January 25, 2010

Remember Manuel Noriega, American POW?

Twenty years ago this month, the United States' captured Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega after an invasion toppled his government and he fled to the papal nuncio's home in Panama City. His U.S. prison sentence on drug charges ended in September, 2007, but he wasn't released, pending an extradition request from France.

Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to take up Noriega's appeal of his continued imprisonment. Noriega argued that as a POW -- Miami Federal District Judge William Hoeveler declared him one in 1992 -- he had the right to go home under the Geneva Conventions when his prison sentence ended. The conventions require that POWs be repatriated once hostilities have ended.

Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas wanted to hear the case, noting that it would be an easy one to say what U.S. obligations were toward POWs without all the complications that come with Guantanamo cases. But they were just two votes -- taking up a case requires four.

So Noriega waits now for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to decide if he goes to France, something she's almost certain to order. In France, he stands accused of money laundering and faces 10 years in prison. He's also facing prison time in Panama for murder and various other crimes. But because of his age -- he'll celebrate his 76th birthday Feb. 11 -- he'd be eligible for house arrest in his home country.

Here's the AP dispatch published in The Miami Herald.

January 20, 2010

More cluelessness in the Obama administration?

It wasn't just the future of health care that had the Obama administration flummoxed Wednesday. Also confusing was what the administration thought about its decision to try the Detroit underpants bomber in civilian court.

The Republicans, of course, have blasted this decision, conveniently forgetting that the Bush administration chose civilian court to charge (and convict) Richard Reid, the shoebomber whose effort to blow up a Miami-bound airliner in 2001 was eerily similar to Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab's try at blowing up the Detroit-bound flight.

The decision for a civilian trial seems easily defensible. Obama officials said as far back as July that the difference between a civilian trial and a military one has to do with where the crime/attack took place and what its target was. In the case of an attack on a U.S. military target overseas, such as the USS Cole, that means a military tribunal for Abd al Rashim al Nashiri, who's being held at Guantanamo in the November 2000 attack.

Those same parameters were behind the decision to try accused 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in New York -- a civilian target, in the United States, in which the victims were civilians.

That decision upset Republicans, too. But Attorney General Eric Holder and President Barack Obama both have been uncompromising in its defense.

Which makes Wednesday's testimony before the Senate Homeland Security Committee all the more astounding. Of the three Obama officials there — Homeland Security boss Janet Napolitano, Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair and Counterterrorism Center chief Michael Leiter — none defended the decision. Blair even said it was a mistake that Abdulmutallab had been questioned by the FBI instead of the High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group, an entity announced over the summer to deal with terrorist suspects outside the usual Miranda rights questioning. Here's AP's account.

At least FBI Director Robert Mueller defended the FBI's role before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

It gets worse, as Spencer Ackerman of the Washington Independent points out here. Not only did Blair, Napolitano and Leiter go AWOL on civilian prosecution, they turn out apparently to be under-informed about the status of the HIG. It's not yet operational and couldn't have been called in, even if that had been a good idea. Blair issued a restraction.

Maybe it's no wonder that Abdulmutallab got on board the plane.

December 18, 2009

How the U.S. used the DEA to grab some al Qaida members

The Justice Department today charged three alleged members of al Qaida with agreeing to help Colombia's FARC guerrillas transport cocaine through Africa, leaving the impression in the headline of its press release that al Qaida and the FARC are cooperating. But before you get overly excited about an al Qaida/FARC connection, you need to read the complaint. It would appear that no one from the FARC was ever involved in the scheme.

Instead, the charges are the result of a sting operation by a couple of DEA confidential informants who've succeeded in finding a way to get three Africa-based al Qaida operatives off the battlefield and into an American court -- and not just sent off to Guantanamo to never stand trial on criminal charges.

According to the government's complaint, here's how the sting went down:

--Confidential Source 1, posing as "a radical Lebanese committed to opposing the interests of the United States, Israel and, more broadly, the West and its ideals," contacts, at the DEA's instruction, Oumar Issa, one of the alleged al Qaida members, and arranges a meeting in Ghana. CS-1 has been a paid DEA informant since July.

