The investigative report of the Senate Intelligence Committee on the Central Intelligence Agency’s rendition, interrogation and detention practices, also known as the ‘Torture Report’ has been released today. The controversial and much awaited report will likely fuel a heated public debate globally and will undoubtedly have policy implications both domestically and internationally.
We interviewed Major Jason Wright*, who served for 3 years as military defense counsel for Guantanamo Bay detainee and alleged 9/11 mastermind, Khalid Sheik Mohammed.
In this exclusive interview, we look at the U.S. interrogation program post 9/11, the methods used, and whether the CIA’s use of ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ elicited “life- saving intelligence” for the United States. We explore the implications for military commissions and upholding the rule of law, the U.S.’ image overseas and our continued efforts in fighting terror.
Click here to watch a video of the interview or read a summary below.
Safi: 13 years on from 9/11, your former client Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is currently standing trial in front of a military commission. In the past 13 years, the US has been engaged in fighting in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Somalia and Yemen, amongst other places, and most recently we’ve seen air strikes in Iraq and in Syria as part of the continued fight against radical groups using violence. The release of the report comes at a very important, although some would say, inopportune, time. Do you think that this could be a significant input to our current thinking on fighting terrorism?
Major Wright: Yes, I do think that would be the case. The Senate looked at 6 million pages of CIA and other documents in order to investigate and analyze and figure out what happened after 9/11 when our government started to capture foreign fighters overseas and subject them to interrogation tactics that have now been deemed to be in violation of both international and domestic law. A considerable amount of resources went into investigating what happened- to the tune of $40 million. Yes, this report comes at a very interesting time when it comes to U.S. foreign policy. Just when we have approached over a decade of war, post 9/11, with the drawdown in Afghanistan, the removal and reengagement of the U.S. in Iraq, and Syria and even though the words ‘war on terror’ are not being used it appears to much mirror what happened post 9/11.
Hopefully release of the report and a debate will show the world that America is not above the law. We do hold ourselves to a certain standard. We did lose our way after 9/11, but there is an opportunity to make this right. There is an extraordinary opportunity for rediscovery and redemption, to convince the world that this is not who America is. This is not what America stands for.
Stephanie: The information contained in the Torture Report raises critical questions about the U.S. Government’s intelligence operations and oversight post 9/11. The report also raises questions about the lawfulness of the U.S.’ use of enhanced interrogation in the days following the 9/11 attacks. Can you talk about the legal implications of the report in this context?
Major Wright: The U.S. has been the standard bearer when it comes to human rights and international law for some time. We ushered in the passage of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights where we recognize that there a universal fundamental right to dignity. Along with that, we recognize that everyone should be free of torture. In a civilized world, we just don’t torture people. President Obama recently recognized, at least in his view when looking at the report’s findings that, “[w]e tortured some folks.” That’s a very powerful statement for the commander in chief and the leader of the United States of America to acknowledge. We have certain obligations under international law, notably the Convention Against Torture, where the U.S. has agreed not to torture and to investigate and hold persons accountable who may have engaged in torture. So, the question under international law, is will the U.S. acknowledge its responsibilities and fulfill its obligations…not just to investigate and document what happened, but to actually hold people accountable. The same is true for U.S. domestic law. It is a criminal violation to torture in the United States. It’s something that we as Americans have fought for since the dawn of our founding. If you look at the U.S. Constitution, the 8th amendment prohibits cruel or unusual punishment. We fought for that right and we need to honor it and look into what we did post 9/11. So, it remains to be seen what policy makers will do in response to the release of this report, but at the very least, it should fuel a public debate on what happened.
Safi : Let’s just be clear what we are talking about when we refer to ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’. A report by Physicians for Human Rights documented that these techniques […] are designed to physically and psychologically breakdown a person. They documented that irreversible psychological and physical damage had been done to the detainees. And these are the very same acts have been condemned by the United States when other countries have used them.
Major Wright: You mentioned water boarding- water boarding is actually a mock- execution. When you take a look at the CIA’s OIG report, the classified version, you can see that the very point of water boarding was to bring someone to the edge of death and back. To the very edge of death. And there was one individual, Mr. Mohammed, he was subjected to the waterboard 183 times. The U.S. has previously prosecuted Japanese War criminals for doing the same to U.S. service members.
Safi: And more recently as well, right up until 2006, the U.S. has condemned other States – I am not going to mention which- for use of these very same techniques: waterboarding, prolonged exposure to cold temperatures, denial of clothing and basic hygiene items.
Major Wright: That’s absolutely right. And the point is not whether it’s the U.S. or some country that is doing it, the point is that from the perspective of human dignity and who we are as Americans. The American people should reject torture – irrespective of the country and irrespective of the purpose. When you take a look at the design of the Detention and Rendition Program you will find in the CIA’s OIG report the purpose of the interrogation is to psychologically dislocate the Individual. A recent report, a very famous document written by a number of experts, physicians, and mental health counselors – the Istanbul Protocol- 75 experts in the field say that the purpose of torture is actually to disintegrate the person. So the U.S. policy states it’s to dislocate, and on the other hand experts around the world say that its purpose is to disintegrate. Really what it does is change the person fundamentally, not just physically but also mentally as well. You no longer have the same person.
