Archive for category International

Torture – Who We are and Who we aspire to be

The first photographs that surfaced on Abu Ghraib in the spring of 2004 were so jarring, I thought at first that they were doctored. The hope was that these were some propagandistic, photo-shopped images designed to put the U.S. in the worst possible light.

senate reportTen years later, and we as a nation are still struggling over the issue of detentions and interrogations that cross the line into the realm of torture. While it was military intelligence and their contractors in the docket at Abu Ghraib, the report by the Senate Intelligence Committee this week confined itself to those practices employed by the CIA.

In the days since its release, many of our leaders cast the report in a tone of optimism about our values and the self-correcting nature of our system. Vice President Biden referred to the report as a “badge of honor,” alleging that while all countries make mistakes, few have the strength to acknowledge the errors. The Chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee Dianne Feinstein closed her statement from the Senate floor declaring that this “report will carry the message ‘never again.’” She was followed by Senator John McCain, who was himself a victim of torture while a prisoner in Vietnam. He couched his reaction to the report in terms of our character as a nation: “this question isn’t about our enemies; it’s about us. It’s about who we were, who we are and who we aspire to be. It’s about how we represent ourselves to the world.” President Obama struck a similar note when he called the practices outlined in the report, “contrary to who we are, contrary to our values.”

Most Americans would like to agree with these sentiments; that we do not torture, that this report does not reflect the values of the nation. However, several points in the report may indicate otherwise, that these practices likely occurred more often than we know.

Senator Feinstein in her statement from the Senate floor on December 8 made two references that suggest a larger history of use of torture methods by the CIA. Both were embedded in communications from a high-level CIA official, John Helgerson. First, she made the point that the agency did not even learn from its own history, citing an e-mail from Helgerson to the CIA Director Michael Hayden in 2005, “… we have found that the Agency over the decades has continued to get itself in messes related to interrogation programs for one overriding reason: we do not document and learn from our experience – each generation of officers is left to improvise anew, with problematic results for our officers as individuals and for our Agency.” (emphasis mine) At the time, Helgerson was the Inspector General (IG) of the agency and was conducting a review of the practice in his capacity as an independent, internal watchdog reviewing government programs for waste, fraud and abuse. Helgerson’s review of the detention and interrogations program at the CIA may have been too intrusive as the CIA Director Hayden himself launched an inquiry into its own Inspector General’s office, according to the New York Times.

The issue that remains, though, in the Senate report is the nature of that history “over the decades” that Helgerson mentioned. His own Inspector General Report completed in May 2004, was not publicly released until April 2009, and then it was heavily redacted. That report provided this historic outline:

  • “The Agency has had intermittent involvement in the
    interrogation of individuals whose interests are opposed to those of
    the United States. After the Vietnam War, Agency personnel
    experienced in the field of interrogations left the Agency or moved to
    other assignments. In the early 1980s, a resurgence of interest in
    teaching interrogation techniques developed as one of several
    methods to foster foreign liaison relationships. Because of political
    sensitivities the then-Deputy Director of Central Intelligence (DDCI)
    forbade Agency officers from using the word “interrogation.” The
    Agency then developed the Human Resource Exploitation (HRE) .
    training program designed to train foreign liaison services on
    interrogation techniques.”

Not only was the U.S. involved in such interrogations but we were training foreign countries on the methods. Such training ended in 1986 when abuses were identified in Latin America. Helgerson’s 2004 report also referred to the 1984 investigation of two CIA officers who had been investigated following the death of an individual they interrogated.

Senator Feinstein’s second reference to Helgerson may shed light on specific timing of other previous incidents. She cited a letter he sent to the Senate Intelligence Committee on January 8, 1989. Helgerson, then the Director of Congressional Affairs at the CIA, was evaluating the effectiveness of such techniques, concluding that “inhumane physical or psychological techniques are counterproductive because they do not produce intelligence and will probably result in false answers.” Helgerson’s letter was in response to a committee inquiry over a topic that remains unnamed.

We do know that Helgerson had been called to hearings in the late 1980s on the Iran-Contra funding and on the role of the CIA in drug trafficking, but there is no indication that his reference to inhuman techniques was in either of those contexts.

The references to John Helgerson in the Senate report released this week do seem to indicate that we have a broader history with these interrogation practices than we know about. In that light, they do also require us to reconsider who we are and who we aspire to be. Such a reconsideration may require more actions than just releasing this report.

