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‘Civilized’ Nation Can’t Justify Torture

Meantime, back at Guantanamo …

Chances are you haven’t thought of that American gulag — or, for that matter, of “extraordinary renditions,” CIA black sites and torture — for a long time.

Not everyone has the luxury of forgetting. In the past few days, some compelling reportage has reminded us of that.

In the Miami Herald, we met 48-year-old Mustafa al Hawsawi, a Gitmo detainee who was scheduled for rectal surgery to repair damage done when, his lawyer says, he was sodomized by his captors 10 years ago. As reporter Carol Rosenberg explains, this “sodomy” was, in fact, a “quasi medical” process of “rectal rehydration” and “rectal re-feeding,” i.e., providing nourishment through a tube in the rectum.

The lawyer says this was a means of punishment. It left Hawsawi with what’s called a rectal prolapse. He has to manually push tissue back up into his anus every time he defecates. He has bled from the injury for 10 years.

Hawsawi, you should know, faces the death penalty for his alleged part in the Sept. 11 attacks that took nearly 3,000 lives. And maybe you will find that sufficient to insulate you from feeling, well, anything at his plight.

One wonders what you would make, then, of two New York Times reports documenting how torture, both at Gitmo and at CIA black sites around the world, destroyed the mental health of numerous detainees, many of whom turned out to be innocent of terrorism. Reporters James Risen, Matt Apuzzo and Sheri Fink introduce us to men who were slammed into walls and had foreign objects shoved into their rectums, who were beaten, kept awake, housed in never-ending darkness or light, forced into stress positions, subjected to nonstop music at ear-splitting levels, injected with drugs, menaced by dogs, locked in boxes the size of coffins and laid out shackled and nude on tarps as gallons of ice cold water were poured down on them to simulate drowning. One prisoner described being used as a human mop, dragged through his own urine.

Now, former prisoner Suleiman Abdullah Salim struggles with depression and PTSD. He was released five years after he fell into U.S. custody when it was determined he posed no threat.

Majid Mokhtar Sasy al-Maghrebi will fly into a rage at the sound of music from a passing car. It takes him back to the prison where music was used to torture him.

Hussein al-Marfadi has a permanent headache. Lutfi bin Ali has a recurrent nightmare of suffocating at the bottom of a well. Younous Chekkouri hates to go outside because people in the crowd turn into guards from Gitmo.

For at least one prisoner, what made all this worse is that it was America doing it to him. America, the world champion of human rights. America, the nation of laws.

“It is very, very scary when you are tortured by someone who doesn’t believe in torture,” said Ahmed Errachidi. “You lose faith in everything.” He was released without charges after five years.

Civilization is a word we use for the rules we impose upon ourselves to protect against our most brutish instincts. And America is fond of thinking itself the most civilized of nations, especially as compared with those countries that breathe terror like air.

When the history of this epoch is written, it will tell how our civilization, our righteousness, came under assault by an army of ragtag barbarians one sparkling September morning. It will tell how we swore to defend all that made us what we were.

But these reports remind us how readily we gave it all away.

Leonard Pitts is a columnist for The Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla., 33132. Readers may contact him via e-mail

Photo The front gate of Camp Delta is shown at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Station in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba in this September 4, 2007 file photo. REUTERS/Joe Skipper/Files

State Of The Union: Five Things That Might Happen, Five That Won’t

By Shawn Zeller, CQ-Roll Call (TNS)

WASHINGTON — Not much is expected in the final year of a presidential administration, especially one marked by partisan gridlock.

But President Barack Obama in his annual State of the Union address Tuesday night said that he and the Republican Congress “just might surprise the cynics again” in 2016 just as they did in 2015 — one of the most productive years of Obama’s tenure.

In briefings with reporters earlier in the day, Senate leaders of both parties said they would aim for the same. Still, as Obama went through his list of policy proposals during his 59-minute speech, there were far more obvious non-starters than easy wins. In fact, of the proposals around which there is bipartisan agreement, plenty of uncertainty remains.

