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Defense Department Turns Down My FOIA Request for Mohamed Al Hanashi's Autopsy Report

Thursday, February 4th, 2010

You may recall that in June of last year, I was in Guantanamo when the detainees' representative, Mohamed al Hanashi, was found dead in his cell, "an aparent suicide" according to the Gitmo press office. To recap, there was plenty wrong with that picture: al Hanashi had been taken out of his cell shortly after having been elected the detainees' representative — he had been, according to relatives, in sound mind and feeling helpful because he had just been assigned a lawyer after seven years — and he was taken to a meeting with the Admiral and the head of the Guard force. He never was returned to his cell after that meeting — taken straight to the psych ward, though now family members and two sources, including Binyam Mohamed, have confirmed that he was not mentally ill.

Harper's Magazine just ran an important cover story by Scott Horton — previewed on the Huffington Post — that established with intensive old-fashioned reporting that three "suicides" at Gitmo in 2006 could most likely not have been suicides. The men were found with their hands and feet tied and cloths stuffed so far down their throats that they had to be removed with surgical instruments; one man's larynx had been removed. It also established a kind of "black site" at Gitmo, where terrible things appear to have taken place.

So what happened to the man who is on my own conscience, the one who died when I was there, the man who knew where "all the bodies were buried" vis a vis who at Gitmo had been tortured, and who the torturers were? I knew that there was now a NCIS criminal investigation into the death; that the body had been returned to al Hanashi's family in Yemen in July; and that everyone — including the Embassy of Yemen — was still, as of Christmas 2009, waiting for the official US report to explain what happened to this young man who had allegedly "killed himself" in a venue with 24-hour surveillance, after having been assigned a lawyer subsequent to having been held without charges for SEVEN YEARS.

In December 2009, I had submitted, under the guidance of brilliant attorney Charlotte Dennett — the woman who ran for Attorney General of Vermont on a prosecutions platform — a FOIA request to the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology to obtain documents relating to Mr Al Hanashi's death.

The Department of Defense — under the name of Gloria Bryant-Williams, FOIA Officer at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology — wrote to me today that they received my FOIA request for the autopsy report on "Muhammad Ahmad Abdallah Salih al Hanashi, Guantanamo Detainee." They informed me that I had received a tracking number…my heart leapt! But then: "The request was received and processed in accordance with the Freedom of Information Act, 5 United States Code (USC) 552."..and…

The conclusion, after a mere five weeks after my FOIA clock began to run? "That review has been completed and the potentially responsive are being withheld pursuant to the FOIA under the following Exemptions [check that capital E, as in Dickens, as in bleak house, but bleaker]: Exemptions (b) (2)(b) which is exempts [sic] from mandatory disclosure records relates solely to the internal personnel rules and practices of an agency. Exemption (b)(7)(a) which prohibits the disclosure of information whose release could reasonably be expected to interfere with an on-going law enforcement investigation. FOIA Exemption (b) (7)(c) also provides protection for law enforcement information the disclosure of which could reasonably be expected to result in an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy of individuals in being associated with criminal activities, including investigators.

"Because your request has been denied', she continued…I can appeal it in 60 days….

Ok. I tried to process this. Then, as the reasoning sank in: "What? What?" The citizen's head reels.

The first exemption — well, I can't even understand the syntax. It seems to be saying another version of what the first person to whom I spoke at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology said to me: "We don't have to tell you anything." It seems to be saying that because a department did something, that something is private.

The second exemption? Surely this lone citizen typing away at her kitchen table on a computer, by updating her fellow citizens on the status of what became of a man in US custody, is not going to, by doing so, be interfering with an ongoing law enforcement investigation? If that is actual legal reasoning, it suggests that any journalist anywhere, by writing about anything that could involve a criminal investigation, is, simply by reporting on it, "interfering" with it.

The last one? I am going to invade the "personal privacy" of the investigators? And (again that damned syntax) I am going to invade their privacy by associating them with criminal activities? The investigators? Their personal privacy is compromised by a journalist's reporting?

