Last October, Saudi Arabia’s Special Criminal Court sentenced Sheikh Nimr Baqir al-Nimr – a popular Shi’ite cleric and outspoken political dissident – to death.
This was not an ordinary criminal trial, even considering Saudi Arabia’s liberal use of capital punishment. Among other charges, the prosecutor sought to convict al-Nimr of “waging war on God” and “aiding terrorists,” even calling for the cleric to be publicly executed by “crucifixion.” In Saudi Arabia, this rare method of execution entails beheading the individual before publicly displaying his decapitated body.
The widely revered Shi’ite cleric was ultimately convicted of “disobeying” the king, waging violence against the state, inviting “foreign meddling” in the kingdom, inciting vandalism and sectarian violence, and insulting the Prophet Muhammad’s relatives. However, al-Nimr’s family and supporters claim that the ruling was politically driven and insist that the cleric led a non-violent movement committed to promoting Shi’ite rights, women’s rights, and democratic reform in Saudi Arabia.
After a week of ominous language about the dangers of leaking classified documents, the 14 jurors in the Jeffrey Sterling trial Tuesday got their first look at purportedly classified documents.
Martha Lutz, the CIA’s Chief of Litigation Support and the bane of anyone who has FOIAed the CIA in the last decade, was on the stand, a tiny woman with a beehive hairdo and a remarkably robust voice. After having Lutz lay out the Executive Orders that have governed classified information in the last two decades and what various designations mean, the government introduced four documents into evidence – three under the silent witness rule – and showed them to Lutz.
“When originally classified were these documents properly classified as secret,” the prosecution asked of the three documents.
“They weren’t,” Lutz responded.
“But they are now properly classified secret?”
“Yes,” Lutz answered.
A court officer handed out a packet of these same documents with bright red SECRET markings on the front to each juror (the government had tried to include such a warning on the binders of other exhibits, but the defense pointed out that nothing in them was actually classified at all). Judge Leonie Brinkema, apparently responding to the confused look on jurors’ faces, explained these were still-classified documents intended for their eyes only. “You’ll get the context,” Judge Brinkema added. “The content is not really anything you have to worry about.” The government then explained these documents were seized from Jeffrey Sterling’s house in Missouri in 2006. Then the court officer collected the documents back up again, having introduced the jurors to the exclusive world of CIA’s secrets for just a few moments.
From January 4-12, 2015, Witness Against Torture (WAT) activists assembled in Washington D.C. for an annual time of fasting and public witness to end the United States’ use of torture and indefinite detention and to demand the closure, with immediate freedom for those long cleared for release, of the illegal U.S. prison at Guantanamo.
Participants in our eight day fast started each day with a time of reflection. This year, asked to briefly describe who or what we had left behind and yet might still carry in our thoughts that morning, I said that I’d left behind an imagined WWI soldier, Leonce Boudreau.
I was thinking of Nicole de’Entremont’s story of World War I, A Generation of Leaves, which I had just finished reading. Initial chapters focus on a Canadian family of Acadian descent. Their beloved oldest son, Leonce, enlists with Canada’s military because he wants to experience life beyond the confines of a small town and he feels stirred by a call to defend innocent European people from advancing "Hun" warriors. He soon finds himself mired in the horrid slaughter of trench warfare near Ypres, Belgium.
I often thought of Leonce during the week of fasting with WAT campaign members. We focused, each day, on the experiences and writing of a Yemeni prisoner in Guantanamo, Fahed Ghazi who, like Leonce, left his family and village to train as a fighter for what he believed to be a noble cause. He wanted to defend his family, faith and culture from hostile forces. Pakistani forces captured Fahed and turned him over to US forces after he had spent two weeks in a military training camp in Afghanistan. At the time he was 17, a juvenile. He was cleared for release from Guantanamo in 2007.
It’s not really “news” at this point, but every couple of weeks a new IAEA report comes out confirming that Iran is abiding by the terms of the interim nuclear agreement. It’s a good reminder, because after a couple weeks of not hearing about it the hawks start beating the drums.
For the AP, however, it’s just more fuel for scaremongering, as the inimitable George Jahn describes the exact same program as a “nuke program” centering on weapons.
Which, of course, it’s not. The interim deal centers on Iran’s civilian program, limiting enrichment that was already at levels far too low for an atomic weapon. The AP ignores the facts, once again, and keeps insinuating there are weapons being made.
Midway through the trial of former CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling, one comment stands out. “A criminal case,” defense attorney Edward MacMahon told the jury at the outset, “is not a place where the CIA goes to get its reputation back.” But that’s where the CIA went with this trial in its first week – sending to the witness stand a procession of officials who attested to the agency’s virtues and fervently decried anyone who might provide a journalist with classified information.
The CIA’s reputation certainly needs a lift. It has rolled downhill at an accelerating pace in the dozen years since telling President George W. Bush what he wanted the nation to hear about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. That huge bloody blot on the agency’s record has not healed since then, inflamed by such matters as drone strikes, rendition of prisoners to torture-happy regimes and resolute protection of its own torturers.
CIA sensibilities about absolution and prosecution are reflected in the fact that a former head of the CIA’s clandestine service, Jose Rodriguez Jr., suffered no penalty for destroying numerous videotapes of torture interrogations by the agency – which knew from the start that the torture was illegal.
But in the courtroom, day after day, with patriotic piety, CIA witnesses – most of them screened from public view to keep their identities secret – have testified to their reverence for legality.
While the jury will likely neither note nor learn of them, there were details from last week’s testimony in the Jeffrey Sterling trial that resonated with two other notable cases involving the CIA: the New York Police Department’s spying on Muslims and the leak of Valerie Plame Wilson’s identity.
Intelligence, race, and religion in New York City
On Friday, former high ranking CIA officer David Cohen – who headed up the New York office while Sterling was there – described how he removed Sterling from the Merlin case because he didn’t believe Sterling was performing well at his job (an opinion neither his deputy, Charles Seidel, nor Bob S shared, at least according to their testimony). “His performance was extremely sub-par,” Cohen testified. Cohen also seemed to disdain what might be called political correctness, which if true may have exacerbated Sterling’s increasing sense of being discriminated against for being African American.
That would be consistent with the action for which Cohen has received more press in recent years: setting up the New York Police Department’s intelligence program that profiles the area’s Muslim community. In the wake of 9/11, Cohen moved from the CIA to the NYPD. In 2002, he got a federal court to relax the Handschu guidelines, which had been set up in 1985 in response to NYPD’s targeting of people for their political speech. Handschu required specific evidence before using informants to investigate a group. But, as an article from the Pulitzer Prize winning AP series described it, “Cohen told a federal judge that those guidelines made it ‘virtually impossible’ to detect terrorist plots.” After getting the rules relaxed, Cohen created teams of informants that infiltrated mosques and had officers catalog Muslim-owned restaurants, shops, and even schools. “Cohen said he wanted the squad to ‘rake the coals, looking for hot spots,’” the AP reported in 2011.