Tag Archives: torture

Maybe next year, if the dollar goes into tripled-digit hyperinflation (e.g. like Zimbabwe today, Argentina in the 1980s, Germany in the 1920s, they’ll make Obama the first man in history to receive two Nobel Prizes in consecutive years by giving him the Nobel Prize in Economics….

It does seem strangely bizarre that Obama’s own supporters on the Democratic left (such as Salon.com’s editor in chief Joan Walsh) are struggling to defend Obama’s receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize while apologizing “even as we acknowledge disappointment with Obama on State Secrets, Torture, Iraq, and Afghanistan” (you know, minor issues relating to world peace like those which constitute, well….just about everything he’s touched in the past nine months, see http://www.salon.com/opinion/walsh// for October 10, 2009), the rest of the Country is reeling from the sensation that this is all just a really bad joke, including my favorite commentator on civil rights and civil liberties, the author of How would a Patriot Act?.  The key quote from the article below is, in my opinion:

[Obama has] worked tirelessly to protect his country not only from accountability — but also transparency — for the last eight years of war crimes, almost certainly violating America’s treaty obligations in the process.  And he is currently presiding over an expansion of the legal black hole at Bagram while aggressively demanding the right to abduct people from around the world, ship them there, and then imprison them indefinitely with no rights of any kind.

All put together it makes me want to cry for my beloved but hopelessly insecure homeland, the United States of America, home of the zombie-like sleepwalkers and cowards who are letting this all happen (i.e., what seems like at least 75% of the population and maybe more)!  But seriously, what Obama is doing on the foreign front to protect the Bush legacy is nowhere nearly as sinister and corrupt as what he’s doing at home—pushing his domestic socialist agenda in cooperation with the corporate-financial giants, i.e. the international Banks, such as Bank of America, Wells Fargo, and Chase just to name the top-three leading culprits, whose disregard for the fundamental elements of common law contract and property law is rapidly turning this country into a nation of homeless vagabonds….one foreclosure at a time, 70 foreclosures per morning and afternoon per session per county court, all across the United States, from sea to shining sea!

Glenn Greenwald

FRIDAY OCT. 9, 2009 07:10 EDT

(updated below – Update II)

When I saw this morning’s top New York Times headline — “Barack Obama Wins Nobel Peace Prize” — I had the same immediate reaction which I’m certain many others had:  this was some kind of bizarre Onion gag that got accidentally transposed onto the wrong website, that it was just some sort of strange joke someone was playing.  Upon further reflection, that isn’t all that far from the reaction I still have.  And I say that despite my belief that — as critical as I’ve been of the Obama presidency regarding civil liberties and Terrorism — foreign affairs is actually one area where he’s shown genuine potential for some constructive “change” and has, on occasion, merited real praise for taking steps in the general “peace” direction which this Prize is meant to honor.

Obama has changed the tone America uses to speak to the world generally and the Muslim world specifically.  His speech in Cairo, his first-week interview on al-Arabiya, and the extraordinarily conciliatory holiday video he sent to Iran are all substantial illustrations of that.  His willingness to sit down and negotiate with Iran — rather than threaten and berate them — has already produced tangible results.  He has at least preliminarily broken from Bush’s full-scale subservience to Israel and has applied steadfast pressure on the Israelis to cease settlement activities, even though it’s subjected him to the sorts of domestic political risks and vicious smears that have made prior Presidents afraid to do so.  His decision to use his first full day in office to issue Executive Orders to close Guantanamo, ostensibly ban torture, and bar CIA black sites was an important symbol offered to the world (even though it’s been followed by actions that make those commitments little more than empty symbols).  He refused to reflexively support the right-wing, civil-liberty-crushing coup leaders in Honduras merely because they were “pro-American” and “anti-Chavez,” thus siding with the vast bulk of Latin America’s governments — a move George Bush, or John McCain, never would have made.  And as a result of all of that, the U.S. — in a worldwide survey released just this week — rose from seventh to first on the list of “most admired countries.”

All that said, these changes are completely preliminary, which is to be expected given that he’s only been in office nine months.  For that reason, while Obama’s popularity has surged in Western Europe, the changes in the Muslim world in terms of how the U.S. is perceived have been small to nonexistent.  As Der Spiegel put it in the wake of a worldwide survey in July:  “while Europe’s ardor for Obama appears fervent, he has actually made little progress in the regions where the US faces its biggest foreign policy problems.”  People who live in regions that have long been devastated by American weaponry don’t have the luxury of being dazzled by pretty words and speeches.  They apparently — and rationally — won’t believe that America will actually change from a war-making nation into a peace-making one until there are tangible signs that this is happening.  It’s because that has so plainly not yet occurred that the Nobel Committee has made a mockery out of their own award.

But far more important than the lack of actual accomplishments are some of the policies over which Obama has presided that are the very opposite of peace.  Already this year, he not only escalated the American war in Afghanistan, but has ordered air raids that have produced things like this:

That was from a May airstrike in which over 100 Afghan civilians were killed by American jets — one of many similar incidents this year, including one only a week ago that killed 9 Afghan civilians.  How can someone responsible for that, and who has only escalated that war, possibly be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in the very same year that he did that?  Does that picture above look like the work of a Nobel Peace laureate?  Does this, from the May airstrike?