--At the meeting on Sept. 14, CS-1 explains that the FARC would like to smuggle some cocaine to Spain. Issa says his network has a way to get past custom's inspection in Mali and that armed al Qaida members would guard the shipment. After a few more phone meetings, the DEA wires Issa $300 in Togo so he can travel to Mali.

--On Oct. 6, CS-1 meets with Issa and another alleged al Qaida member, Marouna Toure, who's flown to Ghana from Mali for the meeting. DEA also paid for his airline ticket. At the meeting, Toure said he and his al Qaida associates would be responsible for getting the cocaine through Morocco.

--On Nov. 17 and 18, CS-1, with another paid DEA informant posing as a FARC representative, met with Toure and a third al Qaida operative, Idriss Abelrahman, who says he's the "general" of an 11-man armed group. The DEA informants and the two alleged al Qaida men agree on a price, and the DEA informants hand over $25,000 so the al Qaida members can buy trucks to transport the cocaine. Left unsaid is whether the DEA also paid Abelrahman's travel expenses.

--In the ensuing month, there were many "consensually recorded phone calls" between the DEA informants and Issa and Abelrahman, including quite a bit of haggling over how big a down payment the DEA/FARC needed to make (it went from 10 percent to 50 percent). Then on Dec. 14, this past Monday, the DEA informants and Issa and Abelrahman set Tuesday for the final payment on the truck and the transfer of the cocaine. Instead, the three alleged al Qaida members were arrested. On Thursday, they were flown to the United States.

The Justice Department's news release quotes DEA Acting Administrator Michele M. Leonhart as calling the case "further proof of the direct link between dangerous terrorist organizations, including Al Qaeda, and international drug trafficking that fuels their violent activities."

Well, at best, maybe. But what it really shows is that there are ways of getting alleged al Qaida operatives off the streets and into the U.S. court system under civilian laws. So much for Guantanamo.

The three alleged al Qaida members are charged, says the news release, "with one count of narco-terrorism conspiracy, which carries a mandatory minimum sentence of 20 years and a maximum sentence of life in prison, and one count of conspiring to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization, which carries a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison."

Nevermind, that one of the terrorist organizations they conspired to support had nothing to do with the sting.

Interestingly, this is the second DEA-al Qaida link to surface this week. Turns out, David Headley, the American who allegedly helped plot last year's Mumbai attack, was also once a DEA informant. Here's the Philadelphia Inquirer's story on that.

December 16, 2009

The Pentagon won a Gitmo habeas case -- or did it?

On Monday, U.S. District Judge Thomas Hogan ruled that the Pentagon had acted legally when it took custody of Musaab al Madhwani from Pakistani authorities and sent him to Guantanamo in 2002. It was a rare victory for the U.S. government, which has won only nine of the 41 Guantanamo habeas cases that have been decided.

But then you read the transcript of Hogan's remarks, obtained by Carol Rosenberg of The Miami Herald, (see her work here), and you have to wonder -- did the Pentagon really win?

Yes, Hogan concludes, Madhwani was without doubt a member of al Qaida. By his own testimony, Hogan said, Madhwani acknowledged that he trained and lived with al Qaida for a year. So since the government was authorized by Congress to seize al Qaida prisoners and hold them until the conflict was over, then Madhwani's detention was legal. But is it just? Hogan doesn't think so. "I do not accept the rationale that find(ing) the government had shown a basis for (Madhwani's) detention (that) that means he should not be released," Hogan said.

Hogan ruled that there was no evidence that Madhwani ever took part in an al Qaida operation, ever plotted to launch an attack, or ever fought with al Qaida or the Taliban. "I see nothing in the record that (Madhwani) poses any greater threat than the dozens of detainees similarly situated who have been transferred or cleared for transfer," Hogan said.

And there's much in the government's handling of the case Hogan didn't like. The government produced documents in the case just days before the trial. "If that had happened in any other kind of case, they would have automatically been disallowed. You cannot have discovery where the principal litigant's own words are hidden from him until shortly before trial," he said.

He didn't think much of the government's evidence, either. He said he rejected 23 documents the government submitted as admissible "because the interrogations occurred 6 months after petitioner alleged he was tortured . . . I find those claims to be without merit."

