By Nat Hentoff
As first reported by the Miami Herald's Carol Rosenberg on April 17, during a pretrial hearing of a Guantanamo prisoner previously held at a series of CIA secret prisons, judge Army Col. James Pohl ordered the agency to provide the long-concealed "names of agents, interrogators and medical personnel who worked at the so-called black sites" ("Guantanamo judge to CIA: Disclose 'black site' details to USS Cole defense lawyers," Carol Rosenberg, Miami Herald, April 17).
Furthermore, the judge demanded that prosecutors give the defense lawyers such "closely guarded classified CIA information" as "'locations, personnel and communications,' interrogation notes and cables between the black sites and headquarters that sought and approved so-called enhanced interrogation techniques."
Rosenberg has covered Gitmo and American torture for years, unlike many members of the media. But other reporters here and abroad, including me, have documented some of this CIA torture from our research.
I urge the media to stay on this story of military Judge Pohl's order to the CIA as the Obama administration tries to bury it -- including the renditions by which the CIA brought suspects to be interrogated at places other than the supposedly discontinued black sites. Obama has retained these classified renditions.
What Pohl has ignited should become a historic issue in the 2016 presidential and congressional elections -- all the more because, as Rosenberg makes clear, the judge did not "order the government to turn over Office of Legal Counsel memos (from the George W. Bush administration) that both blessed and defined the so-called Torture Program that sent CIA captives to secret interrogations across the world after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks -- out of reach of International Committee of the Red Cross delegates."
It was also out of reach of the Constitution and international treaties we signed.
This Guantanamo ferment may be our chance to begin to cleanse what I have previously described as "our worldwide shame of having become a torture nation. As we condemn other nations' crimes against their citizens -- Syria, Libya, Zimbabwe, et al -- our government makes it easier for those countries to escape accountability by utterly denying our own complicity in the cruel, inhumane, degrading torture that has given terrorists around the world so valuable a means for recruiting more terrorists" (my column, "Obama Bans War Criminals, but Not Our Own," Aug. 17, 2011).
But before we go deeper into how to begin cleansing our history of torture, let's focus on military Judge Pohl's Guantanamo case, which has begun to seriously break through Barack Obama's rocklike determination to "look forward, not backward" on what preceded his presidency.
The trial of Abd al Rahim al-Nashiri, the suspect in the 2000 USS Cole bombing near the Yemeni coast, is set to begin at Guantanamo in December.
Common Dreams' Lauren McCauley writes, citing an Associated Press report, that al-Nashiri's defense team "argued during pretrial motions at the Cuban prison that the Guantanamo detainee's time spent in secret CIA prisons -- during which he was waterboarded and threatened with a gun and a power drill -- has 'tainted' his testimony, and thus the case against him" ("Judge Orders Disclosure of CIA Torture at 'Black Sites,'" Lauren McCauley, commondreams.org, April 22).
Ah, but the United States' rules for military commissions prevent using any classified evidence or testimony obtained by coercion or torture. This elementary due process was barred at Guantanamo -- until Pohl said otherwise.
Unimpressed and undeterred by Bush's and, now, Obama's rules, al-Nashiri's defense lawyers insist that revealing what happened to their client at CIA black sites for all those years "could be used to spare him from the death penalty" ("Govt Must Turn Over Info on CIA Prisons to Defense," Deb Riechmann, The Associated Press, April 22).
It's utterly clear that our legal system at Guantanamo has continued to avoid any real-life involvement with our rule of law and our cherished "values." However, Andrea Prasow of Human Rights Watch, which continues to illuminate this shame, tells The Guardian that the judge's order "represents a chink in the armor of secrecy that the U.S. government erected around its torture program" ("Guantanamo trial judge orders CIA to account for treatment of detainee," Spencer Ackerman, The Guardian, April 17).
Citing the Senate Intelligence Committee's report on the CIA's torture methods, which is still going to be first reviewed by the agency, Prasow says: "It is only a matter of time before the public will learn the horrific details of officially sanctioned torture, and the pattern of lies designed not only to allow torture to continue, but to immunize torturers from prosecution."
But how much time?
Through my discoveries and those of such ceaseless researchers as The New Yorker's Jane Mayer, I'll have more in future columns on how to get the public to act.
Mayer, whose work I have cited previously, was once told by a former CIA officer involved in these acts of barbarous torture: "When you cross over that line of darkness, it's hard to come back. You lose your soul. You can do your best to justify it, but ... you can't go to that dark a place without it changing you" ("The Black Sites: A Rare Look Inside the CIA's Secret interrogation Program," Jane Mayer, The New Yorker, Aug. 13, 2007).
To what extent has our acceptance of torture changed us, and how will it affect future generations of Americans? We ignore the continuing fact that not one of these American torturers -- in "dark sites" and elsewhere -- has ever been punished, including those Americans at the highest reaches of our government who have actively not only authorized but encouraged torture.
Once, I was in a debate at Princeton University with John Yoo, who, while working at the Justice Department during the Bush administration, wrote the "torture memos" that gave Bush and Dick Cheney the legal power to torture. I let him have it -- giving him the names of torture victims and places where these acts of torture occurred!
He just smiled to the rest of the panel and said, "I enjoy reading Nat Hentoff on jazz."
For years, Yoo, now a law professor at the University of California, has been a media pundit on constitutional issues, serene in his still-unpunished contribution to American history.
What about Bush, Cheney and Obama?
Nat Hentoff is a nationally renowned authority on the First Amendment and the Bill of Rights. He is a member of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, and the Cato Institute, where he is a senior fellow.