The Omar Khadr travesty

The military commission of a child soldier demonstrates that many of the worst Bush/Cheney abuses continue

Published August 11, 2010 12:12PM (EDT)

(updated below - Update II)

The only real reason I thought Robert Gibbs' comments yesterday merited a response is not because of the ephemeral melodrama it created -- the White House said Fox-copying, mean things about the Left -- but because of the "substantive" claim he made that comparisons of Bush and Obama were so blatantly insane that they merited "drug testing."  That Obama has vigorously embraced and at times even exceeded some of Bush's most controversial and radical policies is simply indisputable.  I'd request that anyone doubting that just review the very partial list I compiled in Update II yesterday.  In that list, I neglected to mention numerous other compelling examples (recall Tim Dickinson's recent revelation that Interior employees call their Department under Ken Salazar's corporate-serving rule "the third Bush term").  Among my most prominent omissions was the Obama administration's Bush-copying use of military commissions rather than real courts to try "War on Terror" detainees. 

Military commissions were one of those Bush/Cheney policies which provoked virtually universal outrage among progressives and Democrats back in the day when executive power abuses and rule of law transgressions were a concern.  The Obama administration's claim that the commissions are now improved to the point that they provide a forum of real justice is being put to the test -- and blatantly failing -- with the first such commission to be held under Obama:  that of Omar Khadr, accused of throwing a grenade in 2002 which killed an American solider in Afghanistan, when Khadr was 15 years old.  This is the first trial of a child soldier held since World War II, explained a U.N. official who condemned these proceedings.   The commission has already ruled that confessions made by Khadr which were clearly obtained through coercion, abuse and torture will be admitted as evidence against him.  Prior to the commencement of Khadr's "trial," the commission ruled in another case that the sentence imposed on a Sudanese detainee Ibrahim al-Qosi -- convicted as part of a plea bargain of the dastardly crime of being Osama bin Laden's "cook" -- will be kept secret until he is released.  What kind of country has secret sentences? 

Jennifer Turner is with the ACLU's Human Rights Project and is observing these proceedings at Guantanamo.  Read what she wrote and decide for yourself if "drug testing" is needed more for those who draw comparisons between Bush and Obama, or for those who angrily insist such comparisons are outrageous:

Yesterday was a stark reminder that instead of closing the book on the Bush-era military commissions, President Obama is adding another sad chapter to that history. Although President Obama promised transparency and sharp limits on the use of tortured and coerced statements against the accused, at Guantánamo today one military judge ordered that a sentence be kept secret from the public and another military judge allowed statements obtained by abuse and coercion of a 15-year-old to be used at trial.

Monday was Day One of the sentencing hearing in the case of Sudanese detainee Ibrahim al-Qosi. Al-Qosi was the first detainee to be convicted under President Obama, in a plea deal entered this June in which he admitted to being an al Qaeda cook and occasional driver. . . . But in an unprecedented move, military judge Air Force Lt. Col. Nancy Paul ordered today that al-Qosi's true sentence will be kept secret until he's released. The judge said the government requested that the sentence be kept secret.

A fellow observer of the military commissions here, former Marine judge and law of war expert Gary Solis, here to monitor the commissions for the National Institute for Military Justice, says he has presided over 700 courts-martial and has never heard of a secret sentence. . . .

A final pretrial hearing also took place Monday in the case of Canadian Omar Khadr, who will start trial today as the first test trial of the military commissions under President Obama. In a summary decision of only a few words, and with no explanation, the military judge in Omar Khadr's case, Col. Patrick Parrish, denied defense motions to exclude self-incriminating statements Khadr made to interrogators because of torture and other abuse. The judge will issue a written decision, certainly after the trial begins and possibly after it's ended, but for now he's offered no explanation.

It boggles the mind that the military judge could find that Khadr was not coerced and gave these statements to interrogators voluntarily. Khadr, then 15 years old, was taken to Bagram near death, after being shot twice in the back, blinded by shrapnel, and buried in rubble from a bomb blast. He was interrogated within hours, while sedated and handcuffed to a stretcher. He was threatened with gang rape and death if he didn't cooperate with interrogators. He was hooded and chained with his arms suspended in a cage-like cell, and his primary interrogator was later court-martialed for detainee abuse leading to the death of a detainee. During his subsequent eight-year (so far) detention at Guantánamo, Khadr was subjected to the "frequent flyer" sleep deprivation program and he says he was used as a human mop after he was forced to urinate on himself.

