Interview with Larry SiemsWritten by Asim Qureshi Friday, 20 August 2010
Larry Siems speaks to Cageprisoners about the work he does at the ACLU's Torture Report.
Cageprisoners: Could you introduce yourself to our readers? Tell us a little about your background and your involvement with the ACLU.
Larry Siems: Sure, I’m Larry Siems, a writer and human rights activist for many years. I have for a long time been a director for Freedom to Write International at PEN American centre for New York and before that at PEN USA in Los Angeles.
I’m originally a poet and journalist and in the 1990’s did a lot of work on migration and particularly focusing on the US-Mexico border and did some work with documented immigrants which led to some work with Human Rights Watch, researching a report on abuses by the US border control and so I’ve been straddling writing, activism, human rights activism for about 15/20 years. I started working at PEN in Los Angeles in 1995 and the international writer’s organisation that PEN Writers for free expression around the world. And I had done that work for quite some time and came here to New York to the PEN office in 2001, shortly before the 9/11 attacks and after 9/11 of course we became very concerned about the climate for free expression and human rights in the United States and so we had been doing a lot of campaigning, that sort of looked at policies and practices in the so called ‘War on Terror’, and advocating for free expression and human rights and part of that we’ve been collaborating with the ACLU on a number of programmes, particularly programmes that were geared towards promoting accountability for torture. In the course of that we began to look at, the means of promoting accountability, the ACLU developed this idea of trying to do a kind of a comprehensive report, narrative report about the torture programme and I was thrilled to take up the job. In a way I get to do what I think every American citizen should be doing right now. It’s searching through a stack of documents and ask myself the question of what really happened, to sort it out and come to the conclusion based on just what’s in the documentary records and what exactly did the United States do and who should be accountable for it.
CP: And so did you feel that the work you are doing on the war on terror was a natural progression or does this actually feel like something quite new to you, in terms of the response of the American government?
LS: On two levels, it was really a logical extension. Personally anybody who’s a human rights activist had to be looking at what was happening in the United States with a great deal of disdain.
For somebody who has spent the last 15 years advocating for writers in countries where torture was common, where definite or arbitrary detention was common. To see my own government adopting those policies and of course there is the sense of moral repugnance also there’s a strategic kind of despair because we always counted on the support of the US government to protest these international violations and of course we lost a great deal of international credibility by taking the same practices but not only do we lose credibility but the world lost that kind of, principles, advocacy that was used to mitigate sometimes against the more extreme behaviour of more oppressive regimes. That’s more on a personal level. Professionally what’s very interesting, PEN, actually was one of a number of human rights organisations that had been working on the issue of how anti terror legislation and policies threatened free expression. Well before 9/11, in 1998 PEN had gone before the UN human rights commission to talk about the implications of anti terror legislation on free expression in a number of countries like Turkey, Peru and South Korea at that point. Until then there was perhaps unfortunately not surprising in a way all too familiar when the US responded to 9/11 by purporting the Patriot Act and other policies, other legislation and enacting executive orders that mirrors the same kind of things that we had seen in other countries. Things like dramatically expanding the notion of material support to terrorists and things like that and so we had done this work internationally, in a way that Americans didn’t understand because Americans tend to be stereotypes quite isolationists and the story in the Unites States was this was an unprecedented attack, unprecedented event and this required some sort of unprecedented response. But people in the human rights world would know that in fact the many countries around the world have dealt with significant threats to their security, had dealt with terrorism and many of the countries had made the same kind of mistakes that the US showed itself about to make or willing to make right after 9/11.
CP: You currently write for the ACLU’s ‘Torture Report’, what is the purpose of the project and why do you feel it is important?
LS: Well I think the goal is really to try to, the ACLU has secured something 130-140,000 pages of government documents from Freedom of Information act requests and these documents help release the story, really establish what happened and who’s responsible for what happened even though there are great lacunae and great gaps in the in story. Many things are still redacted, many documents still withheld. There’s enough here, in fact too much for the average person to wade through so my task is to go through and try and see if I can construct a clear readable narrative that has plot, characters and tells a story in a way that is comprehensive and readable for readers but also in addition to that work, what’s to note that this is not a construction note of what I think happened but in fact is simply a construction that comes from the documents themselves.
