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Getting Away with Torture? Human Rights Watch Calls for Accountability Into U.S. Abuse of Detainees

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Human Rights Watch is demanding that a special prosecutor be named to investigate Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, former CIA director George Tenet and other top officials for possible war crimes related to the torture and abuse of prisoners. We speak with Human Rights Watch special counsel Reed Brody. [includes rush transcript]

An internal investigation by the Army’s inspector general has cleared four of the Army’s top five officers in Iraq of any wrongdoing in connection to the torture of Iraqi detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison. Unless new evidence emerges, the investigation effectively ends the Army’s investigation into its role in the abuse at the Abu Ghraib prison.

Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch has demanded that a special prosecutor be named to investigate Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, former CIA director George Tenet and other top officials for possible war crimes related to the torture and abuse of prisoners.

The report, titled “Getting Away with Torture? Command Responsibility for the U.S Abuse of Detainees”–found that there was overwhelming evidence of widespread mistreatment and abuse of Muslim prisoners not only at Abu Ghraib but throughout Afghanistan and Iraq, Guantanamo Bay and other “secret locations” around the world. The report also called for investigations of Lt. General Ricardo Sanchez–the former top U.S commander in Iraq–and General Geoffery Miller the former commander of the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We are joined right now by Reed Brody. He is the Special Counsel for Human Rights Watch. Welcome to Democracy Now!

REED BRODY: Happy to be on your show, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, talk about this report and your demands.

REED BRODY: Well, as you say, Abu Ghraib was just the tip of the iceberg. The mistreatment of Muslim prisoners has been widespread in three countries, at these so-called secret locations where the C.I.A. is holding suspected al Qaeda leaders, as well as in the dungeons of third countries to which the United States has rendered detainees. And yet, there seems to be a wall of immunity that surrounds the top leaders one year out, because next Thursday is the first anniversary of those pictures from Abu Ghraib. And right after the pictures came out, people like Colin Powell and others were quick to say, look, watch how America deals with this. You know, we’re going to take — we’re going to deal with this the right way.

But a year out, in fact, the United States is doing what every banana republic does when its atrocities are uncovered. It’s covering up and it’s trying to shift the blame downwards. And so, we have seen very hesitantly a few prosecutions of the lower level people, people like Lindy England and Charles Graner, whose pictures were taken at Abu Ghraib. But it’s obviously — it’s not them who told the President of the United States that he could commit torture. It’s not Lindy England who ripped up the Geneva Conventions. It’s not Lindy England who authorized the use of guard dogs to terrorize prisoners. These decisions were made by people like Donald Rumsfeld.

And yet, there seems to be no investigation up to that level. Obviously, we have a situation where the Attorney General of the United States, the person under whom any prosecution would have to be begun is Alberto Gonzales, who himself is very implicated in this whole scandal. It was Alberto Gonzales who advised the President that the Geneva Conventions were obsolete and its protections quaint. It was Alberto Gonzales who put together the working group that told the President that he could commit torture in the name of counterterrorism. Similarly, on the military side, any prosecution would have to be done under the auspices ultimately of the Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld. So we are in a situation of institutionalized impunity. And the only way around that would be to appoint a special prosecutor.

Now, we have looked at the evidence, and in this report we put together, in particular, the evidence that warrants an investigation, for instance, of George Tenet. Under his direction, the C.I.A. disappeared detainees in secret locations, which is a violation of the Geneva Conventions. There are strong allegations that many of those detainees were tortured. There had been repeated allegations, for instance, that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was subject to so-called water boarding. That’s where you make a prisoner — you push a prisoner’s head under the water and make him think he’s going to drown. And that with Tenet’s specific authorization, detainees were sent to countries like Syria and Egypt, where they were tortured, which would make George Tenet an accomplice, an aider and abettor to torture.

In terms of Donald Rumsfeld, we know that Donald Rumsfeld approved methods for prisoners, things like hooding, stressed positions, and in particular, the use of dogs to terrorize detainees that went beyond the Geneva Conventions. But more importantly, he created the conditions for these crimes that we saw at Abu Ghraib and in Afghanistan and elsewhere to go on, and during three years, while groups like ours, like the Red Cross, like the press were reporting on abuses. At no point, as far as we know, and in all of the documents that have come out, these thousands of documents that have come out through the Center for Constitutional Rights and ACLU lawsuit, there’s not one document in which Donald Rumsfeld says this has got to stop. So, for three years, during which troops under his command were committing atrocities, and he was aware of it, at no point did he put his foot down. And so, under the principle of command responsibility, Donald Rumsfeld should be investigated for the torture.

AMY GOODMAN: And how do you know he approved all these different forms of torture?

REED BRODY: Well, we know that for Guantanamo, on December 2, 2003, that he approved a list of interrogation techniques that included — excuse me, I think it’s 2002. That he included — that included the use of dogs to instill fear in prisoners, the use of stress positions. Now, he withdrew that approval for Guantanamo, but as the various Pentagon investigations have found, those techniques migrated, as they put it, to Afghanistan and to Iraq.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Reed Brody. He’s Special Counsel for Human Rights Watch, which has just put out the report, “Getting Away with Torture? Command Responsibility for U.S. Abuse of Detainees.” Reed, what do you make of this army report that clears the — among the highest up in the army?

