What to believe in the 'war on
terror'? By William Fisher and
NEW YORK - Recent public
opinion polls suggest increasing ambivalence,
confusion and a lack of reliable information about
the "war on terror".
Events over the past
few days, topped by the revelation that President
George W Bush ordered secret warrantless wiretaps
of phone calls and emails of US citizens, are
unlikely to reverse this trend.
people to believe?
US troops should
withdraw from Iraq immediately. Or they should
"stay the course". Some civil liberties must be
sacrificed in order to make the country secure
from terror threats. Or civil liberties
security can both exist side by side. Torture of
prisoners in US custody is never permissible. Or
it is permissible under certain conditions. Former
Iraqi president Saddam Hussein was linked to
Osama bin Laden and the terror attacks of
September 11, 2001. Or there was no connection.
The people's inability to get credible
answers has led to their growing disapproval of
both Congress and the president. In recent
polling, disapproval of Congress hovers between
50-65%, while the president's overall approval
rating is now at 42%, a rise of 4% since he began
a series of speeches in November to rally support
for the war in Iraq, but well within the margin of
As the US public struggles to
understand pivotal questions related to the "war
on terror" - a task made far more difficult by the
"spin" routinely articulated by politicians - the
Bush administration, Congress and the courts find
themselves wrestling to resolve many of the same
The president's wiretapping
admission - and defense of it - came only a day
after he refused to discuss the issue in an
interview with Jim Lehrer of public television's
Newshour. He insisted he had advised congressional
leaders, but those who have spoken publicly thus
far refute this assertion.
established a law and a procedure back in the
1970s for law enforcement authorities to ask a
special court to issue warrants. The court,
reincarnated in the Patriot Act, is part of the
Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), and
is the court now used by the Justice Department to
obtain authority to conduct surveillance of US
It is still unclear why the
president did not go through the FISA process. But
a number of senators said they thought the
president may have broken the law by failing to do
Adding to people's confusion is the
ongoing debate about re-authorizing the Patriot
Act, hurriedly passed six weeks after the
September 11 attacks and due to expire on December
31. The House of Representatives and Senate have
been unable to reach unanimity on which body's
version of the new act will become law and have
asked for a three-month extension of the current
law to give them more time to work out their
differences. The president has said he would veto
such a request.
terror-related issues have also recently added to
the public's confusion.
told the Supreme Court it would be "wholly
imprudent" to hear Jose Padilla's challenge to his
military detention as an enemy combatant. Padilla,
a US citizen, was arrested in 2002 at Chicago's
O'Hare International Airport, designated an enemy
combatant and held in a navy brig for three years
without charges (until he was indicted last
month). Most of that time he had no access to
legal counsel or to evidence against him.
Another issue likely to increase public
confusion about "the rules" governing the "war on
terror" is the so-called Graham Amendment, now
pending in Congress as part of a massive spending
bill to fund veterans' benefits and the operations
of US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.
measure won solid Senate approval for its
provisions requiring interrogation techniques used
by the military to be guided only by the Army
Field Manual. But there are two little-discussed
provisions in the measure.
One relies on a
secret annex to the manual to spell out the
specific techniques the military can and cannot
use. Ordinary US citizens - and most of the
Congress - will probably never know what these
The second potentially
controversial provision in the amendment is the
suspension of habeas corpus - the right to go to
court to contest the reason for detention as well
as treatment - for prisoners in US custody,
including some 500 held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Habeas corpus is considered the gold standard for
Afghanistan Meanwhile, amid efforts by the
bipartisan coalition in Congress to ban torture
and inhumane treatment of detainees in the "war on
terror", a major US human rights groups charged on
Monday that Washington ran a secret prison in
Afghanistan where suspected terrorists were held
in total darkness for days and even weeks at a
time from 2002 until at least last year.
