Archive | February 2013

Obama’s election commission, the Voting Rights Act and the U.S.’s international commitments

As the presidential voting commission that Barack Obama announced in his recent State of the Union address prepares to convene, the U.S. Supreme Court appears likely to strike down Section 5 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which could, in effect, render any proposed reforms of the president’s commission toothless.

While Obama’s commission will reportedly focus specifically on Election Day issues and not on broader issues of electoral reform, the Court’s striking down of Section 5 – which mandates that states with a history of racial discrimination submit changes to voting laws to the U.S. Justice Department for preclearance – could mean that restrictive voter registration laws, racial gerrymandering and stringent identification requirements become more common throughout the country.

Supreme Court watchers are in general agreement that the Court, which heard oral arguments on the Voting Rights Act Wednesday, is poised to strike down Section 5, likely in a five-to-four decision.

This would mean that for millions of people, the voting experience on Election Day that Obama’s commission hopes to address will largely be a moot point. The outcome of the election will already have been pre-determined to a very high degree before anyone even steps in line to vote on Election Day.

Although many commentators – and Supreme Court Justices – are now proclaiming that the 1965 law is outdated and that it unfairly singles out certain states, the fact is that more lawsuits were brought under the Voting Rights Act from 2010-2012 than in the previous 45 years combined. The Obama administration used the Voting Rights Act in the last election cycle to counter a wave of Republican measures that included strict voter ID requirements, redistricting maps and new ballot formats.

One of the most substantial victories for fair elections was the striking down of Texas’s heavily gerrymandered congressional district maps, which had been adopted by the Republican-dominated Texas legislature following the 2010 census. A U.S. federal court ruled in August 2012 that the maps redrew districts in a way that reduced the influence of minority voters, and specifically discriminated against black and Hispanic voters.

In another major victory, a federal court in Florida blocked key provisions of a state law that sought to discourage voter registration drives in the state. In a June 2012 ruling, the judge wrote that Florida’s restrictive law “make[s] voter registration drives a risky business. If the goal is to discourage voter registration drives and thus make it harder for new voters to register, the 48-hour deadline may succeed.”

But perhaps the most widespread issue in the last election was the rash of voter ID laws that were adopted around the country, but were largely struck down by the courts. In a brief filed last August, Republican attorneys general from six states covered by Section 5 complained that the Voting Rights Act prevented them from implementing stringent identification requirements to suppress minority voters. Two of those states, South Carolina and Texas, conceded that the Voting Rights Act stopped them from implementing a voter suppression law their governors had already signed.

The long waiting times on Election Day that many voters have to endure are really just the tip of the iceberg of an electoral system plagued by partisan manipulation and racial biases. In a recent interview on Democracy Now, NAACP Head Benjamin Jealous called it “the hyperpartisanization” of election administration. He noted that in the secretary of states’ and county clerks offices around the country, there are “people coming in with a real, you know, partisan purpose in what should be a very kind of democratic—small-d—mission.”

Jealous welcomed the convening of a presidential commission as needed to address voter suppression and attacks on voting rights, noting that in Florida alone, long Election Day lines around the state may have turned away more than 200,000 frustrated would-be voters who gave up and went home before they cast ballots:

This has been a strategy to suppress the participation of working-class people, of senior citizens, of students, who tend to vote for the Democrats, by making it unbearable. And, you know, you can travel around as I do in different cities, and on the wealthy side of town the lines are moving, and near the universities and the poor parts of town, they’re stuck. And this is the, if you will, the most basic, most rudimentary form of voter suppression. It’s—what we’ve seen since 2000 is, whether it’s secretaries of state or whether it’s county clerks, you know, the folks who are running it in their county, it’s become very politicized, and folks really making, in many cases, explicitly political decisions about where they even put these machines, who gets a few machines and long lines, who gets a lot of machines and no lines, trying to skew the outcome.

The root problem here, of course, is that partisan interests are given free reign over election administration in the United States. From the national level to the state level to the local level, elected representatives and partisan hacks manipulate and game the system to ensure preferred electoral outcomes, in a system generally out of step with international electoral standards.

As the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights rather mildly put it in its final report on the 2012 U.S. election, released on Feb. 13:

General elections are administered at the state level and there is no federal election management body with oversight responsibilities. On the state level, administrative authority is vested in the respective state secretary or state election board. However, the greater part of election administration is typically delegated to county or lower-level election officials,12 resulting in a wide variety of electoral practices across the country.

