Monday, July 23, 2007

Not your typical whistleblower

The New York Times today has a nice profile of Lt. Col Stephen Abraham, the man whose testimony has cast a shadow on the legitimacy of the Guantanamo terror tribunals and seems to have led the United States Supreme Court to reverse itself and hear arguments about the legal rights of detainees.

His political and professional pedigree make it difficult to accuse him of acting out of base motivations:

A lawyer in civilian life, he had been decorated for counterespionage and counterterrorism work during 22 years as a reserve Army intelligence officer in which he rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel.... A political conservative who says he cried when Richard M. Nixon resigned the presidency, he says he has remained a reservist throughout his adult life to repay the country for the opportunities it offered his family. His father is a Holocaust survivor who emigrated after the Second World War.

He served at the tribunal in 2004-2005, and officially registered many misgivings at the time. But he didn't decide to step forward publicly until he was contacted in 2006 by a law firm representing detainees, who read him an affidavit describing the tribunal process as orderly and carefully considered. Knowing that wasn't true, he agreed to testify. Clearly, these were not the actions of a man seeking publicity.

When the story first came out, I mentioned that one problem with Abraham's account was that it was anecdotal: we had no way to know if his experience was typical, or what the reasons behind it were.

But it turns out he had access to a lot of information, not just his isolated experience on a single tribunal panel.

As an intelligence officer responsible for running the central computer depository of evidence for the hearings, he said, he saw many of the documents in hundreds of the 558 cases. He also worked as a liaison with intelligence agencies....

What sort of problems did he find?

It was obvious, Colonel Abraham said, that officials were under intense pressure to show quick results. Quickly, he said, he grew concerned about the quality of the reports being used as evidence. The unclassified evidence, he said, lacked the kind of solid corroboration he had relied on throughout his intelligence career. “The classified information,” he added, “was stripped down, watered down, removed of context, incomplete and missing essential information.”

To demonstrate the sometimes laughable nature of the evidence, consider this public example:

In a hearing on Oct. 26, 2004, a transcript shows, one detainee was told that another had identified him as having attended a terrorism training camp. The detainee asked that his accuser be brought to testify. “We don’t know his name,” the senior officer on the hearing panel said.

In another case, an Afghani was being held because he had associated with jihadis. He admitted to doing so -- in the 1980s, during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, when "jihadi" had a whole different meaning. He asked the tribunal if that was the basis of the accusations against him. "We don't know what that time frame was, either," the tribunal's senior officer replied.

Pentagon officials say Abraham simply wasn't in a position to know the full extent of the tribunal process, despite his access to the central database. But Abraham makes his point on more direct grounds:

Colonel Abraham said that in meetings with top officials of the office, it was clear that [innocent] findings were discouraged. “Anything that resulted in a ‘not enemy combatant’ would just send ripples through the entire process,” he said. “The interpretation is, ‘You got the wrong result. Do it again.’ ”

As noted in my earlier post, when his panel decided unanimously that a detainee was not an enemy combatant, they were told to reconsider. They declined.

As it turns out, the story didn't end there -- a move that again calls into serious question the impartiality of the hearings.

Two months later, apparently after Pentagon officials rejected the first decision, the detainee’s case was heard by a second panel. The conclusion, again by a vote of 3 to 0, was quite different: “The detainee is properly classified as an enemy combatant and is a member of or associated with Al Qaeda.”

One wonders how many do-overs the Pentagon was allowed in order to get a "correct" verdict.

Damning as all of this is, caveats remain. This is largely a story that relies on one source -- Abraham himself. He seems a credible witness, and what he says is both compelling and specific. But until his account is subjected to cross-examination or attempted refutation, it should not be taken as gospel.

But it's a reason to look forward to his testimony before Congress on Thursday, and the Supreme Court hearing this fall.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sounds to me like he's working for the defense now----and most likely being paid for it. That makes his belated comments somewhat suspicious, IMHO.

Not to mention the fact that I think they ought to make damned sure they are not releasing someone they shouldn't be. They've already released 100's. And I'm quite sure that if one of those previously released ends up killing our soldiers or American civilians somewhere....YOU and others will be the first to place BLAME on those who let them go.


7/23/2007 2:22 PM  
Blogger Sean Aqui said...

I'm quite sure that if one of those previously released ends up killing our soldiers or American civilians somewhere....YOU and others will be the first to place BLAME on those who let them go.

It's already happened. I wasn't blogging then, but I don't recall an outpouring of blame.

Protecting civil liberties invariably involves letting a few guilty people go in order to avoid jailing the innocent. I'm willing to live with that risk in order to live in a free society.

You seem to be saying we should be willing to jail a few (or a lot) of innocents in order to make sure no guilty people go free. To me, that's a perversion of the principles of this country.

7/23/2007 3:04 PM  

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