The Ugly Specter of Torture and Lies

Exclusive: President Obama refused to hold “war on terror” torturers to account but punished truth-tellers severely, a bleak legacy not erased by Chelsea Manning’s belated commutation, as Jonathan Marshall explains.

By Jonathan Marshall

January 17 was an unusually good day for truth and human rights on both sides of the Atlantic. Even before President Obama commuted whistleblower Chelsea Manning’s long prison sentence, the British Supreme Court ruled unanimously that government ministers cannot claim “state immunity” or other specious grounds to avoid legal accountability in cases of abduction (rendition) and torture. The decision was heralded by Amnesty International, the International Commission of Jurists, and other human rights groups.

Poster in support of Pvt. Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning, posted in Washington D.C.’s Metro system.

The lawsuit against Britain’s former foreign secretary, Jack Straw, and a former senior intelligence officer was brought by Libyan dissident Abdel Hakim Belhaj, a militant opponent of Muammar Gaddafi. He was kidnapped with his pregnant wife from Bangkok in March 2004 based on a tip from MI6, the British intelligence service.

Taken to a secret CIA prison in Thailand, they were blindfolded, hooded, hung from hooks on the cell wall, beaten, and blasted with loud music. A few days later the CIA flew them to Tripoli, where Belhaj was jailed and tortured by the Libyan regime for six years. He says he was also interrogated by British intelligence officers.

Owing to an edict by President Obama, Bush administration officials have never been tried for their complicity in more than 60 renditions of CIA prisoners, but Britain’s senior officials may face justice thanks to their Supreme Court ruling, which cited legal authorities ranging from the Magna Carta of 1215 to the United Nations Convention Against Torture.

Evidence of official British complicity in the kidnapping of Belhaj was discovered by Human Rights Watch in Gaddafi’s intelligence files after the Libyan dictator was overthrown in 2011. A 2004 fax by the chief of counterterrorism at MI6 to his Libyan counterpart said of Belhaj’s capture, “This was the least we could do for you and for Libya to demonstrate the remarkable relationship we have built in recent years.”

Seeking Favors from Gaddafi

At the time, Prime Minister Tony Blair’s government was cozying up to Gaddafi, not only to fight Islamist extremists but to exploit lucrative business opportunities in the sectors of oil and finance. (Blair continued to visit Gaddafi even after Blair left office to pursue banking deals for JP Morgan, according to a senior executive with the $70 billion Libyan Investment Authority.)

British Prime Minister Tony Blair and U.S. President George W. Bush shake hands after a joint White House press conference on Nov. 12, 2004. (White House photo)

A 2012 story in the Guardian on the Belhaj case reported:

“Two weeks after the couple were rendered to Libya, Tony Blair paid his first visit to the country, embracing Gaddafi and declaring that Libya had recognized ‘a common cause, with us, in the fight against al-Qaida extremism and terrorism.’ At the same time, in London, the Anglo-Dutch oil giant Shell announced that it had signed a £110m deal for gas exploration rights off the Libyan coast.

“Three days after that, a second leading [anti-Gaddafi activist], Abu Munthir al-Saadi, was bundled aboard a plane in Hong Kong and taken to Tripoli in a joint British-Libyan rendition operation. Saadi’s wife and four children were also kidnapped and taken to Libya. The youngest was a girl aged six. The family was incarcerated . . . for more than two months before being released. Saadi and Belhaj were held for more than six years, however, and say they were subjected to torture throughout this time.”

In 2005, responding to revelations of such abuses in the U.S.-led “war on terror,” Foreign Secretary Straw insisted that the United Kingdom had not rendered suspects to other countries:

“Unless we all start to believe in conspiracy theories and that the officials are lying, that I am lying, that behind this there is some kind of secret state which is in league with some dark forces in the United States, . . . there simply is no truth in the claims that the United Kingdom has been involved in rendition full stop, because we have not been.” (The contrary evidence surfaced six years later, in 2011.)

In 2012, Saadi reached a £2.2 million settlement with the British government, which did not admit guilt. But Belhaj, who has asked for just £3 in damages, demands something money can’t buy: an official apology. Straw continues to deny responsibility for any unlawful renditions.