Beyond Afghanistan, Obama continues to preside over another war — in Iraq:  remember that? — where no meaningful withdrawal has occurred.  He uttered not a peep of opposition to the Israeli massacre of Gazan civilians at the beginning of this year (using American weapons), one which a U.N. investigator just found constituted war crimes and possibly crimes against humanity.  The changed tone to Iran notwithstanding, his administration frequently emphasizes that it is preserving the option to bomb that country, too — which could be a third war against a Muslim country fought simultaneously under his watch.  He’s worked tirelessly to protect his country not only from accountability — but also transparency — for the last eight years of war crimes, almost certainly violating America’s treaty obligations in the process.  And he is currently presiding over an expansion of the legal black hole at Bagram while aggressively demanding the right to abduct people from around the world, ship them there, and then imprison them indefinitely with no rights of any kind.

It’s certainly true that Obama inherited, not started, these conflicts.  And it’s possible that he could bring about their end, along with an overall change in how America interacts with the world in terms of actions, not just words.  If he does that, he would deserve immense credit — perhaps even a Nobel Peace Prize.  But he hasn’t done any of that.  And it’s at least as possible that he’ll do the opposite:  that he’ll continue to escalate the 8-year occupation of Afghanistan, preside over more conflict in Iraq, end up in a dangerous confrontation with Iran, and continue to preserve many of the core Bush/Cheney Terrorism policies that created such a stain on America’s image and character around the world.

Through no fault of his own, Obama presides over a massive war-making state that spends on its military close to what the rest of the world spends combined.  The U.S. accounts for almost 70% of worldwide arms sales.  We’re currently occupying and waging wars in two separate Muslim countries and making clear we reserve the “right” to attack a third.  Someone who made meaningful changes to those realities would truly be a man of peace.  It’s unreasonable to expect that Obama would magically transform all of this in nine months, and he certainly hasn’t.  Instead, he presides over it and is continuing much of it.  One can reasonably debate how much blame he merits for all of that, but there are simply no meaningful “peace” accomplishment in his record — at least not yet — and there’s plenty of the opposite.  That’s what makes this Prize so painfully and self-evidently ludicrous.

UPDATE:  Remember how, during the Bush years, the GOP would disgustingly try to equate liberals with Terrorists by pointing out that they happened to have the same view on a particular matter (The Left opposes the war in Iraq, just like Al Qaeda and Hezbollah do! or bin Laden’s criticisms of Bush sound just like Michael Moore’s! ).  It looks like the Democratic Party haslearned and adopted that tactic perfectly (“‘The Republican Party has thrown in its lot with the terrorists – the Taliban and Hamas this morning – in criticizing the President for receiving the Nobel Peace prize,’ DNC communications director Brad Woodhouse told POLITICO”; Republicans are “put[ting] politics above patriotism,” he added).

Apparently, according to the DNC, if you criticize this Prize, then you’re an unpatriotic America-hater — just like the Terrorists, because they’re also criticizing the award.  Karl Rove should be proud.  Maybe the DNC should also send out Joe Lieberman’s 2005 warning that “in matters of war we undermine Presidential credibility at our nation’s peril.”  Hamas also thinks that Israeli settlements should be frozen — a position Obama shares.  So, by the DNC’s Rovian reasoning, doesn’t this mean that Obama “has thrown in his lot with the terrorists”?

UPDATE II:  On Democracy Now, Naomi Klein calls Obama’s award “disappointing, cheapening of the Nobel Prize,” and adds:  “I think it’s quite insulting. I don’t know what kind of political game they’re playing, but I don’t think that the committee has ever been as political as this or as delusional as this, frankly.”  On Daily Kos, Michael Moore writes ironically:  “Congratulations President Obama on the Nobel Peace Prize — Now Please Earn it!”  Mairead Maguire, the 1976 Nobel Peace Prize Winner, says she’s “very disappointed” with this award, noting:  “President Obama has yet to prove that he will move seriously on the Middle East, that he will end the war in Afghanistan and many other issues.”   And my Salon colleague, Alex Koppelman, adds several thoughts about the efforts by the DNC and some Democratic groups to explicitly equate opposition to the Prize with “casting one’s lot with terrorists.”

Prosecute Bush & Impeach Obama! This article from “Der Spiegel” (German for “The Mirror”) does not reflect very well on our government. When will this Country get the message that the real criminals are those running the country. We must stand up to the continuing disregard for basic human rights—the brutal oppression of many for the dubious benefit of….who exactly?

http://www.salon.com/news/feature/2009/04/28/poland_prison/print.html


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New evidence of a secret torture prison

It has long been clear that the CIA used the Szymany military airbase in Poland for extraordinary renditions. Now there is new evidence of a secret torture prison nearby.By John Goetz and Britta Sandberg

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in Der Spiegel.


