Profile: John Durham
John Durham was a participant or observer in the following events:
John Durham. [Source: Bob Child / Associated Press]After the Justice Department and CIA Inspector General conclude there should be a criminal probe into the destruction of videotapes showing interrogations of two detainees, Abu Zubaida and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri (see January 2, 2008), Attorney General Michael Mukasey appoints John Durham, a federal prosecutor from Connecticut, to oversee the case. The investigation would usually be handled by the prosecutor’s office in the Eastern District of Virginia, but that office is recused to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interests. Durham will not act as an independent special prosecutor like Patrick Fitzgerald in the Valerie Plame Wilson case, but will report to the Deputy Attorney General. [Salon, 1/2/2008] Durham made his name as a prosecutor in a difficult organized crime case in Boston. [New York Times, 1/13/2008] House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers (D-MI) criticizes the appointment, saying, “it is disappointing that the Attorney General has stepped outside the Justice Department’s own regulations and declined to appoint a more independent special counsel in this matter… The Justice Department’s record over the past seven years of sweeping the administration’s misconduct under the rug has left the American public with little confidence in the administration’s ability to investigate itself. Nothing less than a special counsel with a full investigative mandate will meet the tests of independence, transparency and completeness.” [Salon, 1/2/2008]
Newsweek reports that the Justice Department’s criminal investigation into the CIA’s destruction of video of the torture of al-Qaeda leaders Abu Zubaida and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri is continuing, but proceeding slowly. Federal prosecutor John Durham has recently filed a federal court affidavit that states he is examining whether anyone “obstructed justice, made false statements, or acted in contempt of court or Congress in connection with the destruction of the videotapes.” He is specifically attempting to determine if the destruction violated any judge’s order. But progress is slow, and the investigation is likely to take six months or more, which means any criminal charges will probably come after the November 2008 presidential elections. Two sources close to former intelligence officials who are potential key witnesses in the case say these officials have not been summoned to give grand jury testimony. One of them has not even been questioned by the FBI yet. [Newsweek, 6/28/2008] Attorney General Michael Mukasey appointed Durham to head the investigation in January 2008 (see January 2, 2008).
Court documents filed by the government show that the CIA destroyed 12 videotapes specifically depicting two detainees being tortured by interrogators. Though the CIA has previously admitted to destroying 92 videotapes (see March 2, 2009), this is the first time it has admitted that some of the tapes showed detainees being tortured. The agency does not use the word “torture,” but instead uses the phrase “enhanced interrogation techniques.” According to the heavily redacted classified document: “There are 92 videotapes, 12 of which include EIT [enhanced interrogation techniques] applications. An OGC [Office of General Counsel] attorney reviewed the videotapes” and the CIA’s “OIG [Office of Inspector General} reviewed the videotapes in May 2003.” The document, along with others, are filed pursuant to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit begun by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). The ACLU has asked that the CIA be found in contempt for destroying the videotapes, a motion that is still pending. The videotapes were destroyed to prevent disclosure of evidence showing that CIA interrogators actively tortured detainees, using waterboarding and other methods. The destruction is under investigation by acting US Attorney John Durham (see January 2, 2008). The two detainees depicted in the videotapes are Abu Zubaida and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, both of whom were waterboarded by the CIA (see March 2002, April - June 2002, and (November 2002)). The document describing the destroyed videotapes says “interrogators administered the waterboard to Al-Nashiri.” The videotapes are believed to have been made at the CIA’s secret detention center in Thailand. The CIA has promised to release more information about the videotapes by March 20. However, according to acting US Attorney Lev Dassin, “to date, the CIA is not aware of any transcripts of the destroyed videotapes.” An unredacted version of the inventory of the destroyed videotapes will only be made available for the ACLU to view behind closed doors in court: “This inventory identifies the tapes and includes any descriptions that were written on the spine of the tapes.” Much of the information sought by the ACLU will remain classified, Dassin says. ACLU attorney Amrit Singh says the “government is needlessly withholding information about these tapes from the public, despite the fact that the CIA’s use of torture—including waterboarding—is no secret. This new information only underscores the need for full and immediate disclosure of the CIA’s illegal interrogation methods. The time has come for the CIA to be held accountable for flouting the rule of law.” Author and reporter Jane Mayer believes the tapes were destroyed at least in part because Democratic members of Congress briefed on the tapes began inquiring whether the interrogations of Zubaida and al-Nashiri were legal. [Public Record, 3/6/2009]
