North America & Oceania

NYPD Disbands Unit Devoted to Spying on Muslim Community

by Michael Yoakum
Impunity Watch Reporter, North America

NEW YORK CITY, United States – The New York City Police Department said Tuesday that it has disbanded a special unit of plainclothes detectives tasked with mingling with Muslim communities to discover terror plots. The Zone Assessment Unit, developed with the aid of the CIA in the wake of 9/11, acknowledged that it monitored Muslim owned businesses and places of worship.

The monitoring program drew protests and legal actions from the Muslim community. (photo courtesy of The Guardian)

NYPD spokesman Stephen Davis confirmed that detectives from the Zone Assessment Unit were reassigned to other operations in the department’s intelligence division.  New York Mayor Bill de Blasio considered disbanding the unit a “critical step forward in easing tensions between the police and the communities they serve, so that our cops and our citizens can help one another go after the real bad guys.”

Disbanding the Zone Assessment Unit is just one of many anticipated rollbacks in post-9/11 intelligence gathering within the NYPD under new Police Commissioner William Bratton.  The new Commissioner will also consider scaling back overseas operations that deploys NYPD officers to stations in London, Paris, Tel Aviv and Amman.

NYPD officials stated that disbanding the controversial unit was part of a conclusion that information could be more easily gathered through direct interaction with the Muslim community.  One high-ranking NYPD official stated in a 2012 deposition that the unit never generated a single piece of actionable information during its six years of operation.

News of the Zone Assessment Unit’s work drew negative reactions in Washington.  34 members of Congress expressed the need for a federal investigation of the NYPD while Attorney General Eric Holder said he was disturbed by the news.  The Department of Justice is reviewing complaints received from the Muslim community.

Reporting on the unit also triggered an investigation by the Inspector General for the CIA, who was concerned about the involvement of a CIA operative in setting up this program.  The investigation ultimately concluded that the CIA did not violate its own policies prohibiting domestic spying.

Former NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly, who helped set up the Zone Assessment Unit, has defended its use, saying his officer observed legal guidelines.

For more information, please see:

ABC News – NYC Police Rolling Back Some Counterterror Efforts – 16 April 2014

CNN – New York Police Department disbands unit that spied on Muslims – 16 April 2014

Fox News – NYPD ends Muslim surveillance program – 15 April 2014

The Guardian – NYPD disbands controversial Muslim surveillance unit – 15 April 2014

The New York Times – New York Drops Unit That Spied on Muslims – 15 April 2014

White House Will Deny Visa to Iranian Ambassador

by Michael Yoakum
Impunity Watch Reporter, North America

WASHINGTON, D.C., United States – The Obama administration said Friday that it would deny to issue a visa to Iran’s newly named ambassador, Hamid Aboutalebi, who participated in the 1979 taking of the American embassy in Tehran.  The White House statement came in response to pressure from the House and Senate which both voted in favor of a bill barring Aboutalebi from the US.

Aboutalebi denies being part of the group primarily responsible for taking 55 Americans hostage for 444 days in Tehran (photo courtesy of BBC News)

Aboutalebi was a member of the Muslim Students Following the Imam’s Line, a group of militants responsible for taking the American embassy in 1979.  He served as a translator for the students, communicating with the 55 American hostages.
Aboutalebi is a veteran diplomat in Iran, having served as Iranian ambassador to Australia, Belgium, Italy and the European Union.  He is believed to be be close to the Iranian leader, President Hassan Rouhani, the moderate reformer who took office last year.

State Department officials have not offered any specific reasons for opposing Aboutalebi’s nomination, but appear adamantly against him. “We think this nomination would be extremely troubling,” said State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf, adding “We’re taking a close look at the case now and we’ve raised our serious concerns about this possible nomination with the government [of] Iran.”

While not expressly denying Aboutalebi’s visa, the White House has relayed that would not accept his application.  White House Press Secretary Jay Carney told the press core, “We have already told the U.N. and Iran that we will not issue a visa.”

Abbas Abdi, one of the leaders of the group that took the American hostages in 1979 said Aboutalebi had no “relation to the decision-making team, the group who invaded and those who continued the hostage captivity in Iran.”

Denying Aboutalebi a visa could create complications for the Obama Administration’s relationship with Iran.  President Obama has attempted to re-engage  with Iran on its nuclear program since the election of Rouhani.

