Archive for February, 2008

The Guantánamo Files: Andy Worthington’s US dates March 2008

The Guantanamo FilesAndy Worthington, author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison, is visiting the US in the second week of March to speak at the following two events (see below).

For media enquiries about Andy’s visit, please contact Mary Bisbee-Beck (bisbeeb@umich.edu) or Stephanie Grohoski (sgrohoski@umich.edu) at the University of Michigan Press. They can also be contacted at (734) 615-6477 or (734) 763-6737.

Monday March 10, 4 pm

The Future of Guantánamo

Logo for March 10 eventWith Andy Worthington, Jonathan Hafetz, Joanne Mariner and Wells Dixon

Columbia Law School, Jerome Greene Hall, Room 107, 435 West 116th Street (on the corner of Amsterdam Avenue and West 116th Street), New York

We are pleased to invite you to a panel discussion with top experts on the future of detention policy with a particular focus on Guantánamo at Columbia Law School. The topics under discussion will be: the Military Commissions, and the trials of the six “high-value” detainees including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed; proposals for legislation approving “preventive detention”; the fate of the cleared detainees who cannot be repatriated because they are at risk of torture; and the issues beyond Guantánamo – prisons outside the law in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

Please join us for this timely and important discussion.

Participants

Andy Worthington
Historian, journalist and Communications Officer for Reprieve
Author of The Guantánamo Files

Jonathan Hafetz
Counsel with the Liberty and National Security Project at the Brennan Center for Justice and expert on detention and habeas corpus

Joanne Mariner
Director of Human Rights Watch’s Terrorism and Counterterrorism Program and expert on counterterrorism laws and policies

Wells Dixon
Attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights’ Guantánamo Global Justice Initiative, which challenges the detention of prisoners held at Guantánamo Bay

Copies of The Guantánamo Files will be sold at the event.

The event is open to the public, but space is limited. To RSVP, or for more information, please contact Ellen Fisher at the Brennan Center for Justice (ellen.fisher@nyu.edu). For CCR’s listing of the event, click here.

Wednesday March 12, 12.15 to 1.45 pm

Life at Guantánamo Bay: Stories of the 774 Detainees

Logo for March 10 eventWith Andy Worthington, Tom Wilner and Peter Bergen

New America Foundation, 1630 Connecticut Ave, NW 7th Floor, Washington, 20009

During the last six years, the U.S. Administration has held nearly 800 alleged terror suspects without trial at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. 500 of these men have now been released, but their stories — and the stories of those who remain — are largely unknown. Fragments have emerged in books and interviews, and in declassified accounts from the detainees’ lawyers, but until now there has been no comprehensive overview of all their cases.

In The Guantánamo Files, based on a detailed analysis of over 8,000 pages of transcripts released by the Pentagon, Andy Worthington, a London-based historian and journalist, brings to life Guantánamo’s largely anonymous detainees.

Join the New America Foundation for a discussion of Guantánamo’s detainees with Andy Worthington, Peter Bergen, and attorney Tom Wilner, who is counsel of record for a group of detainees in cases pending in the Supreme Court, and has been involved in the legal challenges to Guantánamo since the prison opened in January 2002.

Participants

Andy Worthington
Historian, journalist, and Communications Officer for Reprieve
Author of The Guantánamo Files

Tom Wilner
Partner, Shearman & Sterling LLP
Attorney for Guantánamo Detainees

Peter Bergen (moderator)
Schwartz Senior Fellow, New America Foundation
Terrorism Analyst, CNN

Copies of The Guantánamo Files will be sold at the event.

To RSVP for this event, email: communications@newamerica.net with name, affiliation, and contact information. To sign up online, click here.
If you have questions, call or email Liz Wu at (202) 986-2700 x315 or wu@newamerica.net.

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, and see here for my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009.

The Guantánamo Files: Press TV interviews Andy Worthington

The Guantanamo FilesThe following interview, conducted by email with Ismail Salami, Press TV’s website manager, was published on the Press TV website.

Press TV: Could you please explain about the structure at Guantánamo?

Andy Worthington: The prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba is on land occupied by a US naval base. It was first occupied by the United States in 1903 and is maintained under the terms of a lease that cannot be broken unless both the American and Cuban governments agree to it.

As a “War on Terror” prison, designed to hold prisoners — known as “detainees” — without charge or trial, and without access to the US court system, Guantánamo opened on January 11, 2002, as the first of nearly 800 detainees arrived by plane from the US prison at Kandahar airbase in Afghanistan.

The detainees were initially held in cages that were open to the elements — in Camp X-Ray — but the first phase of a more permanent structure, known as Camp Delta, opened in May 2002. It now contains seven prison blocks — Camps 1 to 7 — plus an isolation block, Camp Echo, and another block, Camp Iguana, which was once used to house juvenile detainees.

Press TV: Could you please tell us about Camp 6 at Guantánamo?

Andy Worthington: Camp 6, modeled on “supermax” prisons on the US mainland, opened in late 2006. Although communal areas were incorporated into the structure, these have never been used. After unrest following the apparent suicide of three detainees in June 2006, it was decided that it was unsafe to allow the detainees to mix freely.

Although detainees in Camp 4 share dormitories and are allowed some communal leisure facilities, they are in the minority, and Guantánamo’s general population is held in Camp 6, where the detainees remain in solitary confinement for 22 to 23 hours a day, and are not allowed any kind of social life, even though they include dozens of detainees who have been cleared for release, following decisions made by military review boards. These innocent men cannot be repatriated because of fears that they will be tortured on their return, and are from countries including China, Uzbekistan, Algeria, Libya and Tunisia.

Press TV: The Bush administration has claimed that the Third Geneva Convention does not apply to al-Qaeda or Taliban fighters even though it has become evident that many of the detainees at Guantánamo are being kept with no solid accusations against them. How can you interpret this?

Andy Worthington: The decision to deprive the detainees of the protections of the Geneva Conventions (GPW) was to facilitate their interrogation, which is otherwise prohibited. In the memo advising the President to remove GPW rights from the detainees (signed by his Chief Counsel Alberto Gonzales, but widely attributed to Vice President Dick Cheney and his close advisors), it was also stated that depriving the detainees of their GPW rights “substantially reduces the threat of domestic criminal prosecution under the War Crimes Act.”

Unfortunately, when the detainees failed to provide the intelligence that the administration had hoped for, the removal of GPW rights allowed the authorities to interrogate them coercively, using “enhanced interrogation techniques” that have been widely interpreted as constituting torture.

Over time, of course, as I demonstrate in The Guantánamo Files, it became apparent that the majority of the detainees had no intelligence to offer because they were either innocent men — charity workers, missionaries, religious students and economic migrants — or Taliban foot soldiers, recruited to fight an inter-Muslim civil war against the Northern Alliance, who had, for the most part, no knowledge of the workings of al-Qaeda. Although the administration claimed that the detainees were “captured on the battlefield,” the majority had in fact been handed over to US forces by their allies, both in Afghanistan and Pakistan, at a time when substantial bounty payments were being made for al-Qaeda or Taliban suspects, and others had been picked up on the basis of false intelligence.

Press TV: Could you please explain to our readers about the Tipton Three?

Andy Worthington: The Tipton Three are three young men from the West Midlands, in England, who were captured in Afghanistan, where they had strayed in search of adventure after travelling to Pakistan to arrange the wedding of one of the men.

Caught in the wrong place at the wrong time — the northern Afghan city of Kunduz, during its surrender in November 2001 — they survived a massacre en route to a prison run by one of the Alliance commanders, when hundreds of prisoners were suffocated in container trucks, and were held in Guantánamo until March 2004, when they were returned to the UK and freed without charge.

Under pressure in Guantánamo, they had falsely confessed that they were figures in the crowd in a poor-quality video that featured a meeting between Osama bin Laden and lead 9/11 hijacker Mohammed Atta, but their lawyers were able to demonstrate that, when the video was recorded, one of the three had been working at an electrical store in England. As a result, the British government was able to press for their release.

