The daily news on methods of US torture and the Bush administration’s legal justifications for its routine use as an instrument of national power can, at times, make it seem that our watchdogs were always on the ball.
Then reality snaps back in place.
So today DD will take readers back to when his eyes were opened to the bad faith and deceptions being thrown our way because it was convenient to the Bush administration’s prosecution of the war on terror.
It was some time around mid-2004 when British researcher Duncan Campbell came to me for some advice with regards to what would become known as the London ricin trial.
In early January of 2003, British anti-terror forces had arrested seven men and allegedly “equipment needed to produce ricin and recipes for ricin, cyanide and several other poisons” at a Wood Green flat in the north of London, according to the BBC.
The British authorities called this Operation Springbourne and it continued to sweep up people said to be connected to a plot aimed at spreading poisons in London. One of the men grabbed in the raids is named Kamel Bourgass. During his arrest he stabs to death a British constable, a crime on which he will be convicted two years later and sent away for life.
Bourgass and four of these men are set in the dock for the London ricin case which was to be followed with another trial dealing with the rest of the alleged conspirators.
Campbell, who was working for the defense, had a stack of poison recipes, gathered from police raids and various other al Qaeda hideouts in Kabul and Kandahar which were part of the evidence to be used in the ricin trial. He sent electronic copies of them to me in Pasadena and we chatted back and forth over their impact and origins. In return, I sent back original materials of US nature from which these poison recipes were drawn.
I had been writing up analyses of ricin recipes found on the web and publishing them through GlobalSecurity.Org. Campbell had read them. And the ricin and other poison recipes were central to the UK government’s case.
The prosecution wished to prove they were exclusive to al Qaeda, thereby establishing a link between the accused and the terrorist organization. But the recipes weren’t exclusive. They originated in the US far right in the late Eighties and had been copied around the world, then translated to Arabic. Along the way they picked up minor differences in transcription and things added by individuals translating them. So the recipes seized in the UK ricin ring raids, all Kamel Bourgass’s, did not originate in al Qaeda hideouts. They were transcribed from Yahoo servers in Palo Alto.
However, before all this had been figured out, I was of the mind that the men in the dock, Algerians, were all going to be sent over. There was still a belief that the charges were probably based on reasonable assumptions. If Colin Powell, for example, had identified the London ricin ring, which he had called the UK poison cell, in his speech before the UN Security Council in September of 2003, there had to be something to it, right?
This was, Powell’s presentation inferred, part of a web of terrorist intrigue stretching from Iraq and al Qaeda into Europe.
Well, a few months went by before the start of the trial and, gradually, things changed.
The evidence I was given was ridiculously trivial: Stupid Internet-cadged recipes for poisons, a ridiculously small number of castor seeds — 22, along with absurd ideas that one could make a cyanide weapon from a couple handfuls of cherry pits.
And I asked Campbell, in essence, what the heck was going on? This couldn’t be serious. It was pathetic and lame. No one with half a mind could consider anything like this as part of a terrorist chain, connected with Iraq, which threatened the UK and United States.
I asked Campbell where the information came from on this poison team and the alleged Wood Green poison lab.
And then he told me about the UK government informant, Mohamed Meguerba, who’d been the source of it on the basis of a confession he’d made while being held in a prison in Algeria. I was eventually told that Meguerba had been tortured into a confession and later recanted it and, so, the UK government was not going to be able to bring him to court to testify.
At that point the prosecution’s case was badly hindered. A lot of the accusations rested upon getting a jury to believe the statements of the informant. And then it was necessary to completely switch strategies.
It was at that point I became disillusioned. It had been shown that you couldn’t believe anything the US government said. That Kamel Bourgass and his recipes for making poison from rotten meat or a handful of castor seeds to have taken the stage as a shadowy player in the hard sell the Bush administration used to drum up enthusiasm for war in Iraq was intellectually bankrupt.
Yesterday, Paul Krugman’s blog at the New York Times republished quote from Jonathan Landay of the McClatchy News service.
“The Bush administration put relentless pressure on interrogators to use harsh methods on detainees in part to find evidence of cooperation between al Qaida and the late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s regime, according to a former senior U.S. intelligence official and a former Army psychiatrist,” it read.
“Such information would’ve provided a foundation for one of former President George W. Bush’s main arguments for invading Iraq in 2003. No evidence has ever been found of operational ties between Osama bin Laden’s terrorist network and Saddam’s regime.