As for Madhwani's treatment while being held by U.S. forces, Hogan also had nothing good to say. Madhwani was hung from his cell's ceiling by his left arm, so he could neither sit nor stand for "many, many days." He was blasted with deafening music 24 hours a day. "His sole respite from the deafening noise," Hogan said, "was the screams from the other prisoners when it was quiet." There was no evidence from the government, Hogan said, that Madhwani's "description of what he experienced in his confinement is inaccurate. To the contrary, his testiomny is corroborated."

He slammed the government's medical records, which found that the prisoner appeared well six days before his transfer to Guantanamo in October 2002, even though his weight was only 104 and his diastolic blood pressure was just 36, "a sign of severe dehydration which would require hospitalization normally in the United States".

Hogan also wasn't having any of the government's arguments that Madhwani's better treatment at Guantanamo made his statements there any more admissible. "Although the names in Afghanistan and Guantanamo changed, the use of threats, that is coercion, did not," Hogan said. Hogan noted that the government declined to put one of Madhwani's interrogators on the stand to refute allegations of abuse, even though the interrogator was in the Washington area and available. There's an inference the court can make from the refusal, and it's not in the government's favor, Hogan said.

In the end though, Hogan said he had no doubt Madhwani was an al Qaida member and therefore legally detained. He said Madhwani himself had said as much in testimony that was not influenced by interrogators. And based on that, he will remain at Guantanamo, "though," Hogan concluded, "I fail to see . . . that he poses any greater threat than most of the detainees who have already been released."


December 02, 2009

Blackwater, Erik Prince and CIA assassinations

Did the Bush administration plot the assassination of A.Q. Khan, the Pakistani scientist generally blamed for giving the keys to the nuclear club to North Korea, then get cold feet? That's among the allegations in an article in the new issue of Vanity Fair that focuses on the CIA connections of Erik Prince, whose security firm Blackwater became synonomous with reckless adventurism in Iraq.

Prince isn't the source of the A.Q. Khan story -- the article's author, Adam Ciralski, cites an unnamed source -- but in talking about his role with the CIA Prince apparently indicates that the CIA's assassination program had gone much further than the Obama administration let on when it canceled the program earlier this year (here's a Washington Post story and another from McClatchy). Prince indicates the program had one notable success: the death of an al Qaida middle man in Syria. Prince says his Blackwater team found the man, but left the finishing work to the U.S. military.

Prince apparently is talking because he feels burned by congressional leaks about his company's role in the now canceled program. The press release is below. You can read the story here.



NEW YORK, N.Y. — Erik Prince, head of the military contractor Blackwater (renamed Xe in February) and recently outed as a participant in a C.I.A. assassination program, speaks to Vanity Fair writer Adam Ciralsky about his role in the program and his decision to leave the firm.

Prince, the wealthy, 40-year-old heir to an auto-parts fortune, reveals in the new issue of Vanity Fair that, after 12 years building Blackwater, he is resigning from the company and plans to turn it over to its employees and a board. “I’m through,” says Prince. “I’m going to teach high school. History and economics. I may even coach wrestling. Hey, Indiana Jones taught school, too.”

Prince, who says Blackwater now pays $2 million a month in legal bills to fight an array of investigations and charges ranging from bribing Iraqi officials to illegal arms shipments to murder (allegations which Prince and company spokesmen deny), expresses deep anger and resentment in the Vanity Fair story. “I put myself and my company at the C.I.A.’s disposal for some very risky missions,” Prince tells Ciralsky. “But when it became politically expedient to do so, someone threw me under the bus.”

Prince blames Congressional Democrats for revealing his role in the C.I.A. assassination plan. Ciralsky reports that two attendees at a confidential, closed-door Capitol Hill session last June with C.I.A. director Leon Panetta insist the director discussed Prince’s and Blackwater’s parts in the agency’s plan to lethally target al-Qaeda operatives and their allies. Soon thereafter, press accounts surfaced, disclosing Prince and his company’s involvement. (When asked to verify this account, C.I.A. spokesman Paul Gimigliano said, “Director Panetta treats as confidential discussions with Congress that take place behind closed doors.”)

