Remembering Those Murdered by the US in the “War on Terror”

1.12.18

Gul Rahman, in a photo taken before his capture and death in US custody.Please support my work as a reader-funded journalist! I’m currently trying to raise $2500 (£2000) to support my writing and campaigning on Guantánamo and related issues over the next three months of the Trump administration. If you can help, please click on the button below to donate via PayPal.

 

In the long quest for justice for the victims of the US’s “war on terror,” Guantánamo — the main focus of my work for the last 13 years, where men are held indefinitely without charge or trial, and where the use of torture was widespread in its early years — is not, by any means, the only venue for crimes that should shock the consciences of all decent people.

At Guantánamo, nine men died between 2006 and 2012, and many of those deaths are regarded as suspicious, but they are not the only deaths in US custody.

Several reports have sought to assess how many prisoners have died in US custody in Iraq and Afghanistan, with researcher John Sifton establishing in May 2009 that, at that time, “approximately 100 detainees, including CIA-held detainees, have died during US interrogations, and some are known to have been tortured to death.” The majority of these deaths were in Iraq, but, back in July 2009, I published an article, When Torture Kills: Ten Murders In US Prisons In Afghanistan, in which I sought to establish quite how many deaths had occurred in Afghanistan.

In that article, I reported two acknowledged deaths in the US prison at Bagram airbase — of Dilawar, a taxi driver whose story is the focus of the bleak but riveting documentary ‘Taxi to the Dark Side,’ and Mullah Habibullah. Former prisoners also reported four additional murders at Bagram, although, to the best of my knowledge, none of these allegations have been investigated. Four more murders were reported at various other locations, and another took place in a CIA “black site” outside Kabul, known as the “Salt Pit,” where, as I put it, quoting from a Washington Post article by Dana Priest, who first broke the story, “in November 2002, a recently-promoted CIA officer, who had been put in charge of the facility, in the absence of any senior personnel who were willing to take the job, ‘ordered guards to strip naked an uncooperative young Afghan detainee, chain him to the concrete floor and leave him there overnight without blankets.’ Following their orders, the guards then dragged him around the floor before putting him in his cell, where he died of hypothermia during the night.”

As I proceeded to explain, “According to a senior US official, he then ‘disappeared from the face of the earth’: he was hastily buried in an unmarked grave, his family was never notified of his death, and the CIA officer in charge of the prison was promoted. The US authorities, meanwhile, showed no willingness to investigate the case further. ‘He was probably associated with people who were associated with al-Qaeda,’ one official said, even though nothing was known about him at the time of his death, apart from the fact that he was captured in Pakistan with some other Afghans.”

It took until March 2010 for this prisoner to be named — as Gul Rahman, in an Associated Press report that Jane Mayer subsequently discussed for the New Yorker, and then silence descended again until he surfaced in the unclassified summary of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report into the CIA’s torture program, released almost exactly four years ago, on December 9, 2014, which explained how CIA records showed that he had been subjected to “48 hours of sleep deprivation, auditory overload, total darkness, isolation, a cold shower, and rough treatment,” and “was also subjected to nudity, ’hard takedowns,’ facial slap and dietary manipulation.” An internal CIA review and autopsy assessed that Rahman “likely died from hypothermia,” but no one responsible was punished. In fact, the official in charge of the prison at the time of Gul Rahman’s death was indeed promoted.

In April 2016, as I explained in an article at the time, “US District Court Senior Judge Justin Quackenbush, in Spokane, Washington State, allowed a lawsuit to proceed against James Mitchell and John ‘Bruce’ Jessen, the psychologists who designed and implemented the CIA’s post-9/11 torture program,” on behalf of Gul Rahman and two other victims of the torture program, Suleiman Abdullah Salim and Mohamed Ahmed Ben Soud, who survived their ordeals in CIA-run “black sites.”

That case proceeded into 2017, as I explained here and here, but just when it looked as though Mitchell and Jessen, who were paid $81m for implementing and running the torture program, would be tried, they settled out of court, for an undisclosed sum, with Suleiman Abdullah Salim, Mohamed Ben Soud, and the family of Gul Rahman.

While this was a significant result, it was, of course perceived as something of a let-down for those who wanted to see US government representatives on trial for their role in the torture program. Now, however, via the ACLU, Gul Rahman’s family is suing the CIA “to determine what the agency did with his body”, as the ACLU explained in a press release on November 29.

The ACLU filed the lawsuit in the District Court in Washington, D.C., and noted that it “seeks to compel the CIA to turn over records concerning Rahman’s body, including information about the location of the body, and any procedures, protocols, or guidelines to be followed in the event of a CIA detainee’s death while in US custody,” also noting that the CIA has still “not officially informed Rahman’s family of his death, nor returned his body to his family.”

