentionally killed" the bodyguard or that his "conduct proximately caused the decedent's death."
In the four other cases, which include 18 Iraqi civilians allegedly killed by Blackwater, Ellis ruled that Burke could refile her claim with more details about Prince's alleged involvement and the role of the Blackwater corporation in the killings. Ellis found that the cases "could be amended to add factual allegations that would permit plausible inferences that Prince and Xe [Blackwater] defendants ordered killings of innocent Iraqi civilians...and that defendants' conduct proximately caused the injuries or deaths to plaintiffs."
Ellis rejected Burke's allegation that Blackwater engaged in summary executions, saying that under the law such classification of killings "require[s] state action, and none is alleged here." Blackwater also made an argument that the cases should have been tried in Iraq--or that the Iraqis' lawyers should have exhausted that possibility before filing their cases in US courts. Ellis shot down that argument and pointed out that Blackwater's own lawyers admitted that under the Paul Bremer-era Order 17 in Iraq, Blackwater would have immunity for its crimes under Iraqi law. Ellis also rejected Blackwater's claim that punitive damages are not allowed in these types of cases. As Ellis wrote, Blackwater's lawyers "offer no support" for this argument "in the case law or from recognized international treatises."
One of the central thrusts of the Iraqis' suits against Blackwater is that Erik Prince is the head of an organized crime syndicate as defined by the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. RICO is a federal statute permitting private parties to seek redress from criminal enterprises who damage their property. Burke and CCR decided to sue Prince and his companies directly rather than his individual employees because they say Prince "wholly owns and controls this enterprise." They allege that Prince directed murders of Iraqi civilians from Blackwater's headquarters in Virginia and North Carolina. Ellis dismissed the claims that the Iraqis have standing under the RICO Act, but ruled that they can file an amended complaint that "Prince ordered or directed the killings allegedly committed in Iraq from within the United States, and that such conduct proximately caused the damage allegedly suffered by the RICO plaintiffs." In one of the cases, Ellis ruled that the four-year statute of limitations had expired for a RICO claim.
On August 3, lawyers for the Iraqis submitted two sworn declarations from former Blackwater employees alleging that Prince may have murdered or facilitated the murder of individuals who were cooperating with federal authorities investigating the company. One former employee alleged that Prince "views himself as a Christian crusader tasked with eliminating Muslims and the Islamic faith from the globe," and that Prince's companies "encouraged and rewarded the destruction of Iraqi life." What role, if any, these allegations will play in the amended complaints is unclear, but Burke insists she has evidence to back up all of her allegations.
Burke's case is also bolstered by the evidence the US government will present in its criminal case against Blackwater forces. On September 7, federal prosecutors in Washington, DC, submitted papers in the criminal case against five Blackwater operatives for their alleged role in the 2007 Nisour Square shooting in Baghdad that killed seventeen Iraqi civilians and wounded more than twenty others. Burke is representing many of these families in her civil case. Blackwater forces "fired at innocent Iraqis not because they actually believed that they were in imminent danger of serious bodily injury and actually believed that they had no alternative to the use of deadly force, but rather that they fired at innocent Iraqi civilians because of their hostility toward Iraqis and their grave indifference to the harm that their actions would cause," the acting US Attorney in DC, Channing Phillips, alleges in court papers submitted by Kenneth C. Kohl, the lead prosecutor on this case. "[T]he defendants specifically intended to kill or seriously injure the Iraqi civilians that they fired upon at [Nisour] Square." The government also alleges that one Blackwater operative "wanted to kill as many Iraqis as he could as 'payback for 9/11,' and he repeatedly boasted about the number of Iraqis he had shot," while "several of the defendants had harbored a deep hostility toward Iraqi civilians which they demonstrated in words and deeds."
