An amazing story. Is this sheer stupidity or more pernicious, a simple not caring what happened to others entangled in their gulag?
My Role in the Torture of Binyam Mohamed
By Barbara Ehrenreich
I like to think that some of the things I write cause discomfort in those readers who deserve to feel it. Ideally, they should squirm, they should flinch, they might even experience fleeting gastrointestinal symptoms. But I have always drawn the line at torture. It may be unpleasant to read some of my writings, especially if they have been assigned by a professor, but it should not result in uncontrollable screaming, genital mutilation or significant blood loss.
With such stringent journalistic ethics in place, I was shocked to read in the February 14th Daily Mail Online a brief article headed “Food writer’s online guide to building an H-bomb…the ‘evidence’ that put this man in Guantanamo.” The “food writer” was identified as me, and the story began:
A British ‘resident’ held at Guantanamo Bay was identified as a terrorist after confessing he had visited a ‘joke’ website on how to build a nuclear weapon, it was revealed last night. Binyam Mohamed, a former UK asylum seeker, admitted to having read the ‘instructions’ after allegedly being beaten, hung up by his wrists for a week and having a gun held to his head in a Pakistani jail.
While I am not, and have never been, a “food writer,” other details about the “joke” rang true, such as the names of my co-authors, Peter Biskind and physicist Michio Kaku. Rewind to 1979, when Peter and I were working for a now-defunct leftwing magazine named Seven Days. The government had just suppressed the publication of another magazine, The Progressive, for attempting to print an article called “The H-Bomb Secret.” I don’t remember that article and the current editor of The Progressive recalls only that it contained a lot of physics and was “Greek to me.” Both in solidarity with The Progressive and in defense of free speech, we at Seven Days decided to do a satirical article entitled “How to Make Your Own H-Bomb,” offering step-by-step instructions for assembling a bomb using equipment available in one’s own home.
The satire was not subtle. After discussing the toxicity of plutonium, we advised that to avoid ingesting it orally, “Never make an A-bomb on an empty stomach.” My favorite section dealt with the challenge of enriching uranium hexafluoride:
First transform the gas into a liquid by subjecting it to pressure. You can use a bicycle pump for this. Then make a simple home centrifuge. Fill a standard-size bucket one-quarter full of liquid uranium hexafluoride. Attach a six-foot rope to the bucket handle. Now swing the rope (and attached bucket) around your head as fast as possible. Keep this up for about 45 minutes. Slow down gradually, and very gently put the bucket on the floor. The U-235, which is lighter, will have risen to the top, where it can be skimmed off like cream. Repeat this step until you have the required 10 pounds of uranium. (Safety note: Don’t put all your enriched uranium hexafluoride in one bucket. Use at least two or three buckets and keep them in separate corners of the room. This will prevent the premature build-up of a critical mass.)
Our H-bomb cover story created a bit of a stir at the time, then vanished into the attics and garages of former Seven Days staffers, only to resurface, at least in part, on the Internet in the early 2000s. Today, you can find it quoted on the blog spot of a University of Dayton undergraduate (http://port80.blogsome.com/2005/03/13/how-not-to-build-a-thermonuclear-bomb), along with the flattering comment: “This forum post is priceless. It is one of the best pieces of scientific satire I have ever seen. I can only hope and pray that terrorist groups attempt to construct an atomic bomb using these instructions – if they survive the attempt, they’ll have at least wasted months of effort.”
Enter Binyam Mohamed, an Ethiopian refugee and legal resident of Britain who had found work as a janitor after drug problems derailed his college career. According to his lawyer, Clive Smith of the human rights group Reprieve, Mohamed traveled to Afghanistan in 2001, attracted by the Taliban’s drug-free way of life – which, from my point of view, was a little like upgrading from bronchitis to lung cancer. War soon drove him out of Afghanistan and to Karachi, from where he sought to return to the U.K. But, as a refugee, he lacked a proper passport and was using a friend’s, which led to his apprehension at the airport. Smith says the Pakistanis turned him over to the FBI, who were obsessed at the time with the possibility of an Al Qaeda nuclear attack on the U.S. After repeated beatings and the above-mentioned hanging by the wrists, Mohamed “confessed” to having read an article on how to make an H-bomb on the Internet, insisting to his interrogators that it was a “joke.”
