In our name? Q & A with Scott Horton, keynote speaker at Duke conference April 8-10 on torture, renditions and citizens' responsibilities | Citizen
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Monday, April 5, 2010

In our name? Q & A with Scott Horton, keynote speaker at Duke conference April 8-10 on torture, renditions and citizens' responsibilities

Posted by on Mon, Apr 5, 2010 at 11:16 AM


"Accountability" is the subject of an important conference at Duke this week (Thursday-Friday with an invite-only meeting for organizers on Saturday). Specifically, are we accountable here in North Carolina — indeed, is anyone accountable — for the abuses in the so-called War on Terror that our government is conducting in our name? Abuses that include the "extraordinary rendition" of terror suspects from places of U.S. jurisdiction around the world to prisons in other nations where torture is routine. Extraordinary renditions carried out in some cases, it seems, using aircraft and personnel based at the Johnston County (NC) Airport.

So far, there's been near-zero accountability on these subjects in the United States. Waterboarding? Just an "enhanced interrogation" technique. Renditions? What renditions? Poor Scooter Libby got a legal scolding, but Dick Cheney remains the biggest star in the right-wing firmament, and President Obama is doing his best to avoid holding anyone accountable for Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, Bagram, or any of the other horror shows put on by our military intelligence agencies.

In 2007, the Indy recognized the extraordinary efforts of the N.C. Stop Torture Now group with a Citizens Award. Before and since, this group has stood for justice and accountability in the face of the national state of denial and North Carolina's official "not my job" response.

This week, Stop Torture Now is partnering with the Duke Human Rights Center and programs at the Duke and UNC-CH law schools to sponsor a free public conference, "Weaving a Net of Accountability: Taking on Extraordinary Rendition at the State and Regional Level." All events are at Duke, starting Thursday at 5:30 p.m. with an interfaith service on torture at the Duke Divinity School. The full agenda is available on the conference website.

Scott Horton
  • courtesy Harper's magazine
  • Scott Horton
The keynote address will be by Scott Horton, who is extraordinary in his own right. Horton is an international lawyer (counsel to Andrei Sakharov and Elena Bonner), a lecturer at Columbia Law School, and the organizer of the New York Bar Association's inquiries into abuses in the conduct of the War on Terror, which have been ground-breaking. He's also a contributing editor at Harper's magazine and author of its "No Comment" blog, which is an amazing commentary on American foreign policy and the military-intelligence complex. If you want to be informed about what our govenment is doing in our name, and embarrassed at how little you've understood about it, read Horton's blog.

In January, Horton published "The Guantanamo 'Suicides': A Camp Delta Sergeant Blows the Whistle" — it came out in print as the March, 2010 cover story in Harper's. It is a must-read.

For starters: Three terror suspects, never charged, died one night in June, 2006 in the prison at Guantanamo. Their deaths, according to the Pentagon, were suicides. But Horton's reporting casts that account into serious doubt. Drawing on a study of the [heavily redacted] official report done by at Seton Hall Law School, and the accounts of guards at Gitmo who came to Horton after reading his earlier article on the Seton Hall study, Horton suggests that the deaths may have been the result of torture in a black-box prison unit at Gitmo called Camp No — "No," because nobody acknowledges that it exists.

Horton's reporting virtually demands that the Obama Justice Department open a new investigation into the Gitmo deaths — except that the Justice Department maintains that it already looked and — in the vein of Hogan's Heroes' Sgt. Schultz — it saw nothing.

On his blog, Horton often asks "Six Questions" of somebody. So, in anticipation of his arrival this week, we asked Horton six questions. the Q&A follows below the fold.

1. Can you summarize the evidence that the deaths at Guantanamo in 2006 were not suicides and may have resulted from torture by CIA or military interrogators?

Yes. It starts with the observations of the tower guards, who note that three prisoners were removed from the Alpha Cell Block of Camp One between 7 and 8 pm the evening of the deaths and taken by “paddy wagon” transport to Camp No, a secret interrogation facility. The paddy wagon only made one return trip after that, backing up against the entrance of the detainee medical facility to unload cargo. That was at 11:30 pm, about the time talk started to circulate in the camp that the three prisoners had died.

Second, Col. Bumgarner, the camp commander told the assembled camp guards at a gathering in the open air theater at Camp America at 7 am that although the prisoners had died as a result of “rags stuffed in the mouth,” the media would report something different later that day. He ordered the guards not to contradict the official account, by which they died by hanging themselves in their cells.

