New military reports released by Wikileaks reveal laziness of both thinking and detail in the handling of Australia's Mamdouh Habib and David Hicks


This post has been corrected.

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA -- A bedrock principle of the American criminal justice system is that it's better to have 10 guilty men go free than have one innocent man be incarcerated. The principle was enunciated by the English jurist William Blackstone and has guided us for more than 250 years -- until, that is, the events of 9/11 unleashed a search for terrorist suspects under every bed. The attitude now is that it's better to round up a hundred innocent men than have one terrorist remains at large, a senior FBI official told me, disgusted with the policy.

Two Australian citizens were caught by this monumental shift in law enforcement -- Mamdouh Habib, an Egyptian-born, naturalized Australian, a father of four with a history of financial and mental health problems, who had gone to Pakistan as a possible place to settle his family; and David Hicks, a lost soul who set out to Pakistan and Afghanistan in search of more adventure. Both men are now back in Australia, leading lives as law-abiding citizens, though it is hard to imagine that either will ever be able to lead a normal life after what the United States did to them.

Habib was picked up in Pakistan a few weeks after 9/11, turned over to the Americans and secretly spirited, bound and gagged, by the CIA to Egypt, one of the early subjects of the Bush administration's extraordinary rendition policy, under which he was interrogated and tortured for several months before being shipped to Guantanamo in May 2002.

Habib was suspected of being a "money-launderer and terrorist facilitator," according to an August 2004 memorandum prepared by the commanding officer at Guantanamo, Brigadier General Jay Hood. This is, the general's report says, "because of his extensive international travels." In this era of shrinking borders and expanding globalization, many an international businessman might begin to worry based on that.

The Pentagon report, which was prepared as part of a review of the cases of several hundred Guantanamo prisoners, was among those released this week by Wikileaks. It is marked by errors, some risible if the consequences weren't so severe. The report says that Habib moved to Sydney in 1980; he didn't arrive here until 1982. It says that he lived in "Greenwika." It was Greenacre. It says that he took his wife and children to Egypt, where he had been in the army, in 1986; it was two years later.

"These could be dismissed as trivial slips except that this is a quasi-legal document that was used to justify Habib's detention in Guantanamo for more than three years," Sally Neighbour noted in an April 26th column in The Australian in which she recounted the mistakes.

More seriously, the memorandum says that Habib had "strong knowledge" of an Egyptian Islamic extremist group, Australia's Al Gamma Al Islamia.

Neighbour, one of Australia's most knowledgeable journalists on the subject of terrorism, said she had never heard of that group. (Neighbour's most recent book, The Mother of Mohammed: An Australian Woman's Extraordinary Journey into Jihad, is a compelling and provocative story of an Australian woman from an impoverished background who went from a drug-using, surfing hippie to a convert of Islam, a woman who found meaning among a community of like-minded coverts in Pakistan.)

General Hood's conclusion that Habib was an "enemy combatant" was based in part on Habib's confession that he had trained the 9/11 highjackers in martial arts; Habib also confessed that he had planned to hijack a Qantas flight and poison an American river. General Hood noted, as an aside, that Habib had confessed under "extreme duress."

That's a lovely euphemism for brutal torture. Habib has alleged that while in custody, first in Pakistan, then in Egypt, he was subjected to electric shocks through a helmet clamped onto his head, was hanged by his hands from a hook on the wall with his feet on a roller through which electricity ran, was dropped kicked by guards, was forced to look at pictures of his wife's face superimposed on Osama bin Laden's body, and was sexually humiliated by a female interrogator. (I interviewed Habib soon after his release from Guantanamo in 2005 for the New York Times)

Even the country's conservative newspaper, The Australian, which is part of Rupert Murdoch's empire, has now called for an investigation into Habib's allegations. "While the Australian government must maintain its vigilance on security matters, it must also do all it can to ascertain exactly what happened to Mr. Habib while he was in the custody of Egyptian authorities," the newspaper said in an editorial today.

The Australian government has never denied Habib's allegations that he was tortured. It maintains that it did not even know Mr. Habib had been taken by the Americans from Pakistan to Egypt. That assertion has been undermined by documents obtained by Australian journalists showing that American officials discussed the rendition with Australian officials in advance; it is also hard to fathom how the U.S. would have done anything with Habib, an Australian citizen, without consulting the government of Australia, one America's closest allies.

In his report on Habib, General Hood concludes that he is a "high risk." Nevertheless, five months later, he was returned to Australia. Since then, he has run for political office (unsuccessfully) -- and sued the Australian government for complicity in his rendition and torture. The government settled the case with a substantial payment, thought to be in the vicinity of half a million Australian dollars, though the terms of the settlement are sealed.*

The Pentagon's report on David Hicks, also written by General Hood, is equally flawed (PDF).

Hicks, a high-school dropout who had worked as a kangaroo skinner in Australia's Outback, "sought out extremist organizations around the world to train, operate, and fight with them," the report says.

It is true that Hicks did seek adventure. But among the "extremist organizations" listed by General Hood are the Kosovo Liberation Army and Lashkar-i-Taiba in Pakistan. At the time Hicks fought with the KLA, NATO was supporting it in the war against Slobodan Milosovic; and when Hicks was training with Laskhar-i-Taiba, it had not been declared a terrorist organization and was (and still is) supported by Pakistani intelligence service as part of the war against India in Kashmir.

American officials initially said that Hicks was guilty of murder and conspiracy to commit acts of terrorism. The charges were eventually reduced to one count of material support for terrorism. Even then, Hicks was released after entering into an agreement whereby he maintained his innocence but said the government had enough evidence with which it might be able to convince a jury that he was guilty.

The Hicks report says that after he was picked up in Afghanistan, he was turned over to the Americans and imprisoned on the U.S.S. Pettiloo. General Hood, who prepared the report, is in the Army, and perhaps the Navy will forgive him for getting the name of their ship wrong: It is the U.S.S. Peleliu.

According to the Pentagon report, after fighting in Kosovo, Hicks flew to East Timor, where insurgents were fighting for independence from Indonesia. Hicks, who has never denied affiliations with the KLA and LiT, emphatically denies this, a denial that seems more credible than the Pentagon report on this score, concluded Neighbour, the journalist.

After reading the Pentagon's reports on Hicks and Habib, the Sydney Morning Herald had this to say in an editorial on Wednesday: "Does the old joke that military intelligence is an oxymoron have a grain of truth to it after all?"

"It is an ugly story," the editorial concluded about the fact that so many innocent individuals were rounded up in America's war on terror.

Image credit: Mamdouh Habib, left, David Hicks, right Reuters/Stringer Australia; Str New

This story originally implied that the CIA might have conducted a covert raid into Habib's house. In fact, it was Australian intelligence that raided Habib's house in September 2001 and took his computer. We regret the error.

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