Clive Stafford Smith: Menace to Drone Society

Last spring at the first annual Drone Summit in Washington, Reprieve founder Clive Stafford Smith took to the stage, and by the second slide in his presentation had splashed across the screen the cherubic face of his little boy Wilfred, a British portraiture straight out of a Whistler painting.

This mostly white, Western audience was already intellectually motivated against the growing drone war. But Stafford Smith’s invocation of his son juxtaposed against the chilling drone statistics, was a deliberate attempt to provoke a visceral, emotional response to the killing of nameless dark-skinned Pakistani children in Waziristan. It might have been slightly gratuitous — but it was a deft stroke, and it worked.

“How can we get people to pay attention?” he asked at the April 28 event. But he knew the way. Hit ’em with the photographic evidence — the pieces of twisted metal shrapnel and missile fragments left behind like dirty souvenirs, then the scarred faces of the children, as they are lowered into rough-hewn tiny caskets in bright burial shrouds and clothing. This could be Wilfred. This could be your child. This should be unacceptable to everyone.

But sadly, it is not. Last month the anti-drone effort found their cause dragged right back to square one, with New America counterterrorism expert Peter Bergen claiming that not one civilian had been killed this year by U.S. drone attacks in Pakistan. This came across as simply preposterous to journalists and activists who have been carefully culling the numbers since the Bush Administration.

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which counts 27 civilian deaths up through July this year, accuses Bergen of being deliberately and factually inaccurate, saying he presents a “skewed picture of drone activity which continues to inform many opinion-makers.” After years of trying to get the mainstream press to listen, in a word, someone like the establishment-sanctioned Bergen can soften the sharp edges of Obama’s controversial attacks on Pakistan and Yemen, and again, put the onus on the marginalized peace movement to prove otherwise.

“The ‘study’ is absurd,” said Stafford Smith, 53, who interviewed from his home base in London last month. “The only way they can reduce civilian casualties to zero is by defining all people with beards as extremists (which they effectively did) and then all children as collaborators.”

Stafford Smith knows a little something about extracting the humanity from the numbers and putting faces on statistics. He’s been doing it for years. Born in England, Stafford Smith was educated in the United States at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill and Columbia Law School. Upon graduation, he immediately set about to improve civil and human rights of prisoners in the American south, and later to help represent poor men on death row in Louisiana. He quickly made a name for himself as the last hope for indigent minority inmates at the mercy of corrupt and lazy justice system, and boasts that of the 300 inmates he has represented — all pro bono — he helped all but six avoid the death penalty. He has taken five cases to the U.S. Supreme Court, winning all five.

After 9/11, Stafford Smith turned his sights to the detention facilities at Guantanamo Bay. He has volunteered to represent dozens of prisoners in exercising their habeas corpus petitions. His 10-year-old organization, Reprieve, has launched lawsuits on behalf of 125 prisoners and is helping ex-prisoners readjust, too. The human rights group has also launched an ambitious effort to research and catalogue international prisoner renditions and secret prisons in the Global War on Terror.

As of today, Reprieve helped to secure the release of more than 65 Gitmo detainees, and currently represents 15 others still in the prison. In the meantime, Stafford Smith is working with Pakistani activists to bring awareness to civilian drone deaths, and continues to promote prison justice and human rights all over the world. He has just published a book chronicling the Florida trial and death row imprisonment of British businessman Kris Maharaj on double murder charges in 1986. Stafford Smith believes Maharaj is innocent, and has been personally fighting for his exoneration for 20 years.

Stafford Smith was gracious enough to talk about all of these issues with

Antiwar: I want to talk to you about your work defending prisoners in the so-called Global War on Terror. I note that several of your clients are currently at Gitmo. I think most people assume those prisoners have military court appointed defense lawyers. How do you come to defend them and at what level are your representing them?

Stafford Smith: The only prisoners who get military lawyers are the ones who get charged and they are a tiny percent — maybe 2.5 percent of the prisoners there are charged with terrorism. That means 98 percent don’t. Those prisoners are dependent on outside, volunteer layers and that’s where I come in…

To begin with, these attorneys had to work with the families because they weren’t able to talk to the prisoners. We couldn’t get to the prisoners …when we finally got into the prison in 2004, then we had started meeting with the prisoners and getting their direct authorization to represent them…

Antiwar: Please remind me, what court case was it that ultimately allowed the prisoners the ability to engage outside counsel?

Stafford Smith: Shafiq Rasul versus Bush was the case we brought in February 2002 which got to the Supreme court and we won in 2004.

Antiwar: How often to you go to Gitmo?

Stafford Smith: I’ve been down there 25 times. I can talk to the client but everything I talk to the client about is classified … there are huge restrictions and they are fairly absurd. I have never talked about anything that would be considered a threat to national security, yet it is all considered classified.

I don’t have any clients at the moment who have been charged with anything. We had one but his case was dismissed because he was tortured. We have 15 clients, none of whom are charged with anything …

Ultimately we’re going to get people out of there and ultimately Guantanamo will close, because it’s been a blot on the reputation of America and it has done nothing positive for national security because it has caused so much immense harm. So yes, we will prevail, but it will take a long, long time.

Antiwar: What the mental state of your clients?

Stafford Smith: It varies, but I think it’s safe to say everyone is profoundly depressed. The military gets very agitated when we say this, but I don’t think there was ever a Soviet gulag that (Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn) visited, where the majority of prisoners were cleared for release and don’t get out… That is such a bizarre world it is difficult for people to understand what it is all about.