CP: You mention that in the description of the project that it is to give a full account of the Bush administration’s torture programme. What would be the purpose in doing this now that he has left office?
LS: Well I think it’s the same purpose that every society that’s emerging from a period of human rights abuses, which is the desire to promote a kind of truth calling and accountability. I think it’s really important, especially in a democratic system where ultimately the citizens are responsible for the decisions that are made in their name and responsible for the electing their leaders who ideally will not make the same mistake or the decisions that are illegal or wrong in the future. It’s really necessary to come to some kind of reckoning of what happened. The American political climate is one of competing versions of what happened and there are still many former Bush administration officials who are of extremely high profiles and public platforms who are still able to drive the debate about US torture policy. So if you look at something like the Christmas Day attempted bombing and the decision of the Bush administration to prosecute Abdul Mutallib in civilian courts and the response of a number of Bush administration officials including Dick Cheney. The press would challenge that position and said no you have this alternative set of procedures that the Bush administration swapped by going this route. And we should reserve the option of essentially being able to submit Abdul Mutallib to enhanced interrogation in some kind of secret site. And lastly have some kind of reckoning which really looks at exactly what happened in those programmes, exactly why it violates US and international laws, not to mention our principles and values and above all how they were all ineffective literally and strategically. That argument won’t go away. There is that the argument should not be taking place. The only way it cannot take place is if people do understand that these torture programmes that Cheney was advocating was ineffective, immoral and wrong.
CP: There has been a movement away from using the term ‘The War on Terror’ in the current Obama administration. Do you think that the ‘War on Terror’ still continues today and do you feel that the policies as under Bush have dramatically changed?
LS: Well I think that question is really up in the air right now. There’s no question that the Obama administration is finding it difficult to abandon some of the policies that are connected to the basic conceptual framework that the ‘War on Terror’ which is a kind of a indefinite struggle against a stateless enemy that’s not geographically located and poses a significant extra special threat now and in perpetuity. So you have a question of indefinite detention. So what do you do with the Guantanamo detainees, the difficulty of carrying through on the promise to close Guantanamo. The question about detainees who are held in similar indefinite detention circumstances in Afghanistan right now – what to do there. Should the United States in fact embrace the kind of indefinite detention policy? I mean these are policy questions that judge the framework has not disappeared entirely in peoples thinking.
CP: Over the course of your research of these documents – what have you found to be the most surprising findings, could you please give a few examples?
LS: I think for me personally – if you think of this as a story that has characters and voices and everything. The thing that I found most compelling and I think that by spending a lot of time trying to project this and put the thing together, is how many American voices dissented, protested, challenged these policies all along. I think this is so important for helping people grapple with this information. There’s kind of a more of a natural reaction to think on part of the public that ok maybe bad things happen and I probably would have done the same thing in those circumstances and it’s best not to dwell on it. We’re basically good and our values are solid and the Bush Administration who are out there have tried to project that feeling that we were in an impossible situation, we didn’t know what was going to happen, we thought there was a possibility of weapons of mass destruction being used any day and we did what you asked us to do and that was to keep you safe. I think the most important thing that I’ve discovered is that many, many, many of my fellow citizens in the military, intelligence agencies and the Justice department and other places were working with exactly the same sort of facts as Cheney and other senior administration officials who promoted the enhanced interrogation programme knew that this was the wrong way, knew that it was possible to obtain the goals of security by following the traditional interrogation methods, knew what was being proposed was illegal and counterproductive and you get these voices all the way from.
I quote from a military translator in Kandahar in January 2002 who is part of an interrogation team that sort of gets pushed to the side by the Special Forces team that comes in and roughs up the person that’s she and her military interrogator are debriefing. She’s appalled by what she see’s and in her official report to superiors she had this moving statement about the importance of Geneva conventions, how much she value’s that as an American and understands the importance of essentially what she seeing is a violation of the Geneva conventions. And of course this is about two to three weeks before Bush essentially suspends Geneva protection for Al-Qaeda and Taliban detainees, so that’s just out in the field, ordinary Americans just instinctually knew that they were wrong – all the way to people inside who are engaged in energetic arguments and debated about these things all along.
