Several former U.S. intelligence officials not yet convinced Syria used chemical weapons on April 4

A group called “Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity” has issued an open letter to the American people in which it expresses doubts that the Syrian government was behind the alleged chemical attack on April 4.

The CIA, Pompeo said, was “in relatively short order able to deliver to [President Trump] a high-confidence assessment that, in fact, it was the Syrian regime that had launched chemical strikes against its own people in [Khan Shaykhun.]”

The speed in which this assessment was made is of some concern. Both Director Pompeo, during his CSIS remarks, and National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, during comments to the press on April 6, 2017, note that President Trump turned to the intelligence community early on in the crisis to understand better “the circumstances of the attack and who was responsible.” McMaster indicated that the U.S. Intelligence Community, working with allied partners, was able to determine with “a very high degree of confidence” where the attack originated.

The danger of this rush toward an intelligence decision by Director Pompeo and National Security Advisor McMaster is that once the President and his top national security advisors have endorsed an intelligence-based conclusion, and authorized military action based upon that conclusion, it becomes virtually impossible for that conclusion to change. Intelligence assessments from that point forward will embrace facts that sustain this conclusion, and reject those that don’t; it is the definition of politicized intelligence, even if those involved disagree.

The intelligence data that has been used to back up the allegations of Syrian chemical weapons use has been far from conclusive. Allusions to intercepted Syrian communications have been offered as “proof”, but the Iraq experience – in particular former Secretary of State Colin Powell’s unfortunate experience before the U.N. Security Council – show how easily such intelligence can be misunderstood and misused.

Inconsistencies in the publicly available imagery which the White House (and CIA) have so heavily relied upon have raised legitimate questions about the veracity of any conclusions drawn from these sources (and begs the question as to where the CIA’s own Open Source Intelligence Center was in this episode.) The blood samples used to back up claims of the presence of nerve agent among the victims was collected void of any verifiable chain of custody, making their sourcing impossible to verify, and as such invalidates any conclusions based upon their analysis.

Case against Assad open and shut … or is it?

It seems the mainstream media is convinced that the alleged gas attack in Syria on April 4 was perpetrated by the Syrian government. However, not everyone has been persuaded that the case against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is air-tight.
Robert Parry of Consortium News wrote about his misgivings about the report released by the White House.

In similarly tense situations in the past, U.S. Presidents have released sensitive intelligence to buttress U.S. government assertions, including John F. Kennedy’s disclosure of U-2 spy flights in the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis and Ronald Reagan revealing electronic intercepts after the Soviet shoot-down of Korean Airlines Flight 007 in 1983.

Yet, in this current case, as U.S.-Russian relations spiral downward into what is potentially an extermination event for the human species, Trump’s White House insists that the world must trust it despite its record of consistently misstating facts.

In the case of the April 4 chemical-weapons incident in the town of Khan Sheikhoun, which reportedly killed scores of people including young children, I was told that initially the U.S. analysts couldn’t see any warplanes over the area in Idlib province at the suspected time of the poison gas attack but later they detected a drone that they thought might have delivered the bomb.

According to a source, the analysts struggled to identify whose drone it was and where it originated. Despite some technical difficulties in tracing its flight path, analysts eventually came to believe that the flight was launched in Jordan from a Saudi-Israeli special operations base for supporting Syrian rebels, the source said, adding that the suspected reason for the poison gas was to create an incident that would reverse the Trump administration’s announcement in late March that it was no longer seeking the removal of President Bashar al-Assad.

If indeed that was the motive — and if the source’s information is correct — the operation would have been successful, since the Trump administration has now reversed itself and is pressing Russia to join in ousting Assad who is getting blamed for the latest chemical-weapons incident.

Presumably, however, the “geospatial intelligence” cited in the four-page dossier could disprove this and other contentions if the Trump administration would only make its evidence publicly available.

[In a separate analysis of the four-page dossier, Theodore Postol, a national security specialist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, concluded that the White House claims were clearly bogus, writing:

“I have reviewed the document carefully, and I believe it can be shown, without doubt, that the document does not provide any evidence whatsoever that the US government has concrete knowledge that the government of Syria was the source of the chemical attack in Khan Shaykhun, Syria at roughly 6 to 7 a.m. on April 4, 2017. 

