Trials for Alleged 9/11 Plotters Resume at Guantanamo Bay

Lost in the shuffle during a week where the NSA scandal has dominated headlines is more news coming out of Guantanamo Bay.  On Monday, the government released the identity of Guantanamo’s “indefinite detainees,” or those who the government has deemed too dangerous for release regardless of whether they can be tried in a military court.  The government has already announced that a number of these detainees will be held indefinitely even though they cannot be tried due to lack of evidence. The names have been kept secret since 2009 when multiple agencies investigated files on detainees in order to support President Obama’s initial effort to close the Guantanamo Bay Detention Center.  Normally these detainees could not be constitutionally held without the possibility of trial, but in 2001 Congress authorized the practice with the “Authorization of Military Force” bill.

Human rights groups including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty international have condemned the idea of “indefinite detainees,” calling for the release of all prisoners that the government has no intention of trying in a court of law.  Some men on the “indefinite detainees” list are actively involved in the well-documented hunger strikes.  At least two, both Afghani men, are deceased, with one committing suicide and the other dying of natural causes in Camp 6.  While the practice of holding detainees without the possibility of trial may be controversial, the release of their identities is a small step towards the transparency and legitimacy that human rights groups have been calling for in recent years.

In other Guantanamo-related news, pre-trial hearings for five men accused of plotting the September 11th attacks resumed on Monday, four months after CIA listening devices were discovered in conference rooms used by the detainees’ attorneys.  Included in this group is Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the attacks.  The hearings included statements from defense attorneys claiming that CIA personnel tortured the detainees while they were being held in overseas prisons prior to their transfer to Guantanamo Bay.  They have also filed motions to dismiss the case due to meddling by senior military officials.

Also present in the courtroom were two victims and family members of three other victims that perished in the attacks.  The observers met with prosecutors and defense attorneys earlier in the week and pleaded for a quick and efficient trial.  At least one victim, a firefighter who was injured by falling rubble in the aftermath of the attacks, is expected to testify on behalf of the prosecution.  As one could imagine, the trials will probably not be very speedy.  Detainee trials at Guantanamo have been ridiculed for many reasons, one of the biggest being that they are inefficient and often take years to complete.  These particular observers have been waiting on an outcome for some twelve years.  Although the trials are resuming, we may have to wait a lot longer to see a resolution.

Chris Whitten, Research Fellow
Center for Policy and Research

Update: New Information on NSA Surveillance Scandal

Last week I wrote about the breaking story that the NSA has been monitoring phone records after obtaining a court order that allowed them to collect data from Verizon Wireless.  As I noted, feelings on the issue are split.  An editorial from the New York Times claimed that the Obama administration had “lost all credibility on the issue,” and that the government was clearly abusing its power.  The Washington Post took a similar stance, but called for more information on the matter before the public jumped to conclusions.  Over the weekend, more information came to light that might help us paint a better picture of what exactly the NSA’s telephone surveillance program entailed.

Most of the new information about the NSA’s PRISM program came from the whistleblower himself, Edward Snowden, and ex-CIA employee.  Snowden is currently living in Hong Kong to avoid prosecution by the federal government for leaking the story.  He provided The Guardian, the British news agency that first broke the story, with a 12-minute video interview that you can watch here.  In the interview, Snowden claimed to have had the authority to spy on any American citizen, including the President.  He claimed to have leaked the information because of some of the same concerns I voiced last week.  In particular, he said that he did not want to live in a society that secretly monitors its citizens, especially those who have done nothing wrong.

So basically what we have learned is that between the CIA and NSA, the federal government had virtually unlimited power to monitor U.S. citizens, even those in the most powerful positions.  It would appear that the government needed no probable cause of any kind to place surveillance on these people.  I think it’s safe to say that most people’s initial reaction to any instance of government surveillance is outrage.  As I said before, we are a freedom- and privacy-loving people.  But it’s also important to look at all perspectives before jumping to conclusions.