In its motion to dismiss, Blackwater also argued that to allow the company to be sued for alleged crimes in a war zone would violate the rights of the president of the United States under the "political question doctrine" to not have a "second-guessing of the battlefield decisions of the U.S. government." Ellis rejected that outright and noted: "The United States has appeared as an interested party and argues that if defendants committed the alleged conduct, they were not acting as employees of the United States when they did so. Moreover, the government states that its contracts with defendants 'provided for multiple layers of [Xe defendants'] management to oversee the day-to-day operations' of its employees and that the employees were under the direct supervision of Xe defendants' management when the alleged conduct occurred."
Judge Ellis's ruling only relates to the charges that Blackwater and Prince violated federal laws and not to the additional allegations that they also violated state laws. Even if Judge Ellis ultimately rejects all of the federal arguments made by Burke and CCR, which is a big if, the cases can still proceed under "common law," as has happened in other torture and war crimes cases. Ellis has not yet ruled on those charges
This article, by Peter Beaumont, was published in the Guardian, August 20, 2009
Despite its recent attempt to rebrand itself as Xe Services, Blackwater, the private military empire of Erik Prince, has struggled under a growing weight of allegations surrounding its conduct in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now further questions have been raised by claims it was subcontracted by the CIA during the George Bush presidency to run an unrealised campaign of assassinations of al-Qaida leaders kept secret from Congress.
The claims come hard on the heels of the allegations made in sworn affidavits to a federal court in Virginia earlier this month by two former Blackwater employees that Prince may have had a role in the murder of individuals co-operating with a US government investigation into the company.
While the allegations of the two men cannot be verified independently, the combination of the two affairs – on top of Blackwater's already notorious reputation from Iraq – has added a Robert Ludlumesque aura of intrigue to a secretive company named after the US Navy Seals name for a "black op".
Prince has had to contend with widely reported allegations – contained in the sworn statements – that he "views himself as a Christian crusader tasked with eliminating Muslims and the Islamic faith from the globe".
In addition, one of the two anonymous witnesses – who asked for protection because they said they were afraid of Blackwater – has also accused the company, which earned more than $1bn (£600m) in US government contracts, of smuggling weapons into Iraq and the destruction of incriminating evidence.
Although Xe has denied the allegations, the claims this month are only the latest controversies to have dogged Prince and his company, which has been accused of everything from deceiving the US state department to encouraging its operatives to kill Iraqi civilians.
Although the wealthy Prince founded the company in 1997, the name Blackwater only became imprinted on the public consciousness after the war in Iraq. It gained a reputation for being trigger-happy and ruthless, and soon gained the nickname "Ditchwater" from some British security guards.
The company was finally expelled by the Iraqi government, which refused to renew its licence, although some Xe employees still work there for the state department under the auspices of the so-called US Training Centre.
The company's rapid emergence as one of the world's biggest private military contractors benefited from Prince's Republican connections (he was a donor to Bush) and the revolving door recruitment policy for Pentagon and CIA officials. Prince himself is reported to have been close to top officials in the CIA's directorate of operations and was a regular visitor to its headquarters.
And it was his political connections that opened the doors.
The son of Edgar Prince, a wealthy Republican from Michigan who was one of the founders of the rightwing Family Research Council in the 1980s, Erik Prince had served as an intern to President George Bush Sr before joining the elite Navy Seals for four years, leaving the navy on the death of his father in 1996.
With his inheritance, Prince bought the land in North Carolina that would be transformed into Blackwater's training base, complete with sniper training facilities. This was made available for the training of CIA officers – an organisation with which Prince had high-level contacts – as well as for the training of his private army.
It was in 2002 that Prince and his company finally hit paydirt, securing contracts to protect US government personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan, two-thirds of which were awarded on a no-bid basis.
And after the fall of Baghdad, Blackwater suddenly became the most visible private military contractor in Iraq, its bandana-wearing, muscular employees riding shotgun on the convoys they protected with no interest in keeping a low profile. Described once as "mercenaries", Prince countered they were "loyal Americans".
Despite growing uneasiness among many observers about Blackwater's methods, not least after a March 2004 ambush in which four Blackwater guards were killed and their bodies hung from one of the town's bridges, it was an incident in 2007 that sealed its notoriety.
