America’s Disappeared


Injustices do not become any less unjust the longer they are not addressed, and when it comes to the “war on terror” launched by President Bush following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, those injustices continue to fester, and to poison America’s soul.

One of those injustices is Guantánamo, where 166 men are still imprisoned, even though 86 of them were cleared for release by a task force established by the President four years ago, and another is Bagram in Afghanistan (renamed and rebranded the Parwan Detention Facility), where the Geneva Conventions were torn up by George W. Bush, and have not been reinstated, and where foreign prisoners seized elsewhere and rendered to US custody in Afghanistan remain imprisoned. Some of these men have been held for as long as the men in Guantánamo, but without being allowed the rights to be visited by civilian lawyers, which the men in Cuba were twice granted by the Supreme Court  — in 2004 and 2008 — even if those rights have now been taken away by judges in the Court of Appeals in Washington D.C., demonstrating a susceptibility to the general hysteria regarding the “war on terror,” rather than a desire to bring justice to the men in Guantánamo.

Another profound injustice — involving the kidnapping of prisoners anywhere in the world, and their rendition to “black sites” run by the CIA, or to torture dungeons in other countries — also remains unaddressed.

Some of “America’s Disappeared” eventually turned up at Guantánamo, and those foreign prisoners held at Bagram also fit into this category. What happened to others, however, is as unknown now as it was six years ago, when six NGOs — including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Reprieve — issued a report, “Off the Record: US Responsibility for Enforced Disappearances in the ‘War on Terror,'” identifying 39 prisoners whose whereabouts were unknown (PDF).

At the time — June 2007 — there was some interest in the story, as George W. Bush had run into a credibility problem in his second term, but interest had already waned by 2010, President Obama’s second year in office, when a follow-up report, the “Joint Study on Global Practices in Relation to Secret Detention in the Context of Counter-Terrorism,” was published by the United Nations (PDF).

I was the lead author of the sections dealing with US disappearances in the “war on terror,” which was prepared for the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, the Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, and the Working Groups on arbitrary detention, and enforced or involuntary disappearances.

In the report, I noted that, “Based on figures disclosed in one of the Office of Legal Counsel’s notorious ‘torture memos’ (PDF), written in May 2005 by Assistant Attorney General Steven Bradbury” and made available by President Obama as part of a court case in April 2009, “the CIA had, by May 2005, ‘taken custody of 94 prisoners [redacted] and ha[d] employed enhanced techniques to varying degrees in the interrogations of 28 of these detainees.'”

These 94 men were part of the “high-value detainee” program, and were held in secret prisons run by the CIA in Thailand, Poland, Lithuania, Romania and Morocco, although most also passed through the network of secret prisons in Afghanistan en route.

However, an unspecified number of other prisoners were also rendered to other countries for torture, including Egypt, Jordan and Syria. The only estimate of numbers came in September 2007, when then-CIA director Michael Hayden told Charlie Rose that the number was “Mid-range, two figures since September 11, 2001,” without elaborating. As Rose stated in response, “Two figures. So 50, 60. Whatever. Doesn’t matter. Have been renditioned to somewhere.”

Two weeks ago, the latest update in this sordid and neglected story arrived via the Open Society Justice Initiative, which issued a new report, “Globalizing Torture: CIA Secret Detention and Extraordinary Rendition.” As the press release explained, the report “identifies for the first time a total of 136 named victims and describes the complicity of 54 foreign governments in these operations.” The governments, “ranging from Iceland and Australia to Morocco and Thailand,” are revealed to have “enabled secret detention and extraordinary rendition operations in various ways, including by hosting CIA prisons, by assisting in the capture and transport of detainees, and by permitting the use of domestic airspace for secret flights.”

As the press release also noted, “the report underscores the US government’s failure to confront the legacy of abuses committed in the name of counterterrorism.” It was not lost on the Open Society Justice Initiative that the report was being published while the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence sits on a 6,000-page report that took three years to complete, which provides a comprehensive analysis of the CIA’s torture program under the Bush administration, while Kathryn Bigelow’s movie, “Zero Dark Thirty,” continues to pump out the irresponsible false message that torture played a key role in identifying the location of Osama bin Laden, and on the eve of the confirmation of John Brennan as the director of the CIA, even though, under George W. Bush, he had explicitly supported torture and renditions.

Amrit Singh, the author of the report and a senior legal officer at the Open Society Justice Initiative, said, “The time has come for the US and its partner governments to own up to the truth and secure accountability for the abuses committed around the world as part of these CIA programs. The taint of torture and other abuses associated with these programs will continue to cling to the US and its collaborators as long as they hide behind a veil of secrecy and refuse to hold their officials accountable.”

This is true, of course, but it remains to be seen if anything can awaken the American media, or the public, to sufficient outrage that any action will be taken to hold anyone accountable. Singh notes that the best hopes for accountability still lie elsewhere — in Europe, where, in December 2012, the European Court of Human Rights held that the Macedonian government had violated the rights of Khaled El-Masri, a German citizen, during an operation with the CIA that led to El-Masri, a case of mistaken identity, being kidnapped and rendered to a “black site” in Afghanistan, where his treatment “amounted to torture.”

In addition, in 2009, an Italian court convicted in absentia 23 Americans — almost all CIA officials and operatives — for the brazen daylight kidnapping in Milan, in February 2003, of a cleric, Abu Omar, who was subsequently rendered to torture in Egypt, and, just last week, an Italian appellate court sentenced the country’s former intelligence chief, Niccolò Pollari, to ten years in prison “for complicity” in that kidnapping.

