President Barack Obama told CNN’s Anderson Cooper that he has directed his national security team to look into the 2001 deaths of Taliban prisoners who allegedly were massacred by US-backed forces in Afghanistan. The President stated that the government needs to find out whether actions by the US contributed to possible war crimes.
The comments to Anderson Cooper were aired on CNN on Sunday as it promoted excerpts from Cooper’s exclusive interview with the President in Ghana that will air in full at 10 PM Eastern on Monday, July 13. Cooper raised new evidence from a New York Times report by James Risen that the Bush Administration impeded at least three federal investigations into an alleged massacre of as many as 2,000 prisoners in Afghanistan. The excerpts as transcribed by Physicians for Human Rights follow at the end of this post.
"Physicians for Human Rights praises President Obama for ordering his national security team to collect all the facts in the Dasht-e-Leili massacre and apparent US cover-up," said Physicians for Human Rights Deputy Director Susannah Sirkin.
President Obama’s comments differ from statements made by Obama Administration officials on Friday, as reported by Lara Jakes of the Associated Press, that they had no grounds to investigate. In their statement, these officials claim that they lack legal grounds to probe these alleged war crimes because "only foreigners were involved and the alleged killings occurred in a foreign country."
Physicians for Human Rights on Friday called these claims "absurd" and said the US "has a legal obligation to find out what US officials knew, where US personnel were, what involvement they had, and the actions of US allies during and after the massacre."
"Since Physicians for Human Rights discovered the mass grave in January 2002, we have been gathering the facts on the initial incident and the alleged cover-up of it through forensic investigation, legal action against the Bush Administration, and documentation of the chain of command," said Nathaniel Raymond, PHR's lead researcher in the case.
"We stand ready to provide these facts to the president's national security team and to Congress. President Obama is right to say that US and Afghan violations of the laws of war must be investigated. If the Obama Administration finds that criminal wrongdoing occurred in this case, those responsible -- whether American or Afghan officials -- must be prosecuted. Additionally, reports that Attorney General Eric Holder is considering appointing a prosecutor to pursue violations related to detainee abuse is a welcome and long-awaited first step to restoring our nation's commitment to the rule of law," said Raymond, who also directs PHR's Campaign Against Torture.
"The White House should support the appointment of a criminal prosecutor to investigate the US use of torture as well as the creation of a commission of inquiry to gather all the facts of this dark chapter," concluded Raymond.
According to US government documents obtained by PHR, as many as 2,000 surrendered Taliban fighters were reportedly suffocated in container trucks by Afghan forces operating jointly with the US in November 2001. The bodies were reportedly buried in mass graves in the Dasht-e-Leili desert near Sheberghan, Afghanistan. Notorious Afghan warlord General Abdul Rashid Dostum, who was reportedly on the CIA payroll, is allegedly responsible for the massacre.
Excerpt from CNN interview:
ANDERSON COOPER: And now it seems clear that the Bush Administration resisted efforts to pursue investigations of an Afghan warlord named General Dostum, who was on the CIA payroll. It’s now come out, there were hundreds of Taliban prisoners under his care who got killed...
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Right.
ANDERSON COOPER: ...some were suffocated in a steel container, others were shot, possibly buried in mass graves. Would you support – would you call for – an investigation into possible war crimes in Afghanistan?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Yeah, the indications that this had not been properly investigated just recently was brought to my attention. So what I’ve asked my national security team to do is to collect the facts for me that are known. And we’ll probably make a decision in terms of how to approach it once we have all the facts gathered up.
ANDERSON COOPER: But you wouldn’t resist categorically an investigation?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: I think that, you know, there are responsibilities that all nations have even in war. And if it appears that our conduct in some way supported violations of the laws of war, then I think that, you know, we have to know about that.
Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) shared the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize. PHR was founded in 1986 on the idea that health professionals, with their specialized skills, ethical commitments, and credible voices, are uniquely positioned to investigate the health consequences of human rights violations and work to stop them. PHR mobilizes health professionals to advance health, dignity and justice and promotes the right to health for all. PHR has documented the systematic use of psychological and physical torture by US personnel against detainees held at Guantánamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, Bagram airbase and elsewhere.
PHR’s International Forensic Program (IFP) has conducted forensic assessments and investigations of human rights abuses, crimes against humanity and genocide in many countries. IFP is dedicated to providing independent forensic expertise to document and collect evidence of human rights violations and of violations of international humanitarian law. Since the 1980s, PHR has mobilized forensic scientists and other experts worldwide to respond to inquiries by governments, organizations, families and individuals.