Four of its empoyees shot dead 17 Iraqi civilians – 14 of whom the FBI concluded were killed "without cause". And it was not an isolated incident. In 2005 Blackwater guards accompanying a US diplomat fired scores of rounds into an Iraqi car, while in 2006 a drunken Blackwater employee killed an Iraqi security guard for the country's vice-president. The guard responsible was flown by the company out of Iraq.
A congressional subcommittee report in 2007 described the company as being staffed by reckless guards – not always sober – who would shoot first and not stop to see who they had shot. The same report alleged that Blackwater guards had been engaged in more than 200 shooting incidents in two years, largely from moving vehicles.
It was not only in Iraq that Blackwater had a controversial presence. In the immediate aftermath of hurricane Katrina, heavily armed Blackwater guards were controversially deployed in New Orleans by the department of homeland security to confront armed looters.
The revelation that the CIA had allegedly subcontracted Blackwater into an abortive programme to undertake killings of al-Qaida figures adds further weight to the evidence that the company's real ambition was to take over military and intelligence functions.
That ambition was allegedly alluded to by Cofer Black, director of the CIA's counter-terrorism centre until 2002, and later the department of state's co-ordinator for counter-terrorism, who joined Blackwater in 2005 as vice-chairman. At a conference in Amman in 2006, in comments Black has subsequently denied, he was alleged to have suggested that Blackwater was in a position to provide a brigade-sized group to support humanitarian missions.
Despite the controversies, Blackwater continues to benefit from US government contracts under Barack Obama's presidency. Under Obama the numbers of private military contractors have increased in Afghanistan by almost 30% – the company once known as Blackwater among them.
This article, by Mark Mazzetti, was posted to Common Dreams, August 20, 2009
WASHINGTON - The Central Intelligence Agency in 2004 hired outside contractors from the private security contractor Blackwater USA as part of a secret program to locate and assassinate top operatives of Al Qaeda, according to current and former government officials.
Executives from Blackwater, which has generated controversy because of its aggressive tactics in Iraq, helped the spy agency with planning, training and surveillance. The C.I.A. spent several million dollars on the program, which did not successfully capture or kill any terrorist suspects.
The fact that the C.I.A. used an outside company for the program was a major reason that Leon E. Panetta, the C.I.A.'s director, became alarmed and called an emergency meeting in June to tell Congress that the agency had withheld details of the program for seven years, the officials said.
It is unclear whether the C.I.A. had planned to use the contractors to actually capture or kill Qaeda operatives, or just to help with training and surveillance in the program. American spy agencies have in recent years outsourced some highly controversial work, including the interrogation of prisoners. But government officials said that bringing outsiders into a program with lethal authority raised deep concerns about accountability in covert operations.
Officials said the C.I.A. did not have a formal contract with Blackwater for this program but instead had individual agreements with top company officials, including the founder, Erik D. Prince, a politically connected former member of the Navy Seals and the heir to a family fortune. Blackwater's work on the program actually ended years before Mr. Panetta took over the agency, after senior C.I.A. officials themselves questioned the wisdom of using outsiders in a targeted killing program.
Blackwater, which has changed its name, most recently to Xe Services, and is based in North Carolina, in recent years has received millions of dollars in government contracts, growing so large that the Bush administration said it was a necessary part of its war operation in Iraq.
It has also drawn controversy. Blackwater employees hired to guard American diplomats in Iraq were accused of using excessive force on several occasions, including shootings in Baghdad in 2007 in which 17 civilians were killed. Iraqi officials have since refused to give the company an operating license.
Several current and former government officials interviewed for this article spoke only on the condition of anonymity because they were discussing details of a still classified program.
Paul Gimigliano, a C.I.A. spokesman, declined to provide details about the canceled program, but he said that Mr. Panetta's decision on the assassination program was "clear and straightforward."
"Director Panetta thought this effort should be briefed to Congress, and he did so," Mr. Gimigliano said. "He also knew it hadn't been successful, so he ended it."