Again, if this is the typical, longterm standard set by the US government vis a vis reporting on sensitive or embarrassing issues? Or is it a departure, a new Orwellian low, a recently erected bar that asserts that if anyone anywhere asks questions the US government does not want to answer, that citizen or reporter is interfering with a criminal investigation and invading the privacy of those who wish to remain unaccountable to their fellow citizens in the light of day?

Obama campaigned on transparency. When I was at Gitmo, the word "transparent" was in every soundbite — as was the word "humane". (Tell that to Mr Al Hanashi's family.)

I am turning over my FOIA request to another reporter and laying down the task. Heartier souls than I can go here. But I invite lawyers familiar with the FOIA process to comment — and I invite other journalists, and the citizens who depend upon their access to documents that may be embarrassing or even more problematic for a sitting administration — to consider: are these the narratives whereby a true democracy — rather than a secretive, unaccountable, heavy-handed State of another kind — chillingly redefines the act of journalism?

This article was originally published on the Huffington Post.

Letter from Zagreb: Croatia is us

Thursday, September 17th, 2009

I spent four magical days in the avant-garde heart of the new Croatia — speaking about the “Ten Steps” to a closed society, and about what a citizens’ democracy movement can do to reopen such a society, in the perfect test case for this thesis — Zagreb, the magical, medieval-hearted, yet avant-garde capital of Croatia. I have seldom been to a more interesting place at a more interesting moment — Croatia was, of course, formerly part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire; was under a socialist government as part of the former Yugoslavia — experiencing “socialism with a human face”; was ravaged by a bloody civil war in the 1990’s; gained its independence as a new Republic very recently — and is experiencing the exhilarations and cynicisms endemic to the transitional republics in this region.

I confess, I love this nation and its eccentric, in-your-face, dreamy, cynical people. We were invited to present — I with a speech, my producer (and, disclosure, significant other) Avram Ludwig with a screening of the film of The End of America — at the Zagrebi! Festival, a four-day celebration of liberty — artistic, political and civil. The mastermind of the event and our mischievous and brilliant host was Emil Matesic, a master provocateur, a choreographer, and someone who revived our own sense of hope by his insistence on bringing together events and discussions that could push the envelope toward more real democracy (and free speech) in Croatia — even as he, like his fellows, view the hurdles with utmost clearhededness.

We arrived in the midst of a political crisis: the Prime Minister, who was reasonably well regarded, abruptly stepped down — with no explanation to the people, or to Parliament, whatsoever. Rumors are flying: corruption? Threats? Scandal? His second-in-command, a woman, was appointed in the interim and is doing, apparently, adequately. But the breathtaking reality — that a head of state simply LEFT with no accountability to his people or to the process — shows glaringly how unstable and sort of hopeless daily life can be in a weak democracy in which civil ociety institutions are at the whim of leaders and at the mercy, it became clear, of the extremely corrupt interests that have a direct hand in governance.

This was a general impression, not one proven in any way by the Prime Ministerial abdication: jorunalists we met, civil society leaders such as the pioneering Second Wave feminists at the women’s organization Babe, human rights lawyers, and artists all confirmed that the corruption in Croatia is so intense that it is not a matter of politicians beholden to special interests — politicians are actually being pushed around by a nexus of corporate interest and frank criminality. This is a lesson for us in the US since Croatia, really, is our future if we keep going down the path of lawlessness, weakening civil society institutions and deregulation: all the structures are there, but they are not powerful. Judges pass rulings — but a case can take ten to fifteen YEARS to get through the courts. Journalists are publishing in many media — but they face corporate pressures not to look too deeply into corporate control of the legislature (multinationals are buying up public utilities, urban space, etc with an assist from corrupted politicians) — and they even face physical violence.

