By Henry "Chip" Carey
The Boston Marathon bombing is part of a clear trend of terrorist incidents since 9/11. Like most attacks in the United States, the two brothers were not part of an al-Qaida network. Perhaps one could conclude that our extraordinarily expensive strategy is working since so few successful attacks have emanated from al-Qaida central and its few affiliate groups. Such self-congratulation, however, is dangerous. The Obama administration’s policies on drone strikes, Guantanamo, and torture inspire terrorist acts from individuals and groups beyond al-Qaida. U.S. policies are arousing fear and resentment, not just in organized terrorist organizations but also in the lone wolves and small groups inspired by them.
According to Scott Atran, the Research Director in Anthropology at the National Center for Scientific Research in France, jihadists are frequently small groups of friends, unassimilated into society and angry about how the cyber and mass media portray to them. They target Western governments and their allies who they perceive as responsible for the killing of Muslims. America’s unrestricted drone program, its unlawful and immoral detention of terror suspects, and its defense and perpetuation of an extensive torture program are all sources malcontent that serve as rallying points for jihadists.
President Obama’s speech on foreign policy this week addressed some of these policy abuses, though it ignored torture, which represents the worst of them all. On the topic of drones, the President indicated a shift from an overbroad “war on terror” to a war specifically on al-Qaida, the Taliban, and their allies. Such a move would hopefully restore some of country’s compromised democratic accountability. The transfer of drone attacks from the CIA to the Defense Department would at least subject future attacks to public scrutiny, instead of the current charade denying a well documented drone program and its egregious civilian casualty count. A more vocal public could speed the closure of the drone program in Yemen, which is directly responsible for the proliferation of al-Qaida and thus harmful to national security.
The President remained tacit on torture, however, which is the most damaging to America’s integrity and national image to Muslims. Despite his public position condemning the practice in all forms, in policy the president has defended and extended America’s torture program. In mid-April, the Constitution Project’s Bipartisan Committee released the Taskforce on Detainee Treatment stating in clear language the obvious: The Bush administration had perpetrated torture in criminal violation of U.S. law and the Constitution. While the media has reported widely on this fact, the executive has taken no steps to address this egregious offense. What has received little attention in the 577-page report, however, are its conclusions that the Obama administration has not taken adequate measures to halt torture as current state policy. This includes the transfer of detainees to foreign government facilities, such as in rendition to foreign trial of detainees, where the same, notorious phrase, “diplomatic assurances that a prisoner will not be tortured” is still ostensibly relied upon.
In short, torture comfortably continues under President Obama’s watch. A January 20, 2013 report by the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) concluded that despite significant efforts by the government of Afghanistan and NATO, torture persists in numerous detention facilities across Afghanistan. An earlier October 2011 UNAMA report stated that 125 detainees (46 percent) of the 273 detainees interviewed who had been in Afghan had been tortured and that torture is practiced systematically in a number of Afghan detention facilities. The Detainee Treatment report concludes that torture continues to this day, as thousands of prisoners captured by Americans are kept in secret detention for up to nine weeks in secret Afghanistan prisons or elsewhere. Ahmed Abdulkadir Warsame, for instance, was kept in secret detention on a U.S. naval vessel. Tens of thousands of U.S. detainees were knowingly transferred to Afghan authorities with the likelihood of and were in fact tortured, just as had occurred earlier in even greater numbers in Iraq. Rendition has occurred under Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama mostly for purposes of prosecution. The secret transfer to trial of such prisoners, continuing as before to countries that torture alleged or suspected terrorists, has not changed.
More disturbingly, the report details foreign government-managed prisons, where U.S. authorities participate in interrogation and provide substantial resources to its administration. The report also cites Jeremy Scahill’s essay in The Nation that since early 2009, the U.S. has sustained a secret facility in at Mogadishu Airport in Somalia and was involved in the extraordinary rendition of Ahmed Abdullahi Hassan from Kenya to Somalia. “They put a bag on my head, Guantánamo style. They tied my hands behind my back and put me on a plane. In the early hours we landed in Mogadishu. … I have been here for one year, seven months. I have been interrogated so many times. Interrogated by Somali men and white men. Every day. New faces show up. They have nothing on me. I have never seen a lawyer, never seen an outsider. Only other prisoners, interrogators, guards.”