A Xe spokeswoman did not return calls seeking comment.
Senator Dianne Feinstein, the California Democrat who leads the Senate Intelligence Committee, also declined to give details of the program. But she praised Mr. Panetta for notifying Congress. "It is too easy to contract out work that you don't want to accept responsibility for," she said.
The C.I.A. this summer conducted an internal review of the assassination program that recently was presented to the White House and the Congressional intelligence committees. The officials said that the review stated that Mr. Panetta's predecessors did not believe that they needed to tell Congress because the program was not far enough developed.
The House Intelligence Committee is investigating why lawmakers were never told about the program. According to current and former government officials, former Vice President Dick Cheney told C.I.A. officers in 2002 that the spy agency did not need to inform Congress because the agency already had legal authority to kill Qaeda leaders.
One official familiar with the matter said that Mr. Panetta did not tell lawmakers that he believed that the C.I.A. had broken the law by withholding details about the program from Congress. Rather, the official said, Mr. Panetta said he believed that the program had moved beyond a planning stage and deserved Congressional scrutiny.
"It's wrong to think this counterterrorism program was confined to briefing slides or doodles on a cafeteria napkin," the official said. "It went well beyond that."
Current and former government officials said that the C.I.A.'s efforts to use paramilitary hit teams to kill Qaeda operatives ran into logistical, legal and diplomatic hurdles almost from the outset. These efforts had been run by the C.I.A.'s counterterrorism center, which runs operations against Al Qaeda and other terrorist networks.
In 2002, Blackwater won a classified contract to provide security for the C.I.A. station in Kabul, Afghanistan, and the company maintains other classified contracts with the C.I.A., current and former officials said.
Over the years, Blackwater has hired several former top C.I.A. officials, including Cofer Black, who ran the C.I.A. counterterrorism center immediately after the Sept. 11 attacks.
C.I.A. operatives also regularly use the company's training complex in North Carolina. The complex includes a shooting range used for sniper training.
An executive order signed by President Gerald R. Ford in 1976 barred the C.I.A. from carrying out assassinations, a direct response to revelations that the C.I.A. had initiated assassination plots against Fidel Castro of Cuba and other foreign politicians.
The Bush administration took the position that killing members of Al Qaeda, a terrorist group that attacked the United States and has pledged to attack it again, was no different from killing enemy soldiers in battle, and that therefore the agency was not constrained by the assassination ban.
But former intelligence officials said that employing private contractors to help hunt Qaeda operatives would pose significant legal and diplomatic risks, and they might not be protected in the same way government employees are.
Some Congressional Democrats have hinted that the program was just one of many that the Bush administration hid from Congressional scrutiny and have used the episode as a justification to delve deeper into other Bush-era counterterrorism programs.
But Republicans have criticized Mr. Panetta's decision to cancel the program, saying he created a tempest in a teapot.
"I think there was a little more drama and intrigue than was warranted," said Representative Peter Hoekstra of Michigan, the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee.
Officials said that the C.I.A. program was devised partly as an alternative to missile strikes using drone aircraft, which have accidentally killed civilians and cannot be used in urban areas where some terrorists hide.
Yet with most top Qaeda operatives believed to be hiding in the remote mountains of Pakistan, the drones have remained the C.I.A.'s weapon of choice. Like the Bush administration, the Obama administration has embraced the drone campaign because it presents a less risky option than sending paramilitary teams into Pakistan.
BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- The troubled Blackwater era ends in Iraq on Thursday as another firm takes over the once-dominant company's security services contract in Baghdad.
Triple Canopy, a Herndon, Virginia-based company, picks up the expiring contract of the security firm formerly known as Blackwater Worldwide, which changed its name to XE a few months ago. The U.S. State Department decided not to renew XE's contract in January.
"When the U.S. government initially asked for our help to assist with an immediate need to protect Americans in Iraq, we answered that call and performed well," XE spokeswoman Anne Tyrell said in a statement Wednesday. "But we always knew that, at some point, that work would come to a close."
