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The Minh Quang Pham Precedent to the Julian Assange Extradition

WikiLeaks supporters say that extradition of Julian Assange to the United States threatens journalism. That is true.

They also say that his extradition would be unprecedented. I believe that’s true too, with respect to the Espionage Act.

But it’s not entirely without precedent. I believe the case of Minh Quang Pham, who was extradited to the US in 2015 for activities related to AQAP — the most substantive of which involve providing his graphic design expertise for two releases of AQAP’s magazine, Inspire — provides a precedent that might crystalize some of the legal issues at play.

The Minh Quang Pham case

Minh Quang Pham was born in 1983 in Vietnam. He and his parents emigrated to the UK in 1989 and got asylum. In 1995, he got UK citizenship. He partied a lot, at a young age, until his conversion to Islam in 2004, after which he was drawn to further Islamic study and ultimately to Anwar al-Awlaki’s propaganda. Pham was married in 2010 but then, at the end of that year, traveled to Yemen. After some delays, he connected with AQAP and swore bayat in early 2011. While he claimed not to engage in serious training, testimony from high level AQAP/al-Shabaab operative Ahmed Warsame, who — after a two month interrogation by non-law enforcement personnel on a ship — got witness protection for himself and his family in exchange for cooperation, described seeing Pham holding a gun, forming one basis for his firearms and terrorist training charges (though the government also relied on a photo taken with Pham’s own camera).

On my arrival, Amin had a Kalashnikov with him and a pouch of ammunition. I am not certain if he had purchased the gun himself but he did say he had been trained by Abu Anais TAIS on how to use it, I can say from my knowledge of firearms that this weapon was capable of automatic and single fire.

Warsame’s role as informant not only raised questions about the proportionality of US treatment (he was a leader of al-Shabaab, and yet may get witness protection), but also whether his 2-month floating interrogation met European human rights standards for interrogation.

Pham reportedly sucked at anything military, and by all descriptions, the bulk of what Pham did in Yemen involved helping Samir Khan produce Inspire. After some time and a falling out with Khan — and after telling Anwar al-Awlaki he would accept a mission to bomb Heathrow — he returned to the UK. He was interrogated in Bahrain and at the airport on return, and again on arrival back home, then lived in London for six months before his arrest. At first, then-Home Secretary Theresa May tried to strip him of his UK citizenship in a secret proceeding so he could be deported (and possibly drone killed like other UK immigrants), but since — as a refugee — he no longer had Vietnamese citizenship, her first attempt failed.

The moment it became clear the British effort to strip him of citizenship would fail, the US indicted Pham in SDNY on Material Support (covering the graphic design work), training with a foreign terrorist organization, and carrying a firearm. Even before he ultimately did get stripped of his citizenship, he was flown to the US, in February 2015. The FBI questioned him, with no lawyer, during four days of interviews that were not recorded (in spite of a recently instituted FBI requirement that all custodial interviews be recorded). On day four, he admitted that Anwar al-Awlaki had ordered him to conduct an attack on Heathrow (which made the 302), but claimed he had made it clear he only did so as an excuse to be able to leave and return to the UK (a claim that didn’t make the 302; here’s Pham’s own statement which claims he didn’t want to carry out an attack). While Pham willingly pled guilty to the training and arms charges, at sentencing, the government and defense disputed whether Pham really planned to conduct a terrorist attack in the UK, or whether he had — as he claimed — renounced AQAP and resumed normal life with his wife. He failed to convince the judge and got a 40 year sentence.

The question of whether Pham really did plan to attack Heathrow may all be aired publicly given that — after Pham tried to get a recent SCOTUS case on weapon possession enhancements applied to his case — the government has stated that it wants to try Pham on the original charges along with one for the terrorist attack they claim Pham planned based on subsequently collected evidence.

The parallels between the Assange and Pham cases

Let me be clear: I’m not saying that Assange is a terrorist (though if the US government tries him, they will write at length describing about the damage he did, and it’ll amount to more than Pham did). I’m arguing, however, that the US has already gotten extradition of someone who, at the time of his extradition, claimed to have injured the US primarily through his media skills (and claimed to have subsequently recanted his commitment to AQAP).