Apr. 28, 2009 |

Only a smattering of clouds dotted the sky over Szymany on March 7, 2003, and visibility was good. A light breeze blew from the southeast as a plane approached the small military airfield in northeastern Poland, and the temperature outside was 2 degrees Celsius (36 degrees Fahrenheit). At around 4 p.m., the Gulfstream N379P — known among investigators as the “torture taxi” — touched down on the landing strip.

 

 

On board was the most important prisoner the U.S. had been able to produce in the war on terror: Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the architect of the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington, also known as “the brains” behind al-Qaida. This was the man who had presented Osama bin Laden with plans to attack the U.S. with commercial jets. He personally selected the pilots and supervised preparations for the attacks. Eighteen months later, on March 1, 2003, Sheikh Mohammed was captured in Rawalpindi, Pakistan by U.S. Special Forces and brought to Afghanistan two days later. Now the CIA was flying him to a remote area in Poland’s Masuria region. The prisoner slept during the flight from Kabul to Szymany, for the first time in days, as he later recounted:

 

 

“My eyes were covered with a cloth tied around my head. A cloth bag was then pulled over my head … I fell asleep … I therefore don’t know how long the journey lasted.”

 

 

Jerry M., age 56 at the time, probably sat at the controls of the plane chartered by the CIA. The trained airplane and helicopter pilot had been hired by Aero Contractors, a company that transferred prisoners around the world for U.S. intelligence agencies. According to documents from the European aviation safety agency Eurocontrol, Jerry M. had taken off from Kabul at 8:51 a.m. that morning. Only hours after landing in Poland, at 7:16 p.m., he took off again, headed for Washington.

 

 

A large number of Polish and American intelligence operatives have since gone on record that the CIA maintained a prison in northeastern Poland. Independent of these sources, Polish government officials from the Justice and Defense Ministry have also reported that the Americans had a secret base near Szymany airport. And so began on March 7, 2003, one of the darkest chapters of recent American — and European — history.

 

 

Obama under pressure

 

 

It was apparently here, just under an hour’s drive from Szymany airport, that Sheikh Mohammed was tortured exactly 183 times with waterboarding — an interrogation technique that simulates the sensation of drowning — in March 2003 alone. That averages out to eight times a day. And all of this happened right here in Europe.

 

 

Over six years later, these acts of torture are putting President Obama under intense pressure. On the one hand, he released four memos in which his predecessor George W. Bush had legalized such interrogation methods. On the other hand, he decided not to prosecute the torturers. And he initially neglected to launch investigations into these “special interrogation methods.”

 

 

It is the decision that has earned Obama the harshest criticism during the first 100 days of his presidency. Democrats from the Senate and the House of Representatives announced last week that they would form a truth commission, essentially putting them at odds with their own president. Obama quickly realized that he had apparently underestimated the volatile nature of the issue. So he had Attorney General Eric Holder announce that no one stood above the law. Holder promised that an investigation would be conducted to find out who in the White House and the Justice Department had declared these methods legal.

 

 

What the CIA did back then to prisoners in the Polish military airbase of Stare Kiejkuty, north of Szymany, had been authorized by the president. According to witnesses, Stare Kiejkuty housed a secret CIA prison for “high value detainees” — for the most prominent prisoners of the war on terror.

 

 

There is now no doubt that the Gulfstream N379P landed at least five times at Szymany between February and July 2003. Flight routes were manipulated and falsified for this purpose and, with the knowledge of the Polish government, the European aviation safety agency Eurocontrol was deliberately deceived.

 

 

The public prosecutor’s office in Warsaw has the statement of a witness who described how people wearing handcuffs and blindfolds were led from the aircraft at Szymany. He said that this happened far away from the control tower. According to the witness, it was always the same individuals and the same civilian vehicles that stood waiting on the landing field.

 

 

If we are to believe the statements of Sheikh Mohammed, a large number of those present at the small airfield wore ski masks. This is what he told a delegation from the International Committee of the Red Cross that questioned him in the U.S. military prison at Guantánamo, Cuba, in late 2006:

 

 

“On arrival the transfer from the airport to the next place of detention took about one hour. I was transported sitting on the floor of a vehicle. I could see at one point that there was snow on the ground. Everybody was wearing black, with masks and army boots, like Planet-X people.”

 

 

Just under an hour’s drive corresponds roughly to the distance from Szymany to the Stare Kiejkuty military base, known as a training camp for Polish intelligence agents. The route there passes for two kilometers through a fenced-off military zone, past dense pine forests, then heads northeast for 20 minutes, and finally leads over an unpaved road alongside a lake. The entrance to the base is at the end of this road.

 

 

“I was never threatened with death”

 

 

Sheikh Mohammed said that they cut the clothes from his body, photographed him naked and threw him in a 10-by-13-foot cell with wooden walls. That was when the hardest phase of the interrogating began, he claims. According to Sheikh Mohammed, one of his interrogators told him that they had received the green light from Washington to give him a “hard time”:

 

 

“They never used the word ‘torture’ and never referred to ‘physical pressure,’ only to ‘a hard time.’ I was never threatened with death; in fact I was told that they would not allow me to die, but that I would be brought to the ‘verge of death and back again.'”

