Andy Worthington, author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison, explains why a new statement by Lt. Col. Stephen Abraham, the Guantánamo whistleblower, is more significant than Guantánamo’s leaked operating manual.
The media –- both mainstream outlets and the blogosphere –- have spent the last week consumed by the story of a leaked operating manual from Guantánamo. This is understandable in some ways. The prison’s Standard Operating Procedures have never been revealed to the public before, and, while it takes some dedication to stay awake through the numbing and pedantic attention to detail that drags on through 238 pages, there is something genuinely shocking about the stark admission that all incoming detainees are to be held in isolation for the first 30 days “to enhance and exploit the disorientation and disorganization felt by a newly arrived detainee in the interrogation process,” which “concentrates on isolating the detainee and fostering dependence of the detainee on the interrogator.” At least as worrying is the additional directive that, during this period, the detainees are to be prevented from having contact with representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). What makes these admissions particularly disturbing, of course, is that they were brazenly committed to paper in an official document, even though the conduct that they endorse –- the establishment of an offshore interrogation camp, and denying access to ICRC representatives –- is illegal.
In this photo from December 2006, a detainee, clutching the “Summary of Evidence” against him, is escorted from his Administrative Review Board hearing (the annual successors to the Combatant Status Review Tribunals). Photo © Paul J. Richards/AFP-Getty Images.
These are not, however, facts that were previously unknown. A copious amount of evidence –- discussed in the majority of the books published about Guantánamo, including my own, The Guantánamo Files –- attests to the fact that the prison’s major focus was the illegal interrogation of detainees, and the denial of access to ICRC representatives has also been reported in detail, particularly in the cases of Abdallah Tabarak, a supposed bodyguard for Osama bin Laden, who was mysteriously released in 2004, and Mohamedou Ould Slahi, a Mauritanian accused of aiding the 9/11 hijackers in Germany, who is still held in Guantánamo.
More noticeably, the manual, published in March 2003, is nearly five years old, and, although there are good reasons to be wary of the administration’s claims that it is completely out of date, it is, to a large degree, ancient news, whose domination of the media has overshadowed other, more contemporary issues of considerable importance.
A case in point is a new statement by Lt. Col. Stephen Abraham, an Army reservist who worked at Guantánamo in 2004-05, which was submitted to the Washington DC Circuit Court as part of a brief in the continuing, and long-running struggle to secure justice for Sudanese detainee Adel Hamad. A hospital administrator for a large Saudi charity, Hamad had lived in Pakistan for 17 years, working on various humanitarian aid projects, when he was captured by Pakistani and American intelligence operatives in July 2002, based on spurious or non-existent “intelligence,” and sent to Guantánamo.
Lt. Col. Abraham, an Army reservist with 20 years experience in military intelligence, first came to prominence in June this year, when his criticisms of the tribunal process at Guantánamo –- the Combatant Status Review Tribunals (CSRTs), convened to assess whether, on capture, the detainees had been correctly designated as “enemy combatants” –- were widely credited with persuading the justices of the Supreme Court to reverse themselves for the first time in 60 years, agreeing to review the detainees’ right to challenge the basis of their detention in a case that is scheduled to start on December 5.
In an affidavit filed in the case of Fawzi al-Odah, a Kuwaiti detainee, Lt. Col. Abraham delivered a damning verdict on the tribunal process, which he described as severely flawed, relying on intelligence “of a generalized nature –- often outdated, often ‘generic,’ rarely specifically relating to the individual subjects of the CSRTs or to the circumstances related to those individuals’ status.” In addition, he insisted that the process was designed to rubber-stamp the detainees’ prior designation as “enemy combatants.”
His latest statement is no less explosive. After giving a little more of his background, pointing out that his last assignment before Guantánamo, from November 2001 to November 2002, was as “the Lead Counterterrorism Analyst for the Joint Intelligence Center, Pacific Command,” for which he received the Defense Meritorious Service Medal, Abraham explains that he has been asked by Adel Hamad’s lawyer, the Federal Public Defender for the District of Oregon, to provide “additional information about the manner in which OARDEC [the Office for the Administrative Review of the Detention of Enemy Combatants] operated during my assignment there, from September 11, 2004 until March 9, 2005,” and also “to comment upon certain declarations provided by the directors of the national intelligence organizations,” which were filed in an attempt to prevent the courts –- and, in some cases, the detainees’ lawyers –- from having access to supposedly sensitive government information about the detainees.
