Critics of Ghailani Trial Have Little Faith in U.S. Law

On Wednesday, to the surprise of some spectators in the courtroom, a U.S. federal judge did the right thing: he followed the law.

Judge Lewis Kaplan had a clear choice before him: he could exclude the testimony of a government witness discovered via abusive CIA interrogation of Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, or he could allow the government to introduce that testimony, in blatant violation of U.S. law. Ghailani, transferred from Guantanamo Bay to New York last year, is now on trial for allegedly assisting in the 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in East Africa.

In a U.S. federal court, testimony derived from a coercive interrogation is not admissible. A similar rule applies in the military commissions at Guantanamo Bay. Although judges there have more leeway, most military judges are equally principled and take the ban seriously. Torture-derived evidence is inadmissible for two reasons: to prevent U.S. authorities from engaging in torture, and because such evidence is inherently unreliable. International treaties similarly ban its use.

The government knew, of course, that this would be a problem, and it surely has plenty of other evidence against Ghailani or it wouldn't have transferred him to civilian court in the first place. After Judge Kaplan's ruling, Attorney General Eric Holder expressed his continued confidence in the case. Notably, four of his alleged co-conspirators in the bombings were tried and sentenced to life in prison back in 2001 - without the use of this particular government witness. Evidence introduced in that trial pointed to Ghailani as well.

Still, since Wednesday, commentators such as Liz Cheney and Jack Goldsmith have seized on Judge Kaplan's ruling to lament not the fact that Ghailani was thrown in a CIA black site for two years and likely tortured (the government refuses to address Ghailani's treatment in this trial but concedes he was "coerced"), but the fact that the judge has excluded the evidence that his interrogators squeezed out of him - or to claim the administration should never have given Ghailani a trial at all.

"If the American people needed any further proof that this Administration's policy of treating terrorism like a law enforcement matter is irresponsible and reckless, they received it today," announced Cheney after the ruling. Goldsmith, the Harvard Professor and former head of the Office of Legal Counsel Under President Bush, now writing on the new Lawfare blog, wonders "why the government is bothering to try Ghailani." Why not simply imprison him indefinitely?

Coming from Goldsmith, this is particularly disappointing. When he was at OLC, he had the courage to criticize his colleagues John Yoo and Jay Bybee for their twisted legal analysis that allowed them to institutionalize torture as U.S. policy. Now, rather than recalling that error as the source of the problem in Ghailani's trial today, he's criticizing the Obama administration for applying the rule of law at all.

Technically, Goldsmith may be right: the administration could just declare Ghailani an al Qaeda member and ongoing threat and hold him in military detention forever. That's the unfortunate consequence of the "war against al Qaeda, the Taliban and associated forces," which has no logical end. But as a matter of principle and policy, imprisoning people indefinitely without trial would be a disgrace, along the lines of what Goldsmith's colleagues at OLC sanctioned.

If there's anything the United States stands for -- or used to stand for -- it's that we don't throw people in prison without proof they've done something wrong.

Principle aside, it's just bad strategy. As General Petraeus has acknowledged, winning the war against al Qaeda and the Taliban is as much about winning over the local populations where they live as it is about U.S. military prowess. Throwing Muslims in prison for decades without charge or trial is hardly a good strategy. If, as national security experts tell us, al Qaeda's strategy is to present the U.S. war against terror as a war against Islam, indefinite detention of suspected Islamic insurgents without trial hands al Qaeda its most effective propaganda campaign on a silver platter.

Cheney and Goldsmith may be right that excluding a witness derived by torture will make the government's case against Ghailani more difficult. But in the end, a fair trial for a suspected terrorist in a respected federal court will do far more to defeat al Qaeda and its associates -- and to bolster the image of the United States in the world -- than will foregoing justice altogether.

 

 

March Madness Strikes the Terror Debates

The Wall Street Journal is absolutely right thatLindsey Graham is tossing up an embarrassing air ball. Graham's effort to get the administration to abandon legitimate federal court trials for suspected terrorists in exchange for the funding needed to close Guantanamo Bay is headed nowhere fast, predicts the Journal.