In the ten years since Abu Ghraib, only low-level soldiers were convicted of any wrong-doing. It has been the same ten years since Helgerson’s IG report; we do not know what his recommendations were, nor if they were carried out. We only know that it took five years following both Abu Ghraib and that IG report for a new President to put an end to the interrogations. We also remember that early in his tenure, President Obama announced his intention to close the detention facilities at Guantanamo. Further, in early 2009, the Justice Department conducted two separate investigations into the CIA detention and interrogation program to determine if criminal charges could be brought. The department decided to decline, concluding that those responsible “acted in good faith and within the scope of the legal guidance given by the Office of Legal Counsel regarding the interrogation of detainees.”

Short of prosecuting individuals involved, though, two other steps would help to realign our actions with who we aspire to be. First would be the ratification of the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, that calls on countries to allow for inspections of detention facilities as a means to prevent torture. While we ratified and signed the original convention in 1994, we have yet to approve this addendum that came into force in 2006. A second step would be to move as fast as possible to close the prison at Guantanamo, putting terror suspects into the U.S. judicial system.

The politics of these steps make their likelihood remote indeed. However, in order to assure that the U.S. really is committed “never again” to torture, such actions may be necessary. Then our conduct would more closely align with who we think we are and who we aspire to be.

This article first appeared on History News Network on December 14, 2014:

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Waving the Red Flag

When President Obama announced this week he would use his executive powers to make immigration changes, the incoming Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell warned that “would be like waving a red flag in front of a bull.”  Cries of “emperor” and “monarch” rang out from Republicans in Congress.  Representative Joe Barton from Texas already saw red, claiming such executive action would be grounds for impeachment. Another representative, Mo Brooks from Alabama, called for Obama’s imprisonment.

If using executive authority constitutes an impeachable offense, then Presidents Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy should all have been removed from office.   All four skirted Congress, at times overtly flouting their administrative prerogative, to implement a guest worker program.

This was the “Bracero” agreement with the Government of Mexico to recruit workers during World War II, starting in 1942 but lasting beyond the war, all the way until 1964.  At its height in the mid 1950s, this program accounted for 450,000 Mexicans per year coming to the U.S. to work, primarily as agricultural workers.

Several aspects of the Bracero program stand out as relevant to the impasse on immigration reform over the last 15 years.  First, the program began with executive branch action, without Congressional approval.  Second, negotiations with the Mexican government occurred throughout the program’s duration, with the State Department taking the lead in those talks.  Finally, this guest worker initiative, originally conceived as a wartime emergency, evolved into a program in the 1950s that served specifically to dampen illegal migration.

Even before Pearl Harbor, growers in the southwest faced labor shortages in their fields and had lobbied Washington to allow for migrant workers, but unsuccessfully.  It took less than five months following the declaration of war to reverse U.S. government intransigence on the need for temporary workers.  Informal negotiations had been taking place between the State Department and the Mexican government, so that an agreement could be signed on April 4, 1942 between the two countries.  By the time legislation had passed authorizing the program seven months later, thousands of workers had already arrived in the U.S.

The absence of Congress was not just due to a wartime emergency.  On April 28, 1947, Congress passed Public Law 40 declaring an official end to the program by the end of January the following year.   Hearings were held in the House Agriculture Committee to deal with the closure, but its members proceeded to propose ways to keep guest workers in the country and extend the program, despite the law closing it down.  Further, without the approval of Congress, the State Department was negotiating a new agreement with Mexico, signed on February 21, 1948, weeks after Congress mandated its termination.  Another seven months later, though, Congress gave its stamp of approval on the new program and authorized the program for another year.  When the year lapsed, the program continued without Congressional approval or oversight.

Braceros at processing center, 1957.  Photo, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service

Braceros at processing center, 1957. Photo, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service

The Bracero Program started out as a wartime emergency, but by the mid-1950s, its streamlined procedures made it easier for growers to hire foreign labor without having to resort to undocumented workers.  Illegal border crossings fell.

Still, there were many problems making the Bracero Program an unlikely model for the current immigration reforms.  Disregard for the treatment of the contract workers tops off the list of problems and became a primary reason for shutting the program down.  However, the use of executive authority in conceiving and implementing an immigration program is undeniable.