The end of the contract followed the Iraqi government's refusal to renew the firm's operating license because of a September 2007 shooting in which Baghdad says security guards -- then employed by Blackwater -- killed 17 Iraqi civilians.
As part of a contract to protect American diplomats and other employees around the world, the State Department hired Blackwater for a multiyear assignment in Iraq, renewable annually.
XE, one of three security firms working for the United States in Iraq, had one of the biggest contracts there, providing security for the sprawling U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.
"We are honored to have provided this service for five years and are proud of our success. No one under our protection has been killed or even seriously injured," Tyrell said.
Many XE employees are expected to go to work for Triple Canopy, which already had a State Department contract in Iraq. Its new contract increases its share of the security work. DynCorp International also has a State Department contract for work in Iraq.
Losing the contract is considered a huge blow to XE. While the company is privately held, the Iraq contract has been estimated to make up a third to a half of its business. XE has about two dozen aircraft in Iraq as well as 1,000 personnel.
XE's statement acknowledged that the company's Baghdad "task order" ends Thursday but was mum on any other roles it still might have in Iraq.
"Any specific questions on the contract and how it will now be fulfilled should be directed to the State Department," Tyrell said.
Despite the loss of the embassy security detail, XE continues to hold other contracts with the State Department to protect American diplomats elsewhere in the world. The company's founder, Erik Prince, resigned as head of the business in March.
In January, five former Blackwater security guards pleaded not guilty to charges of voluntary manslaughter and other serious crimes stemming from their involvement in the September 16, 2007, incident in a Baghdad square. A sixth former security guard has pleaded guilty to charges of voluntary manslaughter and attempted manslaughter.
Blackwater said its employees were returning fire after armed insurgents attacked them, but an Iraqi investigation concluded that the guards randomly fired at civilians without provocation. The Iraqi government said 17 civilians were killed, although the indictment alleges 14 died.
The company does not face any charges. But the Baghdad incident exacerbated the feelings of many Iraqis that private American security contractors have operated since 2003 with little regard for Iraqi law or life.
The indictment of the five men represents the first prosecution of non-Defense Department contractors under the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act.
The act was amended in 2004 to allow the Justice Department to prosecute such personnel providing services "in support of the mission of the Department of Defense overseas."
Last year, the State Department renewed Blackwater's contract over strong objections from the Iraqi government. Starting January 1, the Iraqi government has mandated that all contractors obtain Iraqi licenses to operate.
This article, by Mark Benjamin, was posted to Salon, Februuary 24, 2009
WASHINGTON -- The Senate Judiciary Committee plans to move forward with a commission to investigate torture during the Bush administration. Committee Chairman Pat Leahy, D-Vt., told Salon Tuesday that his panel would soon announce a hearing to study various commission plans. His staff said the announcement could come as early as Wednesday.
While Michigan Democrat Rep. John Conyers and North Carolina Republican Rep. Walter Jones drafted a bill to create a commission to review abuse of war powers during the Bush administration, Leahy's Senate commission would represent the first concrete steps forward toward a broad review of U.S. torture since 9/11.
Spearheading Senate efforts to establish a torture commission is Rhode Island Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse. As a member of both the Judiciary Committee and the Intelligence Committee, Whitehouse is privy to information about interrogations he can't yet share. Still, regarding a potential torture commission, he told Salon, "I am convinced it is going to happen." In fact, his fervor on the issue was palpable. When asked if there is a lot the public still does not know about these issues during the Bush administration, his eyes grew large and he nodded slowly. "Stay on this," he said. "This is going to be big."
Whitehouse admitted he had not discussed the plan yet with President Obama, who has been notably wishy-washy on the notion since taking office. On the one hand, Obama has consistently said that "my administration is going to operate in a way that leaves no doubt that we do not torture." Yet on the other hand, he has insisted that "nobody is above the law, and if there are clear instances of wrongdoing, that people should be prosecuted just like any ordinary citizen; but that generally speaking, I'm more interested in looking forward than I am in looking backwards."
