The LWOT, 4/9-4/16: Emails reveal new details about CIA tape destruction; Holder goes back to the Hill

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Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Emails reveal new details about CIA tape destruction

CIA emails released April 16 as part of an American Civil Liberties Union Freedom of Information Act request shed fresh light on the CIA’s November 2005 destruction of 92 tapes documenting the brutal waterboarding in Thailand of suspected terrorists Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri. The emails, written by an author whose name was redacted, seem to imply that while then-CIA Director Porter Goss did not previously authorize the tapes’ destruction, conducted by then-Directorate of Operations head Jose Rodriguez, he "agreed" with Rodriguez’s actions. The emails also reveal that Rodriguez, who allegedly said the tapes would be "devastating" for the CIA if released, did not consult either CIA counsel John A. Rizzo or White House Councel Harriet Myers before destroying the tapes. The destruction of the tapes is the subject of a two-year old investigation by federal prosecutor John Durham, whose mandate was expanded in 2009 by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to include the actions of CIA contractors and interrogators at so-called "black" prison sites.

Holder goes back to the Hill

Attorney General Holder faced tough questions from Republicans and even some Democrats when he appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee on April 14 to discuss the Obama administration’s handling of suspected terrorists. Holder told the committee that no final decision had been made on whether to try 9/11 plotter Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in a civilian or military court, but rehashed the idea of prosecuting KSM and the other accused 9/11 planners in Manhattan. Holder also pushed back on congressional criticism of the Justice Department’s role in terrorism investigation and prosecutions. "[T]here’s been a lot of unnecessary politicization of national security issues that I don’t believe has benefited this country," he stated.

In a speech April 15 to the legal issues group the Constitution Project, Holder reportedly defended using both military and civilian courts to try terrorists, while emphasizing the importance of civilian criminal courts in terrorism investigations and prosecutions. And the Los Angeles Times reports that the Obama administration is drafting its first set of guidelines for how to deal with newly-arrested terrorism suspects.

And Justice Department Inspector General Glenn Fine appeared alongside FBI General Counsel Valerie Capronie April 15 to face withering questioning before a House Judiciary subcommittee over the FBI’s use of "exigent letters" and National Security Letters in order to access personal data and records.

D.C. federal court makes Gitmo habeas petitions public

Late last Friday, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia released court documents related to the habeas corpus petitions for two Guantánamo Bay detainees. One of the petitions regarded Mohamed Ould Slahi, a native Mauritanian who has been held at Gitmo for over seven years. U.S. District Court Judge James Robertson ordered that Slahi be freed on March 22, stating in his decision that the government had not proved Slahi’s connection to al Qaedaor the 9/11 attacks, and could not hold Slahi based purely on suspicion of terrorist ties. In 46 habeas petitions filed since the June 12, 2008 Boumedienne v. Bush ruling, the U.S. District Court in Washington D.C. has granted 34 habeas petitions while rejecting 12 others — it has roughly 200 petitions still outstanding. The Miami Herald details the changes the court has made to accommodate its unique caseload.

In a case that could have far-reaching effects on judicial authority to determine the fate of prisoners held at Guantánamo Bay, the D.C. Circuit Court is scheduled to hear arguments next week on whether five Uighur detainees can be released into the United States. The Obama administration filed a brief Monday defending Congress’s ability to overrule court decisions to release detainees into the United States. Lawyers for the detainees have argued that Congressional legislation forbidding their clients’ entry into the United States violated several constitutional rights.

Awlaki announcement provokes further reactions

Last week’s confirmation that radical American cleric Anwar al-Awlaki has been placed on a CIA "hit list" continued to generate passionate reactions. Awlaki’s tribe threatened retaliation for any strike against him and warned Yemenis of cooperating with U.S. attempts on his life. Yemen’s government claimed they were not hunting Awlaki, an accused al Qaeda operative who is believed to have helped inspire the attacks at Fort Hood and the failed Christmas day bombing of Northwest Airlines Flight 253. Meanwhile, Awlaki’s father told Al Jazeera English that his son would stop criticizing the United States if the government agreed to cease targeting him.

Yemen expert Greg Johnsen, writing in Newsweek, questioned the wisdom of killing Awlaki:

Unfortunately, the administration’s argument [for killing Awlaki] is based more on frustration and assumption than real strategy… Inside that organization, he is a nobody — at best, a midlevel functionary in a local branch. There are dozens of men who could do more harm to the United States, and killing Awlaki would only embolden them and aid in recruitment. For an organization as resilient and adaptive as AQAP, his death would be a minor irritant, not a debilitating blow. The futility of such a strike should give Obama pause before he greenlights the assassination of a fellow citizen.

Trials and tribulations

  • Despite police inquiries and parliamentary criticism, UK Justice Secretary Jack Straw has reportedly rejected parliamentary proposals for legislation outlawing involvement in the rendition of suspected terrorists. In other British counter-terrorism news, a new BBC Radio report claimed that government de-radicalization efforts targeting imprisoned terrorists are ineffective.
  • A federal judge held a brief hearing on April 13 to "take the temperature" of the case against attempted Christmas Day bomber Omar Farouk Abdulmutallab. Abdulmutallab was not present at the hearing, and no date has been set for his trial.
  • Pakistani authorities have arrested a fourth suspect allegedly involved in Najibullah Zazi’s plot to attack the New York City subway system. The Wall Street Journal reports that the suspect has been in Pakistani custody for several months, and could be extradited to face charges in the United States.
  • With German Chancellor Angela Merkel set to visit the United States next week, her governing coalition remains locked in a battle with opposition parties over whether to accept additional Gitmo detainees for resettlement. While Germany’s government has reportedly been negotiating a resettlement, it is Merkel’s coalition that remains undecided about whether or not to support the move.
  • Defense attorneys for five northern Virginia men arrested in Pakistan in November on suspicion of terrorism intend to argue that police fabricated evidence in the case. The lawyers will contend at the court hearing on April 17 that Pakistani police described evidence against the men sometimes days or weeks before the evidence was "discovered." The Washington Post has a useful timeline of events in this still-mysterious case.
  • President Obama authorized the Treasury Department this week to sanction or freeze the bank accounts of individuals suspected of financing or otherwise supporting Somali militants, including 12 individuals linked to the al Qaeda-linked al-Shabab group.
Andrew Lebovich is a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations and a doctoral candidate in African history at Columbia University. He is currently based in Senegal and has conducted field research in Niger and Mali.

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