 

 

He says he was questioned roughly eight hours a day. He spent the first month naked and standing, with his hands chained to the ceiling of the cell, even at night. They led them into another room for questioning, he says. That’s where the bed stood that he says he was strapped to for waterboarding. The mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks told members of the Red Cross that he eventually realized where he was being held:

 

 

“I think the country was Poland. I think this because on one occasion a water bottle was brought to me without the label removed. It had an e-mail address ending in ‘.pl’. The central-heating system was an old-style one that I would expect only to see in countries of the former communist system.”

 

 

Thereafter, the al-Qaida operative described how he was strapped to a special bed and submitted to waterboarding:

 

 

“Cold water from a bottle that had been kept in the fridge was then poured onto the cloth by one of the guards so that I could not breathe. This obviously could only be done for one or two minutes at a time. The cloth was then removed and the bed put into a vertical position. The whole process was then repeated during about an hour. Injuries to my ankles and wrists also occurred during the waterboarding as I struggled in the panic of not being able to breathe.”

 

 

Part 2: Investigations across Europe

 

 

For more than a year now, Warsaw public prosecutor Robert Majewski has been investigating former Polish Prime Minister Leszek Miller’s government on allegations of abuse of office. At issue is whether sovereignty over Polish territory was relinquished, and whether former Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski and his left-leaning Social Democratic government gave the CIA free reign over sections of the Stare Kiejkuty military base for the agency’s extraterritorial torture interrogations.

 

 

Majewski has questioned a large number of witnesses who worked in the former government, and this year his team even plans to fly to Guantánamo. “No European country is so sincerely and vigorously investigating former members of the government as is currently the case in Poland,” says Wolfgang Kaleck from the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights in Berlin, which supports the investigations.

 

 

The public prosecutor’s office has also launched a probe to determine whether the Polish intelligence agency made 20 of its agents available to the CIA, as was recently reported by the conservative Polish daily newspaper Rzeczpospolita. A former CIA official confirmed this information. There was reportedly a document issued by the intelligence agency that mentioned both the 20 Polish agents and the transfer of the military base to the Americans. Two members of a parliamentary investigative committee in Warsaw had an opportunity to view this document in late 2005, but it has since disappeared.

 

 

The missing piece of evidence

 

 

Journalist Mariusz Kowalewski at Rzeczpospolita and two colleagues have been searching for months now for proof of the existence of a secret CIA base in Poland. The journalists have discovered flight record books from Szymany that had been declared lost, and based on refueling receipts and currency exchange rates, they have reconstructed flights and routes, and spoken with informants. Over the past few weeks, their newspaper and the television network TVP Info have revealed new details on an almost daily basis.

 

 

Kowalewski has collected a wide range of documents on his white Apple laptop. He is convinced, though, that he only knows “a fraction of what actually happened.” He is certain that there was a CIA base in the Masuria region, where high-ranking al-Qaida prisoners were brought. All that is missing is the final piece of evidence. There are rumors circulating that one of the most important interrogators of Sheikh Mohammed, an American named Deuce Martinez — the man who didn’t torture him, but rather had the task of gently coaxing information out of him — was in Poland at the time. That is the proof that’s still missing.

 

 

Similar conclusions were reached by the second investigative report on CIA kidnappings in Europe, which was submitted two years ago by the special investigator of the Council of Europe, Dick Marty. According to Marty’s report, members of the former Polish military intelligence and counterintelligence agency, WSI, were given positions with the border police, customs and airport administration to safeguard the activities of the CIA. “The latest revelations in Poland fully corroborate my evidence, which is based on testimony by insiders and documents that have been leaked to me,” says the investigator today. Now, under the “dynamic force of the truth” that Obama has unleashed, Marty says that Europeans must finally reveal “which governments tolerated and supported the illegal practices of the CIA.”

 

 

All that remains is the question of who in Poland at the time approved the collaboration with the CIA and gave the Americans unencumbered use of sections of Stare Kiejkuty.

 

 

“The order to give the CIA everything they needed came from the very top, from the president,” a member of the Polish military intelligence agency told the Marty team in 2007. Kwasniewski denies this. He says that there was close intelligence corporation with the U.S., but no prisons on Polish soil. When asked to comment on the reports, former Prime Minister Miller said: “All of this is just another opportunity for me to say that I have nothing to say.”

 

 

It’s very possible that the debate on torture and responsibility which is currently being conducted in the U.S. will soon also reach Europe. After all, Germany granted the U.S. flyover rights and dropped its bid to extradite 13 CIA operatives in the case of Khalid el-Masri, a German citizen who claims he was abducted by the Americans. The Italian intelligence agency allegedly assisted the CIA with the kidnapping in Milan of the Islamic cleric Abu Omar. Britain’s intelligence agency, MI6, reportedly delivered information directly to CIA agents who were conducting interrogations in Morocco. And there are also reports of a secret prison in Romania. Investigations have been launched into these allegations in nearly all of these countries.

