American Archipelago

Print edition : March 08, 2013

A U.S. Predator drone setting off from the Bagram air base in Afghanistan, in November 2009. Photo: Bonny Schoonakker/AFP

At Camp X-Ray in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. A March 2002 photograph. Photo: Peter MUHLY/AFP

Presidents Barack Obama and Geroge W. Bush, a January 2009 photograph. The War on Terror strategies of both are extralegal in their own ways.

Anwar al-Awlaki, the U.S.-born cleric linked to Al Qaeda who was killed in a drone strike in Yemen. Photo: Reuters

Counterterrorism chief John Brennan, nominated by President Obama to be the next Director of the Central Intelligence Agency. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images/AFP

The U.S. has roped in many countries in Africa, Asia and Europe for its programme of torture in its War on Terror. Such widespread complicity will make it difficult for the U.N. to prosecute anyone for human rights violations.

WORD spills out of government documents about drones and targeted assassinations, torture and extraordinary rendition. An important non-governmental organisation (NGO) in New York publishes a report; a television station runs a story about a leaked White House document. There is selective outrage about this or that aspect of the story—how can the President authorise the killing of a United States citizen? But there is little discussion about the broader themes revealed by the two documents. First, an Open Society Justice Initiative report ( Globalizing Torture: CIA Secret Detention and Extraordinary Rendition, 2013) takes us back to the Bush-era War on Terror, where extraordinary rendition and torture governed the atmosphere. Second, NBC News leaked a White House memo that summarises an as-yet-classified document by its Legal Counsel that approved the extrajudicial assassination of the U.S.-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki by a drone strike. This is the Obama-era War on Terror, where arrests of suspects are not a priority but the use of assassination by drone is the modus operandi.

Both techniques are extralegal in their own way. The former sought to arrest “terrorists” and funnel them, to be tortured, to third parties, while the latter seeks to simply kill the “terrorists” without any judicial review. Putting these two styles of the War on Terror together, it is clear that neither accords with the niceties of international law. Nevertheless, apart from anaemic United Nations reviews and reports there is no appetite for any serious prosecution for any of these alleged war crimes. Perhaps because of his rhetorical liberalism or because of his lighter touch, President Barack Obama has not been pilloried, as was President George W. Bush.

Shortly after 9/11, the Bush administration decided to launch a global War on Terror, which would commence in Afghanistan (the home of Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden). Once the Taliban was routed from Afghanistan, the U.S. turned its eyes to Al Qaeda’s tentacles, spread out as they were across the Arab world, into parts of South-East Asia and into Europe. Police operations hunted down Al Qaeda leadership, as military sweeps in Afghanistan picked up both what appeared to be Al Qaeda’s men and those who resembled them. These men, and a few women, were then drawn into a network of prisons (such as the Bagram Air Base near Kabul and Guantanamo in Cuba) and “black sites” (undisclosed locations, including aboard U.S. ships). At these sites, these men and women were tortured (or underwent “enhanced interrogation”). It has been shown by most studies that very little of actually useful intelligence was gleaned from these sessions (a fact that escaped the script writers of the torture pornography Zero Dark Thirty). Nonetheless, there is sufficient evidence of widespread torture conducted either by U.S. officials or by their proxies.

The extent of the regime of torture was known early into the war, but within five years reports from various human rights and humanitarian agencies conclusively documented it. A confidential report of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to the Bush administration in February 2007 entered the public discussion. The ICRC met 14 high-value detainees and learned of widespread use of “a harsh regime employing a combination of physical and psychological ill-treatment”. This report followed Bush’s 2006 revelation of the “black sites” and a 2006 U.N. Committee Against Torture recommendation asking the U.S. to stop using “black sites”, and also five years of work by the ICRC to uncover the extent of this American archipelago. Little came of it.

Within days of coming into office, Obama told a television programme that he would be reluctant to investigate Bush-era maleficence. Suggesting that the U.S. needed “to look forward as opposed to looking backward,” Obama conceded that he did not want the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) “to suddenly feel like they’ve got to spend their time looking over their shoulders”. Such a cavalier tone towards the systematic use of torture did not still the U.N. Special Rapporteur on torture, Juan E. Méndez, himself tortured by the Argentinian military in the 1970s. In 2010, Méndez pointed out: “We haven’t seen much in the way of accountability.” A few stray court cases, such as in Canada by four victims of the Bush regime (Murat Kurnaz, Hassan bin Attash, Sami el-Hajj and Muhammed Khan Tumani) in 2012, continue to move slowly through national courts. Little has taken place in the international arena.

The new report by the Open Society reveals why there might not be international will to reopen discussion of Bush’s extraordinary rendition and torture regime. It shows that 54 countries participated in these policies, including “by hosting CIA prisons in their territories; detaining, interrogating, torturing, and abusing individuals; assisting in the capture and transport of detainees; permitting the use of domestic airspace and airports for secret flights transporting detainees; providing intelligence leading to the secret detention and extraordinary rendition of individuals; and interrogating individuals who were secretly being held in the custody of other governments.” The report has capsule stories of 136 prisoners who were thrown into this web. Here are three examples:

(1) Soufian al-Huwari is an Algerian arrested in Georgia in 2002, “sold to U.S. forces”, held in CIA detention in Kabul’s Dark Prison, transferred to Guantanamo and then handed over to the Algerian prison system in 2008.

(2) Mohammed Ali Isse is a Somali captured in the 2004 raid of a Mogadishu house and flown, “bleeding”, on a U.S. military helicopter to an offshore U.S. ship. He was interrogated for a month before he was turned over by the CIA to Djibouti’s Camp Lemonnier. From there he went to a secret prison in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where “he says he was detained and tortured by Ethiopian intelligence agents with electric shocks”. In late 2004, Somaliland agents took Isse to a Berbera prison where he has a life term.