“The use of abusive interrogation — widely considered torture — as part of Bush’s quest for a rationale to invade Iraq came to light as the Senate issued a major report tracing the origin of the abuses and President Barack Obama opened the door to prosecuting former U.S. officials for approving them.”
With regards to the London ricin case, Meguerba’s recanted confession about a ricin plot was apparently not part of a US operation. It was, however, still conveniently used by the Bush administration.
And there was a second man who’d been pressured into a handy confession, one which also connected with the alleged ricin poison ring.
In Colin Powell’s slide purporting to show terror networks connected to al Qaeda in Iraq, a central spot is reserved for a man called Detained Al-Qaida Operative.
This was Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi.
The US Senate’s Select Report on Intelligence in Iraq revealed in 2006 that the CIA informed al-Libi that he would be handed over to a foreign government if he didn’t talk. “[Al-Libi] decided he would fabricate any information the interrogators wanted in order to gain better treatment and avoid being handed over to [a foreign government.]”
Nevertheless, according to the Senate report al-Libi was also put in the hands of the foreign government. He was threatened with torture and then beaten up for fifteen minutes, after which he made up stories about al Qaida connections with Iraq, and nuclear and biological weapons programs.
Nevertheless, in January and February of 2003, Dick Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz cited it as one of a number of reasons for escalation to war in Iraq.
“The gravity of the threat we face was underscored in recent days when British police arrested seven suspected terrorists in London and discovered a small quantity of ricin, one of the world’s deadliest poisons, for which no cure exists,” Cheney told the US Chamber of Commerce in Washington, DC. (In reality, no ricin had been discovered, just castor seeds. This information would be suppressed for another three years.)
“Make no mistake, America is at war,” Cheney continued. “And the front lines are our centers of work, of transportation, of commerce, and entertainment … We will also continue our efforts to stop the grave danger presented by Al Qaeda or other terrorists joining with outlaw regimes that have developed weapons of mass destruction to attack their common enemies — the United States and our allies. That is why confronting the threat posed by Iraq is not a distraction from the war on terror. It is absolutely crucial to winning the war on terror.”
And on February 6, Paul Wolfowitz added: “[We] see, for example, close connections between Iraqi intelligence, and even the Iraqi leadership, and this network that is actively working to do attacks with ricin and other deadly toxins. Some of them have been arrested in London. Some have been arrested in Spain and elsewhere in Europe. We’re working on finding as many of them as we can. The problem is, some of them are hiding, probably effectively.”
With regards to the London ricin case as I knew it, these statements were misinformation and fraud.
In September of 2004, the London ricin trial went forward. A gag order was imposed on the English press, one that lasted until the end of the trial in April of 2005.
The UK government’s case had been irrevocably damaged. A jury eventually acquitted everyone but maniacal loner Kamel Bourgass.
Bourgass was locked up for life, also convicted on a charge of conspiring to cause a public nuisance with poisons.
“Does torture work?” is the question one now sees almost everyday. Yes, yes it does, reply various officials and Bush administration main men. It has kept us safe.
My take is that, yes, torture did work. It worked to provided convenient fictions which were in turn used to justify war with Iraq.
The result of the ricin trial — acquittals and the realization among large portions of the English public that the original story had been all wrong, that there was not an extensive terror network of poisoners who had been trained by al Qaeda and were connected to Iraq — was the start of the British public becoming disillusioned with George W. Bush’s war. It led to an assumption that the fix was in.
In April of 2005, the American press more or less declined to cover the story. I had offered it to the New York Times. No one was interested.
The Washington Post’s Walter Pincus covered part of it badly. In the process, he had to interview me and growled that I had put the newspaper in a difficult situation. Oh, DD had put the mighty WaPo in a difficult situation because I had found out the London ricin ring was bogus.
“Discovery that the initial ricin finding was a ‘false positive’ was made ‘well before the outbreak of the war in Iraq,’ on March 19, 2003, [George Smith] said,” wrote Pincus.
Great job, that.
“A much-touted ricin-plot terrorism case in the United Kingdom ended in a muddled verdict today, raising new questions among U.S. officials about the ability of British authorities to secure convictions against major terrorist suspects,” reported famous Newsweek investigative journalists Michael Isikoff and Mark Hosenball on April 15, 2005.