Consider the similarities:

  • Both legal accusations involve suspect informants (Ahmad Warsame in Pham’s case, and Siggi and Sabu in Assange’s)
  • Both Pham and Assange were charged for speech — publishing Inspire and publishing the names of US and Coalition informants — that is more explicitly prohibited in the UK than the US
  • Both got charged with a substantive crime — terrorism training and possession of a gun in the case of Pham, and hacking in the case of Assange — in addition to speech-based crimes, charges that would (and did, in Pham’s case) greatly enhance any sentence on the speech-related charges
  • Pham got sentenced and Assange faces a sentence and imprisonment in SuperMax in the US that is far more draconian than a sentence for the same crimes would be in the UK, which is probably a big part of the shared Anglo-American interest in extraditing them from the UK
  • Whatever you think about the irregularity and undue secrecy of the Assange extradition, Pham’s extradition was far worse, particularly considering the way Theresa May was treating his UK citizenship

Unlike the Pham charges — all premised on Pham’s willing ties to a Foreign Terrorist Organization, AQAP — the US government has not included allegations that it believes Julian Assange conspired with Russia, though prosecutors involved in his case trying unsuccessfully to coerce Jeremy Hammond’s testimony reportedly told Hammond they believe him to be a Russian spy, and multiple other reports describe that the government changed its understanding of WikiLeaks as it investigated the 2016 election interference (and, probably, the Vault 7 release). Even if it’s true and even if they plan to air the basis for their belief, that’s a claimed intelligence tie, not a terrorism one.

This distinction is important. Holder v. Humanitarian Law clearly criminalizes First Amendment protected activity if done in service of a designated Foreign Terrorist Organization, so Pham’s graphic design by itself made him fair game for charges under US precedent.

The government may be moving to make a similar exception for foreign intelligence assets. As the Congressional Research Service notes, if the government believes Assange to be a Foreign Agent of Russia, it may mean the Attorney General (Jeff Sessions for the original charge, and Bill Barr for all the indictments) deemed guidelines prohibiting the arrest of members of the media not to apply.

The news media policy also provides that it does not apply when there are reasonable grounds to believe that a person is a foreign power, agent of a foreign power, or is aiding, abetting, or conspiring in illegal activities with a foreign power or its agent. The U.S. Intelligence Community’s assessment that Russian state-controlled actors coordinated with Wikileaks in 2016 may have implicated this exclusion and other portions of the news media policy, although that conduct occurred years after the events for which Assange was indicted. The fact that Ecuador conferred diplomatic status on Assange, and that this diplomatic status was in place at the time DOJ filed its criminal complaint, may also have been relevant. Finally, even if the Attorney General concluded that the news media policy applied to Assange, the Attorney General may have decided that intervening events since the end of the Obama Administration shifted the balance of interests to favor prosecution. Whether the Attorney General or DOJ will publicly describe the impact of the news media policy is unclear.

There’s a filing from the prosecutor in the case, Gordon Kromberg, that seems to address the First Amendment in more aggressive terms than Mike Pompeo’s previous statement on the topic.But it may rely, as the terrorism precedent does, on a national security exception (one even more dangerous given the absence of any State Department FTO list, but that hardly makes a difference for a foreigner like Pham).

Ultimately, though, the Assange extradition, like the Pham prosecution, is an instance where the UK is willing to let the US serve as its willing life imprisoner to take immigrants to the UK off its hands. Assange’s extradition builds off past practice, and Pham’s case is a directly relevant precedent.

The human rights case for Julian Assange comes at an awkward time

While human rights lawyers fought hard, at times under a strict gag, on Pham’s immigration case, Assange’s extradition has focused more public attention to UK’s willingness to serve up people to America’s draconian judicial system.

Last Thursday, Paul Arnell wrote a thoughtful piece about the challenge Assange will face to beat this extradition request, concluding that Assange’s extradition might (or might have, in different times) demonstrate that UK extradition law has traded subverted cooperation to a defendant’s protection too far.

We need to reappraise the balance between the conflicting functions of UK extradition law.

Among the UK’s most powerful weapons are its adherence to the rule of law, democracy and human rights. Assange’s extradition arguably challenges those fundamental principles. His case could well add to the evidence that the co-operative versus protective pendulum has swung too far.

He describes how legal challenges probably won’t work, but an appeal to human rights might.

British extradition law presumptively favours rendition. Extradition treaties are concluded to address transnational criminality. They provide that transfer will occur unless certain requirements are met. The co-operative purpose of extradition more often than not trumps the protection of the requested person.