 

 

Jerry M., the pilot who flew Sheikh Mohammed from Kabul to Szymany in March, 2003, now lives in Birmingham, Ala., in a brick house with white shutters and box trees planted in front of the door. Two stone lions guard the path that leads to the entrance. For two years, Jerry M. only had a post box address, like everyone else who flew CIA prisoners around the world: P.O. Box 22 99 43, code name Jerry Allen Bostick.

 

 

It appears the 62-year-old would rather deny all knowledge of this period in his life. When asked by a reporter over the phone if he had ever been to Poland, he said, “I have no idea what you’re talking about. Really no idea.” When he was asked if he had ever worked for a company named Aero Contractors, the line suddenly went dead. Jerry M. had hung up.

 

 

Translated from the German by Paul Cohen

 

 

— By John Goetz and Britta Sandberg

PROSECUTIONS (OF THE BUSH ADMINISTRATION) THAT SHOULD ALREADY HAVE HAPPENED: OBAMA HAS ABANDONNED CIVIL LIBERTIES BUT MCCAIN WAS ALWAYS AGAINST THEM….

 http://www.salon.com/news/feature/2008/07/23/new_churchcomm/print.html


Exposing Bush’s historic abuse of power

Salon has uncovered new evidence of post-9/11 spying on Americans. Obtained documents point to a potential investigation of the White House that could rival Watergate.

 

By Tim Shorrock

Jul. 23, 2008 | The last several years have brought a parade of dark revelations about the George W. Bush administration, from the manipulation of intelligence to torture to extrajudicial spying inside the United States. But there are growing indications that these known abuses of power may only be the tip of the iceberg. Now, in the twilight of the Bush presidency, a movement is stirring in Washington for a sweeping new inquiry into White House malfeasance that would be modeled after the famous Church Committee congressional investigation of the 1970s.
While reporting on domestic surveillance under Bush, Salon obtained a detailed memo proposing such an inquiry, and spoke with several sources involved in recent discussions around it on Capitol Hill. The memo was written by a former senior member of the original Church Committee; the discussions have included aides to top House Democrats, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Judiciary Committee chairman John Conyers, and until now have not been disclosed publicly.

Salon has also uncovered further indications of far-reaching and possibly illegal surveillance conducted by the National Security Agency inside the United States under President Bush. That includes the alleged use of a top-secret, sophisticated database system for monitoring people considered to be a threat to national security. It also includes signs of the NSA’s working closely with other U.S. government agencies to track financial transactions domestically as well as globally.

The proposal for a Church Committee-style investigation emerged from talks between civil liberties advocates and aides to Democratic leaders in Congress, according to sources involved. (Pelosi’s and Conyers’ offices both declined to comment.) Looking forward to 2009, when both Congress and the White House may well be controlled by Democrats, the idea is to have Congress appoint an investigative body to discover the full extent of what the Bush White House did in the war on terror to undermine the Constitution and U.S. and international laws. The goal would be to implement government reforms aimed at preventing future abuses — and perhaps to bring accountability for wrongdoing by Bush officials.

“If we know this much about torture, rendition, secret prisons and warrantless wiretapping despite the administration’s attempts to stonewall, then imagine what we don’t know,” says a senior Democratic congressional aide who is familiar with the proposal and has been involved in several high-profile congressional investigations.

“You have to go back to the McCarthy era to find this level of abuse,” says Barry Steinhardt, the director of the Program on Technology and Liberty for the American Civil Liberties Union. “Because the Bush administration has been so opaque, we don’t know [the extent of] what laws have been violated.”

The parameters for an investigation were outlined in a seven-page memo, written after the former member of the Church Committee met for discussions with the ACLU, the Center for Democracy and Technology, Common Cause and other watchdog groups. Key issues to investigate, those involved say, would include the National Security Agency’s domestic surveillance activities; the Central Intelligence Agency’s use of extraordinary rendition and torture against terrorist suspects; and the U.S. government’s extensive use of military assets — including satellites, Pentagon intelligence agencies and U2 surveillance planes — for a vast spying apparatus that could be used against the American people.

Specifically, the ACLU and other groups want to know how the NSA’s use of databases and data mining may have meshed with other domestic intelligence activities, such as the U.S. government’s extensive use of no-fly lists and the Treasury Department’s list of “specially designated global terrorists” to identify potential suspects. As of mid-July, says Steinhardt, the no-fly list includes more than 1 million records corresponding to more than 400,000 names. If those people really represent terrorist threats, he says, “our cities would be ablaze.” A deeper investigation into intelligence abuses should focus on how these lists feed on each other, Steinhardt says, as well as the government’s “inexorable trend towards treating everyone as a suspect.”

“It’s not just the ‘Terrorist Surveillance Program,'” agrees Gregory T. Nojeim from the Center for Democracy and Technology, referring to the Bush administration’s misleading name for the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping program. “We need a broad investigation on the way all the moving parts fit together. It seems like we’re always looking at little chunks and missing the big picture.”

