Posts Tagged ‘due obedience principle’

Holder’s Investigations into Torture and Covert Operations Leaks–An Obama Cover-up?

Tuesday, June 26th, 2012

Barack Obama thinks he’s always “the smartest person in the room”, and that he is a lot smarter than we are. Or maybe, accustomed as he is to a sycophantic press, he just thinks he is more clever than we are, and that he can sneak things by us and we won’t notice.

Obama, the Torture Convention, and Holder’s Investigations into Cases of Torture

An early example of the foregoing was the way President Obama dealt with the issue of potential prosecution of past and present officials for their involvement in the torture policy of the Bush administration.

First, Attorney General Eric Holder initiated an investigation into cases of alleged use of harsh interrogation techniques by the CIA, on August 24, 2009. At the same time he exempted from eventual prosecution all those who had acted pursuant to legal advice from the Justice Department, stating:

On January 2, 2008, Attorney General Michael Mukasey appointed Assistant United States Attorney John Durham of the District of Connecticut to conduct a criminal investigation into the destruction of interrogation videotapes by the Central Intelligence Agency. On August 24, 2009, based on information the Department received pertaining to alleged CIA mistreatment of detainees, I announced that I had expanded Mr. Durham’s mandate to conduct a preliminary review into whether federal laws were violated in connection with the interrogation of specific detainees at overseas locations. I made clear at that time that the Department would not prosecute anyone who acted in good faith and within the scope of the legal guidance given by the Office of Legal Counsel regarding the interrogation of detainees. Accordingly, Mr. Durham’s review examined primarily whether any unauthorized interrogation techniques were used by CIA interrogators, and if so, whether such techniques could constitute violations of the torture statute or any other applicable statute.

Second, the Justice Department concluded in a report on February 19, 2010, that the legal guidance drafted by Justice Department officials authorizing the full range of “harsh interrogation techniques” did not constitute professional misconduct.

Third, Holder announced on June 30, 2011 that the review of cases was complete and that only two cases, which involved the death in custody of detainees, would be prosecuted. None of the other cases warranted prosecution, he concluded, stating:

Mr. Durham has advised me of the results of his investigation, and I have accepted his recommendation to conduct a full criminal investigation regarding the death in custody of two individuals. Those investigations are ongoing. The Department has determined that an expanded criminal investigation of the remaining matters is not warranted.
–”Statement of the Attorney General Regarding Investigation into the interrogation of certain detainees, National Journal, June 30, 2011 (full text of statement),

See Eric Lichtblau and Eric Schmitt, “U.S. Widens Inquiries Into 2 Jail Deaths,” New York Times, July 1, 2011

The authors of the legal guidance authorizing torture (as it is defined in the Convention on Torture) were exonerated from “professional misconduct”. In other words, the Justice Department concluded that their drafting and approvals of legal memoranda authorizing torture did not constitute misconduct–i.e., that what appear to be clear violations of the torture convention do not constitute “misconduct”.  This is a rather extraordinary conclusion. 

The due obedience defense adopted by Holder protected all the individuals directly involved in executing acts of torture against detainees, with the two exceptions mentioned above. The policymakers at higher levels were never investigated for potential violations of the Torture Convention.

Obama and Holder thus avoided their legal duty, under both U.S. law and the Convention on Torture, to prosecute those responsible for the torture policy and its implementation. By June 30, 2011, the press and the media had long since turned their attention away from torture.  No one really cared about, even if they noticed, Obama’s and Holder’s legerdemain in excluding from the investigation both the principal policymakers involved in the formulation of the policy and those who actually carried it out.

The price paid by America in proceeding in this manner, in terms of international law, was high. The United States adopted the “due obedience” defense in cases involving torture (and by implication other international crimes), despite the fact that the “due obedience defense” was explicitly rejected in the Nuremberg Principles and at the Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals following World War II, and by the U.N. Convention Against Torture, to which the United States is a party. The Convention on Torture provides the following:

Article 2 (3). An order from a superior officer or a public authority may not be invoked as a justification of torture.