But post-9/11 America was an irony-free zone, and it’s still illegal to banter about bombs in the presence of airport security staff. It’s not clear how the news of Mohamed’s H-bomb knowledge was conveyed to Washington – many documents remain classified or have not been released – but Smith speculates that the part about the H-bomb got through, although not the part about the joke. The result, anyhow, was that Mohamed was thrust into a world of unending pain – tortured at the U.S. prison in Baghram, rendered to Morocco for 18 months of further torture, including repeated cutting of his penis with a scalpel, and finally landing in Guantanamo for almost five years of more mundane abuse. He was just released and returned to Britain today.
As if that were not enough for a satirist to have on her conscience, the U.S. seems to have attributed Mohamed’s presumed nuclear ambitions to a second man, an American citizen named Jose Padilla, aka the “dirty bomber.” The apparent evidence? Padilla had been scheduled to fly on the same flight out of Karachi that Mohamed had a ticket for, so obviously they must have been confederates. Commenting on Padilla’s apprehension in 2002, the Chicago Sun-Times editorialized: “We castigate ourselves for failing to grasp the reality of what they’re [the alleged terrorists are] trying to do, but perhaps that is a good thing. We should have difficulty staring evil in the face.”
I am not histrionic enough to imagine myself in any way responsible for the torments suffered by Mohamed and Padilla – at least no more responsible than any other American who failed to rise up in revolutionary anger against the Bush terror regime. No, I’m too busy seething over another irony: Whenever I’ve complained about my country’s torturings, renderings, detentions, etc., there’s always been some smug bastard ready to respond that these measures are what guarantee smart-alecky writers like myself our freedom of speech. Well, we had a government so vicious and impenetrably stupid that it managed to take my freedom of speech and turn it into someone else’s living hell.
Will anyone be held accountable?
March 4th, 2009
Mark Benjamin discusses with a number of advocates:
How to build a torture commission
Experts are in surprising agreement: Decide later whether to prosecute Bush officials, and keep members of Congress off the panel.
By Mark Benjamin
The revelation that the CIA destroyed 92 tapes showing the brutal interrogation of terror suspects provided another stark reminder of how much remains unknown about national security mischief during the Bush administration. On Monday, the Justice Department also released a raft of previously undisclosed legal opinions drafted during the Bush era articulating additional wartime power for the president, on issues ranging from curtailing free speech to conducting warrantless searches.
Against that troubling backdrop, on Wednesday the Senate Judiciary Committee will begin to study how to conduct an investigation of national security issues during the Bush administration, focused mostly or exclusively on torture. Staff say committee leaders remain genuinely undecided about almost every facet of how to proceed, including the mandate, scope and membership of any investigative body. The hearing will zero in on how, exactly, to move forward.
No decisions have been made on the question of whether, when and how to prosecute Bush officials who may have broken the law. There are certainly attorneys who believe the Obama administration should prosecute such officials for torture, and that the truth will come tumbling out during their trials while justice is also served. There may be more attorneys who believe those prosecutions would fail on both counts. Experts on government fact-finding missions interviewed by Salon, however, articulated surprisingly similar advice for Congress on how to conduct spadework on the torture issue, including unanimity on exactly who should not participate in an investigation: current members of Congress.
“My thought is that is probably not the way to go in this case,” said Kenneth Kitts, author of “Presidential Commissions & National Security: The Politics of Damage Control.” Kitts noted that Congress has investigated abuses by the CIA before, such as the famous 1970s-era Church Committee review of domestic spying and other issues. In general, though, Kitts said, current lawmakers complicate progress by bringing their own political agenda into the hearing room. (President Ford labeled the Church Committee “sensational and irresponsible,” according to Kitts’ book.)
“Whenever you talk about a committee composed of members of Congress, however good and however well-intentioned they are, they bring a lot of partisan baggage to the table and they are going to be encumbered by political considerations that those removed from active government service would not have,” Kitts said.
Kitts and other experts suggested the creation of an independent commission, buoyed by force of law, generously funded and staffed and focused almost exclusively on detention and interrogation issues during the Bush administration. It would be something along the lines of the 9-11 Commission.
“I would prefer a commission of well-known figures, not bipartisan but non-partisan,” said Juan Mendez, president of the International Center for Transitional Justice, an organization that assists countries pursuing accountability for past mass atrocity or human rights abuse. By nonpartisan, Mendez said he meant individuals with reputations for integrity and not known for having a political ax to grind. “I would prefer that members of Congress not be part of it,” he said.