The extent of the executive branch involvement on immigration was best captured in 1951, when a commission established by President Truman to review the status of migratory labor concluded that “The negotiation of the Mexican International Agreement is a collective bargaining situation in which the Mexican Government is the representative of the workers and the Department of State is the representative of our farm employers.”  Not only was the executive branch acting on immigration, but they were negotiating its terms and conditions, not with Congress, but with a foreign country.  Remarkable language, especially looking forward to 2014 when we are told that such action would be an impeachable offense.

Senator McConnell used the bullfighting analogy because the red flag makes the bull angry; following the analogy to its inevitable outcome is probably not what he had in mind.  The poor, but angry bull never stands a chance.  In this case, though, it won’t be those in Congress who don’t stand a chance; it will be those caught in our messy and broken immigration system.

This article first appeared on History News Network.

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Using History to Resolve a Crisis

Streseman, Chamberlain and Briand at Locarno.  Photo,  German Federal Archive

Streseman, Chamberlain and Briand at Locarno. Photo, German Federal Archive

On this day, 89 years ago, the New York Times carried a story in its far left hand column with the headline “Long Step To Peace Is Seen By Britain in Germany’s Reply.”  Absent a banner headline, it recounted the text of a diplomatic note from Germany to Great Britain about ongoing negotiations to resolve several matters growing out of the Versailles Treaty ending the Great War.   These included border disputes along Germany’s western border, the inviolability of the Versailles Treaty and Germany’s entry into the League of Nations.  These negotiations ultimately ended up settled in the Locarno Peace Treaties several months later, and were the basis for the Nobel Peace Prize that Britain’s Foreign Minister, Austen Chamberlain, won.

Eleven years later, Germany abrogated both the Versailles and the Locarno Treaties with its invasion of the demilitarized zone along the Rhine.  The following year, Austen’s half-brother Neville became Prime Minister of Great Britain, and earnestly sought to resolve tensions in Europe by acceding to Hitler’s demands.

This article, 89 years ago today, brought to mind last week’s international crises, a trifecta of problems facing the United States:

— the downing of a Malaysian airlines passenger jet by Russian separatist in Ukraine, with some level of assistance from Russia

— an intensifying conflict in the Middle East with the Israeli ground invasion of Gaza

— the presence of 57,000 undocumented children from Central America in U.S. detention centers

These three issues cloud out other crises that just a few weeks earlier had concentrated the minds of those in charge of U.S. foreign policy: the ongoing civil war in Syria, disputed Presidential elections in Afghanistan and a brazen invasion of Iraq by extremists seeking to establish an Islamic state across territory of Iraq and Syria.  Events such as these don’t leave room for truly devastating humanitarian crises that never even make it in the news, like the ongoing refugee crisis in South Sudan where 700,000 people are internally displaced and hunger is affecting millions more.

If Hillary Clinton gave the title “Hard Choices”  to her memoir of her tenure as Secretary of State, John Kerry’s sequel from just last week will make her watch look fairly tame.

Each of these three major events – Ukraine, border children, Gaza ground invasion – would carry banner headlines on their own.  Any newspaper’s difficult decision last week was which deserved prominence.

They also each have historical precedents that are cited and considered.  Match the precedent with the crisis:  Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990; Kosovo’s secession from Serbia in 2008; the Mariel boat lift in 1980 or the Haitian migrant crisis in 1994; the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 2006 or of Gaza in 2012 or 2009; the downing of a Korean airliner in 1983, or an Iranian passenger jet in 1988.  None show the way to a clear cut path to resolving the crisis at hand.  History can give a pretty clear map to what transpired, identifying the sequence of events and the conditions that lend a certain air of inevitability to any outcome.  History is not as good as showing a way forward, especially when the choices in each of these cases are more than hard – they are messy and unpredictable in the outcomes they yield and the consequences they unknowingly generate.

So, what is the connection between a fairly mundane story 89 years ago and these major events?  That ordinariness of those diplomatic negotiations between Germany and Great Britain resurfaced 11 years later.  And they re-surfaced in a way that dominated world events for at least the subsequent 11 years as well.

