Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Retired Officers Urge Obama to Erase the "Stain of Torture"

By William Fisher

As a group of retired military leaders prepared to urge U.S. President-elect Barack Obama to quickly put an end to the harsh interrogation practices inflicted on security prisoners, a new United Nations report charged that Iraqi authorities were committing “grave human rights violations” in their treatment of thousands of detainees.

"Grave human rights violations ... remain unaddressed," the UN report said. It cited "ongoing widespread ill-treatment and torture of detainees by Iraqi law enforcement authorities, amid pervasive impunity of current and past human rights abuses."

The UN report cast doubt on whether Iraq will be prepared to professionally manage control over thousands of security detainees now in U.S. custody under a new security pact that would end the U.S. mission here by 2012. Approved by Iraq's parliament last week, the agreement mandates that American forces transfer to Iraqi custody all detainees believed to be a major threat and to release the rest "in a safe and orderly manner."

As an example, the UN report said that 123 men crammed had been into a single 540-square-foot cell — about the size of a studio apartment. It urged the Iraqi government to speed up legal reforms and strengthen the judicial system as it asserts more control over its own affairs. The report also renewed concern about the U.S. detention of suspects for prolonged periods without judicial review of their cases.

The U.N.'s special representative in Iraq estimated that there were now a total of 40,000 detainees, including some 15,800 being held by the U.S. military.

Meanwhile, the issue of detainee treatment continued to be a front-and-center issue for the newly elected U.S. president.

Today (Wednesday) members of the Obama team will meet with more than a dozen retired military leaders who will urge the new president “to restore a U.S. image battered by allegations of torturing terrorism suspects.”

"We need to remove the stain, and the stain is on us, as well as on our
reputation overseas," said a member of the group, retired Vice Adm. Lee Gunn, former Navy inspector general.

The group plans to suggest a list of anti-torture principles, including making the Army Field Manual the single standard for all U.S. interrogators, revoking presidential orders allowing the CIA to use harsh treatment, giving the International Red Cross access to all prisoners held by intelligence agencies and declaring a moratorium on “rendering” prisoners to third countries for harsh interrogations.

The Army Field Manual requires humane treatment and forbids practices such as waterboarding -- a form of simulated drowning widely condemned as torture.

"If he'd just put a couple of sentences in his inaugural address, stating the
new position, then everything would flow from that," said retired Maj. Gen. Fred Haynes, whose regiment in World War Two raised the American flag on Iwo Jima.

Obama has denounced waterboarding and other forms of harsh questioning allowed by secret orders.

"Torture is how you create enemies, not how you defeat them," he said in October 2007. He has also vowed to close the Guantanamo Bay prison for terrorism suspects, an international symbol of prisoner abuse.

The retired military officers have previously met with Vice President-elect Joseph Biden and with Senator Hillary Clinton, who has been nominated b y Obama to be his Secretary of State.

U.S. President George W. Bush has repeatedly denied condoning torture, but his denials have been widely doubted at home and abroad. A Justice Department report this year found the White House ignored reports it received that FBI agents viewed some Guantanamo interrogations as "borderline torture."

While the issues of Guantanamo’s closing, rendition, and harsh interrogation techniques pose ongoing challenges for President-elect Obama, the administration of George W. Bush is being accused of continuing such abuses.

In the latest allegation, A Muslim American, Hossam Hemdan of Los Angeles, charged that he was tortured and beaten into confessing to a terrorism-related charge by the security services of Abu Dhabi – part of the oil-rich United Arab Emirates (UAE) -- which he said held him for nearly three months at the request of the U.S. government.

Hemdan, a 42-year-old naturalized U.S. citizen, told his brother by telephone this week that he confessed to terror-related charges after continually being beaten and subjected to harsh treatment. "They beat him very badly. They stood on his back and another person pulled his feet. They beat him on the bottoms of his feet," he charged. "He said he had a liver problem. They beat him on his liver on the right side (of his body)" until he lost consciousness.

Following his confession, he was placed in the custody of the Abu Dhabi criminal justice system, where he is currently being detained.

Hemdan was arrested in Los Angeles last August after several years of surveillance by the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). The FBI has acknowledged that the case involved counterterrorism but has denied asking the UAE to hold him. How he got to Abu Dhabi is unclear.