As I've noted before, Graham doesn't have support for his scheme from either side of the aisle.

Senators with any respect for the U.S. justice system, let alone real concern for national security, know that it's absurd to bargain away the requirement that the 9/11 suspects get a legitimate trial. That means a trial that not only convicts the guilty but reveals what really happened when the United States was ruthlessly attacked on September 11, 2001, and showcases our respect for the rule of law over brutality and political expedience. After all, the US constitution is no bargaining chip - it's survived 223 years, through war and peace, for good reason.

Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), Russell Feingold (D-Wisc.), Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and others know that any cheap political points lawmakers might score by abandoning American principles will come back to bite them - particularly if military commission convictions are reversed on appeal. They'll be even more embarrassed when the country looks back a few years from now and wonders how Congress came to abandon the most basic American principles because it was cowed by a handful of thugs eager to be seen as warriors for Allah martyred by the United States government.

Lawmakers speaking out against civilian trials, meanwhile, are so intent on undermining the Obama administration, regardless of their impact on national security, that they're obstructing justice to score political points. Not only do they oppose federal trials, but they won't agree to closing the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay so long as President Obama remains in office. No matter that scores of military leaders, in addition to former President George W. Bush and Senator John McCain - when he was a presidential candidate - agreed that Guantanamo must be shuttered.

So the Journal's right that Graham can't possibly deliver victory on his proposed compromise. But the paper's conclusion -- that military commissions are the place for KSM & Co. to go -- is based on assumptions wholly divorced from the facts.

Military commission proceedings "since September 11 have been serious and even-handed," writes the Journal in its endorsement of those trials.

Really? Three convictions in eight years - only two of which followed trials that were even contested -- hardly backs that claim up.

Take the case of Salim Hamdan, who military prosecutors characterized as a "hardened Qaeda member" and bin Laden's right hand man. The military jury acquitted Hamdan of all conspiracy charges and three of eight charges for "material support for terrorism." The result was a sentence of only five and a half years - most of which he'd already served. And that was a case that government officials had said was "one of their strongest" against any of the Guantanamo detainees, as reported in the Wall Street Journal.

Meanwhile, federal prosecutors have convicted more than 195 terrorists in federal court.

Even Brookings Institution fellow Benjamin Wittes and former Bush administration official Jack Goldsmith, writing in the Washington Post last week, acknowledge the weakness of the military commissions. The two note that "serious legal issues remain unresolved, including the validity of the non-traditional criminal charges that will be central to the commissions' success and the role of the Geneva Conventions." Sorting out those issues "will take years and might render them ineffectual," the authors add. They also note that the commissions lack international legitimacy.

Wittes' and Goldsmith's solution, however, is even worse than the Journal's. "Don't bother trying them at all," the two scholars pronounced. "Domestically, the political costs of trying high-level terrorists in federal courts have become exorbitant," they argue, while the "public relations and related legitimacy benefits" of a military commission trial aren't great, either.

So there we have it. Whether and how to try a group of men who are believed to have orchestrated the worst terrorist attack and mass murder ever on U.S. soil has come down to a question of pure politics. "It is time to be realistic about terrorist detention," write Wittes and Goldsmith, and to concede that the time has come to do away with our quaint notions of justice in favor of a new system of indefinite detention without trial. That should be supported, they argue, with new legislation codifying its legitimacy in U.S. law.

To be sure, that's been the de facto response to many of the suspected terrorists held at Guantanamo Bay for the past eight years.

A similar course was briefly considered after World War II, when Winston Churchillreportedly told Joseph Stalin that he'd rather just execute Nazi leaders upon their capture. Stalin, of all people, insisted that they deserved a trial.

Historically, the United States has prided itself as being several steps above Stalin in terms of its respect for the rule of law. But these latest proposals make one wonder just how low some American opinionators and policymakers may be willing to sink.