Overall, the election administration performed their duties in a professional and transparent manner and enjoyed the trust of the majority of stakeholders. The composition of election administration bodies varies across states. While some senior election officials are appointed, others are elected. Election administration bodies are often partisan, although 19 states and the District of Columbia provide bipartisan or independent bodies. Very few OSCE/ODIHR LEOM interlocutors raised concerns about the impartiality of county election officials. However, some county-level election supervisors ran on party tickets for re-election in 2012, raising possible conflicts of interest.

In order to avoid these conflicts of interest, the OSCE recommended that “if senior election officials at state and lower levels are elected, the states could consider holding such elections in non-federal election years, to avoid any real or perceived conflicts of interest.” Further, “there should be a national body with sufficient resources and outreach capacity to provide guidance on election administration and serve as a central clearinghouse to develop good electoral practices. Congress should ensure that such a body has the necessary financial and human resources to fulfil these duties in an effective manner.”

The commission being convened by President Obama, however, appears to have a much more limited mandate. It will be chaired by Bob Bauer, former general counsel for the Obama campaign, and Ben Ginsberg, former election lawyer for Republican candidate Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign and is tasked with finding “common-sense, non-partisan solutions” to “reduce waiting times at the polls and improve all citizens’ voting experience,” Obama said.

In announcing the commission in the State of the Union address, the president said, “We can fix this, and we will. The American people demand it. And so does our democracy.”

Indeed, it does appear that the American people are ready for electoral reform, but Obama’s vision may be short-sighted in limiting the commission so specifically to this one issue of long lines at the polls. A poll conducted just after the Nov. 6 election found that an 88 percent majority supported an array of electoral reforms:

Eighty-eight percent of Americans who voted in last week’s election support establishing national standards for voting, including the hours polls are open, who is eligible to vote, and the design of ballots, according to a new poll by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.  Currently, voting rules and procedures differ from one community to another, across as many as 10,000 voting jurisdictions, although the date of the Presidential election is shared by all.

Half of those polled are “strongly supportive” and an additional 38 percent are “somewhat supportive” of national standards.  Majorities of Republicans, Democrats, and Independents support consistent standards for national elections rather than the current approach of rules and procedures that can vary greatly from community to community.  The idea is so popular that it draws majority support from voters across all races, genders, incomes, and geographic regions in the survey.

With that kind of support for strong national standards for U.S. elections, it is slightly puzzling why Obama would choose to provide such a limited mandate to his presidential commission. While the establishment of this commission was generally well received by voting rights advocates, some were less than impressed.

Elisabeth MacNamara, president of the League of Women Voters, said that she was disappointed in the president for failing to take bold action.

“Setting up a commission is not a bold step; it is business as usual,” MacNamara said in a statement. “The president could have done much better by pointing to real solutions like that in legislation already introduced on Capitol Hill to require early voting, set limits on waiting times, provide for portable voter registration and set up secure online voter registration.”

Administration officials however do say that the commission is part of a larger plan to reform the election process. Assistant Attorney General Thomas E. Perez told The Huffington Post that options on the table include supporting election reform legislation, implementing regulations and taking other executive actions.

In considering these possible reforms, the administration would do well to recall the international obligations of the United States as a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the 1990 OSCE Copenhagen Document, as well as heed the recommendations made by the OSCE in its final report on the 2012 election.

Protests mark Bradley Manning’s 1,000th day of pre-trial imprisonment

1000 days

Protests took place in dozens of cities across the world yesterday to mark the 1,000th day that accused WikiLeaks whistleblower Bradley Manning has spent in prison without a trial. Manning was arrested in May 2010 in Iraq on suspicion of having passed classified material to WikiLeaks, including evidence of war crimes and other violations of international law by the United States.

Despite failing to provide any evidence of how the information disclosed by Manning has put any lives in danger or concretely damaged national security, the U.S. government has charged him with “aiding the enemy,” a charge akin to treason which carries a potential death sentence. Prosecutors however have said they will not seek the death penalty, instead seeking life in prison for the young Army private.