John Durham, a special counsel appointed by former Attorney General Michael Mukasey to investigate the destruction of video tapes made by the CIA of detainees’ interrogations (see January 2, 2008), summons CIA officers from overseas to testify before a grand jury. “Three legal sources familiar with the case” also say that Durham wants testimony from agency lawyers who gave advice relating to the November 2005 decision by Jose Rodriguez, then chief of the CIA’s clandestine service, to destroy the tapes (see Before November 2005 and November 2005). Newsweek will say this comes as a surprise to the CIA, whose officials have “plenty to worry about.” Previously, some lawyers on the case had thought Durham intended to wind down the probe without recommending any charges be brought. However, his recent activity has made them unsure. Newsweek will speculate that Durham “might simply be tying up loose ends.” Alternatively, he may be fixing to have charges brought. [Newsweek, 5/2/2009]
Cover of CIA OIG report, with redactions. [Source: CIA / New York Times]A 2004 report by the CIA’s inspector general (IG) on torture (see May 7, 2004) is released to the public, after months of speculation as to its contents. The CIA opposed the release of the report for years, arguing that the release would demoralize its personnel and make it more difficult for the agency to do its job. The report’s release is triggered by a federal judge’s ruling in response to a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). The report, authored by former Inspector General John Helgerson, is heavily redacted, but the portions released to the public include a number of illegal and ethically questionable tactics used by US interrogators against detainees. Some of those tactics include the use of handguns, power drills, threats, smoke, and mock executions. Many of the techniques used against detainees were carried out without authorization from higher officials, and the Justice Department is reopening investigations into a number of the most serious allegations (see First Half of August 2009). The report says that the CIA’s efforts to provide “systematic, clear, and timely guidance” to interrogators were “inadequate at first” and that that failure largely coincided with the most significant incidents involving the unauthorized coercion of detainees, but as guidelines from the Justice Department accumulated over several years, oversight “improved considerably.” In the words of the Washington Post, “the report pointed to ongoing tensions between interrogators in the field and officials at the CIA Counterterrorism Center as to when detainees were compliant and when the use of ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ was appropriate.” [MSNBC, 8/24/2009; Washington Post, 8/24/2009] In a statement, Helgerson says, “The most important findings of the review related to basic systemic issues: had management controls been established; were necessary laws, regulations, and guidelines in place and understood; had staff officers and contractors been adequately trained; and had they discharged their responsibilities properly?” [Washington Post, 8/24/2009] Newsweek reporter Michael Isikoff says that the “report was generated at the beginning by agency officials within themselves who had deep concerns about what was going on. I was struck. One officer is quoted in this report saying that he’s concerned that he might one day—agency officers might one day end up on some ‘wanted list’ to appear before the world court for war crimes stemming from these activities. It was agents—it was the concerns about this came from within the agency. That’s what generated this report.”
Recommendations Redacted - Isikoff notes that at least half of the report is redacted, including the IG’s recommendations, and says, “I’m told the worst stuff is in those blacked out passages, which means we still don’t know the full story of this program.” [MSNBC, 8/25/2009] The report contains 10 recommendations for action on the CIA’s part, but all of them are redacted. [McClatchy, 8/24/2009] Helgerson states his regret that so much of the report is redacted. “The essence of the report is expressed in the Conclusions and Recommendations,” he says. “I am disappointed that the government did not release even a redacted version of the Recommendations, which described a number of corrective actions that needed to be taken.” [Washington Post, 8/24/2009] Isikoff’s Newsweek colleague, Mark Hosenball, says he believes much of the redacted information has to do with “renditions”: detainees transferred to foreign countries “and abused there.” [PBS, 8/24/2009]
Detailing 'Crime Scene[s]' - Author and reporter Jane Mayer says she believes the report, “in essence, [details] a crime scene. It’s very hard to get away from the fact that things like death threats and mock executions are specifically identified as torture under the Convention Against Torture and, therefore, are illegal, and they’re considered very major crimes. So the problem for the Obama administration, which inherited this report and the question about what to do about it, is that it’s a red flag to any prosecutor. It’s very hard to ignore this, when you’ve taken an oath of office that says you’re going to execute the laws and uphold the Constitution. So they’ve got to somehow do something with this. I was interviewing Larry [Laurence] Tribe, a law professor, who said, you know, it’s hard to do nothing about this when you see it.” Reporter David Ignatius notes that an earlier review by Justice Department prosecutors found that no one at the CIA could be prosecuted for crimes based on the findings of the report. However, that may no longer be true. “[I]t is interesting and troubling to people at the CIA that something that was already decided not prosecutable is now maybe prosecutable,” he says. Mayer notes that during the Bush administration, possible prosecutions were short-circuited by political appointees such as then-US Attorney Paul McNulty, “who was very much a political player, who actually wound up having to resign later in the Bush administration for other political problems.” [PBS, 8/24/2009]
Federal Prosecutor Appointed - In part as a result of reviewing the CIA report, Attorney General Eric Holder names a special prosecutor to determine if the CIA or its hired contractors broke any laws in interrogating detainees (see August 24, 2009).