The OPR Report Is Only the Beginning

In reporting on the long-delayed release of the Justice Department's ethics report on the work of Bush administration lawyers who approved the torture of detainees, The New York Timeson Saturday wrote that it "brings to a close a pivotal chapter in the debate over the legal limits of the Bush administration's fight against terrorism and whether its treatment of Qaeda prisoners amounted to torture."

The Washington Post, meanwhile, said the report represents "the end of a 5-year internal battle" at the Justice Department.

In fact, the Office of Professional Responsibility report is just the beginning of a bigger and more important battle. Legal ethics investigators concluded that former Office of Legal Counsel lawyers John Yoo and Jay Bybee committed "professional misconduct" in advising the Bush administration that it was not against the law to torture, humiliate and abuse detainees despite longstanding domestic and international prohibitions against doing so. The battle now will be over whether the U.S. government will meet its obligations to thoroughly investigate what happened and hold the perpetrators accountable.

The final OPR report chastises the two OLC lawyers for reaching bizarre legal conclusions that were wholly unsupported by the law. For example, one of their memos claimed that torture was legal so long as an interrogator's goal was to obtain information rather than to inflict severe pain or suffering - even if he knew he would inflict severe pain or suffering in the process. As one OLC lawyer commented on the memo at the time: "The way it reads now makes you wonder whether this is just an anti-sadism statute."

Meanwhile, the memo's now-infamous definition of "severe pain" as necessarily "equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death" not only relied on an irrelevant medical benefits statute for its definition, which the OPR report calls "illogical," but actually misquoted the language of that statute so as "to add further support to their 'aggressive' interpretation of the torture statute," the OPR report concludes. Ultimately, the definition could lead an interrogator to believe, the OPR found, "that pain could be inflicted as long as no injury resulted." It's the "leave no marks" theory of torture.

The list of twisted and inexplicable legal conclusions is long and impressive. In another instance, the lawyers relied on extremely narrow interpretations of the international Convention Against Torture proposed by the Reagan administration that the U.S. had never adopted. And they completely ignored far more relevant sources of law on torture, such as federal court cases interpreting the Torture Victims Protection Act, which found torture had occurred in situations far less severe than the brutal interrogation techniques being contemplated in these memos. In one case, for example, a federal court held that imprisonment for five days under bad conditions while being threatened with bodily harm, interrogated and held at gunpoint amounted to torture.

David Margolis, the Deputy Associate Attorney General ultimately overrode the recommendations of the ethics office to refer the lawyers to state bar associations for disciplinary proceedings, because he decided that the OLC's standards for referral were unclear. But the report of the investigators who actually read and analyzed the memos that authorized such brutal conduct as "waterboarding" (controlled drowning), slamming prisoners' heads repeatedly against a wall ("walling"), weeks of sleep deprivation, stress positions, and confinement in a cramped box with insects provides an astonishing look at how the lawyers tasked with providing objective legal advice to the White House on its most sensitive policies completely contorted ordinary logic and legal reasoning to reach the conclusions desired.

Justice Department lawyer Patrick Philbin at one point asked John Yoo why he included a wholly unsubstantiated section in one of the memos that concluded that the president of the United States, as commander in chief, can completely ignore any law he wanted - such as the prohibition against torture. Yoo said it was in the memo because "they want it in there" -- "they" presumably being whoever had requested the opinion. The memo never explained how the prohibition against torture could be construed in any reasonable way so as to conflict with the president's authority as commander in chief.

Whether John Yoo and Jay Bybee face professional sanctions (that's now up to their respective state bars) is far less important than whether we get to the bottom of what really happened at the Bush White House: who ordered these lawyers to come up with legal reasoning to justify torture? The OPR report suggests that David Addington, Chief of Staff to Vice President Dick Cheney, played a significant role. Who was he getting his orders from?

The OPR report is just another piece of the slowly-emerging puzzle of how the country plunged into what Dick Cheney has aptly called "the Dark Side," abandoning its most basic belief in human dignity and the rule of law to zealously combat terrorism in a way that's ultimately backfired; we're now less safe, and mired in a vicious and protracted war.

