Thursday, February 10, 2005

The New Yorker's Jane Mayer on torture

Barney in Little Rock brought up the issue of torture so we'll highlight The New Yorker. In the print edition (which I'm still waiting on) there's an article by Jane Mayer (the article is also available online). Online only, there's an interview with Jane Mayer about what she discovered while researching her article.

From "Q & A: Torture by Proxy:"

Amy Davidson: You begin your piece with something President Bush said recently -- that "torture is never acceptable, nor do we hand over people to countries that do torture."
Jane Mayer
: President Bush, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales all made similar statements last month, asserting that not only does the United States condemn torture, it also does not send U.S.-held suspects to other countries for torture. In reality, the record appears to be quite different. Beginning around 1995, the Central Intelligence Agency inaugurated a form of extradition sometimes referred to as "extraordinary rendition," in which captured foreign terrorism suspects have been transported by the U.S. to third countries for interrogation and prosecution. The former C.I.A. director George Tenet estimated that between the time the program started and 2001 there were some seventy renditions. Most experts suggest that since the Bush Administration launched the global war on terrorism after the attacks of September 11, 2001, that number has grown dramatically. Present and former officials involved in these renditions, including several whom I quote on the record in this week's New Yorker, suggest that, from the start, it was suspected that many of the rendered persons were tortured abroad. Certainly, in three cases where the suspects have emerged publicly to speak about their treatment -- the cases of Maher Arar, Muhammed Zery, and Mamdouh Habib -- they have alleged that they were tortured after the United States rendered them to other countries.

What are America's obligations under international law with regard to rendition? Is there a legal difference between torturing someone ourselves and handing him over to someone who will torture him?
The United Nations Convention Against Torture and U.S. law both have a blanket prohibition against torturing anyone either within the territorial boundaries of the U.S. or abroad. These laws also prohibit the U.S. government from extraditing non-nationals to third countries where there are "substantial grounds for believing" that they would be tortured. The imprecision of this clause, however, appears to have allowed for a fair amount of latitude, according to lawyers whom I interviewed for this piece. For instance, Martin Lederman, a former lawyer with the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel -- who did not deal with the cases while he was in office but has studied them since -- suggested that what looks at first like a complete prohibition actually is not. The legal standard allows U.S. officials to argue that they didn't know with any certainty that a suspect would be tortured, and so can't be held liable. U.S. officials have in fact often sought what is known as "assurances" from countries to which they have rendered suspects that the suspects would not be tortured. Even if these assurances are just a wink and a nod, they may provide legal cover. Finally, some lawyers believe that the U.S. may be finding protection by never formally taking legal custody of suspects it renders abroad -- even if, for instance, the U.S. government transports such suspects. Such details are difficult to find out about, however, because the program is secret.

You write about the case of Mamdouh Habib. What is significant about his story?
Habib's case, if his allegations are true, illustrates a disturbing change in the rendition program. Habib was suspected of training Al Qaeda operatives involved in 9/11. He was, like earlier suspects, a radical Muslim. But, unlike most of the pre-9/11 suspects, there appears to have been no warrant for his arrest when the U.S. government took custody of him in Pakistan, a few months after the World Trade Center attacks. Again, because the program is secret, it is difficult to know this with certainty. But, according to Habib's attorney, Joe Margulies, Pakistan turned Habib over to Egypt's custody at the urging of the United States, without any formal charges or arrest warrant against Habib. Once in Egypt, Margulies said, Habib made no appearances that he knew of in court, nor was there any record Margulies knew of showing that the U.S. had sought assurances that Habib would not be tortured.

From Jane Mayer's article "Outsourcing Torture:"

On January 27th, President Bush, in an interview with the Times, assured the world that "torture is never acceptable, nor do we hand over people to countries that do torture." Maher Arar, a Canadian engineer who was born in Syria, was surprised to learn of Bush's statement. Two and a half years ago, American officials, suspecting Arar of being a terrorist, apprehended him in New York and sent him back to Syria, where he endured months of brutal interrogation, including torture. When Arar described his experience in a phone interview recently, he invoked an Arabic expression. The pain was so unbearable, he said, that "you forget the milk that you have been fed from the breast of your mother."
Arar, a thirty-four-year-old graduate of McGill University whose family emigrated to Canada when he was a teen-ager, was arrested on September 26, 2002, at John F. Kennedy Airport. He was changing planes; he had been on vacation with his family in Tunisia, and was returning to Canada. Arar was detained because his name had been placed on the United States Watch List of terrorist suspects. He was held for the next thirteen days, as American officials questioned him about possible links to another suspected terrorist. Arar said that he barely knew the suspect, although he had worked with the man's brother. Arar, who was not formally charged, was placed in handcuffs and leg irons by plainclothes officials and transferred to an executive jet. The plane flew to Washington, continued to Portland, Maine, stopped in Rome, Italy, then landed in Amman, Jordan.
During the flight, Arar said, he heard the pilots and crew identify themselves in radio communications as members of "the Special Removal Unit." The Americans, he learned, planned to take him next to Syria. Having been told by his parents about the barbaric practices of the police in Syria, Arar begged crew members not to send him there, arguing that he would surely be tortured. His captors did not respond to his request; instead, they invited him to watch a spy thriller that was aired on board.
Ten hours after landing in Jordan, Arar said, he was driven to Syria, where interrogators, after a day of threats, "just began beating on me." They whipped his hands repeatedly with two-inch-thick electrical cables, and kept him in a windowless underground cell that he likened to a grave. "Not even animals could withstand it," he said. Although he initially tried to assert his innocence, he eventually confessed to anything his tormentors wanted him to say. "You just give up," he said. "You become like an animal."
A year later, in October, 2003, Arar was released without charges, after the Canadian government took up his cause. Imad Moustapha, the Syrian Ambassador in Washington, announced that his country had found no links between Arar and terrorism. Arar, it turned out, had been sent to Syria on orders from the U.S. government, under a secretive program known as "extraordinary rendition." This program had been devised as a means of extraditing terrorism suspects from one foreign state to another for interrogation and prosecution. Critics contend that the unstated purpose of such renditions is to subject the suspects to aggressive methods of persuasion that are illegal in America -- including torture.

In addition, online at The New Yorker, you can read the "Administration memo and correspondence." These are in pdf form.

I want to note Democracy Now!'s interview EXCLUSIVE: British Human Rights Lawyer Gareth Peirce Says Torture "Is the Recipe for the Destruction" of International Human Rights and two stories they have done on Maher Arar: U.S. Claims Maher Arar "Extraordinary Rendition" Lawsuit Jeopardizes National Security and Amnesty Calls for Release of Syrian Canadian Jailed in Damascus for Over 2 Years. Please note, this is by no means the extent of Democracy Now!'s coverage on this issue. Search the archives at Democracy Now! for additional stories.

On Jane Mayer, we've highlighted her work in The New Yorker before and no doubt will again.
She's not an Elite Fluff Patrol member, she's a real reporter interested in providing a story that matters.

For commentary on the Times article Mayer refers to at the start of her New Yorker article, I'd suggest "What the Fluff Patrol (Sanger, Stevenson & Bumiller) left out of Thursdays with Bully Boy" and The Third Estate Sunday Review's Gay Parents: "I am part of a family. My family is very real and existed long before Bush got to the White House" which deals with another problem with the Elite Fluff Patrol's reporting.

[Note: This post has been corrected: I failed to provide a link to Jane Mayer's "Outsourcing Torture" from The New Yorker. Thanks to Erika for catching that.]