Reactions - CIA Director Leon Panetta issues a statement that supports the agency’s efforts while avoiding defending torture or abuse. In his statement, Panetta writes that he is not “eager to enter the debate, already politicized, over the ultimate utility of the agency’s past detention and interrogation effort.” He says the program produced crucial intelligence but adds that use of the harsh methods “will remain a legitimate area of dispute.” Overall, Panetta says, the agency is committed to “moving forward” and not spending large amounts of time reflecting on past practices. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) calls the report, and the concurrent appointment of special prosecutor John Durham to investigate torture allegations (see August 24, 2009), “a great relief, a great moment for America as a country.” He continues: “We’ve finally seen the rule of law brought forward in a way that it is clear and direct on this situation, which has been so sort of poisoned with personalities and politics and propaganda. It’s a first kind of clear, bright light, and I couldn’t be happier, couldn’t be more relieved.” [New York Times, 8/24/2009; Central Intelligence Agency, 8/24/2009; MSNBC, 8/25/2009] The ACLU’s Jameel Jaffer says, “The report underscores the need for a comprehensive criminal investigation that reaches not just the interrogators who exceeded authority but the senior officials who authorized torture and the Justice Department lawyers who facilitated it.” [Washington Post, 8/24/2009] Joanne Mariner, the terrorism and counterterrorism program director at Human Rights Watch, says: “The CIA inspector general’s report provides compelling official confirmation that the CIA committed serious crimes. A full criminal investigation into these crimes, and who authorized them, is absolutely necessary.” [Human Rights Watch, 8/24/2009]
Entity Tags: Jane Mayer, Central Intelligence Agency, Bush administration (43), John Durham, David Ignatius, Jameel Jaffer, Joanne Mariner, Eric Holder, US Department of Justice, American Civil Liberties Union, Paul J. McNulty, Sheldon Whitehouse, Laurence Tribe, John Helgerson, Mark Hosenball, Leon Panetta, National Counterterrorism Center, Obama administration, Michael Isikoff
Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives
Attorney General Eric Holder announces he has appointed a federal prosecutor from Connecticut, John Durham, as a special prosecutor to investigate whether CIA interrogators broke any federal laws. [US Department of Justice, 8/24/2009; Washington Post, 8/25/2009]
Decision Stems from CIA IG Report - The investigation is preliminary in nature, and will decide whether a full investigation is warranted. Holder bases his decision in part on a just-released 2004 report on torture by the CIA’s inspector general (see August 24, 2009) and a Justice Department recommendation that there should be an investigation of about a dozen cases of possible abuse and torture from Iraq and Afghanistan (see First Half of August 2009). According to the conclusion of the CIA report: “The enhanced interrogation techniques used by the agency under the CTC [Counterterrorist Center] program are inconsistent with the public policy positions that the United States has taken regarding human rights. Unauthorized, improvised, inhumane, and undocumented detention and interrogation techniques were used.” [New York Times, 8/24/2009; MSNBC, 8/25/2009] The review is also prompted by a report by the Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR) into memoranda drafted by the department’s Office of Legal Counsel related to “enhanced interrogation techniques.” The OPR report recommends the department re-examine previous decisions not to prosecute in some cases related to the interrogation of certain detainees. The aim of the preliminary review is to find whether federal offenses were committed in some detainee interrogations. [US Department of Justice, 8/24/2009] According to the Washington Post, the review will focus on “a very small number of cases,” including one in which a CIA officer named Zirbel caused Afghan prisoner Gul Rahman to freeze to death at the Salt Pit prison in Afghanistan (see November 20, 2002) and the intimidation of al-Qaeda leader Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri by a CIA officer named “Albert” using a handgun and drill (see Between December 28, 2002 and January 1, 2003). These cases and the others were previously referred by the CIA inspector general to the Justice Department for examination, but the department decided not to prosecute (see (August 2004) and Mid-October 2005). [Washington Post, 9/19/2009; Associated Press, 9/7/2010]
