Picture this: You wake up each morning in a dirty cell and are hung by your wrists and interrogated while a government operative holds a gun to your head. This same operative takes a scalpel to your body, makes incisions and then pours stinging liquid into your open wounds.
Excuse the gruesome imagery, but this describes an ordinary day in the life of Binyam Mohamed, a 30-year-old Ethiopian man and former resident of Notting Hill, London, who is now being held at Guantanamo Bay. Mohamed, who was seized by Pakistani officials in 2002 and turned over to American intelligence officials in accordance with the Bush administration’s “extraordinary renditions program,” is reported to be close to death in a prison cell in Guantanamo, having been “frequently threatened with rape, electrocution and death.”
Rendition refers to a practice in which criminal suspects are transferred from the custody of one nation to another in order for them to be interrogated and even tortured. Also referred to as “torture by proxy,” the United States has been suspected of allowing the transfer of suspects to countries that are known for torture, despite claims from former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that the United States does not transfer prisoners to countries that allow torture.
It is alleged that after being held at an airport in Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan, Mohamed was taken by a CIA paramilitary team and turned over to the Moroccan capital of Rabat. Although the United States has stayed quiet on the particulars of this case, CIA flight logs verify the occurrence of this flight, which directly matches the details of Mohamed’s testimony.
For two years, Mohamed traveled between secret “black sites” and to Morocco and Pakistan as well. Mohamed is no longer in underground detention but in the harsh world of military detention at Guantanamo. There, he told his story to British lawyer Clive Stafford Smith and hoped for his release.
Mohamed’s efforts to gain justice are being thwarted here in the United States. The Department of Justice has unfortunately decided to uphold the Bush administration’s beliefs that information regarding the cases of torture victims should not be revealed due to national security concerns. The U.S. government holds that despite certain evidence being essential to the investigation and trial of this case it should not be required to divulge the information because it goes against the idea of executive privilege, that is, the “inherent” rights of presidents to secrecy regarding certain issues. However, not only is the government claiming the right of executive privilege, it is moving to dismiss the case altogether because of the claim that discussing the case at all could lead to a security breach. No president in history has ever given up this privilege, but it is still troubling that President Obama’s administration is upholding a tradition that earned the Bush administration criticism.
This reminds me of another time in history when a president tried to invoke the “state secrets privilege” in order to obstruct the investigation of a case: the Watergate scandal. President Nixon argued that turning over tape recordings of his Oval Office conversations that could provide essential evidence to the prosecution of certain government officials was off-limits because they contained national secrets that would endanger security if revealed. The court found that because of the circumstances and the fact that there was no national emergency or war occurring, the tapes would have to be turned over because of their importance to the trial proceedings.
Although this case is distinguished from the one we are looking at today, it brings up an essential point — that often times the state secrets privilege is invoked not out of a desire to maintain security but in order to cover up abuses by those in power. There are ways in which national security can be maintained while still allowing justice to be served. For example, only the judges could review the tapes, and any top-secret information that would threaten American security if revealed to the public could be removed.
Now it is President Obama that the country must look to in order to remedy these wrongs. It seems that as of now, the president is committed to upholding the bad judgment of his predecessor. This is disappointing because of his campaign promises to discontinue torture practices and other illegal forms of gaining information from prisoners.
However, there seems to be hope for the future. Democrats in both the House and the Senate have introduced legislation that will “provide a uniform set of procedures for federal courts considering claims of the state secrets privilege.” Patrick Leahy, the chair of the Senate judiciary committee, has said that the legislation “will help guide the courts to balance the government’s interests in secrecy with accountability and the rights of citizens to seek judicial redress.”
Hopefully more members of Congress will jump on the bandwagon and push this legislation through into law. As of now, Mohamed can only wait and pray that Obama and the rest of our country’s leaders realize that individual rights cannot be seen as inferior to other interests, especially when those interests can be preserved with so little effort on the U.S.’s part.
Lila Kooklan is a fourth-year political science major. She can be reached at email@example.com.