New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW)
said the prison was known by the inmates as the
"dark prison" or "prison of darkness" where they
were chained to the walls, deprived of food and
drinking water, and continuously subjected to loud
heavy-metal or rap music apparently designed to
disorient them and break down their will.
Their shackles often made it impossible to
lie down or sleep, and interrogations carried out
apparently by civilian US personnel - presumed to
be Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) operatives -
included slaps and punches. Guards at the prison
were mostly Afghan, according to the report.
According to HRW, the prison was
off-limits to representatives of the International
Committee of the Red Cross or other independent
"We're not talking about torture
in the abstract, but the real thing," HRW's John
Sifton said. "US personnel and officials may be
criminally liable, and a special prosecutor is
needed to investigate."
The HRW release,
based primarily on accounts by seven detainees
currently being held at the US detention camp in
Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, came as top US officials,
including Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney,
continued to deny that the administration had ever
approved the use of torture or inhumane treatment
of terrorist suspects.
During a White
House meeting last week with Senator John McCain,
who has led the congressional drive to ban torture
and inhumane treatment in the "war on terror",
Bush, who had for several months threatened to
veto such legislation, insisted his administration
"We've been happy to work
with [McCain] to achieve a common objective," he
said, after a lopsided vote the day before in the
House of Representatives in favor of the McCain
Amendment, "and that is to make it clear to the
world that this government does not torture and
that we adhere to the international convention on
torture, whether it be here, at home or abroad."
But that position has been increasingly
difficult to sustain, as more and more details -
and dissent from the CIA rank and file - about the
treatment of detainees has leaked to the media and
The Senate this week is expected
to approve a resolution that will require the
administration to provide detailed reports every
90 days about secret detention facilities
maintained by the US overseas and the treatment
and condition of each prisoner.
The CIA is
believed to be holding incommunicado at secret
sites around the world between 24 and 36 alleged
"high-value" targets, including Khalid Shaikh
Mohammed, the alleged mastermind behind the
September 11, 2001 attacks on New York and the
Pentagon. Many of these individuals were initially
seized in foreign countries and taken across
international borders for interrogation.
The "dark prison" appears to have been one
of these sites, at least for the purposes of
screening detainees for their intelligence value.
HRW, which has repeatedly been denied
access to Guantanamo prisoners, has not
interviewed any of the detainees directly. Their
allegations were instead communicated to HRW
through their attorneys but, according to the
rights group, are sufficiently consistent and
credible to warrant an official investigation.
Most of the detainees said they were
apprehended in other countries in Asia and the
Middle East and then flown to Afghanistan. From
time to time, some detainees were transferred to
another secret facility, and all were eventually
transferred to the main US detention facility near
Bagram air base in Afghanistan. None claimed to
have been detained at the "dark prison" for more
than six weeks at a time.
said he had been in the prison for about four
weeks, held in solitary confinement where it was
"pitch black", but for interrogations was taken to
a room with a strobe light and shackled to the
floor. In one session, he claimed to have been
threatened with rape by one of his interrogators.
A second, Ethiopian-born but
British-raised detainee, Benyam Mohammed, told his
attorney in English he was held at the "dark
prison" last year. "It was pitch black, no lights
on in the rooms for most of the time," the
attorney reported him as saying. "They hung me up.
I was allowed a few hours of sleep on the second
day, then hung up again, this time for two days."
For 20 days, the music of Eminem and Dr Dre was
blared into their cells.
"The CIA worked
on people, including me, day and night," he added.
"Plenty lost their minds. I could hear people
knocking their heads against the walls and the
doors, screaming their heads off." Yet another
detainee reported a similar ordeal, noting,
"People were screaming in pain and crying all the
time." Four other Guantanamo detainees - Abd
al-Salam Ali al-Hila, Hassin bin Attash, Jamil
el-Banna and Bisher al-Rawi - gave similar
HRW noted that the accounts
given by the seven detainees were consistent with
those given by four detainees who escaped from the
Bagram facility in July.