The American Civil Liberties Union has filed a lawsuit in Federal Court charging that the administration illegally asked the UAE security services to hold Hemdan in order to avoid granting him his constitutional protections against illegal and unlimited detention.

The lawsuit named President Bush, Attorney General Michael Mukasey and FBI Director Robert Mueller as defendants and asked that the administration be ordered to demand Hemdan's release.


By William Fisher

You may have heard that the Bush Administration is in a frenzied race to lock in its favorite policies before Barack Obama takes office.

So far, Bushies have managed to use Executive Orders to savage regulations that trash environmental protections, give early Christmas gifts to business interests, and yet again submerge science under ideology.

And it may not be so easy for the Obama Administration to undo this potpourri of hundreds of regulations.

But not all the Bushies’ assaults on the Constitution began with the election of a new president.

One shining example: In 2007, the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel issued a memorandum concerning one of the most troubling aspects of W’s faith-based initiative.

This memorandum says it’s OK for organizations that are recipients of grants from the faith-based initiative to openly discriminate against hiring people on religious grounds. It reached that dubious conclusion despite existing antidiscrimination laws and Congress’ resounding refusal to change those laws.

The consequence is that charities affiliated with Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, or whatever faiths, can now legally refuse to hire job applicants – or accept volunteers -- simply because they are not of the same faith.

Maybe I’m missing something, but what that says to me is that my tax dollars might just be flowing to some outfit I couldn’t work for or benefit from.

Then there’s that pesky issue of Constitutionality. Doesn’t our Constitution say something about Congress making no law respecting an establishment of

Now if you’re just hearing about this for the first time, it’s not surprising. That’s because the OLC regulation, while issued in 2007, was only recently posted on the Office of Legal Counsel’s website.

One has to wonder why, if the Bushies are so proud of their faith-based programs, they spirit this good news onto their website, as it were, in the dead of night in a way that suggests they’re trying to keep it well under the radar.

The OLC ruling grows out of a $1.5 million grant to a Christian relief and development organization called World Vision, Inc., founded in 1950. The grant came from the Office of Justice Programs pursuant to the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act of 1974.

Now, the law says that, as a condition of receiving grants pursuant to the JJDPA, recipients must refrain from discriminating on the basis of religion in “employment in connection with any programs or activity” funded by the grant.

But World Vision wasn’t thrilled with that law, so it asked the Department of Justice to waive it.

In World Vision’s application for a waiver, the group said it has made it a policy to hire only “Christian staff to assist with the mission of the organization.” It said it has done so in order to “maintain [its] identity and strength, which [are] at the core of [its] success,” and because it “can only remain true to [its] vision if [it] ha[s] the freedom to select like-minded staff, which includes staffing on a religious basis.” It stated that the work of the Vision Youth program is “very staff intensive.” And its staff all “share a faith, passion and commitment to [World Vision’s] mission.”

The OLC responded: “You (World Vision) have asked whether the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (“RFRA”) -- which prohibits the Government from “substantially burden[ing]” religious exercise unless that burden “is the least restrictive means of furthering [a] compelling governmental interest -- …requires OJP to exempt World Vision from the religious nondiscrimination provision. We conclude that RFRA is reasonably construed to require that such an accommodation be made for World Vision, and that OJP would be within its legal discretion, under the JJDPA and under RFRA, to exempt World Vision from the religious nondiscrimination requirement.”

What should be our take-away from all this? Well, it should come as no surprise that for the last eight years the Bush Administration has been pulling out all the stops to lower our traditional barriers between church and state. And succeeding.

But arguably the credibility of the OLC decision should be informed by that office’s recent history and twisted record. After all, why should we believe anything from the office that ruled it was OK for American investigators to use harsh interrogation techniques – torture, that is?

A ruling whose tortured logic will exact a price our country will be paying for decades.

But have faith; there’s a light at the end of this dark tunnel. Two lights, to be exact. The first is that, in less than two months, the Bushies will be gone – and, with them, one of the most divisive administrations in our country’s history. The second is that President-elect Obama has made it clear that, while he too will have a faith-based initiative, under no circumstances will it allow its beneficiaries to decide whom to hire on the basis of religion.

Faith-based organizations do a huge amount of good in our society. But they shouldn’t be allowed to use our tax dollars to adopt an ideology contrary to the most basic tenets of their own faith in order to execute their programs.