How Far We've Fallen: Attorney General Eric Holder Promises Russians US Government Won't 'Torture' Or 'Kill' Ed Snowden

from the should-have-gone-without-saying dept

If you had any question about how low this country’s reputation has sunk or how we’re viewed worldwide for our open-ended detainment and torture of uncharged terrorism suspects, you need look no further than Attorney General Eric Holder’s “reassuring” statement to the Russian Minister of Justice about whistleblower Ed Snowden’s potential extradition.

Holder’s letter pointed out that torture is “unlawful” in the United States and that the government wouldn’t seek the death penalty, even if “Mr. Snowden were charged with additional, death penalty-eligible crimes.”

William K. Black, writing for New Economic Perspectives, points out just how horrifically bizarre this situation is.

The idea that the Attorney General of the United States of America would send such a letter to the representative of a foreign government, particularly Russia under the leadership of a former KGB official, was so preposterous that I thought the first news report I read about Attorney General Holder’s letter concerning Edward Snowden was satire. The joke, however, was on me. The Obama and Bush administrations have so disgraced the reputation of the United States’ criminal justice system that we are forced to promise KGB alums that we will not torture our own citizens if Russia extradites them for prosecution.

When a nation, especially one considered to be the figurehead of the “free world,” has to make promises to a former Cold War rival that it won’t torture and kill a whistleblower, there can be little doubt that the country has reached its nadir. The US used to shelter dissidents from the vengeance of their former countries and once considered whistleblowers to be a part of a healthy government.

But now we’ve come to the point where the nation’s lead prosecutor has to openly state that torture and killing are off the table, at least in regards to Ed Snowden. How reassuring. The government hasn’t “tortured” and killed its other main antagonist, Bradley Manning, but it did hold him in solitary confinement for over three years and his treatment could easily be defined as “torture.” (Although not in the only way that counts: the administration’s definition.)

Holder’s letter has hints of malevolence below the “cheery” no-torture-or-killing surface.

Holder phrased his explanation in a manner that suggests he was trying to be clever: “Torture is unlawful in the United States.” “Gitmo,” of course, is not “in the United States.” The locations of the many secret prisons the U.S. established in other nations were chosen so that we could torture suspects…

More subtly, note that Holder says that torture is “unlawful” – not “illegal.” An act that is merely “unlawful” cannot be prosecuted as a crime. It may provide the basis for a civil suit. An “illegal” act can be prosecuted.

This isn’t very reassuring, but then again, a spokesman for the administration feeling compelled to make loosely worded “promises” about torture and killing isn’t exactly reassuring either. As Black says, this should have been a forgone conclusion, and yet, AG Holder felt compelled to state this explicitly.

I always took it for granted that no U.S. attorney general would knowingly allow a criminal suspect in U.S. custody to be the victim of torture, raped, branded, or a host of other forms of brutality.

Our country isn’t supposed to torture and kill American citizens (although we have no qualms about doing either to non-Americans, which is troubling in its own way). And yet, there’s still enough gray area in this statement to make it technically possible. One way the government could get around the whole “we don’t torture and kill American citizens [except when we do]” issue is to do what the UK does when one of its citizens is targeted by the US: strip the suspect of citizenship.

In early February, a leaked white paper from the Obama Justice Department caused a small stir, because it laid out an expansive set of circumstances under which the president could order a citizen killed abroad. In September 2011, the US killed Al Qaeda propagandist Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan, both US citizens, and a few weeks later a US drone strike in Yemen also killed Awlaki’s 16-year-old son, Abdulrahman…

Meanwhile, the UK is stripping people it alleges of having joined militant groups of their citizenship, some of whom have gone on to be killed in US strikes. Stripping people of their citizenship, strips people of whatever protection they theoretically had as citizens under UK law.

The US has already revoked Snowden’s passport (although it is offering him a one-time use passport should he choose to return to the welcoming, non-killing, non-torturing arms of the United States). There’s no reason it can’t revoke his citizenship should it be deemed necessary. All he needs to do is pose an “imminent threat,” another one of the War on Terror’s endlessly flexible “guidelines.”

Of course, something as drastic as stripping Snowden of citizenship (and its attendant protections) is probably the most unlikely outcome. Holder’s statement on the US government’s intentions for Snowden is worded very specifically, most likely in hopes of preventing Snowden from taking advantage of the additional protection against extradition provided by the United Nations. Back when Snowden was still in Hong Kong, this point was raised by Tim Parker, a local immigration lawyer.

A handover could also be halted if Mr Snowden was believed to be in danger of receiving inhumane treatment in the US, Mr Parker added.

“If Mr Snowden is at risk of being detained under the sort of conditions that Bradley Manning has reportedly been detained, which the UN special rapporteurs have said amounted to cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment… then Hong Kong would not be allowed under its law, and could not extradite him to the US.”

Making very public statements about torture and killing sounds more like Holder trying to talk loudly enough that the UN will overhear him. If the government isn’t going to venture into “cruel” and “inhumane” territory (at least not out loud), Snowden can’t reasonably expect to be shielded from extradition by the UN guidelines.

But whatever the administration’s rationale for Holder’s letter, the fact remains that the US government should never have slid to the disgraceful level where it feels its needs to make public promises about torture and killing. The fact that it has says a lot about the machinations of its anti-terror efforts — one that turns whistleblowers into criminals and dissenting voices into terrorist sympathizers. If the administration wants to make a small effort towards rebuilding its reputation, it should consider dismissing the charges against Snowden and use the leaked information to open an actual discussion on national security and constitutional rights.