The protective purpose of extradition is served by grounds that bar a request if they are satisfied. Those particularly applicable in Assange’s case are double criminality, human rights and oppression.

There are several offenses within the Official Secrets Acts 1911/1989 and the Computer Misuse Act 1990 that seemingly correspond to those in the US request. However, human rights arguments offer Assange hope.

Three are relevant: to be free from inhuman and degrading punishment, fair trial rights and freedom of expression. Previous decisions have held that life-terms in supermaximum-security prisons do not contravene the “punishment” provision, while the right to freedom of expression as a bar to extradition is untested.

Assange’s best prospect is possibly the oppression bar. Under it, a request can be refused on grounds of mental or physical health and the passage of time. To be satisfied, however, grievous ill health or an extraordinary delay are required.

It’s a good point, and maybe should have been raised after some of the terrorism extraditions, like Pham’s. But it may be outdated.

As I noted, Arnell’s column, titled, “Assange’s extradition would undermine the rule of law,” came out on Thursday. Throughout the same week that he made those very thoughtful points, of course, the UK publicly disavowed the rule of law generally and international law specifically in Boris Johnson’s latest effort to find a way to implement Brexit with no limits on how the UK deals with Northern Ireland.

The highlight – something so extraordinary and constitutionally spectacular that its implications are still sinking in – was a cabinet minister telling the House of Commons that the government of the United Kingdom was deliberately intending to break the law.

This was not a slip of the tongue.

Nor was it a rattle of a sabre, some insincere appeal to some political or media constituency.

No: law-breaking was now a considered government policy.

[snip]

[T]he government published a Bill which explicitly provides for a power for ministers to make regulations that would breach international and domestic law.

[snip]

Draft legislation also does not appear from nowhere, and a published Bill is itself the result of a detailed and lengthy internal process, before it is ever presented to Parliament.

This proposal has been a long time in the making.

We all only got to know about it this week.

[snip]

No other country will take the United Kingdom seriously in any international agreements again.

No other country will care if the United Kingdom ever avers that international laws are breached.

One of the new disclosures in a bunch of Roger Stone warrants released earlier this year is that, in one of the first Dms between the persona Guccifer 2.0, the WikiLeaks Twitter account explained, “we’ve been busy celebrating Brexit.” That same Brexit makes any bid for a human rights argument agains extradition outdated.

Was Inspire a British-Made Product?

Amid a longer story about one-time Brits stripped of their citizenship and handled according to the Administration Disposition Matrix, Ian Cobain fills out the story of Minh Quang Pham (whose identity in the UK is protected under a legal gag and so is referred to as B2). Among other things, Cobain answers the question I raised here: how Pham materially supported Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula by (we infer) helping to produce Inspire between the time he was arrested upon returning from Yemen in July 2011 and the time the British Home Secretary Theresa May tried to strip him of citizenship in December of that year (see my timelines here): he was out on bail.

On arrival back at Heathrow airport, the Vietnamese-born man was searched by police and arrested when a live bullet was found in his rucksack. A few months later, while he was free on bail, May signed an order revoking his British citizenship.

But that would mean Pham was materially contributing to Inspire at a time when he was in the UK. The Brits have much stronger laws against even possessing Inspire. If we (and by association they) had evidence he was producing Inspire while out on bail, it should be easy to try him there.

Which is part of Pham’s current complaint, as he tries to avoid extradition to the US: he could have and should have been charged in the UK.

Within minutes of SIAC announcing its decision and granting B2 unconditional bail, he was rearrested while sitting in the cells at the SIAC building. The warrant had been issued by magistrates five weeks earlier, at the request of the US Justice Department. Moments after that, the FBI announced that B2 had been charged with five terrorism offences and faced up to 40 years in jail. He was driven straight from SIAC to Westminster magistrates’ court, where he faced extradition proceedings.

B2 continues to resist his removal to the US, with his lawyers arguing that he could have been charged in the UK. Indeed, the allegations made by the US authorities, if true, would appear to represent multiple breaches of several UK laws: the Terrorism Act 2000, the Terrorism Act 2006 and the Firearms Act 1968. Asked why B2 was not being prosecuted in the English courts – why, in other words, the Americans were having this particular headache, and not the British – a Crown Prosecution Service spokesperson said: “As this is a live case and the issue of forum may be raised by the defence in court, it would be inappropriate for us to discuss this in advance of the extradition hearing.”