Press TV: One of the abuses at the camp is reportedly the abuse of religion while the US government claims they respect religious beliefs. If it is true, could you please give instances of religious abuses and elaborate more on the matter?

Andy Worthington: Religious abuse is something that has been widely reported in the statements of detainees released from Guantánamo. It was apparently widespread in the prisons in Afghanistan, where the detainees were “processed” for Guantánamo, and was also the trigger for the earliest hunger strikes in Guantánamo itself. It appears that abusing the Koran — by dropping it, treading on it, or otherwise treating it with disrespect — was an easy way to cause distress to detainees without having to lay a finger on them.

It has also been reported that the authorities in Guantánamo interfered with the call to prayer — by playing loud music, for example — and that in processing and interrogations they played on vulnerabilities caused by the detainees’ religious and cultural backgrounds; for example, in the use of enforced nudity, cavity searches and sexual humiliation.

Press TV: The appalling practices at the Guantánamo have been widely condemned by the international organizations? Can you think of any organization that defends the horrendous practices at the Guantánamo?

Andy Worthington: No, but it’s worth pointing out, I think, that repressive regimes around the world have been able to claim that their own brutal and lawless behaviour is justified because it has been endorsed by the US administration’s flight from domestic and international laws.

If those captured are Prisoners of War, they should be treated according to the Geneva Conventions. If, on the other hand, they are criminals, they should be charged and tried as such, and not subjected to indefinite detention without charge or trial, and to treatment that contravenes the UN Convention Against Torture.

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, and see here for my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009.

Guantánamo’s shambolic trials: Pentagon boss resigns, ex-chief prosecutor joins defense

This has been another terrible week for Guantánamo’s Military Commissions, established by Dick Cheney and his close advisors in November 2001 to try, convict and execute those responsible for 9/11 through a novel process so far removed from the US court system and the military’s own judicial procedures that the tainted fruit of torture would be allowed, and secret evidence could be withheld from the accused.

Camp Justice

Camp Justice, the newly-built home of the Military Commissions.

Struck down as illegal by the Supreme Court in June 2006, the Commissions stumbled back to life later that year in the hastily passed and virtually unscrutinized Military Commissions Act (which, for good measure, stripped the Guantánamo detainees of the habeas corpus rights granted by the Supreme Court in 2004), but they have struggled to establish any kind of credibility.

Now apparently shorn of evidence obtained through torture (although evidence obtained through “coercion” can be allowed at the discretion of the government-appointed military judges), the Commissions were supposed to spring back to muscular life two weeks ago, when the administration finally got around to charging six men in connection with the 9/11 attacks, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who has claimed that he was “responsible for the 9/11 operation, from A to Z.”

However, although the charges finally brought 9/11 back into the spotlight, the issue of torture –- and the administration’s increasingly desperate attempts to hide the evidence of its own “extreme, deliberate and unusually cruel” practices –- has clung, limpet-like, to the stories of these men, and does not look like being resolved any time soon, especially as the process of finding them military defense lawyers will, like everything else to do with the Commission’s stuttering five-year history, likely proceed at a glacial pace.

In the meantime, the cases that have actually made it before the Commissions remain mired in controversy. The administration’s decision to choose a child soldier –- the Canadian Omar Khadr –- as its first attempt at a real conviction (after the Australian David Hicks flew home last March following a politically-motivated plea bargain) continues to attract heated opposition.

This week, for example, the leaders of bar associations in 34 countries –- including Australia, France, Finland, Iraq, Ireland, Romania, South Africa, Turkey and the UK –- sent a letter to George W. Bush and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper calling for the closure of Guantánamo, and specifically addressing Omar Khadr’s case. “For five years, Omar Khadr, a ‘child’ under the terms of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, has languished without trial in Guantánamo,” the lawyers wrote, adding, “There is reason to believe he has been subjected to treatment that is at best degrading and abusive and at worst amounts to torture … Few governmental operations by democratic countries have shown such a profound disrespect for the rule of law. Guantánamo Bay has come to signify injustice for some at the hands of the powerful.” The lawyers urged that Khadr be “transferred to the custody of Canadian law enforcement officials, so that he can face due process under Canadian law and the principles of the rule of law,” adding, “We do not deny that some of those detained at Guantánamo may have committed criminal acts. If so, they should be tried by a properly constituted court operating under rules that guarantee a fair trial.”

Developments in the other case before the Commissions –- that of Salim Hamdan, a Yemeni who was one of Osama bin Laden’s drivers –- are even more distressing for the administration, as a surprising new witness has offered to step forward in his defense. Col. Morris Davis, the former chief prosecutor of the Military Commissions, was once a fierce advocate for the system, arguing, as recently as last June, that those who criticized Guantánamo and the Commissions failed to understand that, as he described it, “Reality for Guantánamo Bay is the daily professionalism of its staff, the humanity of its detention centers and the fair and transparent nature of the military commissions charged with trying war criminals.”

Col. Morris Davis

Col. Morris Davis.

Less than four months later, Col. Davis’ opinions had changed dramatically. In September he “filed a formal complaint,” alleging that Brig. Gen. Thomas Hartmann, the legal adviser to retired judge Susan Crawford, the “convening authority” overseeing the trials, had “overstepped his mandate by interfering directly in cases.” He suggested that both he and Hartmann should resign “for the good of the process,” adding, “If he believes in military commissions as strongly as I do, then let’s do the right thing and both of us walk away before we do more harm.”

The roots of Col. Davis’ discontent clearly predated his enthusiastic endorsement of the Commissions in June, and were focused not only on Brig. Gen. Hartmann, who was appointed to his role in July, but also on Susan Crawford, who was appointed in February as the Commission’s “convening authority” by defense secretary Robert Gates, and on Crawford’s immediate boss William J. Haynes II, the Pentagon’s General Counsel.

Col. Davis was reportedly upset because Brig. Gen. Hartmann had been insisting that Salim Hamdan should be offered a plea bargain similar to the one that saw David Hicks released, even though prosecutors explained that it “would be a blow to the government’s credibility.” One unnamed prosecutor even went so far as to complain, “Think of our only other ‘success’ in this –- David Hicks. How is that a success for the United States government? How does that justify Guantánamo?”

Brig. Gen. Thomas HartmannBrig. Gen. Hartmann was also clearly opposed to what he perceived as the weakness of the cases that Col. Davis had chosen to pursue: those which, like Hicks, Hamdan and Omar Khadr, relied “largely on unclassified evidence,” allowing trials to be open to the press to address criticism that the process was “too secretive,” even though these cases tended to involve “relatively undramatic charges, such as providing services to a terrorist organization.” Hartmann, in contrast, wanted higher profile cases, which “could attract more public attention and perhaps also support for the tribunal system, even though they may involve closed proceedings.”

In addition, Col. Davis’ dissatisfaction with Susan Crawford clearly predated Brig. Gen. Hartmann’s arrival at the Military Commissions. As was revealed in October, David Hicks’ plea bargain was the result of an arrangement between Dick Cheney and Australian Premier John Howard, who had ignored Hicks for years, but was now suffering in an election year as Hicks’ plight gained ever more support among potential voters. After Cheney flew out to arrange the deal, it was Susan Crawford who pushed through the plea bargain at Guantánamo, working directly with Hicks’ defense lawyers and cutting Col. Davis out of the loop.

Col. Davis resigned on October 4, but it was not until December, when he wrote an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times, that his even more strenuous objections to the role of William J. Haynes II were revealed. With two months to refine his anger, Col. Davis refused to pull any punches. “I was the chief prosecutor for the military commissions at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, until Oct. 4, the day I concluded that full, fair and open trials were not possible under the current system,” he wrote, adding, “I resigned on that day because I felt that the system had become deeply politicized and that I could no longer do my job effectively or responsibly.”