Here are the five most likely to get done — if everything went Obama’s way — followed by five that likely never will, so long as Obama is president and Republicans control the House and Senate:


New climate change regulations: Obama pledged to continue working toward “solving urgent challenges like climate change.” He’s not going to get any help from Congress. Indeed, many Republican lawmakers deny the phenomenon is even happening. But the outlook for solving climate change depends most on Obama’s executive actions, especially his regulations targeting carbon emissions from power plants. States, trade groups and some utilities are trying to block them in court, but if they pass muster there, Obama will leave office with a substantial environmental legacy. Republican lawmakers have tried to scuttle Obama’s regulatory agenda, but the president and Democrats in Congress blocked riders in the year-end omnibus spending bill. Obama vetoed resolutions passed under the Congressional Review Act that would have nullified carbon emission restrictions on new and existing power plants.

Curing cancer: Obama challenged lawmakers to “make America the country that cures cancer once and for all.” That’s a high bar, but he’ll at least have Congress’ support. In a strong bipartisan vote, the House passed the so-called 21st Century Cures bill last summer to spur the development of new drugs and revitalize research at the National Institutes of Health, with the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee expected to release its version this year. Then, last month, Congress provided the NIH with a $2 billion boost in funding in the fiscal 2016 omnibus.

Fighting heroin abuse: Obama mentioned “helping people who are battling prescription drug abuse and heroin abuse” as one of the bipartisan issues on which he expects progress in 2016. And, indeed, lawmakers of both parties are concerned about rising heroin abuse rates. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., sponsored a measure — which was signed into law last year after it was advanced unanimously by both chambers — to help treat infants who are exposed to opioids in the womb. Republican Rob Portman of Ohio and Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island have teamed up on a wide-ranging package that would expand educational and prevention efforts and increase access to drugs that can reverse the effects of overdose. And the omnibus provided $25 million to expand services that address prescription drug abuse and heroin use in high-risk communities.

Overhaul of criminal sentencing: Obama called “criminal justice reform” a bipartisan priority and he’s right. Lawmakers of both parties have coalesced around legislation that would provide more leniency for non-violent drug offenders serving long sentences. A key lawmaker on the issue, House Judiciary Chairman Robert W. Goodlatte, R-Va., expressed optimism Tuesday before Obama’s address, for instance: “I believe that this has support in our leadership,” he said. Sen. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, has used his considerable power as Senate Judiciary chairman to shape a compromise bill that has the support of many of the most powerful senators.

Raising fees to use federal land: Businesses that extract oil and coal on federal land should watch out. Fees are going up. Obama said he wants the rates to “better reflect the costs they impose on taxpayers and our planet.” Republicans in Congress will object, but they probably can’t stop him. The Interior Department last year took comment in advance of a formal rulemaking to raise prices for oil and natural gas and held forums on how it should “modernize” its coal program to ensure taxpayers are getting a fair return.


Authorize force against the Islamic State: McConnell began his pre-State of the Union briefing saying he wanted to know what Obama planned to do about the Islamic State, the terrorist group that’s overrun parts of Iraq and inspired attacks inside the United States and in Europe. But the prospects of Congress approving the use of force against the group, as Obama requested in his State of the Union, are nil. A wide chasm separates the parties, with Republicans favoring an open-ended authorization and Democrats calling for one that limits the deployment of U.S. ground forces. Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., says he’d rather not do an authorization that passes on party lines and, for his part, McConnell — who controls the Senate floor — last month said he did not want an authorization of force until the next president takes office.

Lifting the Cuba embargo: Congressional Republicans said Obama overstepped when he restored diplomatic ties with Cuba, so they aren’t going to take up his call, in the State of the Union, to lift the trade embargo that Congress codified in 1996. It’s true that the business wing of the party favors economic engagement with the Cuban regime but it is up against a deep well of animosity in the party toward dictator Fidel Castro and his brother Raul, who’s now running the country, as well as Cuban-American lawmakers for whom the preservation of the embargo is of vital importance.

