President Barack Obama’s human rights record is under criticism once again as he prepares to step down after eight years leading the United States government. His record has been a major disappointment to many in the human rights community, who now genuinely worry how much worse U.S. policies will become under President Donald J. Trump.
As this blog has documented since 2011, the U.S. government’s human rights record has been dismal under Obama, with troubling policies including his lack of prosecutions of torturers – effectively institutionalizing a system of legal impunity for war crimes – his utter failure to follow through on closing the travesty of justice known as Guantanamo Bay, waging a “war on whistleblowers” and suppressing freedom of information, codifying illegal policies of extrajudicial assassinations, expanding mass surveillance programs in violation of individual privacy, and failing to take effective action to ensure accountability for a nationwide epidemic of police brutality.
In terms of promoting fundamental freedoms abroad, his administration has “treated human rights as a secondary interest – nice to support when the cost was not too high, but nothing like a top priority,” according to Human Rights Watch’s Kenneth Roth.
In a recent article for Foreign Policy, Roth writes:
Obama took office with great promise, announcing on his second day that he would stop CIA torture immediately and close the military prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, within a year. By all accounts, the torture did stop. But Obama has steadfastly refused to prosecute those responsible or even to allow the release of much more than the summary of a comprehensive Senate Intelligence Committee report that documented it. As a result, rather than reaffirming the criminality of torture, Obama leaves office sending the lingering message that, should future policymakers resort to it, prosecution is unlikely. Given Trump’s campaign rhetoric about reinstating waterboarding (“or worse”), this is hardly an academic point, even considering the opposition of his nominee for defense secretary.
With respect to surveillance, Roth notes that “Obama seems to have continued and expanded programs begun by George W. Bush that lead to massive invasions of privacy.” When whistleblower Edward Snowden alerted the public to these programs, Obama supported legislation to limit the National Security Agency’s ability to collect phone records in bulk under one program, but “most of the mass privacy violations that Snowden disclosed remain unaddressed,” Roth notes.
When it comes to closing Guantanamo, Roth says the president’s efforts have been halfhearted:
Early in his tenure, he moved slowly, enabling Congress to adopt legislation — which he refused to veto — imposing various obstacles to transferring detainees overseas and barring their transfer to the United States even for trial. Facing political resistance, he reversed early plans to try the accused 9/11 plotters in a federal district court in New York, where their trials would long ago have been completed. Instead, the suspects were placed before Guantánamo’s military commissions — made-from-scratch tribunals replete with procedural problems. Seemingly designed to avoid public revelation of the details of the suspects’ torture, the commissions have made virtually no progress toward actual trials, which will not begin until long after Obama leaves office, if ever.
Roth notes that Obama has slowly reduced the number of prisoners held at Guantanamo by transferring many abroad, but “his insistence on holding some two dozen detainees indefinitely without charge makes it easier for Trump to repopulate Guantánamo, as he has threatened.”
When it comes to Guantanamo, Amnesty International is imploring Obama to do whatever he can in his last days in office to close the legal abomination before Trump – who has threatened to repopulate the prison and reinstate a torture regime – takes over as president on January 20. In an open letter to Obama, Amnesty International USA Executive Director Margaret Huang begs the president, “Don’t Leave Guantánamo to Trump.”
“Dear President Obama,” she writes:
On behalf of Amnesty International’s 1.2 million supporters in the United States, I write to make a final plea that you use all the powers of your office to close the detention camp at Guantánamo Bay. We are gravely concerned that if you fail to do so, President-elect Trump may attempt to bring dozens or even hundreds of people there, to be held in unlawful detention for decades and possibly subjected to torture and other forms of cruel treatment.
Despite your positive actions to date, your legacy will include failing to cure this corruption of our country’s ideals of justice and fairness. You will leave behind Guantánamo as a system of injustice that—having survived for 15 years, two political parties and four presidential terms of office—may remain open for the foreseeable future.
Our concern is heightened by the sharp rise in anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant rhetoric during the election. Proposals for large-scale detention without charge, which once seemed inconceivable, are now on the table as options your successor may pursue. Guantánamo, with its shameful tradition of secrecy and insularity from legal process, would be all too convenient a location for mass imprisonment without charge, returning the United States to one of its grimmest chapters.
“It is past time to shut down the detention facility at Guantánamo,” you said recently at MacDill Air Base, and not for the first time. You emphasized that Congress would be “judged harshly by history” due to restrictions it placed on your ability to transfer detainees. However, despite your concerted efforts, it is your presidency that will be judged harshly — by history, the international community and human rights supporters across the United States and the rest of the world — if you fail to take all possible measures to transfer those remaining out of Guantánamo.
Your actions now will impact this country’s decisions on detention without charge, torture and human rights for decades to come by informing the way young people understand the injustice of Guantánamo. People under the age of 25 have spent all or much of their lives with Guantánamo open. Most are too young to remember the photos of torture at Abu Ghraib, or of men at Camp X-Ray kneeling next to their cages. They do not know the collective shock and moral outrage that millions of Americans felt then, which led political figures from Colin Powell to John McCain to call for the closure of Guantánamo. Through your actions now, you can ensure new generations learn this history—and do not repeat it.