“In fact, a main piece of evidence that is cited in the document points to an attack that was executed by individuals on the ground, not from an aircraft, on the morning of April 4. This conclusion is based on an assumption made by the White House when it cited the source of the sarin release and the photographs of that source. My own assessment, is that the source was very likely tampered with or staged, so no serious conclusion could be made from the photographs cited by the White House.”]

Obama’s insistence on looking “to the future”

One of my great disappointments in President Obama is his refusal to investigate any members of the Bush administration for torture.

He made the assertion that doing so would be looking to the past, and he’d rather look to the future. With this attitude, why even have a criminal justice system? Every day, people stand trial in criminal court, and in every single case, it is for an alleged crime that took place in the past. I doubt an accused murderer would get away with telling a judge, “Let’s not look at the past. I will make sure I don’t murder anybody in the future. You should be happy with that.”

A cynic would posit that the likely reason Obama, and most other presidents, would hesitate to prosecute their predecessors is because they intend to break the law themselves, and don’t want to set a precedent that could be used against them in the future.

Setting aside the absurdity of refusing to investigate torture because we only want to look forward, it could be strongly argued that the United States is obligated under the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment to investigate, and punish if found guilty, those accused of torture.

As far as we know, Obama has ended the use of torture by American agencies. He had a chance to set a strong precedent by holding accountable those who ordered and/or directly engaged in torture in the past. They can call it whatever they want, such as “enhanced interrogation”, but torture is an international crime and should be treated as such by the highest public official in the nation. Holding anybody accountable for a crime is not merely “looking to the past”. It’s setting a strong example for the future.

Evidence shows that torture isn’t good way to get accurate information

A Newsweek article headlined “Science shows that torture doesn’t work and is counterproductive” offers a brief look at some solid arguments against torture. Of course, many of us oppose torture on legal and, more importantly, moral grounds. But for those who believe torture, or “enhanced interrogation techniques”, are necessary to gain important information about the enemy, this piece offers some good counter-arguments.

Meanwhile, compelling scientific evidence is emerging that torture and coercion are, at best, ineffective means of gathering intelligence. Worse, as Shane O’Mara, a professor of experimental brain research at Trinity College Dublin, wrote in a recent book, “Why Torture Doesn’t Work: The Neuroscience of Interrogation”, torture can produce false information by harming those areas of the brain associated with memory. O’Mara marshals a large amount of scientific literature to make his point.

Indeed, the Navy’s Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape school used to subject U.S. soldiers to waterboarding as part of their resistance training (it stopped in 2007), and former instructor Malcolm Nance says the procedure does not elicit reliable information. It does, on the other hand, generate false confessions. “The captive will say absolutely anything and agree to anything to make the torture stop,” says Nance. Most of those subjected to waterboarding, he says, confess as a result—and their distress is so intense, they do not even remember confessing. In a recent BBC documentary, for which Nance served as a consultant, a volunteer underwent waterboarding and confessed to “being born a bunny rabbit.” He had no recollection of making such an admission.

The sad truth is that some advocates of torture, including Donald Trump, would support brutal tactics whether they “work” or not, because they believe the enemy deserves to be abused and punished. There may also be some for whom the word “works” doesn’t mean what it means to most of us. To many people, torture only “works” if it produces information that is accurate and could not be obtained any other way.

But if you’re interested only in obtaining certain information or a confession, whether it’s true or not, then torture may absolutely “work” for you.

If you’re interested in morality and humanity, as well as common sense and the experience of good interrogators, this article offers more evidence against torture.

Peter von Hagenbach, first person tried and executed for war crimes?

The concept of war crimes is often considered a fairly recent development, with the Nuremberg trials after World War II being the most well known.

However, it can be argued that the first international trial for war crimes actually took place on May 9, 1474, when Peter von Hagenbach was tried, convicted and beheaded in the town of Breisach.

In 2012, published a piece on Hagenbach, including an interview with Gregory Gordon, who at the time was a professor at the University of North Dakota law school.

Hagenbach’s case is significant in many respects, one of which was his unsuccessful attempt to defend himself on the basis that he had been following orders from a superior.

As Gordon indicates in the interview, the trial broke new ground in another way as well.