The commission should investigate torture, but probably refrain from wandering into other abuses such as warrantless wire-tapping, most experts said. “It is not a good idea to frame it as, ‘Let’s look at everything the Bush administration did,’” explained Lisa Magarrell, who works with Mendez at the ICTJ. She suggested that Republicans would reflexively label a broader mandate as a political witch hunt.
Interestingly, experts interviewed by Salon seemed generally nonplussed by the hot button questions in the what-to-do-about-torture-now debate: Should Bush officials be prosecuted? And if there is a commission, should the panel offer blanket immunity for participation, such as South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission?
The answer to the first question, the experts said, is to punt for now. “The idea would be to decide whether to prosecute after the commission completes its work,” explained Mendez. The uncovered facts would dictate the next move. The panel could send recommendations to the president.
Mendez also dismissed the idea that offering blanket immunity would lubricate the panel’s work. “It is not true that commissions are more effective by getting perpetrators to speak out premised on immunity,” he said, using South Africa as an example. “They got very little out of it. Almost nothing. They granted people immunity and they basically said what they had said before or lied.” Mendez said commissions get their best information from government files and testimony of victims.
Some proponents of a torture review, including retired Maj. Gen. Tony Taguba, predicted in recent interviews that high-level Bush administration officials are unlikely to step forward and admit wrongdoing regardless of immunity. Several suggested the panel grant immunity for individual people only under very limited circumstances and on a case-by-case basis.
A Gallup poll last month showed that 62 percent of Americans support either an investigation or prosecution of Bush administration officials for torture. Sources familiar with the administration’s thinking say Obama’s team has thoroughly thought through the concept of a torture investigation. President Obama, however, has remained cool to the notion in his public statements.
“I thought all along that Obama would not be particularly inclined to go after the perpetrators,” said Mendez. “His theory of overcoming partisanship would be his priority.” That doesn’t mean doom, however, for a commission. “It seems to me that Congress is trying to push Obama in the right direction,” he added. “I don’t think the Obama administration will stand in the way of justice.”
March 4th, 2009
The Davis Group has brought together a range of people — including military officers, attorneys, and scholars — with expertise in US interrogation and detention policies to join the call for a Commission on Detentions to investigate abuses under the Bush administration. Notice that they insist that the decision to create a Truth Commission should not prejudge the possibility of future prosecutions. The call [see below] was issued with this press release:
University of California, Davis
March 3, 2009
SCHOLARS AND MILITARY EXPERTS CALL FOR PRESIDENTIAL COMMISSION ON POST-9/11 DETENTION POLICY
[Editor's note: A full copy of the statement is available at
A day before the Senate Judiciary Committee will hold hearings on whether to investigate post-9/11 detention policies, a group of leading scholars, human rights specialists and retired military officers has issued a statement calling on President Obama to create a commission of inquiry to investigate those matters.
“At this moment of national renewal, it is important to face the future armed with a thorough understanding of the past,” said Almerindo Ojeda, the group’s co-founder and principal investigator of the Guantanamo Testimonials Project at the University of California, Davis, Center for the Study of Human Rights in the Americas.
Calling itself the Davis Group, the 13-member organization includes scholars; retired military officers; human rights specialists; practicing attorneys who have represented detainees held at Guantanamo Bay, Bagram and other locations; individuals with experience in conducting previous government commissions; intelligence specialists; and constitutional rights experts. Members include retired U.S. Army Reserve Lt. Col. Stephen Abraham; Salomon Lerner Febres, president of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Republic of Peru; retired U.S. Marine Corps Lt. Col. Colby Vokey; and Eugene R. Fidell, president of the National Institute of Military Justice.
The group’s statement, submitted to the Senate Judiciary Committee, calls for the creation of an independent, nonpartisan commission comprised of respected experts and charged with issuing a final report within two years. The commission would possess subpoena powers, be granted appropriate security clearances, possess the ability to receive testimony of foreign witnesses, and have the power to grant limited testimonial immunity. However, its actions should not impede other avenues of accountability or related efforts to effect reforms, prosecutions or reparations, the statement emphasizes.
“An independent and nonpartisan commission of inquiry is the essential first step to achieving President Obama’s goals of reforming U.S. detention policy and safeguarding against future abuses. The American people deserve a full accounting of the facts and policies relating to the capture, detention, transfer, interrogation, and treatment of persons who have been detained by, or transferred for detention by others at the direction of, the United States since September 11, 2001,” said Hope Metcalf, director of the National Litigation Project of the Allard K. Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic at Yale Law School.
