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A Challenge for Joe Conason and for Us

February 16th, 2009 by selise

One of the most common rationales used to dismiss calls for accountability for torture and other human rights abuses is to mislabel it as simply a desire for partisan advantage or revenge. As Jane Hamsher reported earlier today, Joe Conason has added his voice to those who say the only way to avoid the "partisan taint" is for President Obama to issue pardons and leave "criminal prosecution to international authorities." Crimes, including anal rape, are called "political offenses" and even Senator Leahy’s proposal for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission is evaluated solely in terms of it’s political and partisan ramifications.

But demanding accountability for torture isn’t about partisan advantage or revenge, it’s about what kind of Country we want to be. And we can prove it by including the Clinton administration in our calls for accountability. After all, there is enough information already in the public record to demonstrate the need for a thorough investigation. As Jane Mayer has reported, the genesis of the “extraordinary rendition” program was in the Clinton administration:

In 1995, Scheuer said, American agents proposed the rendition program to Egypt, making clear that it had the resources to track, capture, and transport terrorist suspects globally—including access to a small fleet of aircraft. Egypt embraced the idea. “What was clever was that some of the senior people in Al Qaeda were Egyptian,” Scheuer said. “It served American purposes to get these people arrested, and Egyptian purposes to get these people back, where they could be interrogated.” Technically, U.S. law requires the C.I.A. to seek “assurances” from foreign governments that rendered suspects won’t be tortured. Scheuer told me that this was done, but he was “not sure” if any documents confirming the arrangement were signed.

A series of spectacular covert operations followed from this secret pact. On September 13, 1995, U.S. agents helped kidnap Talaat Fouad Qassem, one of Egypt’s most wanted terrorists, in Croatia. Qassem had fled to Europe after being linked by Egypt to the assassination of Sadat; he had been sentenced to death in absentia. Croatian police seized Qassem in Zagreb and handed him over to U.S. agents, who interrogated him aboard a ship cruising the Adriatic Sea and then took him back to Egypt. Once there, Qassem disappeared. There is no record that he was put on trial. Hossam el-Hamalawy, an Egyptian journalist who covers human-rights issues, said, “We believe he was executed.”

A more elaborate operation was staged in Tirana, Albania, in the summer of 1998. According to the Wall Street Journal, the C.I.A. provided the Albanian intelligence service with equipment to wiretap the phones of suspected Muslim militants. Tapes of the conversations were translated into English, and U.S. agents discovered that they contained lengthy discussions with Zawahiri, bin Laden’s deputy. The U.S. pressured Egypt for assistance; in June, Egypt issued an arrest warrant for Shawki Salama Attiya, one of the militants. Over the next few months, according to the Journal, Albanian security forces, working with U.S. agents, killed one suspect and captured Attiya and four others. These men were bound, blindfolded, and taken to an abandoned airbase, then flown by jet to Cairo for interrogation. Attiya later alleged that he suffered electrical shocks to his genitals, was hung from his limbs, and was kept in a cell in filthy water up to his knees. Two other suspects, who had been sentenced to death in absentia, were hanged.

On August 5, 1998, an Arab-language newspaper in London published a letter from the International Islamic Front for Jihad, in which it threatened retaliation against the U.S. for the Albanian operation—in a “language they will understand.” Two days later, the U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were blown up, killing two hundred and twenty-four people.

The U.S. began rendering terror suspects to other countries, but the most common destination remained Egypt.

If kidnapping, torture and execution without trial wasn’t enough, according to Lawrence Wright (via A Tiny Revolution and h/t Mary) Egypt at this time was also using child rape as a method of torture and control:

Ayman al-Zawahiri is Osama bin Laden’s number two in al Qaeda. In 1995 (when he was still running his own organization, called al-Jihad) he attempted to assassinate Hosni Mubarak when Mubarak visited Ethiopia. Here’s how Lawrence Wright, in The Looming Tower, describes the Egyptian government’s response when the plot failed:

To deal with Zawahiri, Egyptian intelligence agents devised a fiendish plan. They lured a thirteen year-old boy named Ahmed into an apartment with the promise of juice and videos. Ahmed was the son of Mohammed Sharraf, a well-known Egyptian fundamentalist and a senior member of al-Jihad. The boy was drugged and sodomized; when he awakened, he was confronted with photographs of the homosexual activity and threatened with the prospect of having them shown to his father. For the child, the consequences of such a disclosure were overwhelming. "It could even be that the father would kill him," a source close to Zawahiri admitted.

Next the Egyptian agents got the first boy to lure in a second, whom they also drugged and raped. Then they got the two to spy on Zawahiri in an attempt to kill him. Then Zawahiri caught the two boys spying. And then he had them both shot.

Did the USA engage in torture by proxy during the Clinton years? A criminal investigation into published reports could answer that question. And if such an investigation were to show that torture was used, then we ought to hold Democrats as well as Republicans accountable for their crimes. Only if we, the citizens who have donated, volunteered and voted for Democrats, refuse to apply the same standards of accountability to both the Clinton and Bush administrations can Conason fairly make the claim that it’s about partisanship and not accountability.

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