Overhauling campaign finance rules: Obama tried to appeal to lawmakers’ self-interest, arguing that none enjoys raising campaign money. But Congress is unlikely to advance campaign finance legislation to make it more difficult for the wealthy and corporations to spend money on politics. That’s because Republicans like the system the way it is and have, in fact, pushed for more deregulation. They view the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision allowing the wealthy to set up loosely regulated political action committees as a boon to them, while most Democrats say they want to get rid of the super PACs.

Closing Guantanamo: Obama, in his 2008 campaign, said he wanted to close the terrorist prison camp at the U.S. military base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. It’s proven an impossible promise to keep. That will remain so in 2016. A provision in the fiscal 2016 omnibus prohibits funds from being used to close the Guantanamo prison or to construct or renovate a facility in the U.S. to take detainees currently held at Guantanamo. That follows myriad congressional restrictions on detainee transfers since 2010.

Education funding: Obama restated some goals from past State of the Unions when he proposed universal pre-K and free community college for all. The result will be the same: No dice. Republicans gave Democrats a compromise on pre-K funding in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act reauthorization late last year, including a $250 million authorization for federal pre-K programs. However, Republicans are hesitant to add another year to the K-12 enterprise, which they say isn’t serving the children it has well enough. Republicans favor targeted funding approaches, such as competitive grants, that give state and local education authorities flexibility over how to use the money. Republicans say the same goes for community college: Let the states decide how to spend their federal education funds.

(Ed Felker, Melanie Zanona, Todd Ruger, Kate Ackley, Sarah Chacko, Ryan Lucas and Rachel Oswald contributed to this report.)

©2016 CQ-Roll Call, Inc., All Rights Reserved. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: U.S. President Barack Obama waves at the conclusion of his final State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress in Washington January 12, 2016. REUTERS/Evan Vucci/Pool 


6 Of First 20 ‘Worst Of The Worst’ Still At Guantanamo

By Carol Rosenberg, Miami Herald (TNS)

MIAMI — Fourteen years ago, a Navy photographer hoisted a camera over razor wire and made an iconic image of America’s experiment in law-of-war detention: 20 men in orange jumpsuits in shackles on their knees in their first hours at Guantanamo.

Today, just six of those first 20 captives who opened the U.S. prison camps in Cuba are still there. And in a sense they symbolize President Barack Obama’s challenge in downsizing if not closing the offshore prison.

Four of them are Arab men who, on paper, are cleared to go but not to their home countries. Another has never gotten a hearing at the parole board Obama created in 2011 that bogged down in bureaucracy.

And the sixth is Ali Hamza al-Bahlul, 46, Guantanamo’s lone convicted war criminal. A 2008 military tribunal sentenced him to life in prison for serving as Osama bin Laden’s media secretary and creating a crude al-Qaida recruiting video.

Little is known about how al-Bahlul, a 46-year-old Yemeni, has spent his years alone on Guantanamo’s cellblock for convicts. But his case is emerging as a crucial test of the on-again, off-again military commissions. A federal appeals court is deciding whether to uphold his conspiracy conviction as a violation of the law of war, a decision expected this year that could shape up as the next U.S. Supreme Court challenge over Guantanamo.

The prison entered its 15th year on Jan. 11 amid a period of downsizing that should reduce the number of detainees to 90 by February. More than a third of those remaining are approved for transfer — like Day One detainees Mahmud Mujahid, 35; Abdel Malik Wahab al-Rahabi, 36; Samir al Hassan Moqbel, 38; and Ridah Bin Saleh al-Yazidi, 50. The first three are from Yemen; the last is Tunisian.

But as long as al-Bahlul’s life sentence stands and Congress continues to insist that no Guantanamo captive set foot on U.S. soil, Guantanamo is the Pentagon’s version of Spandau Prison. Spandau didn’t close in West Berlin until four decades after World War II ended when its last Nazi prisoner died.