Durham a Veteran Prosecutor - Durham has been investigating the CIA’s destruction of videotapes of interrogations that may have documented instances of torture (see January 2, 2008). Although Durham has a low public profile, he is a veteran of numerous high-level prosecutions, including cases against Boston-area organized crime figures, corrupt FBI agents, and former Governor John Rowland (R-CT). Durham is considered apolitical, and has worked closely with the Justice Department under both Democratic and Republican administrations. Connecticut defense lawyer Hugh Keefe calls him “the go-to guy for Justice whenever they get a hot case.” Former Connecticut prosecutor Mark Califano calls Durham’s approach to investigations “clinical,” and says he has “very rarely” concluded a case without bringing criminal charges. “He likes to make cases when there is evidence there,” Califano says. “You’ve got to balance whether that kind of information exists.… You can’t move forward if you don’t have the evidence.” [US Department of Justice, 8/24/2009; MSNBC, 8/25/2009; Washington Post, 8/25/2009] Boston prosecutors and defense attorneys have characterized Durham as “honest” and “tenacious.” Warren Bamford, who heads Boston’s FBI office, said Durham “kind of has blinders on in the sense that he doesn’t worry about the politics and all the other stuff that might be swirling around, and I think that’s really what makes him so successful.” [Boston Globe, 1/7/2008] In a statement, Holder says, “Mr. Durham, who is a career prosecutor with the Department of Justice and who has assembled a strong investigative team of experienced professionals, will recommend to me whether there is sufficient predication for a full investigation into whether the law was violated in connection with the interrogation of certain detainees.” [Think Progress, 8/24/2009]
Senator: Durham a 'First-Rate' Choice - Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) is enthusiastic about the choice of Durham. He says he has worked with Durham before, while Whitehouse was US Attorney for Rhode Island, and calls the prosecutor “very professional” and “a first-rate choice,” adding that Durham has “a very good grounding in this because he has been doing the investigation into the destruction of the torture tapes.” [MSNBC, 8/25/2009]
No Acknowledged 'Break' with White House - Holder notes that he will be criticized for undermining the CIA, and may be going against abjurations by President Obama to “move forward” instead of focusing on past transgressions, but says the facts left him little choice. “As attorney general, my duty is to examine the facts and to follow the law,” he says in a statement. “Given all of the information currently available, it is clear to me that this review is the only responsible course of action for me to take.… I have concluded that the information known to me warrants opening a preliminary review into whether federal laws were violated in connection with the interrogation of specific detainees at overseas locations.” White House officials say Holder’s decision does not mark a break between the White House and the Justice Department on their policies toward interrogations. Deputy press secretary Bill Burton tells reporters that “ultimately, the decisions on who is investigated and who is prosecuted are up to the attorney general.… The president thinks that Eric Holder, who he appointed as a very independent attorney general, should make those decisions.” [New York Times, 8/24/2009; Washington Post, 8/24/2009; MSNBC, 8/25/2009] Justice Department spokespersons refuse to say who will, and who will not, be investigated. [TPM Muckraker, 8/25/2009]
Entity Tags: Mark Califano, John Durham, Warren Bamford, Office of Professional Responsibility, Office of Legal Counsel (DOJ), Hugh Keefe, Obama administration, Eric Holder, Barack Obama, Bush administration (43), Matthew Zirbel, Central Intelligence Agency, “Albert”, Bill Burton, US Department of Justice, Sheldon Whitehouse
Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives
The response by media and public officials to the announcement of a preliminary investigation by the Justice Department into whether crimes were committed in the course of a small number of detention and interrogation cases by the CIA (see August 24, 2009) is mixed. The investigation is headed by special prosecutor John Durham. Reporter Michael Isikoff says that it will be “difficult to bring cases against agency operatives when you have the [former] attorney general of the United States [John Ashcroft] saying repetitive use of waterboarding is okay with him. He has no problem with it. The Justice Department has no problem with it—which is why some people say if we’re not going to have criminal investigations at the very top, the leadership that authorized these programs, at least have full disclosure so the American public can know the full story of what happened.” Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) criticizes the potential focus on interrogators and says the inquiry should focus on former Bush administration officials and Justice Department lawyers; he says the investigation could echo the Abu Ghraib investigation, where “lower ranking troops who committed abuses were hung out to dry.” Representative Peter Hoekstra (R-MI), the ranking Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, says the Justice Department inquiry risks disrupting current counterterrorism operations, and claims that abuse charges have already been “exhaustively reviewed.” [New York Times, 8/24/2009; MSNBC, 8/25/2009]