In closing arguments before the judge's ruling, Khadr's sole defense lawyer, Lt. Col. Jon Jackson, told the judge, "Sir, be a voice today. Tell the world that we actually stand for what we say we stand for."

Though President Obama promised that coerced evidence would not be used against detainees in the military commissions, today's ruling suggests that as a country, we stand for abusing a 15-year-old teenager into confessing, and using those confessions against him in an illegitimate proceeding.

I hope that makes all of us very proud.  And then there is the issue of the restrictions imposed on reporters covering these travesties.  The Miami Herald's Carol Rosenberg -- probably the single most knowledgeable and relentless journalist covering Guantanamo -- was banned in May, along with three Canadian journalists, from attending any further proceedings, a ban that was then reversed as arbitrarily as it was imposed.  Last month, she gave a speech to the National Press Club about how arbitrary and oppressive these restrictions are, and adapted that speech into this superb article published by McClatchy.  Last night, Rachel Maddow discussed those press restrictions with Newsweek's Mike Isikoff, who is covering the Khadr trial from Guantanamo; it's worth watching this 5-minute segment:

As I've written before about the Khadr case (as well as the very similar case of child soldier Mohamed Jawad), what is most striking to me about this case is this:  how can it possibly be that the U.S. invades a foreign country, and then when people in that country -- such as Khadr -- fight back against the invading army, by attacking purely military targets via a purely military act (throwing a grenade at a solider, who was part of a unit ironically using an abandoned Soviet runway as its outpost), they become "war criminals," or even Terrorists, who must be shipped halfway around the world, systematically abused, repeatedly declared to be one of "the worst of the worst," and then held in a cage for almost a full decade (one third of his life and counting)?  It's hard to imagine anything which more compellingly underscores the completely elastic and manipulated "meaning" of "Terrorist" than this case:  in essence, the U.S. is free to do whatever it wants, and anyone who fights back, even against our invading armies and soldiers (rather than civilians), is a war criminal and a Terrorist.

* * * * *

Regarding the Obama administration's efforts to have the scope of National Security Letters expanded to include your email and Internet "transactional" records, Harper's Scott Horton examines how abusive a power that is by looking at one case that recently became public (see an excellent Democracy Now interview from this morning with the true hero of that story, Nick Merrill).  Relatedly, I have an essay in Cato Unbound on the ongoing explosion of the unaccountable Surveillance State.  Really, though, it'd be best if you look over there at John Boehner, become sufficiently scared, express gratitude that Obama isn't Sarah Palin, and then keep your mouth shut about all of these matters and just dutifully get to work to elect Democrats.   That's what any good citizen would do.


UPDATE: Yesterday, the always-smart Rep. Keith Ellison called on Gibbs to resign, and earlier today, Alan Grayson had some extremely harsh words for Gibbs, saying, among other things:  "I don't want him to resign; he should be fired;" he "belongs on Fox, not as the White House spokesman"; and "I'd like to see him show some anger over 15 million unemployed."

I was on MSNBC earlier today, with Dylan Ratigan and Jane Hamsher, and tried to highlight what I think are the substantive issues (as opposed to the petty "hurt-feelings" reactions) which this episode raises.  The video of that segment is below, and below that is Grayson's appearance on MSNBC, where he echoes some of those points:



UPDATE II:  Maher Arar -- the Canadian citizen who was abducted by the Bush administration, sent to Syria for 9 months to be tortured, and then denied any justice in American courts even once it was clear that he was completely innocent -- has a superb piece at Huffington Post, entitled:  "Why Is Canadian Child Soldier Omar Khadr Being Tried by a Military Court?"  The whole thing should be read, but this is how it ends:

The final question is: Why is Omar Khadr being tried by a military court if the government is certain he was the one who threw the grenade? Don't they have trust in civilian courts? I think we all know the answer: these military courts are made to convict. After all, the government, as is usually the case, is throwing multiple charges at him in the hope that one of them sticks.

This farce trial is already showing us its ugly face: his military judge has just ruled that Khadr's confession can be used in trial.

If anyone can recognize the horror and tyranny of America's "War on Terror" abuses, it's Arar.  And he clearly recognizes it here.

By Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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