For more information, please see:

BBC News – US refuses visa for Iran’s UN envoy choice Hamid Aboutalebi – 11 April 2014

Fox News – State Dept. says Iran’s pick for UN ambassador ‘troubling’ amid outrage over hostage crisis link – 2 April 2014

CNN – White House: U.S. won’t issue visa for Iran’s newly named U.N. envoy – 12 April 2014

Bloomberg News – White House Tells Iran That Hostage Taker ‘Not Viable’ – 8 April 2014

The New York Times – U.S. Says Iran’s Pick for U.N. Envoy Won’t Get a Visa – 11 April 2014

Congress Investigates Secret “Cuban Twitter”

by Michael Yoakum
Impunity Watch Reporter, North America

WASHINGTON, D.C., United States – The Senate Foreign Relations Committee request records from the US Agency for International Development (USAID)’s Cuban operations Thursday.  This request came after evidence emerged that the US government funded ZunZuneo, dubbed the “Cuban Twitter” by reports.

Sen. Robert Menendez, chairman of the Foreign Relationship Committee, defended the program during hearings. (Photo courtesy of BBC News)

The Associated Press reported early last week that the Twitter-like program, administered by USAID, provided social media service to Cuban citizens from 2009 to 2012 when federal grant money ran out.  The purpose of this “Cuban Twitter” was to promulgate information to undermine the communist government and gather demographic information on dissidents in Cuban.

The US government reportedly hid its involvement in ZunZuneo by creating a shell corporation in Spain to finance the operation.

Members of the Senates and House of Representative expressed concern about the program’s administration through USAID rather than an intelligence agency. “Why would we put that mission in USAID?” Republican Senator Mike Johanns asked, adding “Why wouldn’t you look at some other part of the federal government to place that mission? To me, it seems crazy.”

Documents obtained by AP show that the site’s early messages poked fun at the Castro government and were created by a satirist working for the social media project.  This conflicted with earlier statements by the Obama administration that the messages were not political in nature.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who is Cuban-born, defended the pro-democracy operations carried out by USAID, saying the program was “so important to offer the other side of the story, the side that promotes American values: God-given values like freedom, justice or liberty.”

Other lawmakers were uncomfortable with the idea of USAID, an organization known for providing humanitarian aid without involving itself in political situations, conducting covert operations.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, chair of the Senate panel, said he had no prior knowledge of the Twitter-like operation, contradicting claims by SAID Administrator Rajiv Shah that Congress was properly informed.

Leahy later clarified that he was notified generally of the program, but not of the program’s risks, its political nature or the extensive efforts to conceal Washington’s involvement.

For more information, please see:

BBC News – Senate requests information on USAID internet projects – 10 April 2014

ABC News – Senator: Aid Agency Laudable for ‘Cuban Twitter’ – 9 April 2014

National Public Radio – Was ‘Cuban Twitter’ Program Political Or Not? – 9 April 2014

TIME – USAID Denies ‘Cuban Twitter’ Was Meant To Subvert – 8 April 2014

The Washington Post – U.S. secretly created ‘Cuban Twitter’ to stir unrest – 3 April 2014

Senate Panel Votes To Release CIA Torture Report

By: Brandon R. Cottrell 
Impunity Watch Reporter, North America 

WASHINGTON, D.C., United States – The Senate Intelligence Committee voted last week to release parts of a four year long report that investigated CIA terror interrogations during the Bush administration.

Senator Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, who voted in favor of releasing the report, described the results as “shocking” and that such a program “must never be allowed to happen again” (Photo Courtesy Washington Post).

The panel, which is comprised of fourteen members, had eleven members voting in favor of release and three members (Republican Senators Marco Rubio of Florida, Dan Coats of Indiana and Jim Risch of Idaho) voting against release of five hundred pages (out of six thousand total pages) of the report.

Though the report needs to be declassified, the release should still provide the fullest account of the enhanced interrogation techniques that were used.  According to members of the intelligence community, however, the report will not paint a full picture as the underlying investigation “fail[ed] to include interviews from top spy agency officials who authorized or supervised the brutal interrogations.”

Senator Richard Burr, who voted in favor of releasing the report, believes that the report is “flawed and biased” but thought it important “to give the American people the opportunity to make their judgments.”

