Congress: Stop Funding Torture

Congress: Stop Funding Torture

In an open letter to Senator Harry Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, lawyers, clergy and human rights activists voice alarm at mounting evidence of torture and human rights violations in Iraq and Afghanistan.


In an open letter to Senator Harry Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, lawyers, clergy and human rights activists voice alarm at mounting evidence of torture and human rights violations in Iraq and Afghanistan. For more information on their campaign, go to

We call on our Congress to speak out and organize public hearings on the systemic human rights violations occurring with American funding and advisers in Iraq. While there continues to be considerable media and Congressional attention to torture in Guantánamo, there is comparatively little attention to the mounting evidence of human rights violations, including torture and targeted killings of civilians, in Iraq since the 2004 Abu Ghraib revelations, and virtually none at all devoted to Afghanistan.

We recall the powerful and effective public outcry against the Phoenix program during the Vietnam War and the death squads during the Central American wars. Yet the top counterinsurgency adviser to General Petraeus has called for a “global Phoenix program,” and the response in this country appears to be silent ignorance. The American diplomat charged with violating human rights in Central America became our ambassador to Baghdad, where militias, death squads and secret prisons were widespread. But few questions about human rights in Iraq were directed at Ambassador John Negroponte in Congressional hearings.

We believe that few Americans support spending our tax dollars on torture, which violates our moral, religious and legal traditions.

Most Americans expect an American-Iraqi policy leading to political reconciliation, not ethnic cleansing, detention camps, and sectarian militias hidden within the police and security forces that our tax dollars subsidize.

We believe most Americans would favor Congressional hearings as to whether our policies in Iraq violate the 1997 Leahy Amendment prohibiting material assistance to human rights violators.

Evidence of human rights violations sometimes is difficult to amass for purposes of litigation, if only because international observers and defense lawyers have so little access to detainees or secret prisons, and the critical reports of the international Red Cross are classified. But the evidence is more than enough to warrant our concern and justify a Congressional inquiry. This is a brief summary:

There are some 50,000 Iraqis currently detained in facilities operated either by the United States or the Iraqi regime we fund, equip and support. Human Rights Watch is calling on the UN Security Council to address the holding of some 25,000 detainees by the United States “for indefinite periods, without judicial review, and under military processes that do not meet international standards.” Detainees in Iraqi facilities appear to face even worse conditions. The whole process is described by an eyewitness human rights observer as “inquisitorial” with broad scope for relying on forced confessions. Human rights observers are loath to press for transfer of detainees to Iraqi prisons which are “at least as bad as under Saddam.” Rape is reported as widespread in these facilities.

Similarly, tens of thousands of detainees are held in Afghanistan without charge and without access to lawyers. According to a 2004 ICRC report, US intelligence officers admitted that 70-90 percent of detainees were rounded up without evidence or by mistake. Secret trials there proceed based on allegations forwarded by the Pentagon “that would never have been admissible in a US court or even a military commission in Guantánamo.” An Afghan Supreme Court judge says that “all of these trials have been prepared by our friends from the United States.”

Pentagon units in Afghanistan are operating like South American death squads, according to the United Nations Human Rights Council, reports the Daily Telegraph.

A BBC report stated that “it’s all happening under the eyes of American commanders, who seem unwilling or unable to intervene.”

The New York Times has described secret prisons and torture chambers in Baghdad which report directly to the Interior Ministry.

The Times also exposed “black sites” like Camp Nama, where the secret US task force 626 beat, kicked and blindfolded Iraqi inmates, and forced them to crouch in 6-by-8 foot cubicles in a prison called “Hotel California,” where the official motto was “No Blood, No Foul.”

Gen. James Steele, a veteran of Central American counterinsurgency operations, was attached to the US Civil Police Assistance Training Team when sectarian Iraqi militias began their rampages under official cover. Steele was quoted as “not regretting their creation.”

The Baker-Hamilton Study Group reported in 2007 that the Iraqi police “routinely engage in sectarian violence, including the unnecessary detention, torture and targeted execution of Sunni Arab civilians.” The report also quoted an American official as saying that Baghdad is run “like a Shiite dictatorship.”

A Congressionally created commission of military experts concluded in September 2007 that the Iraqi Ministry of Interior “is a ministry in name only…widely regarded as being dysfunctional and sectarian.” The Jones Commission also found that the Iraqi National Police Service is “not a viable organization…despite efforts to reform [the police], the organization remains a highly-sectarian element of the Iraqi security forces and…is almost exclusively Shi’a.”

The White House has acknowledged “evidence of sectarian bias in the appointment of senior military and police commanders [and] target lists that bypassed operational commanders and directed lower-level intelligence officers to make arrests, primarily of Sunnis.”

Top advisers to Gen. Petraeus not only favor a “global Phoenix program” but favor threats to commit “mass violence” against Sunnis while arming and manipulating both sides of the sectarian conflict.

American taxpayers have spent $22 billion on training the Iraqi security forces since 2003. In 2007, there were ninety US advisers assigned to the Iraqi Interior Ministry. Much of the training of police and prison personnel has been outsourced to private contractors, beginning with Vinnell, MPRI and SAIC in 2004. Since 2004, DynCorp has obtained contracts for a potential $1.8 billion for police training.

We are proposing a model different from the Pentagon’s, which asserts that we cannot “stand down” until the Iraqis “stand up.” This is a recipe for a long-term counterinsurgency that breeds new enemies faster than they can be detained, and brings shame to our troops and country. It is time to recognize that our laboratory in Iraq has produced multiple Frankensteins, not a flowering pluralism.