A prime area of inquiry for a sweeping new investigation would be the Bush administration’s alleged use of a top-secret database to guide its domestic surveillance. Dating back to the 1980s and known to government insiders as “Main Core,” the database reportedly collects and stores — without warrants or court orders — the names and detailed data of Americans considered to be threats to national security.

According to several former U.S. government officials with extensive knowledge of intelligence operations, Main Core in its current incarnation apparently contains a vast amount of personal data on Americans, including NSA intercepts of bank and credit card transactions and the results of surveillance efforts by the FBI, the CIA and other agencies. One former intelligence official described Main Core as “an emergency internal security database system” designed for use by the military in the event of a national catastrophe, a suspension of the Constitution or the imposition of martial law. Its name, he says, is derived from the fact that it contains “copies of the ‘main core’ or essence of each item of intelligence information on Americans produced by the FBI and the other agencies of the U.S. intelligence community.”

Some of the former U.S. officials interviewed, although they have no direct knowledge of the issue, said they believe that Main Core may have been used by the NSA to determine who to spy on in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. Moreover, the NSA’s use of the database, they say, may have triggered the now-famous March 2004 confrontation between the White House and the Justice Department that nearly led Attorney General John Ashcroft, FBI director William Mueller and other top Justice officials to resign en masse.

The Justice Department officials who objected to the legal basis for the surveillance program — former Deputy Attorney General James B. Comey and Jack Goldsmith, the former head of the Office of Legal Counsel — testified before Congress last year about the 2004 showdown with the White House. Although they refused to discuss the highly classified details behind their concerns, the New York Times later reported that they were objecting to a program that “involved computer searches through massive electronic databases” containing “records of the phone calls and e-mail messages of millions of Americans.”

According to William Hamilton, a former NSA intelligence officer who left the agency in the 1970s, that description sounded a lot like Main Core, which he first heard about in detail in 1992. Hamilton, who is the president of Inslaw Inc., a computer services firm with many clients in government and the private sector, says there are strong indications that the Bush administration’s domestic surveillance operations use Main Core.

Hamilton’s company Inslaw is widely respected in the law enforcement community for creating a program called the Prosecutors’ Management Information System, or PROMIS. It keeps track of criminal investigations through a powerful search engine that can quickly access all stored data components of a case, from the name of the initial investigators to the telephone numbers of key suspects. PROMIS, also widely used in the insurance industry, can also sort through other databases fast, with results showing up almost instantly. “It operates just like Google,” Hamilton told me in an interview in his Washington office in May.

Since the late 1980s, Inslaw has been involved in a legal dispute over its claim that Justice Department officials in the Reagan administration appropriated the PROMIS software. Hamilton claims that Reagan officials gave PROMIS to the NSA and the CIA, which then adapted the software — and its outstanding ability to search other databases — to manage intelligence operations and track financial transactions. Over the years, Hamilton has employed prominent lawyers to pursue the case, including Elliot Richardson, the former attorney general and secretary of defense who died in 1999, and C. Boyden Gray, the former White House counsel to President George H.W. Bush. The dispute has never been settled. But based on the long-running case, Hamilton says he believes U.S. intelligence uses PROMIS as the primary software for searching the Main Core database.

Hamilton was first told about the connection between PROMIS and Main Core in the spring of 1992 by a U.S. intelligence official, and again in 1995 by a former NSA official. In July 2001, Hamilton says, he discussed his case with retired Adm. Dan Murphy, a former military advisor to Elliot Richardson who later served under President George H.W. Bush as deputy director of the CIA. Murphy, who died shortly after his meeting with Hamilton, did not specifically mention Main Core. But he informed Hamilton that the NSA’s use of PROMIS involved something “so seriously wrong that money alone cannot cure the problem,” Hamilton told me. He added, “I believe in retrospect that Murphy was alluding to Main Core.” Hamilton also provided copies of letters that Richardson and Gray sent to U.S. intelligence officials and the Justice Department on Inslaw’s behalf alleging that the NSA and the CIA had appropriated PROMIS for intelligence use.

Hamilton says James B. Comey’s congressional testimony in May 2007, in which he described a hospitalized John Ashcroft’s dramatic standoff with senior Bush officials Alberto Gonzales and Andrew Card, was another illuminating moment. “It was then that we [at Inslaw] started hearing again about the Main Core derivative of PROMIS for spying on Americans,” he told me.

Through a former senior Justice Department official with more than 25 years of government experience, Salon has learned of a high-level former national security official who reportedly has firsthand knowledge of the U.S. government’s use of Main Core. The official worked as a senior intelligence analyst for a large domestic law enforcement agency inside the Bush White House. He would not agree to an interview. But according to the former Justice Department official, the former intelligence analyst told her that while stationed at the White House after the 9/11 attacks, one day he accidentally walked into a restricted room and came across a computer system that was logged on to what he recognized to be the Main Core database. When she mentioned the specific name of the top-secret system during their conversation, she recalled, “he turned white as a sheet.”