After revisiting previously aired complaints about OARDEC –- specifically that most of the staff “were volunteer reserves forces with little or no experience with intelligence or legal matters,” who were ill-equipped to deal with OARDEC’s “extraordinary and historic mission” –- Lt. Col. Abraham launches a blistering attack on the woeful, and deliberately narrow parameters of OARDEC’s capabilities, which, by extension, refutes the national intelligence directors’ claims that there was any information worth concealing.
Noting that the mission, as established in the Combatant Status Review Tribunal Procedures, in July 2004, mandated OARDEC to request “reasonably available information in the possession of the US government bearing on the issue of whether the detainee meets the criteria to be designated as an enemy combatant,” he points out that, in reality, “the facilities and systems utilized by OARDEC precluded access to or use of information that OARDEC needed in order to perform its primary mission effectively,” and that the mission was additionally hampered because there was “no systematic method for requesting the government information relating to specific detainees,” and because the largely unskilled staff “rarely selected the most promising sources of information and failed effectively to identify and pursue leads if any developed.”
The specific problems relating to the collection of evidence centered on the fact that OARDEC was only permitted access to material that was “classified SECRET and below” –- in other words, that access to “TOP SECRET information,” which might have been particularly useful, was denied across the board. This lack of access was compounded by the administration’s insistence that all 558 CSRTs were completed within 120 days, and, even more critically, by the fact that OARDEC was “entirely dependent on indulgences from external organizations,” having “no organic intelligence assets, no collection capabilities, no dissemination authority, and no direct tasking authority” of its own.
“As a result,” he adds, requests for information were “very rarely” sent to the CIA, were never sent to the NSA (National Security Agency) or the DIA (Defense Intelligence Agency), and were only sent to the US Army Intelligence and Security Command when Abraham himself “mentioned this fairly obvious and fertile source of information.” Compounding these failures, OARDEC’s lack of any “tasking authority” meant that any responses to the limited number of requests that were actually made were “largely dependant on whether anyone at the agency was inclined to do so.” In most instances, he concludes, “OARDEC received either a negative response (no information available) or no response at all.”
Abraham also notes that, even on the databases available to OARDEC, “access to much information was confined to particular individuals or groups, called communities of interest (COIs),” and adds that, “In order to access COI-restricted information, individuals either had to be members of the COI or obtain special access.” However, “Even if an OARDEC member had the appropriate clearance and access to the overall system, without a password and authorization, he or she would be denied access to COI information.” As a result, he explains that most of the OARDEC staff lacked access to COI-restricted information to such an extent that, “If there were information about a detainee in those other systems, the OARDEC researchers could not find it.” His conclusion is bleak. Given these obstacles, and the fact that most of the staff “had little if any understanding of the nature of, or even the existence of the myriad of intelligence components … They literally did not know what they were missing.”
Shorn of almost all genuine sources of intelligence, Abraham writes that OARDEC “relied primarily upon information provided by Joint Task Force Guantánamo” –- the organization running the prison itself –- “which consisted primarily of post-detention custodial and interrogation reports”; or, in rather clearer language, “Most of the information OARDEC collected … consisted … of information obtained during interrogations of other detainees.”
Describing a typical scenario, he notes that the compilation of material for the tribunals effectively began and ended with the file received from Guantánamo, which contained little more than post-detention summaries of interrogations, and incident reports relating to the detainee’s behavior. On some occasions, documentation relating to the detainee’s initial detention, “including notes on the contents of items in the detainee’s possession” might also be in the file, “but this was not so in every case.” He then explains that, even with this evidence, the researchers failed to investigate it rigorously, preferring, instead, to search their “limited databases” and “cast broad nets for any information, no matter how marginal, no matter how tenuous, no matter how dated, no matter how generic, no matter how dubious the source, so long as it could be connected to the detainee.”