However, was this news that the Bush administration had been twisting information for its own aims?
“The mixed outcome dismayed U.S. counterterror specialists who were convinced that [Kamel Bourgass] and his four codefendants were in fact acting as part of a broader international terror plot,” continued Isikoff and Hosenball. “It also gives new urgency to the U.S. terror indictment brought against three other British suspects this week on charges relating to their surveillance of financial buildings in New York, Washington and Newark.”
And then Isikoff and Hosenball quoted the war on terror’s well-known professional witness, Even Kohlmann, to cast the impression that a Brit jury had gone rogue and the justice system had failed.
From the Newsweek piece: ” ‘This is very disturbing,’ says Evan Kohlmann, a U.S. government consultant on international terror cases, about the acquittals in the ricin-plot case. ‘These are dangerous people who are followers of Abu Hamza,’ the radical imam of London’s notorious Finsbury Mosque, which was a favored gathering place for Al Qaeda-linked extremists.’ ”
The US press couldn’t bring itself to report all the nasty fine details. Instead, in 2005 it was still time to run with the rubbish story about a fantasy plot from the war on terror, one which turned out to have been the product of a healthy dose of maltreatment.
Dreams die hard and a recent article from the journal IEEE Spectrum is a showcase for scientists trying to keep their electromagnetic pulse bomb projects alive for the Dept. of Defense.
A week or two ago DD revisited the phenomenon of US electromagnetic pulse crazies in two posts. The second of the two — here — dealt with the social crowd plagued with an Ahab-like obsession for deployable electromagnetic pulse bombs (not dependent on a multi-megaton fusion blast) and hand-held ray guns.
They regularly pop up in news announcing fantastic weapons are about to arrive, or have arrived and been secretly used, or are about to be tested. This has been a regular occurrence, if not obvious to everyone, since around 1994 when the EMP lobby boffins began giving it the hard sell.
Readers will note the top listing from the Google link is a reprint of a cover story published in Popular Mechanics in 2001, an article predicting electromagnetic pulse bombs were about to show, possibly capable of throwing civilization back hundreds of years. If they found their way into terrorist hands. One also notes the piece is accompanied with a harsh critique from various punters.
“Electromagnetic pulse weapons capable of frying the electronics in civil airliners can be built using information and components available on the net, warn counterterrorism analysts,” read a very recent piece of EMP crazy emission at the New Scientist a couple weeks ago.
“Kabammy! A huge electronic wave comes along and sends out a few thousand volts! [Like] like man-made lightning bolts!” read a couple newspaper articles just before the second war with Iraq.
In every such article, a blizzard of jargon and promises.
For example, from Popular Mechanics: “An FCG is an astoundingly simple weapon. It consists of an explosives-packed tube placed inside a slightly larger copper coil, as shown below. The instant before the chemical explosive is detonated, the coil is energized by a bank of capacitors, creating a magnetic field. The explosive charge detonates from the rear forward. As the tube flares outward it touches the edge of the coil, thereby creating a moving short circuit.”
And the article from IEEE Spectrum is not much different. While e-bomb capabilities have been radically scaled back — there is no mention of American civilization being returned to the time of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance or rayguns cobbled together by terrorists for the shooting down of airplanes — they are still alleged to be relatively cheap and simple.
“This week at an arsenal in Huntsville, Ala., defense researchers are testing a new high-power microwave (HPM) bomb—one that creates an electromagnetic pulse capable of disabling electronics, vehicles, guided missiles, and communications while leaving people and structures unharmed,” reads the website of the IEEE, dated April 15. “The tests mark the first time such a device has been shrunk to dimensions that could make it portable enough to fit in a missile or carried in a Humvee or unmanned aerial vehicle.”
DD is going to go out on a limb here and suggest that if the weapon was tested last week, it was less than overwhelming, as usual. It has not been immediately obvious that the world was changed by an American revolution in munitions design.
The fundamental problem associated with non-nuclear electromagnetic pulse weapons is simple to describe.
And it’s never addressed, except through elliptical statements about limits of their “portability” and the ability to predictably “couple” the weapon’s electromagnetic effect to a target. The problem is this: dispersion cripples such notional weapons, or as a scientist might say, any effect is constrained by the law of inverse squares. Nature’s laws, fortunately for us, aren’t subject to whimsical change.