(3) Noor al-Deen, a Syrian teenager, was captured in Pakistan in March 2002. He was taken to Morocco by the CIA and then transferred to Syria. It is likely that he was taken to Syria’s notorious Palestinian Branch/Far Falastin military prison in western Damascus where prisoners were held in communal cells and in The Grave (coffin-size cells) and where detainees were placed in the German Chair (to stretch their spines)—with the full knowledge and connivance of the CIA.

What is remarkable about the 200-page report from the Open Society (whose lead author is Amrit Singh, daughter of India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh) is the established level of complicity by so many governments in Africa (including Libya, Morocco, South Africa and Zimbabwe), Europe (including Austria, Belgium, Georgia, Ireland, Italy, Poland and the United Kingdom), and Asia (Indonesia, Iran, Malaysia, Syria and Thailand). Various regional human rights commissions are now looking further into these charges, although no one has focussed on the principal charge—that by bringing all these countries into the American Archipelago, the U.S. has undermined the principles of human rights. Such widespread complicity makes it doubtful that the U.N. will ever seriously prosecute anyone for violations of its standards.

The Open Society report reminds us of the Bush-era techniques, although it also indicates that despite its pledges not to do so the Obama administration has carried forward some of the policies. Under Obama, there is allegedly a secret prison in Somalia “run with CIA involvement”, there are secret U.S. Defence Department detention facilities in Afghanistan and there was one case of a two-month-long secret detention of a Somali man aboard a U.S. ship.

Obama’s war

President Obama’s preferred mode of operation has not been to arrest terror suspects, hold them in “black sites” and allow them to be tortured. Rather, the current U.S. administration uses its intelligence operations to collect data on terror suspects and, without judicial review, creates a “kill list” for those who are then assassinated by U.S. drones or through other means. An expanded drone programme comes alongside a retracted “black site” programme. The former takes no prisoners and so avoids the unpleasantness of torture and endless detention. But the latter raises far more fundamental questions about the right of a state to assassinate anyone across the globe.

The issue of drones returned to the agenda during the confirmation hearings of John Brennan, tapped by Obama to lead the CIA. Brennan, as Obama’s counterterrorism chief, has been one of the most vocal advocates of the drone strategy. In a major speech on April 30 last year, Brennan revealed why the drone strategy was so important to the Obama administration. The U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as U.S. military activity in Pakistan, have soured many countries towards allowing U.S. troops to get involved in their battles. If U.S. troops arrived in Yemen in large numbers, for instance, this might awake a sense of patriotism that could unite a deeply divided country. “Countries typically don’t want foreign soldiers in their cities and towns,” said Brennan. Because there is no appetite for U.S. troops in places such as Yemen and Pakistan, the U.S. has turned to “the precision of targeted strikes” through the use of drones.

When the conflict escalated in Mali, the U.S. revealed plans for a drone base in Niger (one of the world’s leading uranium producers). During the renewed debate around the killing of al-Awlaki, it was revealed that the U.S. drone that killed him flew from a Saudi Arabian base. It is well to remember that Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda began as a response to the entry of U.S. troops into Saudi Arabia in 1991, and much fanfare was made about the closure of the last U.S. base in the country in 2003. It appears now that there is at least one secret drone base in the country, where tensions remain high about the presence of U.S. troops. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism reports that drone strikes in Pakistan increased in January 2013 to double the monthly average last year. Since 2004, the U.S. has conducted 362 drone strikes in Pakistan, with 85.6 per cent authorised by Obama. Obama has authorised four times as many drone strikes as Bush.

The Bureau notes that it is hard to keep track of the casualties from these strikes, but it counts for Pakistan between 2,629 and 3,461 dead, with 475 to 891 of them being civilians (among whom were 176 children). No wonder that former commander of the international forces in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, recently noted: “What scares me about drone strikes is how they are perceived around the world. The resentment created by American use of unmanned strikes is much greater than what the average American appreciates. They are hated on a visceral level, even by people who’ve never seen one or seen the effects of one.”

It is clear that several countries are colluding with the U.S. in the drone programme (certainly Afghanistan, Niger, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Somalia and Yemen). It is also clear that the U.N. has for several years been very critical of the drone programme. In May 2010, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Philip Alston, published a “Study on Targeted Killing” that questioned the use of drones and asked states that used these means to declare publicly their legal rationale and their safeguards against abuse. Alston was ignored.

In 2012, China, Pakistan and Russia approached the U.N. Human Rights Council to issue a statement condemning drone strikes. The Council formed a panel to investigate drone strikes, led by its special investigator Ben Emmerson (a British lawyer who works in the same legal firm as Cherie Blair, wife of former U.K. Prime Minister and close Bush ally Tony Blair). Emmerson announced in January 2013 that his panel would undertake a nine-month study to look into drone strikes and targeted killings. This study will look into the “exponential rise” in drone strikes, “with a view to determining whether there is a plausible allegation of unlawful killing.” It will deliver its report to the Council in October 2013.

The leaked 2011 Obama document, which allows the assassination of U.S. citizens, is quite cavalier about the use of targeted assassination. The standard logic for extra-judicial killing is simply that it would be hard to arrest the target and that “an informed, high-level official in the U.S. government has determined that the targeted individual poses an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States.” If such standards are met, the judicial process can be set aside. The gap between such logic and the logic of the Bush-era renditions and torture is not great. The de-legitimisation of having U.S. troops invade a country and the problem of Guantanamo has forced the U.S. to move to this new strategy of drones and assassination. The shift might have less to do with the political traditions represented by Bush (conservative) and Obama (liberal) and more to do with the changed global context for the War on Terror.