That’s been for me, the main thing in the story, otherwise I wouldn’t have recognised anybody. The decisions that were being made would be completely alien to me. But what I see is this small group of people who had overly zealous ideas and political conceptions which I think are out of the mainstream who somehow had general control of the decision making but against that there were people like me and I understand the core American value system that operated and you get a sense of that from the documents and I find really moving.
CP: There is quite a lot of emphasis on rendition and its illegality especially here in Europe, I don’t know if it was to the same extent in the US. I think finally the torture report has redressed the balance a little. Do you feel that the human rights community has missed a trick by concentrating so much on the illegality of the rendition itself, rather than the unlawful way that individuals were detained and then subsequently treated wherever they were taken?
LS: I think that’s a really interesting question because I’m not sure. My feeling would be that rendition has gotten inadequate attention in the US.
That reflects the kind of conscience searching soul searching on the part of European governments that we’re not seeing in the United States yet. The rendition discussion is being driven as I perceive it by a number of European countries that are asking themselves difficult questions about complicity and support for a programme. And so that’s kind of a reflection and reckoning process that we’re not seeing here. Rendition or let’s call it what it really is, which is enforced disappearance, is a straight forward heinous human rights violation and I think one of the things if you’re looking for another discovery in the report, to me, I’ve been quite shocked by the extent of the programme, the details of the programme, what the last chapter we’re looking at the – the triangulation of torture involving Abu Zubaydah, Jose Padilla and Binyam Mohammed, looking at the way rendition to third countries and the torture that was being used by those countries in collaboration with or in concert with interrogations of other people elsewhere. That’s absolutely shocking and I certainly don’t take it a mistake to concentrate on. Enforced disappearances are a grotesque dirty war tactic. I think the United States should be absolutely, profoundly and deeply ashamed of having embraced that kind of a programme. I don’t think it’s possible to overstate the grievousness and calamitousness of that policy. I think all the work the Europe has done on this is extremely important and it’s from the investigations of European Parliament and individual European governments and courts in the UK, the fact that materials coming to light have not come to light in the US so it’s crucial.
CP: Can you please describe some of the worst examples of torture that you have come across in your readings?
LS: Well I guess it breaks down to two kinds. The reports of what happened at the hands of foreign governments which read like the whole manual of torture technique that we’re used to reading about in US State Department reports, cataloguing and denouncing torture in foreign governments – electric shocks and other incredible violence, physical violence against peoples persons and psyches. There’s that and then on the other hand you have this other thing that was happening in the United States which in a way I find even more chilling which is this kind of careful, calculation kind of lawyerly hair-splitting in terms of kind orchestrates that use torture but can’t quite pin down as torture, looking for exactly how many hours can you deprive somebody of sleep, having these things monitored – trying to track these things. How many times can you water-board somebody for how many seconds. The clinical, pseudo-scientific approach to something that says you can do something that’s definitely calculated to break somebody and then you can lie to others and possibly to yourself and say that what you’re doing is not torture. I find that quite disturbing.
CP: There are some who would say that you are putting American lives at risk by exposing the information from these documents? To what extent do you feel that is true?
LS: I don’t think it’s at all true. I think that the information that’s in the document is in the world because it happened to people, people’s bodies bear the marks, people’s psyches bear the marks. These stories happened to people and some of that has now been released and they have returned home. Some of them have been able to tell their stories and documenting them in the public sphere. Many of them, all the court documents are in the public sphere. I think the fact that the US abused prisoners, the fact that we violated international laws – I don’t think there is any denying that. On the contrary, it strengthens the US’ position internationally and gives some measure of protection to Americans in the future if we’re seen now as investigating and reckoning with these things. I think if we can say we did these things and we have laboured on these things and we’re done and we have accounted for that and people have had to answer for them and we are truly committed to making sure that these things do not happen in the future, I think that we will have muted what frankly has to be Al-Qaeda’s most effective recruitment tool which is the information about the US prisoner mistreatment
CP: A lot of material was destroyed, particularly that of interrogations. How do you intend on achieving full accountability when such crucial information is now missing from the public record?