We also urge your administration, in closing Guantánamo, to abandon the military commissions. These ill-conceived tribunals simultaneously fail to respect human rights principles or achieve justice. To be sure, anyone responsible for the crimes against humanity committed on September 11, 2001 should be brought to justice in fair trials. Guantánamo and the military commissions have not—and cannot—provide that justice. The 15th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks recently passed, and those who lost loved ones in the attacks have a right to see justice in their lifetime. However, not only do the military commission trials seem unlikely to begin—much less conclude—for years to come, when they do take place they will fail to meet international fair trial standards.
You began your presidency with an executive order to end the Guantánamo detentions and to close the detention camp there. We urge you to end it with bold action to realize your promise.
The human rights group urges supporters to send messages to Obama urging him to close this travesty of justice once and for all, and to prioritize other human rights matters in the waning days of his presidency.
It is not clear, however, how much stock Obama places in the concerns of the human rights community. He spoke rather dismissively of “activist organizations” in a recent interview with The Atlantic, in which he defended his drone assassination program, which has killed hundreds of innocent people including U.S. citizens.
“I think right now we probably have the balance about right,” he told The Atlantic, referring to the ratio of killed terrorists and innocent civilians. “Now, you wouldn’t know that if you talked to Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International or some of the international activist organizations.”
He further asserted that “the internal reforms we put in place had less to do with what the left or Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International or other organizations were saying and had more to do with me looking at sort of the way in which the number of drone strikes was going up and the routineness with which, early in my presidency, you were seeing both DOD and CIA and our intelligence teams think about this.”
It troubled him, he said, because the drone strikes could enable “a president who can carry on perpetual wars all over the world, and a lot of them covert, without any accountability or democratic debate.” Of course, this is exactly what Obama has done, as has been repeatedly pointed out.
As Naureen Shah of Amnesty International told The Intercept last year, “What’s so interesting is that President Obama acknowledges this problem – that future presidents will be empowered to kill globally, and in secret. What he doesn’t acknowledge is how much of a role his administration had in making that a bizarre normal.”
Another legacy that Obama is leaving behind is torture impunity, which he has instituted by failing to launch prosecutions of gross human rights violations during the Bush administration. By shielding torturers from criminal justice, Obama has done more than any other president in history in establishing torture as little more than a “policy option” for presidents to utilize or not depending on the political whims of the day.
To prevent torture from being reinstituted by the incoming Trump administration, the National Religious Campaign Against Torture is calling on Obama to release in full the Senate’s torture report and force “appropriate officials” to read it in order to ensure that they “learn from the past.” Although White House Counsel Neil Eggleston recently announced that Obama will archive one copy of the torture report, it will remain classified for at least 12 years. “At this time, we are not pursuing declassification of the full Study,” he wrote recently in a letter to Sen. Feinstein.
In an action alert, the online advocacy group Roots Action is urging supporters to sign a petition to President Obama urging him to release the full report.
Obama is also being urged by a range of organizations to free the U.S. government’s political prisoners, including Chelsea Manning, Jeffrey Sterling and Leonard Peltier. For more on those cases, click here.
Human rights advocates are urging Barack Obama to release the U.S. government’s political prisoners before he steps down as president on January 20, 2017.
Among the cases highlighted by human rights defenders include imprisoned U.S. whistleblowers and activists such as Chelsea Manning, Jeremy Hammond, Jeffrey Sterling, and Leonard Peltier. Campaigners are also pressing Obama to pardon NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, who has been living in exile in Russia since exposing serious abuses and crimes by the intelligence community in 2013.
As one of its priority actions, Amnesty International is highlighting Peltier’s case as a clear-cut case of government overreach and misconduct, in which the government itself has acknowledged that it lacks any evidence. The Native American activist is currently serving two life sentences for the deaths of FBI agents Jack Coler and Ronald Williams.
“Amnesty International has studied [Peltier’s] case extensively over many years and remains seriously concerned about the fairness of proceedings leading to his trial and conviction,” the human rights organization says in an action alert. “Amnesty believes that political factors may have influenced the way in which the case was prosecuted.”
Amnesty points out that the U.S. Parole Commission has acknowledged that, “the prosecution has conceded the lack of any direct evidence that [Peltier] personally participated in the executions of two FBI agents.”
The group recently produced a video on his case to draw attention to the injustice endured by this 71-year-old diabetic who is in dire need of medical care that is unavailable in prison:
Regarding political prisoner Chelsea Manning, who is serving a draconian 35-year sentence for exposing U.S. war crimes and other embarrassing state secrets, a coalition of human rights organizations has written to Obama urging the outgoing president to do the right thing and release this courageous whistleblower by commuting her sentence to time served.
In a Dec. 5 letter to the president, groups including the ACLU, Lambda Legal, League of United Latin American Citizens, the National Organization for Women, and the Transgender Law Center wrote:
We support commuting her court-martial sentence to time served. Ms. Manning is currently in the seventh year of a thirty-five year sentence for disclosing classified information to the media with the intention of raising public awareness about issues she found concerning, including the impact of war on innocent civilians. Our organizations may be of differing opinions concerning Ms. Manning’s actions; however, we stand united in our support for her clemency petition.
