Attorney General Eric Holder has opened an inquiry into CIA torture. On Monday, Holder appointed veteran federal prosecutor John Durham to look into whether CIA interrogators and contractors should be charged for the torture and abuse of foreign prisoners. Durham is already heading a separate probe into whether CIA officials broke the law in destroying videotapes documenting prisoner interrogations. The White House has opposed calls for a torture investigation but says the decision has been Holder’s to make. On Monday, deputy press secretary Bill Burton said President Obama will respect Holder’s conclusions.
Bill Burton: “Well, as the President has said repeatedly, he thinks that we should be looking forward, not backward. He does agree with the Attorney General that anyone who conducted actions that had been sanctioned should not be prosecuted. But ultimately, the decisions on who is investigated and who is prosecuted are up to the Attorney General.”
Human rights advocates, meanwhile, say the probe should reach to the highest levels of the Bush White House. In a statement, the Center for Constitutional Rights said, “Responsibility for the torture program cannot be laid at the feet of a few low-level operatives… It is the lawyers and the officials who oversaw and approved the [torture] program who must be investigated.” Alexander Abdo of the American Civil Liberties Union said any probe should usher in a new era of accountability.
Alexander Abdo: “Well, the goal is to shed as much transparency as possible upon the abuses of the past eight years. And we’re also hopeful that with that transparency will come a form of accountability. As the President said a few days after taking office, transparency is a part of accountability, and accountability is essential for a functioning democracy.”
Holder says he ordered the probe in response to a Justice Department recommendation to reopen nearly a dozen prisoner abuse cases that the Bush administration had closed. Holder says he was further influenced by the 2004 CIA report on the prisoners’ torture and abuse, which he released on Monday. The report provides accounts of interrogators threatening to kill and sexually assault a prisoner’s family, staging mock executions, intimidating prisoners with a handgun and a power drill, and blowing smoke on prisoners’ face to make them vomit. One prisoner was grabbed by his carotid artery until he began to faint. In an apparent response to the report’s release, the CIA declassified two memos on apparent intelligence gains from the prisoner interrogations. Former Vice President Dick Cheney had previously claimed the memos would help vindicate the CIA interrogation methods by showing they yielded important intelligence. But the memos don’t describe any specific methods nor assess their results.
The Obama administration, meanwhile, has confirmed plans to establish a new team of interrogators to question foreign suspects outside of the CIA. The High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group, or HIG, will be operated out of the FBI and overseen by the National Security Council. White House Deputy Press Secretary Bill Burton said the CIA will continue to play a dominant role.
Bill Burton: “The CIA is obviously — obviously has a very important role to play as it relates to interrogations. They’ve done a brilliant job in doing it so far, gathering intelligence. A lot of people don’t know that half of the FBI’s mission is actually to gather intelligence. So what this does is it houses all these different elements under one group, where they can best perform their duties. The intelligence community is going to have a deputy who will be in that group, and obviously the CIA will be very involved in this.”
The White House meanwhile has also revealed it plans to continue the Bush administration’s practice of kidnapping foreign suspects and jailing them abroad. On Monday, administration officials said extraordinary rendition will remain in place, but with safeguards to ensure prisoners are no longer tortured. The officials say the State Department will play a larger role than before in monitoring the prisoners’ safety. Human rights groups widely criticized the move. Amrit Singh of the American Civil Liberties Union said, “It is extremely disappointing that the Obama administration is continuing the Bush administration practice of relying on diplomatic assurances, which have been proven completely ineffective in preventing torture.”
In other torture news, the Center for Constitutional Rights has refiled a case on behalf of four former Guantanamo prisoners seeking damages from former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and senior American military officials. In a previous ruling, a US district court ruled the four have no constitutional rights and don’t qualify as “persons” under US law.
A young Afghan prisoner has returned to Afghanistan following his release from Guantanamo Bay. Mohamed Jawad arrived in Kabul on Monday. He was reportedly shackled and blindfolded on the military flight home. Jawad was ordered freed last month after more than six years at Guantanamo. He was as young as twelve at the time of his capture and was tortured and threatened into confessing to throwing a grenade at a US soldier.
