by Valtin | 8/03/2008 10:38:00 PM
Last month, I examined the testimony from the Senate Armed Services Committee hearings on interrogations and torture. The hearings concentrated on the military's Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape (SERE) program, and its use of military psychologists hired by the CIA to "reverse-engineer" SERE program elements for use in coercive interrogations by the United States at Guantanamo Bay prison and elsewhere.

The timelines constructed out of this testimony and ancillary documentary evidence showed the Department of Defense turned to SERE for help in interrogating "enemy combatants" in July 2002. At least, that seems the case if you follow the summary given by SASC Committee Chair, Senator Carl Levin, adhered to in subsequent reports by every other journalist (but one).

Except, the timeline was wrong, and that fact is available for anyone to read in black and white. It was also admitted, grudgingly, by Levin himself, in an exchange with me during a "liveblog" session at Firedoglake.

As I wrote in my June 23 article:
While Senator Levin gives a fairly thorough presentation of how SERE techniques migrated to Guantanamo, including discussions and meetings and when they took place, and descriptions (at least in the documents released by the committee) of what kind of techniques were being taught, one date is inexplicably left out which Lt. Col. Baumgarten gave in his testimony. [Baumgarten is former Chief of Staff of Joint Personnel Recovery Agency (JPRA) for the Department of Defense, and administratively responsible for the SERE program.] Levin concentrates upon the late July 2002 request by Richard Shiffrin, a Deputy General Counsel in the Department of Defense, for information on SERE techniques and their effects upon prisoners.... But Baumgarten's own opening statement gives a more nuanced, different story. From [Lt. Col. Baumgarten's] statement, as published online (bold emphasis added):
My recollection of my first communication with [Department of Defense] OGC [Office of General Counsel] relative to techniques was with Mr. Richard Shiffrin in July 2002. However, during my two interviews with Committee staff members last year I was shown documents that indicated I had some communication with Mr. Shiffrin related to this matter in approximately December 2001. Although I do not specifically recall Mr. Shiffrin’s request to the JPRA for information in late 2001, my previous interviews with Committee staff members and review of documents connected with Mr. Shiffrin’s December 2001 request have confirmed to me the JPRA, at that time, provided Mr. Shiffrin information related to this Committee’s inquiry. From what I reviewed last year with Committee staff members, the information involved the exploitation process and historical information on captivity and lessons learned.
Now something is very strange here, as Levin's own staff appear to have documents indicating DoD was asking about SERE techniques in December 2001, eight months before the July 2002 request everyone else is concentrating on. Why this gap? My guess is that it would take us even closer to the Oval Office than Levin or anyone else wants to go at this point. Where are these documents on the December 2001 request? Why did no one on the committee question Baumgarten about this issue during the hearings?
Senator Levin Responds

Learning that Carl Levin was to participate in a "liveblog" discussion at Firedoglake on July 15, I showed up to ask my questions. What follows are my questions and Sen. Levin's responses.
[Valtin:] Sen. Levin, Your timeline for SERE interjection into U.S. torture training goes to July 2002. But Lt. Col. Baumgarten’s own statement indicates that he was approached by Shiffren (or others?) in December 2001. This is verified, supposedly, by documents your committee staffers showed him.

Why are these documents not released? Why isn’t this Dec. 2001 part of the timeline emphasized? Would not this early of an approach to use SERE for reverse-engineering purposes put some in the Administration in greater legal jeopardy, as the OLC rulings on detainees did not come until early 2002?
[Levin:] Lt. Col. Baumgartner did so testify at our hearing. However information relating to his discussions with Shiffrin remains classified. When our report is finalized we will press the DoD to declassify this matter.
[Valtin:] Thank you for your response, Sen. Levin. I suspected this was the case. Can you comment on the significance of a timeline that begins in December 2001 instead of July 2002, as that would help educate the public as to why such documents should be declassified. DoD could certainly do their usual redactions for security purposes. Or is it not just DoD we are talking about here?

Also, Sen. Levin, why wait until your report is “finalized” to press for declassification? That could be many months from now. Why not ask for declassification… now?
[Levin:] We have many pending requests for declassification, and we’re not waiting for our report to be finalized to ask for declassification of numerous documents. The Yoo memo is an example of where we put maximum pressure on for declassification. There is only one minute left in the roll call, so I have to run. Thanks for joining me today.
I hope the reader notices the care with which Sen. Levin made his remarks. He said nothing about the significance of the Baumgartner revelations. He also answered my complaint about the lassitude in pursuing declassification of the relevant documents with a huffy protestation of how the committee is pursuing the declassification of "numerous documents" -- though not necessarily the ones in their possession showing Pentagon OCG approaches to SERE re "the exploitation process" and the "lessons" of captivity and torture interrogation in December 2001.

The Importance of the Timeline

Why bury the information on the December 2001 portion of the timeline, moving the supposedly relevant first approach to SERE to July 2002? The answer is quite simple: the Administration had not gotten all its legal ducks in a row by December 2001, a time when the first detainees, such as so-called "American Taliban", John Walker Lindh, were being captured and tortured by U.S. interrogators in Afghanistan.
Lindh was found barely alive, shot in the leg, and suffering from dehydration, hypothermia and frostbite. Although Lindh was seriously wounded, starving, freezing, and exhausted, U.S. soldiers blindfolded and handcuffed him naked, scrawled “shithead” across the blindfold, duct-taped him to a stretcher for days in an unheated and unlit shipping container, threatened him with death, and posed with him for pictures. Parts of his ordeal were captured on videotape.
From the very beginning of the U.S. "war on terror", post-9/11, Bush Administration lawyers, led by David Addington (as argued so persuasively in Jane Mayer's new book, The Dark Side), looked for ways to deny U.S. and internationally recognized rights to prisoners caught up in the anti-terrorist dragnet and ongoing military operations.