REED BRODY: Well, this just seems like another attempt at the — you know, what they have done is they have now had nine separate reports, depending how you country it, 11 separate reports that look down the chain of command. All of the reports are self-investigations by the army or by the Pentagon. There has been no independent report. This report, for instance, absolves Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, who is the top officer in Iraq. Now, we know that on September 13, just before the, you know, the real mayhem at Abu Ghraib, that General Sanchez approved in a memorandum the use of, as he put it, — to exploit Arab fear of dogs, in other words, to use dogs on prisoners. Now, we saw that that was used. And we saw in the pictures that that was used at Abu Ghraib. And for those three months of mayhem that were occurring right under his nose, he never stepped in. And also, he misled Congress about it. He was asked twice at a Congressional hearing whether he ever approved the use of guard dogs. This was before the memo came out. And both times he said he never approved it. And now, and just last month, we finally got the actual memo, in which he approves, as I said, (quote), “exploiting Arab fear of dogs.”

So, it’s just not credible for the army to keep investigating itself and keep finding itself innocent. And, you know, I think this is largely part of a damage control exercise, obviously, in the United States, but what many Americans don’t realize is how this plays abroad. I mean, I spent a lot of my time, you know, hassling other governments for what they’re doing, and the answer is always Abu Ghraib. Look, the Americans commit torture, and they get away with it. What do you want us from? And I think there’s, in the rest of the world, there is no credibility to these arguments that, you know, it was just the lower soldiers who inventing these torture methods and who carried them out, somehow coincidentally in Afghanistan, at Guantanamo and in Iraq.

AMY GOODMAN: We are talking to Reed Brody, Special Counsel for Human Rights Watch. We’ll continue on the report just came out, “Getting Away with Torture? Command Responsibility for U.S. Abuse of Detainees,” after the break.


AMY GOODMAN: We continue on this new report, “Getting Away with Torture? Command Responsibility for the U.S. Abuse of Detainees.” This is an army report, has come out clearing some of the top command in the army of abuse at Abu Ghraib. We’re joined by Reed Brody, Special Counsel for Human Rights Watch. What about what is known as “extraordinary rendition,” and where did they even come up, by the way, with that name?

REED BRODY: I don’t know where they came up with the name. I mean, rendition is anytime you transfer somebody from one country to another. Extraordinary rendition, we’ve defined as the rendition — the extra-legal rendition of people to countries where they stand at risk of torture. And we know that the C.I.A. has rendered, because they have said — they leaked this to The New York Times — has rendered between 100 and 150 people since September 11. Now, the U.S. says that every time — and President Bush has said and Alberto Gonzales, that every time they render someone, they get an assurance from the receiving country that the detainee will not be tortured. So, it was, for instance, in the case that your listeners know well about, Maher Arar, the Canadian who was sent to Syria for ten months where he had very credibly alleges that he was brutally tortured in the dungeon of a Syrian prison.

AMY GOODMAN: He was coming back to Canada from a family vacation and was changing planes at Kennedy airport, which he was taken off the plane by U.S. authorities.

REED BRODY: Exactly. He protested. He said, send me back to Canada. No. The U.S. sent him to Syria, but they got an assurance from the Syrian government that he wouldn’t be tortured. That’s like giving somebody over to a mafia don who says, “Okay, we’ll take care of him. Don’t worry.” How can you believe a government that systematically commits torture?

AMY GOODMAN: Isn’t that the U.S. allegation about Syria?

REED BRODY: Yes. In fact, the State Department itself, the week after Maher Arar was released, President Bush in a speech to the National Endowment for Democracy talked about how the Syrian government was leading a legacy of torture. Now, this is the same Syrian government to which the United States has sent a detainee, many detainees, by the way. Similarly with Egypt. In every case of rendition that we know about, the detainee was tortured. There is no case of a detainee that we know about, being sent to Egypt or Syria, in which the person has not credibly alleged that he was tortured.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, do you allege that that’s the reason they are being sent to these other countries?

REED BRODY: You know, that’s a conclusion that one can draw. It seems like a pretty logical conclusion. The fact is that a person who sends a detainee, a security detainee, to Syria, and that person is then tortured, I would think becomes an accomplice to torture. Under criminal law, you know, there’s “the foreseeable consequences of your action.” And the foreseeable consequence of sending a security detainee to a country like Egypt or Syria is that he will — he or she — he, in all of these cases, will be tortured.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the German citizen, Khalid al-Masri, who was secretly picked up in Macedonia on New Year’s Eve, 2003. At the time, the U.S. thought he was a leader in Abu Ghraib. A few days ago, NBC News reported the U.S. picked up the wrong guy and held him for at least a month after they said that they learned that a mistake had occurred.