Third, the bodies themselves bore signs interpreted by some observers as torture and abuse and were consistent with death by asphyxiation through choking rather than by hanging. The US Government refused cooperation with foreign pathologists conducting an examination on behalf of the families, with one US pathologist saying he wanted to cooperate, but had been ordered not to. Also, the neck material was removed from the bodies and was not made available to the independent pathologists, making an independent autopsy verdict impossible. All of this violated basic rules concerning autopsies.

And finally we have the NCIS report, which states that the prisoners committed suicide in a manner which was physically impossible, while using materials that the cellblock guards swore was not found in their cells when they were checked just a few hours earlier. The official account, in short, won’t stand on its own feet.

2. Is the Obama Administration, including the Justice Department, investigating the case? And if not, why not?

The Obama Justice Department claims it looked into the tower guards’ accounts and has concluded that there is no reason to reopen the investigation. It claims to have completely investigated their claims. We were able to establish that it did not in fact investigate their accounts, telling an attorney for Sergeant Hickman that the case was closed because of lack of corroboration. But on that very day, we were able to establish that the Justice Department had not been in touch with the corroborating witnesses. In other words, the Justice Department continued the cover up.

3. What’s your assessment of President Obama’s performance on issues related to the so-called war on terror, torture, secret prisons, and his pledge to close Guantanamo? What should the President be doing now?

The White House’s marching orders are “look forward, not back.” A decision has been made by Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and presidential advisor David Axelrod that no reports of crimes associated with the war on terror should be investigated. As Jane Mayer and others have reported, this position has led to some friction between the White House and Attorney General Holder, but by and large Holder is toeing the line. The pledge to close Guantánamo has been blocked by Congressional Republicans with a handful of Democratic allies, and the White House appeared to be settled on a compromise of some sort with South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham under which a group of 9/11 defendants will be tried in a military commission and a handful of Republicans will support shutting down Guantánamo.

This effort, spearheaded by Rahm Emanuel, is very unfortunate. Trial before a military commission may be appropriate in some of these cases, but it is never appropriate for decisions about the indictment and criminal prosecution of named individuals to be a matter of political horsetrading. That corrupts the entire criminal justice system, which cannot operate credibly on a platform of partisan political compromise.

4. How damaged are we, legally and politically, by the fact that we are in a perpetual war against a non-state enemy and are holding prisoners who can neither be tried nor released? Can these issues be managed? Is it time to end the war?

I believe that one major error of the past eight years was the underestimation of the role that prosecutions can and should play in a conflict. In this case, individuals who planned and implemented the heinous attacks on 9/11 are criminals who should be charged, tried and convicted, and dealt with in the manner the law provides. These steps would have provided justice for the victims of 9/11 but they would also have upheld the role of justice in our struggle. The trials would have allowed the United States an opportunity to demonstrate on the world stage the evil that these individuals plotted, the suffering which was afflicted on the innocent, and the justice of America’s response. This opportunity was missed.

5. You wrote recently that we know very little about the U.S. rendition program? From what we do know, is it justifiable?

Moving individuals around the world to accomplish the ends of justice (“rendition to justice”) is appropriate in certain circumstances. The extraordinary renditions program of the Bush era, in which people were seized and held in secret camps, sometimes tortured and sometimes held in conjunction with foreign powers which tortured (which I call torture by proxy), outside of recourse of law, is a criminal act. The United States Department of Justice recognized that in US v. Altstoetter in 1946, in which it charged foreign government officials for crimes against humanity for precisely this crime. The defendants were convicted, by the way, and sentenced to 10 years at hard labor for participating in a scheme of extrajudicial “disappearings,” so we even have clear sentencing guidelines for the crime.

6. What impact can a conference like the one at Duke have on subjects like rendition or the legacy of Guantanamo?

There is a lot of reporting about Guantanamo, but most of it is thin political diatribe which refuses to engage seriously with the issues at the level of law and policy. These issues will be with us for some time, and it is particularly important for the academic community to engage with them and provide voices of leadership. Duke has a long tradition of providing vision and guidance on these questions, a fact demonstrated by the presence of distinguished Justice Department and Defense Department lawyers on the faculty of its law school, for instance. That’s one reason why I was honored to receive an invitation to speak at Duke and, of course, immediately accepted.

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