Ultimately, President George W. Bush denied that even minimal Geneva Conventions protections applied to the "illegal enemy combatants" captured by the U.S. Subsequently, in an infamous set of memos written by Addington, Jay Bybee, Alberto Gonzales, John Yoo, and others, long-standing protections against torture and cruel, unusual, and inhumane treatment were taken away from the burgeoning population of prisoners, imprisoned now in ad hoc bases in Afghanistan, held on prison ships, and some subsequently either sent via "extraordinary rendition" to be tortured by foreign "allies", held incommunicado in secret CIA prisons, or shipped to the new U.S. prison constructed at the Guantanamo Naval Base in Cuba.

On February 7, 2002, Bush signed an executive order outlining treatment of al-Qaida and Taliban detainees:
Pursuant to my authority as commander in chief and chief executive of the United States, and relying on the opinion of the Department of Justice dated January 22, 2002, and on the legal opinion rendered by the attorney general in his letter of February 1, 2002, I hereby determine as follows:

a. I accept the legal conclusion of the Department of Justice and determine that none of the provisions of Geneva apply to our conflict with al-Qaida in Afghanistan or elsewhere throughout the world because, among other reasons, al-Qaida is not a High Contracting Party to Geneva.

b. I accept the legal conclusion of the attorney general and the Department of Justice that I have the authority under the Constitution to suspend Geneva as between the United States and Afghanistan, but I decline to exercise that authority at this time. Accordingly, I determine that the provisions of Geneva will apply to our present conflict with the Taliban. I reserve the right to exercise the authority in this or future conflicts.

c. I also accept the legal conclusion of the Department of Justice and determine that common Article 3 of Geneva does not apply to either al-Qaida or Taliban detainees, because, among other reasons, the relevant conflicts are international in scope and common Article 3 applies only to "armed conflict not of an international character."

d. Based on the facts supplied by the Department of Defense and the recommendation of the Department of Justice, I determine that the Taliban detainees are unlawful combatants and, therefore, do not qualify as prisoners of war under Article 4 of Geneva. I note that, because Geneva does not apply to our conflict with al-Qaida, al-Qaida detainees also do not qualify as prisoners of war.
A list of the Bush Administration documents on interrogation can be found at this Washington Post web page, including the January 22, 2002 memo written by Assistant Attorney General Jay S. Bybee and addressed to White House counsel Alberto R. Gonzales and the Pentagon's general counsel, William J. Haynes II. Bybee argued that that the War Crimes Act and the Geneva Convention did not apply to al Qaeda prisoners; the August 1, 2002 memo to White House counsel Alberto R. Gonzales from Jay S. Bybee of the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel concluded that techniques used to interrogate al Qaeda operatives would not violate a 1984 international treaty prohibiting torture", and others documents not mentioned here. (Of course, the WP list doesn't include new memos recently declassified, at least in part, as part of the ACLU Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the government.)

The crucial point about all these memos and executive orders is that they come after the December 2001 approach by officials of the Department of Defense looking -- against all national and international laws, treaties and covenants then in effect -- how to torture prisoners held by the United States. Keeping the "timeline" safely within the July 2002 parameter provides a veneer of legal cover, as flimsy as it might be (since torture is always illegal, and it's not clear that even the Bybee, Yoo, and other memos will protect administration officials against prosecution for war crimes, at least by international tribunal).

While I am no attorney, I strongly believe the December 2001 origin of the timeline exposes officials in the U.S. government to prosecution for war crimes by both domestic and international bodies. Congressional officials, and first among them the members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, have not seen fit to seriously address their watchdog role, satisfying themselves with toothless votes of censure, limited hang-out investigations, and a refusal to pursue impeachment against Bush and Cheney.

A Call to Activists, Attorneys, and Journalists

The December 2001 Baumgartner documents are not going to be declassified, at least not in any timely way, unless public pressure is put upon the government to do so. One little blogger is not going to be enough to push back against bureaucratic inaction and/or obstructionism. Why important reporters and/or press or bloggers have not picked up on this is beyond me, but I will withhold judgment on that score for the time being, if only the delay in coverage is remedied soon.

The smoking gun is out there. And even if these documents do not turn out to be the smoking gun I think they are, the need to know our history for the last seven years, to come to terms with how the U.S. became a torturing nation, demands that we know the truth.

Senator Levin, release the documents from December 2001 that discuss any or all approaches by government officials to Lt. Col. Baumgartner, or other SERE or JPRA individuals or bodies regarding the "exploitation" or interrogation of prisoners in U.S. custody.
Senator Carl Levin can be reached at 269 Russell Office Building, U.S. Senate, Washington, DC 20510-2202. His email link is here. His telephone number is (202) 224-6221; Fax (202) 224-1388; TTY (202) 224-2816.
Also posted at Invictus

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