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Context of 'January 26, 2007: US Special Forces Soldiers Reprimanded in Afghan Deaths'

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John Yoo, a neoconservative lawyer in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel serving as deputy assistant attorney general, writes a classified memo to senior Pentagon counsel William J. Haynes, titled “Application of Treaties and Law to al-Qaeda and Taliban Detainees.” [New York Times, 5/21/2004]
Yoo: Geneva Conventions Do Not Apply in War on Terror - Yoo’s memo, written in conjunction with fellow Justice Department lawyer Robert Delahunty, echoes arguments by another Justice Department lawyer, Patrick Philbin, two months earlier (see November 6, 2001). Yoo states that, in his view, the laws of war, including the Geneva Conventions, do not apply to captured Taliban or al-Qaeda prisoners, nor do they apply to the military commissions set up to try such prisoners.
Geneva Superseded by Presidential Authority - Yoo’s memo goes even farther, arguing that no international laws apply to the US whatsoever, because they do not have any status under US federal law. “As a result,” Yoo and Delahunty write, “any customary international law of armed conflict in no way binds, as a legal matter, the president or the US armed forces concerning the detention or trial of members of al-Qaeda and the Taliban.” In essence, Yoo and Delahunty argue that President Bush and the US military have carte blanche to conduct the global war on terrorism in any manner they see fit, without the restrictions of law or treaty. However, the memo says that while the US need not follow the rules of war, it can and should prosecute al-Qaeda and Taliban detainees for violating those same laws—a legal double standard that provokes sharp criticism when the memo comes to light in May 2004 (see May 21, 2004). Yoo and Delahunty write that while this double standard may seem “at first glance, counter-intuitive,” such expansive legal powers are a product of the president’s constitutional authority “to prosecute the war effectively.” The memo continues, “Restricting the president’s plenary power over military operations (including the treatment of prisoners)” would be “constitutionally dubious.” [Mother Jones, 1/9/2002; US Department of Justice, 6/9/2002 pdf file; Newsweek, 5/21/2004; New York Times, 5/21/2004]
Overriding International Legal Concerns - Yoo warns in the memo that international law experts may not accept his reasoning, as there is no legal precedent giving any country the right to unilaterally ignore its commitment to Geneva or any other such treaty, but Yoo writes that Bush, by invoking “the president’s commander in chief and chief executive powers to prosecute the war effectively,” can simply override any objections. “Importing customary international law notions concerning armed conflict would represent a direct infringement on the president’s discretion as commander in chief and chief executive to determine how best to conduct the nation’s military affairs.” [Savage, 2007, pp. 146] The essence of Yoo’s argument, a Bush official later says, is that the law “applies to them, but it doesn’t apply to us.” [Newsweek, 5/21/2004] Navy general counsel Alberto Mora later says of the memo that it “espoused an extreme and virtually unlimited theory of the extent of the president’s commander-in-chief authority.” [Savage, 2007, pp. 181]
White House Approval - White House counsel and future Attorney General Alberto Gonzales agrees (see January 25, 2002), saying, “In my judgment, this new paradigm renders obsolete Geneva’s strict limitations on questioning of enemy prisoners and renders quaint some of its provisions.” [Mother Jones, 1/9/2002]
Spark for Prisoner Abuses - Many observers believe that Yoo’s memo is the spark for the torture and prisoner abuses later reported from Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison (see Evening November 7, 2003), Guantanamo Bay (see December 28, 2001), and other clandestine prisoner detention centers (see March 2, 2007). The rationale is that since Afghanistan is what Yoo considers a “failed state,” with no recognizable sovereignity, its militias do not have any status under any international treaties. [Newsweek, 5/21/2004; Newsweek, 5/24/2004]
Resistance from Inside, Outside Government - Within days, the State Department will vehemently protest the memo, but to no practical effect (see January 25, 2002).

Entity Tags: Patrick F. Philbin, Robert J. Delahunty, US Department of Justice, Office of Legal Counsel (DOJ), Taliban, John C. Yoo, Colin Powell, Geneva Conventions, Al-Qaeda, George W. Bush, Alberto Mora, US Department of State, Alberto R. Gonzales, William J. Haynes

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Complete 911 Timeline, Civil Liberties