In this photo from December 2006, a detainee sits alone during his recreation period. Photo © Brennan Linsley/AP.
The result of this slap-dash approach was obvious, and, looked at in conjunction with the lack of access to genuine classified information (if, indeed, any existed) explains some of the more egregious and well-documented failures of the tribunal process. “Where no information was obtained about an individual,” Abraham explains –- adding, crucially, that this “was the case for nearly all detainees except individuals of prominence” –- the search “would shift to more broadly based themes, such as the region from where the individual came, his ethnic group or nation of origin, or any organization denominated as being associated with terrorist activities, with which the individual was alleged to have been associated.” For the last of these allegations, Abraham notes, pointedly, that OARDEC personnel “presumed that having an alleged association with an organization was a sufficient basis for attributing all research relating to that organization to the individual.” As Mark and Josh Denbeaux of Seton Hall Law School realized through their analysis of the CSRT documents –- and as I write about in depth in The Guantánamo Files –- what this meant in practice was not only that a significant number of detainees were tarred as terrorists through the most tangential associations with organizations proscribed by the US government, but also that organizations that were not included on the government’s blacklists –- like the World Association of Muslim Youth, for which Adel Hamad worked as a hospital administrator –- were labeled as entities associated with terrorism.
Furthermore, Abraham notes that “information relating to the credibility of a source was omitted, making sources appear authoritative even when they were suspect,” and he uses, as an example, an allegation against a particular group that “would be repeated without disclosing that it originated with one of the groups’ political opponents or some government overtly hostile to it” (as happened, in particular, with detainees from China, Libya and Tunisia). He also points out that, using the time restraints as a deliberate cover, “independent evidence from the detainee’s life before his arrest” was never investigated, even though the detainees’ “claims of innocence often could have been corroborated or disproved by a few simple inquiries,” and in this instance he uses, as an example, that, “if a detainee told interrogators that he had worked at a hospital in Afghanistan, OARDEC could have requested that an agency with regional or functional purview locate and obtain records from the hospital and interview personnel there.” In addition, he notes that “Beyond impractical discussions about bringing villagers to the nearest video conference facility,” he was “not aware of any realistic attempts” to “identify or even attempt to bring before the Tribunal [outside] witnesses [requested by the detainee] or their statements,” and concludes that OARDEC “was designed to conduct Tribunals without witnesses other than the accused detainee.” This, too, is a topic that I discuss at length in The Guantánamo Files, particularly in relation to many of the Afghan detainees, who begged their tribunals to make a few phone calls to confirm their innocence. In June 2006, the journalist Declan Walsh proved how easy it was to contact witnesses that the US government claimed to be unable to find, locating, in just 72 hours, three witnesses, in Washington, Kabul and Gardez, who were able to verify the story told by a wrongly imprisoned pro-US Afghan commander, Abdullah Mujahid (who is still in Guantánamo, even though he has now been cleared for release).
After this comprehensive demolition of the tribunals’ claims to competency, Abraham turns his attention to the claims made by the directors of the national intelligence organizations that granting the courts access to government information about the detainees “might risk disclosure of highly sensitive national intelligence information, such as source or method information.” He notes in the first instance that OARDEC’s systems were so primitive that the staff were unable to communicate electronically with major organizations including the CIA and the NSA, and also had no way of retaining or utilizing highly classified information. “This limitation,” he writes, “precluded any possibly that such sensitive information could be incorporated into materials presented to the Tribunals.”
Moreover, Abraham points out that “the kinds of sensitive national intelligence information discussed by the intelligence directors is not normally shared between intelligence agencies except in the rarest of circumstances,” and specifically rebuts a statement made by General Michael Hayden, the current director of the CIA, and the director of the NSA from 1999 to 2005 –- that disclosure of government information would reveal details of “clandestine intelligence operations, including counterterrorism operations, foreign intelligence information and assistance, information provided by sensitive sources, and technical collection activities” –- by insisting that this kind of information would not have been disclosed to OARDEC, or to the tribunal members, “under any circumstances.” He adds that, “in the few cases where the concerns might apply, there are adequate mechanisms in place to provide for in camera review of any critical information, the nature of which precludes disclosure beyond the court.”