Andrew Tyrie, a Conservative MP and chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Extraordinary Rendition, praised the latest ruling for bringing the public “a step closer to the truth about Britain’s role in extraordinary rendition – the program of kidnap and torture developed during the Bush administration, and facilitated by the UK government.”

He added, “The risk now is that the new laws on secret hearings – in the Justice and Security Act – could nonetheless thwart efforts to get to the truth, and undermine the ability of the courts to demonstrate that justice is being done. It would be bad for British justice if most of this case ends up buried in closed material proceedings.”

Obama’s Failure

The British government, which has spent more than £600,000 to fight the Belhaj case, claims that a full airing of the facts would seriously damage relations with the United States. President Obama could have knocked that assertion down at any time and welcomed the truth. Instead, he consistently refused throughout his two terms in office to convene a truth commission or hold anyone accountable for illegal rendition and torture (short of death). He even invoked the “state secrets” doctrine to block private lawsuits against government officials for torture.

President Barack Obama, with Vice President Joe Biden, attends a meeting in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Dec. 12, 2013. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, wrote in 2011, “Obama’s deliberate suppression of this shameful past is wrong. It reflects bad policy, a dereliction of presidential responsibilities and a continuing disregard for international law. It treats torture as a policy option – one that can be turned on or off at presidential will.”

With a noted supporter of torture now moving into the White House, the folly of Obama’s approach is clearer than ever. That’s why a spokesman for the human rights legal defense organization Reprieve declared, “this case isn’t just about history. . . In 72 hours, a would-be torturer will take the reins of Earth’s most powerful security state. We enter the Trump era with not a soul held to account for Britain’s past role in rendition. . . Our intelligence agencies may well be pressured to help America torture again.”

To discourage that from happening, he urged Prime Minister Theresa May to “apologize to this family, draw a line in the sand against torture, and restore British honor once and for all.”

Jonathan Marshall is author of many recent articles on arms issues, including “How World War III Could Start,” “NATO’s ProvocativeAnti-Russian Moves,” “Escalations in a New Cold War,” “Ticking Closer to Midnight,” and “Turkey’s Nukes: A Sum of All Fears.”

27 comments for “The Ugly Specter of Torture and Lies

  1. Halit
    January 20, 2017 at 21:45

    Higher interest of nation:
    We can get your petrol,
    We can kill relevant people,
    State sponsored murder is not murder,
    If public doesn’t know means didn’t happen,
    We can’t inform public now,it’s not in public interest,
    Decriminalisation of murder / highjacking/ lying cheating, collaboration of underworld figures for good of community,using fear to control and rule the people,so on so forth.
    Secret word is : security and Government higher national interest.
    Go ages punk make my day.

  2. G
    January 20, 2017 at 16:52

    wasn’t it julian assange stated something like would turn self in if manning was given clemency–stating actually meaning if you agree to clemency i’ll turn myself in–all ruled out as oboma cummuted sentence not for assange to turn himself in- but oboma felt sentence was too severe-where julian was willing to trade places–oboma didn’t act to get julian but only to get rid of unjust sentence

  3. exiled off mainstreet
    January 19, 2017 at 18:52

    When even Human Rights Watch, normally a propaganda outlet of the yankee regime, is critical, we know that things are serious. The fact that the Obama regime’s only conviction was of Kiriakou, the man who exposed the torture regime, reveals his record as a practitioner of crimes against humanity. He should be held accountable as a war criminal.

  4. Joe Tedesky
    January 19, 2017 at 14:37

    When it comes to interrogation I would recommend reading about Hanns Scharff who was a German interrogator during WWII, and an American interrogator used in the Pacific by the name of Sherwood Ford Moran. Both of these men used intelligent witt, and prove that you catch more bees with honey.

    My concern level for Chelsea Manning has actually gone up a notch, considering that Chelsea will still need to serve out her time, and I’m picturing that her jailers will make her last four and a half months in prison as uncomfortable as they possibly can. If she was to have her sentence commuted then why not give her an immediate release? Seriously, what is the point of having her serve another four or so months?