First things first, the government is not in an enviable position.  Charged with protecting over 300 million citizens, agencies like the NSA and CIA have a monumental task in detecting and thwarting terrorist attacks against the United States.  Incidents like 9/11 and the Boston Marathon attacks showed just how susceptible we can be to terrorism without implementing a proactive approach.  Because of this, there seems to be a general consensus that the government must have some type of surveillance and intelligence gathering programs.  The trouble is in deciding just how extensive and intrusive these programs should be.  If the government backs off on its surveillance programs and an attack occurs, the public will be outraged and ask why more wasn’t done to protect them.  On the other hand, in situations like this where the government is perceived as having gone too far, the public is also outraged.  The happy medium, if it exists at all, would be extremely difficult to find.  So if the public is going to be outraged regardless of which stance the government takes, it makes sense to some extent that the government would take a proactive stance that might actually prevent attacks and prevent American deaths.

Second, we have to look at what the government was searching for in the records acquired from Verizon.  So far, it appears that the NSA was not listening to individual phone calls or audio recordings.  From what we know thus far the NSA was simply analyzing data for patterns that might uncover terrorist activity within the U.S., which most would consider a legitimate government concern.  Nothing so far points to the government using the collected data for censorship purposes, or anything unrelated to preventing terrorism for that matter.

Having said that, I am not trying to convince anybody that the government did the right thing.  Determining what the right thing even is in this situation is an extremely difficult task, and there probably isn’t a concrete answer.  There is certainly a chance that the government may abuse its power any time it monitors its citizens, but we still don’t have all the facts to make a determination on whether or not they were.  And, especially at a time when confidence in our government is so low, public outcry against the NSA is understandable and maybe warranted.  Even so, when we look at this situation we have to keep it in perspective.  One of the government’s many jobs, and more specifically the NSA’s job, it to protect the public from terrorist attacks, and so far it looks like that is what the PRISM program is intended to do.  More facts are sure to come to light in the following days and weeks, and we might want to reserve judgment until then.

Chris Whitten, Research Fellow
Center for Policy and Research

NSA Phone Surveillance Scandal Sparks Different Reactions

On Wednesday, The Guardian released a story detailing how the National Security Agency obtained a secret court order compelling telephone giant Verizon Wireless to hand over phone records detailing all domestic calls made by its customers.  Specifically, the order, signed by a federal judge on April 25th, gave the NSA unlimited authority to collect phone numbers, location data, time and duration of calls, and other unique identifying data until July 19th.  As the article points out, the court order was unusual in that it targeted such a wide range of people.  Normally, this type of court order would be limited to an individual or a small group of people.

Now, I would venture to say that when most Americans first heard about this story, they envisioned a government agent sitting in a van with headphones on, listening to their individual phone calls.  However, as a follow-up article by The Washington Post explains, this is probably not the case.  Information obtained regarding the court order made no actual mention of audio recordings.  Although it is not out of the question that the NSA may have other programs aimed at obtaining audio files, they would not be able to acquire them under this order.  It appears that the NSA is only seeking paper and electronic records at this point.

But why would the NSA want these phone records?  Although the reasoning behind the court order is largely unknown at this point, the White House responded quickly by claiming that this was an anti-terrorism move.  Particularly, the NSA is probably seeking out patterns in the records that could reveal possible terrorist plots against the United States.  Even if this is the case, the methods the NSA uses to find these patterns have not been proven and have actually been questioned by experts in recent years.

The story has already sparked a great deal of outrage among the American public.  We have a high expectation of privacy and tend to think that we are immune to this type of surveillance, especially when it has not been proven to be effective.  But since specific details are still being withheld, we can’t be sure whether the NSA’s program is actually constitutional.  Putting that aside, there are a few different ways to look at the situation.  Like I said before, we tend to place a high value on privacy in the U.S.  The idea that the government can monitor our phone calls without notice of permission is unsettling to most, and understandably so.  Even if the government is not actively listening to our phone calls, it’s hard to say what else they ARE monitoring.  Prior to the enactment of the Patriot Act, this kind of surveillance would have been unthinkable.