After pointing out that it was “absolutely critical to the legitimacy of the military commissions that they be conducted in an atmosphere of honesty and impartiality,” Col. Davis explained that “the political appointee known as the ‘convening authority’ –- a title with no counterpart in civilian courts –- was not living up to that obligation.” As he described it, Susan Crawford had overstepped her administrative role, and “had her staff assessing evidence before the filing of charges, directing the prosecution’s pretrial preparation of cases (which began while I was on medical leave), drafting charges against those who were accused and assigning prosecutors to cases.” “Intermingling convening authority and prosecutor roles,” he continued, “perpetuates the perception of a rigged process stacked against the accused.”

After also criticizing Susan Crawford and Brig. Gen. Hartmann for their desire to conduct trials “behind closed doors,” because “Transparency is critical” and “even the most perfect trial in history will be viewed with skepticism if it is conducted behind closed doors,” Col. Davis directed his ire at William J. Haynes II. Noting that he resigned “a few hours after” being informed that he had been placed in a chain of command under Haynes, he mentioned that “Haynes was a controversial nominee for a lifetime appointment to the US 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, but his nomination died in January 2007, in part because of his role in authorizing the use of the aggressive interrogation techniques some call torture,” and pointed out, “I had instructed the prosecutors in September 2005 [shortly after taking the job] that we would not offer any evidence derived by waterboarding, one of the aggressive interrogation techniques the administration has sanctioned.”

Col. Davis was not the first prominent official to refuse to be implicated in the use of torture by US forces, of course, but while Attorney General nominee Michael Mukasey was busy equivocating horribly on waterboarding, skirting the issue in October, when he told a Senate Judiciary Committee, “if [waterboarding] amounts to torture, it is not constitutional,” Col. Davis’ attack on Haynes placed him, without a shadow of a doubt, in the anti-torture camp.

William J Haynes IIHis focus on Haynes was also unerring. Appointed as the Pentagon’s Chief Counsel in May 2001, Haynes was a protégé of David Addington, Dick Cheney’s closest advisor and, arguably, the chief architect of the administration’s post-9/11 flight from the law, and as Senator Edward Kennedy explained in a Washington Post op-ed in 2004, he “developed and defended three of the administration’s most controversial policies: the refusal to treat any of the hundreds of prisoners at Guantánamo Bay as prisoners of war under the Geneva Conventions of 1949; the department’s military tribunal plan for trying suspected war criminals; and even the incarceration of US citizens without counsel or judicial review.”

Not only involved in the development of the concept of holding prisoners as “enemy combatants” without charge or trial, and without the protections of the Geneva Conventions, and of playing a part in the process that led to holding a US citizen, Jose Padilla, as an “enemy combatant” on the US mainland, Haynes was also deeply involved in the approval of “enhanced interrogation techniques” for use at Guantánamo and beyond in 2002 and 2003.

In November 2002, Haynes advised Donald Rumsfeld to approve the use of techniques that included prolonged solitary confinement, 20-hour interrogations, and the use of painful stress positions, and liaised between Rumsfeld and Alberto J. Mora, the head of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, in January 2003, when Mora –- a principled opponent of torture, like Col. Davis –- threatened to expose the administration’s use of the techniques. Bowing to the pressure, Rumsfeld withdrew his authorization, but once Mora was placated Haynes oversaw a working group led by lawyer John Yoo and Air Force general counsel Mary Walker, which effectively reintroduced “enhanced interrogation techniques” on the sly, creatively bypassing international treaties banning the use of torture, and invoking the President’s “wartime” authority to act without any oversight whatsoever.

Last week, in the wake of the announcement that six “high-value” detainees were to be charged in connection with the 9/11 attacks, Col. Davis resumed his attack on the Commission process, and on William Haynes in particular. When asked by the Nation if he thought that the six men could receive a fair trial, he related a conversation with Haynes that had taken place in August 2005. According to Col. Davis, Haynes “said these trials will be the Nuremberg of our time ” –- a reference to the 1945 trials of Nazi leaders, “considered the model of procedural rights in the prosecution of war crimes,” as the article described them. Col. Davis replied that he had noted that there had been some acquittals at Nuremberg, which had “lent great credibility to the proceedings.” “I said to him that if we come up short and there are some acquittals in our cases, it will at least validate the process,” Col. Davis remembered. “At which point, his eyes got wide and he said, ‘Wait a minute, we can’t have acquittals. If we’ve been holding these guys for so long, how can we explain letting them get off? We can’t have acquittals. We’ve got to have convictions.’”

Having thoroughly exposed the preconceived notion of guilt in the Commissions, which infects the whole of the administration’s post-9/11 detention policies (in the tribunals at Guantánamo, for example, condemned by former insiders for being designed to rubberstamp the detainees’ designation as “enemy combatants” without testing the “evidence”), Col. Davis’ next trick was to declare, the day after, that he would appear as a defense witness for Salim Hamdan at his next pre-trial hearing in April. “I expect to be called as a witness,” he explained, adding, “I’m more than happy to testify,” and describing his decision, ominously for the administration, as “an opportunity to tell the truth.”

The final blow to the Commissions –- for now, at least –- came yesterday, when, without even attempting to address Col. Davis’ allegations, the Pentagon abruptly announced that William Haynes was resigning as Chief Counsel, “to return to private life.” A spokeswoman said that he had discussed leaving the administration “some months ago” and had “decided to accept an offer to work in the private sector.” Col. Davis promptly gave him a less than friendly farewell. “I hope it will open the door for some positive change in the military commissions, but there are a couple of others still standing in the way,” he said, adding, “At least the odds are very good that whoever takes his place will have a more collegial and less contemptuous relationship with the uniformed judge advocates.”

If you hear any squeaking, amid the deafening silence from Haynes himself, I’d suggest that it’s the sound of another rat leaving a sinking ship.

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, and see here for my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009.

As published on the Huffington Post, CounterPunch and Antiwar.com.

See the following for a sequence of articles dealing with the stumbling progress of the Military Commissions: The reviled Military Commissions collapse (June 2007), A bad week at Guantánamo (Commissions revived, September 2007), The curse of the Military Commissions strikes the prosecutors (September 2007), A good week at Guantánamo (chief prosecutor resigns, October 2007), The story of Mohamed Jawad (October 2007), The story of Omar Khadr (November 2007), Guantánamo trials: where are the terrorists? (February 2008), Six in Guantánamo charged with 9/11 attacks: why now, and what about the torture? (February 2008), Torture allegations dog Guantánamo trials (March 2008), African embassy bombing suspect charged (March 2008), The US military’s shameless propaganda over 9/11 trials (April 2008), Betrayals, backsliding and boycotts (May 2008), Fact Sheet: The 16 prisoners charged (May 2008), Four more charged, including Binyam Mohamed (June 2008), Afghan fantasist to face trial (June 2008), 9/11 trial defendants cry torture (June 2008), USS Cole bombing suspect charged (July 2008), Folly and injustice (Salim Hamdan’s trial approved, July 2008), A critical overview of Salim Hamdan’s Guantánamo trial and the dubious verdict (August 2008), Salim Hamdan’s sentence signals the end of Guantánamo (August 2008), High Court rules against UK and US in case of Binyam Mohamed (August 2008), Controversy still plagues Guantánamo’s Military Commissions (September 2008), Another Insignificant Afghan Charged (September 2008), Seized at 15, Omar Khadr Turns 22 in Guantánamo (September 2008), Is Khalid Sheikh Mohammed Running the 9/11 Trials? (September 2008), two articles exploring the Commissions’ corrupt command structure (The Dark Heart of the Guantánamo Trials, and New Evidence of Systemic Bias in Guantánamo Trials, October 2008), Meltdown at the Guantánamo Trials (five trials dropped, October 2008), The collapse of Omar Khadr’s Guantánamo trial (October 2008), Corruption at Guantánamo (legal adviser faces military investigations, October 2008), An empty trial at Guantánamo (Ali Hamza al-Bahlul, October 2008), Life sentence for al-Qaeda propagandist fails to justify Guantánamo trials (al-Bahlul, November 2008), Guilt by Torture: Binyam Mohamed’s Transatlantic Quest for Justice (November 2008), 20 Reasons To Shut Down The Guantánamo Trials (profiles of all the prisoners charged, November 2008), How Guantánamo Can Be Closed: Advice for Barack Obama (November 2008), More Dubious Charges in the Guantánamo Trials (two Kuwaitis, November 2008), The End of Guantánamo (Salim Hamdan repatriated, November 2008), Torture, Preventive Detention and the Terror Trials at Guantánamo (December 2008), Is the 9/11 trial confession an al-Qaeda coup? (December 2008), The Dying Days of the Guantánamo Trials (January 2009), Former Guantánamo Prosecutor Condemns Chaotic Trials (Lt. Col. Vandeveld on Mohamed Jawad, January 2009), Torture taints the case of Mohamed Jawad (January 2009), Bush Era Ends with Guantánamo Trial Chief’s Torture Confession (Susan Crawford on Mohammed al-Qahtani, January 2009), Chaos and Lies: Why Obama Was Right to Halt The Guantánamo Trials (January 2009), Binyam Mohamed’s Plea Bargain: Trading Torture For Freedom (March 2009).