    While I find Julisn Assange’s offer to turn himself over to the U.S. Government a noble effort, I wish he hadn’t made the stakes so high. Consider this, that without Assange nowhere in the media would any of us have ever heard of Clinton’s sabotaging the Sanders campaign, let alone the other schemes of Podesta and company, and what all that means to us citizens for having learned how corrupt these people really are. Assange should be celebrated for exposing these crimes of the powerful, but then again the powerful will want revenge.

    • backwardsevolution
      January 19, 2017 at 18:24

      Joe – Assange isn’t stupid. I bet he won’t move until he has complete immunity from any charges. Assange has stated many times that even if he were to be taken out, Wikileaks would go on. His comrades would take over for him.

      The only charges against Assange were the trumped-up rape charges in Sweden. Interesting case.

      “The paper fails to mention the important point that there are no rape charges pending against Assange, and never were. Swedish prosecutor Nye, at one point, was trying to build a case that Assange committed a rape in 2010 by proceeding to have sex with a woman (she had invited him to stay in her house for the night and to sleep with her), after his condom had allegedly broken during consensual intercourse — a circumstance that in most countries would not qualify for a rape charge. (The woman by her own account later went out to buy breakfast for Assange, and subsequently tweeted boasts about having bedded him, but later took those down.) A second woman, who also had consensual sex with Assange the same week has said her complaint was only made in order to make Assange take an AIDS test, which he subsequently did, and she subsequently dropped her complaint. Although no formal legal charge of rape was ever filed against Assange, Sweden succeeded years ago in getting an overly enthusiastic Interpol to issue an unusual “red alert” warrant for him, which led to his arrest in Britain and to his seeking asylum in the Ecuadoran embassy. None of this important history got mentioned in the Times editorial.”

      • exiled off mainstreet
        January 19, 2017 at 18:56

        I’ve already seen him walk back from his offer based upon the limited “clemency” granted to Manning. The whole record of the yankee regime regarding torture and disclosure, and the phony “Russian hack” effort to stay in absolute power reveals the existing yankee deep state as an odious fascist regime. Though I doubt Trump will do much to change it, I supported him despite his flaws because of the nature of the regime he was fighting and the nature of those who opposed him. Kudos to Tedesky for all of his comments including this one and kudos to backwardsevolution as well.

        • F. G. Sanford
          January 20, 2017 at 03:55

          Agree with all of you. Joe Tedeskey’s comment is especially insightful – what the hell is the point of keeping Manning locked up an extra five months? Just one last twist of the blade between his ribs…a sadistic one at that.

          • Joe Tedesky
            January 20, 2017 at 10:16

            Short timing it in the big house is the most dangerous time of a prisoners sentence. Of course if something fatal does happen on the second to the last day it will be done at the hands of an anonymous attacker. With Chelsea’s transgender profile the warden will regret that many of the other prisoners were intimidated, and offended by Ms Mannings orientation. I could go on with imagining the excuses the system would come up, as the media cameras are rolling, but why go there. Not to wonder if the warden is a wanta be publicity hound. I don’t mean to spoil the party here, because I like many others here am happy for Chelsea’s release, but….

            On another level, prisoners are people, and it is possible they could be the ones to protect the patriotic American Chelsea…if you catch my drift F.G. Joe

          • Joe Tedesky
            January 20, 2017 at 10:17

            I left a reply, but as usual the important stuff is getting moderated.

      • Joe Tedesky
        January 20, 2017 at 02:26

        Here ya go backwardsevolution….

        Assange is promising Wikileaks will have a great 2017. So apparently it isn’t over until leakers quit singing.

        I might add, how we Americans owe Assange a great amount of gratitude, for without him we wouldn’t have had the evidence on crooked Hillary, among other revelations where Wikileaks came through for us.

  5. Michael Morrissey
    January 19, 2017 at 14:21

    I would rather have a prez that openly advocates torture and the killing of families of terrorists and the genital fondling of women — but hasn’t done any those things yet! — to one who promised to close the Torture Prison of Guantanamo, “no more secrecy,” etc., etc., etc., and did not do any the things he promised 8 years ago.