“The left complained about how [C.I.A. operative] Valerie Plame’s identity was compromised for political reasons,” Prince tells Ciralsky. “A special prosecutor [was even] appointed. Well, what happened to me was worse. People acting for political reasons disclosed not only the existence of a very sensitive program but my name along with it.” Prince confesses that he felt betrayed. “I don’t understand how a program this sensitive leaks. And to ‘out’ me on top of it?”

Ciralsky reports that for the past six years, Prince has publicly served as Blackwater’s C.E.O. and chairman, while privately, and secretly, he has been doing the C.I.A.’s bidding, helping to craft, fund, and execute operations ranging from inserting personnel into “denied areas”—places U.S. intelligence has trouble penetrating—to assembling hit teams targeting al-Qaeda members and their allies.

According to sources with knowledge of his activities, Prince has been working as a C.I.A. asset, or spy. While Blackwater earned over $1.5 billion in government contracts between 2001 and 2009, Prince used his access to paramilitary forces, weapons, and aircraft, and his indefatigable ambition—the very attributes that have galvanized his critics—to become a “Mr. Fix-It” in the war on terror.

Ciralsky reports that Prince wasn’t merely a contractor; he was arguably a full-blown asset. Three sources with direct knowledge of the relationship say that the C.I.A.’s National Resources Division recruited Prince in 2004 to join a secret network of American citizens with special skills or unusual access to targets of interest. The C.I.A. won’t comment on this, but, Prince says, “I was looking at creating a small, focused capability, just like Donovan did years ago”—referencing William “Wild Bill” Donovan, who, in World War II, served as the head of the Office of Strategic Services, the precursor of the modern C.I.A. (Prince’s youngest son, Charles Donovan, is named after Wild Bill.)

Two sources familiar with the arrangement say that Prince’s handlers obtained provisional operational approval from senior management to recruit Prince and later generated a “201 file,” which would have put him on the agency’s books as a vetted asset. (Ironically enough, when al-Qaeda attacked the U.S. mainland on 9/11, Prince says, he felt the urge to join the C.I.A.—the very agency that would later woo him—and actually applied. “I was rejected. They said I didn’t have enough hard skills, enough time in the field.”)

According to two sources familiar with his work, Prince, after 9/11, began developing unconventional means of penetrating “hard target” countries—where the C.I.A. has great difficulty working, either because there are no stations from which to operate or because local intelligence services have the wherewithal to frustrate the agency’s designs.

The agency also turned to Prince when time came to train the members of their targeted-killing squad. The team practiced not at Blackwater’s North Carolina compound, but on a separate estate overseen by Prince, an hour outside Washington, D.C., reminiscent of the country estate where O.S.S. intelligence squads were trained during World War II. As Prince puts it, “We were building a unilateral, unattributable capability. If it went bad, we weren’t expecting the chief of station, the ambassador, or anyone to bail us out.”

Ciralsky reveals that the C.I.A. targeted-killing team, according to a source familiar with the program, went further than the agency has previously admitted. The source says they were dispatched to Hamburg, Germany, to surveil Mamoun Darkazanli—an al-Qaeda financier living in Hamburg—going in “dark,” meaning they did not notify their own station, much less the German government, of their presence; the team followed Darkanzali for weeks and worked through the logistics of how and where they would take him down. Another target, the source says, was A. Q. Khan, the rogue Pakistani scientist who shared nuclear know-how with Iran, Libya, and North Korea. The C.I.A. team supposedly tracked him in Dubai. In both cases, the source insists, the authorities in Washington chose not to pull the trigger.

Khan’s inclusion on the target list, however, would suggest that the assassination effort was broader than has previously been acknowledged. (Says agency spokesman Gimigliano, “[The] C.I.A. hasn’t discussed —despite some mischaracterizations that have appeared in the public domain—the substance of this effort or earlier ones.”) Of the public comments that current and former C.I.A. officials have made, the source familiar with the Darkazanli and Khan missions tells Ciralsky, “They say the program didn’t move forward because they didn’t have the right skill set or because of inadequate cover. That’s untrue. They operated for a very long time in some places without ever being discovered. This program died because of a lack of political will.”