According to Whitehouse, current politics dictate that Congress should take the lead on establishing a torture commission. "When you look at the economic meltdown that [Obama] was left by the Bush administration, you can see why he would want to reassure the American public that he is out there looking at these problems and trying to solve them and not focusing on the sins of the past," he said.
Whitehouse, however, predicted that Obama would not object to a torture commission moving forward in Congress. Besides, he said, "When push comes to shove, we are the legislative branch of government. We have oversight responsibilities. And we don't need the executive branch's approval to look into these things just as a constitutional matter."
Plans to establish the commission still remain in their infancy, as senators and staff look at previous panels, such as the 9-11 Commission, and investigations following Watergate. Whitehouse, a former U.S. attorney, noted that a torture commission might need the power to immunize witnesses on a case-by-case basis. The prospect of future prosecutions, he said, are beside the point. Most important was putting a spotlight on abuses committed by the Bush administration.
"We have this American government, which has an architecture and a shape and a system that drives it and constrains it and that keeps it honest," he said. "And what happened is that the Bush administration figured out a lot of ways to tunnel through the walls and sneak over the fences. So now we need to go back and say, 'We have got to plant those walls deeper so you can not tunnel under them.' We've got to spotlight how they did it," Whitehouse explained. "The ultimate goal in this is to protect and enhance American democracy."
Last week, retired Maj. Gen. Tony Taguba, known for conducting an honest investigation of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib, discussed his support for such a commission in an exclusive interview with Salon. Taguba joined a group of former high-level diplomats and law enforcement officials who also announced their support for a torture commission late last week, along with 18 rights groups.
During that interview, Taguba stated that any review must include close analysis of claims from Bush administration officials that abusive interrogations worked. "Some of those activities were actually not effective and those who thought so were in the academic or pristine settings of their offices," Taguba said. "What would they know?"
Whitehouse agreed, and depicted as ironic the fact that some members of the intelligence community saw themselves as "the Lance Armstrongs of interrogation," while some members of the military objected to abuse as ineffective. "In fact, the exact opposite was true," Whitehouse said about such claims from the CIA."It was amateur hour with them, and the career, tough, serious military interrogators said that this just was not effective," he said. "But it is important to prove the point, because they keep saying, 'We saved lives. We interrupted plans. We did this, that and the other.'" Whitehouse added, "Well, when you drill down, there is never a fact there. It turns into fog and evasion."
This article, by William Fisher, was published by IPS, February 15, 2009
NEW YORK, Feb 15 (IPS) - Three human rights groups have released documents that they say reveal close cooperation between the U.S. Defence Department and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in rendering terrorism suspects to secret prisons, creating 'ghost prisoners' by concealing their identities from the Red Cross, and delaying their release to counter negative publicity about their treatment at Guántanamo Bay.
Close to a thousand pages of documents were obtained through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit brought by Amnesty International USA (AIUSA), the Centre for Constitutional Rights (CCR), and New York University's Centre for Human Rights and Global Justice (CHRGJ). The suit, dating from 2004, seeks the disclosure of government documents relating to secret detention, extraordinary rendition, and torture.
At a press conference earlier this week, the groups revealed that the newly released documents confirm the existence of 'black site' prisons at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan and in Iraq; affirm the Defence Department (DOD's) cooperation with the CIA's "ghost" detention programme; and show one case where the DOD sought to delay the release of Guantánamo prisoners who were scheduled to be sent home in order to avoid bad press.
"These newly released documents confirm our suspicion that the tentacles of the CIA's abusive programme reached across agency lines," said Margaret Satterthwaite, Director of the CHRGJ. "In fact, it is increasingly obvious that defense officials engaged in legal gymnastics to find ways to cooperate with the CIA's activities."
"A full accounting of all agencies must now take place to ensure that future abuses don't continue under a different guise," she said.
While most of the documents simply contain news articles, there were several significant disclosures from the DOD.