“The intensity of the influence at any given radius r is the source strength divided by the area of the sphere,” explains a page at a university physics department. “Being strictly geometric in its origin, the inverse square law applies to diverse phenomena. Point sources of gravitational force, electric field, light, sound or radiation obey the inverse square law. It is a subject of continuing debate with a source such as a skunk on top of a flag pole; will it’s smell drop off according to the inverse square law?”
A bit of scientific humor, the latter bit about the skunk.
But there is never any humor associated with stories of electromagnetic pulse bombs. It is always deadly serious stuff.
“It’s a big deal!” said a scientist on the teat of Departmant of Defense electromagnetic pulse spending to IEEE. The EMP bomb is said to have been finally (maybe) shrunk to a size the military might be able to use. “The military would be able to actually use these.”
And then there is the jargon-laden discussion about FCG’s and vircators, and later, Marx generators.
“The 1.5-meter Texas Tech [EMP bomb] contains three main components: a power generator in the form of a flux compression generator (FCG), a microwave source called a vircator (for virtual cathode oscillator), and an antenna that radiates the resultant high-power microwave radiation,” reads the piece.
“The FCG is like a battery that runs on a stick of dynamite,” Michael Giesselmann, the weapon’s developer at Texas Tech tells the reporter.
And the weapon they just can’t resist is simple and cheap (has this been made clear enough?), even though it’s still not actually taking part in a real world test.
“The major advantage of an FCG is that it can be relatively cheap,” says one expert from England, Bucur Novac, to the publication. “Depending on how big it is, from about US $100 for the 20-centimeter size to a few thousand dollars for the 1-meter size.”
“It’s actually one of the simplest [EMP weapons] you can make,” adds the bomb’s developer.
Another problem associated with electromagnetic pulse bomb production is also easy to relate in common language. And this is why most electromagnetic pulse bomb scientists try to avoid it.
Since the bomb uses an explosive to generate an electromagnetic effect, if the explosive is too large, on the order of a conventional weapons, and the EM effect is trivial, the bomb is not non-lethal. It’s just another high explosive bomb with fancy parts. If the explosive component is too small, the notional generation of its electromagnetic effect becomes weaker, requiring the weapon be much closer to its target upon detonation. If, theoretically, a weapon with the explosive power of, say, a stick of dynamite or two or three could generate an electromagnetic effect capable of frying the processor of a computer at ten or twenty feet, would you stand with the computer? Would you even care that such a thing could be demonstrated on a testing range at a US military installation?
Another way of looking at it is in the effect of a lightning bolt, another form of suddenly generated electromagnetic flux. If a lightning bolt hits your computer while you’re sitting at it, it’s a goner. And perhaps you are, too. But lightning bolts are not particularly cost effective weapons.
Readers see where DD is going. A megaton nuclear explosion creates a significant electromagnetic pulse. But it’s rather secondary to the … well, heh-heh, you know.
Near the end of the electromagnetic pulse bomb story, the EMP raygun system is also mentioned as a possibility. It could be used to stop cars, for instance.
“It requires a big truck to even bring the unassembled parts to the test army,” says an Army overseer, a man with an unusually pragmatic air. This particular device “is not a consideration” for anything, ever.
Why the print space, then?
Well, consider that any theoretical electromagnetic pulse bombs are weapons which no longer have much use. Who would the US military sic them on? Somali pirates? The Taliban in Afghanistan? People living in buildings in Swat, Pakistan? Insurgents or rabble and crowds around the globe? Invading Martians?
In fact, the electromagnetic pulse bomb is not congruent with new defense priorities as recently discussed by Secretary of Defense Bob Gates.
And here one can speculate that this is exactly why an article about a test has been published in IEEE Spectrum. It is — perhaps — needed to show progress, to signal the existence of something in a program which has been funded for a very long time, one which has produced little but which might be coming to the end of its natural life. In another way of speaking, a press release by weapons developers afraid they may run short of DoD welfare.
Today’s Los Angeles Times frontpage story on the Bush administration’s torture documents was curious for one thing. It didn’t use the word torture until almost the very end of the story (and not on the front page).
Near the end, it reads: “The memo outlined an escalating series of interrogation methods sometimes used in concert, and was written months after the Justice Department had issued a December 2006 document that declared “torture is abhorrent both to American law and values and to international norms.”
Of course, this fine statement is accompanied by a sidebar containing descriptions of American-approved waterboarding, stress positions, cramped confinement, walling (throwing against a wall), and face slapping, among other things.