In addition, the Defense Department acted to remove the issue of torture from public debate through an order on November 11, 2009, which prohibited the release of any photographs depicting torture from September 11, 2001 through January 22, 2009.

See also Alexander Abdo, “The White House’s blemished record of disclosure on Bush-era torture; Since publishing the ‘torture memos’, the Obama adminstration has obfuscated far too much about CIA interrogation techniques,” The Guardian, June 26, 2012.

Nonetheless, under the Torture Convention other countries which are parties to the treaty have a continuing obligation to assume jurisdiction over individuals responsible for torture, including its planning and coordination, when such individuals are found within their territory. The second state must then inquire of the United States whether it wishes to prosecute the individual, and if it receives a negative reply, it is under a continuing obligation to prosecute the individual concerned.

At some point in the future, this requirement could complicate travel plans for U.S. officials from the Bush administration–including some still in the the government, such as John Brennan, the president’s counter-terrorism adviser.

See The Trenchant Observer, “The Clock is Ticking: U.S. Application of the Torture Convention,” February 20, 2010.

If one can draw one overriding lesson from the way the torture investigations were handled, it would have to be that Obama and Holder were using sleight of hand to give the impression they were investigating those potentially responsible for violating the Torture Convention, when they were not. They are clever lawyers, who need to be watched very carefully in order to fully understand what they are actually doing, and not just what they give the appearance of doing.

Obama’s Coverup of the White House Leaks?

Now, President Obama appears to be engaged in a similar act of legerdemain.

First, following a number of news stories in recent weeks and months which are obviously based on classified information, at a press conference on June 8, 2012, the president was asked by David Jackson of USA Today the following question:

Q Thank you, sir. There are a couple of books out with, essentially, details about national security issues. There are reports of terrorist kill lists that you supervise and there are reports of cyber-attacks on the Iranian nuclear program that you ordered. Two things. First of all, what’s your reaction of this information getting out in public? And secondly, what’s your reaction to lawmakers who accuse your team of leaking these details in order to promote your reelection bid?

In a lengthy (four minutes) but opague response, the president seemed to say that he would not tolerate such leaks, that mechanisms were in place to find and punish anyone guilty of leaking such classified information, which in some cases is even illegal, and that he would act to identify the source of the leaks.

For videos of his response, see White House Press Office, video, June 8, 2012.

The video also follows below:

Or see the C-Span video here.

The question and answer on this issue begins at minute 23:00 of the video.

A transcript of the question and answer regarding leaks follows:

THE PRESIDENT: Good morning. I just want to say a few words about the economy, and then I will take some of your questions.

All right. David Jackson.

Q Thank you, sir. There are a couple of books out with, essentially, details about national security issues. There are reports of terrorist kill lists that you supervise and there are reports of cyber-attacks on the Iranian nuclear program that you ordered. Two things. First of all, what’s your reaction of this information getting out in public? And secondly, what’s your reaction to lawmakers who accuse your team of leaking these details in order to promote your reelection bid?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, first of all, I’m not going to comment on the details of what are supposed to be classified items. Second, as Commander-in-Chief, the issues that you have mentioned touch on our national security, touch on critical issues of war and peace, and they’re classified for a reason — because they’re sensitive and because the people involved may, in some cases, be in danger if they’re carrying out some of these missions. And when this information, or reports, whether true or false, surface on the front page of newspapers, that makes the job of folks on the front lines tougher and it makes my job tougher — which is why since I’ve been in office, my attitude has been zero tolerance for these kinds of leaks and speculation.

Now, we have mechanisms in place where if we can root out folks who have leaked, they will suffer consequences. In some cases, it’s criminal — these are criminal acts when they release information like this. And we will conduct thorough investigations, as we have in the past.

The notion that my White House would purposely release classified national security information is offensive. It’s wrong. And people I think need to have a better sense of how I approach this office and how the people around me here approach this office.

We’re dealing with issues that can touch on the safety and security of the American people, our families, or our military personnel, or our allies. And so we don’t play with that. And it is a source of consistent frustration, not just for my administration but for previous administrations, when this stuff happens. And we will continue to let everybody know in government, or after they leave government, that they have certain obligations that they should carry out.