We were introduced to the heroic Hrvoje Appelt, a crazy-brave journalist (and former ice hockey star) who had gotten scoop after scoop about corruption — running an expose that showed 108 students and professors engaged in buying and selling grades, for instance, that resulted in arrests — but when he did a major scoop on corruption in government — he was rewarded by the loss of his job — he can’t get another job, because all employers are afraid to hire him — and he now needs 24 hour police protection. We met his police guards — big tough guys who kept a sharp eye on the doors and windows in the bar where we were drinking at the Festival, and who carried their pistols in casual student-y pouches. They sweep the bottom of every car Apelt gets into; they watch his window while he is sleeping. They go everywhere with him. Appelt is a handsome, wild-eyed young man, aglitter with recklessness; rather than retreat now that he has received many death threats (and a week into the threats’ arriving, the police force, because of political pressure, actually tried to withdraw his protection) — rather than backing down he is ramping UP: he is holding a massive free concert in the biggest stadium in Zagreb, asking rappers to perform for free — to raise money and awareness for independent journalism and for journalists who have been hurt or threatened. He showed me terrifying photos on his website of other journalists who were suddenly beaten by unnamed assailants (link to come). And he has a photo exhibit of such journalists — from around the Balkans. And his organization invites Balkan journalists to register threats to them or to others — gaining strength in numbers and visibility (these are journalists working together from nations that were violently at war recently). I was awed at what he was doing. I wish him safety and money. Please ask your community to invite him and his exhibit to create a show in your town and to do fundraising for independent journalism in the Balkans.

Apart from that riveting meeting — and another exciting conversation/round table with Vesna Pusic, a progressive Parliamentarian who is the first woman in Croatia to run for the Presidency — the election is in November, and she took is courageously taking on the issue of corruption as part of her platform — Emil put together a mind-bending celebration of artistic freedom. It did not always look comfortable — I must say I was sometimes shocked, as with the performance artist, Marko, who sat at a formal dining table, awaited the entry of a young female nurse who cut a small piece of flesh out of his arm and put it on the plate, and who then ingested it — as a metaphor for the self-consuming nature of contemporary angst; I was also provoked, as with the performance of a lovely young Western woman who trained in Japan for ten years as a geisha, and whose performance art involved the ancient Japanese art of erotic bondage (as well as calligraphy, dance and surrealist video). But with the shock and the provocation came a great deal of respect for Emil and his colleagues, since we were among people who had a recent historical memory of real artistic silencing, and who were taking extremely seriously the notion of freedom of expression. It didn’t feel like empty gestures, as “shocking” performance art so often does in the West: it felt like a battle for something truly alive.

My talk was humbling too: the audience’s first response was absolute cynicism that citizen action could make any kind of difference in Croatia; then two young female students, who had helped to lead a year-long student protest against high college fees, stood up and slowly realized what they had learned and accomplished — though their stated goals were not met; en a Parliamentarian stood up and confessed that their protests HAD made a difference, HAD been discussed re what to do at the level of Parliament; then others engaged with their own goals… we organized… it turned into a fantastic, spontaneous session of citizen leadership in the organizing stage. And we are meeting again in a year for an intensive citizen democracy training workshop — right on, beautiful, edgy Croatia. Croatia at its worst is where we are going if we don’t defend our liberty and rule of law… the citizens of Zagreb, who showed me Croatia at its best,  are where we are going if we treat freedom as a living thing.

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Cross-posted on NaomiWolf.org.

Dear World, Please Confront America

Saturday, July 12th, 2008

Is it possible to fall out of love with your own country? For two years, I, like many Americans, have been focused intently on documenting, exposing, and alerting the nation to the Bush administration’s criminality and its assault on the Constitution and the rule of law – a story often marginalized at home. I was certain that when Americans knew what was being done in their name, they would react with horror and outrage.

Three months ago, the Bush administration still clung to its devil’s sound bite, “We don’t torture.” Now, Physicians for Human Rights has issued its report documenting American-held detainees’ traumas, and even lie detector tests confirm they have been tortured. The Red Cross report has leaked: torture and war crimes. Jane Mayer’s impeccably researched exposé The Dark Side just hit the stores: torture, crafted and directed from the top. The Washington Post gave readers actual video footage of the abusive interrogation of a Canadian minor, Omar Khadr, who was seen showing his still-bleeding abdominal wounds, weeping and pleading with his captors.

