Pennsylvania Man Charged With Torture Outside Official CIA Channels

The Justice Department really had the nerve to boast about indicting its second U.S. citizen under the 1994 federal torture statute. Also: nothing about Ukraine.

Pennsylvania Man Charged With Torture Outside Official CIA Channels
First Air Cavalrymen and a Vietnamese interpreter lay a towel over the suspect's face and then pour water on it. January 1968, Da Nang, Vietnam. Via Getty.

Edited by Sam Thielman

ROSS ROGGIO IS FACING SERIOUS CHARGES that, if proven, would prompt 54 U.S. Senators to consider him qualified to run the Central Intelligence Agency.

On Thursday, federal law enforcement arrested Roggio, a former wartime contractor involved in weapons manufacturing for the Iraqi Kurdish military known as the Peshmerga, and charged him with torture. The indictment is accordingly gruesome. Prosecutors accuse Roggio of using Peshmerga who had been placed under his functional control in 2015 to torture an employee who had learned Roggio "did not have the ability to produce the weapons and was diverting the money to his personal use."

According to the indictment, Roggio had the guy kidnapped, hooded and taken to a Kurdish military base. For the next 39 days, Roggio allegedly had Pesh soldiers torture the would-be whistleblower. Suffocation was involved. A "large cutting tool similar to a bolt cutter" was used to make the man think he would lose a finger. "[A]t times, some of Roggio's other employees were forced to watch," the indictment states. He is facing a stunning 705 years in prison.

Roggio has pleaded not guilty. (There's a whole prior gun-running indictment that I'm not going to get into.) Remember what we said a few months ago about how we should read indictments as prosecutors' theory of the case. Indictments are specific accusations, not proof.

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THE JUSTICE DEPARTMENT DID NOT CHARGE Roggio with enhanced interrogation. "Pennsylvania Man Charged With Torture," read its press release.

Euphemism would have defeated the point, which was self-congratulation. Roggio's indictment "underscores that the United States stands for the rule of law and will hold accountable anyone who commits acts of torture, regardless of where it takes place," stated FBI Assistant Director Luis Quesada. "[S]uch brutality will be exposed and addressed wherever it occurs," vowed U.S. attorney John C. Gurganus.

As evidence, the Justice Department press release noted that Roggio is "the second U.S. citizen—and the fourth defendant overall—to be charged with violating the torture statute since the law went into effect in 1994."

Perhaps you were unaware that since 1994, the United States has had a law that

prohibits torture committed by public officials under color of law against persons within the public official's custody or control. Torture is defined to include acts specifically intended to inflict severe physical or mental pain or suffering. (It does not include such pain or suffering incidental to lawful sanctions.) The statute applies only to acts of torture committed outside the United States. There is Federal extraterritorial jurisdiction over such acts whenever the perpetrator is a national of the United States or the alleged offender is found within the United States, irrespective of the nationality of the victim or the alleged offender.

You’ve figured out where I'm going with this. Roggio's crime isn't torture. It's torture without being a CIA employee.

Every single CIA and Bush administration official who planned, approved, supervised, implemented and materially assisted the 2002-8 torture program unambiguously and deliberately, as a matter of official policy, violated every operative clause of the federal torture statute. They had the benefit of Spanish Inquisition-caliber lawyering that defined torture as stuff the CIA said it wouldn't do, like inducing pain equivalent to organ failure or death; or causing permanent mental damage.

Within four months of obtaining Justice Department approval, the CIA did that anyway, by accidentally freezing Gul Rahman to death. We obviously know now from survivor accounts that the CIA caused permanent mental damage. But causing such damage was central to the point of CIA contractors James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen's "learned helplessness" regimen, whereby peoples' minds shattered under the stress of persistent mental and physical anguish. Abu Zubaydah would lay on the waterboard when his tormentors snapped their fingers.

By 2009, two senior CIA officials who oversaw the torture program within the Counterterrorism Center, Jose Rodriguez and Gina Haspel, evaded charges of destroying evidence by shredding videotapes of torture at the Thailand black site Haspel ran. Yet even as President Obama vowed to "look forward as opposed to looking backwards" at CIA torture, Attorney General Eric Holder appointed a special prosecutor. The prosecutor had a limited mandate: only CIA torture worse than what the Justice Department authorized was eligible for prosecutorial scrutiny. That was less a legal imperative than a political one. Conservative politicians and mainstream journalists raised alarm about Obama daring to criminalize his political opponents in the Bush administration just because they did crimes.

Even with the pool of potential criminals limited to those who implemented torture instead of designing or ordering it, that was 101 CIA officials. People who, I reiterate, killed Gul Rahman. There is a whole Senate report documenting torture that surpassed the sickeningly farcical Justice Department authorizations. The special prosecutor declined to charge any of them. His name was John Durham. Durham, the federal prosecutor in Connecticut, was last seen fabricating a narrative, just as Bill Barr desired, that the FBI was persecuting Donald Trump.

The first count against Roggio is conspiracy to commit torture. That's because he was in a supervisory role in torturing the man (who is not named in the indictment). "Ross Roggio, together with others both known and unknown to the Grand Jury, did knowingly and intentionally aid, abet, counsel, command, induce, and procure each others' participation in the commission of said offense," the indictment states.

That sure sounds like a description of Gina Haspel in her official duties as chief of base at the Thailand black site in late 2002 and then, as per CIA lawyer John Rizzo, head of the CIA interrogation program. (Roggio is alleged to have tortured the man himself, whereas no evidence has yet emerged to suggest Haspel did her own dirty work.) Haspel, however, was confirmed in 2018 as director of the CIA by 54 senators, six of them Democrats, one of them Mark Warner, who currently chairs the intelligence committee. She presently works for the King & Spalding law firm "to advise family offices on risks to the world’s ultra-wealthy," in Bloomberg's description.

Roggio's victim was tortured for 39 days. Majid Khan, whom the CIA raped, wishes his torture ended after 39 days. This guy nearly lost a finger. Abu Zubaydah lost an eye. No one has ever explained it. No one will ever face 705 years in prison for it. Had Roggio opted against going into business for himself and signed on instead with the most trusted name in torture, he might be seated across a table from American oligarchs, his barbarism less a crime than a credential.

WE DON'T TALK ABOUT UKRAINE. I'm not a Russia/Ukraine reporter. I have neither expertise nor pretensions. I'm thousands of miles away. My body armor is in the closet next to me and I have zero desire to put it back on. If I still worked for a major news outlet, none of this would be any obstacle to editors pushing me to focus on the Russia/Ukraine crisis. Isn't this your thing? You do national security, right? You're the national security guy and this is the story right now.

I certainly have my perspective. But it's a general antiwar perspective that focuses on the structural disasters that the U.S. engineered during its shorter-than-expected period of unipolar hegemony, like abandoning the ABM treaty and expanding NATO. You'll notice none of this has anything to do with Ukraine-qua-Ukraine or Russia-qua-Russia.

That's why I'm telling you I'd prefer not to talk out of my ass. The other day during a public forum I was asked what I thought about the crisis. As I was assembling an answer it occurred to me that my professional incentives perversely encourage me to play myself. Decades of experience with cable-news bookers have made clear they care about who can communicate telegenically, not who understands the subject they're discussing. So I just said I don't cover this and moved on.

I'm going to do that here. This newsletter is supposed to model best practices. So it advises you to read journalism from on the ground and analysis that isn't psychotic empire-maintenance shit from Blobbers who are having trouble coping with how thoroughly they fucked up their empire. One example: George Kennan, whom so many of them revere, told them this was going to happen.