As Evan Greer, campaign director at Fight for the Future, pointed out,
Transparency activist Chelsea Manning has already spent more time behind bars than any other whistleblower in U.S. history. She’s been systematically mistreated, subjected to torture, and denied access to desperately needed health care while serving a 35 year sentence in an all-male military prison. … If President Obama does not grant Chelsea’s clemency request before he leaves office, he is condemning her to a nightmarish fate.
Earlier this month, a petition asking President Obama to commute Manning’s prison sentence reached the 100,000-signature threshold to receive a response from the White House.
The international advocacy group Index on Censorship provides details on other U.S. political prisoners that Obama is being urged to pardon:
Considered to be a whistleblower by some, Jeffrey Sterling, who worked for the CIA from 1993 to 2002, was charged under the Espionage Act with mishandling national defense information in 2010. Sterling was sentenced to three and a half years in prison for his contributions to New York Times journalist James Risen’s book, State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration, which detailed the failed CIA Operation Merlin that may have inadvertently aided the Iranian nuclear weapons program. Risen was subpoenaed twice to testify in the case United States v Sterling but refused, resulting in a seven-year legal battle.
On 11 May 2015, at Sterling’s sentencing, judge Leonie Brinkema stated that although she was moved by his professional history, she wanted to send a message to other whistleblowers of the “price to be paid” when revealing government secrets. …
Although the most famous whistleblower on this list has not been tried and sentenced, Edward Snowden could face up to 30 years in prison for his multiple felony charges under the World War I-era Espionage Act. Snowden was charged on 14 June 2013 for his role in leaking classified information from the National Security Agency, notably a global surveillance initiative.
Snowden has expressed a willingness to go to prison for his actions but refuses to be used as a “deterrent to people trying to do the right thing in difficult situations” as so many whistleblowers often are.
The political climate in the US has become so hostile towards leaks that even journalists can face repercussions for their involvement with whistleblowers. American journalist and essayist Barrett Brown’s case became well-known after he was arrested for copying and pasting a hyperlink to millions of leaked emails from Stratfor, an American private intelligence company, from one chat room to another. The leak itself had been orchestrated by Jeremy Hammond, who is serving 10 years in prison for his participation, and did not involve Brown. Brown faced a sentence of up to 102 years in prison, once again for sharing a hyperlink, before the 12 counts of aggravated identity theft and trafficking in stolen data charges were dropped in 2013.
Although the dismissal of these charges was heralded as a victory for press freedom, Brown was still convicted of two counts of being an accessory after the fact and obstructing the execution of a search warrant. On 22 January 2015, Brown was sentenced to 63 months in prison and ordered to pay $890,250 in fines and restitution to Stratfor.
Barrett Brown was released from prison last month, after serving four years under harsh and punitive conditions.
While incarcerated, Brown wrote award-winning columns about an endless stream of abuses he endured in prison, including misconduct by prison officials seeking to silence him and violate his rights and the rights of other inmates. This included multiple stints in solitary and restrictions on his access to the press and use of email.
While there is no single internationally agreed upon designation of what constitutes a political prisoner, the intergovernmental organization Council of Europe in 2012 agreed upon one of the most useful and balanced definitions ever put forward.
The resolution adopted by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe includes the following criteria: a person is considered a political prisoner “if, for political motives, the length of the detention or its conditions are clearly out of proportion to the offence the person has been found guilty of or is suspected of,” or “if, for political motives, he or she is detained in a discriminatory manner as compared to other persons.”
Amnesty International’s definition is a bit broader, and it is clear that under its criteria all of these cases would qualify as political prisoners. As Amnesty has previously explained its use of the term “political prisoner,”
In AI’s usage, the term includes any prisoner whose case has a significant political element: whether the motivation of the prisoner’s acts, the acts in themselves, or the motivation of the authorities. “Political” is used by AI to refer to aspects of human relations related to “politics”: the mechanisms of society and civil order, the principles, organization, or conduct of government or public affairs, and the relation of all these to questions of language, ethnic origin, sex or religion, status or influence (among other factors). The category of political prisoners embraces the category of prisoners of conscience, the only prisoners who AI demands should be immediately and unconditionally released, as well as people who resort to criminal violence for a political motive. In AI’s use of the term, here are some examples of political prisoners:
a person accused or convicted of an ordinary crime carried out for political motives, such as murder or robbery carried out to support the objectives of an opposition group;
a person accused or convicted of an ordinary crime committed in a political context, such as at a demonstration by a trade union or a peasants’ organization;
a member or suspected member of an armed opposition group who has been charged with treason or “subversion”.
Although the United States would never acknowledge that it holds political prisoners, it is clear that under commonly used definitions of the term, many cases in the U.S. certainly apply. Chelsea Manning is a political prisoner, as her harsh sentence was applied for purely political motives, as was made clear during her sentencing.
“This court must send a message to those who release confidential information,” prosecutor Army Capt. Joe Morrow said to Judge Denise Lind during the sentencing phase of the trial. “There is value in deterrence, Your Honor. This court must send a message to any soldier contemplating stealing classified information.”