Amid concerns that the CIA will “sanitize key elements of their investigation” as they redact passages that could comprise national security, the White House reported that it would instruct intelligence officials to cooperate fully with the pending release.

Additionally, Dean Boyd, a CIA spokesman, said that the agency would “carry out the review expeditiously” and that “we owe it to the men and women directed to carry out this program to try and ensure that any historical account is accurate.”

Senator Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, stated that “”The purpose of this review was to uncover the facts behind the secret program and the results, I think, were shocking . . . the report exposes brutality that stands in sharp contrast to our values as a nation [and] it chronicles a stain on our history that must never be allowed to happen again.  This is not what Americans do.”  Feinstein has additionally stated that she hopes the report will be released to the public within thirty days.

Amnesty International issued a statement with similar sentiments, stating that “the interrogation techniques amount to torture and therefore violated international law” and that it wished the report would be released in full but acknowledged that “given the systematic failure of the U.S. authorities to declassify and disclose anything like the full truth . . .  any transparency on them is a step in the right direction.”

The report accuses the CIA of overstating the significance of alleged terrorist plots and prisoners, and exaggerating the effectiveness of the program by claiming credit for information surrendered before they were subjected to the interrogations.


For further information, please see the following: 

AP – Senate Panel Votes To Release CIA Torture Report – 3/April/14

New York Times – Senate Panel Votes To Reveal Report On C.I.A. Interrogations – 3/April/14

USA Today – Senate Panel Votes To Declassify Part Of CIA Report – 3/April/14

Washington Post – Senate Panel Votes To Release CIA Interrogation Report – 3/April/14

District Court Judge Dismisses Suit Over Drone Strike Deaths

by Michael Yoakum
Impunity Watch Reporter, North America

WASHINGTON, D.C., United States – A federal judge dismissed an action against top Obama administration officials Friday brought by family members of three American citizens killed in a drone strike in Yemen, including Anwar al-Awlaki.  While D.C. district court Judge Rosemary Collyer said the case “raises fundamental issues regarding constitutional principles,” she announced that she will grant the government’s motion to dismiss.

al-Alwaki, a radical Muslim cleric and US citizen, was killed by a drone strike in Yemen in 2011. (photo courtesy of The Guardian).

The ACLU and the Center for Constitutional Rights represented the families of the three men killed in the drone strikes: al-Awlaki, his son Abdulrahman, and Samir Khan, a naturalized citizen who moved to Yemen in 2009 to work for an English language magazine.  The suit named former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, CIA Director David Patraeus, and two commanders in the military’s Special Operations Command.

Judge Collyer, in her 41 page opinion, ruled that courts should hesitate to hold government officials personally liable for violating citizens’ constitutional rights during wartime.

“The persons holding the jobs of the named defendants must be trusted and expected to act in accordance with the U.S. Constitution when they intentionally target a U.S. citizen abroad at the direction of the president and with the concurrence of Congress,” Collyer wrote, adding “They cannot be held personally responsible in monetary damages for conducting war.”

The ruling, if it stands, suggests that the Judiciary has no role in evaluating the legality of the Executive’s decision to kill American citizens in overseas operations when officials have deemed those citizens to be terrorists.

Brian Fallen, a Department of Justice spokesman, stated that the district court reached the correct decision.  Lawyers from the Center for Constitutional Rights say they have not decided whether they will appeal the decision.

Lawyers from the ACLU were vocal about their distaste for the court’s ruling. “This is a deeply troubling decision that treats the government’s allegations as proof while refusing to allow those allegations to be tested in court,” ACLU lawyer Hina Shamsi said.

The Obama administration is separately fighting Freedom of Information Act requests brought by the New York Times and ACLU seeking disclosure of a memo authored by the Department of Justice laying out the legal justification for the strikes.  Presently a summary of that legal reasoning has been unclassified and made available to the public.

For more information, please see:

Associated Press – Judge dismisses lawsuit over drone strikes – 4 April 2014

The Guardian – Drone killings case thrown out in US – 4 April 2014

The New York Times – Judge Dismisses Suit Against Administration Officials Over Drone Strikes – 4 April 2014

Reuters – Lawsuit over American drone strikes dismissed by U.S. judge – 4 April 2014

The Washington Post – Judge dismisses lawsuit over drone strikes in Yemen that killed American Anwar al-Awlaki – 4 April 2014