So the truth is out and freely available. And America is still napping, worrying about its weight, and hanging out at the mall.

I had thought that after so much exposure, thousands of Americans would be holding vigils on Capitol Hill, that religious leaders would be asking God’s forgiveness, and that a popular groundswell of revulsion, similar to the nineteenth-century anti-slavery movement, would emerge. To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, if torture is not wrong, nothing is wrong.

And yet no such thing has occurred. There is no crisis in America’s churches and synagogues, no Christian and Jewish leaders crying out for justice in the name of Jesus, a tortured political prisoner, or of Yahweh, who demands righteousness. I asked a contact in the interfaith world why. He replied, “The mainstream churches don’t care, because they are Republican. And the synagogues don’t care, because the prisoners are Arabs.”

It was then that I realized that I could not be in love with my country right now. How can I care about the fate of people like that? If this is what Americans are feeling, if that is who we are, we don’t deserve our Constitution and Bill of Rights.

Even America’s vaunted judicial system has failed to constrain obvious abuses. A Federal court has ruled that the military tribunals system – Star Chambers where evidence derived from torture is used against the accused – can proceed. Another recently ruled that the president may call anyone anywhere an “enemy combatant” and detain him or her indefinitely.

So Americans are colluding with a criminal regime. We have become an outlaw nation – a clear and present danger to international law and global stability – among civilized countries that have been our allies. We are – rightly – on Canada’s list of rogue nations that torture.

Europe is still high from Barack Obama’s recent visit. Many Americans, too, hope that an Obama victory in November will roll back this nightmare. But this is no time to yield to delusions. Even if Obama wins, he may well be a radically weakened president. The Bush administration has created a transnational apparatus of lawlessness that he alone, without global intervention, can neither roll back nor control.

Private security firms – for example, Blackwater – will still be operating, accountable neither to him nor to Congress, and not bound, they have argued, by international treaties. Weapons manufacturers and the telecommunications industry, with billions at stake in maintaining a hyped “war on terror” and their new global surveillance market, will deploy a lavishly financed army of lobbyists to defend their interests.

Moreover, if elected, Obama will be constrained by his own Democratic Party. America’s political parties bear little resemblance to the disciplined organizations familiar in parliamentary democracies in Europe and elsewhere. And Democrats in Congress will be even more divided after November if, as many expect, conservative members defeat Republican incumbents damaged by their association with Bush.

To be sure, some Democrats have recently launched Congressional hearings into the Bush administration’s abuses of power. Unfortunately, with virtually no media coverage, there is little pressure to broaden official investigations and ensure genuine accountability.

But, while grassroots pressure has not worked, money still talks. We need targeted government-led sanctions against the US by civilized countries, including international divestment of capital. Many studies have shown that tying investment to democracy and human rights reform is effective in the developing world. There is no reason why it can’t be effective against the world’s superpower.

We also need an internationally coordinated strategy for prosecuting war criminals at the top and further down the chain of command – individual countries pressing charges, as Italy and France have done. Although the United States is not a signatory to the statute that established the International Criminal Court, violations of Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions are war crimes for which anyone – potentially even the US president – may be tried in any of the other 193 countries that are parties to the conventions. The whole world can hunt these criminals down.

An outlaw America is a global problem that threatens the rest of the international community. If this regime gets away with flouting international law, what is to prevent the next administration – or this administration, continuing under its secret succession plan in the event of an emergency – from going further and targeting its political opponents at home and abroad?

We Americans are either too incapable, or too dysfunctional, to help ourselves right now. Like drug addicts or the mentally ill who refuse treatment, we need our friends to intervene. So remember us as we were in our better moments, and take action to save us – and the world – from ourselves.

Maybe then I can fall in love with my country again.

White House Sex Crimes

Thursday, June 12th, 2008

NEW YORK – Sex crime has a telltale signature, even when those directing the outrages are some of the most powerful men and women in the United States. How extraordinary, then, to learn that one of the perpetrators of these crimes, Condoleezza Rice, has just led the debate in a special session of the United Nations Security Council on the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war.