A February 2006 email to members of the DOD's Transportation Command discusses how to deal with the bad press the U.S. was receiving over its detention facilities. It said the U.S. was "getting creamed" on human rights issues sparked by "coverage of the United Nations Rapporteur's report on Guantanamo, plus lingering interest in Abu Ghraib photos." These developments add up to "the U.S. taking a big hit on the issues of human rights and respect for the rule of law, the email said." It cited criticism of the U.S. in blogs and discussion boards.
"America has lost its prestige," a blogger from Yemen wrote. "Every year the world waits for the annual U.S. State Department report on human rights. Today, it is America that awaits the world's opinion of its human rights policy. From Gitmo, to Abu Ghraib, to secret prisons in Europe, the world accuses America of not respecting human rights."
To temper the bad PR, the email suggests delaying the release of prisoners at Gitmo "for 45 days or so until things die down. Otherwise we are likely to have a hero's (sic) welcome awaiting the detainees when they arrive."
The email adds, "It would probably be preferable if we could deliver these detainees in something smaller and more discreet than a T tail (a larger aircraft with a T-shaped tail wing)."
"It is astonishing that the government may have delayed releasing men from Guantánamo in order to avoid bad press," said CCR attorney Gitanjali Gutierrez, who represents many of the men held in Guantánamo and has made 30 trips to the base since 2004. "Proposing to hold men for a month and a half after they were deemed releasable is inexcusable. The Obama administration should avoid repeating this injustice and release the innocent individuals with all due haste."
In a second document, one heavily redacted page mentions an "undisclosed detention facility" at Bagram.
Another highlights how the Geneva Conventions can be interpreted to allow the CIA and the DOD to 'ghost' detainees' identities so they can be denied a visit from the International Committee of the Red Cross. The organisations charged that the document, entitled "Applicability of Geneva Conventions to 'Ghost Detainees' in Iraq", shows that the DOD interpreted the 'security internee' provisions of the Geneva Conventions to allow for 'ghosting' of detainees by prohibiting the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) from visiting.
It also shows that the DOD recognised that indefinitely prohibiting the ICRC from visiting or failing to notify the ICRC of the existence of detainees was illegal under the Geneva Conventions, the groups said.
A 2005 document labeled a "Detainee Update" presentation dealt with "Internment Serial Number Policy (ISN). The organisations said, "It shows that the DOD did not, as a matter of course, register detainees with the ICRC until they had been in custody for up to 14 days and that authorisation was sought to hold some individuals for up to 30 days without ISN/registry with ICRC to 'maximise intelligence collection'," even though "there is some disagreement as to legal basis to go beyond 14 days."
The groups said these policies "demonstrate the ease with which the CIA could have used DOD facilities as 'sorting facilities' without having to worry about ICRC oversight or revelation of the ghost detainee programme."
Records from a Detainee Senior Leadership Oversight Council meeting contain references to a previously unreleased section of the Church Report and discuss the need for the DOD to develop and enforce guidelines governing their relationship with 'Other Government Agencies', including the CIA, in order to regulate interrogation and other operations overseas.
The organisations claimed that these documents demonstrate that the DOD and CIA were in an ad hoc relationship, "apparently unconstrained by formal guidelines".
The lawsuit is based on Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests dating back to 2004. Previous government releases also included documents largely already in the public record, including, in one instance, a copy of the Geneva Conventions. This is the first time the DOD has provided any documents in response.
"Out of thousands of pages, most of what might be of interest was redacted," said Tom Parker, policy director for Counterterrorism, Terrorism and Human Rights at AIUSA.
"While the sheer number of pages creates the appearance of transparency, it is clear this is only the tip of the iceberg and that the government agencies have not complied with spirit of President Obama's memo on Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. We call on Attorney General Eric Holder and the Obama administration to put teeth into the memo and work actively to comply with FOIA requests."
In his first week in office, President Obama signed an order closing the Guantanamo detention facility in Cuba within a year and prohibiting CIA secret prisons. However, the order allows the CIA to detain people temporarily. Obama also pledged increased openness and transparency during his administration.