Meantime, Marine Gen. John F. Kelly, who has run the prison from Miami’s Southern Command for three years, says the 2,000 soldiers and civilians who staff the prison shoulder the responsibility “superbly.” Thousands of troops have come and gone across the years since the first flight set down at the remote U.S. Navy base with these last six men aboard it.

Al-Yazidi, the Tunisian, may be the most mysterious to this day. His leaked 2007 Guantanamo profile cast him as a veteran of the battle for Tora Bora in Afghanistan who twice fled his native Tunisia for Italy, first in the ’80s to work in a Sicilian vineyard. Later, according to U.S. military intelligence, he migrated to Afghanistan where he reportedly forged “numerous connections to senior al-Qaida officials, including Osama bin Laden.”

But by late 2009, a federal task force approved his release “to a country that will implement appropriate security measures.” So, in theory, al-Yazidi could go home — unless he or the State Department fears sending him there.

“I just don’t know,” said his attorney of record, Brent Rushforth, who met al-Yazidi only once in 2008. Since then, the Tunisian has refused calls and invitations to other meetings. “He’s certainly mysterious as far as I’m concerned; I just haven’t been able to communicate with him.”

Also curious is how another captive who got there on Day One — Yemeni Mohammed Abu Ghanim, 40, never charged with a crime — has also never been before the parole board. Like other detainees who have been released, Ghanim was brought to Guantanamo as a suspected bin Laden bodyguard. Under Obama’s March 2011 executive order, all captives were supposed to have their cases reviewed within a year and have twice yearly file reviews thereafter. But only 16 of the captives currently at Guantanamo have gotten hearings.

Getting an appointment at the parole board, said Navy Cmdr. Gary Ross by email, is “a function of many variables.” He said that includes “the quantity and type of information available about a detainee,” in this case a man who got there the day the detention center opened, as well as how much time a U.S. military officer tasked with helping the captive needs to prepare.

Two men on that first flight, Mujahid and al-Rahabi, were cleared to go in 2014 by the Obama parole board. But they’re Yemenis who can’t go home under a longstanding White House policy that considers Yemen too violent, too influenced by al-Qaida offshoots for Guantanamo repatriations.

“They’re conscious of the irony that they were the first in,” says their attorney, David Remes. In December, Rahabi lamented that although he was the first “forever prisoner” cleared by the parole board, no foreign country has interviewed him as a candidate for resettlement.

Al-Rahabi, like most of Remes’ Guantanamo clients, “is willing to go anywhere” to be reunited with his wife and daughter Ayesha, whom he last saw in person as a 3-month-old. He aspires, however, “to be transferred to an Arabic-speaking country because that’s where the family would have the easiest time integrating,” Remes said.

Also still there is Moqbel, who briefly captured attention with his April 2013 New York Times op-ed column about his hunger strike and forced feedings. He’s been cleared for release since late 2009 and wrote his lawyers in July that he aspires to own a business, maybe run a restaurant.

Meantime, the sailor who took the photo has moved on. Former Petty Officer Shane McCoy has left the Navy, where he worked with a Combat Camera Unit, for a civilian job with the U.S. Marshals Service. He’s the first and only photographer at the federal agency that moves federal prisoners around and into the United States.

Fourteen years ago, at Guantanamo, McCoy was uniquely situated to capture the arrival of the first 20 captives. Now, he said, if President Obama is ever able to move the last Guantanamo detainees to the United States, he wants to photograph them that day, too.

©2016 Miami Herald. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: In this photo released Jan. 18, 2002 by the Department of Deense, U.S. Army military police secort a detainee to his scell in Camp X-Ray during in-processing on Jan. 11, 2002, the day the dentention center opened. (Shane T. McCoy – U.S. Navy Petty Officer)


In 2016, Marco Rubio Is Both Sunny And Ominous

By Sahil Kapur and John McCormick, Bloomberg News (TNS)

WASHINGTON — Sen. Marco Rubio has adopted a darker tone in the first week of 2016, deploying increasingly apocalyptic rhetoric and fiercer attacks on Republican rivals that provide a stark contrast with the relatively non-confrontational brand of sunny optimism that had characterized his presidential campaign through 2015.