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Comments on “How Far We've Fallen: Attorney General Eric Holder Promises Russians US Government Won't 'Torture' Or 'Kill' Ed Snowden”

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Anonymous Coward says:

I remember reading about the good old days in history books where the US never tortured prisoners of war, and had that high reputation for over a century. Even when we knew 100% without a doubt that whoever we were at war with was torturing our own soldiers we still didn’t torture their soldiers.

We even had good reasons for it, citing lots of studies by interrogation experts that torture most often leads to false and unreliable confessions, and that there’s far better ways to get reliable and accurate information with prisoners that don’t involve any torture.

But then terrorism came along, and suddenly we HAD to start torturing, because… TERRORISM!!! And Bush’s #1 interrogation expert who started the torturing? He had previously conducted a grand total of ZERO interrogations, yet was still hailed as an expert on the subject by Bush.

Nevermind how all those other people pointed out that
1) We were throwing away over 100 years worth of reputation for being #1 at civil rights.
2) By pretty much openly admitting to torturing any terrorist or prisoner of war we captured we were putting our own soldiers at greater risk of being tortured themselves when they get captured. After all, why hold back when you know the United States is doing the same thing to your people they captured?

And then Obama of course had to keep up acting tough on terrorism rather than roll Bush’s decisions back, because you know…. TERRORISM! We had to start increasing our use of unmanned drones, because, TERRORISM! Who cares if they occasionally miss and blow up say over 100 people at a wedding party instead of the actual terrorist!

And who cares that the drone’s targets were never found guilty of anything in court? Foreigners don’t have civil rights! Better hope that the government doesn’t revoke your citizenship, otherwise a US drone might be coming to blow you up as a foreigner with no civil rights!

Chris Brand says:

Re: Re:

There’s another very good reason to treat prisoners of war well – you can actually win the hearts and minds of your enemy. They’re not going to fight to the death rather than be captured, and when and if they are eventually released, they’re likely to say what a nice bunch of people you actually are. They are not likely to raise their kids to hate everything you stand for, even though you are nominally “the enemy”. Over time, public opinion turns against the war itself and your enemy stops fighting you.

The moral high ground is well worth holding.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: What's even worse

‘Oh of course we’re not imprisoning him without a trial, we’re protecting him from classified enemies who want to see him killed…’

‘Oh of course we’re not locking him up in solitary confinement to break him, we’re doing it for his safety, as we feared he was a danger to himself…’

‘Oh of course you can send doctors and psychiatrists to make sure he’s being treated humanely, it will just require a 2-week waiting period each time, as he hasn’t been feeling well lately, probably something to do with the weather…’

Anonymous Coward says:

considering how Holder lied to Congress previously, i would take everything he says with a pinch of salt! if Snowden values his life, he needs to keep well away from the USA and he needs to go to a country that will be all over anyone that tries to take ant retaliatory action against him as well. with the way Congress is starting, for once in the life of the aged members, to wake up and realise, hopefully, exactly what this spying by the NSA etc means, i still find it so ridiculous that Snowden is still the USA’s most wanted! he has done something that took a hell of a lot more guts than most of us have and is being hounded in one way or another for doing so! the US government, Obama in particular, should be ashamed of themselves for doing this, for doing the spying, for taping into communications of almost everywhere else in the world and making out that just a dozen or so people, the heads of the various US security agencies, are the only ‘true’ people on the planet and everyone else is a criminal or terrorist or both! what the fuck is wrong with these people? are they insane??

Anonymous Coward says:

some decades ago...

…when world war two was ending in Germany and the russians came from the east, the us, british and french from the west, all the german soldiers as well as the ordinary people headed to the west. They knew that being prisoner of the us instead of the sovjets was a matter of life or death.

Well, these times seem to be over now.

Anonymous Coward says:

No matter what you can Snowden’s status he is actually now a political refugee. Such status used to pretty much guarantee asylum in other countries.

Notice that almost no one here believes Holders words to be accurate. Everyone suspects him of weaseling, leaving gaps in those promises big enough to drive a mountain through. This is part of the same group that wants you to believe you can trust them on oversight with the NSA.

Holder is not believable in this and neither are our politicians with dealing with the NSA.

Guardian says:

we need to borrow the pope mobile a bit

then we surround him with a million supporters through every nation and put lots a kids with moms on the plane and shove him right to where he wants to go…

enough of playing nice if the usa tries to blow up an airplane with children then everything the so called terrorists say about them would then be correct.

Ginger Rogers (profile) says:

Eric Holder's "no torture" letter

Eric Holder is one of the biggest traitors in the US.
Eric Holder arranged Marc Rich pardon for Bill Clinton,
just days–maybe hours–before Clinton left office.

Q: Who is Marc Rich?
A: Marc Rich really was a traitor.
Marc Rich was SELLING ARMS!! to enemies of the US!!
Yet, Eric Holder arranges his pardon.

Edward Snowden is not a traitor.
It is not illegal to report something illegal,
which is what Edward Snowden did.

BO is the puppet of the Clinton Global Initiative.

Here is the game–> “Classify” anything illegal
the illegality is given a false protection
whistleblowers can be smeared to look like traitors.
“Classify” LOTS of illegality
in the name of
“national security.”

AndrewLee says:


It’s a good think we don’t consider sexual assault/humiliation, sleep deprivation, sensory deprivation, solitary confinement, mock executions, forced medication, use of dogs to scare detainees, temperature extremes, sensory bombardment, watching others being tortured, or psychological techniques torture.

Source – Guantanamo Bay approved torture methods.

Anonymous Coward says:

“we have no qualms about doing either to non-Americans, which is troubling in its own way”

That’s the thing; So now it’s easy;
– strip person of citizenship
– boom. no basic human rights.

How a country can claim to be on a moral high ground while repeatedly stating and showing that is does not find some truths to be universal and self-evident is beyond me.

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