But as I think has been indicated from these articles, whether or not the information they’ve received is true, the writers of these articles have all stated unequivocally that they didn’t come from this White House. And that’s not how we operate.

Q Are there leak investigations going on now — is that what you’re saying?

THE PRESIDENT: What I’m saying is, is that we consistently, whenever there is classified information that is put out into the public, we try to find out where that came from.

Okay? Thank you very much, everybody. Thank you.

–Remarks by the President, June 8, 2012.

Subsequently, also on June 8, Attorney General Holder announced that he had appointed two Justice Department prosecutors (in the chain of command) to conduct investigations into at least some of the leaks. Republicans, meanwhile, have been calling for the appointment of an Independent Prosecutor.

Significantly, leaks relating to procedures employed and the president’s role in conducting “targeted killings” may not have been referred to Attorney General Holder for investigation, at least according to some reports.

See “White House adviser rebuffs questions on leak probe, amid warnings of security risk,” FoxNews.com, June 17, 2012. According to Fox News,

“Recent leaks on sensitive programs have contributed to two New York Times stories, one on the campaign of cyberwarfare against Iran and one on the president’s involvement in approving the “kill list” of terror targets for U.S. drone strikes — as well as the Associated Press newsbreak on a foiled bomb plot out of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

“Fox News has confirmed that investigations are currently looking into the leaks on the anti-Iran campaign and the bomb plot — it’s unclear whether any probe will examine leaks on the drone program.”

If true, this would appear to be a clear departure from what President Obama said he would do at the press conference on June 8, and to constitute either an admission that those leaks came from the White House or a coverup to hide the identities of the leakers.

In the meantime, judging from the time taken to conduct investigations into cases of individuals involved in torture, and the results, we are likely to be well past the presidential elections in November before any results of the investigations are announced. One can only speculate on what prosecutions, if any, might be undertaken, and when the corresponding individuals might be brought to trial.

The significant point here is not that the individuals who leaked this information must be tried, though certainly in the case of the cyber warfare against Iran a very strong case might be made.

It must be acknowledged that we as citizens depend on probing investigative reporting on covert and classified actions by our government, in order to have some sense of the policies the government is carrying out in our name. In general, journalists should not be prosecuted for gathering and reporting such information, or for maintaining the confidentiality of their sources.

The point is that Obama’s White House appeared to be leaking highly classfied information for political purposes, to portray the president as a strong and decisive leader on foreign policy. If this is true, it reflects the hubris and unprincipled partisanship of President Obama and his “foreign policy juggernaut”, as well as the incompetence of “the gang who couldn’t shoot straight”.

We deserve to know, soon, if that was the case and who the leakers were.

We also deserve to know if the president, at the June 8 news conference, was telling the truth in responding to the reporter’s question, in general, and in particular with respect to leaks regarding “targeted killings”.

If he wasn’t, as we noted on June 10, we may be witnessing a “Watergate moment”. 

The Trenchant Observer

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For links to other articles by The Trenchant Observer, click on the title at the top of this page to go to the home page, and then use the “Search” Box or consult the information in the bottom right hand corner of the home page. The Articles on Syria page can also be found here. The Articles on Targeted Killings page can also be found here.

Update: Torture, The STL in Lebanon, and Obama’s “Way Forward” in Afghanistan

Friday, July 1st, 2011

Today we introduce a new feature in The Trenchant Observer, an occasional column commenting on some of the more important events of the previous weeks in international affairs, as seen by the Observer.

This week’s stories include U.S. policy toward torture prosecutions, the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, and President Obama’s speech on “the way forward” in Afghanistan.

The United States’ Adoption of the “Due Obedience” Defense in Cases of Torture

This week the Justice Department announced that it would pursue investigations into two cases involving the deaths of detainees who were preseumably subjected to “harsh interrogation techniques” that went beyond the types of torture (as defined in the U.N. Convention Against Torture) that were permitted under the George W. Bush Administration’s “legal guidance”on “harsh interrogation technicques”.