Lack of Accountability? - Joanne Mariner, the terrorism and counterterrorism program director at Human Rights Watch, says: “It’s heartening that the attorney general has opened a preliminary investigation of these crimes, but it’s crucial that its scope include senior officials who authorized torture. Lower-level CIA operatives—even if using so-called ‘unauthorized’ techniques—may still have relied on the letter or the spirit of high-level authorizations.” Human Rights Watch warns that if the investigation focuses solely on so-called “rogue” interrogators who acted without official authorization, but fails to investigate senior officials with responsibility for the interrogation program, it will lack credibility. The organization writes, “Such an approach would validate the Bush-era Justice Department memoranda that authorized torture.” It calls the US’s record on accountability for detainee abuse “abysmal.” [Human Rights Watch, 8/24/2009]
Focusing on 'Low-Level Operatives'? - The American Civil Liberties Union’s Jameel Jaffer later says that Durham’s investigation seems to be far too narrow in scope, focusing solely on CIA interrogators and ignoring Bush administration officials who authorized torture and other abusive actions. [TPM Muckraker, 8/31/2009] This position is echoed by the Center for Constitutional Rights, which states: “Responsibility for the torture program cannot be laid at the feet of a few low-level operatives. Some agents in the field may have gone further than the limits so ghoulishly laid out by the lawyers who twisted the law to create legal cover for the program, but it is the lawyers and the officials who oversaw and approved the program who must be investigated.” The center demands the appointment of “an independent special prosecutor with a full mandate to investigate those responsible for torture and war crimes, especially the high ranking officials who designed, justified, and orchestrated the torture program.” Another organization, Physicians for Human Rights, says that it “urges the administration to pursue any investigation up the chain of command to those officials who authorized and supervised the use of illegal techniques.” [TPM Muckraker, 8/24/2009] Several Democrats, including Senators Russ Feingold (D-WI) and Judiciary Committee chair Patrick Leahy (D-VT), and two members of the House Judiciary Committee, Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) and John Conyers (D-MI), issue statements urging the investigation to go beyond looking into the actions of CIA interrogators, and investigate the officials who authorized those actions. [TPM Muckraker, 8/24/2009]
Entity Tags: Eric Holder, Ron Wyden, Russell D. Feingold, US Department of Justice, Central Intelligence Agency, Bush administration (43), Peter Hoekstra, Center for Constitutional Rights, Patrick J. Leahy, Michael Isikoff, Jameel Jaffer, Jerrold Nadler, Joanne Mariner, John Conyers, John Ashcroft, Obama administration, John Durham
Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives
Law professor Benjamin Davis calls on former Bush administration officials to step forward and cooperate with the Justice Department investigation into torture, being led by prosecutor John Durham (see August 24, 2009). Davis makes his call after attending a debate called “After Guantanamo” at Case Western Reserve Law School. During that debate, he writes, “members of the former administration regaled the audience with stories about the mistakes made and the arrogance demonstrated by persons with whom they had worked on the issues of detention, interrogation, and military commissions.” Davis writes that “it would seem preferable for the former administration members to tell their stories to the federal prosecutor rather than to audiences at conferences.” He calls the stories “appalling,” citing incidents of “arrogant disdain for military lawyers” displayed by senior Bush officials, widespread ignorance of military law, “and the general indifference of those tasked with developing detention, interrogation, and military commission policy in the prior administration.” Davis calls on the former adminstration officials to go farther than they did at Case Western: “Names were not named in the conference, but names should be named to John Durham. He is permitted to ‘follow the facts wherever they lead,’ but if those lawyers, other civilians, and uniformed types who know where the dogs are buried refrain from coming forward, they will make the task more arduous than it needs to be. Everyone who has a story is a witness in piecing together what really went on. Every lawyer has also sworn an oath to be an officer of the court and is under an ethical duty to refrain from abetting crimes. Help John Durham find the facts.” He concludes by asking: “[B]eyond legal or ethical obligations, the real question is of what these architects of detention, interrogation, and military commission policy are made of. Are they made of the stuff that led Specialist Darby [Joseph Darby—see January 13, 2004] to clearly see what was wrong with detainee treatment in Abu Ghraib, thus prompting him to provide military investigators with the incriminating photos? Or are these persons made of the stuff of cowards that hope this will all go away if they do not say anything to anyone—posturing in public and cowering in private?” [Jurist, 9/18/2009]
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