In concluding that Yoo and Bybee exercised "poor judgment" rather than "professional misconduct", Margolis emphasizes that "his decision should not be viewed as an endorsement of the legal work that underlies these memoranda," which he notes were "seriously flawed" and represent "an unfortunate chapter in the history of the Office of Legal Counsel." In Yoo's case, his conclusions represented a "loyalty to his own ideology and convictions" which "clouded his view of his obligations to his client" and led him to author opinions reflecting "extreme" views of executive power.

Yoo was among the very small group of lawyers entrusted to write these opinions for the White House because he was already known to hold these extreme opinions. That he ignored or contorted opposing views should not have come as a surprise to his employers; that's what he'd been doing all along as an academic.

It's clear from the report, too, that that's what Yoo was expected to do. As John Bellinger, the Bush administration's legal advisor to the State Department told OPR: "Yoo was 'under pretty significant pressure to come up with an answer that would justify [the program]' and that, over time, there was significant pressure on the Department to conclude that the program was legal and could be continued, even after changes in the law in 2005 and 2006."

Some of those memos were also being demanded under very tight time frames to justify particular interrogations.

So who asked Yoo and Bybee to write these memos, and what exactly were the instructions given? Were they pressured to reach a particular conclusion and provide a "golden shield" for illegal conduct that the White House had already chosen to undertake? The report points out that the OPR investigators were not able to access most of John Yoo's e-mail messages from the time period: "most of Yoo's e-mail records had been deleted and were not recoverable." Why did Yoo delete those messages, and what did they say?

Even Jack Goldsmith, the former head of the Office of Legal Counsel under President Bush, read the memos to ultimately function as a "blank check" for the military to engage in illegal and unauthorized interrogation techniques. If that's the case, then not only the lawyers but the officials who instructed them could be guilty of a criminal conspiracy.

The OPR report, then, hardly ends this chapter of history; it only begins to open the book. Before we can really reach the end of this sad saga and put it to rest, we need to know much more.

 

 

 

 

 

The OPR Report Is Only the Beginning

In reporting on the long-delayed release of the Justice Department's ethics report on the work of Bush administration lawyers who approved the torture of detainees, The New York Timeson Saturday wrote that it "brings to a close a pivotal chapter in the debate over the legal limits of the Bush administration's fight against terrorism and whether its treatment of Qaeda prisoners amounted to torture."

The Washington Post, meanwhile, said the report represents "the end of a 5-year internal battle" at the Justice Department.

In fact, the Office of Professional Responsibility report is just the beginning of a bigger and more important battle. Legal ethics investigators concluded that former Office of Legal Counsel lawyers John Yoo and Jay Bybee committed "professional misconduct" in advising the Bush administration that it was not against the law to torture, humiliate and abuse detainees despite longstanding domestic and international prohibitions against doing so. The battle now will be over whether the U.S. government will meet its obligations to thoroughly investigate what happened and hold the perpetrators accountable.

The final OPR report chastises the two OLC lawyers for reaching bizarre legal conclusions that were wholly unsupported by the law. For example, one of their memos claimed that torture was legal so long as an interrogator's goal was to obtain information rather than to inflict severe pain or suffering - even if he knew he would inflict severe pain or suffering in the process. As one OLC lawyer commented on the memo at the time: "The way it reads now makes you wonder whether this is just an anti-sadism statute."

Meanwhile, the memo's now-infamous definition of "severe pain" as necessarily "equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death" not only relied on an irrelevant medical benefits statute for its definition, which the OPR report calls "illogical," but actually misquoted the language of that statute so as "to add further support to their 'aggressive' interpretation of the torture statute," the OPR report concludes. Ultimately, the definition could lead an interrogator to believe, the OPR found, "that pain could be inflicted as long as no injury resulted." It's the "leave no marks" theory of torture.

The list of twisted and inexplicable legal conclusions is long and impressive. In another instance, the lawyers relied on extremely narrow interpretations of the international Convention Against Torture proposed by the Reagan administration that the U.S. had never adopted. And they completely ignored far more relevant sources of law on torture, such as federal court cases interpreting the Torture Victims Protection Act, which found torture had occurred in situations far less severe than the brutal interrogation techniques being contemplated in these memos. In one case, for example, a federal court held that imprisonment for five days under bad conditions while being threatened with bodily harm, interrogated and held at gunpoint amounted to torture.