An article in Radar magazine in May, citing three unnamed former government officials, reported that “8 million Americans are now listed in Main Core as potentially suspect” and, in the event of a national emergency, “could be subject to everything from heightened surveillance and tracking to direct questioning and even detention.”

The alleged use of Main Core by the Bush administration for surveillance, if confirmed to be true, would indicate a much deeper level of secretive government intrusion into Americans’ lives than has been previously known. With respect to civil liberties, says the ACLU’s Steinhardt, it would be “pretty frightening stuff.”

The Inslaw case also points to what may be an extensive role played by the NSA in financial spying inside the United States. According to reports over the years in the U.S. and foreign press, Inslaw’s PROMIS software was embedded surreptitiously in systems sold to foreign and global banks as a way to give the NSA secret “backdoor” access to the electronic flow of money around the world.

In May, I interviewed Norman Bailey, a private financial consultant with years of government intelligence experience dating from the George W. Bush administration back to the Reagan administration. According to Bailey — who from 2006 to 2007 headed a special unit within the Office of the Director of National Intelligence focused on financial intelligence on Cuba and Venezuela — the NSA has been using its vast powers with signals intelligence to track financial transactions around the world since the early 1980s.

From 1982 to 1984, Bailey ran a top-secret program for President Reagan’s National Security Council, called “Follow the Money,” that used NSA signals intelligence to track loans from Western banks to the Soviet Union and its allies. PROMIS, he told me, was “the principal software element” used by the NSA and the Treasury Department then in their electronic surveillance programs tracking financial flows to the Soviet bloc, organized crime and terrorist groups. His admission is the first public acknowledgement by a former U.S. intelligence official that the NSA used the PROMIS software.

According to Bailey, the Reagan program marked a significant shift in resources from human spying to electronic surveillance, as a way to track money flows to suspected criminals and American enemies. “That was the beginning of the whole process,” he said.

After 9/11, this capability was instantly seen within the U.S. government as a critical tool in the war on terror — and apparently was deployed by the Bush administration inside the United States, in cases involving alleged terrorist supporters. One such case was that of the Al-Haramain Islamic Foundation in Oregon, which was accused of having terrorist ties after the NSA, at the request of the Treasury Department, eavesdropped on the phone calls of Al-Haramain officials and their American lawyers. The charges against Al-Haramain were based primarily on secret evidence that the Bush administration refused to disclose in legal proceedings; Al-Haramain’s lawyers argued in a lawsuit that was a violation of the defendants’ due process rights.

According to Bailey, the NSA also likely would have used its technological capabilities to track the charity’s financial activity. “The vast majority of financial movements of any significance take place electronically, so intercepts have become an extremely important element” in intelligence, he explained. “If the government suspects that a particular Muslim charitable organization is engaged in collecting funds to funnel to terrorists, the NSA would be asked to follow the money going into and out of the bank accounts of that charity.” (The now-defunct Al-Haramain Foundation, although affiliated with a Saudi Arabian-based global charity, was founded and based in Ashland, Ore.)

The use of a powerful database and extensive watch lists, Bailey said, would make the NSA’s job much easier. “The biggest problems with intercepts, quite frankly, is that the volumes of data, daily or even by the hour, are gigantic,” he said. “Unless you have a very precise idea of what it is you’re looking for, the NSA people or their counterparts [overseas] will just throw up their hands and say ‘forget it.'” Regarding domestic surveillance, Bailey said there’s a “whole gray area where the initiation of the transaction was in the United States and the final destination was outside, or vice versa. That’s something for the lawyers to figure out.”

Bailey’s information on the evolution of the Reagan intelligence program appears to corroborate and clarify an article published in March in the Wall Street Journal, which reported that the NSA was conducting domestic surveillance using “an ad-hoc collection of so-called ‘black programs’ whose existence is undisclosed.” Some of these programs began “years before the 9/11 attacks but have since been given greater reach.” Among them, the article said, are a joint NSA-Treasury database on financial transactions that dates back “about 15 years” to 1993. That’s not quite right, Bailey clarified: “It started in the early ’80s, at least 10 years before.”

Main Core may be the contemporary incarnation of a government watch list system that was part of a highly classified “Continuity of Government” program created by the Reagan administration to keep the U.S. government functioning in the event of a nuclear attack. Under a 1982 presidential directive, the outbreak of war could trigger the proclamation of martial law nationwide, giving the military the authority to use its domestic database to round up citizens and residents considered to be threats to national security. The emergency measures for domestic security were to be carried out by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Army.

In the late 1980s, reports about a domestic database linked to FEMA and the Continuity of Government program began to appear in the press. For example, in 1986 the Austin American-Statesman uncovered evidence of a large database that authorities were proposing to use to intern Latino dissidents and refugees during a national emergency that might follow a potential U.S. invasion of Nicaragua. During the Iran-Contra congressional hearings in 1987, questions to Reagan aide Oliver North about the database were ruled out of order by the committee chairman, Democratic Sen. Daniel Inouye, because of the “highly sensitive and classified” nature of FEMA’s domestic security operations.