The Times goes onto describe torture under supervision of physicians: “[The document] also required that a physician be on duty in case a prisoner didn’t recover after being returned to an upright position … ‘the intervening physician would perform a tracheotomy …”
The decision, the Times reported, “was met with criticism among conservatives and CIA veterans, who warned that the highly detailed documents would serve as a counter-interrogation training manual for al Qaeda and other terrorist groups.”
This claim takes readers, and the American people, for fools. As has been repeatedly shown on this blog — and in other places — al Qaeda has long had materials in their manuals on what kinds of torture to expect. (See yesterday.)
In any case, human history has shown us there’s very little one can do in the way of training to make one invulnerable to torture.
More succinctly, the complaints against revealing torture methods because it aids the enemy are an IQ test. If you accept them, you flunk. Here’s why: If the United States isn’t in the business of torturing its prisoners anymore, as Barack Obama says, then putting the methods of torture in the sunlight aids the enemy not at all.
Link to full story here
. Not pointed at the LA Times because while the hardcopy of the newspaper is a delight, the online edition’s load times are atrocious. In Tribune company’s grasping for every last penny on the Internet, it has made the Times website one of the most unbearable, as a total bandwidth hog, on the Internet. By comparison, the New York Times seems almost as simple and clean as this blog.
“The methods [in the torture memos included] keeping detainees naked for long periods, keeping them in a painful standing position for long periods, and depriving them of solid food,” reported AP today.
“Other tactics included using a plastic neck collar to slam detainees into walls, keeping the detainee’s cell cold for long periods, and beating and kicking the detainee. Sleep-deprivation, prolonged shackling, and threats to a detainee’s family were also used.”
None of this was unexpected. What was a bit startling was a potentially blanket get-out-of-jail free card for those involved in implementing it.
Over the past years, articles on torture and the ramifications of it have been singularly unpopular on DD’s blog. There are only a few in the pundit class and a handful of national newspapers or publications which are approved for the subject. Everywhere else, it’s a recipe for losing eyeballs. Covering war-on-terror trials at The Register, for instance, was unpopular. Relatively speaking, few cared to see unpleasant stories, stuff with no moral or happy ending, about people being sent over on flimsy or virtually non-existent charges.
And so it will be this story again. Compared to a review of the Boxmasters or something about how awful Saturday night movies on the Sci-Fi channel are, it’s a cooked snail. DD invites you to spread the URL. (That’s already failed.) He dares you to brook annoying pals with another post on the boiled lead of torture and its consequences.
But now to the meat of the action.
DD republishes screen shots from the original manual of jihad in Afghanistan, presented to me as part of the parcel of evidence to be considered while doing research as a consultant to the trial of the alleged London ricin ring.
The manual, put together in the late Eighties, included sections on what jihadis could expect if they were taken prisoner by Middle Eastern governments. The United States, as I shall show, was excluded from this ‘assessment.’
Other methods included:
It’s not necessary to put a red check mark next to those which now align with methods used by the American government in the last few years. And it’s equally stupid to grant any semblance of logic to semantic arguments about which methods are torture and which aren’t. Those who wrote the manual of Afghan jihad considered them torture. They would, of course, consider American methods cited at the top of the post as torture. And sane people the world over would consider all of them torture, whether applied singly, in combination, or under a doctor’s supervision.
The original jihad manual also included the following bit of information:
All of them — Middle Eastern nations known as human-rights abusers. To which, on the say so of of panicked and fearful American leaders and the tacit acquiescence of a supine press and populace, we added ourselves. And thus forfeited our souls and the worldwide belief that our country was the side of unassailable right.
The original manual of jihad for you to see is here at Cryptome.
“The United States [was not mentioned in the manual’s torture section],” wrote this blog two years ago. “One might reasonably think this was because it was a long way off from being regularly thought of as in the business of torturing captives.”
At that time, the Bush administration was quoting from the manual of Afghan jihad for political purposes, speaking of a section in which al Qaeda discussed the legitimacy of beating and killing prisoners during interrogation. (See here and here.)
This was, George W. Bush said, proof of the evil of the adversary. What this was, more precisely and put in context, was part of a chain of events which defined the very essence of American national hypocrisy and shame.
Tortured by ours or yours?
Which part of torture don’t they understand?
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