So, Manning, just like Sterling and others, is rotting in prison simply to send a “message” to other would-be whistleblowers. It is long past time for Obama to show some integrity and let these prisoners go.
Announcing President Barack Obama’s decision to cancel a planned bilateral summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin, White House press secretary Jay Carney yesterday offered several justifications for the diplomatic snub.
“Given our lack of progress on issues such as missile defense and arms control, trade and commercial relations, global security issues, and human rights and civil society in the last twelve months, we have informed the Russian Government that we believe it would be more constructive to postpone the summit until we have more results from our shared agenda,” the press secretary said.
Almost as an afterthought, Carney added: “Russia’s disappointing decision to grant Edward Snowden temporary asylum was also a factor that we considered in assessing the current state of our bilateral relationship.”
While the bilateral U.S.-Russian relationship has been strained for some time and there are real concerns regarding Moscow’s recent crackdown on civil society, the timing of the announcement – just a week after Russia granted the NSA whistleblower one year of asylum – appeared to be a thinly veiled rebuke intended to punish Moscow for failing to bend to Washington’s dictates. After all, the other areas constituting a “lack of progress” were apparent long before the summit was even scheduled, and the only new factor in the strained relationship is the Snowden affair.
The Kremlin said it was “disappointed” by the U.S. decision, with Putin’s foreign affairs adviser saying the move showed the U.S. could not develop ties with Russia on an “equal basis.”
Russian foreign affairs adviser Yuri Ushakov added that Russia was not to blame over the Snowden affair.
“This decision is clearly linked to the situation with former agent of U.S. special services Snowden, which hasn’t been created by us,” he said.
He pointed out that there is not even an extradition agreement in place between Russia and the United States, largely due to the intransigence of Washington, and therefore there is no legal basis for the U.S. to demand extradition from Moscow in the first place.
“For many years, the Americans have avoided signing an extradition agreement,” Ushakov said, “And they have invariably responded negatively to our requests for extradition of people who committed crimes on the territory of Russia, pointing at the absence of such agreement.”
Journalist Glenn Greenwald, who has broken many of the recent stories regarding the NSA’s dragnet surveillance, noted that the U.S. in fact has a long record of refusing to extradite individuals accused of very serious crimes to a whole range of countries, many of which actually have formal extradition treaties in place with Washington.
In a February 28, 2007 article, for example, the New York Times reported:
A senior U.S. official said Wednesday that the United States would refuse any Italian extradition request for CIA agents indicted in the alleged abduction of an Egyptian cleric in Milan, a case investigated by the European Parliament.
“We’ve not got an extradition request from Italy,” John Bellinger, a legal adviser to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, told reporters after meeting in Brussels with legal advisers to EU governments.
“If we got an extradition request from Italy, we would not extradite U.S. officials to Italy.”
Or, as the Washington Post reported on July 19, 2013:
A former CIA operative detained in Panama this week at the request of Italian authorities over his conviction in the 2003 kidnapping of a Muslim cleric in Milan was released Friday and had boarded a flight to the United States, U.S. officials said.
Robert Seldon Lady’s release from Panama appeared to avert the possibility that he would be extradited to Italy, where he faces a sentence of up to nine years in prison for his role in the CIA capture of a terrorism suspect who was secretly snatched off a street in Milan and transported to Egypt.
Lady, who left Panama on Friday morning, was “either en route or back in the United States,” Marie Harf, State Department deputy spokeswoman, told reporters at a midday briefing.
Bolivia has also faced difficulty in extraditing fugitives from the United States, as The Guardian reported on September 9, 2012:
The view that Sánchez de Lozada must be extradited from the US to stand trial is a political consensus in Bolivia, shared by the government and the main opposition party alike. But on Friday night, the Bolivian government revealed that it had just been notified by the Obama administration that the US government has refused Bolivia’s extradition request:
“‘Yesterday (Thursday), a document arrived from the United States, rejecting the extradition of people who have done a lot of damage to Bolivia,’ leftist [President Evo] Morales, an outspoken critic of US foreign policy in Latin America, said in a speech.
“Calling the United States a ‘paradise of impunity’ and a ‘refuge for criminals,’ Morales said Washington turned down the extradition request on the grounds that a civilian leader cannot be tried for crimes committed by the military …
Then of course, there is the long-running case of former CIA employee and terrorist mastermind Luis Posada Carriles, a criminal who is being harbored by the United States despite requests from Venezuela for his extradition to face trial on 73 counts of murder.
The United States has refused to extradite him to Venezuela because he allegedly faces possible torture by the authorities there, according to his lawyers.
Ironically, the torture issue is also one of the concerns that Russia has expressed regarding the case of whistleblower Edward Snowden, prompting U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to awkwardly assure Moscow that the U.S. government will not torture or kill Snowden upon his return to the United States.
“We…understand from press reports that Mr. Snowden has filed papers seeking temporary asylum in Russia on the grounds that if he were returned to the United States, he would be tortured and would face the death penalty,” Holder wrote in a letter to his Russian counterpart. “These claims are entirely without merit,” he wrote, adding that “torture is unlawful in the United States.”