The majority of Iraqis favor the rapid withdrawal of American troops, according to all polling. The majority of the Iraqi parliament has petitioned for a rapid withdrawal as well. This popular Iraqi consensus cannot be expressed effectively under the current occupation. Police state mechanisms like detention without due process or the cloaking of militias in police uniforms suffocate the development of any nonviolent, civic or political opposition to the American occupation, thus forcing many Iraqis into choosing between forced obedience or violent resistance. By comparison, recently in Pakistan lawyers and civic society organizations were able to express effective mass dissent in the streets against the military dictatorship with greater vigor than Iraqis are able to express under the US occupation or Iraq’s judicial or policing institutions. In Iraq, the upcoming provincial elections may exclude opponents of the occupation from participating in any meaningful way.

Meanwhile, Iraq may be dying.

It is time to bring the pressure of the human rights movement, and the clear light of public opinion, to bear against the US-assisted, US-funded, US-armed, and US-trained police, prison and security forces in Iraq and other battlegrounds of the war on terror, before we are completely discredited for fighting terror only with terror of our own.

We believe that the American occupation, including the client regime we have fostered and funded, is a human rights violation in itself, and we wish to begin a public debate with those who purport to see a democratic light at the end of the tunnel where we see only a dungeon with neither exits nor appeals. Even the US Army’s new manual foresees more “dirty” wars stretching into the future, which will create humanitarian crises by their very nature impossible to justify this war-fighting doctrine, which assumes death, destruction and humanitarian crises beyond the casualties of combat itself, as consistent with human rights standards.

Building a forty-acre, $60 million detention facility in Afghanistan, allegedly to provide better conditions for detainees, ignores the question of why our troops are sinking into a deeper quagmire in Afghanistan in the first place. There is no way to safeguard human rights or due process under an unpopular military occupation.

We propose that Congress undertake serious oversight into the extent to which our taxes are funding human rights violations and torture, and provide an alternative roadmap to the restoration of our democratic values.

1. Congress should investigate whether US policies violate Article 3 of the Geneva Convention as it applies to internal armed conflicts. The US rationale for suppressing human rights for “imperative reasons of security” applies, if at all, to conditions of belligerent occupation, which ended in 2004. US policies of internment without judicial review also may violate the US Code of Military Justice, the Convention Against Torture and international covenants against cruel, human and degrading treatment of detainees even in cases of so-called “state emergencies.”

2. Congress should require the effective regulation of private contractors in Iraq, including strict adherence to international human rights standards, or act to de-fund all such rogue mercenary armies.

3. Congress should insist on an exit strategy from the Afghanistan war instead of approving the Pentagon’s monstrous new detention facility north of Kabul.

4. Congress should determine whether the 1997 Leahy Amendment, which prohibits assistance to sectarian and repressive human rights violators, applies to our policies in Iraq and Afghanistan.

5. Congress should oppose the proposed $60 million detention facility in Afghanistan, which implies a long-term Western military occupation in violation of basic human rights, judicial due process and national sovereignty.

6. Congress should hold hearings on the Administration’s unilateral right to negotiate a binding post-2008 status-of-forces agreement with Iraq, and make clear that there will be no future funding or authorization of illegal detention and other human rights violations.

We fear that the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, even if they begin officially winding down, will devolve into low-visibility, low-intensity counterinsurgency wars replete with arbitrary detention, torture, civilian atrocities, vendettas and sectarian rule.

The opportunity is in your hands to challenge taxes for human rights abuses and torture. “Torture” is a word even the torturers dare not speak, because American and global opinion is deeply opposed to such policies. Instead of the Bill of Rights, the thesaurus is borrowed, and phrases like “harsh interrogation techniques” become our mainstream vocabulary. Or, since it cannot be embraced, torture is outsourced to a shadowy gulag with American advisers, where victims are renditioned and disappeared.

As another close subordinate to Gen. Petraeus, Col. Theodore Westhusing, wrote in a note before taking his own life in 2005, “I cannot support a mission that leads to corruption, human rights abuses, and liars.”

We ask the Congress to concur with Col. Westhusing, before collective guilt becomes the fate of us all.


Michael Ratner, president, Center For Constitutional Rights
Tom Hayden, author, human rights advocate
Ariel Dorfman, author, human rights advocate
Peter Laarman, executive director, Progressive Christians Uniting

Rev. Dr. Susan Brookes Thistleswaite, president and professor of theology, Chicago Theological Seminary
Rev. Dr George Hunsinger, Princeton Theological Seminary
Gary Dorrien, Professor, Union Theological Seminary, Columbia University

Marjorie Cohn, president, National Lawyers Guild Executive Committee
Judy Somberg, executive vice-presdident, National Lawyers Guild
Peter Erlinder, professor, William Mitchell College Of Law, St. Paul
Leonard Weinglass, human rights attorney

Salam Al Marayati, executive director, Muslim Public Affairs Council
Ingrid Mattson, professor and president, The Islamic Society Of North America

Rev. George Regas, rector emeritus, All Saints Episcopal Church
Rev. J. Edwin Bacon, rector, All Saints Episcopal Church
Rev. James Conn, director of new ministries, United Methodist Church

Alexia Kelley, Catholics In Alliance
Dave Robinson, executive director, Pax Christi USA
Marie Dennis, co-president, Pax Christi International
Simone Campbell, executive director, NETWORK

Rabbi Leonard Beerman, founding rabbi, Leo Baeck Temple
Rabbi Neil Comess-Daniels, Beth Shir Shalom
Rabbi Steven Jacobs, founder, Progressive Faith Foundation
Rabbi Arthur Waskow, The Shalom Center

Ramona Ripston, human rights advocate, Los Angeles ACLU
Kary L. Moss, Attorney, executive director Michigan ACLU

Aaron Krager,, Chicago Theological School
Terra Lawson-Remer, Law And Society Institute, New York University
Jennie Green, International Women’s Human Rights Law Clinic

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