Manning has been held in detention for nearly three years despite military law setting a maximum of 120 days of detention before a trial. His pre-trial punishment is also a grave breach of his rights under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which the United States has subscribed. The Human Rights Committee of the United Nations has held that confinement of more than six months is incompatible with article 9 (3) of the ICCPR, which states:

Anyone arrested or detained on a criminal charge shall be brought promptly before a judge or other officer authorized by law to exercise judicial power and shall be entitled to trial within a reasonable time or to release. It shall not be the general rule that persons awaiting trial shall be detained in custody, but release may be subject to guarantees to appear for trial, at any other stage of the judicial proceedings, and, should occasion arise, for execution of the judgement.

In providing practical guidelines for the use of pre-trial confinement, the UN’s Handbook of International Standards relating to Pre-Trial Detention recommends that governments establish a maximum period of time during which a person may be detained without trial, and if a prisoner’s detention exceeds that amount of time, the he or she shall be released. The Handbook notes, however, that any guideline on maximum pre-trial detention must abide by international standards.

Manning’s supporters note that as someone motivated by his conscience to expose evidence of war crimes committed by the U.S. military, he should be considered a prisoner of conscience and released. Indeed, the government’s own evidence against him consists mainly of online chat logs between Manning and his friend Adrian Lamo (who ultimately betrayed him), chat logs which reveal that Manning’s motivations for leaking the government’s secrets were purely altruistic:

(12:15:11 PM) bradass87: hypothetical question: if you had free reign over classified networks for long periods of time… say, 8-9 months… and you saw incredible things, awful things… things that belonged in the public domain, and not on some server stored in a dark room in Washington DC… what would you do?
(12:16:38 PM) bradass87: or Guantanamo, Bagram, Bucca, Taji, VBC for that matter…
(12:17:47 PM) bradass87: things that would have an impact on 6.7 billion people
(12:21:24 PM) bradass87: say… a database of half a million events during the iraq war… from 2004 to 2009… with reports, date time groups, lat-lon locations, casualty figures… ? or 260,000 state department cables from embassies and consulates all over the world, explaining how the first world exploits the third, in detail, from an internal perspective?

Michael Ratner, the president emeritus of the Center for Constitutional Rights, summarized the situation well in an article yesterday:

America, Bradley Manning stood up for your right to know what the government does in your name and with your tax dollars. The truth was ugly, eye-opening, embarrassing for the Bush and Obama administrations alike. It also came at a high cost: As of today, Bradley Manning has spent over 1,000 days in prison without trial. He was tortured. And if the U.S. government gets its way, he will have a trial marred by secrecy and spend the rest of his life locked up.

He also notes that the government is doing all it can to ensure that Manning is convicted, even if that means abrogating his right to a fair trial. In particular, the government is not allowing the soldier to explain his motivations in defending his actions, which could make it nearly impossible for him to prove that he never intended to “aid the enemy.”

The government is trying to charge Manning under the Espionage Act, accusing him of aiding Al Qaeda. They are subjecting him to incredible pressure to implicate his publisher, WikiLeaks, and they are making not just his legal defense but also media coverage of his case practically impossible.

Walking into the pre-trial hearings has been like waking up in a Franz Kafka novel: endless proceedings, one’s legal defense made impossible. This is quickly becoming the government’s playbook for whistleblower cases. Jeremy Hammond’s case is a concurrent example. Aaron Swartz’s a tragic one.

And so, despite the excellent work David Coombs is doing to defend Manning, I wonder if anything short of massive mobilization by the American people will change this brave soldier’s fate. How can his lawyer defend him when the key evidence the government is supposedly using to claim Manning harmed U.S. national security can be withheld? How can he show Manning did not intend to “aid the enemy” when the judge will not allow him to present evidence about Manning’s motives for releasing the information? It’s outright absurd.

At a pre-trial hearing in January, a military judge ruled that Manning had been subjected to illegal pretrial punishment while held in a military prison in Quantico, Virginia. Col. Denise Lind found that during the nine months he spent in solitary confinement in a Marine Corps brig in Quantico, Va., the treatment he received was “more rigorous than necessary.”

She credited a total of 112 days toward any prison sentence Manning receives if convicted. Instead, his supporters call for the soldier’s immediate release.

Manning’s lawyer David Coombs points out that although prosecutors were supposed to arraign Manning within 120 days, they took well over 600. Coombs has also showed substantial periods of their inactivity and needless delay, despite a legal requirement to remain actively diligent throughout the proceedings.