Of course, what Holder left unsaid is that although torture is unlawful in the United States, it has still been a widespread policy and those who torture others or high-level officials who authorize torture in violation of the law are granted official impunity by the U.S. Justice Department.
As Human Rights Watch pointed out in a 2011 report, “Getting Away with Torture: The Bush Administration and Mistreatment of Detainees,” although substantial information exists warranting criminal investigations of Bush and senior administration officials, the U.S. Justice Department has failed to initiate a single investigation of these crimes.
“There are solid grounds to investigate Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Tenet for authorizing torture and war crimes,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “President Obama has treated torture as an unfortunate policy choice rather than a crime. His decision to end abusive interrogation practices will remain easily reversible unless the legal prohibition against torture is clearly reestablished.”
More recently, the United States was accused of torture in its treatment of political prisoner Bradley Manning, who is awaiting his sentence upon his conviction for exposing embarrassing state secrets of the United States government.
Manning’s solitary confinement regime during his first year of incarceration “constitute[d] at a minimum cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment in violation of article 16 of the convention against torture,” said Juan Mendez, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture. “If the effects in regards to pain and suffering inflicted on Manning were more severe, they could constitute torture,” he told the Guardian in 2012.
Regarding Manning’s conviction last week, Russian Commissioner for Human Rights Konstantin Dolgov said that the United States is applying double standards in Manning’s case “without paying attention to the observance of human rights.”
“This double standard that we see in the U.S. authorities’ assessment of approaches to this situation [around Manning] raises questions,” said Dolgov. “If you demand full observance of freedom of speech from others, in principle, you should apply this position to yourself. If the applied standard is different, this cannot help but cause complaints on the part of both other governments and human rights institutions.”
Disregarding these apparent double standards, human rights groups have praised the U.S. decision to cancel the Obama-Putin summit, focusing nearly entirely on the premise that the decision was prompted by American concerns over the human rights situation in Russia. U.S.-based NGO Freedom House welcomed yesterday’s announcement, stating in an email,
According to the White House statement announcing the cancelation, the “lack of progress” in U.S.-Russia bilateral relations includes the human rights and civil society situation in Russia in the past 12 months. Indeed, it was during this period that the most serious crackdown against civil society and Russia’s opposition since the break-up of the Soviet Union has occurred.
A series of restrictive laws passed by the Russian Duma are meant to silence dissent against the regime and cripple civil society. In addition, we have seen the prosecution of opposition leaders, including Aleksei Navalny; the disgraceful posthumous conviction of lawyer and whistleblower Sergey Magnitsky; the aggressive campaign against non-governmental organizations; the banning of adoptions of Russian orphans by American citizens; the expulsion of the US Agency for International Development; and the outrageous campaign targeting the LGBT community. Together these actions and policies represent a full-bore and utterly deplorable campaign against human rights and democratic standards engineered by the Putin regime. Enormous differences over Syria and the Snowden case are further reason for canceling the visit.
“I applaud the President’s decision to cancel his bilateral meeting with Putin and hope that when he goes to St. Petersburg for the G20 summit that he’ll meet with Russian civil society activists,” said Freedom House President David J. Kramer. “Obama’s decision to cancel his Moscow visit should signal to Putin that there are costs to his bullying, unrestrained drive to silence critics and eliminate serious opposition.”
Of course, what Freedom House has overlooked is the distinct possibility that the cancellation in fact has very little to do with human rights concerns, and nearly everything to do with Moscow’s refusal to hand over Snowden to the U.S. justice system where he will almost certainly find himself suffering the same fate as imprisoned whistleblower Bradley Manning.
Similarly, Amnesty International cited human rights concerns in Russia in its statement regarding the cancelation of the summit. Rather than discussing the merits of Snowden’s asylum in Russia or the U.S. obligation to respect Moscow’s decision regarding his extradition, Amnesty focused its criticism on the White House for not condemning Russia’s human rights record more forcefully. Frank Jannuzi, Amnesty International USA deputy executive director, issued the following statement:
President Obama said he canceled his summit with President Putin because there has been a lack of progress on human rights and civil society in Russia. That is an understatement. Russia continues to backslide on human rights. The United States should press Russia to respect freedom of expression and not allow backroom discussions on other priorities to override the urgent task of protecting the Russian peoples’ basic rights and dignity.
Curiously, just a month earlier, Amnesty was among Snowden’s most vocal supporters in his efforts to seek political asylum, harshly condemning the U.S. government for its ruthless persecution of the whistleblower.
“The U.S. authorities’ relentless campaign to hunt down and block whistleblower Edward Snowden’s attempts to seek asylum is deplorable and amounts to a gross violation of his human rights,” Amnesty International said in a press release on July 2.
“The U.S. attempts to pressure governments to block Snowden’s attempts to seek asylum are deplorable,” said Michael Bochenek, Director of Law and Policy at Amnesty International. “It is his unassailable right, enshrined in international law, to claim asylum and this should not be impeded.”
The world is reacting with alarm to revelations that the United States has been committing wholesale violations of privacy rights on a global scale, particularly through its PRISM initiative which was revealed to be targeting personal data of web users by accessing the servers of major internet companies.
