The United States has sought to shut the door on any further inquiry into the treatment of nearly 100 persons detained by the CIA in the war on terror, with the decision from Attorney General Eric Holder on June 30 to investigate only two cases that resulted in the deaths in custody of terrorism suspects.
Official Washington breathed a sigh of relief at the impunity bestowed on the rest. “I welcome the news that the broader inquiries are behind us,” Leon E. Panetta, CIA director, said in his last day in office before being sworn in as U.S. defense secretary. “We are now finally about to close this chapter of our agency’s history.”
And yet, it’s a different story overseas, where courts and governments are exposing, and pursuing accountability for, U.S. misdeeds. As a result, the Obama Administration’s shameful effort to bury the facts of past abuse won’t succeed.
Last year, Britain agreed to compensate its citizens who had been detained at Guantanamo, and to undertake an inquiry into the involvement of its own officials in U.S.-sponsored violations. Rights groups are concerned that the terms of the inquiry are not sufficiently transparent. But importantly Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron has acknowledged that “the longer these questions remain unanswered, the bigger the stain on our reputation as a country that believes in freedom, fairness and human rights grows."
The U.S. has remained determined, in President Obama’s words, to “look forward,” not “backwards.” Thus, Washington has never acknowledged its role in sending Maher Arar, a Canadian computer engineer, to ten months of torture in Syria in 2002-03. An exhaustive inquiry subsequently found that Arar was innocent of any terrorist activity and had been wrongly and brutally mistreated.
In 2007, the Canadian government issued a formal apology for its part in the affair and awarded Arar monetary compensation. "We cannot go back and fix the injustice that occurred to Mr. Arar," Prime Minister Stephen Harper rightly said at the time. “However, we can make changes to lessen the likelihood that something like this will ever happen again."
In stark and embarrassing contrast, the U.S. under both Presidents Bush and Obama has steadfastly refused to admit it made a mistake.
Indeed, last year, Obama’s Justice Department successfully persuaded the U.S. Supreme Court not to hear Arar’s case, leaving in force a federal appellate ruling that effectively grants executive branch officials immunity from torture.
In another notorious error, in 2003, Khaled el-Masri, a German national, was detained incommunicado for 23 days in Macedonia, then turned over to the CIA and beaten, kicked and denied medical care during four months he spent locked in the “Salt Pit,” a secret prison in Afghanistan. Never charged, el-Masri was finally flown back to Europe, and dumped on the side of a road in Albania long after U.S.officials knew they had the wrong man.
Although Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice reportedly admitted to German Chancellor Angela Merkel that el-Masri had been “erroneously taken,” Washington has never publicly acknowledged its role in Masri’s mistreatment. Instead, senior U.S. officials have persistently denied responsibility and obtained dismissal of Masri’s attempts to secure judicial redress in U.S. courts on the grounds that “state secrets” precluded consideration of his claims.
While the U.S. has apparently closed its books on the case, the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg is actively considering a legal petition alleging Macedonian government complicity in Masri’s unlawful torture and rendition.
In a third matter, the European Parliament last month called on U.S. authorities not to seek the death penalty for Guantanamo prisoner and accused USS Cole bomber Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri in a military commission trial to be held in the coming weeks. In May, al-Nashiri filed a lawsuit in the Strasbourg court alleging that Poland enabled his torture and secret detention at a CIA “black site” on Polish soil in 2002 and 2003.
Once again,Washington is out of step with the rest of the world in trying to sweep under the rug serious allegations of criminal activity.
But the questions will not go away. While America stonewalls, others will investigate, publish the truth, and seek justice. Until the U.S. confronts this unhappy chapter from its past, its global image – already tarnished - will further deteriorate.