I had a sense of déjà vu when I saw the photos that emerged in 2004 from Abu Ghraib prison. Even as the Bush administration was spinning the notion that the torture of prisoners was the work of “a few bad apples” low in the military hierarchy, I knew that we were seeing evidence of a systemic policy set at the top. It’s not that I am a genius. It’s simply that, having worked at a rape crisis center and been trained in the basics of sex crime, I have learned that all sex predators go about things in certain recognizable ways.

We now know that the torture of prisoners was the result of a policy set in the White House by former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Vice President Dick Cheney, and Rice – who actually chaired the torture meetings. The Pentagon has also acknowledged that it had authorized sexualized abuse of detainees as part of interrogation practices to be performed by female operatives. And documents obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union have Rumsfeld, in his own words, “checking in” on the sexualized humiliation of prisoners.

The sexualization of torture from the top basically turned Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay into an organized sex-crime ring in which the trafficked sex slaves were US-held prisoners. Looking at the classic S and M nature of some of this torture, it is hard not to speculate that someone setting policy was aroused by all of this.

The nonsexual torture that was committed ranged from beatings and suffocation, electrodes attached to genitals, and forced sleep deprivation, to prisoners being hung by the wrists from the ceiling and placed in solitary confinement until psychosis was induced. These abuses violate both US and international law. Three former military attorneys, recognizing this blunt truth, refused to participate in the “military tribunals” – rather, “show trials” – aimed at condemning men whose confessions were elicited through torture.

Though we can now debate what the penalty for water-boarding should be, America as a nation, maintaining an odd silence, still cannot seem to discuss the sexual crimes involved.

Why? It’s not as if the sex crimes that US leaders either authorized or tolerated are not staring Americans in the face: the images of male prisoners with their heads hooded with women’s underwear; the documented reports of female US soldiers deployed to smear menstrual blood on the faces of male prisoners, and of military interrogators or contractors forcing prisoners to simulate sex with each other, to penetrate themselves with objects, or to submit to being penetrated by objects. Indeed, the Military Commissions Act of 2006 was written deliberately with loopholes that gave immunity to perpetrators of many kinds of sexual humiliation and abuse.

There is also the testimony by female soldiers such as Lynndie England about compelling male prisoners to masturbate, as well as an FBI memo objecting to a policy of “highly aggressive interrogation techniques.” The memo cites a female interrogator rubbing lotion on a shackled detainee and whispering in his ear – during Ramadan when sexual contact with a strange woman would be most offensive – then suddenly bending back his thumbs until he grimaced in pain, and violently grabbing his genitals. Sexual abuse in US-operated prisons got worse and worse over time, ultimately including, according to doctors who examined detainees, anal sodomy.

All this may sound bizarre if you are a normal person, but it is standard operating procedure for sex offenders. Those who work in the field know that once sex abusers control a powerless victim, they will invariably push the boundaries with ever more extreme behavior. Abusers start by undressing their victims, but once that line has been breached, you are likely to hear from the victim about oral and anal penetration, greater and greater pain and fear being inflicted, and more and more carelessness about exposing the crimes as the perpetrator’s inhibitions fall away.

The perpetrator is also likely to engage in ever-escalating rationalizations, often arguing that the offenses serve a greater good. Finally, the victim is blamed for the abuse: in the case of the detainees, if they would only “behave,” and confess, they wouldn’t bring all this on themselves.

Silence, and even collusion, is also typical of sex crimes within a family. Americans are behaving like a dysfunctional family by shielding sex criminals in their midst through silence.

Just as sex criminals – and the leaders who directed the use of rape and sexual abuse as a military strategy – were tried and sentenced after the wars in Bosnia and Sierra Leone, so Americans must hold accountable those who committed, or authorized, sex crimes in US-operated prisons. Throughout the world, this perverse and graphic criminality has added fuel to anxiety about US cultural and military power. These acts need to be called by their true names – war crimes and sex crimes – and people in America need to demand justice for the perpetrators and their victims. As in a family, only when people start to speak out and tell the truth about rape and sexual assault can the healing begin.