One of the charges against Pham is that he conspired to obtain military training. Which would seem to rely on Ahmed Warsame’s testimony. But it’s not clear how much of the material support charges Warsame could support, given that Pham’s material support period extends a number of months beyond Warsame’s arrest.

Note, however, that there may be overlap between the UndieBomb 2.0 mole working with AQAP (who may have arrived in AQAP 2 months before Pham left) and the tail end of the charge. In which case they may be shipping Pham to the US to better hide the mole’s role in all this.

Of course, all these charges may primarily be about protecting the mole.

Anwar al-Awlaki Is the New Aluminum Tube

Mark Mazzetti, Charlie Savage, and Scott Shane team up to provide the government’s best case — and at times, an irresponsibly credulous one — for the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki and the collateral deaths of Samir Khan and Abdulrahman al-Awlaki.

Yet even in a 3,600 word story, they don’t present any evidence against the senior Awlaki that was fresher than a year old — the October 2010 toner cartridge plot — at the time the Yemeni-American was killed. (I’m not saying the government didn’t have more recent intelligence; it just doesn’t appear in this very Administration-friendly case.) Not surprisingly, then, the story completely ignores questions about the definition of “imminent threat” used in the OLC memo and whether Awlaki was an “imminent” threat when he was killed.

The “linked in various ways” standard for killing Americans

Moreover, the case they do present has various weaknesses.

The story provides a fair amount of space to Awlaki’s celebration of the Nidal Hasan attack (though it does make it clear Awlaki did not respond enthusiastically to Hasan’s queries before the attack).

Investigators quickly discovered that the major had exchanged e-mails with Mr. Awlaki, though the cleric’s replies had been cautious and noncommittal. But four days after the shootings, the cleric removed any doubt about where he stood.

“Nidal Hassan is a hero,” he wrote on his widely read blog. “He is a man of conscience who could not bear living the contradiction of being a Muslim and serving in an army that is fighting against his own people.”

It uses far vaguer language to describe Awlaki’s role in the Faisal Shahzad and toner cartridge plots.

Meanwhile, attacks linked in various ways to Mr. Awlaki continued to mount, including the attempted car bombing of Times Square in May 2010 by Faisal Shahzad, a naturalized American citizen who had reached out to the preacher on the Internet, and the attempted bombing by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula of cargo planes bound for the United States that October.

“Linked in various ways” seems to be the new standard for killing an American. That, in spite of the fact that Shahzad’s tie to Awlaki seems to be the same Hasan had: an inspiration, but not any involvement in the plot. And while Awlaki is reported to have had some role in the toner cartridge plot, reports from Saudi infiltrator Jabir al-Fayfi apparently fingered others in AQAP as the chief plotters.

I guess that would be too much nuance to include in a 3,600 word article.

NYT doesn’t care about problems with the Abu Tarak explanation

Which leaves the UndieBomb attack as the sole attack in which the NYT presents evidence about Awlaki’s direct role. But there’s a problem with their claims there, too.

The would-be underwear bomber told F.B.I. agents that after he went to Yemen and tracked down Mr. Awlaki, his online hero, the cleric had discussed “martyrdom and jihad” with him, approved him for a suicide mission, helped him prepare a martyrdom video and directed him to detonate his bomb over United States territory, according to court documents.

In his initial 50-minute interrogation on Dec. 25, 2009, before he stopped speaking for a month, Mr. Abdulmutallab said he had been sent by a terrorist named Abu Tarek, although intelligence agencies quickly found indications that Mr. Awlaki was probably involved. When Mr. Abdulmutallab resumed cooperating with interrogators in late January, an official said, he admitted that “Abu Tarek” was Mr. Awlaki. With the Nigerian’s statements, American officials had witness confirmation that Mr. Awlaki was clearly a direct plotter, no longer just a dangerous propagandist.

I don’t doubt that Awlaki was directly involved in this attack in some way. And I got the same explanation about Abu Tarak from “an official” back when I first noted the discrepancy between DOJ’s public claims (thanks for not crediting me on that one, NYT boys). But either Abdulmutallab said something beyond “Abu Tarak was Awlaki,” or the entire explanation is not credible.

