Concealing prisoner abuse?

As the world now knows, CIA videotapes of very “coercive interrogations” in its secret prisons were destroyed in 2005 — despite orders from federal judges and the September 11 commission to preserve records of interrogations. This internationally criticized removal of hard evidence of CIA tortures is supposedly under official investigation by the Justice Department in partnership with the CIA. There is also a second investigation by committees of Congress. But the latter was at first limited by Attorney General Michael Mukasey’s refusal to turn over to Congress records and witnesses of possible Justice Department involvement.

Now that Mr. Mukasey has apparently relented, Sen. Joe Biden, Delaware Democrat, is right in calling for a special counsel because both these investigations lack credibility. For instance, the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel in its 2002 “torture memos” allowed the CIA to engage in such practices as waterboarding (shown in these vanished CIA tapes).

Those 2002 permissions were withdrawn the following year but secretly reinstituted by the Justice Department in 2005. And in a classified executive order in July 2006, the president, without objection from the Justice Department, allowed CIA’s secret prisons to remain open, and we don’t know what’s going on in them. As for Congress’ investigation, it was that body in 2005 (the Detainees Treatment Act) and in 2006 (the Military Commissions Act) that further expanded the use of “coercive interrogations” by the CIA and other armed services.

Whether an independent special prosecutor will be appointed, with a credibility the CIA and Congress do not have, depends on Mr. Mukasey. As of this writing, he says he prefers to wait until the current compromised investigations, as I call them, are concluded. But he is strongly disinclined to bring in a special counsel.

In any case, Democratic Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois has opened another important dimension of discovering other documentation of the CIA’s violations of our own anti-torture statute and corollary international treaties we have signed. Writing to Mr. Mukasey on Dec. 12, Mr. Durbin points out that: “According to [the] Chicago Tribune, the interrogation of a detainee who was allegedly rendered to Egypt by the CIA may have been recorded.” These CIA kidnapping “renditions” to a number of countries known to torture prisoners have been widely documented by human rights organizations and the press (both in this country and abroad).

Therefore, Mr. Durbin’s letter to the attorney general continues: “This raises questions whether Egypt or other countries to which the CIA has rendered detainees have made video or audio recordings of these detainees being interrogated and whether such recordings have been destroyed by or at the request of the CIA.” Mr. Durbin asks Mr. Mukasey that the Justice Department’s inquiry into the CIA’s own destruction of such videos in 2005 now “be expanded to cover” visual and/or audio tapes of coercive interrogations in other countries the CIA has depended on to “break” prisoners it is unable to.

A similar letter was sent by Mr. Durbin on Dec. 12 to Gen. Michael Hayden, director of the CIA, also asking whether other countries to which the CIA has rendered prisoners have recordings of the special interrogation techniques that were used on them.

In that letter to Gen. Hayden, Mr. Durbin makes several intriguing points. First, “you acknowledge that in 2002 the CIA videotaped interrogations of detainees, but you asserted that ‘videotaping stopped in 2002.’ ” However, he adds, “According to the Chicago Tribune, Abu Omar was detained in February 2003, and he believes that his Egyptian interrogators recorded ‘the sounds of my torture and my cries.’ ” Mr. Durbin then asks Gen. Hayden a fair question: “Indeed, if the CIA renders a detainee to a foreign country for the purpose of interrogation, it seems reasonable to expect that the CIA would monitor the interrogation by video or audio recording or other means.” After all, since the CIA regards itself as a premier intelligence organization, in the process of sending a prisoner it believes has extremely valuable information to be extracted in another country, surely the CIA would want proof from that country of the information it had wrenched from the prisoner.

Mr. Durbin also asks Gen. Hayden: “Have any such recordings been reviewed to verify compliance with diplomatic assurances by those countries (to the United States) not to torture detainees?” The letters to Gen. Hayden and Mr. Mukasey asked for replies no later than Dec. 19. As of this writing, I have no information that answers have been received. A similar letter by Mr. Durbin has been sent to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice with the same deadline.

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