See Eric Lichtblau and Eric Schmitt, “iU.S. Widens Inquiries Into 2 Jail Deaths,” New York Times, July 1, 2011

With that, the Justice department has ended its investigation into the broad class of cases that appear to qualify as cases involving the commission of torture under the terms of the Torture Convention, to which–it must always be stressed–the United States is a party.

By taking the position that it will not prosecute individuals for acts of torture if they were permitted under the legal guidance provided by their superiors in the Bush Administration, the United States has in effect accepted the “due obedience” argument rejected by the Nuremburg Tribunal in its trials of Nazi war criminals following World War II. This rejection of the “due obedience” defense is universally accepted in international law. It is expressly confirmed in the Torture Convention in Article 2 paragraph 3, which provides:

Article 2 (3). An order from a superior officer or a public authority may not be invoked as a justification of torture.

Other countries parties to the Torture Convention may now proceed to prosecute individuals suspected of committing torture found within their territory, without much concern that the U.S. will rquest their extradition for trial in the U.S., given the Justice Department’s position.

This signals a clear and final decision by the Obama administration not to pursue other cases of torture committed during the Bush administration.

It is significant for two reasons. First, it represents a final decision not to prosecute cases of torture by the state with primary jurisdiction, in violation of U.S. international legal obligations under the Torture Convention.

Second, it further opens the way for other states that are parties to the Torture Convention to prosecute U.S. officials for acts of torture they may have committed.

The Special Tribunal for Lebanon

The Special Tribunal for Lebanon has now issued arrest warrants and delivered the same to the Government of Lebanon for it to carry out the arrests.

In an earlier article, published on March 3, 2011, The Observer wrote:

In Lebanon, Hezbollah withdrew in January from the unity government of Sa’ad Hariri, among thinly-veiled threats of civil war, if the government of Lebanon does not break ties with the U.N. International Tribunal for Lebanon, established by the Security Council to investigate and try those responsible for the assassination of Hariri’s father, Rafiq Hariri, in 2005. Hezbollah is militating against the United Nations Security Council, international law, and the tribunal established by the Security Council because, according to reports, it fears the Tribunal will issue indictments against Hezbollah members in the coming days or weeks.

The Tribunal itself has a statute which establishes due process of law for the hearing of the charges which may be brought by the Prosecutor of the Court. Hezbollah is arguing, if effect, that the Court is biased before any judicial proceedings against its members are initiated, and without regard to the fact that they will have a chance for a fair hearing, the questioning of evidence and of witnesses, in any proceedings that might be brought. With black shirts menacing and threatening to take physical control of West Beirut and large parts of the country, Hezbollah has positioned itself as an anti-democratic force opposed to the struggle for the rule of law within Lebanon, and one opposed to the United Nations, the Security Council and international law.

Outside parties have rushed to mediate. A Saudi-Syrian initiative has now been replaced by a Qatari-Turkish mediation effort. Democracy is in the balance.

What is at stake is the authority of the U.N. Security Council, the United Nations Charter, and international law. If Hezbollah can halt the cooperation of the government of Lebanon with the STL by threats of civil war and dividing the country in two, its success would not bode well for the future of the International Criminal Court or other international tribunals that might be established in the future to deal with issues such as the Hariri assassination or issues of transitional justice.

We will now see whether Hezbollah has changed it position, and is willing to turn away from its opposition to international law, the United Nations, and the authority of the Special Tribunan for Lebanon established by the Security Council.

Democracy and the rule of law in Lebanon hang in the balance.

Obama’s “Way Forward” in Afghanistan

Recently Ambassador Carl Eikenberry completed his term as U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan. He is being replaced by an extraordinarily skilled deplomat with deep experience in the Middle East and Southwest Asia, Ryan Crocker, the former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq.

