No Comment — December 1, 2009, 3:35 pm

The Black Hole of Bagram

Tonight President Barack Obama will deliver a major address justifying the orders he issued yesterday for a ramp-up of the military effort in Afghanistan. No matter what he says, his remarks are sure to fuel controversy. To war critics, the escalation will look like LBJ’s perilous slide into Vietnam. For the implacable right, nothing Obama can do will ever be aggressive, firm, or prompt enough. But in the debate over troop commitments, there’s an important question about U.S. operations in Afghanistan that risks being overlooked: Why are we running a secret prison there?

On his second day in office, Obama acted on one of his campaign pledges by issuing an order (Executive Order No. 13491 (Jan. 22, 2009)) designed to shut down secret prisons and ban Bush-era torture practices, and directing that the Red Cross would have access to any detainees. But when we wade into it, the order turns out to be less than meets the eye. Only CIA prisons are shut down. Prisons operated by the Department of Defense remain in place. The Defense Department overhauled its detention policies in the wake of the disclosures at Abu Ghraib and Bagram, where prisoners were literally tortured to death. It embraced Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions as a “minimum baseline.” A number of observers concluded that the Pentagon had been brought whimpering back into compliance with the basic norms that the American military largely authored in the first place. But is that conclusion correct?

Disclosures over the past weekend suggest that there are serious problems in a detention facility operated by the Pentagon’s secretive Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), the same outfit linked to executive assassinations, predator drone attacks contracted out to Blackwater, and similar controversies. Here’s the Washington Post account:

Two Afghan teenagers held in U.S. detention north of Kabul this year said they were beaten by American guards, photographed naked, deprived of sleep and held in solitary confinement in concrete cells for at least two weeks while undergoing daily interrogation about their alleged links to the Taliban. The accounts could not be independently substantiated. But in successive, on-the-record interviews, the teenagers presented a detailed, consistent portrait suggesting that the abusive treatment of suspected insurgents has in some cases continued under the Obama administration, despite steps that President Obama has said would put an end to the harsh interrogation practices authorized by the Bush administration after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. The two teenagers — Issa Mohammad, 17, and Abdul Rashid, who said he is younger than 16 — said in interviews this week that they were punched and slapped in the face by their captors during their time at Bagram air base, where they were held in individual cells. Rashid said his interrogator forced him to look at pornography alongside a photograph of his mother.

The techniques described–enforced nudity, sleep deprivation, extended isolation, and sexual humiliation—all belong to the palette approved and used by the Bush Administration. But didn’t Obama ban these techniques? That’s not entirely clear. He rescinded prior guidance and stated that the Justice Department would provide the Defense Department with new guidelines. But old abuses appear to have long legs, particularly because lawyers and other career officials who approved them are quick to argue that what they did previously was fully authorized and legal.

Little is known about the “black jail,” the infamous JSOC prison near Bagram. The Pentagon, even in the more transparent Obama era, has been rather testy about allowing human rights observers free access to any of the detention facilities at Bagram or the right to interview prisoners–though it has invited observers to tour its new prison. Jonathan Horowitz, a consultant at the Open Society Institute who has been studying U.S. detention operations in Afghanistan, told me that, although he was unable specifically to corroborate the accounts published this weekend, several former detainees have furnished consistent descriptions of the facility. “Generally speaking,” Horowitz noted, ”JSOC operates with a high level of secrecy, which makes it extremely difficult to know what rules they are supposed to follow and if they are following them.”

A comprehensive investigation is necessary, and it should start with a simple question: why is JSOC authorized to run an independent prison, and why the special efforts to keep it off the radar? If the allegations aired this weekend are true, then JSOC is running this facility on terms that vary sharply from those that the U.S. Defense Department advertises. Given the allegations of abuse at JSOC’s Camp Nama, which continue to dog General Stanley McChrystal, that may not be surprising, but it does point to JSOC being the last holdout from Obama’s promise to clean up detention policy.

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