Brutal legacy

Published : Sep 11, 2009 00:00 IST

President Barack Obama. He tells Americans just to acknowledge the mistakes and go forward.-NATI HARNIK/AP

President Barack Obama. He tells Americans just to acknowledge the mistakes and go forward.-NATI HARNIK/AP

SUFFICIENT evidence has emerged to implicate the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the Pentagon and even the White House under former President George W. Bush in war crimes perpetrated during the global war against terror. The horrific photographs that emerged from Abu Ghraib in 2004 are still etched in the collective memory of the Arab and Islamic world. Since then there have been more graphic exposes of American atrocities connected with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Atrocities similar to those at Abu Ghraib were carried out simultaneously in Baghram and other secret CIA black sites all over the world.

The international community had expected the new President of the United States, Barack Obama, to investigate the previous administrations rendition and torture policies. But until now, the Obama administration has sought to portray these crimes against humanity as random acts by a few rogue elements in the establishment. Before being elected to the presidency, Obama promised the American people to bring about more transparency while probing the countless incidents of torture committed during the Bush administrations eight-year tenure.

Obama had described the practice of waterboarding, routinely used by the CIA and the contractors hired by it, as torture. The CIAs Inspector General wrote a critical report on the Bush administrations torture programme in 2004. This declassified document is expected to be released soon. After taking over seven months ago, Obama ordered the CIAs interrogation programme closed. He also promised to close down the military prison in Guantanamo Bay within a year.

But his administrations track record in the past seven months has not matched his promises. Attorney General Eric Holder, according to reports in the U.S. media, has only agreed to hold an inquiry that would be narrow in its scope: it would be limited to finding out whether officials went beyond the scope of interrogation and torture techniques authorised by the Bush administration. Waterboarding, used widely in the past seven years, is being virtually glossed over by the Obama administration. Nothing will be gained from spending our time and energy laying blame for the past, Obama said in March while releasing four Bush-era memos detailing CIA torture policies.

On a visit to the CIA headquarters earlier in the year, Obama, while acknowledging that some mistakes were made during the Bush presidency, urged Americans to acknowledge them and just move forward. The United Nations top official on torture-related matters, Manfred Nowak, had to remind him that Washington was obligated under the U.N. Convention Against Torture to act against those responsible for the violation of international law. The U.S. belatedly signed the Convention in 1994, after the Cold War ended.

Bushs biggest crime, according to legal experts, was his order to the CIA to set up secret prisons abroad where torture could be carried out. The Obama administration, after closing down the CIA prisons, has reverted to the old policy of rendering terror suspects to friendly countries such as Pakistan, Libya, Thailand and Saudi Arabia. CIA Director Leon Panetta said recently that he would rely on diplomatic assurances of good treatment of the prisoners, given by the authoritarian governments of these countries. Ibn al-Sheikh al-Libi, a senior Al Qaeda functionary who was initially tortured in U.S. custody, was handed over to Libya. It was reported in May that he committed suicide while in custody.

According to reports, only high-profile cases, such as those involving Abu Zubaydah and Khalil Sheikh Mohammad, are being investigated by the Obama administration. It has been revealed that Zubaydah was waterboarded 83 times in August 2002. Khalid Sheikh had to undergo this extreme form of torture 183 times in March 2002. Waterboarding has been described by The New York Times as the most important interrogation programme in the history of American counter-terrorism. It has been established that Bush, Vice-President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice closely monitored the information that was prised out of Abu Zubaydah and Khalid Sheikh. Among other things, they hoped that the two would confess under duress to ties between Al Qaeda and Saddam Husseins Iraq.

The Bush administration designated all those it had captured and subjected to brutal interrogation techniques as enemy combatants with no rights under the Geneva Conventions. It took four years of litigation for the U.S. Supreme Court to rule that those held in the jail in Guantanamo Bay should have the protection of the Geneva Conventions. Though Obama had from the outset said that the Geneva Conventions should be applicable to the inmates in Guantanamo Bay, the conditions in the prison, according to lawyers representing the inmates, have only worsened and are in breach of the Conventions.

After the Second World War, Common Article 3 was added to the Geneva Conventions to ensure minimum rights to prisoners, regardless of the character of the war they were involved in. However, Obama seems to have endorsed his predecessors stance that enemy combatants can be held indefinitely without any criminal charges. This year, one prisoner in Guantanamo died while being force-fed. Torture continues despite the regime change in Washington. The Obama administration has increased the prison capacities in Afghanistan and Iraq. Washington has not complied with the Geneva Conventions, which call for U.S. prisons to comply with the laws of the host country.

The Obama administration is continuing with the previous administrations top secret policy of dispatching small CIA teams abroad to kill senior Al Qaeda leaders. It has also continued with the practice of targeting terror suspects by drones fitted with missiles. The drone attacks have caused immense collateral damage in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

During the Cold War years, the CIA plotted to assassinate eight foreign leaders. Five of them died violently. In 1976, President Gerald Ford issued an executive order prohibiting assassinations. No employee of the United States government shall engage in, or conspire to engage, in political assassination, the order said. President Ronald Reagan dropped the word political, formally banning all covert assassination plots by the CIA.

However, the U.S. went on targeting foreign leaders and heads of state. Reagan himself authorised a missile strike against Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. His daughter died in the attack. During the U.S.-led war against Yugoslavia, a cruise missile was sent through a bedroom in President Slobodan Milosevics official residence. Gabor Rona, a human rights activist and a former lawyer for the International Committee of the Red Cross, told Al Jazeera network that there was very little daylight between Obama and Bush. Rona said that the Obama administration continued to use the overtly broad application of the Laws of War paradigm to justify detentions that are not justifiable under international law.

Human rights groups and political activists have been urging the Obama administration to bring to justice the senior Bush administration officials responsible for creating and executing illegal torture policies. Only then, they feel, will the rule of law be firmly re-established in the U.S. Groups such as Human Rights Watch (HRW) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) want the legal yardstick that was used in the case of the soldiers who went to jail for the Abu Ghraib abuses to be applied to senior Bush-era officials. There is a growing clamour for action against Cheney and Rumsfeld as clinching evidence is emerging of their culpability.

According to a declassified Senate report released in April, Bushs National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, Attorney General John Ashcroft and CIA Director George Tenet all joined Cheney in a meeting to authorise waterboarding and other illegal interrogation methods in 2002. The infamous Torture Memo, drafted by Cheneys legal counsel and John Yoo of the Justice Department, tried to redefine the meaning of torture. As interpreted by Bush administration lawyers, for interrogation to be defined as torture, the pain endured by the victim must be equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily functions, or even death.

The U.S. played a key role in setting up tribunals to try former heads of state for war crimes and crimes against humanity. But when it comes to judging its own record, different yardsticks are being applied. More than a million Iraqis have been killed or displaced in the wake of the invasion of Iraq. The invasion of Afghanistan also resulted in innumerable civilian deaths. The least the international community expects from the Obama administration is that those directly responsible for the carnage and the torture of the past seven years will be brought to justice.

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