As the Bradley Manning Support Network puts it, “Manning’s due process rights have been clearly violated, and the only legal remedy is to dismiss charges.”

To support the efforts to free Bradley Manning, click here.

Police conduct in Dorner manhunt a flagrant violation of international norms

Authorities stand in the charred remains of a  cabin set fire to by San Bernadino police, ending the manhunt of ex-cop Chris Dorner. REUTERS/Gene Blevins

Authorities stand in the charred remains of a cabin set fire to by San Bernadino police, ending the manhunt of ex-cop Chris Dorner. REUTERS/Gene Blevins

In the weeklong police manhunt for Christopher Dorner, a former LAPD officer who had declared asymmetrical war against the police department in retaliation for its racism and corruption, the police disregarded public safety and international norms with a reckless abandon that would have been shocking were it not so typical of U.S. police forces.

Culminating in the apparently intentional incineration of a cabin in which Dorner was hiding, the police pursuit of Dorner also included the shooting of three innocent civilians who police officers had mistaken for their suspect.

In one of those incidents, on February 7, the LAPD opened fire on two women with no warning, according to the victims’ lawyer. Attorney Glen Jonas said Maggie Carranza, 47, and her mother, 71-year-old Emma Hernandez, were delivering Los Angeles Times newspapers around 5:15 a.m. when police opened fire on their vehicle, a blue Toyota Tacoma that bore little resemblance to Dorner’s dark-colored Nissan pickup truck.

Jonas said, “There was no warning. There were no orders. No commands. Just gunshots.”

Pickup truck shot up by by police looking for Chris Dorner.

Pickup truck shot up by by police looking for Chris Dorner.

Police Chief Charlie Beck said the officers thought the women’s vehicle looked like Dorner’s. “Tragically, we believe this was a case of mistaken identity by the officers,” said Beck.

But as Jonas pointed out, “The vehicle is a different color. The license plate doesn’t match. There’s nothing there for you to start shooting people. And even if they had the person in question… Mr. Dorner…you still have to give them an opportunity to get out. You can’t just start administering street justice.”

According to Article 3 of the UN Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials, police “may use force only when strictly necessary and to the extent required for the performance of their duty.”

The commentary on Article 3 further explains:

( a ) This provision emphasizes that the use of force by law enforcement officials should be exceptional; while it implies that law enforcement officials may be authorized to use force as is reasonably necessary under the circumstances for the prevention of crime or in effecting or assisting in the lawful arrest of offenders or suspected offenders, no force going beyond that may be used.

( b ) National law ordinarily restricts the use of force by law enforcement officials in accordance with a principle of proportionality. It is to be understood that such national principles of proportionality are to be respected in the interpretation of this provision. In no case should this provision be interpreted to authorize the use of force which is disproportionate to the legitimate objective to be achieved.

( c ) The use of firearms is considered an extreme measure. Every effort should be made to exclude the use of firearms, especially against children. In general, firearms should not be used except when a suspected offender offers armed resistance or otherwise jeopardizes the lives of others and less extreme measures are not sufficient to restrain or apprehend the suspected offender. In every instance in which a firearm is discharged, a report should be made promptly to the competent authorities.

Clearly, by opening fire on innocent civilians with no warning, the police flagrantly disregarded their international obligations under this Code of Conduct. Their actions also flew in the face of what should generally be expected of police officers in the United States. As David Johnston wrote at Salon,

That innocent people get shot by cops who think their own safety is paramount, whose actions show they value their own lives more than those of people they are sworn to protect, is part of a major problem in America that has not abated much despite decades of efforts to make policing more professional and less brutish. It is the policy of police departments that police cannot kill innocents to save themselves, in effect, that sometimes your sworn duty is to die. But, on the streets, it is far too often another story entirely.

In another incident on February 7, a police cruiser in Torrance, Calif., slammed into David Perdue’s pickup truck and officers opened fire. His pickup, police later explained, also loosely matched the description of Dorner’s vehicle, despite the fact that the pickups were different makes and colors. Perdue also looked nothing like Dorner, being several inches shorter, a hundred pounds lighter and a different race.

“I don’t want to use the word buffoonery but it really is unbridled police lawlessness,” said Robert Sheahen, Perdue’s attorney.