Which of the three major stories of this week has the potential for such long-term consequences?  Much of the answer lies in the nature of the resolution.  Perhaps, the resolutions would be temporary fixes, only to re-surface in a short period, but enough to remove the crisis from the front pages.  Or, perhaps the resolutions are of the muddle-through variety, allowing governments to contain the potential for escalation.  Or perhaps, resolution is left untouched, as the crisis benefits specific, narrow self-interests of the parties involved?  Rare indeed is the resolution that actually resolves a crisis.

Opposite the German diplomatic note story, on the far right hand side of the paper, 89 years ago, ran a larger headline: “Scopes Guilty, Fined $100.”  Well, that certainly resolved the debate over evolution.

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Mandela and Kennedy

Mandela and fellow accused in 1962 at Rivonia trials.  Photo, Wikimedia Commons

Mandela and fellow accused in 1962 at Rivonia trials. Photo, Wikimedia Commons

For several weeks, I have read and watched as much as I could on Nelson Mandela, his life and his legacy.  This followed on the heels of several weeks of reading and watching as much as I could about the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s death.  I surprised myself, since spending that much time on any one subject is increasingly hard, given the competing distractions for my own short attention span.  With all the ink and celluloid given over to both men, it seems there is little else to add, except I did not see any commentary which connected the two men, and our fascination with both.

On almost all levels, it’s easy to understand the lack of side-by-side comparison of these two men.  Mandela was an exceptional and exceptionally unique leader in this day and age.  His own words of avoiding the mantel of prophet in lieu of being a servant, a humble servant, belied the global agreement that he stood above every other leader in our lifetimes.  (The few detractors found themselves deservedly isolated and unworthy of any serious discussion, here or anywhere.)  Mandela’s ability to find common ground, in a society deeply divided by class, race and culture and steer it towards a peaceful and democratic outcome was a legacy which nearly all praised.

Kennedy, on the other hand, never was able to match such an accomplishment.  He never won the Nobel Peace Prize.  Few would say that had he lived, he would have achieved the kind of legacy that Mandela built.

Still, I see three ways to connect the two men.  First, both touched a global audience, in different ways.  Kennedy stood less for accomplishment than for promise, albeit unfulfilled, and probably unlikely to be fulfilled.  Mandela emerged from a personal sacrifice of 27 years in prison, full of promise, and was able to realize it, through the strength of his character, his integrity and his vision.  Their funerals brought together more global leaders perhaps than any other in the intervening years.

The two men were born a year apart, and they departed the political scene a year apart, Mandela to prison in 1964, a year after Kennedy’s death.  The absence of both men from the following decades of active political life left a void in each country.  Yet, Mandela was able to emerge to steer his country away from the injustices of institutionalized racism. What has been missing in all of the commentary on Mandela is how his own survival was never guaranteed, especially in a society where so many anti-apartheid activists had been assassinated, exiled or marginalized.  We will never know how Steve Biko or Chris Hani may have contributed to the transition from apartheid.  Similarly, Kennedy’s absence has been the root of much speculation and debate over the course of U.S. behavior at home and abroad.

I am convinced that the course of both countries’ histories would have been starkly different if Kennedy had lived and Mandela had not survived.  South Africa’s ability to steer a course different from Yugoslavia or Zimbabwe lay in the deep pool of human talent of the nation, which Mandela as its leader was uniquely able to tap into and inspire.  Kennedy, based on his decisions during the Cuban missile crisis which were so different than the recommendations from his Vice-President and successor, Lyndon Johnson, most assuredly would have steered differently in Vietnam.  Ironically, Kennedy’s death, much like Mandela’s survival in advancing the cause of civil and human rights in an unjust society.

Finally, the third area of comparison is personal, and I suspect is shared by more people than imagined. The recent coverage brought back intense personal memories.  Like many, I remember the school ground I was standing on when I first heard of Kennedy’s death that Friday afternoon in 1963.  The television in our household which we could watch only under the strictest of conditions, was kept on for hours through the funeral and the assassination of Jack Ruby, after church on Sunday.

Likewise, many around the world have memories of the anti-apartheid movement, either as protesters in their own countries or as observers of the visits by the recently released Mandela.  I happened to be living in South Africa, working at the U.S. Consulate in Durban, with a front-row seat on the crumbling of apartheid.  Like millions across the globe, I remember watching Mandela’s release that warm, sunny February Sunday.  Memories of the thrill and the hope of his release were replaced by others of four years of effort, tragedy and turmoil to turn that hope into reality.  Through all that was Mandela, his perseverance, his righteousness and his generosity.