Abraham, an attorney, said that U.S. detention policies have eroded the moral foundations upon which the nation is built.
“When this nation faltered from its moral footing, we damaged our intelligence efforts, our national security, and our international standing, which cannot easily be measured but will assuredly be felt for years if not generations to come,” Abraham said.
While some maintain that expanded executive powers and the use of torture have been necessary and appropriate to protect our national security, Vokey, a former Marine Corps lawyer, counters that the measures have made the nation less safe.
“The abuse of detainees continues to threaten the security of our own military forces, undermining both our moral authority and our ability to protect U.S. forces in the future,” Vokey said. “Only through an independent, nonpartisan, transparent and thorough investigation into the facts, circumstances and policies employed in response to the Sept. 11 attacks can we begin to objectively assess what has been done in the name of the American people and restore our nation’s great history,” said Vokey.
Ojeda, whose Guantanamo Testimonials Project has gathered accounts of Guantanamo experiences from hundreds of detainees, FBI agents, interrogators, military physicians and lawyers, said that an effective commission must be able to gather overseas evidence.
“We need to listen to the individuals who have been the most affected by these practices and policies — the detainees themselves,” Ojeda said. “The technical and political costs involved will pale in comparison to the gains it will yield. Not just to establish the facts, but also to strengthen U.S. relations with key allies in the fight against terrorism.”
The Davis Group first met Jan. 16-18 at UC Davis. It continues to work toward the goal of establishing a U.S. Commission of Inquiry into U.S. detention policies and practices.
* Center for the Study of Human Rights in the Americas <http://humanrights.ucdavis.edu/>
* Almerindo Ojeda, UC Davis Center for the Study of Human Rights in the Americas, , firstname.lastname@example.org
* Stephen Abraham, Law Offices of Stephen Abraham,
* Colby Vokey, Attorney at Law, email@example.com
* Claudia Morain, UC Davis News Service,
[Statement available as pdf here.:
THE DAVIS GROUP
RECOMMENDATIONS FOR THE ESTABLISHMENT OF A
COMMISSION OF INQUIRY
INTO U.S. DETENTION POLICIES AND PRACTICES SINCE 9/11
1. Commission and Mandate. The President of the United States should appoint an Independent Commission of Inquiry into U.S. Detention Policies and Practices Since 9/11 (“the Commission on Detentions”) to provide a full accounting of the facts, circumstances and policies relating to the capture, detention, transfer, interrogation, and treatment of persons who have been detained by, or transferred for detention by others at the direction of, the United States since September 11, 2001. The mandate of the Commission on Detentions should also include, but not be limited to, assessing the legality of such policies and practices, making recommendations it deems appropriate, and identifying any lessons learned.
2. The Need for the Commission on Detentions. Like President Obama, many Americans have expressed concerns that the detention, transfer, and treatment of detainees in U.S. custody carried out under expanded powers of the government have eroded the moral foundations upon which our country was built and undermined our national security and military objectives. Others maintain, however, that such expanded powers have been necessary and appropriate to protect our national security. It is only through an independent, nonpartisan, transparent, and thorough investigation into the facts, circumstances, and policies employed in response to the September 11 attacks, that we can begin to objectively assess what has been done in the name of the American people.
3. Composition. The Commission on Detentions should be nonpartisan rather than bipartisan in its composition. Its members should be men and women with a demonstrated commitment to truth and to our nation’s founding principles. Commissioners should be individuals of irreproachable integrity, credibility, and independence. Retired military officers, judges, government officials, attorneys, intelligence officials, leading academics and human rights experts are examples of the types of members that should be sought. The Commission should be supported by adequate staff with appropriate expertise to carry out the mandate of the Commission.
4. Security Clearances. In a manner consistent with existing procedures and requirements, members and appropriate staff of the Commission on Detentions should be granted such security clearances as are necessary to perform the functions of the Commission.
5. Subpoena Powers. Congress should grant the Commission on Detentions the authority of compulsory process, including subpoena power, in furtherance of its mandate.
6. Testimonial Immunity. In order to secure full and truthful disclosures to the Commission on Detentions, and in recognition of the Constitutional right of witnesses against self-incrimination, the Commission should have the authority, at its discretion, to grant limited testimonial immunity to witnesses.