That’s because Abdulmutallab’s initial interrogation — according to the version presented by Jonathan Tukel in the opening arguments of Abdulmutallab’s trial — said Abu Tarak did the following:

  1. Spoke daily with Abdulmutallab about jihad and martyrdom
  2. Suggested to Abdulmutallab that he become involved in a plane attack against the United States aircraft
  3. Gave him training in detonating the bomb
  4. Told him to make sure he attacked a U.S. aircraft and make sure the attack takes place over the United States

Yet according to the version of Abdulmutallab’s interrogation presented in his sentencing memo, here’s who did those things:

  1. Awlaki and Abdulmutallab discussed martyrdom and jihad
  2. Defendant and Ibrahim Al Asiri discussed defendant’s desire to commit an act of jihad; Asiri discussed a plan for a martyrdom mission with Awlaki, who gave it final approval
  3. Asiri trained defendant in the use of the bomb
  4. Awlaki instructed defendant that the only requirements were that the attack be on a U.S. airliner, and that the attack take place over U.S. soil

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The Detainee Debate Heats Up: The Rule of Martial Law Vs. the Unitary Spookery

As I noted yesterday, Obama issued a veto threat for the detainee provisions included in the Defense Authorization. Since then, both Dianne Feinstein and Carl Levin have given speeches on the floor, arguing against (DiFi) and for (Levin) the provisions.

And while I’d be happy to see the provisions in question fail (because the provisions represent a further militarization of our country), effectively the argument being made is between those (the Republicans, enabled by Levin) who support further militarization of law and those (DiFi and, especially, the Administration) who want the Executive Branch to continue fighting terrorism (and whatever else) with an intelligence-driven approach bound by few legal checks.

DOJ’s Special Forms of Extended Interrogation and Coercion

In a sense, DiFi’s speech on Thursday looked like an appeal to rule of law. For example, she warns of the danger of “further militariz[ing] our counterterrorism efforts.” But what she really focused on in her speech–implicitly–are the tools the government has wrung out of the civilian legal system to make it easier to get intelligence (whoever picked a Senate Judiciary Committee member to be head of the Senate Intelligence Committee made this blurring of law and intelligence easier).

DiFi alludes to tools DOJ has that DOD does not. She mentions both Najibullah Zazi and Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab as people whose prosecution within the civilian justice system aided prosecution.

Suppose a terrorist such as Zazi were forced into mandatory military custody. Then the government could also have been forced to split up codefendants, even in cases where they otherwise could be prosecuted as part of the same conspiracy in the same legal system.

[snip]

It was FBI agents who traveled to Abdulmutallab’s home in Nigeria and persuaded family members to come to Detroit to assist them in getting him to talk. The situation would have been very different under Section 1032. Under the pending legislation, it would have been military personnel who were attempting to enlist prominent Nigerians to assist in their interrogation, and Abdulmutallab would have been classified as an enemy combatant and held in a military facility and, therefore, his family would not be inclined to cooperate. This is we have been told on the Intelligence Committee.

She appears to be invoking the way we’re getting people to talk: by threatening and persuading their families. In the case of Zazi, we got him to cooperate by charging his father. In the case of Abdulmutallab, we presumably made some guarantees about treatment if his family would persuade him to cooperate (maybe that’s why he stayed in a minimum security prison through the pre-trial period; I also wonder whether we threatened his prominent banker father).

Most charitably, this is akin to the problem Ali Soufan experienced with Salim Hamdan; Soufan was about to persuade Hamdan to cooperate in exchange for a shorter sentence when DOD dumped Hamdan in Gitmo where there was no option to trade cooperation for better treatment. As the case of Omar Khadr (who was not permitted to spend time with other detainees after he plead guilty) makes clear, in military custody, we lose control of the conditions of someone’s confinement as soon as they plead guilty, and so can’t use that as a tool to get people to cooperate.

But there’s something else DiFi is not saying, though is out there. With our creative interpretation of Miranda of late, we have interrogated Faisal Shahzad for two weeks without a lawyer; Manssor Arbabsiar for 12 days; and Ahmed Warsame for a month. We got Arbabsiar (and, I would bet, Warsame) to cooperate to ensnare others during the period of pre-arraignment arrest. Thus, for better or worse, civilian detention has actually been offering the government more ways to deploy detainees in intelligence operations than military detention.

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