Prince tells Ciralsky he and a covert team also helped find and fix a target in October 2008, then left the finishing to others: “In Syria, we did the signals intelligence to geo-locate the bad guys in a very denied area.” Subsequently, a U.S. Special Forces team launched a helicopter-borne assault to hunt down al-Qaeda middleman Abu Ghadiyah. Ghadiyah, whose real name is Badran Turki Hishan Al-Mazidih, was said to have been killed along with six others.

Finally, Vanity Fair reports that up until two months ago—when Prince says the Obama administration pulled the plug—Prince, according to insiders, was running intelligence-gathering operations from a secret location in the U.S., remotely coordinating the movements of spies working undercover in one of the so-called Axis of Evil countries; their mission: non-disclosable.

Adam Ciralsky, an award-winning television producer, has received many of broadcast journalism's highest honors, including three Emmys (two for “news & documentary” and one for “business & financial reporting”), the Polk Award, the Peabody Award, and the Loeb Award. A former C.I.A. lawyer, his contract was not renewed under contentious circumstances in the 1990s before becoming a reporter for CBS and NBC News.

The January issue of Vanity Fair hits newsstands in New York and Los Angeles on December 2 and nationally on December 8.

November 30, 2009

Rumsfeld and Gitmo: Another NYT correction?

Last week, an item I posted here so intrigued Ron Brynaert, the executive editor at The Raw Story, that he spent the better part of a day tracking down references to the "worst of the worst" quote in an effort to find out who originally said it about detainees at Guantanamo.

As you may recall, my post was triggered by a phone inquiry from Donald Rumsfeld's office to Carol Rosenberg, who's covered Guantanamo from the beginning. Rumsfeld's office wanted to know when the then Secretary of Defense, who's widely credited with coining the phrase, had spoken those words; Rumsfeld's staff had yet to find it in any transcript. Rosenberg told the caller that she didn't think Rumsfeld had ever said it; she credits the phrase to Marine Brig. Gen. Michael Lehnert, who was the Guantanamo detention center commander when the first prisoners arrived on Jan. 11, 2002.

In an e-mail message to me, Brynaert said that the first published reference he could find to the words was in fact a Rosenberg story attributing them to "the Marine commander." That story ran on Jan. 20, 2002. (The back story here: Rosenberg recorded the phrase and Lehnert attribution in her notes on the arrival of the first prisoners, but didn't use them in her first story because, she said, it didn't seem like a particularly insightful comment and she had much to say in limited space.)

The next reference Brynaert found was a Jan. 23, 2002, transcript of a White House press briefing in which spokesman Ari Fleischer, in response to a question about the prisoners, said, "These are not mere innocents, these are among the worst of the worst." That story was followed five days later by an American Forces Press Service story, published on the Pentagon's Web site Jan. 28, 2002. That story has the words coming from Rear Adm. John D. Stufflebeem, who at the time was the Pentagon's primary briefer on operations in Afghanistan. "They are bad guys," the story quoted Stufflebeem as saying, referring to prisoners in both Afghanistan and Guantanamo. "They are the worst of the worst, and if let out on the street, they will go back to the proclivity of trying to kill Americans and others."

So when does Rumsfeld come into the picture? According to Brynaert's research, not until Oct. 23, 2002, in a New York Times story that claims Rumsfeld used the phrase "earlier this year." When precisely isn't said. Brynaert suggests that Rumsfeld "most probably used it off the record at some point." Maybe, but I'm betting not. As his staff apparently has discovered, Rumsfeld never actually uttered the phrase.

Does it matter? As Brynaert noted in his e-mail to me, "since Cheney used it the other month and other Bush officials and Pentagon officials have used it since, it appears to be a talking point." Clearly. But it's such a touchstone quote, wouldn't it be good for history to know its origin?

And it wasn't a very accurate observation. As Rosenberg pointed out in a story she did Jan. 17, 2008, of the 20 prisoners who arrived aboard the first flight to Guantanamo, prompting Lehnert's description, only one has been charged with a war crime -- the Australian David Hicks, who's served his time and is at home in Australia. Six others were released or transferred out of the prison; 12 others, as far as is known, remain at Guantanamo, but uncharged. As for No. 20, Rosenberg's never been able to figure out who he was, amid suggestions that he might have been an informant, aboard the flight to spy on the other 19.