REED BRODY: Right, now here is a guy whose name sounds like somebody else’s name. So he’s going along to Macedonia, and the next thing he knows, he’s picked up by the United States, and he’s sent to Afghanistan, and he’s tortured. And we just found out this weekend that Condoleezza Rice had to step in, when it was found out that it was the wrong person, to get this guy released. Now, how many other people like that are there who have the wrong name — even if they are in fact tied to terrorism, you still can’t send somebody to be tortured. But what we’re finding out is that more and more of these people like Maher Arar, like Masri, are either in the wrong place at the wrong time. In the case of Maher Arar it seems like the evidence — the supposed evidence against him came from someone else’s testimony under torture, who was rendered to Syria previously. So, we have — the United States appears to operate or be part of this great archipelago of prison camps around the world, some of which — in fact, it’s funny, because Guantanamo is almost supposed to be the secret place, and Guantanamo has become the best known. But you’ve got other places like Bagram. You’ve got other places we don’t even know about. And then you have got, you know, third world prisons like the Tora prison in Cairo or the Falastin branch of the prison in Damascus where the U.S. is sending people. So you have got, really, this underworld of prisons that are being operated by the United States totally outside of the law.

AMY GOODMAN: What about the soldiers who have been prosecuted? Has any information come out in those prosecutions, as their lawyers attempt to say they were only following orders?

REED BRODY: Well, unfortunately, the judges in these cases have been very strict about not allowing higher-ups to testify. And in fact, even that intermediate range — I mean, there are a lot of allegations that anyone in the intermediate range who might have some connection to Donald Rumsfeld have not even been prosecuted so that, you know, they would not, you know, give up information up the chain of command. And so, normally, what a prosecutor does in an organized crime case or something like this is you charge the lower guys. You charge them with a crime. You get them to cooperate in order to rat on the higher-ups. That’s the way you build the case. That’s not happening here because there’s no political will to make it happen.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you think would make it happen?

REED BRODY: You know, we have called for a special prosecutor. I think there needs — Americans are obviously upset by the pictures of Abu Ghraib, but I don’t think there’s yet a full appreciation that Abu Ghraib was only the tip of the iceberg. I don’t think there’s a full appreciation in the United States of how much damage this scandal has done to the United States’ reputation. And if there was sufficient political will to appoint an independent investigation, like a 9/11-style investigation, or a special prosecutor, I think that all of this would come out, and the United States could wipe away the stain of Abu Ghraib in one fell swoop, in fact, by prosecuting all of the people who are responsible for this scandal.

AMY GOODMAN: Reed Brody is our guest, the Special Counsel for Human Rights Watch, “Getting Away with Torture? Command Responsibility for the U.S. Abuse Of Detainees.” How early on were non-governmental organizations like the International Red Cross letting the government know that they know, and demanding some kind of change, and do you think there’s a problem with the Red Cross not making public earlier what they knew?

REED BRODY: You know, this goes back to 2001. A lot of people forget the case, for instance, of John Walker Lindh, the so-called American Taliban. You know, we saw pictures of John Walker Lindh strapped to a gurney, naked. I think at the time it didn’t set off the warning bells that perhaps it should have set off. This is a guy who had a bullet in his leg, who was purposely kept out, according to his lawyers, in the freezing Afghan cold, who was interrogated while he was strapped naked and blindfolded to a gurney. According to the Los Angeles Times, his responses were being cabled back to Donald Rumsfeld, whose lawyer, again according to the Los Angeles Times, said — whose legal counsel said that the gloves should come off with John Walker Lindh. This was three years ago. This was something that was even in the public eye. The International Committee of the Red Cross, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, have been reporting this stuff for three years.

In December, 2002, the Washington Post published a front page article in which it quoted ten governmental — unidentified governmental sources as talking about the stress and duress positions in Afghanistan, as talking about sending detainees to third world countries, quoting governmental sources, saying that we don’t kick the bleep out of them, we send them to other countries to kick the bleep out of them. And nothing was done. So, it’s not just the Red Cross. You know, I think that the International Committee of the Red Cross is in a difficult position, because they get access in exchange for not going public with their information. But this stuff was coming out from us, it was coming out from Amnesty, it was coming out from the press. We wrote on December — the day after that Washington Post article came out, we wrote a letter to President Bush, and said, “You are now on notice that the U.S. government is sending people to be tortured. You now have a legal responsibility to do something about it, or you could be prosecuted for torture.” And nothing was done. The program continued.

AMY GOODMAN: You call for a special prosecutor to investigate George Tenet, former director of the C.I.A. and Donald Rumsfeld, Defense Secretary. Why do you stop there? Why don’t you move up the chain of command from Cheney to Bush?

REED BRODY: Well, let’s see what happens? I mean, we know — it has been alleged that President Bush in late 2001 signed an order facilitating the rendition of terror suspects to other countries, that at the same time period he signed an order allowing the C.I.A. to establish secret detention centers, which in effect means that these detainees are disappeared. I think a special prosecutor could ultimately also look at the culpability of the President.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you for being with us. If people want to get access to the report, where can they go on the web?


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