Contents: The Sir! No Sir! blog is an information clearing house, drawing on a wide variety of sources, to track the unfolding history of the new GI Movement, and the wars that brought the movement to life.
Where applicable, parallels will be drawn between the new movement and the Vietnam era movement which was the focus of the film Sir! No Sir!
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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 editorial, by Clara Gutteridge, was published by The Guardian, September 11, 2009
The foreign secretary, David Miliband, today admitted that MI6 had referred "a case" to the attorney general, involving complicity in torture by one of its agents operating abroad. In a letter to the shadow foreign secretary, Miliband reveals little else, except that the torture happened in an undisclosed foreign country; and unlike the tranche of recent cases where MI5 agents have been accused of complicity in torture, the victim in this case was not a UK national, or a UK resident.
There are many instances of individuals known to have been held in US secret prisons where it would have been a grave dereliction of duty for the British intelligence services not to have been involved in questioning the prisoners.
One such example is Abu Zubayda, accused of being an al-Qaida facilitator, arranging travel for would-be jihadists from the UK, among other countries, to attend training camps in Afghanistan. We also know that Abu Zubaydah was tortured by the US – he was waterboarded 83 times – and that during his interrogation, he implicated people who have turned out to be innocent. He was saying what he thought his torturers wanted to hear. And herein lies the question: were UK agents involved in the interrogation of people such as Abu Zubaydah – in principle, they should have been – and if they were, what did they do about his torture?
My bet is that they were involved, and that they did nothing about the torture, and that information about their activities is starting to leak out as things start to open up in the US with the various inquiries into torture and abuse getting under way across the Atlantic. Just as the US military attempted to blame the systematic abuse at Abu Ghraib on a few "bad apples" acting beyond their orders, the British government appears to be trying to ringfence the rising tide of evidence of its complicity in torture abroad.
To refer an individual agent for investigation by the attorney general conveniently places the blame squarely on the shoulders of a subordinate, and keeps people higher up the chain, including government ministers, out of the picture.
If there is one thing we should have learned from the various official reports and documents that have been released since Obama took office, it is that the abuse that has taken place in the name of "counter-terror" in the past eight years was anything but the actions of a few rogue agents. Rather, in the US at least, the torture was institutionalised. We now know that techniques such as almost drowning people, slamming their heads against walls and staging mock executions were operational norms in US prisons abroad. We also know that the torture programme was systematic, ordered from the top, and that it involved professionals – doctors, psychologists and lawyers.
Against such a cultural backdrop – one that legitimised and bureaucratised torture – it is looking increasingly untenable that British government ministers were unaware of what was going on, or that UK agents colluding in this programme were acting beyond orders.
Thus, as the government has tried to do with the MI5 agent who was involved in interrogating Binyam Mohamed in Pakistan, this recent referral is likely just a last-ditch attempt by the those in command to avoid justice. It is about time the leaders of our country stopped attempting to scapegoat a few unfortunate field agents and started to answer some questions about exactly how the Britain became the sort of country that is involved in torture.
This article, by Richard Norton-Taylor and Ian Cobain, was published by The Guardian, September 11, 2009
Fresh questions were raised tonight about the behaviour of British officials towards terror suspects by the disclosure that MI6 had referred one of its officers to the attorney general over allegations of complicity in torture.
The unprecedented move was disclosed in a letter from David Miliband, the foreign secretary, to his Conservative shadow, William Hague. He said MI6 had acted on its own initiative, "unprompted by any accusation against MI6 or the individual concerned".
The Metropolitan police specialist crime branch said Lady Scotland, the attorney general, had asked it to investigate "the conditions under which a non-Briton was held" and the "potential involvement of British personnel".
Officials were reluctant to say anything more about the case other than it was "unrelated" to that of Binyam Mohamed, a British resident who says he was tortured and ill-treated in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Morocco and Guantánamo Bay.
The police are separately investigating allegations of what the high court has called "possible criminal wrongdoing" by an MI5 officer involved in Mohamed's secret interrogation.
Miliband said the government could not comment further on the MI6 case "to avoid prejudice and to protect the individuals involved".
Officials told the Guardian that the circumstances surrounding the MI6 case had never been referred to in public. But Whitehall sources said they came to the notice of MI6 lawyers as concerns about the activities of both MI5 and MI6 were being raised by the high court, MPs, and the media. The court heard growing evidence of Britain's involvement in the interrogation of detainees and CIA flights transferring them to secret destinations .
There was speculation among human rights groups that MI6 was prompted to take action as a result of evidence that will emerge in the US inquiry into the CIA's interrogation of terror suspects.
Sir John Scarlett, the head of MI6, told the BBC last month that there no torture and "no complicity in torture" by the Secret Intelligence Service.
Miliband said in his letter, published yesterday on the Foreign Office website, that the government "wholeheartedly condemned torture". He added: "We will not condone it. Neither will we ever ask others to do it on our behalf. This is not mere rhetoric but a principled stance consistent with our unequivocal commitment to human rights. We are fortunate to have the best security and intelligence services and armed forces in the world."
Miliband was responding to a letter Hague wrote to Gordon Brown last month in light of a report by parliament's joint committee on human rights. The committee said the government could no longer get away with repeating standard denials of complicity by the security and intelligence agencies.
Hague asked the government to "clarify as a matter of urgency whether you intend to instruct the attorney general to consider ... allegations of UK complicity in the light of the joint committee report, which documents allegations of UK complicity in torture in respect of detainees held in Pakistan, Egypt, and Guantánamo Bay, and in the case of Uzbekistan, raises concerns about the receipt of information which may have been obtained through torture".
Hague said later: "It is very important that any such allegations are thoroughly investigated. Torture or complicity in torture is unacceptable, immoral and counter-productive".
Ed Davey, the Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesman, called for a full judicial inquiry into the British authorities' possible complicity in torture. "Given the gravity and number of allegations of UK complicity in torture, separate limited police investigations alone are inadequate," he said.
Tim Hancock, Amnesty International's UK campaigns director said: "If the UK authorities are serious about their responsibilities to combat torture, we need a full, impartial and independent investigation into all allegations that UK personnel have colluded with torturers."
Shami Chakrabarti, director of campaign group Liberty, said: "Criminal investigations into individual officers don't reveal what ministers knew or authorised … Only an independent judicial inquiry can get to the bottom of this rotten business."
According to Westminster's intelligence and security committee, by early 2005, MI5, MI6 and military intelligence officers took part in more than 100 such sessions in Afghanistan, and MI5 and MI6 officers had been involved in a similar number at Guantánamo Bay. There had been about 2,000 such interrogations in Iraq involving MI5, MI6, military intelligence and civilians.