LS: Well it’s interesting because I think there’s new information and I’m speaking specifically about Abu Zubaydah and Al-Shiri interrogation tapes, CIA tapes. There is a Freedom of Information act contempt case because those materials would have been covered by Freedom of Information act requests. They were destroyed so the question is how did the information that was destroyed still make it into the public domain and of course we know according to the CIA that everything that was depicted on those tapes was also described in completely meticulous detail and the everyday cable traffic back and forth between black sites and CIA headquarters in Langley and so in an attempt to win the release of those documents which of course the government continues to withhold but I think we probably don’t know the full extent of the torture of Abu Zubaydah.
We know even because of the OLC memos; we know what they planned to do and what say they did. We know that the abuse consisted of the confinement in small boxes and tall boxes, we know they consisted of frequent slamming against the walls, of sleep deprivation, of repeated water boarding. The information is out there. In fact we just landed the Senate intelligence committee, specifically to look at the Abu Zubaydah interrogation and presumably they will be able to see all of the documents that are still shielded from us and we hope that they’ll be issuing a declassified report in August. I think the broad parameters of the programmes are now becoming known and so the report I think is trying to let the public know that there’s no disputing that the broad allegation that this much is true. Then it’s up to the public to say ok now let’s have that process where we get this officially acknowledgement and some kind of accountability.
CP: Do you think that there will be actual litigation resulting from the efforts of the ‘Torture Report’?
LS: I think in most cases it is possible because of a number of things. I think litigation is mostly being driven by litigation. I have to be honest and modest. If you look at the transnational justice that’s going on in cases like Binyam Mohammed’s case, where ultimately the UK courts releases the seven redacted paragraphs because a US court has ruled a habeas corpus petition that the detainee who is being detained largely on Binyam Mohammed’s allegations or accusations that Binyam Mohammed had supposedly made and that judge ruling that those accusations can’t be admitted because of the way that he was treated then the UK courts say well the US courts has actually put in the record that Binyam Mohammed was tortured so we need to release these paragraphs and we see how the seven paragraphs bounce back to the possibility of Binyam Mohammed’s civil suit in the US against his torturers. There is a momentum that is already going here and I think that’s largely driven by litigation. But I think there’s a step, something beyond litigation. Litigation is important but that’s only part of the accountability. I think that litigation can actually go a long way towards addressing the right of individual victims or sufferers of abuse to have their claims heard and have that official acknowledgement. I think that’s important but that’s only half of the accountability question. The other half is for the society as a whole to reckon with these things and to make a decision going forward about how we’re going to behave in the future. The critical decisions for a country that no doubt will continue to face the kinds of difficult decisions that come with any major terror. So I think litigation is moving forward and the torture report is more directed towards taking the information that’s coming out of that kind of process and moving it in to the public sphere so people understand that it’s time for us all to think about what this means in a larger sense.
CP: Recently there were revelations that Abdul Manan Gul Rehman was killed by US soldiers in 2003. I met his family in 2008 and for all of those five years they felt as if he was still missing somewhere within the US detention system. It was only about two weeks ago I was able to get a message to the family just to give my condolences. Unfortunately they did not even know that he had died. This information that the AP had released had not been given to the family up to a couple of weeks after revelations. My question is can families like that of Gul Rehman’s and indeed those who were killed in Guantanamo find recourse to justice within the US courts?
LS: As we know lawyers are looking at that news. He was up until two weeks ago an unnamed victim. Even in the torture report I refer to his case and at that point I referred to him as someone whose name we may never know. But now we do know and I think that certainly does change the question. The lawyers at ACLU and number of other places, are looking at what kind of actions might be possible for his family to bring. I think it does open up a lot of possibilities and also opens up the complimentary need for litigation and just public awareness. I think this is an absolutely heart breaking story of what enforced disappearance and what that ultimately disappearance and dirty wars such as killing somebody in detention – the horrible cause. This is why enforced disappearance is illegal under international law because of that kind of anguish for families. This is a kind of torture in itself and that’s been recognised as such under international law and I think for people to understand that every single person who’s indefinitely detained, every single person whose disappeared there’s a family, there’s real pain and suffering that goes along with that. This is what due process protections are designed to litigate against. I think that’s a direct important story too.