It is not known whether the Pentagon or the CIA still holds 'ghost detainees,' Satterthwaite said, referring to people housed at secret facilities.
This article, by David Cronin, was published by IPS, February 10, 2009
BRUSSELS, Feb 10 (IPS) - The intimate involvement of the private sector in the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq received international attention in September 2007, when staff with the security firm Blackwater shot dead 17 civilians in the vicinity of Baghdad's Nisoor Square.
Though the U.S. has made the most extensive use of such companies in the history of modern warfare, it is in Europe where they originated. Back in 1967, senior political and military figures in Britain formed Watchguard International as a response to a left-wing coup in Yemen five years earlier. Now recognised as the world's first private security firm, its original intention was to shore up governments that could otherwise be overthrown.
Four decades later, the European Union is being urged to introduce regulations so that better oversight of private security firms can be guaranteed.
According to Chris Kinsey, an academic with King's College in London who has studied private security firms for the past 10 years, such companies are easy to set up.
"You only need yourself, probably a fax machine, and to know how to bid for government contracts," he said at a debate in the European Parliament Monday.
While most of the firms in question work in parts of the world where they can be tried for any misdemeanours by local courts, they have been operating in something of a legal vacuum in Iraq, Afghanistan, Congo and Somalia during recent years. In Iraq, the Coalition Provisional Authority that took charge after the country's president Saddam Hussein was toppled, went so far as to issue an order providing immunity from prosecution by Iraqi courts for international contractors.
The British government, meanwhile, has procrastinated in subjecting private security firms to tougher rules. This is despite the recommendation in a government policy paper in 2002 that "sound legislation" be developed in this area. That recommendation followed the so-called Sandline affair during the late 1990s, in which a private firm was implicated in breaking a United Nations embargo on providing weapons to Sierra Leone.
About 85 percent of private security firms are based in either Britain or the U.S., though the industry has also spread to France, Israel, South Africa, China and the former Soviet Union. Amnesty International has complained that Britain's private security firms can evade responsibility for human rights violations they are accused of as they cannot be tried in British courts.
Kinsey believes that the 27-country EU is better placed than national administrations to ensure that regulation occurs. Clearer rules are needed, he suggested, as private security firms are eager to widen the scope of their activities to include humanitarian and development aid tasks, increasing the potential for human rights violations.
"Regulation at national level allows companies to move around," he said. "If regulation is very restrictive, they will simply move to another country."
The International Committee of the Red Cross, perhaps the world's best- known humanitarian group, has joined with the government of Switzerland to study how private security firms can be monitored. Some 17 countries have taken part in their discussions so far.
Stéphane Kolanowski, a legal adviser to the Red Cross, described the granting of immunity from prosecution to certain private security firms as an "unjustified idea."
Among the most egregious breaches of human rights attributed to private security companies has been the involvement of their personnel in the administration of Abu Ghraib, the infamous prison in Iraq which has become synonymous with photographs of detainees being tortured.
Kolanowski raised questions about the delegation of tasks normally performed by public sector employees to private firms. "States cannot escape their obligations by the hiring of a private company," he said. "Some activities cannot be subcontracted - such as the power of an officer in charge of a prisoner of war camp or a place where civilians are interned."
J.J. Messner from the International Peace Operations Association, a Washington-based umbrella group for the private security industry, indicated that he would welcome being subject to more stringent laws. "The private sector desires clear rules and guidelines," he said. "Grey areas create unnecessary complications. The European Union is in a pivotal position to impress upon its member states the importance of regulation."
Hélène Flautre, a French Green member of the European Parliament (MEP), suggested in the course of the debate that all EU military operations should have officers who liaise between soldiers and private firms that have been hired to provide particular services.
"Where subcontractors are allowed, this shouldn't represent an evasion of international humanitarian law," she said.
Michael Gahler, a German Christian Democrat MEP, said: "It is very important that we shouldn't give private security companies a law-free area. Employing them should not be a way of avoiding international law. That has to be the yardstick."