Antiwar: I understand you have clients who have been released — what are you doing for them? Can you give me a sense of what it is like for ex-prisoners and their lives “after Guantanamo?”

Stafford Smith: We have a project called Life After Guantanamo, which is basically designed for people to integrate back into society… You can’t be ‘recidivist’ if you did not commit the crime in the first place … but you can very well understand how the psychological and physical torture they have suffered might make them very angry after they’ve been released, and our goal is to neutralize that anger. The only person who has committed any sort of crime afterward had gotten a speeding ticket. They were never a threat to us in the first place and our work is to help them integrate back. Actually, the lack of criminal activity by people released from Guantanamo prove they were not criminal types …

Antiwar: You must get very frustrated when you hear the administration or politicians talk about the ‘high recidivism” rate among ex-Guantanamo detainees, when you know it is not true.

Stafford Smith: The worst is the Tipton Three because they made a movie that was thought to be anti-American because it about the torture (at Guantanamo) they endured so they were labeled recidivists, and this was the silliest thing I ever heard.

Antiwar: Honestly, most Americans think they know all they need to know about Gitmo — it’s a place where suspected terrorists go to and it might not be entirely fair or humane, but that’s war. I know I am over-simplifying, but what can you tell us about Guantanamo and the prisoners there that you think the American public doesn’t know?

Stafford Smith: I think that anyone who believes that the prisoners there are all terrorists and they are all going to be put on trail just need to look at the facts. They plan to hold 34 without trial indefinitely forever and they plan to release the majority, so it is clear that is not the case, that this is not a prison that is protecting people from proven terrorists…

Antiwar: If these guys are cleared for release, why is the government having such a hard time releasing them — is it that their home countries just don’t want them?

Stafford Smith: No. It’s just politics. As long as there is an election this year they won’t be released until after that election.

Antiwar: Are you disappointed with President Obama, that he did not keep his promises on this issue of Guantanamo Bay?

I didn’t believe the promises… I think he’s been rather cowardly on this issue.

Then again, if I ran the country I would probably mess it up a lot worse than him.

Antiwar: Let’s talk about your other work with renditions. You are pretty well armed with information regarding the European complicity in CIA renditions. What do you hope will come out of pushing the issue? Are we talking prosecutions?

Stafford Smith: I’m not into prosecuting anyone, that’s not the point. The point is if we are going to avoid repeating the egregious things we’ve done in the last 10 years, if we don’t learn what happened … my goal is to expose what happened and why, and to understand what happened, and help set into place rules and regulations so that the next time the politicians panic they won’t jettison the rules and standards they ultimately stand for …

Antiwar: You can’t be getting very far on the American side of this.

Stafford Smith: They are all desperate to cover it up. Gradually, we have been getting this information to come out — that is inevitable. And we’ve had some success — the Polish investigators are going after higher officials involved in this. Whether these people go to prison or not is not important to me what is important to me is that the facts are known.

Antiwar: Let’s move on to drones. I saw you at Washington drone conference — you made some very personal and poignant arguments about why we should care about the civilian lives taken by U.S. drones. I know Reprieve is working with Shahzad Akbar’s group to press the issue in the courts there. I also understand you helped to pull together the jirga on drone strikes and handed out cameras for Pakistanis to gather proof on civilian deaths. How are those efforts going, and do you ever feel you are in danger for getting too close to what is obviously a very volatile situation?

Stafford Smith: First off, I don’t think I put myself in as much danger as those poor people in Waziristan with drones flying over their heads. We have to move forward and keep this thing going.

Our work together has been successful in that it has reached an extraordinary level of understanding in Pakistan. The polls now say 97 percent of Pakistanis are against the drone strikes by the U.S. And it is beginning to get on the agenda in the west, America and Europe. …

My view is we need to I we need to provide a distinctions—I’m not saying all drones are evil, there are occasions where you could use drones in a positive way… like using drones for surveillance in Syria for example. There are other ways … but you can’t use a drone efficiently or positively when you kill innocent people in Pakistan — that is a war crime. We should not have been sleepwalking, but we have been sleepwalking into this drone age. And we to have wake up or else we will find ourselves in a dystopian world.

Antiwar: And finally, I want to talk about your book, about the Kris Maharaj Case, Injustice: Life and Death in the Courtrooms of America. I admit, I do not know much about the case, but Googling around, I found that you expected a break back in 1997. What happened? Is there any hope for Mr. Maharaj?

Stafford Smith: There have been a lot of breaks in this case —we should have won a long time ago. This guy is patently innocent. I feel I’ve failed him and the system has failed him, so I through it best to take this to the court of public opinion.

It’s along a convoluted story … not just about the failure of the Florida legal system, but the U.S. legal system …

Antiwar: As a dual U.S.-U.K. citizen how do you feel when you look at the high incarceration rates and the private prison system fueling that. How do you compare to the British system? How do you feel?

Stafford Smith: There are some aspects of the American system that is way better (than the British). We need to look at the good in both… … What we want to do is look at the American system and look at the British system and take the best part of each system and not bash each other.

Antiwar: Thank you for your time!

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Author: Kelley B. Vlahos

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer, is a longtime political reporter for and a contributing editor at The American Conservative. She is also a Washington correspondent for Homeland Security Today magazine. Her Twitter account is @KelleyBVlahos.