And for a sequence of articles dealing with the Obama administration’s response to the Military Commissions, see: Don’t Forget Guantánamo (February 2009), Who’s Running Guantánamo? (February 2009), The Talking Dog interviews Darrel Vandeveld, former Guantánamo prosecutor (February 2009), Obama’s First 100 Days: A Start On Guantánamo, But Not Enough (May 2009), Obama Returns To Bush Era On Guantánamo (May 2009), New Chief Prosecutor Appointed For Military Commissions At Guantánamo (May 2009), Pain At Guantánamo And Paralysis In Government (May 2009), My Message To Obama: Great Speech, But No Military Commissions and No “Preventive Detention” (May 2009), Guantánamo And The Many Failures Of US Politicians (May 2009), A Child At Guantánamo: The Unending Torment of Mohamed Jawad (June 2009), A Broken Circus: Guantánamo Trials Convene For One Day Of Chaos (June 2009), Obama Proposes Swift Execution of Alleged 9/11 Conspirators (June 2009), Obama’s Confusion Over Guantánamo Terror Trials (June 2009).

For a sequence of articles dealing with the use of torture by the CIA, on “high-value detainees,” and in the secret prisons, see: Guantánamo’s tangled web: Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Majid Khan, dubious US convictions, and a dying man (July 2007), Jane Mayer on the CIA’s “black sites,” condemnation by the Red Cross, and Guantánamo’s “high-value” detainees (including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed) (August 2007), Waterboarding: two questions for Michael Hayden about three “high-value” detainees now in Guantánamo (February 2008), The Insignificance and Insanity of Abu Zubaydah: Ex-Guantánamo Prisoner Confirms FBI’s Doubts (April 2008), Secret Prison on Diego Garcia Confirmed: Six “High-Value” Guantánamo Prisoners Held, Plus “Ghost Prisoner” Mustafa Setmariam Nasar (August 2008), Will the Bush administration be held accountable for war crimes? (December 2008), The Ten Lies of Dick Cheney (Part One) and The Ten Lies of Dick Cheney (Part Two) (December 2008), Prosecuting the Bush Administration’s Torturers (March 2009), Abu Zubaydah: The Futility Of Torture and A Trail of Broken Lives (March 2009), Ten Terrible Truths About The CIA Torture Memos (Part One), Ten Terrible Truths About The CIA Torture Memos (Part Two), 9/11 Commission Director Philip Zelikow Condemns Bush Torture Program, Who Authorized The Torture of Abu Zubaydah?, CIA Torture Began In Afghanistan 8 Months before DoJ Approval, Even In Cheney’s Bleak World, The Al-Qaeda-Iraq Torture Story Is A New Low (all April 2009), Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi Has Died In A Libyan Prison, Dick Cheney And The Death Of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, The “Suicide” Of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi: Why The Media Silence?, Two Experts Cast Doubt On Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi’s “Suicide”, Lawrence Wilkerson Nails Cheney On Use Of Torture To Invade Iraq, In the Guardian: Death in Libya, betrayal by the West (in the Guardian here) (all May 2009), Lawrence Wilkerson Nails Cheney’s Iraq Lies Again (And Rumsfeld And The CIA), and WORLD EXCLUSIVE: New Revelations About The Torture Of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi (June 2009).

For other stories discussing the use of torture in secret prisons, see: An unreported story from Guantánamo: the tale of Sanad al-Kazimi (August 2007), Rendered to Egypt for torture, Mohammed Saad Iqbal Madni is released from Guantánamo (September 2008), A History of Music Torture in the “War on Terror” (December 2008), Seven Years of Torture: Binyam Mohamed Tells His Story (March 2009), and also see the extensive Binyam Mohamed archive. And for other stories discussing torture at Guantánamo and/or in “conventional” US prisons in Afghanistan, see: The testimony of Guantánamo detainee Omar Deghayes: includes allegations of previously unreported murders in the US prison at Bagram airbase (August 2007), Guantánamo Transcripts: “Ghost” Prisoners Speak After Five And A Half Years, And “9/11 hijacker” Recants His Tortured Confession (September 2007), Former US interrogator Damien Corsetti recalls the torture of prisoners in Bagram and Abu Ghraib (December 2007), Sami al-Haj: the banned torture pictures of a journalist in Guantánamo (April 2008), Judge Orders Release of Guantánamo’s Forgotten Child (Mohammed El-Gharani, January 2009), Forgotten in Guantánamo: British Resident Shaker Aamer (March 2009).

The Guantánamo Files: AlterNet interviews Andy Worthington

They say journalists provide the first draft of history. With the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan, that draft led to an almost universal consensus, at least among Americans, that the attack was a justifiable act of self-defense. The Afghanistan action is commonly viewed as a “clean” conflict as well — a war prosecuted with minimal loss of life, and one that didn’t bring the kind of international opprobrium onto the United States that the invasion of Iraq would lead to a year later.

A US prisoner in Afghanistan

Those views are also held by many Americans who are critical of the excesses of the Bush administration’s “War on Terror.” But there’s a disconnect there. Everything that followed — secret detentions, torture, the invasion of Iraq, the assault on domestic dissent — flowed inevitably from the failure to challenge Bush’s claim that an act of terror required a military response. The United States has a rich history of abandoning its purported liberal values during times of war, and it was our acceptance of Bush’s war narrative that led to the abuses that have shattered America’s moral standing before the world.

In his book, The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison, historian and journalist Andy Worthington offers a much-needed corrective to the draft of the Afghanistan conflict that most Americans saw on their nightly newscasts. Worthington is the first to detail the histories of all 774 prisoners who have passed through the Bush administration’s “legal black hole” at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. But his history starts in Afghanistan, and makes it abundantly clear that the road to Guantánamo — not to mention Abu Ghraib — began in places like Kandahar.

AlterNet recently asked Worthington what that road looked like at its point of origin.

Joshua Holland: You’ve written the first book that really digs into the stories of all the prisoners who have passed through or remain in the U.S. prison at Guantánamo Bay. But what struck me the most was your study of the context of their capture — the conflict in Afghanistan before and after 9/11.

I think most Americans believe that we went into Afghanistan to rout anti-American or anti-Western “jihadi,” but you really capture the fact that the U.S. entered on one side of a long-standing civil war that had nothing to do with any sort of “Clash of Civilizations” between East and West. Can you give us some sense of what that conflict was about?

Andy Worthington: Sure, it’s a very good question, actually. Briefly, the roots of the conflict lie in the Afghan resistance to the Soviet invasion in the 1980s, when the United States (via Pakistani intermediaries) and the Saudis vied to fund the mujahideen — Afghan warlords and their soldiers, backed up by a rather smaller number of Arab recruits.

At the end of the 1980s, when the Soviet Union withdrew, the country was plunged into a civil war, as the various warlords, pumped up with billions of dollars of US and Saudi aid, fought each other to gain control of the country. Tens of thousands of civilians died, and crime and human rights abuses were rife.