In Yemen, the Counterterrorism Unit, which is a U.S. Joint Special Operations Command and CIA-trained torture agency, arrested a legitimate journalist, Abdulelah Haider Shaye. He had reported that the U.S. had used cruise missiles and cluster bombs in a 2009 attack that killed members of an alleged terrorist cell. This contradicted President Obama's assertion at the time that they were killed by Yemeni forces, not American bombs. He was disappeared for 30 days. He was eventually convicted of being an al-Qaida facilitator in a sham trial. Because of public outrage, he was almost pardoned by Yemen’s president, until he received a phone call from President Obama, who expressed his concern that Shaye would be released. Allegedly, Shaye is still being tortured under solitary confinement and is reported to be going mad. None of his U.S. employers, such as the Washington Post, have publicly complained about the arrest and torture of their reporter from Yemen by agents of the U.S. government
Furthermore, conditions in U.S. prisons themselves are appalling. More than half of the 167 detainees at Guantanamo are currently on hunger strike and are being forced-fed under cruel, painful conditions very close to—if not in fact—constituting torture. Strapped down for two hours at a time, they have tubes placed through their notes and mouths that go all the way into their stomachs. Then they are bound for several more hours so that they cannot vomit the food they have just ingested.
Torture is not a question of weighing costs and benefits. Torture only would provide useful information, and it still might be superfluous, if terrorist organizations were hierarchical with command and control and the potential for identifying an evil commander. Instead, anti-Western terrorism has been largely perpetrated by networks of friends who play soccer together and suffer the slings and arrows of alienation in Western societies.
In a world where estranged Muslims are looking for evidence of U.S.-supported oppression abroad, the Obama administration’s hypocritical advancement of torture makes it easy. While the presence of U.S. troops and drone attacks have been the most clear agents and symbols of U.S. oppression, continued U.S. support for torture abroad also suggests that the U.S., in the words of Dick Cheney, resorts “to the dark side.” America’s practice of torture contributes to our risk of terrorism by continuing policies that lead disenchanted young men banding together.
President Obama once said that he wants “to look forward, not to look back” with respect to the torture and extraordinary rendition policies. His speech this week suggests that he is beginning to look forward with an eye toward the ineffectiveness of the past, at least on the issue of drones and Guantanamo, but there was little evidence that he’d turn away from the U.S. role in the torture of captured individuals. His administration famously promulgated many torture reforms under his first executive order, issued on January 22, 2009. However, he never revoked the national security exceptions, including for the use of torture and extraordinary rendition. Furthermore, the 2009 reforms, which require U.S. forces to only use interrogation techniques listed in the 2006 Army Field Manual, removed the 1992 language that specifically prohibited sleep deprivation and stress positions, two of the more notorious techniques used in combination with other forms of Bush-era torture. Appendix M of the 2006 Manual permits 40-hour interrogation sessions indefinitely as long as it is approved by the combat commander every 30 days. It also permits field interrogators to use “goggles or blindfolds and earmuffs … to generate a perception of separation” for up to 12 hours. Blindfolds, earmuffs, and goggles may also be used for longer periods for security purposes. Finally, while conditions in Bagram, Afghanistan and Guantánamo have improved, most interrogation occurs at other sites, closer to the point of capture and without any guaranteed notification to and monitoring by the Red Cross until after the initial nine-week period of secret detention.
Furthermore, the Obama administration has had no truth commission, prosecutions, or transparency about past and current detention, torture, and targeted assassinations. The “new normal,” even after the presidential speech this week, remains essentially the same counter-terrorism policy as under the Bush administration with respect to accountability.
U.S. government secrecy allows torture to be committed frequently. Counter-terrorism is not currently checked and balanced by democratic institutions under current secrecy provisions. Allowing the Defense Department to conduct all future drone strikes does not necessarily assure public review of those attacks to see if they are actually against al-Qaida. That a former constitutional law professor should preside over these unaccountable counter-terrorism policies is shameful.
Henry "Chip" Carey is an associate professor of political science at Georgia State University. He is the author of Privatizing the Democratic Peace: Policy Dilemmas of NGO Peacebuilding and Reaping What You Sow: A Comparative Examination of Torture Reform in the United States, Israel, France and Argentina.
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