Following these incidents, drivers in Southern California began putting signs on their vehicles imploring the police not to shoot them.

not dorner

But the police shooting of innocent civilians during the Dorner manhunt was only one troubling aspect the police pursuit. Reportedly, Christopher Dorner became one of the first Americans in the U.S. to be targeted by surveillance drones, according to a report by the U.K. Express. An unnamed “senior police source” told the Express, “the thermal imaging cameras the drones use may be our only hope of finding him. On the ground, it’s like looking for a needle in a haystack.”

When asked if drones had been deployed to search for Dorner, Riverside Police Chief Sergio Diaz told the Express, “we are using all the tools at our disposal.”

Customs and Border Patrol later denied that drones had been deployed to help track Dorner, with Ralph DeSio telling Salon that “Reports that U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s unmanned aircraft systems are being used are incorrect. CBP UAS are not flying in support of the search.”

The reports of drones being deployed in U.S. skies come as a UN investigation has just been launched to examine in detail 25 drone strikes in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and Palestine where civilian deaths are credibly alleged. Announced on Jan. 24, it is the first official international inquiry into the drone program.

Although there have been no allegations that the drone reportedly deployed to track Dorner had the intention of carrying out an airstrike on the target, it’s worth bearing in mind that the U.S. drone program now coming under such intense international criticism in places like Pakistan and Yemen began as surveillance drones. Once they start being used by domestic law enforcement to help track down suspects, it’s not a very big leap to start using weaponized drones to take those suspects out.

In Dorner’s case, however, the police appear to have resorted to cruder methods – simply setting fire to the cabin in which the suspect was hiding. Although police deny intentionally incinerating their target – which could expose police officers to charges of arson and homicide – the evidence overwhelmingly suggests that the fire was set intentionally.

In particular, the police themselves can be heard in audio recordings saying things like “fucking burn this motherfucker,”  “burn that fucking house down,” and “go ahead with the plan with the burners” prior to the cabin going up in flames. “Burner” is police slang for pyrotechnic teargas canister. In an audio clip broadcast by CBS Los Angeles, police are heard saying, “get the gas, burn it down.”

“Alright, we’re gonna go ahead with the plan with the burners,” one officer says.

“Copy,” replies another.

“Like we talked about,” the first officer responds.

“The burners are deployed, and we have a fire,” says another officer moments later, before the police dispatcher repeats the statement.

Within minutes of the fire starting, police note that the cabin is “starting to collapse.”

After the cabin was incinerated, the police then ludicrously claimed that it was not intentional. While confirming they started the blaze, they insisted that the use of pyrotechnic canisters had not been intended to cause a fire.

“It was not on purpose. We didn’t intentionally burn down that cabin to get Mr. Dorner out,” John McMahon, a spokesperson for San Bernardino sheriff’s department, told a news conference.

As former Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper, however, pointed out on Democracy Now, “Whether it was intentional or not, a very predictable outcome of deploying seven burners in what appears to have been a wooden cabin would predictably leave it in rubble.”

Stamper says that he was “troubled” by the police decision to use incendiary chemical agents. “By definition, these pyrotechnic versions of tear gas start fires,” he said. “They are intended for outdoor use. They are not intended for contained structures, particularly wooden structures.”

A discussion on Democracy Now focused on how the incineration of Dorner’s cabin was just the latest in a long history of U.S. police forces using incendiary devices against suspects, particularly in stand-off situations. The case drew comparisons especially with the 1993 siege of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, which killed 55 adults and 28 children.

Another close parallel is the 1985 police assault on the MOVE residence in Philadelphia, in which police dropped a bomb on the house, resulting in the destruction of 65 nearby houses and the deaths of 11 people, including five children.

Regarding the question of so recklessly employing the use of incendiary devices as the police did in Philadelphia, Waco and most recently in Southern California, Stamper says that it contravenes the police’s primary, overriding responsibility, which is to protect and preserve human life:

Your number one responsibility is the protection and preservation of human life. And when we employ tactics of the type that we’ve been talking about this morning in order to achieve what has essentially transformed itself into a military or certainly military-like mission, when we escalate tension and escalate tactics that predictably lead to death, we have violated our most basic, indeed, our most profound responsibility, and that is the protection and preservation of human life.