Taliban fightersLargely in response to this lawlessness, the Taliban — initially a group of ultra-orthodox religious students from the south of the country — rose up to cleanse the country by creating a pure Islamic state. Their project, too, was soon derailed by brutality, and by a religious fundamentalism that shocked the West, but it was the struggle between the Taliban and the warlords of the Northern Alliance that attracted thousands of foreign foot soldiers to Afghanistan in the 1990s, summoned by fatwas issued by radical sheikhs in their homelands, which required them to help the Taliban in their struggle against the Northern Alliance.

Osama Bin Laden, who had been living in Saudi Arabia and Sudan in the post-Soviet period, returned to Afghanistan in 1996, and became involved in funding military training camps, and building up his plans for a global, anti-American jihad, but although there was some overlap between Al Qaeda and parts of the Taliban leadership, the vast majority of the recruits, as I’ve indicated, were involved not in a grand “Clash of Civilizations,” but in a provincial inter-Muslim civil war.

Osama bin Laden

Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan in the 1980s, during the U.S.-backed mujahideen resistance to the Soviet occupation.

Joshua Holland: That’s an important point. Most Americans believe that there was a seamless integration between the Taliban and Bin Laden’s group, and that justified our attacking a nation-state in “self-defense,” when in reality, the Taliban was busy fighting this inter-Muslim civil war and had little or no role in Al Qaeda. Let’s go a bit further: how much overlap was there?

Andy Worthington: According to a senior intelligence official interviewed by the journalist David Rose in 2004, the overlap was very small. Rose was told, “In 1996 it was non-existent, and by 2001, no more than 50 people.” Now this official was referring to an overlap of fairly high-level people in both organizations, and certain commentators have pointed out that Al Qaeda’s “Arab Brigade” of around 500 soldiers contributed to the Taliban’s military strength, but, to return to what we discussed before, this was in the context of an inter-Muslim civil war, and not a war against the United States.

Mullah OmarThere were certainly major divisions within the Taliban leadership regarding Bin Laden, and even Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader, was apparently unimpressed by Bin Laden in the years after his return to Afghanistan. In 1998, Omar had even been planning to betray Bin Laden to the Saudis, but when Al Qaeda attacked the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and the U.S. retaliated by launching cruise missile attacks on training camps in Afghanistan, Omar drew closer to Bin laden. Even so, the Taliban offered to hand over Bin laden after 9/11 if proof was offered of his involvement in the 9/11 attacks.

One clear sign of the lies involved in the “seamless integration” you refer to, however, occurred on October 7, 2001, the first night of “Operation Enduring Freedom,” when the U.S. military announced that it had bombed 23 Al Qaeda training camps. As I mention in the book, of the dozens of training camps established in Afghanistan from the 1980s onwards, most were funded by Pakistan and wealthy donors in the Gulf countries. Some were run by Afghan warlords, others by Pakistani groups and others by militant groups from other countries. Although bin Laden had a few camps of his own, it was inappropriate to describe all the training camps in Afghanistan as “Al Qaeda camps.”

Joshua Holland: OK, let me go back briefly to an earlier point. Supporters of Bush’s global network of “black” prisons downplay their significance by asserting that those who ended up in them were “unlawful combatants.” And you said that a lot of people from around the Muslim world were drawn to serve as foot soldiers in Afghanistan’s civil war, but in the book, you make it clear that many were not even foot-soldiers — not combatants at all — but religious students, aid workers and other adventurous young people, and many of them would later get caught up in the chaos that followed the invasion and end up at Gitmo.

Andy Worthington: Yes, that’s right. I’d say that between 70 and 100 of the foreign (i.e. non-Afghan) detainees had traveled to Afghanistan to provide humanitarian aid to the Afghan people, to teach or study the Koran, as economic migrants, or even because they were curious about the “pure Islamic state” that, in some quarters, the Taliban was alleged to have established. A similar number were captured in Pakistan. Charity workers were captured near the border, where they had traveled to provide assistance at refugee camps, and others — including missionaries, entrepreneurs, economic migrants, refugees and students — were actually captured elsewhere in Pakistan, in towns and cities far from the “battlefields” of Afghanistan.

And then, of course, there are the Afghan detainees, who made up over a quarter of Guantánamo’s total population. Many of these were unwilling conscripts, who were forced to serve the Taliban, and most of the rest were picked up either on the basis of false intelligence — because the U.S. forces did not know who to trust — or were handed over by their rivals, in business or in politics, who told false stories to the Americans.

Joshua Holland: And what was the process by which the U.S. military sorted out one from the other — how did they distinguish between “enemy combatants” and the poor suckers that were caught in the wrong place at the wrong time?

Andy Worthington: There was no process. In all previous wars, the U.S. military has followed the Geneva Conventions, and, in accordance with Article 5 of the Third and Fourth Geneva Conventions, has held battlefield tribunals to separate the wheat from the chaff — or the fighters from the farmers. In the first Gulf War, for example, the military held 1,196 battlefield tribunals, and nearly three-quarters of the prisoners were subsequently released.

In Afghanistan, however, not only were there no battlefield tribunals, but Chris Mackey, who worked as a senior interrogator in the prisons at the airbases in Kandahar and Bagram, where the Guantánamo prisoners were processed, noted in his book The Interrogators that every single Arab who ended up in U.S. custody was sent to Guantánamo, on the orders of senior figures in the military and the intelligence services, who received the lists of prisoners at their base in Kuwait.

Although only Afghans with “considerable intelligence value” were supposed to be sent to Guantánamo, Mackey also made it clear that it was not until June 2002, when around 600 detainees were already in Guantánamo, that those in charge on the ground in Afghanistan came up with a category of temporary prisoner — “persons under U.S. control” — who could be held for 14 days without being assigned a number that entered the system overseen in Kuwait (and, by extension, the Pentagon). It was the only way that they could deal with at least some of the many innocent Afghans who ended up in their custody.

Joshua Holland: A few of the stories you tell in the book really drive these points home, so I’d like to just ask you to briefly tell us the stories of a couple of detainees. According to the U.S. military, there were three juveniles under 16 years of age who were held at Guantánamo. Choose any of the three, and tell us how he ended up at Gitmo.

Andy Worthington: Well, first of all, there were actually far more than three detainees who were under 16 years of age, and all of these detainees should have counted as juveniles — and have been treated accordingly — in any civilized society.

The three you’re talking about, however, are three Afghan boys who were aged 12, 13 and 14 at the time of their capture. Two were captured in a raid on the compound of a minor Afghan warlord named Samoud, whose many enemies seem to have included the Taliban, and the other — 14-year-old Mohammed Ismael Agha — was actually delivered to U.S. forces by the Taliban. He’d been looking for work with a friend, and had been obliged to spend the night at a Taliban outpost. In the morning, the Taliban soldiers asked them to join them, and when they refused they were delivered to the nearest U.S. base.

Asadullah Rahman, Guantanamo's youngest detainee

Asadullah Rahman, Guantánamo’s youngest detainee (released in January 2004), who was just 12 years old when he was captured.

Joshua Holland: The military says that efforts were made to provide “for their special physical and emotional care,” that they were housed “in a separate detention facility modified to meet the special needs of juveniles” and “were not restricted in the same manner as adult detainees.” Is that what you found?

Andy Worthington: Up to a point, yes. These three were, at some point, housed separately in a block called Camp Iguana, and they were released in January 2004, although they should have been released much earlier. They were the lucky ones, however. To give just one example, Agha’s companion, Abdul Qudus, who was also 14 years old, was not released until 2005 or 2006, and there is no evidence that he — or any of the other juveniles — was held separately from the rest of the adult population, or, for that matter, treated any differently.

The most notorious case of a juvenile in Guantánamo is, of course, the Canadian Omar Khadr, who was 15 years old when he was captured after a firefight in July 2002, in which he allegedly killed a U.S. soldier. Khadr was treated appallingly in Afghanistan and Guantánamo, and is currently on trial in one of the administration’s contentious Military Commissions, in which it has recently been revealed that he might not even have been responsible for the death of the U.S. soldier in the first place.