As the Open Society Justice Initiative notes, “Other legal challenges to secret detention and extraordinary rendition are pending before the European Court of Human Rights against Poland, Lithuania, Romania, and Italy; against Djibouti before the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights; and against domestic authorities or officials in Egypt, Hong Kong, Italy, and the UK.”

These remain the best hope that one day someone at the highest levels of the US government will be held accountable for their crimes. In the meantime, the senior Bush officials — up to and including the former President — walk free, and President Obama has his own “kill list” and drone program, which, one day, will be seen to have been as monstrous and illegal as Bush’s program of rendition and torture.

Furthermore, as the Open Society Justice Initiative also notes, “The Obama administration has not definitively repudiated extraordinary rendition. In 2009, President Obama issued an executive order disavowing torture and closing secret CIA detention sites, but the order was reportedly crafted to allow short-term, transitory detention prior to transferring detainees to countries for interrogation or trial. Current policies and practices with respect to extraordinary rendition remain secret.”

As with so much else in the “war on terror,” secrecy is never a good sign. It is too much to hope that President Obama will willingly address the legacy of “America’s Disappeared,” inherited from his predecessor, but one day someone must be held accountable for this global program of torture.

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed — and I can also be found on Facebook, Twitter, Digg, Flickr (my photos) and YouTube. Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in April 2012, “The Complete Guantánamo Files,” a 70-part, million-word series drawing on files released by WikiLeaks in April 2011, and details about the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, and available on DVD here — or here for the US). Also see my definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all my articles, and please also consider joining the new “Close Guantánamo campaign,” and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

As published exclusively on the website of the Future of Freedom Foundation.

18 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    On Facebook, I wrote:

    Following the publication of “Globalizing Torture,” the Open Society Justice Initiative’s new report about those who disappeared into the CIA’s torture prisons, this is my response, in which – as is appropriate, I believe – I write of “America’s Disappeared,” and those who we know about, and those whose whereabouts are still unknown. One day there must be accountability.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Umm Ghazi wrote:

    lets hope that accountability comes sooner rather than later, because until that day come, governments will continue to feel free to perpetrate these wicked crimes against people.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Thank you, Umm Ghazi. Powerful points eloquently made.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Michael Cheneywatch McCollum wrote:

    Umm Ghazi, I agree. As one of the founders of CheneyWatch, we are sad to see that even former officials who have as much vested interest in locking up Richard B Cheney and crew…they don’t see it happening. They are as in limbo as we are. One of them is headed to prison when the torturers run free.

    I can help with creating all the sites and videos we need, but frankly, I too think…”what more info do we need to act upon this? What does “Act Upon This” look like?”

    I asked Col Wilkerson, he doesn’t know. I asked former SERE instructors, they don’t know. Former Prosecutor sits with Andy and doesn’t know….Former gator’s don’t know.
    POTUS has the keys and he ain’t talkin.

    As a Scot, I will never tire. I’ll take this quest to my deathbed.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Thank you, Michael. That kind of persistence is going to be needed from all of us who care!

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    George Kenneth Berger wrote:

    I’m sharing this, Andy.

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    And thanks for sharing, George. Much appreciated.

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Michael Cheneywatch McCollum wrote:

    Andy, my granddad used to wake up every morning in his home in Connecticut. He would salute his St. Andrews flag and curse the queen hoping for an independent Scotland, not unlike his father, and grandfather. Some things, you just have to stick to!

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Umm Ghazi wrote:

    and thank you Andy amazing work you do to inform people about whats really going on.

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    Michael Cheneywatch McCollum I’m able to keep doing this, though, because of you, Jason, and the others who we haven’t even tied into yet. We want this, we have to find a way to unify. Perhaps I should build a Coalition page at CheneyWatch.

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks again, Umm Ghazi. That’s very kind. And Michael, tenacity is essential, so I’m glad to hear of your background! A coalition page would be great. Please feel free to link to “Close Guantanamo,” and also to the page where people can sign up. We always need more people who care!

  12. Nicholas M. Jackon says...

    One defense that the Bush-era torture conspirators will not be able to rely upon will be the U.S. federal statute of limitation. The U.S. Department of Justice — the very agency charged with prosecuting this crime — was directly involved in the conspiracy to commit torture during the Bush-era and has overtly continued obstruction of justice for these offenses during the Obama-era. The five year statute of limitation period has not even begun to elapse under such circumstances. These war criminals are always going to be subject to prosecution when the political winds finally change.

  13. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks Nicholas. That’s a very interesting point, and I very much hope you’re right.

  14. Andy Worthington says...

    Kathleen Kelly wrote:

    Shared. Thank you, Andy for continuing this work, which is so important. It makes me crazy to live in a country where everyone knows everything about Kim Kardashian and nothing about the political forces that shape our lives.

  15. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Kathleen. Yes, it’s so sad that it’s not as though most people know, but don’t care; it’s that far too many people know far too little about anything of significance. And leaders get away with terrible things when the people aren’t constantly checking them and challenging them.

  16. Andy Worthington says...

    Chelsea Channing wrote:


  17. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Chelsea. Your support and interest is much appreciated.

  18. America’s Disappeared by Andy Worthington | Dandelion Salad says...

    […] Andy Worthington Featured Writer Dandelion Salad February 23, 2013 Image by Shrieking Tree via […]

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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 and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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