This responsibility is also touched on in the International Code of Conduct, which states, “In the performance of their duty, law enforcement officials shall respect and protect human dignity and maintain and uphold the human rights of all persons.”

Report exposes new details on U.S. extraordinary rendition and torture programs

A recent protest of torture and extraordinary rendition advocate John Brennan, who President Obama has nominated to head the CIA.

A recent protest of torture and extraordinary rendition advocate John Brennan, who President Obama has nominated to head the CIA.

A 213-page report just released by the Open Society Justice Initiative provides the most comprehensive account to date of the extraordinary rendition program run by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. The report, entitled “Globalizing Torture,” documents how the CIA conspired with dozens of governments around the world to build a secret extraordinary rendition and detention program that spanned the globe.

Defining “extraordinary rendition” as the transfer without legal process of a detainee to the custody of a foreign government for purposes of detention and interrogation, Open Society notes that both the secret detention program and the extraordinary rendition program were designed to place detainee interrogations beyond the reach of the law. Torture was a hallmark of both, the report points out.

“Today, more than a decade after September 11, 2001, it is well-established that high-ranking Bush administration officials are responsible for torture and other human rights violations associated with the CIA’s secret detention and extraordinary rendition operations,” reads the report. “The failure of U.S. authorities to hold these officials accountable remains a matter of significant concern.”

By engaging in extraordinary rendition, secret detention and widespread torture, the U.S. government violated international law and its own domestic laws. And by enlisting the participation of dozens of foreign governments in these violations, the U.S. further eroded longstanding human rights protections enshrined in international law, especially the preemptory norm against torture.

But despite the scale of torture and other human rights abuses associated with secret detention and extraordinary rendition operations, the Open Society report notes that the United States has failed to conduct effective investigations into these criminal policies.

To date, the U.S. and the vast majority of the other 54 governments involved have refused to acknowledge their participation, much less compensate the victims, or hold accountable those most responsible for the program and its abuses. Further, the report laments, despite a promise from Barack Obama soon after being sworn in as president in January 2009, it appears that the Obama administration did not in fact end extraordinary rendition. Instead, it simply chose to rely on anti-torture diplomatic assurances from recipient countries.

Open Society therefore recommends to the U.S. government that it ceases relying on “diplomatic assurances” against torture as a basis for transferring individuals to foreign countries, and that it discloses information relating to human rights violations associated with secret detention and extraordinary rendition operations.

Further, the U.S. administration and senate should work to declassify, to the maximum extent possible, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report on CIA detention and interrogation.

“The taint of torture associated with secret detention and extraordinary rendition operations will continue to cling to the United States and its partner governments as long as they fail to air the truth and hold their officials accountable,” Open Society concludes. “The impunity currently enjoyed by responsible parties also paves the way for future abuses in counterterrorism operations.”

The Guardian pointed out that the report’s publication appears to have been timed to coincide with the Senate confirmation hearing on Thursday of John Brennan, who Obama has chosen to head the CIA. Brennan is one of the architects of the torture regime of the previous administration and is widely expected to be questioned about his association with those policies.

In 2005, he offered a robust defense of the Bush administration’s extraordinary rendition policy, stating:

I think it’s an absolutely vital tool. I have been intimately familiar now over the past decade with the cases of rendition that the U.S. Government has been involved in. And I can say without a doubt that it has been very successful as far as producing intelligence that has saved lives.

The Open Society report takes issue with this position, noting that “torture is not only illegal and immoral, but also ineffective for producing reliable intelligence.” The report points to the case of Ibn al-Sheikh al-Libi, who had been rendered by the United States to Egypt in 2002. Under threat of torture at the hands of Egyptian officials, al-Libi fabricated information relating to Iraq’s provision of chemical and biological weapons training to Al Qaeda. This fabricated information was then used by the U.S. as part of its justification for invading Iraq.

As Jane Mayer of The New Yorker wrote in her book, The Dark Side, “The extraordinary rendition program produced a file of confessions from prisoners claiming to have suffered unimaginable torment.” Much of the intelligence gathered from what Brennan asserted as a “vital program” proved to be “demonstrably false.”

On war, indefinite detention and torture, Obama’s second term already disappoints

war is peace obamaTwo weeks after his second inauguration and giving what many liberals hailed as one of his most inspired speeches ever – with some even calling it a “progressive manifesto” – President Barack Obama is already providing unmistakable indications that when it comes to issues related to war and peace, the rule of law, human rights and international norms, the second Obama term will be no more progressive than the first term.