Joshua Holland: Who is Mohammed Sadiq?

Andy Worthington: Mohammed Sadiq was Guantánamo’s oldest prisoner. 88 years old at the time of his capture, Sadiq was apparently seized because his nephew had worked for the Taliban. U.S. forces bombed his house, took all his belongings, and delivered him to the prison at Kandahar airbase. He was one of the first detainees to be released, in October 2002, but the fact that he was sent to Guantánamo at all was a disgrace, and it was reported, after his release, that he was unable to come to terms with what had happened to him.

Joshua Holland: And, finally, tell me who Abdul Razeq was?

Andy Worthington: Abdul Razeq was a severely disturbed schizophrenic, who was kept isolated in Kandahar, because, amongst other things, he had a tendency to eat his own excrement. In a dehumanizing touch, the soldiers referred to all the detainees as “Bob,” and Razeq was known as “Crazy Bob.” He too was sent to Guantánamo, but was flown back to Afghanistan in May 2002. Chris Mackey noted that he arrived “strapped down in the center of the plane like Hannibal Lecter.” He was then placed in a maximum security cell in a hospital, where a journalist interviewed him. He was so disturbed that he described the prison at Kandahar as a “hotel,” and said that the Americans had taken him to Guantánamo “to treat my mental problems.”

Joshua Holland: And the U.S. thought these people were …

Andy Worthington: “Enemy combatants.” That’s how it worked. Everyone who ended up in U.S. custody was an “enemy combatant.” Essentially, when you look at the lack of screening in Afghanistan, and the failures of the tribunal process that took place in Guantánamo from 2004 onwards — which Lt. Col. Stephen Abraham, who worked on them, described in an explosive statement last year as reliant upon generalized and often generic “evidence,” that had nothing to do with the detainees in question, and was designed merely to rubber-stamp their prior designation as “enemy combatants” — you realize that, in connection with the “War on Terror,” the presumption of innocence has been done away with completely.

For the first four and a half years after 9/11, every prisoner was effectively regarded as guilty until proved guilty. After the tribunals, 38 detainees were cleared for release — although the administration, denying the concepts of innocence and wrongful arrest, referred to them as “No Longer Enemy Combatants” — and many more have been cleared in the review boards that have taken place every year since then, but for the 281 detainees who remain, it’s apparent that the “evidence” against them has never really been tested at all.

Joshua Holland: As I was reading the book, it struck me that not only did the American public — not to mention the military and intelligence establishments — have a totally false view of who the “enemy” was, but also that there was a widespread belief that the Northern Alliance were the “good guys.” I didn’t really sense any “good guys” in your book — who were we allying ourselves with?

Andy Worthington: The short answer is that, to topple the Taliban and Al Qaeda, the U.S. intervened on one side in a long-running civil war, and that, in an attempt not to get bogged down like the Soviet Union did, the invasion involved just a few hundred Special Forces operatives, who hooked up with various Northern Alliance leaders in northern Afghanistan and supported them with money, arms and air power.

Ahmed Shah MassoudThere were some principled military commanders in the Northern Alliance — not least Ahmed Shah Massoud, the Alliance’s charismatic leader, who was killed by Al Qaeda assassins just two days before 9/11 — but even Massoud’s men had been accused of atrocities over the years, and what we should perhaps consider is that, at the base of everything, Afghanistan is a disproportionately well-armed country that has been psychologically brutalized by what is now nearly 30 years of war.

Nevertheless, the invasion led to some horrific events, in which the U.S. military was at least partly complicit. In November 2001, after the surrender of the city of Kunduz, General Rashid Dostum, one of the Alliance leaders, slaughtered hundreds, if not thousands of native and foreign Taliban fighters by suffocating them in container trucks en route to his prison at Sheberghan (death by container being a fairly recent innovation that was practiced by both sides). There appears to be evidence that U.S. forces were not unduly put out by this turn of events, and that, moreover, they were involved in the particularly brutal treatment of some of the survivors at Dostum’s prison.

In one sense, of course, all of this could be regarded as part and parcel of the horrific reality of warfare, but the U.S. record is no better in the south of the country, where, in an attempt to foster support in the Taliban’s Pashtun heartlands, U.S. forces entered into numerous dubious deals with various untrustworthy warlords, which, in turn, led to many innocent Afghans being sent to Guantánamo.

Joshua Holland: Now, in the book you describe a scene of total chaos in the aftermath of the invasion, and one of the common claims among so many of the detainees who would end up at Gitmo was that they had been sold to U.S. troops by these same allies — or tribal leaders or Taliban units or whoever encountered them — for as much as $5,000 per head. Essentially, there were real financial incentives for falsely claiming that some unlucky foot soldier or Koranic student was a high-level Al Qaeda operative.

Andy Worthington: Oh, absolutely. The military’s PsyOps teams came up with over a hundred different leaflets, and dropped millions of them all over Afghanistan. Most of them fruitlessly offered rewards of $25 million for the capture of Osama Bin Laden, Ayman Al Zawahiri and Mullah Omar, but one in particular featured the following message: “You can receive millions of dollars for helping the anti-Taliban force catch Al Qaeda and Taliban murderers. This is enough money to take care of your family, your village, your tribe for the rest of your life — pay for livestock and doctors and school books and housing for all your people.”

The notorious US PsyOps leaflet

The PsyOps leaflet offering untold riches in exchange for handing over Al Qaeda and Taliban suspects (which for some reason features a photo of the Alhamabra palace in Granada, Spain).

And in Pakistan, the situation was arguably even more corrupt. In his 2006 autobiography, In the Line of Fire, President Musharraf boasted that, in return for handing over 369 terror suspects (including many transferred to Guantánamo), “We have earned bounty payments totaling millions of dollars.”

Joshua Holland: And those that were turned over to the U.S. by various factions weren’t lucky. I think most Americans would be shocked at how abusive and violent U.S. troops were towards the prisoners they held in Afghanistan.

Andy Worthington: I think you’re right to raise that point, because Kandahar and Bagram were really the front line in the “War on Terror,” where conditions were, I think it would be fair to say, primitive, brutal and terrifying. In the early months, prisoners were beaten, humiliated, and prevented from speaking to one another. The worst abuses, however, happened in Bagram from July 2002 onwards. That was when at least two prisoners were murdered — including one, an innocent taxi driver named Dilawar, who is featured in my book and is also the focus of Alex Gibney’s excellent documentary Taxi to the Dark Side.

And there were even worse prisons in Afghanistan — a number of secret, CIA-run prisons (to this day no one knows exactly how many), including two near Kabul. The “Dark Prison” was like a medieval torture dungeon, but with 24-hour music and noise, and the other was the “Salt Pit.” Dozens of Guantánamo detainees passed through these facilities, as well as other “ghost prisoners” who have subsequently disappeared.

The Salt Pit

The Salt Pit. Photo by Trevor Paglen, co-author, with A. C. Thompson, of Torture Taxi: On the Trail of the CIA’s Rendition Flights.

Joshua Holland: And that was a model that was then taken to Abu Ghraib, as well as Gitmo?

Andy Worthington: Sadly, yes. The team responsible for the worst violence at Bagram — at the time of the murders — was actually transferred to Abu Ghraib, and much of the institutionalized violence at Guantánamo was inspired by the Afghan prisons. It’s also worth noting, however, what happened at Guantánamo in the fall of 2002. The administration was disappointed by the quality of the intelligence obtained from the detainees, and decided that it was because they had been trained by Al Qaeda to resist interrogation, whereas in fact they were mostly innocent men or foot soldiers, and had no worthwhile intelligence to give. In an attempt to “break” the detainees, the Pentagon authorized the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques,” including prolonged solitary confinement, forced nudity, the use of extreme heat and cold, sexual humiliation, and the prolonged use of painful stress positions. The commander at the time was Geoffrey Miller, and he was later sent to Abu Ghraib to “Gitmo-ize” the Iraqi operations, with the results that horrified the world when the scandal broke in April 2004.