Hajira Hematyara, who is Gul Rahman’s daughter and a teacher in a village near Kabul, said, “I have faith that people in America will know the right thing for their government to do is to tell me and my family what happened to my father’s body. Only then will we be able to do right by my father and give him a proper funeral.”

ACLU National Security Project Staff Attorney Dror Ladin added, “No grieving family should be forced to wait 16 years to have a funeral. The CIA can’t hide Mr. Rahman’s body forever, and it’s long past time for the agency to come clean.”

The ACLU also filed a second lawsuit against the CIA “seeking information about the agency’s efforts to influence public opinion in support of Gina Haspel’s Senate confirmation as CIA director.” This lawsuit “hones in on the CIA’s campaign to shape public opinion in favor of Haspel’s nomination as director of the agency and her potential conflict of interest in controlling the classification of information related to her personal role in prisoner torture and abuse.”

As Dror Ladin said, “The CIA led an unprecedented propaganda campaign to disseminate favorable information about Gina Haspel while refusing to disclose information about her role in torture and destruction of evidence. That’s sadly consistent with the CIA’s well-documented attempts to cover up the agency’s crimes, no matter the cost to victims and their families, or to our democratic institutions. But the victims and their families can’t forget, and the public can’t afford to forget either. This country still needs to continue to reckon with the consequences of torture.”

The ACLU added that it was asking the court “to order the CIA to disclose records revealing, among other information, Haspel’s classification authority over information about her own role in torture; any agency consideration of possible resulting conflicts of interest; communications between current and former CIA personnel, journalists, former CIA employees, and public relations firms; decisions to promote coverage deemed favorable of Haspel; and communications from CIA staff to the White House.”

Both lawsuits were filed under the Freedom of Information Act after the CIA failed to produce records in response to requests, and, tying both cases together neatly, Dror Ladin wrote an article whose opening paragraphs summarise the importance — and the intertwined nature — of both cases:

In November 2002, the CIA tortured Gul Rahman to death in a secret prison in Afghanistan. Sixteen years later, Rahman’s family is still desperately trying to find out what the CIA did to his body.

To date, the CIA has told his loved ones nothing, and his daughter cannot even give her father a decent burial.

That same month, Gina Haspel oversaw the torture of Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri at a CIA black site in Thailand. Sixteen years later, Haspel has been promoted to CIA director by President Trump, while Nashiri remains “one of the most damaged victims of torture” a psychiatric expert has ever seen.

To date, the CIA has told the American public nothing about Haspel’s role in the agency’s torture program — even as it waged an unprecedented propaganda campaign on her behalf to win her Senate confirmation. Even a CIA spokesman confirmed that under the Trump administration, the agency pushed harder than usual to get the American public to accept the CIA’s favored choice for director. And now that Haspel has been installed at the top, she is effectively in control of whether her own record of torture remains secret.

The common thread linking the continued suffering of Rahman’s family and the CIA’s efforts to whitewash Haspel’s history is the agency’s use of extreme secrecy to avoid accountability for its shameful and illegal torture program.

Dror Ladin’s article continued:

Ever since the torture program began, the CIA has desperately tried to cover up its crimes, no matter the cost to victims and their families — and to our democratic institutions.

Central to the CIA’s discussions about its very first prisoner was a plan to ensure that their crimes would never come to light. In a July 2002 cable, CIA personnel revealed that if the prisoner died under torture, they would cremate the body of the prisoner. That would eliminate the evidence.

But the torturers were worried that, if the prisoner survived, he might one day reveal what the CIA had done to him. So they demanded “reasonable assurances” that the prisoner “will remain in isolation and incommunicado for the remainder of his life.” CIA headquarters readily agreed that the prisoner “will never be placed in a situation where he has any significant contact with others.”

In short, to hide its crimes, the CIA decided that the people it tortured would be “disappeared” — a tactic made infamous by murderous dictatorships around the world. But the agency could not make all its victims vanish, and over the years, the other parts of the government — including the courts and Congress — started to examine the CIA’s crimes. At that point, the CIA doubled down on secrecy, endangering our democratic system of checks and balances.

When some survivors sued their torturers in federal court, the CIA tried to get the cases dismissed by arguing that courts couldn’t even handle considering the claims of torture victims without revealing “state secrets.” Unfortunately, judges largely gave in to these tactics. As a result, our courts were diminished in their vital role as a check on executive power and a means of accountability.

And when it came time for the Senate to consider Trump’s nomination of Gina Haspel to be CIA director, the agency again used secrecy to subvert the process. The CIA ensured that the public confirmation hearings almost entirely hid her role in torture.