The intense international reaction threatens to complicate U.S. bilateral and multilateral relations, and could pose legal problems for the U.S. government. It also calls into question the United States’ claimed leadership on internet freedom.
The PRISM program, as revealed by a set of leaked top-secret PowerPoint slides, enables the NSA to obtain private emails and other user data directly from the servers of companies such as Google, Microsoft, Facebook, and Yahoo. While much of the controversy in the United States revolves around Americans’ privacy rights and possible violations of the Constitution’s Fourth Amendment, the scope of the PRISM story is actually global.
As Ryan Gallagher at Slate.com explains,
The existence of PRISM provides vindication for privacy advocates worldwide who have been voicing alarm about the U.S. government’s ability to conduct mass surveillance of foreigners’ communications sent and received using services like Google’s Gmail and Microsoft’s Hotmail and Skype. Earlier this year, a prescient report produced for the European Parliament warned that the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act had authorized “purely political surveillance on foreigners’ data” and could be used to secretly force U.S. cloud providers like Google to provide a live “wiretap” of European users’ communications.
That appears to be precisely what PRISM enables. NSA agents can reportedly use the system to enter search terms into a “Web interface” that allows them to request and receive data—some of it in real time—from one or all of the participating companies. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper has confirmed that it operates under a controversial section of FISA that authorizes broad surveillance of non-U.S. persons—from foreign government agents, to suspected terrorists, and “foreign-based political organizations,” a vaguely defined category that could feasibly be used to target journalists and human rights groups.
The European Commission on Monday expressed concern about the U.S. internet snooping, saying in a statement it would be demanding more information from U.S. officials regarding the program. “This case shows that a clear legal framework for the protection of personal data is not a luxury or constraint but a fundamental right. This is the spirit of the EU’s data protection reform,” said EU justice commissioner Viviane Reding, who urged ministers to push through new privacy reforms.
On Tuesday, the Commission outlined plans to raise the PRISM matter with U.S. authorities “at the earliest possible opportunity” and will “request clarifications as to whether access to personal data within the framework of the PRISM program is limited to individual cases and based on concrete suspicions, or if it allows bulk transfer of data.”
Finnish communications minister Pia Viitanen more bluntly claimed that the National Security Agency is likely breaking the laws of Finland. Viitanen said she plans to take up the issue with the European Commission, and several European countries are apparently considering unleashing Neelie Kroes, the feared European Commissioner for the Digital Agenda, in an effort to fight back against the PRISM program.
The German government is also demanding explanations from the U.S. after it emerged that PRISM has been collecting more information from Germany than any other EU country. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is expected to raise the issue when she meets with President Obama in Berlin next week.
German justice minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger wrote that the reports about PRISM are “deeply worrying” and “dangerous.” She took issue with Obama, who recently said that it’s not possible to have 100 percent security and 100 percent privacy at the same time.
“I do not share this view,” she wrote at Spiegel Online. “A society is less free, the more its citizens are being surveilled, controlled and scrutinized. In a democratic system, security is not an end itself, but a means to ensure freedom.”
The Swiss are also raising alarms about the NSA’s hacking activities on their territory, concern that has been compounded by other revelations shared by whistleblower Edward Snowden about CIA agents engineering a drunk driving incident in Switzerland as part of an alleged blackmail ploy.
“What is really very serious is that [US] agents are active on foreign territory, and violate the laws of the country where they are,” former Swiss parliamentarian and prosecutor Dick Marty told public radio on Monday. “This is not the first time they have done this, and I must say that they have been spoiled by the Swiss. For too long Switzerland has tolerated CIA agents doing more or less whatever they wanted on our territory.”
Further, U.S.-based internet companies that are cooperating with the NSA under the PRISM program could face legal action in the European Union. Companies that operate in the EU and serve citizens of the bloc are subject to its relatively strict privacy laws, which limit the actions of companies that collect data, and require them to be clear about how it will be used and to whom it could possibly be disclosed.
On Tuesday, the European Commission warned U.S. tech companies that they must adhere to EU law or face the consequences. “Non EU companies when offering goods and services to EU consumers will have to apply the EU data protection law in full,” said the Commission.
“U.S. companies that have gathered personal data from Europeans, such as Facebook, and then given access to U.S. government agencies are in something of a bind,” says Ian Brown, senior research fellow at Oxford University’s Internet Institute. “They had no choice but to obey U.S. surveillance law, but may well now face legal challenges in European courts.”
A statement was delivered by the Association for Progressive Communications on Monday to the Human Rights Council on behalf of civil society regarding the impact of state surveillance on human rights. The statement read, in part,
We express strong concern over recent revelations of surveillance of internet and telephone communications of US and non-US nationals by the government of the United States of America and the fact that US authorities makes the results of that surveillance available to other governments such as the United Kingdom. Of equal concern is the indication of apparent complicity of some US-based Internet companies with global reach.1 These revelations suggest a blatant and systematic disregard for human rights as articulated in Articles 17 and 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), as well as Articles 12 and 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The civil society statement reminded the Human Rights Council that it unanimously adopted Resolution 20/8 last year, which “Affirms that the same rights that people have offline must also be protected online, in particular freedom of expression.”