In some cases, the messages of his inaugural address were directly contradicted by his actual policies that were being carried out in real time. One line in particular that drew the ire of antiwar activists was his assurance that “a decade of war is now ending,” a line that was greeted with enthusiastic applause from his supporters attending the inauguration, but with great skepticism by those who have been protesting Obama’s drone wars over the past several years.

Some took to Twitter to point out that on the very same day that he declared an end to a decade of war, a U.S. drone strike killed three suspected terrorists in Yemen. Following this attack, a Yemeni cabinet minister criticized Obama’s drone war in Yemen, noting that innocent civilians are often killed in these strikes.

“To have an innocent person fall, this is a major breach,” Yemeni Human Rights Minister Hooria Mashhour told Reuters. “I am in favor of changing the anti-terrorism strategy, I think there are more effective strategies that can be applied on the ground without harming civilians and without leading to human rights violations.”

Disregarding this complaint, two days later, on Jan. 23, the U.S. launched another drone attack in Yemen that killed at least six.

A UN investigation is now underway that will examine in detail 25 drone strikes in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and Palestine where civilian deaths are credibly alleged. Announced on Jan. 24, it is the first official international inquiry into the drone program.

UN Special Rapporteur Ben Emmerson, who is leading the investigation, told that he’s not shying away exposing U.S. “war crimes.”

Despite the UN inquiry, the U.S. appears poised to expand its drone wars into Africa. On Jan. 28, the U.S. signed a status of forces agreement with Niger “that clears the way for a stepped-up American military presence on the edges of the conflict in neighboring Mali,” the Wall Street Journal reported, and that establishes a drone base in North Africa to counter Islamist militants in the region.

Considering these developments, it’s hard to understand what Obama might have been thinking when he said that a decade of war is ending. Indeed, Obama’s own nominee to for Secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel directly contradicted Obama’s claim by acknowledging in his Senate confirmation hearing on Jan. 31, “We’re at war around the world.”

Hagel pointed to various global threats  that the United States must take the lead in countering, with turmoil across the Middle East and North Africa, cyber war, al Qaeda, an ongoing war in Afghanistan, and challenges from nuclear-armed North Korea and Pakistan, as well as rogue state Iran, and a resurgent China.

Not only does it appear that the war is no closer to ending than it was when it began a decade ago, post-inauguration developments have also provided disappointing indications that the war will continue to be prosecuted with the same disregard for constitutional principles and international law.

Soon after renewing his oath to uphold the U.S. Constitution on Jan. 20, Obama made it immediately clear that he would be doing no such thing, at least as far as the policies of indefinite detention and torture are concerned.  In particular, the Obama administration tacitly confirmed that the policy of closing the legal black hole known as Guantanamo Bay was being abandoned.

As the New York Times reported on January 28,

The State Department on Monday reassigned Daniel Fried, the special envoy for closing the prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and will not replace him, according to an internal personnel announcement. Mr. Fried’s office is being closed, and his former responsibilities will be “assumed” by the office of the department’s legal adviser, the notice said.

The announcement that no senior official in President Obama’s second term will succeed Mr. Fried in working primarily on diplomatic issues pertaining to repatriating or resettling detainees appeared to signal that the administration does not currently see the closing of the prison as a realistic priority, despite repeated statements that it still intends to do so.

In other words, Guantanamo Bay is here to stay. Critics of the administration’s Guantanamo policy pointed out that its recent surrender on this issue was just the latest in a long line of abject failures of leadership, going back to the initial promise made four years ago to close the prison camp.

“The Obama administration bungled its effort to close Gitmo early in the president’s first term,” wrote Adam Serwer at Mother Jones magazine, “and a bipartisan revolt in Congress over the possibility of bringing detainees to US soil, even for trial or imprisonment, led to extremely tight restrictions that slowed the rate of detainees leaving the prison to a crawl.”

Human rights organizations are nevertheless urging Obama to keep his promise and shut down the detention facility. On the 11th anniversary of its opening, on Jan. 11, a coalition including Amnesty International USA, Catholic Worker, Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition, the Center for Constitutional Rights, and the Bill of Rights Defense Committee demanded that the U.S. government either release the men still detained at Guantanamo or charge them and give them a fair trial.