Joshua Holland: On that point, I want to discuss two brief anecdotes from the book, and ask you for a bit of speculation based on your knowledge of the conflict. You describe a prisoner being held in Afghanistan by American troops who was confused by an unfamiliar word his captors yelled at him: “nigger.” And in another passage, you talk about an American intelligence analyst who pointed out that “Jihad” wasn’t necessarily a violent activity, and you described her as being especially insightful, despite the fact that anyone who reads the Wikipedia entry for Jihad knows that to be true. So I wonder: to what extent do you think cultural ignorance, ignorance of the context of Afghanistan’s civil war or even outright racism played in the conflict? Either in terms of the overall strategy, or in explaining the really shocking level of brutality that U.S. forces displayed towards their captives.

Andy Worthington: Well, I think it’s clear that war in general encourages the dehumanization of the enemy on the part of the military, but what has happened in the “War on Terror” — particularly in reference to those held as prisoners — is that soldiers and other operatives have persistently been given almost limitless latitude to break free of any restraints. In Afghanistan and Guantánamo (and Iraq) there were numerous stories of soldiers being told that the detainees were to be considered terrorists until proved otherwise, and that the Geneva Conventions did not apply to them. So although the specific violence, abuse and even torture seems often to have been left to the discretion of individuals, the policy that encouraged it came from the highest levels of the government.

Joshua Holland: Let me shift gears here for a moment. Bush’s apologists often excuse the kinds of abuses you describe by claiming that the prisoners held in Gitmo were “captured on the field of battle.” Was that always the case?

Andy Worthington: No, not at all. The overwhelming majority were not captured on any kind of battlefield at all, and, as proved in an analysis of Pentagon documents by the Seton Hall Law School (PDF), were not captured by U.S. forces either. Eighty-six percent were captured by the Americans’ allies, who then handed them over, or sold them, as discussed above. It’s also worth noting that several dozen detainees were captured in 17 other countries, including Azerbaijan, Bosnia, Egypt, the Gambia, Georgia, Indonesia, Iran, Mauritania, Thailand and Zambia.

After 9/11, many countries were willing to cooperate with the U.S. in an attempt to track down potential terrorists, but it’s also important to understand that the administration put enormous pressure on these countries. For example, this is what happened to the six Algerian-born Bosnians who are still in Guantánamo. The U.S. government accused them of planning to blow up the U.S. embassy in Sarajevo. The Bosnians then imprisoned them, and investigated them for three months, but found no incriminating evidence whatsoever. As soon as they were released, however, they were seized by U.S. agents and taken to Guantánamo. The Bosnians were powerless to prevent it.

Joshua Holland: I think we’ve come to the heart of your book. The administration says that those housed in Gitmo are “the worst of the worst.” But you claim that of the nearly 800 human beings who the U.S. kidnapped, held incognito without any legal rights, regularly beat and on a few occasions allegedly murdered, only about forty were die-hard anti-U.S. terrorists. How do you arrive at that? Wouldn’t legitimate terrorists claim that they were just caught in the wrong place at the wrong time?

Andy Worthington: My claim is based firstly on statements made by dozens of high-level military and intelligence sources cited by the New York Times in June 2004, when 749 detainees had been held at Guantánamo. These officials said that none of the prisoners “ranked as leaders or senior operatives of Al Qaeda,” and “only a relative handful — some put the number at about a dozen, others more than two dozen — were sworn Qaeda members or other militants able to elucidate the organization’s inner workings.”

Ten more detainees were transferred to Guantánamo from secret CIA prisons in September 2004 — although I have no doubt that they were not all terrorists — and another 14 “high-value” detainees — including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four of the other men charged last week in connection with the 9/11 attacks — were transferred in September 2006.

Forty might therefore be too low a figure, but I’m confident that it’s no more than 50. As a percentage of Guantánamo’s total population, that’s just six percent, which, as a success rate, is both disappointing and disgraceful.

Joshua Holland: Finally, you argue that all of these policies were dictated by the highest levels of the U.S. government. Can you explain briefly what makes you think that?

Andy Worthington: Sure. Dick Cheney and his advisors — especially David Addington, his legal counsel (and now Chief of Staff) — came up with the military order in November 2001 that authorized the President to capture anyone he regarded as a terrorist anywhere in the world, declare them an “enemy combatant” and hold them without charge or trial. That same document also established the Military Commissions. Then Cheney and his cabal persuaded the President to accept that the prisoners were not protected by the Geneva Conventions, and in August 2002’s “Torture Memo” sought to establish that interrogations constituted torture only if the pain endured was “of an intensity akin to that which accompanies serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death.” This in turn encouraged the widespread use of “enhanced interrogation techniques,” which, at Guantánamo, were explicitly approved by Donald Rumsfeld.

There are many fine, principled Americans who attempted to resist these innovations, or spoke out against them, but the most insightful quote I found about the implications of these policies came from Milton Bearden, a former CIA bureau chief, who told David Rose, “It doesn’t matter what distribution that memo had or how tightly it was controlled. That kind of thinking will permeate the system by word of mouth. Anyone who suggests that this and other official memos on this subject didn’t have an impact, doesn’t know how these things work on the ground.”

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, and see here for my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009.

A version of this interview, entitled “Shocking Stories About the Forgotten War in Afghanistan” (later retitled, “Afghanistan: The Brutal and Unnecessary War The Media Aren’t Telling You About”), was published as the lead story on AlterNet on February 26. It was also posted on Truthout.

“Taxi to the Dark Side” wins Oscar; HBO to air crucial torture film in September

Alex Gibney at the OscarsIn a genuinely impressive demonstration of frontline politics seeping into the frocks, gossip and backslapping of the Oscars, “Taxi to the Dark Side,” Alex Gibney’s chilling and compelling documentary about American torture, which focuses on the murder by US personnel of an innocent taxi driver named Dilawar in the US prison at Bagram airbase in Afghanistan, won “best documentary” at the awards ceremony on Sunday. Accepting the award, Gibney said, “This is dedicated to two people who are no longer with us, Dilawar, the young Afghan taxi driver, and my father, a navy interrogator who urged me to make this film because of his fury about what was being done to the rule of law. Let’s hope we can turn this country around, move away from the dark side and back to the light.”

Taxi to the Dark SideBroadcast by the BBC last October, “Taxi to the Dark Side” — which also casts an unflinching eye on torture and abuse at Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo, demolishing the US administration’s claims that human rights abuses and murders were executed by a “few bad apples” — has been showing in cinemas across the United States to widespread critical acclaim in the ten months since its debut at the Tribeca Film Festival last April, but its US network premiere was recently derailed by the Discovery Channel. Earlier this month, Alex Gibney said that he had agreed to sell the TV rights to the Discovery Channel because executives convinced him they would “give the film a prominent broadcast,” but shortly after the company withdrew its endorsement. As Think Progress explained, “with plans to take the company public, executives were afraid the film’s controversial content might damage Discovery’s public offering.”

Gibney was unforgiving. In a press release, he stated, “Having directed ‘Enron[: The Smartest Guys in the Room],’ very little about this kind of corporate behavior shocks me, but I am surprised that a network that touts itself as a supporter of documentaries would be so shamelessly craven. This is a film that, in an election year, is of critical interest to the viewing public. What Discovery is doing is tantamount to political censorship.”

As Think Progress noted, “It’s ironic that Taxi’s content is too ‘controversial,’ considering it depicts real acts perpetrated by the current Bush administration.” In an interview with the Center for American Progress, Gibney noted that Americans were excited about dramatizations of torture, as featured in shows like Fox’s “24,” but were uncomfortable “with the reality of torture”:

We know that “24″ is a very popular show, and, you know, week after week after week, Jack Bauer would brutally torture people. In fact, we have a couple of clips from “24″ in the film “Taxi to the Dark Side.” Some people seem to get off on that. It’s kind of natural, I suppose, feeling of revenge and retribution for what happened to us on 9/11. Jack Bauer in our names can go and really brutalize the enemies of America.