    The most important thing that Trump has “promised,” at least indicated his willingness, to do, unlike all the other presidential candidates, including Bernie Sanders, and unlike the chickenhawk warmongers in Congress and in the lapdog press, is to restore some sanity in US-Russian relations. If he is able to avert the nuclear holocaust that Hillary Clinton and her cohorts in the govt and in the mainstream media all too obviously want, or are too stupid to foresee, then I for one am ready to forgive him for some juvenile statement made off the cuff about grabbing somebody’s genitals. Grow up, Amerika!

  6. Michael Meyer
    January 19, 2017 at 14:04

    Alan Kenneth Stafford told me he was involved in torturing people in Iraq.
    Two years ago I contacted Consortium news and Washingtonsblog in order to
    share what this self described “black horseman” said.
    Neither news service was interested.

  7. Abe
    January 19, 2017 at 12:56

    The use of death squads and sexual violence was an intentional policy and was in fact a central tenet of David Petraeus’ often-praised counterinsurgency, or COIN, strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan.

    Classified diplomatic cables released by Manning through Wikileaks show that there was an extensive, officially sanctioned cover-up of rape and other sexual violence in both Afghanistan and Iraq. The rapes often were of children.

    These cables and logs also revealed the existence of “Frago 242,” an order from the US military issued in 2004 not to investigate allegations of abuse, including rape, by Iraqi government officials. Cables reveal that the US Government was aware that some of the abuse included the rape and sexual torture of prisoners of both sexes in US custody. Many of those subjected to rape in custody were in fact children.

    Wikileaks also provided further insight into the rape and murder of a 14 year old girl and her family in Haditha by members of the US 101st Airborne. The worst of the offenders was later released with an honorable discharge into the US civilian population. Only after protests first in Iraq and then in the US, were he and four others finally arrested, tried, and found guilty of murder.

    Bradley and Wikileaks exposed a practice which even the State Department describes as a ‘form of male rape’ used by private military contractors in Afghanistan. One of the contractors, DynCorp, had also been used by the US Government in Bosnia where they were involved in the systematic rape of girls, some as young as 12. The released cables show that the US Government was specifically notified and asked to cover up what was going on for fear of the reaction by the local population would be to the use of the contractors.

  8. Gidget Castrillon
    January 19, 2017 at 09:57

    After a year and a half, I gave up on torturers being held accountable. Around a year a half ago, I hoped and prayed, at the very least, that the torture would be stopped. Now, nearly four years in, there’s not much to hope or pray for, which is why I’m making what’s been done to me as public as I possibly can. This way, if anything happens to me, at least my family’s safety is ensured. Because our safety and rights sure as hell haven’t been in all this time.

    The wants of bankers and billionaires, you see, have been put first. Every single day going on four years now.

  9. Brad Benson
    January 19, 2017 at 07:07

    Trump will not torture. He won’t see the need and Mattis has pretty much managed to change his mind on that.

    Obama embraced torture. He should be tried along with Straw and Blair.

  10. Sam F
    January 19, 2017 at 04:57

    It is good to see the truth about both torture and official lying with impunity.

    Torture seems to find no facts, even in situations where many lives are at stake. One can imagine the extreme case in which the lives of many thousands are in imminent danger, and one knows with certainty that the individual knows something likely to prevent their deaths, and therefore a military necessity requires getting whatever information can possibly be obtained. No rational and responsible person can exclude some form of compulsion in that case, and most will declare this to be under military law.. But that creates the slippery slope toward torture in almost any case, a difficult problem.

    The only reason that this is such a problem is that the warmongers lie that we are in the mode of military defense, when in fact these corrupt politicians are pursuing wars of choice to get campaign bribes from the MIC/zionist profiteers, which creates and builds the insurgencies that these tyrants pretend are threats to national security. Aristotle warned of these tyrants over democracy, causing foreign wars to create fear and to demand power as false protectors, and to accuse their opponents of disloyalty.

