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In Padilla interrogation, no checks or balances

Oversight of the executive branch regarding treatment of terror detainees remains inadequate, say legal analysts.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 4, 2007

When admitted 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed complained in a Guantánamo Bay hearing earlier this year that he'd been tortured by US interrogators, the presiding military officer assured him the charges would be investigated.

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Two US senators who watched the hearing later praised the officer's action. "Allegations of prisoner mistreatment must be taken seriously and properly investigated," Sens. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina and Carl Levin (D) of Michigan said in a joint statement. "To do otherwise would reflect poorly on our nation."

In contrast, when alleged Al Qaeda operative Jose Padilla, a US citizen, claimed in 2006 that he had been tortured, no similar effort was undertaken.

No senators called for an investigation or a hearing. No one promised a Defense Department inspector general inquiry or a Justice Department probe. The federal judge then presiding over Mr. Padilla's criminal case in Miami refused to permit further inquiry into the torture allegation, and instead ordered Padilla's lawyers not to raise the issue during trial.

The difference between Mr. Mohammed's experience and Padilla's experience highlights a near total lack of independent oversight involving the secret military detention and interrogation of a US citizen on American soil.

It is unlikely anyone outside a select group of military officials knows the full story of exactly what was done, or wasn't done, to Padilla in the name of national security.

But instead of aggressively examining the torture allegation, the Bush administration has fought hard to keep Padilla's treatment in military custody veiled in secrecy.

"The treatment of Padilla ranks as one of the most serious abuses after 9/11," says Jonathan Turley, a professor at George Washington University Law School in Washington. "This is a case that would have shocked the Framers. This is precisely what many of the drafters of the Constitution had in mind when they tried to create a system of checks and balances."

Human rights activists, too, are alarmed by what they see as the continuing lack of oversight and accountability. "What happened to [Padilla] in military custody will be seen by history as one of the more shameful acts this country has taken against one of its own citizens," says Hina Shamsi, deputy director of the Law and Security Program at Human Rights First.

Padilla was held without charge in military custody at the US Naval Consolidated Brig in Charleston, S.C., for more than 3-1/2 years. He was allegedly subjected to prolonged isolation, sensory deprivation, and stress positions, among other harsh interrogation tactics. Mental-health experts who have examined Padilla say the coercive techniques left him with severe psychological damage that may be permanent. Their observations are detailed in three reports filed in Padilla's criminal case.

Allegations deemed not credible

Defense Department officials say they believe Padilla is faking his psychological conditions. No similar detailed psychological examinations, however, have been conducted by the government.

Navy Cmdr. Jeffrey Gordon, a Pentagon spokesman, says suggestions that Padilla is a different person after his years in military custody are not evidence of illegal abuse. Simply being held in a federal prison can change an inmate's personality, but that doesn't mean prison officials tortured him, Commander Gordon says. "I bet I would be different," he says.

In terms of oversight, Gordon says, Defense Department personnel stand ready to fully investigate any credible allegations of torture or other illegal conduct at the brig. "Credible allegations of illegal conduct are taken seriously," he says. "In this case we don't believe that to have occurred."

In Mr. Mohammed's case, his allegations were referred to the inspector general of the Central Intelligence Agency, which will neither confirm nor deny the existence of such a probe.

Even if an oversight investigation verified some or all of Padilla's claims, it is unlikely that he would find himself a free man anytime soon. Padilla was convicted in a terror conspiracy trial in Miami on Aug. 16. He is set to be sentenced in December and faces up to life in prison.

Apart from the criminal case, a separate group of lawyers has filed a civil lawsuit in South Carolina seeking a judicial ruling declaring the US government's treatment of Padilla in the brig illegal and unconstitutional.