Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Qahtani Tortured

Susan Crawford, the Bush administration official charged with overseeing overseeing the military commissions in Guantanamo Bay calls a spade a spade:

The top Bush administration official in charge of deciding whether to bring Guantanamo Bay detainees to trial has concluded that the U.S. military tortured a Saudi national who allegedly planned to participate in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, interrogating him with techniques that included sustained isolation, sleep deprivation, nudity and prolonged exposure to cold, leaving him in a "life-threatening condition."

"We tortured [Mohammed al-]Qahtani," said Susan J. Crawford, in her first interview since being named convening authority of military commissions by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates in February 2007. "His treatment met the legal definition of torture. And that's why I did not refer the case" for prosecution.

Crawford, a retired judge who served as general counsel for the Army during the Reagan administration and as Pentagon inspector general when Dick Cheney was secretary of defense, is the first senior Bush administration official responsible for reviewing practices at Guantanamo to publicly state that a detainee was tortured.

Crawford, 61, said the combination of the interrogation techniques, their duration and the impact on Qahtani's health led to her conclusion. "The techniques they used were all authorized, but the manner in which they applied them was overly aggressive and too persistent. . . . You think of torture, you think of some horrendous physical act done to an individual. This was not any one particular act; this was just a combination of things that had a medical impact on him, that hurt his health. It was abusive and uncalled for. And coercive. Clearly coercive. It was that medical impact that pushed me over the edge" to call it torture, she said.

This of course is in contrast to very public statements made by both Bush himself and Cheney, very recently, who stated that we do not torture:

President Bush and Vice President Cheney have said that interrogations never involved torture. "The United States does not torture. It's against our laws, and it's against our values," Bush asserted on Sept. 6, 2006, when 14 high-value detainees were transferred to Guantanamo from secret CIA prisons. And in a interview last week with the Weekly Standard, Cheney said, "And I think on the left wing of the Democratic Party, there are some people who believe that we really tortured."

Well, not just the left wing apparently. Allegations that Qahtani had been tortured surfaced in 2005 when Time published excerpts of his interrogation log, and we knew that the charges against him had been dropped last year, with many speculating it was because of his treatment at the hands of U.S. personnel, so the real surprise here is hear that Crawford concluded that Qahtani's treatment met the legal definition of torture. Defense department officials insist they will bring charges again based on evidence obtained that doesn't rely on the tainted evidence obtained by torturing Qahtani, but Crawford insist that she won't permit the prosecution to go forward, and the Obama administration is likely to drop the use of military commissions completely. Crawford has some other choice things to say as well:

"It did shock me," Crawford said. "I was upset by it. I was embarrassed by it. If we tolerate this and allow it, then how can we object when our servicemen and women, or others in foreign service, are captured and subjected to the same techniques? How can we complain? Where is our moral authority to complain? Well, we may have lost it."

The harsh techniques used against Qahtani, she said, were approved by then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. "A lot of this happened on his watch," she said.

While I applaud Crawford for being willing to air what she witnessed publicly, I can't help but point out that her statement may have had considerably more impact on the system back in 2008 when she refused to go forward with charges against Qahtani. At this point she's merely confirming, belatedly, what most of us already knew, and she's doing so on the eve of what is likely to be a scrapping of the entire system that she has overseen. Crawford has come under fire for her role in the commissions as well. Morris Davis, the former chief prosecutor, had this to say about her:

Earlier this year, Susan Crawford was appointed by the secretary of Defense to replace Maj. Gen. John Altenburg as the convening authority. Altenburg’s staff had kept its distance from the prosecution to preserve its impartiality. Crawford, on the other hand, had her staff assessing evidence before the filing of charges, directing the prosecution’s pretrial preparation of cases (which began while I was on medical leave), drafting charges against those who were accused and assigning prosecutors to cases, among other things.

How can you direct someone to do something – use specific evidence to bring specific charges against a specific person at a specific time, for instance – and later make an impartial assessment of whether they behaved properly? Intermingling convening authority and prosecutor roles perpetuates the perception of a rigged process stacked against the accused.

The second reason I resigned is that I believe even the most perfect trial in history will be viewed with skepticism if it is conducted behind closed doors. Telling the world, “Trust me, you would have been impressed if only you could have seen what we did in the courtroom” will not bolster our standing as defenders of justice. Getting evidence through the classification review process to allow its use in open hearings is time-consuming, but it is time well spent.

Crawford, however, thought it unnecessary to wait because the rules permit closed proceedings. There is no doubt that some portions of some trials have to be closed to protect classified information, but that should be the last option after exhausting all reasonable alternatives. Transparency is critical.

So once again we have a "stunning" admission from a Bush administration official, who was herself up to her eyeballs in a in a blatantly unjust process, long after the incident being referred to occurred and past the point at which such an admission (or confession) can be useful. Thanks for nothing Susan Crawford. 

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