Running behind the edgier campaigns of Donald Trump and Ted Cruz nationally and in key early states, the first-term Florida senator needs to put big points on the board in Iowa and New Hampshire in order to stave off an early collapse, and as a result he’s waging ongoing battles against three Republican rivals.

On Tuesday, Rubio released a TV ad that features him speaking directly to the camera: “Barack Obama released terrorists from Guantanamo, and now they are plotting to attack us,” Rubio says, as ominous music plays in the background. “His plan after the attack in San Bernardino: take away our guns.” The same day, he told a crowd in Mason City, Iowa, “If we get this election wrong, there may be no turning around for America.”

On Wednesday, Rubio sent supporters an email under the all-caps subject line “Fight for gun rights,” and warned that “Obama has waged a war on the Constitution” with his new executive actions aimed at expanding background checks for gun purchases. And shortly after North Korea claimed it had successfully tested a hydrogen bomb, Rubio released a statement declaring, “Our enemies around the world are taking advantage of Obama’s weakness.”

While Rubio isn’t jettisoning the hopeful message of reviving the American dream that endeared him to many center-right Republicans, he’s now alternating it with a more ominous one. The effect is to make him sound like Ronald Reagan one minute, and like a character from the popular TV series “24” the next.

“If we capture a terrorist alive, we’re not reading them Miranda rights, they’re not going to be hired a lawyer and we’re going to give them a one-way ticket to Guantanamo, where we’re going to find out everything they know,” Rubio said Tuesday, speaking to a standing-room-only crowd of close to 200 gathered at a trucking company headquarters in Fort Dodge, Iowa. A few minutes later, he oscillated back to a more upbeat tone.

“We will not just save the American Dream. We will expand it to reach more people and change more lives than ever before,” he said. “And when our work is done, the 21st century will not just be as good as the 20th century, it is going to be better.”

Rubio’s more aggressive tone comes as his path to the nomination has grown complicated. He’s in third nationally in an average of recent polls, significantly lagging two rivals who have made anger the hallmark of their campaign rhetoric: Rubio is about 24 points behind Trump and 9 points behind Cruz. In Iowa, where the first votes of the presidential campaign will be cast in Feb. 1 caucuses, Rubio stands in third place, about 20 points behind Cruz. In New Hampshire he’s in second place, 13 points behind Trump, barely leading Cruz and Chris Christie. No Republican under modern primary rules dating back to the 1970s has won the nomination after losing the first two states.

The duality in Rubio’s message — sometimes sunny, sometimes dark — reflects his strategy to appeal to all factions of the Republican Party, including the establishment, tea party and evangelical wings. As a result Rubio’s support is broader, but less intense, than that of rivals, who are focusing their appeals more exclusively on one the party’s various constituencies. For Cruz that’s meant a focus on Iowa, with its disproportionately large evangelical vote, while Bush and Christie are zeroing in on New Hampshire, which has a more establishment-friendly Republican electorate.

“The differences between us and other candidates is that some candidates are focused on only one place and we, of course, are campaigning in multiple places,” Rubio told the Des Moines Register’s editorial board on Wednesday.

Rubio is also battling multiple rivals for the various constituencies he’s trying to win. He used a Monday speech on foreign policy to paint Cruz and Rand Paul — rivals for the tea party and evangelical vote — as “isolationist candidates who are apparently more passionate about weakening our military and intelligence capabilities than about destroying our enemies.” Rubio said the Islamic State terrorist group would have lobbied for the USA Freedom Act, a law to limit bulk government collection of Americans’ phone records. Cruz supported the legislation. Meanwhile Rubio’s campaign also continued to circulate articles Wednesday questioning Cruz’s consistency on conservative causes, continuing a battle that the young Cuban-American senators have been waging for two months.

©2016 Bloomberg News. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: Republican U.S. presidential candidate Senator Marco Rubio speaks during a town hall meeting at the Fisher Community Center in Marshalltown, Iowa, January 6, 2016. REUTERS/Scott Morgan