    Bradley Manning was obviously tortured by repeated homosexual rape, a fact covered up by gay rights promoters. They seem to be unable to distinguish rape from normal when the victim is male, and conceal this hypocrisy by pretending to celebrate Manning’s use of a female name. The purpose of that rape was clearly to threaten whistleblowers, proving that the vast majority certainly do not approve of homosexual rape of themselves. The pseudo-liberal sodomy salesmen stand exposed. Manning and other victims should be given the mansions and pensions of the tyrants, and whatever help they need to be happy again.

    • F. G. Sanford
      January 19, 2017 at 18:25

      I’ve always had a problem with that “imminent danger” argument. If it were really that imminent, the torture victim would have more incentive to hold out “just a little longer”. Unscrupulous defenders of torture will always argue that they “knew with certainty that the individual knew”. But if they knew that much about him, they wouldn’t need to torture him in the first place. My suspicion has always been that, more likely than not, torturers just enjoy torturing. It provides a certain rationalization that, in spite of their failure at everything, they “did everything they could” to succeed. Torture is almost always accompanied by circular arguments to defend its use.

  11. Abe
    January 19, 2017 at 01:00

    In May 2010, a 22-year-old American Army intelligence analyst, Chelsea Manning (then known as Bradley Manning) was arrested after leaking video footage of a 12 July 2007 Baghdad airstrike, along with a video of another airstrike and around 260,000 classified diplomatic cables, to WikiLeaks.

    Reuters had unsuccessfully requested the footage of the airstrikes under the Freedom of Information Act in 2007. The footage was acquired in 2009 by WikiLeaks, which released 39 minutes of classified gunsight footage on April 5, 2010 under the name “Collateral Murder”.

    The air-to-ground attacks were conducted by a team of two US AH-64 Apache helicopters in Al-Amin al-Thaniyah, New Baghdad.

    The attacks received worldwide coverage and provoked ongoing global discussion on the legality and morality of the attacks.

    In the first strike, the crews of two Apaches directed 30mm cannon fire at a group of ten Iraqi men standing at a position (intersection). Among the group were two Iraqi war correspondents working for Reuters, Saeed Chmagh and Namir Noor-Eldeen. Seven men (including Noor-Eldeen) were killed during this first strike, and Saeed Chmagh was injured.

    The second strike, also using 30mm rounds, was directed at a van whose driver, Saleh Matasher Tomal, appeared to happen to drive by and who proceeded to help the wounded Chmagh. Two men assisting in the rescue effort were from a group of five standing at an intersection. Both of these men, Chmagh and Tomal, were killed in the second strike, and two of Tomal’s children were badly wounded.

    In a third strike Apache pilots watched people flee into a building and engaged that building with several AGM-114 Hellfire missiles.

    Recorded from the gunsight Target Acquisition and Designation System of one of the attacking helicopters, the video shows the incident and the radio chatter between the aircrews and ground units involved. An anonymous U.S. military official confirmed the authenticity of the footage.

  12. January 18, 2017 at 21:22

    How can you do an article on Belhaj but neglect to mention that he was the leader of the Al Qaeda affiliate “Libyan Islamic Fighting Group?”

    Or even more relevant now: the head of ISIS in Libya today!?

  13. Bill Bodden
    January 18, 2017 at 19:13

    The hypocrisy out of the “conservative” cabal regarding Manning’s commutation is truly astounding but not surprising. “But Manning broke the law” they say. This pious claim or something similar was disgorged from the mouths of vile warmongers who pushed for the greatest violation of international law of this 21st century that has resulted in the death, mayhem, and displacement of millions of people and continuing chaos from Afghanistan through the Middle East to Libya. And these vermin are pushing for more wars, including one against Russia. Talking of Russia, don’t be surprised if these same wretches blame Vladimir Putin for the illnesses that required hospitalization of Poppy and Barbara Bush.

  14. Zachary Smith
    January 18, 2017 at 18:19

    With a noted supporter of torture now moving into the White House, the folly of Obama’s approach is clearer than ever. That’s why a spokesman for the human rights legal defense organization Reprieve declared, “this case isn’t just about history. . . In 72 hours, a would-be torturer will take the reins of Earth’s most powerful security state.