CP: The Pinochet case in the UK established the legal precedent that there cannot be any state immunity for torture as such because torture cannot be conducted legally as actions of state – is there any way that such a principle could ever find applicability in the US, a country which refuses to bring itself under the purview of the International Criminal Court?
LS: That’s a good question. We certainly are already at the point where the vain of American isolationism is going to really be put to the test. We have indictments in Italy now, there are going to be attempts to litigate cases in foreign courts. A Superior court decision in Australia ruling that a case could go forward on behalf of a former Australian Guantanamo detainee that could not be. The Australian government tried to shield behind the notion that proceeding with the case would force it to make a judgement about the US’ conduct and whether that was illegal and it was protected from having to do that and the Australian court held those questions there’s not any need for torture and complicity for torture. Pressure is going to continue to build from around the world and I think at some point Americans are going to need to look at the fact that we spend a lot of our time demanding that the world behave according to certain rules and principles and we were even instrumental in creating the kinds of institutions that are meant to stand and protect those principles and we’re going to have to at some point participate in them or improve our own justice in a way that the world doesn’t need to rely on those institutions to get the kind of accountability that everybody deserves and needs.
CP: Do you feel that the actions of the Bush administration have been counterproductive to your country’s security?
LS: Yes! Absolutely, there are many interrogators, professional interrogators, lifelong interrogators who will tell you that there was absolutely no intelligence benefit gained from the torture programme and that in fact we would have gotten much better intelligence had we adhered to our legal methods and resources and that in fact Al-Qaeda’s greatest training tool that we were torturing people and so I don’t think there was any strategic value to it that would not have been gained by other means. I think the damage to our standing and credibility has been significant.
CP: The Bush administration was known for mass detentions and holding people beyond the law – it would seem that President Obama has gone a step forward through drone attacks which simply kill individuals without any kind of charge or trial. Do you feel that in some ways this policy is far more dangerous than anything else that has come out of the US?
LS: I think it is deeply disturbing and I think we need to I think again it argues for the importance of accountability because I think in some ways it’s the logical extension of the policies we’ve seen during the Bush administration and the sense that essentially what you can have is a kind of summary justice. There is an illusion in that essentially that the American people, the drone attacks for example, the kind of clean targeted strikes that always get exactly who you want and people who we somehow know are guilty of what they do, of what we say they are guilty of.
I think that it completely perverts and undermines core understandings of how justice works which is to defend yourself and need to prove the allegations before there’s punishment and not mention the potential for collateral damage and just outright mistakes. I think it’s certainly not a policy that I can imagine will go forward and yield positive fruits for this country. I think it is surprising and disappointing. One question is whether or not it’s a more public declaration of programmes that were in existence but covert before. I think that’s a possibility that in fact what Obama is doing is putting things more in the public sphere than were there. It’s certainly something these things are fundamental questions of principles and values that Americans should be forced to debate and come to terms with and I think at least the positive thing is there is some discussion of these policies now and one suspects that and certainly I know from your book for example, the numbers of disappearances in Pakistan for example over the last decade suggests there has been some elements of a disappearance programme which was completely off the radar and so the possibility I think that at least this administration is playing these things rather more into the light and I hope what follows is a more energetic debate about why it’s not a good idea.
CP: What do you feel will be the legacy of the ‘Torture Report’ in terms of the future of the way the US conducts its counter-terrorism operations? Do you think it will have a lasting impact?
LS: It will have an impact if enough Americans absorb, process, understand the story that the torture report tells and insist that there be some kind of reckoning for that and that’s what will have a lasting impact. If Americans shrug their shoulders, if Americans walk away from this, if we say well that was an extreme behaviour that occurred in a moment of extreme circumstances and we’re not really like that then I think we’re back to square one the next time there’s a serious threat. The question is whether the report is read, not only the report but all the materials published upon which the report was based. People really come to terms with them and then use that knowledge to ask important questions themselves that lead to some kind of public acknowledgement of excesses, some kind of accountability, some kind of reparations where appropriate. I think that’s a crucial part of every accountability process. And then real serious policy planning going forward on the question we have talked about, on indefinite detention, on targeted killing within a framework of understanding that we have exceeded our limits over the past ten years and we cannot do that again.
Larry Siems, thank you very much for giving us your time.