In a damning aside –- which he cannot prove, though I too infer that it is correct, based on my extensive research into the detainees’ stories –- Abraham explains that, even assuming OARDEC had been able to conduct an exhaustive search for information, “what it would have likely discerned from the exercise is that there is little information to be obtained on people that have never before been considered let alone determined to be persons of interest.” As long ago as February 2002, this was effectively admitted by Brigadier General Mike Lehnert of the Marines, who was in charge of Guantánamo in the early days, when he stated, “A large number [of the detainees] claim to be Taliban, a smaller number we have been able to confirm as al-Qaeda, and a rather large number in the middle we have not been able to determine their status. Many of the detainees are not forthcoming. Many have been interviewed as many as four times, each time providing a different name and different information.”
The administration’s response to this failure to extract information from the detainees –- who, in 86 percent of cases, were not actually captured by the Americans themselves, but were handed over or sold by their Afghan or Pakistani allies –- was to instigate the grotesque system of punishments and rewards, partly chronicled in the leaked manual from March 2003, whereby, to put it bluntly, torture became a substitute for the skilled gathering of intelligence. A later component of the regime, as Lt. Col. Abraham has described in such shocking detail, was to rig the tribunals to make it appear that the “rather large number in the middle” –- many of whom were completely innocent, or had nothing useful to offer –- were a grave and continuing threat to US security. As many of the 310 detainees still in Guantánamo were effectively condemned by this corrupt process, I contend that Lt. Col. Abraham’s latest statement –- which was only previously reported on the Supreme Court’s SCOTUSblog –- is actually far more important than a leaked operating manual.
Note: Despite my reservations about the media frenzy surrounding the leaked manual, it is worth looking at, and Stephen Soldz, psychologist and anti-torture activist, wrote the most perceptive article about it here.
Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed.
See the following for a sequence of articles dealing with the crucial testimony of Lt. Col. Stephen Abraham and other Guantánamo whistleblowers: Guantánamo whistleblowers: Lt. Col. Stephen Abraham is not the first insider to condemn the kangaroo courts (July 2007), The Guantánamo whistleblower, a Libyan shopkeeper, some Chinese Muslims and a desperate government (July 2007), Guantánamo: more whistleblowers condemn the tribunals (August 2007), A New Guantánamo Whistleblower Steps Forward to Criticize the Tribunal Process (October 2007), Guantánamo and the Supreme Court: the most important habeas corpus case in modern history (December 2007), Guantánamo and the Supreme Court: What Happened? (December 2007), Guantánamo whistleblower Stephen Abraham addresses European Parliament (March 2008), The Supreme Court’s Guantánamo ruling: what does it mean? (June 2008), An interview with Guantánamo whistleblower Stephen Abraham (Part One) (December 2008), An interview with Guantánamo whistleblower Stephen Abraham (Part Two) (December 2008), Guantánamo: Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics (February 2009).
[…] journalist Andy Worthington wrote a piece entitled Guantanamo Whistleblower Launces New Attack on Rigged Tribunals, that appeared on Counterpunch and the Huffington Post. In this article he discusses the importance […]
[…] relied largely on “generic” information that did not specifically relate to the prisoners, and, in most cases, on “information obtained during interrogations of other detainees,” which, as Judge […]
[…] Stephen Abraham, a veteran of US intelligence who worked on the tribunals. In a series of explosive statements in 2007, Lt. Col. Abraham explained that they relied on an evidentiary process that was nothing […]
[…] Abraham, a veteran of US intelligence who worked on them, who explained, in a series of explosive statements in 2007, that they were designed primarily to rubberstamp the administration’s insistence that […]
[…] Abraham, a veteran of US intelligence who worked on them, who explained, in a series of explosive statements in 2007, that they were designed primarily to rubberstamp the administration’s insistence that […]
Writer, campaigner, investigative journalist and commentator. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo, co-director, We Stand With Shaker. Also, singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers) and photographer.
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