The intensity of these memories of Mandela and Kennedy reached similar heights, keeping me in front of the television, tuned to the same radio station and reading to the end of articles and commentary.  Both men triggered the memories of my youth, of my adulthood, of hope and inspiration, of a cause larger than oneself.

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Predicting the future: Pope Francis, President Rouhani, Attorney General Holder

newspapersIn a small trunk, here in my office are a select group of newspapers, saved because, at the time, they seemed to represent momentous events:  9/11, Bush v. Gore, death of Pope John Paul II, Watergate, impeachment of Clinton, fall of the Berlin Wall.  All have across the top, large-print headlines.  Today, I am adding to the collection the first which does not have the same bold typeset.

The paper on Friday, September 20, 2013 carried three separate stories, only two of them on the front page, which signaled what could be historic, transformational changes.  It may be difficult to predict history, and my experiment here may ultimately fail, but these do seem like shifts which will alter the shape of slices of our history over the last 50 years.

First is what looks like may be a thaw in U.S. relations with Iran.  The article, on the right hand columns of the New York Times, may only report the latest in a series of signals since the election in June of Iran’s  new president, Rouhani.  However, it reveals an exchange of letters between President Obama and President Rouhani exploring the possibility of direct negotiations between the two countries, who have not had diplomatic relations since the 1979 hostage crisis.  The official who discussed the exchange of letters was a senior advisor to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, seeming to indicate the latter’s acceptance with an opening.

Next is what looks like a re-direction of the Catholic Church’s social priorities.  The new Pope Francis released the content of an interview he had given to a Jesuit Catholic journal in August where he pointed to a need for the church to be a “home for all.” He went on, charting a course for the Church to drop its “obsession” with abortion and contraception.  On homosexuality, he asked an open-ended question wondering “when God looks at a gay person does He endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person?”  Sounds a little like Jesus answering the efforts of the Pharisees to entrap him.

The third is the reversal of a policy of aggressive prosecution of drug crimes.  The Attorney General Eric Holder gave a speech laying out the practical steps to reduce the extended sentencing of lower level drug crimes.  Those harsh, often mandatory, sentencing rules have been enacted in various U.S. jurisdictions since the 1970s, the most well-known being California’s “three-strikes” provision in 1994.  While changing the 1984 federal anti-drug act would require Congressional approval, Holder has instructed prosecutors to take steps in implementing the law, like not indicating the amount of drugs possessed by the accused.  This would avoid triggering the automatic mandatory sentence.

Friday’s paper was not the first indication of any of these transformational shifts: the new Pope had indicated as early as his installment his concern for the poor as a fundamental focus for the church; the Iran’s President Rouhani had been sending signals of accommodation with the West since his election; and Attorney General Holder in August announced his decision to review sentencing guidelines.

Also, despite the important role played by each of the three individuals, pressure had been building for some time in each area to force the decisions each have taken.  Sanctions aimed at Iran’s atomic weapons program are hurting the general population.  Catholics are leaving the church, and important constituencies in the Democratic Party have latched on to overcrowding and disparate treatment between racial groups in sentencing to push for these changes.

Neither are these three pronouncements yet set on a straight, direct course towards fulfillment.  In their infancy, each can be reversed, and it is more than likely that they will proceed on meandering paths in pursuit of the goals elaborated.  Some accuse Iran of stalling, of engaging in a public relations campaign, to delay further international condemnation.  The articles point to the Pope moving beyond the traditional power structure in the Vatican, and Congress can easily step in and halt any changes in Holder’s sentencing proposals.

Still, they each represent what could be fundamental changes.  Comparisons to past historic transformational figures like Gorbachev, Sadat or Pope John Paul II are in the air.  It is enough to make me add this front page to my small collection.

But before I do, my eye catches a fourth article, below the fold in Friday’s edition of the New York Times.  This one reports on a resurgence of the textile industry in the U.S., one that is heavily automated, with many fewer workers, but one which would reduce the cost of transportation, as well as the potential for terrible tragedies like the collapse of a textile factory in Bangladesh.  Maybe, just maybe, it is this one which foretells the most consequential shift, one that would have a greater impact in the daily lives of people around the globe.

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