But during the current session of the Human Rights Council, the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression, Frank La Rue, reported worrying new trends in state surveillance of communications with serious implications for the exercise of the human rights to privacy and to freedom of opinion and expression.
La Rue noted that inadequate and non-existent legal frameworks “create a fertile ground for arbitrary and unlawful infringements of the right to privacy in communications and, consequently, also threaten the protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression.”
Human Rights Watch noted this week that the recent revelations of NSA surveillance are impinging on privacy in ways that were unimaginable just a few years ago. “There is an urgent need for the U.S. Congress to reevaluate and rewrite surveillance laws in light of those technological developments and put in place better safeguards against security agency overreach,” HRW said.
The human rights group expressed particular concern over the total lack of concern for the rights of non-U.S. citizens:
Human Rights Watch is deeply troubled by the apparent lack of any consideration by the US government for the privacy rights of non-US citizens. The US Constitution may have been interpreted to grant privacy rights only to US citizens or people in the United States, but international human rights law recognizes that everyone is entitled to respect for their privacy. With so many electronic communications traveling through the United States, the lack of any regard for the privacy rights of non-US citizens raises very troubling concerns. …
Human Rights Watch also expressed concern about the precedent these programs might set globally because they could give other governments a rationale for adopting widespread and arbitrary surveillance of phone and Internet activity.
“The U.S. government’s credibility as an advocate for Internet freedom is at serious risk unless it ensures that privacy is protected along with security and acts with much greater transparency,” said HRW executive director Kenneth Roth. “There is a real danger that other governments will see U.S. practice as a green light for their own secret surveillance programs. That should be chilling to anyone who goes online or uses a phone.”
When the initial story broke last week of the U.S. government collecting metadata on the communications habits of millions of Americans, Obama attempted to downplay the domestic controversy and quell concerns over possible constitutional violations by reassuring Americans that it was aimed not at U.S. citizens but at the other 95 percent of the world’s population.
“With respect to the Internet and emails, this does not apply to U.S. citizens and it does not apply to people living in the United States,” the president said, strongly implying that the other seven billion people on the planet are fair game.
Judging by the international outcry, however, it appears this may have been a miscalculation on the president’s part. The demands for the U.S. and American companies to adhere to the laws of countries in which they are operating might bring a degree of accountability that appears to be missing in the U.S. political system.
An official probe into the CIA’s use of a secret prison in Poland offers a grim reminder of one of the global war on terror’s darkest chapters – the use of Eastern European allies to assist in illegal extraordinary renditions and torture of suspected terrorists.
But the fact that the probe is being carried out by Polish authorities, with no comparable investigation by the U.S. government, offers perhaps an even starker reminder that democratic accountability is in some ways stronger in the former Soviet Bloc than it is in the United States of America.
Despite some feeble attempts from Congress to ensure greater oversight of the CIA’s program of clandestine prisons, there have been no investigations of possible violations of the law. An amendment to require reports on clandestine detention facilities was attached to the 2006 supplemental military spending bill, but as this amendment only required that classified reports be submitted to relevant congressional committees, did little to raise general public awareness of the issue.
A 2009 Senate review of the program promised to “assess lessons learned” but assured the CIA that employees who participated in the program would not be held to account. CIA Director Leon Panetta vowed to block “an inquiry designed to punish those who acted in accord with guidance from the Department of Justice.”
First revealed in November 2005 by the Washington Post, the clandestine network of CIA prisons was acknowledged by President George W. Bush in September 2006. At the time, Bush claimed that torture was not part of the program.
Investigations by the Council of Europe and the European Parliament, however, revealed that torture had been used extensively in the prisons.
While deploring “the concepts of state secrecy or national security” invoked by the United States to obstruct the investigation into “grave allegations of human rights violations,” the Council of Europe nevertheless ascertained that detainees in the prisons “were subjected to inhuman and degrading treatment, sometimes protracted.”
“Certain ‘enhanced’ interrogation methods used fulfil the definition of torture and inhuman and degrading treatment in Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights and the United Nations Convention against Torture,” said the report.
A subsequent investigation by the European Parliament further confirmed the use of torture in the secret prisons. Following its investigation, the EP adopted a strongly worded resolution condemning the U.S. policies and the European governments that participated in the program.
“[E]xtraordinary rendition and secret detention involve numerous violations of human rights in particular violations of the right to liberty and security, the freedom from torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, the right to an effective remedy, and, in extreme cases, the right to life; whereas, in some cases, where rendition leads to secret detention, it constitutes enforced disappearance,” the resolution stated.
The EP reminded its member states that “the prohibition of torture is a peremptory norm of international law (jus cogens) from which no derogation is possible,” and criticized “European countries [that] may have received, knowingly or unknowingly, information obtained under torture.”
In Poland, the notion that the former Communist country would tolerate a secret CIA prison in which torture was being used was for years derided by the country’s politicians, journalists and the public as a crackpot conspiracy theory. Polish officials consistently denied the existence of any such prison.
But a string of recent revelations and political statements by Polish leaders appear to acknowledge for the first time that the United States did indeed run a secret interrogation facility for terror suspects in 2002 and 2003 in a remote region of the country.