On the other hand, some Americans are ok with the idea of the government monitoring private phone calls.  The program even received some support in Congress.  Senator Lindsey Graham defended the NSA’s program on Fox News, stating that it was a necessary step toward thwarting “homegrown terrorism.”  There are undoubtedly some Americans who agree and are ok with trading some amount of privacy for increased national security.  In the post-9/11 era, this is also understandable.  After all, what does the average American have to worry about if they have nothing to hide?  It’s not like the government has released the actual records to the public.  This might be true, and that argument might hold water, but the fact is that we don’t know where it stops.  Just to reiterate, specifics regarding the program are still unknown, and the NSA may have place self-imposed limitations on their surveillance, but we just won’t know until more details are released.  That’s the part that makes so many Americans uneasy.

Until then, we again have to ask ourselves a question that been asked over and over for the past decade:  What amount of privacy and liberty are we willing to give up in the name of national security?

Chris Whitten, Research Fellow
Center for Policy and Research

CIA whistleblower/leaker John Kiriakou foils government plot to retaliate against him

John Kiriakou, the former CIA clandestine officer who was recently sent to Loretto Federal Corrections Institute on charges of leaking the identity of a fellow CIA officer, has written a letter to the public about his experiences in prison. Kiriakou maintains that his prosecution for the leak was in retaliation for his whistleblowing on the Enhanced Interrogation Techniques (or EITs) which most now consider to be torture.

While the letter is a very interesting view into life in a federal prison, the event that takes pride of place is an incident in which the prison’s internal security personnel attempted to trick Kiriakou into getting into a fight with another inmate. However, it would seem that tricking a former operative of the US Clandestine Service is not as easy as they thought.

According to Kiriakou, the Special Investigative Service (or SIS), which investigates crimes or other breaches at the prison, pulled Kiriakou into their office to tell him that another inmate was the uncle of the Times Square Bomber, and had received orders from Pakistan to kill Kiriakou. Instead of being intimidated, Kiriakou, who had by this time made friends with just about everyone in the prison, simply walked up to the guy and talked to him. As it turns out, the SIS had told the other inmate (who had nothing to do with the Times Square Bomber) that Washington had ordered Kiriakou to kill him. Kiriakou postulates that the purpose of this plot was to get them to fight and thus produce an excuse to send them both to solitary.

Needless to say, if this story is true, it is should be a scandal. Even if the SIS were operating entirely independently and hatched this half-baked plot on their own, the use of a federal office to not only incite violence, but also to endanger a former CIA officer would be an unforgivable breach of the public trust. So far, little has been reported on this, or anything else related to Kiriakou’s  time in prison.

Paul W. Taylor, Senior Fellow
Center for Policy & Research

What does Fried’s reassignment really mean?

On Monday, January 28, 2013, the Obama Administration sent the strongest message to date regarding call to close Guantanamo Bay. By reassigning Daniel Fried, the Special Convey in charge of closing GTMO, the Administration has signaled that it has no plans to shut the detention center at any point in the near future.

President Obama appointed Mr. Fried in 2009 to the post and charged him with the responsibility of trying to close the infamous detention center.  Since his appointment, Mr. Fried has negotiated with various third-party parties countries to accept on behalf of 40 “low-level” detainees who were cleared for release from GTMO. However, with the abrupt about-face by the Administration it appears that President Obama’s promise to close GTMO in his second term took several steps backwards. Mr. Fried has been reassigned to act as a sanctions coordinator for the State Department and no other State Department official has been assigned to be his replacement.

This news comes on the heals of a scandal at the pre-trial hearing of the alleged 911 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed where an “external body” censored portions of the audio feed from the court without the Judges knowledge or approval.

In what has already been an active week at the beguiled detention center, one thing became abundantly clear – GTMO is here to stay.

Sean Kennedy, Research Fellow

Center for Policy & Research