“President Obama promised to close Guantanamo and end the United States’ unlawful detention practices,” said Amnesty International’s Frank Jannuzi. “Instead, he pivoted 180 degrees and embraced the policies initiated by his predecessor. By codifying indefinite detention, continuing military commission trials, failing to ensure accountability for abuses and otherwise ignoring the United States’ international legal obligations, the President has further entrenched the deeds he once criticized as immoral and illegal.”

Besides the failure to close Guantanamo, human rights groups have also been sorely disappointed by the Obama administration’s refusal to allow prosecutions of those who committed and authorized torture in the previous administration.  Although the 2012 Democratic Party platform included a reiteration of Obama’s “torture ban” that he initiated in 2009, the failure to prosecute torturers remains a grave breach of the United States’ international obligations.

Last summer, Attorney General Eric Holder confirmed that CIA agents would face no charges over the torture and death of detainees while in custody, with the Justice Department ending a criminal investigation that had been probing the deaths of two men: one in Iraq and one in Afghanistan.

As Democracy Now reported, “Gul Rahman died in 2002 while being held at a secret CIA facility known as the ‘Salt Pit’ in Afghanistan. He had been shackled to a concrete wall in near-freezing temperatures. Manadel al-Jamadi died in 2003 while in CIA custody at Iraq’s notorious Abu Ghraib prison. His corpse was photographed packed in ice and wrapped in plastic.”

Nevertheless, Holder said that “based on the fully developed factual record concerning the two deaths, the Department has declined prosecution because the admissible evidence would not be sufficient to obtain and sustain a conviction beyond a reasonable doubt.”

In fact, the only person who is going to prison related to the United States’ torture policies is someone who never tortured anyone and is only accused of providing details on the program – including confirming the name of a CIA agent – to a journalist.

Under a plea deal reached with federal prosecutors, former CIA analyst John Kiriakou admitted to a single count of violating the Intelligence Identities Protection Act by revealing the identity of a covert officer to a freelance reporter, who never even published the name. For this supposed crime, he was sentenced to 30 months in prison on January 25.

His supporters claim that Kiriakou has been unfairly targeted for being the first CIA official to publicly confirm and detail the Bush administration’s use of waterboarding and criticizing other torture techniques employed by the United States.

In an interview with Democracy Now this week, Kiriakou said, “This was not a case about leaking; this was a case about torture. And I believe I’m going to prison because I blew the whistle on torture.”

“My oath was to the Constitution,” he added. “And to me, torture is unconstitutional.”

A petition has been launched calling on President Obama to pardon Kiriakou, stating:

It’s a cruel irony that the first agent connected to the CIA torture program to go to prison is the whistleblower who spoke out against the heinous practices of our government. From Bradley Manning to Aaron Swartz to John Kiriakou, the government’s pattern of overzealously prosecuting activists and whistleblowers has ruined too many lives already.

While ruining the lives of those who stand up against torture and government secrecy, Obama is rewarding those who helped establish those policies under the previous administration. Obama’s nominee to lead the Central Intelligence Agency, John Brennan, was intimately involved in the implementation of the torture regime ten years ago.

Brennan had detailed information on the CIA’s torture program while serving there under President George W. Bush, with official records showing that Brennan received regular updates about the progress of torture techniques, including waterboarding.

In 2006, he told PBS’s Frontline that the Bush administration to, quote, “take off the gloves” after the 9/11 attacks:

The war, or the campaign against terrorism, is going to be a long one, and that the opposition, whether it be al-Qaeda or whether it be Iraq, doesn’t play by the Marquess of Queensbury rules, and therefore, you know, the U.S., in some areas, has to take off the gloves. And I think that’s entirely appropriate. I think we do have to take off the gloves in some areas, but within bounds, and at the right time, in the right way, and for the right reason, and with full understanding of what the consequences of that might be.

In response to his promotion to CIA Director, John Kiriakou said on Democracy Now that  John Brennan “is a terrible choice to lead the CIA,” arguing that “it’s time for the CIA to move beyond the ugliness of the post-September 11th regime.”

“We need someone who is going to respect the Constitution and to not be bogged down by a legacy of torture,” Kiriakou sad. “I think that President Obama’s appointment of John Brennan sends the wrong message to all Americans.”

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