David Margolis, the Deputy Associate Attorney General ultimately overrode the recommendations of the ethics office to refer the lawyers to state bar associations for disciplinary proceedings, because he decided that the OLC's standards for referral were unclear. But the report of the investigators who actually read and analyzed the memos that authorized such brutal conduct as "waterboarding" (controlled drowning), slamming prisoners' heads repeatedly against a wall ("walling"), weeks of sleep deprivation, stress positions, and confinement in a cramped box with insects provides an astonishing look at how the lawyers tasked with providing objective legal advice to the White House on its most sensitive policies completely contorted ordinary logic and legal reasoning to reach the conclusions desired.

Justice Department lawyer Patrick Philbin at one point asked John Yoo why he included a wholly unsubstantiated section in one of the memos that concluded that the president of the United States, as commander in chief, can completely ignore any law he wanted - such as the prohibition against torture. Yoo said it was in the memo because "they want it in there" -- "they" presumably being whoever had requested the opinion. The memo never explained how the prohibition against torture could be construed in any reasonable way so as to conflict with the president's authority as commander in chief.

Whether John Yoo and Jay Bybee face professional sanctions (that's now up to their respective state bars) is far less important than whether we get to the bottom of what really happened at the Bush White House: who ordered these lawyers to come up with legal reasoning to justify torture? The OPR report suggests that David Addington, Chief of Staff to Vice President Dick Cheney, played a significant role. Who was he getting his orders from?

The OPR report is just another piece of the slowly-emerging puzzle of how the country plunged into what Dick Cheney has aptly called "the Dark Side," abandoning its most basic belief in human dignity and the rule of law to zealously combat terrorism in a way that's ultimately backfired; we're now less safe, and mired in a vicious and protracted war.

In concluding that Yoo and Bybee exercised "poor judgment" rather than "professional misconduct", Margolis emphasizes that "his decision should not be viewed as an endorsement of the legal work that underlies these memoranda," which he notes were "seriously flawed" and represent "an unfortunate chapter in the history of the Office of Legal Counsel." In Yoo's case, his conclusions represented a "loyalty to his own ideology and convictions" which "clouded his view of his obligations to his client" and led him to author opinions reflecting "extreme" views of executive power.

Yoo was among the very small group of lawyers entrusted to write these opinions for the White House because he was already known to hold these extreme opinions. That he ignored or contorted opposing views should not have come as a surprise to his employers; that's what he'd been doing all along as an academic.

It's clear from the report, too, that that's what Yoo was expected to do. As John Bellinger, the Bush administration's legal advisor to the State Department told OPR: "Yoo was 'under pretty significant pressure to come up with an answer that would justify [the program]' and that, over time, there was significant pressure on the Department to conclude that the program was legal and could be continued, even after changes in the law in 2005 and 2006."

Some of those memos were also being demanded under very tight time frames to justify particular interrogations.

So who asked Yoo and Bybee to write these memos, and what exactly were the instructions given? Were they pressured to reach a particular conclusion and provide a "golden shield" for illegal conduct that the White House had already chosen to undertake? The report points out that the OPR investigators were not able to access most of John Yoo's e-mail messages from the time period: "most of Yoo's e-mail records had been deleted and were not recoverable." Why did Yoo delete those messages, and what did they say?

Even Jack Goldsmith, the former head of the Office of Legal Counsel under President Bush, read the memos to ultimately function as a "blank check" for the military to engage in illegal and unauthorized interrogation techniques. If that's the case, then not only the lawyers but the officials who instructed them could be guilty of a criminal conspiracy.

The OPR report, then, hardly ends this chapter of history; it only begins to open the book. Before we can really reach the end of this sad saga and put it to rest, we need to know much more.

 

 

 

 

Critics of Ghailani Trial Have Little Faith in U.S. Law

 

 

 

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