As the war on terror threatens to choke human rights, two women of Indian origin are demanding that the U.S. Government toe the legal and ethical line.
Taking on the U.S. Government, and especially its powerful national security establishment, is not for the faint of heart. Yet two women born and brought up in India are literally in the face of the super-secret, waspy and predominantly white intelligence agencies of the United States. They have challenged the culture of impunity and demanded answers. Their quest shows how the war on terror subverted the U.S.’s most cherished values — respect for human rights and due process of law.
Sabrina De Sousa, a 57-year-old originally from Goa, recently came out about her work as an undercover agent for the CIA. She says the agency sometimes exaggerates, manipulates and even lies about threats from terror suspects. This is first-hand information where De Sousa is concerned — she was convicted in absentia by Italian courts for a CIA operation she played no real role in and was forced to resign her job. She was essentially thrown under the bus to protect senior U.S. officials who discovered they had authorised an unnecessary rendition, she says.
When her demands for answers were stonewalled, she went public in July about how senior officials in the Bush Administration, including former national security adviser Condoleezza Rice and former CIA director George Tenet, approved a questionable operation that led to a suspect being tortured and imprisoned for nearly four years. He was later released for lack of evidence.
“Enough was enough,” De Sousa said in an interview.
If De Sousa saw it from the inside, Amrit Singh, a lawyer for the Justice Initiative of the Open Society Foundations started by George Soros, has worked from the outside to throw light on the same abuses. She has meticulously and laboriously documented cases of torture and abuse of prisoners held as terror suspects by the CIA. In her previous job as legal counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, she successfully fought the Department of Defence in a lawsuit and obtained thousands of documents by filing requests under the Freedom of Information Act.
In February, she released Globalizing Torture: CIA Secret Detention and Extraordinary Rendition, a comprehensive report that tracked 136 suspects who were abducted, detained in prisons around the world and often tortured. As many as 54 countries — including Pakistan, Afghanistan, Egypt, Ireland, Canada and Iceland — participated in CIA’s covert operations. Even Iran and Syria — today the two biggest “enemies” of the United States — did. It must be mentioned that India did not take part in these operations.
While Singh, who is Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s daughter, declined to comment for this article, De Sousa agreed to be interviewed.
De Sousa’s troubles began when she was posted as an undercover but accredited U.S. diplomat in Milan, Italy — a ruse that all countries use to position undercover intelligence agents abroad. In 2003, the CIA station chief in Rome, Jeff Castelli, ordered that Abu Omar, a Muslim cleric in Milan, be kidnapped and sent to Egypt in a process called “extraordinary rendition:”. Even though the Italians, who were watching Omar, did not consider him a threat, Castelli managed to convince his superiors in Washington that Omar presented a “clear and imminent” danger.
In the wake of 9/11, the Bush Administration had aggressively gone after individuals suspected of links to terrorism, often kidnapping them from different countries and sending them to “black sites” or prisons for interrogation. According to news reports, many innocent men were held for years and tortured.
The Italians discovered Omar’s kidnapping, and built a case against the CIA and Italian intelligence, ultimately convicting 23 Americans in 2009, including De Sousa. Even though she had no role in either the planning or execution, she stressed, and was away on a ski trip with her son on the day of the kidnapping, Italian prosecutors used circumstantial evidence to convict her with a seven-year-sentence.
Renditions were approved at the highest level in Washington; that meant Presidential consent. “But the Italian prosecutor argued that if it hadn’t been for my okay, the rendition wouldn’t have taken place. I was elevated to the highest level!” De Sousa said. Convicting lower level CIA operatives only deflected attention from senior U.S. officials. “It was a cover-up on both sides of the Atlantic. The Italian government never insisted that the U.S. admit the rendition even took place,” De Sousa said, “despite all the chest-beating about violations of their sovereignty.”
Strangely also, the Italians granted diplomatic immunity to Castelli, the CIA mastermind, who had pushed for the kidnapping even though he had little evidence against Omar. De Sousa discovered the paper trail in CIA archives and brought it to the attention of the U.S. Congress. She found that Castelli’s bosses in Washington approved the operation, ignoring their own threshold for an extraordinary rendition — a suspect had to be on a U.S. list of top al-Qaeda terrorists and the host country — in this case Italy — had to make the arrest.
Omar wasn’t on the list and Nicollo Pollari, then head of Italian military intelligence, had refused to be a part of the operation, De Sousa said. Yet, Castelli went ahead and was never held accountable. “It was done for professional gain.” Castelli retired with full benefits while De Sousa lost her pension and has a Europol warrant against her, which means she can’t travel to Europe.
In her struggle to clear her name, she sued the CIA and the State Department in 2009 but the government invoked executive privilege and she lost the case. She wrote several letters to the U.S. Congress, which has oversight of the CIA, asking for accountability. “It was classic Washington, a classic CIA cover up. Even the human rights group, which intervened on my behalf, was powerless. The Congress is not obligated to listen to human rights groups.” So lower level employees like her are generally left holding the bag.
While De Sousa, a naturalised U.S. citizen, was pushing for answers, she was told by the CIA not to leave the country, an order that was especially devastating in her situation since her aging parents lived in Goa. She ignored the order to visit her father in 2006, who was dying of cancer. She finally resigned from the CIA in 2009 after her hopes for better answers from the Obama Administration were dashed.
Obama’s record on righting the wrongs of the Bush Administration has been less than exemplary. His administration announced in 2009 it would investigate a hundred cases in which the detainees had died but by 2011 it had dropped all but two cases. By 2012, it had closed all investigations without bringing charges in a single case. In addition, it has aggressively punished whistleblowers.
U.S. courts, for their part, have done little to force accountability.
Amrit Singh, the other fighter in this battle, has called it an “abject failure to deliver justice to victims of US torture and rendition.” Normally shunning the spotlight, Singh, however, wrote a rare but passionate op-ed in The Guardian last year when Khaled el-Masri, a German national, finally got justice by the European Court of Human Rights after nine years.
A case of mistaken identity, el-Masri was picked up by Macedonian security in December 2003, abused for 23 days and handed over to the CIA, which flew him to Kabul and dumped him in a secret prison where he was tortured. Even after realising the mistake, the CIA held him for weeks. “Both the United States and Macedonia must now issue el-Masri a full-scale public apology and appropriate compensation,” Singh wrote.
On De Sousa’s decision to speak openly, Singh told a journalist that “any public account of what happened and who was ultimately responsible is of considerable interest.” She criticised the fact that not a “single individual” had been held accountable for the human rights violations associated with renditions.
De Sousa may face consequences for her decision to go public. The U.S. government could file a case on what they consider disclosure of classified information even though she has highlighted a human rights violation, torture and abuse of power. Her case serves as a grim warning to those in the U.S. government — if you are not a top dog, you are dispensable.