May 19, 2009

Hoyer: I believe Speaker Pelosi

The war of words between the Democratic House leadership and the CIA escalated Tuesday with House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer giving his unequivocal support to embattled House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who said the spy agency misled her on torture tactics used on terrorism suspects.

"There's been a lot of debate about the speaker and the CIA over the past week," Hoyer told reporters Tuesday. "I'm going to be very clear ... I believe the speaker. I believe the speaker when says that she was not specifically briefed on types of ... interrogation techniques that were being employed."

Hoyer called Republican outrage over the Pelosi-CIA briefing controversy a diversionary tactic to "distract the public from focusing what was done, what the justification for doing it was, and for President Bush's comments that we don't torture, we're not using torture ..."

CIA Director Leon Panetta has disputed Pelosi's claim last week. In a message to agency employees, Panetta wrote: "It is not our policy or practice to mislead Congress ... Our contemporaneaous records from September 2002 indicate CIA officers briefed truthfully on the interrogation of (terrorism suspect) Abu Zubaida, describing the 'enhanced techniques that had been employed.'"

April 28, 2009

Did anyone think it odd a CIA officer would go on TV?

You have to wonder if the news media got hoodwinked again.

The Times doesn't come right out and say it, but ...

April 21, 2009

Obama opens door to prosecutions

Just hours after saying he would never prosecute CIA officers for harsh interrogations of suspected terrorists, President Barack Obama opened the door Tuesday to prosecuting the Bush administration officials who OK’d the techniques.

Obama said it’s up to Attorney General Eric Holder – who works for him – to decide whether Bush administration lawyers should be charged with war crimes or any other offense for writing the memo’s approving of such techniques as water boarding.

"I do worry that this gets so politicized that it hampers our ability to function effectively," he said when asked about a possible independent investigation.

“If and when there needs to be a further accounting of what took place during this period,” he added about a possible Congressional inquiry, “it could be done in a bipartisan fashion outside of the typical process that would break down along party lines."

He stressed that “I’m not suggesting that it should be done." But he added that if there were an investigation, it would be "very important” for the American people to see it as an effort to find the truth and not political benefit for one party.

Obama spoke as the liberal group moveon.org launched a campaign to gather signatures on petitions urging Holder to appoint a special prosecutor.

“On Thursday, President Obama released memos that describe, in horrific detail, the torture techniques authorized by the Bush administration. The memos make clear that top Bush officials didn't just condone torture, they encouraged it,” the group said in an email to supporters.

“So far there's been no accountability for the architects of Bush's torture program — the top officials who justified keeping detainees awake for 11 days straight, water boarding them repeatedly, and forcing prisoners into coffin-like boxes with insects.

“We need real consequences for those responsible — it's the only way to keep this from happening again. Attorney General Holder can open an investigation into the torture program — but he most likely won't unless people everywhere speak up and demand it.”

On Monday, former Vice President Dick Cheney argued that the interrogations were productive and necessary to stop terrorist attacks. He urged the Obama administration to declassify and release additional memos that he said document the helpful information drawn out in the interrogations.

April 20, 2009

Cheney: Release more documents on interrogations

Former Vice President Dick Cheney says he’s asked the CIA to declassify more documents about the interrogation of suspected terrorists beyond those released by the Obama administration - documents he says will show the Bush administration did get results with its techniques.

"One of the things that I find a little bit disturbing about this recent disclosure is they put out the legal memos, the memos that the CIA got from the Office of Legal Counsel, but they didn't put out the memos that showed the success of the effort," Cheney says in an interview with Fox News to be aired Monday evening.

"I haven't talked about it, but I know specifically of reports that I read, that I saw, that lay out what we learned through the interrogation process and what the consequences were for the country," Cheney says in the interview, taped at his home in McLean, Virginia not far from CIA headquarters.

“I've now formally asked the CIA to take steps to declassify those memos so we can lay them out there and the American people have a chance to see what we obtained and what we learned and how good the intelligence was."

The interview will air on the Hannity program at 9 pm EDT.


"Planet Washington" covers politics and government. It is written by journalists in McClatchy's Washington Bureau.

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