Eikenberry’s departure should not go unnoticed, however. A former head of the coalition forces in Afghanistan before becoming Ambassador in 2009, Eikenberry headed an able diplomatic team. In 2009, toward the conclusion of President Barack Obama’s much-touted review of Afghanistan policy, cables written by Eikenberry in November, 2009 were leaked to the press.

In those cables, Ekenberry, who had a deep knowledge of Afghanistan before assuming his post as Ambassador, set forth his thinking about President Hamid Karzai’s government, the narrow limitations of the Afghanistan policy review, and his own cautionary words about the risks of proceeding with the “surge” of over 30,000 U.S. troops without a broader review.

Today, his words seem prophetic, and read more like the history of the last two years than the risk assessment they were originally intended to be.

See The Observer’s previous columns on this subject:

Eikenberry Memos Place Spotlight on U.S. Dilemmas in Afghanistan
January 27th, 2010

Commentary on Eikenberry Cables, Intelligence on Afghanistan
January 28th, 2010

On June 22, 2011, President Obama delivered an important speech to the nation setting forth his thoughts and policies on “the way forward in Afghanistan.”

Adminral Mullen, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, stated publicly that Obama’s new strategy of withdrawal represented more risk than he had originally been propared to accept. The military, including Petraeus, did not agree with what in all likelihood will represent an abandonment of the modified and limited counter-insurgency or COIN strategy Petraeus had led. Toby Harnden of The Telegraph reported, for example,

Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican, said: “Petraeus loses, Biden wins. And I respect the vice president, but I think that we have undercut a strategy that was working. I think the 10,000 troops leaving year is going to make this more difficult.”

The Pentagon fought a rearguard action to prevent the surge force ordered into Afghanistan by Mr Obama in December 2009 from being pulled out by early spring next year but the withdrawal plan announced by Mr Obama, which had initially been tabled as a “compromise” by Robert Gates, the defence secretary, was not supported by Gen Petraeus.

There were reports of heated discussions during the month before Mr Obama’s prime-time speech on Wednesday night.

White House officials, aware of the soaring costs of the war and its questionable progress could be a political liability in the 2012 election, are said to have clashed with Gen Petraeus, who argued that with more time he could repeat his success in Iraq.

Harnden reported further that Obama had rejected Petraeus’ proposal to move thousands of troops from the south to the east “in order to build a counter-insurgency campaign there.” Obama also overrode Petraeus’ request to keep some of the 33,000 troops to be withdrawn by this spring until 2013.

Two military officers with close ties to Petraeus told “National Journal” that Gen Petraeus disagreed with Mr Gates’s compromise proposal and had not endorsed Mr Obama’s drawdown plan.

–Toby Harnden, “Admiral Mike Mullen says withdrawal plan is a risk,” The Telegraph, June 23, 2010

To those who have followed developments in Afghanistan over the last five to eight years, including readers of The Trenchant Observer, there was nothing new in his speech.

Rather, the Observer’s appraisal of Obama’s approach to international affairs, offered in an analysis of his failed leadership in Libya, seems to describe his Afghan policy as well:

When one looks hard at the decisions he has made, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the president’s primary objective is “to manage” international conflicts and affairs, as domestic affairs, in a manner that will enable him to be reelected in 2012.

Reelection is probably a goal of almost all politicians. Certainly there are exceptions. Winston Churchill comes to mind. But with Presdent Obama, it appears to be the primary and overriding goal.

It is perhaps the prism through which the president’s actions can best be understood. In this sense, Obama’s current policy towards Libya seems to be succeeding.

For commentary on the president’s speech, see

Jennifer Rubin, “Liberals give thumbs down on Obama’s speech,” Washington Post, June 23, 2011

A “conditions based” withdrawal of 10,000 troops is meaningless. The “conditions based” withdrawal of additional troops from the surge will meet its test if and when one or more provinces fall to the Taliban.

A collapse of the Afghan government is not to be ruled out. It could come at a most unexpected moment. If it were to come before the presidential elections in 2012, it could have a decisive impact on their outcome.

The folly of following a strategy in foreign policy that is decisively determined by domestic political considerations is likely to have hard lessons to teach its authors.

The Trenchant Observer

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