Safi: Which has implications for whether they are capable of standing trial.
Major Wright: Many have said that torture denies justice- it denies justice across a range of persons effected by torture, the Special Rapporteur on counter terrorism has written about how torture denies the victims of a terrorist attack the right to have a fair trial, the right to have some sort of meaning behind the trial. Not to mention for the actual defendant for whom it denies the right to have a fair trial where they have been subjected to pretrial abuse- pretrial punishment- that otherwise would be deemed unlawful.
Stephanie: The report presents an opportunity to take a look back at the U.S.’ response post 9/11 and weigh in on the efficacy of the information that was elicited during enhanced interrogation techniques. How do you think the report’s finding will impact ongoing military commissions at Guantanamo Bay?
Major Wright: I think the report will impact the military commissions in many respects. There are 8 prosecutions before the current military commission in Guantanamo Bay. Of those, there are two death penalty trials that are ongoing. One of the trials is against five co-conspirators for their role in the 9/11 attacks and one against an individual who is charged with complicity in the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen. The Military Commissions Act of 2009, which is the underlying statute that applies to Guantanamo Bay military commissions, is predicated on a regime of secrecy… The goal is to ensure that information about the CIA’s rendition, detention, and interrogation program does not make it into the public view. So there are very restrictive rules of evidence and rules of procedure that limit the defense counsel’s ability to pursue investigative leads in that regard, to present evidence before the court—at least in a public hearing, and to share that information with the client. There is an actual rule that classified information cannot be shared with the defendant. Someone who is on trial for their life and they can’t see the evidence against them—that’s a serious due process violation that I can tell you the U.S would not stand for if that was being applied to a U.S. citizen facing trial overseas for their life. So, I think there is an intellectual and philosophical underpinning with the military commissions to protect some of this information. This information is now going to be released and who knows where it will lead.
Safi: The argument is that the use of these techniques was critical to extract information that could be used as evidence for the trials and as information in the continuing fight against terrorism, to ensure the safety of Americans. Without even touching upon the efficacy of the techniques and the usefulness of the information gathered for capturing high-value targets, do you feel that national security interests and the safety of individual Americans at home and abroad are less at risk now: Do we live in a safer world today than at the time of the attack on the World Trade Center?
Major Wright: I think that most Americans don’t feel that they are safer than they were 10, 20 or 30 years ago. But I know that historically, this is the safest period the U.S. government has had ever since its infancy. We are living in the safest time ever. The issue of perception is very important. The National Counterterrorism Center- a government agency- produced a report in 2011 on this question- Ten Years After 9/11: Are we Safer? There is a myth that is out there that we could be subject to a terrorist attack at any given time. It’s a myth. Unfortunately it’s a myth that’s been perpetuated and people are living in a state of fear. The chance of being harmed by a terrorist attack as a U.S. citizen is 1 in 20 million. The chance of being struck by lightening is 1 in 26,000- you’re more likely to be struck by lightening. And I don’t mean to suggest this lightly. But it’s okay for people to feel safe. And think that this could fuel part of the debate- in this country we would not be okay with an erosion of our civil liberties for a strict national security posture.
Safi: You represented Khalid Sheikh Mohammed for 3 years, building a defense for him. We are taking about somebody who is one of the most well-known high value detainees, someone who played a key role in 9/11, somebody who is allegedly responsible for the deaths 2,976 civilians. You’ve come under some criticism for helping to building his defense. Can you tell us what you feel you were doing in that process?
Major Wright: I was appointed by the Office of the Chief Defense Council for the Department of Defense to be a military defender for Guantanamo Bay detainees. As a military public defender I did the same thing that defenders do across the country whether in state court or federal court- which is not necessarily to represent the client but to represent what our constitution stands for- which is that everyone is entitled to have a lawyer, a fair defense and their day in court. These civil liberties are enshrined in our constitution, rights that our country is founded on, I was trying to give them full meaning and effect.
Safi: So in building his defense you were in effect defending the values that the U.S. stands for. And yet this report is going to acknowledge, as President Obama did at the UN earlier this year, that the United States has certain shortcomings in acting in concert with its own stated values and ideals. Do you agree with those who say that the report will do more harm than good? What do you hope the Panetta review and the report will be able to achieve?
Major Wright: You mentioned at the outset that this could possibly fuel a public debate and that’s what I really hope it does. We need to bring light to this dark period. Within the United States, we have a very proud history of building the concept of the rule of law, but at the same time we have had some dark periods- treatment of native Americans when we first arrived, our history of slavery, denial of the right for women to vote, discrimination against minorities…We do have conversations in the United States about things that we have done wrong, and these conversations only make us stronger they only make us better. So bringing light to this dark period of torture- what the America government did post 9/11 can only make us better, can only make us stronger and can only make us safer as a country, and that’s where we need to head.
*Major Jason Wright served as military -assigned defense council for the high-value detainee and alleged 9/11 mastermind, Khalid Sheik Mohammed, until he was forced into resigning in August 2014, after 9 years of military service. Major Wright is also an Iraq war veteran having served 15 months in Northern Iraq during the Surge from 2007 through 2008. Jason’s client, Mr. Mohammed suffered from abuse by the U.S. Government during his detention by the CIA at U.S. operated ‘black sites’.
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