Two weeks after Justice Department lawyers John Yoo and Robert Delahunty write a memo saying that the US should not be bound by international laws covering warfare and torture (see January 9, 2002), White House counsel Alberto Gonzales concurs (see January 25, 2002), saying: “In my judgment, this new paradigm renders obsolete Geneva’s strict limitations on questioning of enemy prisoners and renders quaint some of its provisions.” [Mother Jones, 1/9/2002] But others inside and outside the administration strongly disagree. Many will later point to Yoo and Delahunty’s memo as providing the “spark” for the torture and prisoner abuses reported from Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison (see Evening November 7, 2003), Guantanamo Bay (see December 28, 2001), and other clandestine prisoner detention centers (see March 2, 2007). Human Rights Watch director Kenneth Roth will call the memo a “maliciously ideological or deceptive” document that ignores US obligations under multiple international agreements. “You can’t pick or choose what laws you’re going to follow,” Roth will observe. “These political lawyers set the nation on a course that permitted the abusive interrogation techniques” disclosed in later months. Scott Horton, president of the International League for Human Rights, agrees. When you read the memo, Horton says, “the first thing that comes to mind is that this is not a lofty statement of policy on behalf of the United States. You get the impression very quickly that it is some very clever criminal defense lawyers trying to figure out how to weave and bob around the law and avoid its applications.” Two days later, the State Department, whose lawyers are “horrified” by the Yoo memo, vehemently disagrees with its position (see January 11, 2002). Three weeks later, State again criticizes the memo (see February 2, 2002). State senior counsel William Howard Taft IV points out that the US depends itself on the even observations of international law, and that following Yoo’s recommendations may undermine attempts to prosecute detainees under that same body of law. Secretary of State Colin Powell “hit[s] the roof” when he reads Gonzales’s response to the Yoo memo, warning that adopting such a legal practice “will reverse over a century of US policy and practice” and have “a high cost in terms of negative international reaction” (see January 26, 2002). The Bush administration will give in a bit to Powell’s position, announcing that it will allow Geneva to apply to the Afghan war—but not to Taliban and al-Qaeda prisoners. State Department lawyers call it a “hollow” victory for Powell, leaving the administration’s position essentially unchanged. [Newsweek, 5/21/2004; Newsweek, 5/24/2004]

Entity Tags: Robert J. Delahunty, Human Rights Watch, Colin Powell, Alberto R. Gonzales, International League for Human Rights, John C. Yoo, Kenneth Roth, William Howard Taft IV, Scott Horton, US Department of State

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Civil Liberties

Jan Mohammed re-enacts the alleged murder of his brother, Wakil.Jan Mohammed re-enacts the alleged murder of his brother, Wakil. [Source: Crimes of War Project]Wakil Mohammed, an unarmed peasant, is shot to death by a US Special Forces soldier while being questioned about his possible role in a firefight. He was protesting that he and his brother—an eyewitness to the shooting—were merely returning home from afternoon prayers and had nothing to do with the fighting. (His brother will later tell the reporters that he and several others were detained and tortured, including having their heads held underwater in a form of waterboarding, and having their toenails torn out.) Mohammed’s death is not reported at all in the initial reports of the firefight. The death is later listed by the Army as a murder, but no charges have ever been filed in relation to the shooting. The team’s battalion commander will later claim that Mohammed’s death was never reported to him. One member of the Special Forces team involved in the murder will tell the Los Angeles Times that his unit held a meeting after the teen’s death in order to coordinate their stories should an investigation arise. “Everybody on the team had knowledge of it,” says the soldier. “You just don’t talk about that stuff in the Special Forces community. What happens downrange stays downrange… Nobody wants to get anybody in trouble. Just sit back, and hope it will go away.” The Times learns that the Special Forces unit in Gardez already is under heavy scrutiny by superior officers. One officer reported that the Gardez unit was “the most troubled” field team among nearly a dozen in Afghanistan. Another senior officer wrote that the team was gaining a reputation as “a rogue unit,” and a battalion commander characterizes the unit’s performance as “a Guard unit operating unprofessionally in a combat zone.” The Times will later report, “What distinguishes these two fatalities from scores of other questionable deaths in US custody (referring to the murder of both Mohammed and another detainee, Jamal Naseer—see March 16, 2003) is that they were successfully concealed—not just from the American public but from the military’s chain of command and legal authorities.” [Los Angeles Times, 9/25/2006]

