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Europe takes hard look at nations that allowed U.S. interrogations

In a new book, a CIA official justifies the waterboarding of terrorism suspects. But nations where some of the harsh methods took place are more conflicted.

May 01, 2012|By Carol J. Williams, Los Angeles Times

Mistakes were made, but on balance waterboarding of terrorism suspects made the world safer.

That is the conclusion of Jose Rodriguez, a key CIA architect of the harsh measures used to elicit intelligence from prisoners snatched from the streets of foreign countries and flown to a globe-spanning network of secret prisons for interrogation.

But in Europe, where leaders of developing democracies like Poland, Lithuania and Romania allowed the CIA to conduct counter-terrorism activities the Council of Europe defines as torture, Rodriguez's position is unlikely to dampen the quest for accountability for those who welcomed U.S. agents. East Europeans are sensitive to the use of torture and other harsh techniques because of their experience under totalitarian regimes, which arrested and abused opponents at will.

Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk has said his country won't be silent about human rights abusers in its midst, "even if they do so with the world's greatest superpower." Judicial authorities recently charged the former head of intelligence, Zbigniew Siemiatkowski, with exceeding his authority in allowing the CIA to set up a secret prison in the remote northern village of Stare Kiejkuty.

European parliamentarians investigating alleged complicity in torture on the continent last week lashed out at Lithuania for shutting down an investigation into claims the former Soviet republic hosted two secret CIA detention facilities after Sept. 11.

Romanian officials haven't even looked into allegations of collaborating in torture, said French lawmaker Helene Flautre, head of a fact-finding mission preparing for a session this summer on Eastern European members' alleged exposure of terrorism suspects to illegal treatment.

In his book, "Hard Measures," released Monday, Rodriguez details what agents did to terrorism suspects to make them talk. He justifies simulated drownings, stress positions and scare tactics as methods that elicited vital intelligence that averted other deadly attacks.

And Rodriguez admits in the book, as he did in a CBS "60 Minutes" interview Sunday, that he ordered destruction of videotapes of waterboarding. His reason, he said, was not to get rid of evidence that could be used against U.S. agents, but to eliminate "ugly images" of water being poured into the mouths and nostrils of Al Qaeda kingpins Abu Zubaydah and Khalid Shaikh Mohammed that could fall into the hands of extremists who might try to exact revenge.

With his book and interviews, Rodriguez has revived discussion of what methods might have gone too far in forcing captives to spill what they knew about Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda.

Asked in the "60 Minutes" interview about the hundreds of prisoners held and interrogated for years then let go without charges, Rodriguez said only that "mistakes were made."

Clive Stafford Smith, founder of the British human rights group Reprieve, described Rodriguez's disclosures as proof that there was nothing classified about the interrogations by U.S. agents. He described Rodriguez's account as "government officers trying to leak the perverse version of the truth that suits them, while gagging citizens who would like to expose their criminal misconduct."

A British lawyer also licensed to practice law in the United States, Stafford Smith represented Ethiopian-born Binyam Mohamed in his failed effort to sue CIA contractors who grabbed him in Pakistan in 2002 and shuttled him among secret CIA "black sites" for two years before he was taken to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. He was released without charges in 2009 and sent home to Britain.

Some U.S. legal experts said they shared the views of Rodriguez that the interrogation methods were justified and legal.

"The waterboarding technique that we used did not violate the Torture Convention, which prohibits severe physical or mental pain or suffering," said Jeff Addicott, a professor of terrorism law at St. Mary's University in San Antonio, conceding that he "may be the only law professor in the country who thinks waterboarding is legal."

Rodriguez's claims that harsh interrogation helped U.S. forces find and kill Bin Laden brought about stern reproaches by the leaders of the U.S. Senate committees on intelligence and the armed services. Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Carl Levin issued a statement calling his assertions "misguided and misinformed."

Alexander Abdo, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union National Security Project, said the Rodriguez defense of waterboarding and criticism of President Obama for branding it torture posed little risk of diverting Europeans from their more introspective attempt to identify and punish those who broke the law.

"This only highlights why our failure of accountability is so damaging, not only to national security interests in the past but what torture has done to our standing in the world and the rule of law going forward," Abdo said. "One of the most senior officials in the CIA is claiming on national television that torture worked, and that we should subvert our values to its use."

carol.williams@latimes.com

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