7. Other Remedial Efforts. The Commission on Detentions should not impede other avenues of accountability or related efforts to effect reforms, prosecutions, or reparations.
8. Foreign Testimony. In order to thoroughly investigate and evaluate U.S. detention practices, the Commission on Detentions should solicit testimony and reports from foreign nationals, including former detainees, other nations, and non-governmental and international organizations. Robust efforts to include overseas evidence will also buttress the credibility of the Commission’s findings, thereby strengthening foreign relations with our allies and our national security. The Commissions on Detentions may hear such evidence in person, when practical, or through alternative means such as remote testimony or reports of investigative efforts.
9. Transparency. The Commission on Detentions should carry out its mandate as openly and transparently as considerations of privacy and national security will allow.
10. Reporting. The Commission on Detentions should convey its findings by issuing one report in two versions-one public, the other classified. This report should provide the full accounting of the facts, circumstances and policies called for in the Commission’s mandate, as well as make recommendations, and identify lessons learned. The public version should contain as much information as may be publicly disclosed. The second version should be classified but only to the extent strictly necessary to protect any classified information contained therein. Both versions should be released simultaneously.
11. Duration. The Commission on Detentions should issue its report no later than two years after it is convened.
12. Funding. The Commission on Detentions should be funded at levels that will enable it to carry out its mandate. These should be comparable to the levels of funding of the 9/11 Commission. The funds are to remain available until expended or until the Commission issues its reports.
The points of contact for The Davis Group are: The Constitution Project, Daniel Schuman, Communications Director and Counsel at firstname.lastname@example.org; Colby Vokey at email@example.com; Stephen Abraham at firstname.lastname@example.org; and Almerindo Ojeda at email@example.com.
In witness whereof, the undersigned signatures of members of The Davis Group have been affixed this third day of March, 2009.
/s/ Stephen E. Abraham
Stephen E. Abraham
Lieutenant Colonel, U.S. Army Reserve (Ret.)
Law Offices of Stephen Abraham
Newport Beach, California
/s/Becky L. Monroe
The Constitution Project
Contact: Becky L. Monroe, Public Policy
/s/ Buz Eisenberg
Weinberg & Garber, P.C.
Chairman, International Justice Network Board of Directors
/s/ Salomón Lerner Febres
Salomón Lerner Febres
President, Truth and Reconciliation Commission
Republic of Peru
President Emeritus, Pontificia Universidad Catolica del Peru
/s/ Tina Monshipour Foster
Tina Monshipour Foster
International Justice Network
/s/ Ramzi Kassem
Lecturer in Law
Yale Law School
/s/ Kathleen Kelly
Clinical Teaching Fellow
Stanford Law School
/s/ Mark Denbeaux
Professor of Law
Director, Seton Hall Law School Center for Policy and Research
Seton Hall Law School
/s/ Hope Metcalf
Director, National Litigation Project of the Allard K. Lowenstein International human Rights Clinic
Clinic Lecturer in Law
Yale Law School
/s/ Almerindo E. Ojeda
Almerido E. Ojeda
Center for the Study of Human Rights in the Americas
University of California at Davis
/s/ Barbara Olshansky
Leah Kaplan Visiting Professor in Human Rights
Stanford Law School
/s/ Colby Vokey
Lieutenant Colonel, U.S. Marine Corps (Ret.)
Attorney at Law
Fitzpatrick Hagood Smith & Uhl LLP
/s/ Elizabeth A. Wilson
Elizabeth A. Wilson
Assistant Professor of Human Rights Law
Whitehead School of Diplomacy and International Relations
Seton Hall University
/s/ Eugene R. Fidell
Florence Rogatz Visiting Lecturer in Law
Yale Law School
President, National Institute of Military Justice
/s/ Michael Meltsner
Matthews Distinguished University Professor of Law
Northeastern University School of Law
 The Davis Group is an assemblage of individuals with diverse experiences and backgrounds, including: scholars; retired military officers; human rights specialists; practicing attorneys who have represented detainees held at Guantanamo Bay, Bagram and other locations; individuals with experience in conducting previous government commissions; intelligence specialists; and Constitutional rights experts. The Group first met January 16-18, 2009 at the University of California, Davis. The Davis Group continues to work toward the goal of establishing a United States Commission of Inquiry into U.S. detention policies and practices and has, since the original meeting, added several other experts who concur with this recommendation. These additional signatories are annotated by an asterisk (*) next to their name.
March 4th, 2009