Entity Tags: US Special Forces, US Department of the Army, Wakil Mohammed

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, War in Afghanistan

Jamal Naseer, an 18-year old newly recruited Afghan soldier, dies in US custody, apparently as a result of beating and torture. Naseer dies after several days in detention at a US Special Forces “firebase,” a small, outlying military base set up to support advancing troops, at Gardez, Afghanistan. [CBS News, 9/21/2004] Naseer and seven other detainees were taken into custody about a week before by Special Forces troops attempting to secure the area from the depredations of a local warlord, Pacha (or Bacha) Khan. Naseer’s brother Ahmad insists that he, his brother, and the other detainees are allies of the Americans, and never participated in Taliban- or al-Qaeda-led attacks against American forces. [Los Angeles Times, 9/25/2006] It is unclear why the men were detained in the first place, but Los Angeles Times reporters Craig Pyes and Mark Mazzetti report that according to an Afghan intelligence report. “the action was requested by a provincial governor feuding with local military commanders.” [Los Angeles Times, 9/21/2004] Naseer’s death will be officially recorded as resulting from “natural causes,” but fellow detainees will say that Naseer’s death was caused by abuse suffered at the hands of US Army Special Forces soldiers near Gardez. Ahmad Naseer will later describe how he and his brother were beaten and abused while in custody, subjected to electric shocks, immersed in cold water, forced to assume stress positions, thrashed with cables, suffered the forcible tearing off of their toenails, and made to lie for hours in the snow. The last time he spoke with his brother, he says Jamal was “moaning about the pain in his kidneys and back” from being repeatedly beaten. [Los Angeles Times, 9/25/2006] Jamal died shortly thereafter while being helped outside to relieve himself by two Afghan kitchen workers. [Los Angeles Times, 9/21/2004] After Naseer’s death, the unit holds a meeting to discuss the incident. The team is told that Naseer died of a sex-related infection that shut down his kidneys. According to one soldier in the meeting, the point of discussion is “to make sure everybody’s on the same sheet of paper—this is what happened to the man”—in case there’s ever an investigation. Captain Craig Mallak, medical examiner for the US armed forces, says that Naseer’s death is never reported to his office (any death of a detainee is required to be reported unless the detainee is determined to have died of natural causes). Naseer’s body is transferred to a civilian hospital where no autopsy is performed. One hospital worker who prepares the body for burial will later tell the Times that Naseer’s body was “completely black” from bruising and injuries, and was “completely swollen, as were his palms, and the soles of his feet were swollen double in size.” [Los Angeles Times, 9/25/2006] Asked about such injuries, Dr. Michael Baden, a prominent forensic pathologist who works for the New York State Police, says the descriptions are inconsistent with death by organ failure. “You can’t confuse those. It sounds very much like blunt trauma.” A local physician who examined the survivors later confirmed that all of the men were suffering from similar trauma, with extensive bruising and seeping, and unbandaged wounds. [Los Angeles Times, 9/25/2006] Eventually, Ahmad Naseer and his comrades are secretly transferred to a civilian prison in Kabul, still without any formal charges. Afghan military prosecutors immediately launch an investigation into their unexplained detention. That inquiry eventually produces a 117-page report asserting that the detainees had been tortured and that there is a “strong probability” that one of the men had been “murdered.” The report speculates that the prolonged imprisonment was intended to give the detainees’ wounds time to heal. Fifty-eight days later, all of the prisoners are released; no charges are ever filed. [Los Angeles Times, 9/25/2006]

Entity Tags: Taliban, US Special Forces, Michael Baden, Pacha Khan, Al-Qaeda, Jamal Naseer, Ahmad Naseer, Craig Mallak

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, War in Afghanistan

The Army’s Criminal Investigation Division (CID) opens a probe into the deaths of two Afghan detainees, allegedly at the hands of US Special Forces soldiers. The two men, Wakil Mohammed and Jamal Naseer, died on March 1, 2003 and March 16, 2003, respectively (see March 1, 2003 and March 16, 2003). Mohammed, an unarmed peasant, was being interrogated about his role in a recent firefight. While he was protesting his innocence, he was shot in the face by an American soldier. Naseer, taken into custody with seven other Afghans for interrogation about their supposed involvement with local Taliban or al-Qaeda fighters, died about a week after his capture, allegedly from repeated torture and abuse. Los Angeles Times reporters Craig Pyes and Mark Mazzetti write, “Motivation for those arrests remains cloaked in Afghan political intrigue. The action was requested by a provincial governor feuding with local military commanders, an Afghan intelligence report says.” While the Army apparently looked into the circumstances of the deaths shortly after they occurred, no official investigation was ever mounted until the Crimes of War Project began its own investigation into the deaths. When the organization released its findings to two Los Angeles Times reporters, Kevin Sack and Craig Pyes, and the reporters filed a series of articles on the deaths in September 2004, the CID opened its own probe. Former Attorney General for the Armed Forces Yar Mohammed Tamkin, who directs the Afghan investigation into the death of Naseer, concludes in his own report that there was a “strong possibility” that Naseer was “murdered as the result of torture” at the hands of his US captors. Under Afghan law, he writes, “it is necessary for our legal system to investigate the torture of the seven individuals and the murder of Jamal, son of Ghazi, and other similar acts committed by foreign nationals.” CID investigators say that the Army’s original inquiry into the deaths was stymied by a lack of information made available by the Gardez unit’s commanders. “We’re trying to figure out who was running the base,” says Army detective Christopher Coffey. “We don’t know what unit was there. There are no records. The reporting system is broke across the board. Units are transferred in and out. There are no SOPs [standard operating procedures]… and each unit acts differently.” Coffey does acknowledge that “Gardez is the worst facility—it is three or four times as bad as any other base in Afghanistan.” Naseer’s death was officially attributed to “natural causes” stemming from an apparent sexually-contracted urinary tract infection, and his death was never reported, as is standard Army procedure. Shortly after Naseer’s death, the other seven detainees were transferred to the custody of local Afghan police, who mounted their own investigation. The seven were released without charge six weeks later. [Los Angeles Times, 9/21/2004] Two special Forces soldiers accused of complicity in Naseer and Mohammed’s deaths will be given administrative reprimands by the Army in 2007 (see January 26, 2007).