Instead of allowing the public to consider Haspel’s actual record, the CIA instead pushed what several senators described as a “superficial narrative” that did “a great disservice to the American people.” Without “meaningful declassification” of Haspel’s actions, the senators wrote, the Senate could not “properly fulfill its constitutional obligation to ‘advise and consent.’”

Back in 2009, I ended my article about the murders in Afghanistan by quoting from retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey, who had explained to MSNBC in April 2009, on the day that President Obama had visited CIA headquarters, rather disgracefully praising the agency for upholding US values and ideals, “We should never, as a policy, maltreat people under our control, detainees. We tortured people unmercifully. We probably murdered dozens of them during the course of that, both the armed forces and the CIA.”

That remains as true today as it was nine years ago, but as the search for accountability continues, the situation is now much worse than it was then, with Gina Haspel so deviously installed as CIA Director.

* * * * *

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer, film-maker and singer-songwriter (the lead singer and main songwriter for the London-based band The Four Fathers, whose music is available via Bandcamp). He is the co-founder of the Close Guantánamo campaign (and see the latest photo campaign here) and the successful We Stand With Shaker campaign of 2014-15, and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (click on the following for Amazon in the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here — or here for the US), and for his photo project ‘The State of London’ he publishes a photo a day from six years of bike rides around the 120 postcodes of the capital.

In 2017, Andy became very involved in housing issues. He is the narrator of a new documentary film, ‘Concrete Soldiers UK’, about the destruction of council estates, and the inspiring resistance of residents, he wrote a song ‘Grenfell’, in the aftermath of the entirely preventable fire in June 2017 that killed over 70 people, and he also set up ‘No Social Cleansing in Lewisham’ as a focal point for resistance to estate destruction and the loss of community space in his home borough in south east London. For two months, from August to October 2018, he was part of the occupation of the Old Tidemill Wildlife Garden in Deptford, to prevent its destruction — and that of 16 structurally sound council flats next door — by Lewisham Council and Peabody. Although the garden was violently evicted by bailiffs on October 29, 2018, the resistance continues.

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Please also consider joining the Close Guantánamo campaign, and, if you appreciate Andy’s work, feel free to make a donation.

7 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Here’s my latest article, looking at the stories of those murdered by the US in the “war on terror,” with a particular focus on Gul Rahman, murdered at the “Salt Pit,” a CIA “black site” in Afghanistan, in November 2002. Shamefully, the CIA has never told Rahman’s family where his body was disposed of, so now his family, via the ACLU, is suing the CIA to find out where he is buried. The ACLU has also launched a second lawsuit, aimed at Gina Haspel, the torturer who was made CIA Director earlier this year, seeking information about the agency’s efforts to influence public opinion in support of her Senate confirmation.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Rose Ann Bellotti wrote:

    I am relieved that lawsuits are still being filed. It means these people and these war crimes committed by America are not totally forgotten.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, absolutely, Rose. I’d been waiting since last August, when Mitchell and Jessen settled out of court with Gul Rahman’s family, and two other “black site” prisoners, to see what would be next. These “black site” stories seem to be the only weak spots we’ve seen in the US government’s otherwise impenetrable armor when it comes to accountability.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Anna Elliott wrote:

    Thank you for this important article, Andy. Especially in the light of Gina Haspel’s egregious nomination.as CIA Director. You should be honoured for your many years of dedicated service to men who Governments have buried alive.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks for your interest, and for your supportive words, Anna. I keep on because I couldn’t bear giving up before the battles are won, but it’s a longer struggle that anyone could have known under George W. Bush. Who then could have foreseen Donald Trump? Or, in 2008, have foreseen that Obama wouldn’t do what he said he would, even when given eight years to do it?

  6. Tom says...

    As you follow the new US Congress session starting 1/3rd, keep in mind that Nancy Pelosi and other Congresspeople knew that secret torture was going on. She was an early enthusiastic supporter of it. Does she still support it now?

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    She is a slippery creature, like so many of the Democrats, Tom. I find that few have ever paid proper attention to Guantanamo and the whole brutality of the torture program over the years. It makes the achievement of the Senate Intelligence Committee under Dianne Feinstein, producing the torture report (which was devastating enough, even though we saw less than 10% of it), all the more remarkable! I should also add that Sen. Carl Levin also deserves credit for the Senate Armed Services Committee’s 2008 ‘Inquiry into the Treatment of Detainees in U.S. Custody’, another powerful document: https://www.armed-services.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/Detainee-Report-Final_April-22-2009.pdf

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo, co-director, We Stand With Shaker. Also, singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers) and photographer.
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