Eminent German historian Hermann Heimpel does note that the contemplated trial was consistent with other legal actions in late fifteenth century Swabia. What must have seemed entirely unprecedented, though, was the make-up of the court that would sit in judgment of Peter von Hagenbach. He was not to be tried by a local judge. Instead, numerous representatives of sovereigns from around the region, twenty-eight in all — including sixteen knights — would sit as part of an international ad hoc tribunal. Nothing after this, until the Versailles Treaty’s Article 227 contemplated international ad hoc tribunal trial of Kaiser Wilhelm II post-World War I (which never took place since the Dutch refused to extradite), even suggested such a procedure.

For a more in-depth look at the Hagenbach case, including differing opinions as to whether his reputation as a legendary villain of sorts was warranted, read Gordon’s academic paper on the subject.

From the conclusion of his paper (note that ICL stands for International Criminal Law):

But has the Hagenbach inquest left a larger legacy? Is it the world’s first international war crimes trial? Did it bequeath us the first primitive formulation of crimes against humanity? As this piece has demonstrated, given the relatively circumscribed writ of the Holy Roman Empire by the late fifteenth century, it is not unreasonable to classify the trial as “international.” And Burgundy’s hostile occupation of the Sundgau in the first part of 1474 means Hagenbach’s transgressions may arguably be recognized in contemporary terminology as war crimes. Moreover, the bailiff’s apparent widespread and systematic attack against the Alsatian civilian population (most clearly via rape and murder) – made with his commander’s knowledge of the attack – seems to qualify as crimes against humanity as it is understood today.

Whether, on that fateful Monday morning in the spring of 1474, Heinrich Iselin spontaneously and intuitively attempted to vocalize the raw concept of a new kind of atrocity crime – offenses violating “the laws of God and man” – may never be known for sure and, in any event, is beside the point. Since the modern birth of international criminal law in 1945, experts have perceived that the Swiss procurator articulated a new juridical concept that morning — crimes against humanity. That perception has undoubtedly had an influence, however subtle or attenuated, on the modern development of ICL. And it has lent the subtle sanction of ancient pedigree to jurists attempting to blaze new trails with respect to ICL theories of liability, defense, and procedure. This piece has shown that though they might be grounded in inaccurate or superficial understandings of history, modern perceptions of the trial are at least not based on unsubstantiated myth. Perhaps this piece will disabuse ICL of its one-dimensional portrait of Hagenbach as history’s consummate bogeyman. But it should also enhance appreciation for the important semiotic and iconographic space the Breisach Trial now inhabits in transnational legal discourse.

Major war crimes conviction handed down

From NBC News:

A high-ranking Congolese politician was convicted unanimously Monday of war crimes and crimes against humanity in a landmark case at the Hague that put sexual violence in the spotlight.

The charges against Jean-Pierre Bemba — a former rebel leader and vice president in the Democratic Republic of Congo — related to rapes, murders and pillaging allegedly carried out by his fighters.

The trial focused on the question of “command responsibility” — i.e. whether Bemba should be held legally liable for alleged crimes committed by fighters under his control. It also was the first case to focus so heavily on rape as a war crime, according to the Open Society Foundations.

Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda said the verdict marked a “crucial moment” in a “long search for justice.”

“While the reality of the crimes is appalling, the significance of this decision is to be celebrated,” she said. “What this decision affirms is that commanders are responsible for the acts of the forces under their control.”

“Torture is a crime”

I strongly recommend the blog post titled “Torture is a crime” by Curt Goering, executive director of The Center for Victims of Torture. Goering argues that torture is not only illegal, but is also ineffective and immoral. He also counters the idea that torture makes the public more safe.

Some have argued that the use of torture somehow protects us as a society, somehow makes the American public more safe. There is absolutely no convincing evidence that these assertions are true. In fact the evidence indicates the opposite is far more likely. In resorting to torture of security suspects, the U.S. has strengthened the resolve of adversaries. It also alienates partners and puts the U.S. in the company of human rights violators whose actions we deplore and condemn.

It was alarming to me that a 2015 poll by the Pew Research Center found that 58 percent of Americans say the use of torture is justified! That is a higher percentage than almost any other country among the 38 nations surveyed. Torture is a crime, and is never justified. It is a crime for all the right reasons. And I firmly believe that when the facts about torture are repeated and reported as often as the headline-grabbing stories about reviving its use, Americans will unite in saying, “No More.”