As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

No Excuse For This

There is no excuse for the Obama Justice Department invoking the state secrets privilege to get a court case on extraordinary rendition thrown out. Men who were illegally kidnapped, flown to Guantanamo and tortured sued the government and the owner of the aircraft used in the rendition, and Obama's officials basically said that the whole matter was a secret and cannot be adjudicated. Here's Ben Wizner of the ACLU, who was one of the lawyers on the case:

We are shocked and deeply disappointed that the Justice Department has chosen to continue the Bush administration’s practice of dodging judicial scrutiny of extraordinary rendition and torture. This was an opportunity for the new administration to act on its condemnation of torture and rendition, but instead it has chosen to stay the course. Now we must hope that the court will assert its independence by rejecting the government’s false claims of state secrets and allowing the victims of torture and rendition their day in court.


What makes this particularly appalling and inexcusable is that Senate Democrats had long vehemently opposed the use of the "state secrets" privilege in exactly the way that the Bush administration used it in this case, even sponsoring legislation to limits its use and scope. Yet here is Obama, the very first chance he gets, invoking exactly this doctrine in its most expansive and abusive form to prevent torture victims even from having their day in court, on the ground that national security will be jeopardized if courts examine the Bush administration's rendition and torture programs -- even though (a) the rendition and torture programs have been written about extensively in the public record; (b) numerous other countries have investigated exactly these allegations; and (c) other countries have provided judicial forums in which these same victims could obtain relief.

I've been as vigorous a proponent as anyone for waiting to see what Obama does before reaching conclusions about his presidency, but this is a very real and substantial act, and it's hard to disagree with what ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero said today:

"Eric Holder’s Justice Department stood up in court today and said that it would continue the Bush policy of invoking state secrets to hide the reprehensible history of torture, rendition and the most grievous human rights violations committed by the American government. This is not change. This is definitely more of the same. Candidate Obama ran on a platform that would reform the abuse of state secrets, but President Obama’s Justice Department has disappointingly reneged on that important civil liberties issue. If this is a harbinger of things to come, it will be a long and arduous road to give us back an America we can be proud of again."

As Greenwald goes on to note, Obama has claimed to end this practice of rendition, and yet is invoking the state secrets privilege because revealing the scope of the program would degrade CIA operations - operations that he has said no longer exist. Those statements aren't compatible, and one can only conclude that rendition is continuing, perhaps in a kinder and gentler way. Or more to the point, the Administration doesn't want any consequences for the crimes of the past, reserving the right for future Presidents to absolve them of crimes in the future.

Now, it could be - probably not, but could be - that as Attorney General Holder is reviewing all state secrets claims, the Justice Department wanted to maintain consistency until a decision was made at the top. However, that doesn't square with the actual conversation in the courtroom:

“Is there anything material that has happened” that might have caused the Justice Department to shift its views, asked Judge Mary M. Schroeder, an appointee of President Jimmy Carter, coyly referring to the recent election.

“No, your honor,” Mr. Letter replied.

“The change in administration has no bearing?” she asked.

“No, your honor,” he said once more. The position he was taking in court on behalf of the government had been “thoroughly vetted with the appropriate officials within the new administration,” and “these are the authorized positions,” he said.

Just to bring in some perspective, let's add to this what has been alleged to have happened to one of the five Brits suing the government in this case, Binyam Mohamed. The Telegraph UK reported over the weekend:

Material in a CIA dossier on Mr Mohamed that was blacked out by High Court judges contained details of how British intelligence officers supplied information to his captors and contributed questions while he was brutally tortured, The Sunday Telegraph has learned.

Intelligence sources have revealed that spy chiefs put pressure on Mr Miliband to do nothing that would leave serving MI6 officers open to prosecution, or to jeopardise relations with the CIA, which is passing them "top notch" information on British terrorist suspects from its own informers in Britain.

Mr Mohamed, 30, an Ethiopian, was granted refugee status in Britain in 1994. He was picked up in Pakistan in 2002 on suspicion of involvement in terrorism, rendered to Morocco and Afghanistan, tortured and then sent to Guantanamo Bay in 2004. All terror charges against him were dropped last year.

The 25 lines edited out of the court papers contained details of how Mr Mohamed's genitals were sliced with a scalpel and other torture methods so extreme that waterboarding, the controversial technique of simulated drowning, "is very far down the list of things they did," the official said.

Another source familiar with the case said: "British intelligence officers knew about the torture and didn't do anything about it. They supplied information to the Americans and the Moroccans. They supplied questions, they supplied photographs. There is evidence of all of that."

It was done in our name, using our tax dollars, and now this new Administration, which has spoken very specifically and on the record about the pernicious nature of the state secrets privilege, is now invoking it the same way George Bush had, to avoid accountability. Applying state secrets to get entire court cases thrown out is just the most extreme version of this. Russ Feingold has said:

When the executive branch invokes the state secrets privilege to shut down lawsuits, hides its programs behind secret OLC opinions, over-classifies information to avoid public disclosure, and interprets the Freedom of Information Act as an information withholding statute, it shuts down all of the means to detect and respond to its abuses of the rule of law – whether those abuses involve torture, domestic spying, or the firing of U.S. Attorneys for partisan gain.

Leon Panetta is on the record saying there will be no prosecutions for CIA officers who implemented the crimes of the Bush era. Last night, Obama responded to a question by the Huffington Post's Sam Stein about the need for a truth and reconciliation commission, just so that we would know the extent of the lawbreaking of the past eight years, by dodging the question, saying that if there were "clear instances of wrongdoing" prosecutions should occur, he would be more inclined to look forward and not backward. And we even have evidence that Obama is backsliding on the closure of Guantanamo:

President Obama assured relatives and victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and the bombing of the USS Cole that he is keeping an open mind about how to handle the approximately 245 detainees held at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, according to participants in an hour-long meeting yesterday at the White House.

The president met with about 40 family members and victims, who hold different views on his decision to close the prison in Cuba within a year. The exchange, which was sometimes passionate but never acrimonious, left some who were deeply skeptical of the administration's decision to suspend military commissions at Guantanamo Bay satisfied that the president has not yet decided to abolish the current system of prosecuting suspected terrorists.

Obama told the group that he was only hitting the "pause button" when he sought the suspension of proceedings against 21 detainees, including Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the self-proclaimed mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks. And he assured the group that he wants the swift prosecution of those responsible for the terrorist attacks and their facilitators.

This is the rot that comes from a lack of accountability. In covering up someone else's crimes, you inevitably use their methods, which are crimes themselves. They maintain an architecture which can easily be pulled out to cover up your OWN crimes. And it violently damages the rule of law and the ability for Americans to believe in their government.

I'm sick about this.

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