As the AP reports, the debate within Poland is marked by a streak of disappointment that Washington had led the young democracy led astray both ethically and legally, and then abandoned the Polish government to deal with the fallout.
Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk said March 29 that Poland has been the “political victim” of leaks from U.S. officials that brought to light aspects of the secret rendition program. He said that an ongoing investigation into the case demonstrates Poland’s democratic credentials and that Poland will not be used in the future for such clandestine enterprises.
“Poland will no longer be a country where politicians — even if they are working arm-in-arm with the world’s greatest superpower — could make some deal somewhere under the table and then it would never see daylight,” said Tusk, who took office four years after the prison was shuttered.
The Polish frustration with the United States follows a long-established feeling of disillusionment that first emerged in 2004 during the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq and the height of the Iraqi insurgency. As David Ost reported in The Nation magazine on Sept. 16, 2004,
George W. Bush has managed to do what forty-five years of Communist rule could not: puncture the image of essential American goodness that has always been the United States’ key selling point. Polish journalists now ask questions like, “How can we explain America’s transformation from a country that introduced international law to one that intervenes militarily wherever it likes?” Or, more plaintively: “Does it really pay to be America’s friend?” It is an astonishing turnabout: In more than twenty-five years of traveling to Poland I have never heard these kinds of criticisms.
Poland committed 2,400 troops to the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq, but Polish supporters of the war, such as Marek Beylin, chief of the editorial section of Gazeta Wyborcza, began wondering whether they were duped into cooperating with the United States.
“It seems we were naïve,” Beylin said in 2004. “It turns out they had no idea what to do with the Shiites, the Kurds, the resistance, the infrastructure. A superpower should be able to do this! That it can’t do it – this changes all our calculations.”
It appears now that Poland is following through on the recalculations it began making eight years ago, and choosing the rule of law over its alliance with the world’s lawless superpower.
“Poland is a democracy where national and international law must be observed,” Tusk said on March 29. “This issue must be explained. Let there be no doubt about it either in Poland or on the other side of the ocean.”
Tusk also pledged that Polish official involvement in activities by the CIA would be thoroughly scrutinized and prosecuted. He indirectly confirmed that his country’s former spy chief, Zbigniew Siemiątkowski, is facing criminal charges in connection with a probe by state prosecutors into the Polish role in CIA’s secret prison.
Poland’s prime minister at the time of the prison’s operation, Leszek Miller, has denied any knowledge of the CIA program in Poland.
Although many sordid details of the program have been public for years, the U.S. continues to not only fail to investigate those responsible, but also stonewall investigations by others, including Poland. The future of the investigation of Siemiątkowski is in some doubt, with the U.S. authorities refusing to cooperate with the investigation, reports the Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza.
The refusal to cooperate with the investigation follows a well-established pattern by the administration of Barack Obama, who upon taking office in 2009 promised that he would “look forward as opposed to looking backwards” regarding crimes committed by the previous administration.
President-elect Obama said in Jan. 2009 that there should be prosecutions if “somebody has blatantly broken the law” but that CIA employees who participated in questionable policies of “extraordinary rendition” and “enhanced interrogation” should not be overly concerned.
“Part of my job,” he said, “is to make sure that, for example, at the CIA, you’ve got extraordinarily talented people who are working very hard to keep Americans safe. I don’t want them to suddenly feel like they’ve got spend their all their time looking over their shoulders.”
In the three-plus years since then, it has become abundantly clear that those who may have engaged in unlawful interrogation or extrajudicial detention during the Bush years have nothing to worry about. In fact, the only CIA employees who have been prosecuted under the Obama administration are those who have attempted to blow the whistle on abuses at the agency.
The most recent example is that of John C. Kiriakou, a CIA agent made famous by his public opposition to waterboarding, who was indicted last week by a grand jury for leaking government secrets to reporters. Kiriakou is accused of giving journalists the name of another CIA operative and his role in the capture of al-Qaeda suspect Abu Zubaydah shortly after 9/11.
Abu Zubaydah is said to have been tortured in the CIA’s secret prison in Poland and is one of two individuals granted “victim status” by prosecutors in Warsaw. This will allow their lawyers to review evidence and question witnesses as part of the prosecutors’ investigation.
The indictment of Kiriakou is part of an aggressive Justice Department crackdown on leakers and is one of a half-dozen such cases opened during the Obama administration. Coupled with the administration’s refusal to cooperate with the Polish authorities in its investigation of secret CIA prisons, it appears to be part of a concerted effort to prevent any more details about this program from seeing the light of day.
Still, human rights activists and lawyers are coming to view Poland and its courts as one of the best chances to uncover the truth about U.S. rendition and torture in Eastern Europe.
“In Poland, the democratic system has turned out to be much more mature than in other countries,” said Adam Bodnar of the Polish Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights. “There’s a group of people — judges, prosecutors, journalists, some politicians — who take the constitution seriously.”
Considering the lack of any such seriousness on the other side of the Atlantic, the Polish investigation may also be Americans’ best hope for learning the truth about the CIA’s secret prisons, as well as its broader rendition and torture program.