    It’s a fact that Donald Trump was a damned fool to lower himself to the level of Bush and Obama with his blather about torture. But the fact remains Trump hasn’t done anything yet except run his mouth, and if he has any sense he’ll clam up and not even think about torturing anybody. First of all, there is the plain fact torture is as serious a crime as any in the law books. Secondly, while Bush and Obama got a pass with their torturing, it’s possible that Democrats and Republicans alike might suddenly have a “Find Jesus” moment if they detect Trump tortures.

    George “Texas Torturer” Bush is among the worst of the US presidents. He’s also both an unprosecuted war criminal and an unprosecuted torturer, thanks to Obama-the-oath-breaker. Obama is also a war criminal, but he was clever enough issue an executive order effectively making HIS tortures legal.

    Contrary to Obama’s promises, the US military still permits torture

    Jeffrey Kaye

    The Obama administration has replaced the use of brutal torture techniques with those that emphasize psychological torture

    The United States Army Field Manual (AFM) on interrogation (pdf) has been sold to the American public and the world as a replacement for the brutal torture tactics used by the CIA and the Department of Defense during the Bush/Cheney administration.

    On 22 January 2009, President Obama released an executive order stating that any individual held by any US government agency “shall not be subjected to any interrogation technique or approach, or any treatment related to interrogation, that is not authorized by and listed in Army Field Manual 2 22.3.”

    But a close reading of Department of Defense documents and investigations by numerous human rights agencies have shown that the current Army Field Manual itself uses techniques that are abusive and can even amount to torture.

    The CIA has been researching torture for at least half a century, and they can probably pride themselves as being the best torturers on the planet. All the research was done under the pretense of “protecting our boys in uniform”, and unfortunately that lie is believed to this day. Extended isolation and the other ‘refined’ techniques which leave no marks will eventually do far more lasting damage than whips and thumbscrews.

    Obama was perfectly ok with the torture of Bradley Manning in the Marine corps jail at Quantico, Virginia. Only when the outcry grew to deafening levels did our Nobel Peace Prize Commander In Chief transfer Manning to a civilian jail,.

    Obama is a lawless jackass, and Trump has the potential of beating him six ways from Sunday. For my own sake, that of the nation, and for Donald Trump himself I sincerely hope this happens.

    Time will tell.

    • Elemenopee
      January 19, 2017 at 12:34

      You lost me at “if he has any sense…”

  15. delia ruhe
    January 18, 2017 at 17:28

    There was indeed a self-serving element in commuting Manning’s sentence, but nevertheless I grudgingly thank Obama for doing it. But most of the other whistleblowers, besides doing some time, were financially ruined by predatory government agencies. When Obama secures a payment of at least a million dollars for Tom Drake, maybe then my gratitude will be more genuine.

    And it’s also high time that the president recognize crimes against Canadian Maher Arar, a perfectly innocent Muslim Canadian who was rendered to Syria, where he was daily tortured and locked in a tiny cage for 9 months.

  16. backwardsevolution
    January 18, 2017 at 17:14

    Jonathan Marshall – great read. Thank you for shining an important light. Good for Britain.

    Bill – we continue to blame the messengers: Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, Julian Assange. Instead of focusing on the DNC/Podesta emails, we focus on the so-called messengers, the Russians (with no evidence at all). Wrong is right, and right is wrong. Until we start jailing the real perpetrators, nothing will change. Many people in the intelligence agencies need to be behind bars, along with some politicians. Start nailing them.

    • Bill Bodden
      January 18, 2017 at 19:17

      … we continue to blame the messengers: Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, Julian Assange

      But the criminals they exposed not only were not charged with their crimes but they were allowed to continue their criminal activities as usual.

      • backwardsevolution
        January 18, 2017 at 21:08

        Bill – I know. These criminals should have been jailed. Maybe it’s not too late.

  17. Bill Bodden
    January 18, 2017 at 14:55

    If Obama had not commuted Chelsea Manning’s disgraceful sentence each day she remained in prison would have been a constant reminder of Obama’s role in her persecution. Obama needs to pardon all other whistleblowers suffering from his vindictiveness.

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