Entity Tags: Yar Mohammed Tamkin, Jamal Naseer, Al-Qaeda, Christopher Coffey, Wakil Mohammed, Taliban, US Department of the Army

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, War in Afghanistan

Two unnamed US Special Forces soldiers accused of complicity in the March 2003 deaths of Afghan soldier Jamal Naseer and Afghan peasant Wakil Mohammed are given administrative reprimands by the US Army. Naseer was reportedly tortured to death by Special Forces soldiers (see March 16, 2003) and the unarmed Mohammed was shot after a firefight near the Special Forces base of Gardez (see March 1, 2003). But a statement released by the Special Forces Command indicates that the reprimands only fault the soldiers for assault relating to the “slapping of detainees.” It states that the soldier who shot Wakil Muhammed was acting in self-defense. As for Naseer, “all other allegations, to include voluntary manslaughter and aggravated assault of detainee Jamal Naseer, were found to be unsubstantiated.” A reprimand is not a formal punishment, rather it has the effect of reducing the recipient’s prospects for a promotion and can end a military career. A military investigation began in 2004 after media reports about their deaths (see September 21, 2004). [Crimes of War Project, 1/31/2007]

Entity Tags: US Department of the Army, Wakil Mohammed, Jamal Naseer

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, War in Afghanistan

Nieman Reports, a quarterly magazine about journalism, publishes an article by investigative journalist Craig Pyes describing how the US Army attempted to undermine a Los Angeles Times investigation looking into the March 2003 deaths of two Afghan detainees (see March 16, 2003). It is believed that members of a Special Forces detachment in Afghanistan murdered the two men, identified as Jamal Naseer and Wakil Mohammed, and then covered up the circumstances surrounding their deaths. An official investigation into the two deaths by the Army’s Criminal Investigation Command (CID) found insufficient probable cause to bring charges for either of the two deaths. As a result of the CID investigation, two soldiers were given noncriminal administrative letters of reprimand (see January 26, 2007) for “slapping” prisoners at the Gardez facility and for failing to report the death of Naseer. In his article, Pyes recounts the resistance he and his colleague Kevin Sack encountered from the military as they sought information about the two deaths. The military refused to disclose basic information about the circumstances surrounding the two deaths, including the two men’s identities, the circumstances of their detention, the charges against them, court papers, and investigative findings. The journalists also learned that soldiers had been told by their superiors that it was important that everyone be “on the same page in case there was an investigation.” During their investigation, they also discovered that “military examiners had made some significant errors, including their initial failure to identify the victims. They also grossly misidentified dates of crucial events and persistently failed to interview key people and locate supporting documents.” [Nieman Watchdog, 3/2/2007]

Entity Tags: Wakil Mohammed, United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, US Special Forces, Jamal Naseer, Los Angeles Times, Criminal Investigation Command

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, War in Afghanistan

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) releases Defense Department documents that confirm the military’s use of illegal interrogation methods on detainees held in US custody in Afghanistan. The documents, obtained through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit, are from an Army Criminal Investigation Division (CID) probe. The ACLU’s Amrit Singh says: “These documents make it clear that the military was using unlawful interrogation techniques in Afghanistan. Rather than putting a stop to these systemic abuses, senior officials appear to have turned a blind eye to them.” In the CID reports, Special Operations officers in Gardez, Afghanistan, admitted to using what are known as Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape (SERE) techniques, which for decades American service members experienced as training to prepare for the brutal treatment they might face if captured (see December 2001, January 2002 and After, and July 2002). At least eight prisoners in custody at Gardez were beaten, burned, and doused with cold water before being placed into freezing weather conditions. One of the eight prisoners, Jamal Naseer, died in US custody (see March 16, 2003). Subsequent investigations ignored numerous witness statements describing torture; Naseer was eventually declared dead due to a “stomach ailment.” The documents also provide evidence showing that prisoners were sodomized. “These documents raise serious questions about the adequacy of the military’s investigations into prisoner abuse,” says Singh. [American Civil Liberties Union, 4/16/2008]

Entity Tags: Amrit Singh, American Civil Liberties Union, Criminal Investigation Division, Jamal Naseer, US Department of Defense

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives

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