In Iraq, at least eleven people were killed Monday in bombings of two buses in the southern city of Kut. Another twenty-five people were wounded.
In Israel and the Occupied Territories, four Palestinians have been killed in a pair of Israeli attacks on the Gaza Strip. Three Palestinians died earlier today when Israeli warplanes bombed a tunnel along Gaza’s border with Egypt. A Palestinian farmer was killed and another Palestinian wounded in a separate Israeli attack. The killings come as the Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad has unveiled a plan to declare a provisional Palestinian state within the next two years. On Monday, Palestinian Authority spokesperson Nabil Abu Rudeineh said the Israeli government is preventing meaningful peace talks.
Nabil Abu Rudeineh: “The Palestinians are ready. We are committed to the peace process. We are committed to the Road Map, to the Arab Peace Initiative, to the vision of President Obama and the Road Map. If the Israelis are serious, we are ready. And the basis for these negotiations should be based on the two previous demands of the Road Map and of President Obama.”
A delegation of foreign ministers from the Organization of American States is in Honduras this week to seek the return of the ousted President Manuel Zelaya. The delegation is hoping to revive a Costa Rica-brokered proposal that would restore Zelaya to office but limit his authority. On Monday, the head of the coup government, Roberto Micheletti, reiterated his opposition to the plan.
Roberto Michelleti: “Nobody can come here to impose anything on us. This country is independent, sovereign, and we have our own laws. Our position from June 28 is framed within the constitution. We will not change, because nobody can come to our country to tell us what to do.”
On Monday, hundreds of Zelaya supporters rallied near the hotel where the OAS delegation is holding talks. Zelaya’s wife, Xiomara Castro de Zelaya, voiced support for the Costa Rica agreement.
Xiomara Castro de Zelaya: “The state powers are not impartial. Look at the Supreme Court. We have seen the actions of the Supreme Court. We have seen the accions of the Attorney General. We have seen the actions of Congress. We must find some kind of a solution and the only solution for Honduras is the San Jose agreement.”
Back in the United States, the insurance industry’s chief lobbying group has admitted it’s recruited tens of thousands of insurance company employees to pressure lawmakers on healthcare reform. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, a spokesperson for America’s Health Insurance Plans said around 50,000 insurance employees have been involved in writing letters and making phone calls to politicians or attending town hall meetings.
The Pentagon has hired a controversial public relations firm to vet reporters for their previous coverage of the US military before allowing them to embed with US troops. The Army newspaper Stars and Stripes reports the military has hired the Rendon Group to screen whether the reporters’ prior work has “portrayed the US military in a positive light.” The Rendon Group helped form the Iraqi National Congress, the Iraqi exile group that provided much of the false intelligence to help justify the US invasion of Iraq. Rendon has been screening reporters under a contract dating back to 2005.
President Obama is expected to announce today the nomination of the Federal Reserve Chair Ben Bernanke to a second term. Bernanke’s reappointment has surprised critics who predicted he would be replaced for failing to foresee the financial meltdown. Bernanke was appointed by former President George W. Bush to succeed then-Federal Reserve Chair Alan Greenspan.
A White House panel is warning the swine flu could soon infect half the US population. In a new report, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology says although most cases will be mild, up to 90,000 people could die, and up to 1.8 million could require medical attention. An estimated 300,000 people could require hospitalization in intensive care. Officials say the figures don’t mark a prediction but a “plausible scenario.”
President Obama has begun a week-long vacation on the Massachusetts island of Martha’s Vineyard. On Monday, Obama played golf with Robert Wolf, the president of UBS Americas. UBS has been at the center of a recent government probe into illegal tax shelters overseas. Wolf was a top donor to Obama’s presidential campaign, raising more than $250,000.
And here in New York, a government report has found routine abuse and mistreatment of children at four state juvenile detention centers. The Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division says the abuse was often the first response to any insubordination and resulted in several injuries, including broken teeth and bones. The report says the abuse violated the children’s constitutional rights and could lead to a federal takeover of New York’s youth jails.