New US administration: new broom or déja vu?

Some things won’t change as much as we had hoped, even under President Obama:

The Americans are still holding more than 14,000 Iraqi detainees in other facilities [besides Abu Ghraib], in conditions that have been radically revised since the Abu Ghraib scandal. Under the new status of forces agreement with Iraq, the prisoners are being released at a rate of about 50 a day. Those against whom there are pending charges will be handed over to the Iraqis as the Americans withdraw. There is much concern over the conditions in some Iraqi jails, where there is acute overcrowding and allegations of abuse and torture. American officials say the detainees they hand over are only going to prisons run by the justice ministry and which are up to international standards. [BBC]

Detainees being held at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan cannot use US courts to challenge their detention, the US says. The justice department ruled that some 600 so-called enemy combatants at Bagram have no constitutional rights. Most have been arrested in Afghanistan on suspicion of waging a terrorist war against the US. The move has disappointed human rights lawyers who had hoped the Obama administration would take a different line to that of George W Bush. Prof Barbara Olshansky, the lead counsel in a legal challenge on behalf of four Bagram detainees, told the BBC the justice department’s decision not to reform the rules was both surprising and “enormously disappointing”. The BBC’s Kevin Connolly in Washington says the move has angered human rights lawyers, with one saying the new White House was endorsing the view of the old one, that prisons could be created and run outside the law. It is certainly evidence that having set the tone for his administration by announcing plans to close Guantanamo Bay, Mr Obama intends to adopt a much more cautious approach to the problem of detainees held elsewhere by the US military, our correspondent says. [Emphasis added]

Leon Panetta

WASHINGTON (CNN) — The Senate on Thursday night confirmed Leon Panetta as CIA director by unanimous consent. Panetta, 70, will become the oldest person to head the spy agency. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, which passed Panetta’s nomination on to the full Senate on Wednesday, said at that time that Panetta would mark a “new beginning” for the CIA. “He has the integrity, the drive and the judgment to ensure that the CIA fulfills its mission of producing information critical to our national security without sacrificing our national values,” the California Democrat said. …
Panetta was an eight-term congressman from central California who chaired the powerful House Budget Committee before moving over to the Clinton White House as the budget director. He later became President Clinton’s chief of staff. He left government in 1997 and returned to California, where he and his wife created the Leon and Sylvia Panetta Institute for Public Policy, a nonprofit foundation.

Panetta said that President Barack Obama forbids what Panetta called “that kind of extraordinary rendition – when we send someone for the purpose of torture or actions by another country that violate our human values.” “What happened I can’t tell you specifically,” he said later, “but clearly steps were taken that prompted this president to say those things ought not to happen again.” Rendition has been used by U.S. presidents for several decades; Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo., said the Clinton administration used it 80 times. However, Panetta said the difference is whether the prisoner is transferred to another government for prosecution in its judicial system or for secret interrogations that may lead to torture. Panetta said renditions that send individuals to other countries to face prosecution are appropriate. “Having said that, if we capture a high-value prisoner, I believe we have the right to hold that individual temporarily, to debrief that individual and to make sure that individual is properly incarcerated so we can maintain control over that individual,” he said. While the Obama administration is turning its back on some Bush administration practices, Panetta said there is no intention to hold CIA officers responsible for the policies they were told to carry out. CIA interrogators who used waterboarding or other harsh techniques against prisoners with the permission of the White House should not be prosecuted, he said. [Emphasis added]

On January 22, I examined the possibility that Leon Panetta, Barack Obama’s nominee for CIA Director, may favor the controversial practice of extraordinary rendition. The Los Angeles Times has now confirmed that the new US President has authorized the CIA to continue its policy on renditions under Mr. Panetta – a Clinton-era administrator who has publicly come out against the use of torture in interrogations. Extraordinary rendition involves extrajudicial kidnappings of wanted terrorism suspects by CIA or FBI paramilitaries, often abroad, followed by extrajudicial transfers of same suspects to third countries, such as Egypt or Syria, where they are usually tortured. The extracted information is then utilized by US law enforcement and intelligence agencies in their pursuit of the “war on terrorism”. This notorious practice became widespread under the first George W. Bush Administration, but it was first implemented under former US President Bill Clinton. As White House aide to Mr. Clinton at the time, Leon Panetta was reportedly “a consumer of intelligence at the highest level”. It follows that he must have known about the practice, though he apparently failed to speak out against it. [Emphasis added]

[Note: In fact, ‘rendition’ of people kidnapped in other countries to the US for trial in US courts has been practised since the 1880s: see]

Panetta formally retracted a statement he made Thursday that the Bush administration transferred prisoners for the purpose of torture. “I am not aware of the validity of those claims,” he said.

Regarding torture, Mr. Panetta testified he would leave open the possibility the CIA may request permission to use interrogation methods more aggressive than the Army Field Manual (the Obama Administration standard) allows.

Under insistent questioning from a Senate panel, Mr. Panetta said that in extreme cases, if interrogators were unable to extract critical information from a terrorism suspect, he would seek White House approval for the C.I.A. to use methods that would go beyond those permitted under the new rules.
“If we had a ticking bomb situation, and obviously, whatever was being used I felt was not sufficient, I would not hesitate to go to the president of the United States and request whatever additional authority I would need,” Mr. Panetta said in his nomination hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee.
He gave no specifics about what interrogation methods he would suggest, but he said that the agency would always abide by the law. He also said he believed that interrogators could reliably get information from detainees using noncoercive means.
“We can protect this country, we can get the information we need, we can provide for the security of the American people and we can abide by the law,” Mr. Panetta said. “I’m absolutely convinced that we can do that.” ( [Emphasis added]

It was always obvious that the dizzy expectations raised by the Obama campaign couldn’t all be satisfied, but this cold shower of reality is perhaps a little earlier than we might have hoped.