On the Web:
In April 2002, Physicians for Human Rights forensic experts dug a test trench as part of a preliminary investigation for the UN at the Dasht-e-Leili mass grave site near Sheberghan, Afghanistan, and exposed 15 bodies. (Photo by Physicians for Human Rights)
Bloggers, please note:
To access and use a new, online video by PHR ("War Crimes and the White House: The Bush Administration’s Cover-Up of the Dasht-e-Leili Massacre"), and to obtain high-resolution photos courtesy of Physicians for Human Rights, please visit http://afghanmassgrave.org.
Disclosure: I am Chief Communications Officer at Physicians for Human Rights.
UPDATE 1: The Associated Press has posted a wire story, "Obama orders review of alleged Afghan mass grave." Here is an excerpt:
WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama has ordered his national security team to investigate reports that U.S. allies were responsible for the deaths of as many as 2,000 Taliban prisoners of war during the opening days of the war in Afghanistan.
Obama told CNN in an interview that aired Sunday that he doesn't know what how the U.S.-allied Northern Alliance behaved in November 2001, but he wants a full accounting before deciding how to move forward.
"I think that, you know, there are responsibilities that all nations have even in war," Obama said during an interview at the end of a six-day trip to Russia, Italy and Ghana.
"And if it appears that our conduct in some way supported violations of the laws of war, then I think that, you know, we have to know about that."
The president's comments seem to reverse officials' statements from Friday, when they said they had no grounds to investigate the 2001 deaths of Taliban prisoners of war who human rights groups allege were killed by U.S.-backed forces.
Reacting to the interview, Physicians for Human Rights hailed Obama's decision.
"President Obama is right to say that U.S. and Afghan violations of the laws of war must be investigated," said Nathaniel Raymond, a Physicians for Human Rights researcher. "If the Obama administration finds that criminal wrongdoing occurred in this case, those responsible — whether American or Afghan officials — must be prosecuted."
But Obama's direction — discussed as he toured a former slave castle on Ghana's coast — does not guarantee action.
"We'll probably make a decision in terms of how to approach it once we have all the facts gathered up," Obama said.
UPDATE 2: I just received a call from the CNN Wire, which is now planning to promote the Anderson Cooper interview with President Obama, scheduled to air in full on Monday night at 10 PM Eastern. They wanted a quote from Physicians for Human Rights.
UPDATE 3: Slated for the Monday print edition, the New York Times has just posted a news analysis by Scott Shane, "Obama Faces a New Push to Look Back." Here are some excerpts:
President Obama is facing new pressure to reverse himself and to ramp up investigations into the Bush-era security programs, despite the political risks....
Mr. Obama said this weekend that he had asked his staff members to review a report in The New York Times about the mass killing of prisoners in Afghanistan by local forces allied with the United States as it toppled the Taliban regime there.
Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. is also close to assigning a prosecutor to look into whether prisoners in the campaign against terrorism were tortured, officials disclosed on Saturday....
On the question of the killings in Afghanistan, Mr. Obama said in the CNN interview that he had just learned of "the indications that this had not been properly investigated" and had directed aides to "collect the facts" on the killing of hundreds or thousands of Taliban prisoners.
"If it appears that our conduct in some way supported violations of the laws of war, then I think that, you know, we have to know about that," the president said.
Mr. Obama is also likely to face increasing pressure from some of his strongest supporters that Bush administration officials be held accountable for approving what Mr. Obama himself has called torture. The drumbeat of new revelations from the years after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, appears unlikely to let up.
Indeed, the drumbeat will not let up.
UPDATE 4: The CNN Wire has posted its piece, "Obama orders review of slayings of Taliban in Bush era" -- currently the top story on the homepage of CNN.com. Here are excerpts:
(CNN) -- President Obama has ordered national security officials to look into allegations that the Bush administration resisted efforts to investigate a CIA-backed Afghan warlord over the killings of hundreds of Taliban prisoners in 2001....
When asked by CNN about whether Obama would support an investigation, the president replied, "I think that, you know, there are responsibilities that all nations have, even in war. And if it appears that our conduct in some way supported violations of laws of war, then I think that, you know, we have to know about that."
Susannah Sirkin, deputy director of Physicians for Human Rights, on Sunday praised Obama "for ordering his national security team to collect all the facts in the Dasht-e-Leili massacre and apparent U.S. cover-up."
"U.S. military and intelligence personnel were operating jointly and accepted the surrender of the prisoners jointly with General Dostum's forces in northern Afghanistan," Sirkin said earlier in the week.
"The Obama administration has a legal obligation to determine what U.S. officials knew, where U.S. personnel were, what involvement they had, and the actions of US allies during and after the massacre. These questions, nearly eight years later, remain unanswered."