In September 2001, according to “The Rise of the Vulcans,” a 2004 book on Bush’s war cabinet by James Mann, a contemporary version of the Continuity of Government program was put into play in the hours after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, when Vice President Cheney and senior members of Congress were dispersed to “undisclosed locations” to maintain government functions. It was during this emergency period, Hamilton and other former government officials believe, that President Bush may have authorized the NSA to begin actively using the Main Core database for domestic surveillance. One indicator they cite is a statement by Bush in December 2005, after the New York Times had revealed the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping, in which he made a rare reference to the emergency program: The Justice Department’s legal reviews of the NSA activity, Bush said, were based on “fresh intelligence assessment of terrorist threats to the continuity of our government.”

It is noteworthy that two key players on Bush’s national security team, Cheney and his chief of staff, David Addington, have been involved in the Continuity of Government program since its inception. Along with Donald Rumsfeld, Bush’s first secretary of defense, both men took part in simulated drills for the program during the 1980s and early 1990s. Addington’s role was disclosed in “The Dark Side,” a book published this month about the Bush administration’s war on terror by New Yorker reporter Jane Mayer. In the book, Mayer calls Addington “the father of the [NSA] eavesdropping program,” and reports that he was the key figure involved in the 2004 dispute between the White House and the Justice Department over the legality of the program. That would seem to make him a prime witness for a broader investigation.

Getting a full picture on Bush’s intelligence programs, however, will almost certainly require any sweeping new investigation to have a scope that would inoculate it against charges of partisanship. During one recent discussion on Capitol Hill, according to a participant, a senior aide to Speaker Pelosi was asked for Pelosi’s views on a proposal to expand the investigation to past administrations, including those of Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush. “The question was, how far back in time would we have to go to make this credible?” the participant in the meeting recalled.

That question was answered in the seven-page memo. “The rise of the ‘surveillance state’ driven by new technologies and the demands of counter-terrorism did not begin with this Administration,” the author wrote. Even though he acknowledged in interviews with Salon that the scope of abuse under George W. Bush would likely be an order of magnitude greater than under preceding presidents, he recommended in the memo that any new investigation follow the precedent of the Church Committee and investigate the origins of Bush’s programs, going as far back as the Reagan administration.

The proposal has emerged in a political climate reminiscent of the Watergate era. The Church Committee was formed in 1975 in the wake of media reports about illegal spying against American antiwar activists and civil rights leaders, CIA assassination squads, and other dubious activities under Nixon and his predecessors. Chaired by Sen. Frank Church of Idaho, the committee interviewed more than 800 officials and held 21 public hearings. As a result of its work, Congress in 1978 passed the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which required warrants and court supervision for domestic wiretaps, and created intelligence oversight committees in the House and Senate.

So far, no lawmaker has openly endorsed a proposal for a new Church Committee-style investigation. A spokesman for Pelosi declined to say whether Pelosi herself would be in favor of a broader probe into U.S. intelligence. On the Senate side, the most logical supporters for a broader probe would be Democratic senators such as Patrick Leahy of Vermont and Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, who led the failed fight against the recent Bush-backed changes to FISA. (Both Feingold and Leahy’s offices declined to comment on a broader intelligence inquiry.)

The Democrats’ reticence on such action ultimately may be rooted in congressional complicity with the Bush administration’s intelligence policies. Many of the war on terror programs, including the NSA’s warrantless surveillance and the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques,” were cleared with key congressional Democrats, including Pelosi, Senate Intelligence Committee chairman Rockefeller, and former House Intelligence chairwoman Jane Harman, among others.

The discussions about a broad investigation were jump-started among civil liberties advocates this spring, when it became clear that the Democrats didn’t have the votes to oppose the Bush-backed bill updating FISA. The new legislation could prevent the full story of the NSA surveillance programs from ever being uncovered; it included retroactive immunity for telecommunications companies that may have violated FISA by collaborating with the NSA on warrantless wiretapping. Opponents of Bush’s policies were further angered when Democratic leaders stripped from their competing FISA bill a provision that would have established a national commission to investigate post-9/11 surveillance programs.

The next president obviously would play a key role in any decision to investigate intelligence abuses. Sen. John McCain, the Republican candidate, is running as a champion of Bush’s national security policies and would be unlikely to embrace an investigation that would, foremost, embarrass his own party. (Randy Scheunemann, McCain’s spokesman on national security, declined to comment.)

Some see a brighter prospect in Barack Obama, should he be elected. The plus with Obama, says the former Church Committee staffer, is that as a proponent of open government, he could order the executive branch to be more cooperative with Congress, rolling back the obsessive secrecy and stonewalling of the Bush White House. That could open the door to greater congressional scrutiny and oversight of the intelligence community, since the legislative branch lacked any real teeth under Bush. (Obama’s spokesman on national security, Ben Rhodes, did not reply to telephone calls and e-mails seeking comment.)

But even that may be a lofty hope. “It may be the last thing a new president would want to do,” said a participant in the ongoing discussions. Unfortunately, he said, “some people see the Church Committee ideas as a substitute for prosecutions that should already have happened.”

 

 

 

— By Tim Shorrock