US principles take a beating in the war on torture

The dubious prosecution of a CIA whistle-blower who took a stand against torture has serious implications for human rights and freedom of expression.

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The US government recently announced that not a single person would be prosecuted for the deaths resulting from CIA torture sessions during the George W Bush presidency, or for any other abuses committed against suspected militants. Barack Obama's administration claims there is a lack of the requisite admissible evidence needed to secure convictions. However, the Obama administration is, in what many observers see as a gross perversion of justice, using every means at its disposal to jail the only CIA staffer who took a stand against this type of barbaric behaviour.

The US Justice Department alleges that John Kiriakou violated the Espionage Act by disclosing "classified information to journalists, including the name of a covert CIA officer and information revealing the role of another CIA employee in classified activities".

Kiriakou, a former analyst and case officer who was decorated by the agency for his work hunting Al Qaeda operatives in Pakistan, says he merely made an admission to reporters that the intelligence agency had used waterboarding as an interrogation method at its secret "black site" prisons around the world.

Waterboarding, a war crime for which the US government hanged Japanese soldiers after the Second World War, was first used by the Spanish Inquisition and was known as toca or tortura del agua (water torture). It can cause extreme pain, damage to lungs, brain damage from oxygen deprivation, lasting psychological damage and, of course, death.

Kiriakou, who was the first CIA officer to publicly oppose this practice and is the author of The Reluctant Spy: My Secret Life in the CIA's War on Terror, is one of six government whistle-blowers who have been charged under the Espionage Act since President Obama took office. This obscure First World War-era legislation was applied only three times between 1917 and 2008, most famously in the Vietnam War-era Pentagon Papers case. Critics say the controversial act is now being freely invoked by Obama for the express purpose of frightening potential informants into silence.

Classified Information Procedures Act hearings, which will determine exactly what official secrets can be cited during Kiriakou's trial, began on September 12 and will run until the end of October. Kiriakou, who has pleaded not guilty to all charges, is scheduled to appear on November 26 and faces up to 30 years in prison if found guilty.

Jesselyn Radack, a member of Kiriakou's legal team, said: "It is a miscarriage of justice that John Kiriakou is the only person indicted in relation to the Bush-era torture programme. The historic import cannot be understated. If a crime as egregious as state-sponsored torture can go unpunished, we lose all moral standing to condemn other governments' human rights violations."

The Obama administration has been conspicuously reticent on the former spy's pretrial hearings.

The president banned the use of waterboarding in 2009, but the US government continues to use "extraordinary rendition" to send suspects to other countries where human rights groups say they are tortured.

Meanwhile, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has, according to The New York Times, expressed support for the use of waterboarding as a counterterrorism method. He does not believe it constitutes torture, a view that also appears to be held in some US government circles, despite the medical evidence to the contrary.

If those responsible for torture - either committing the act, sanctioning it, providing dubious legal advice that encourages it or wilfully destroying evidence of it- are not held accountable, while those within the US government, like Kiriakou, who take a stand against it are persecuted, it may only be a matter of time before we once again see grinning soldiers shamelessly posing for souvenir photos with the shrink-wrapped remains of "enhanced interrogation" victims.