But I think it is true that some Americans are uncomfortable with the reality of torture, or perhaps, it’d be fair to say, too comfortable with torture without really understanding what it means. I think everyone was horrified by the pictures at Abu Ghraib. But there is for some people, I think, a willingness to say, look, let them do what has to be done, so long as it protects us. But as Alberto Mora, former General Counsel for the Navy says in the film, we fight not only to defend our lives, we fight to defend our principles. So it remains to be seen.

I do think that mood is changing, and I do think there are a lot of people who are just furious at what’s been done in our name, and also when they realize how deeply ineffective it is. That’s one thing that people don’t really get. Torture, even though the Bush administration never uses that word, they say “We don’t do torture,” because they define it out of existence. But what you learn about torture — and this administration has authorized torture, there’s no question about it — is torture is deeply ineffective and unreliable.

Fortunately for Alex Gibney — and for Americans who would like to learn more about what was done in their name in the US prisons in Afghanistan — HBO announced just before the Oscars that it had bought the rights to the film and would show it in September. Think Progress reported that a source had explained to them that Discovery had “agreed to the deal with HBO after intense public criticism — including from the netroots,” adding, “Discovery executives were also reportedly anxious that if Gibney received the Oscar for best documentary feature, he would make a speech denouncing the network.” It was also noted that Discovery will air the documentary on its Investigation Discovery channel, but only “in 2009 … after President Bush is out of office.”

As for Gibney, Reuters reported that “he ‘feels great’ about the prospect of HBO airing the documentary during the final stage of the presidential campaign.” “This is a vital issue for the campaign,” he explained. “Retaining the national character while we fight the war on terror is an issue every true candidate has to wrestle with.”

Andy is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison, which includes a chapter detailing the torture, abuse and murders at Bagram. The book is 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, and see here for my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009.

Britain’s Guantánamo: control orders renewed, as one suspect is freed

Logo of UK parliamentIt’s always a sure sign that something has gone horribly wrong when Tory politicians can only be persuaded with extreme reluctance to support anti-terror measures pursued by the Labour government. But this is exactly what happened on Thursday, when Conservative MPs joined with the government’s own MPs to extend until March 2009 the legislation authorizing the government to hold alleged terror suspects under control orders.

The vote to extend the control orders — which are currently used against 15 alleged terror suspects — passed by 267 votes to 60, but Tory MPs were clearly not bowled over by a hyperbolic statement made by Security Minister Tony McNulty, who, as though infected by the ghosts of previous Labour hard men John Reid and David Blunkett, claimed, “The threat (of terrorism) is clearly real, serious and represents a threat unparalleled in our country’s history.”

Speaking on behalf of his fellow MPs, the Tories’ shadow attorney general Dominic Grieve declared, “On balance, and with a considerable degree of reluctance, our view is we should allow renewal to take place this year.” Other notes of caution were sounded by Labour MPs. Alex Carlile, the government’s terror laws ombudsman, said that no control order should be extended beyond two years “save in genuinely exceptional circumstances,” and Andrew Dismore, the chairman of the joint Human Rights Committee, warned that the orders could create “Guantánamo-style martyrs” unless a maximum time limit was imposed. “Perhaps it is the gilded cage of Acacia Avenue rather than the harshness of a Cuban camp,” he said, “but we have still seen indefinite restrictions on their freedom.”

A very specific kind of personal prison, control orders were introduced in March 2005 after the government’s previous method of dealing with alleged terror suspects — holding them in high-security prisons, including Belmarsh, without charge or trial — was ruled illegal by the House of Lords. Generally involving curfews, electronic tagging, the requirement to report regularly to police, and restrictions on associating with others and using telephones and computers, they constitute a kind of house arrest, and have been criticized for contravening the European Convention on Human Rights (PDF). In April 2006 the high court ruled that placing a man known only as “S” under a control order without a fair hearing infringed Article 6 of the Convention, and in June 2006 a judge quashed the control orders against six other men, ruling that they were “incompatible” with Article 5 of the Convention, which prevents indefinite detention without trial.

The reasons for the government‘s insistence on using control orders were explained to the BBC by Labour MP John Denham in May last year. Denham said, “They were brought in because the courts prevented the government from jailing people who were believed to be terrorists, [and who] sometimes had a terrorist record overseas; we were stopped from jailing them because we didn’t have the evidence to convict them here.”

Critics, however, point out that holding men without charge or trial — with echoes of the US prison at Guantánamo Bay — is monstrously unjust, and that the control orders could be done away with if the government was prepared to join most other western countries in establishing ways of incorporating evidence collected by the security services in trials. At present, the government refuses to do so, leading to valid complaints that the quality of the evidence cannot be tested.

Ironically, the day after the legislation was extended for a year, the supposedly significant and sensitive intelligence used to justify imposing one of these control orders was revealed as a sham when a high court judge dismissed the control order against 25-year old British national Cerie Bullivant, ruling that there was no “reasonable suspicion” that he intended to take part in terrorism abroad. According to a report in the Guardian, MI5 had alleged that the “restriction of movement measures were necessary” because Bullivant “could be planning to travel to Iraq or Afghanistan to join up with terrorists.”

First subjected to a control order in June 2006, which was renewed last year, Mr. Bullivant became something of a terror suspect celebrity last May when he, along with two brothers, Lamine and Ibrahim Adam, disappeared after breaking the conditions of their control orders. The Adam brothers, whose other brother, Anthony Garcia, was sentenced to life in prison in April 2007 for his part in a fertilizer bomb plot, failed to report to a “monitoring company,” and Mr. Bullivant failed to turn up at a police station, which he was required to do on a daily basis. In all the hysterical reporting that followed, there was little, if any mention of the reason that Mr. Bullivant was regarded as so significantly dangerous that the government was prepared to imprison him without charge or trial, using a form of house arrest.

Lamine Adam, Ibrahim Adam and Cerie Bullivant

From L to R: Lamine Adam, Ibrahim Adam and Cerie Bullivant as they appeared in publicity issued after they absconded from their control orders in May 2007. The Sun’s headline was typical of the scaremongering that ensued: “Fury as ‘terror’ bruvs do runner.”

Yesterday, as Mr. Justice Collins quashed the control order, the government’s overreaction to the supposed “threat” posed by Mr. Bullivant was made clear. He had been subjected to a control order after he was stopped at Heathrow as he was about to board a flight to Syria with Ibrahim Adam. Mr. Bullivant said that he intended to study Arabic in Syria, but the security services decided that he and Adam intended “to carry out extremist Islamic activity,” and that they were possibly intending to travel on to Iraq or Afghanistan to fight against western forces, or to conduct a “martyrdom operation.”

Quashing the control order, Mr. Justice Collins said that it might have been “reasonable to assume that individuals with whom Bullivant associated might have been involved in terrorism, but that did not make it reasonable to suspect he had the same inclinations.” He added, “The dangers of guilt by association are obvious.”

Cerie Bullivant

Cerie Bullivant as he appeared on CCTV at Dagenham police station in May 2007.

Outside the court, Bullivant celebrated his freedom, but asked reporters to consider the other men who were still held under control orders. “Although I am very happy that this order has now been lifted,” he said, “this draconian legislation is still continuing to ruin the lives of others and their families.”

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, and see here for my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009.

As published on CounterPunch and Indymedia.

For other articles dealing with Belmarsh, control orders, deportation bail, deportation and extradition, see Deals with dictators undermined by British request for return of five Guantánamo detainees (August 2007), Britain’s Guantánamo: the troubling tale of Tunisian Belmarsh detainee Hedi Boudhiba, extradited, cleared and abandoned in Spain (August 2007), Guantánamo as house arrest: Britain’s law lords capitulate on control orders (November 2007), The Guantánamo Britons and Spain’s dubious extradition request (December 2007), Spanish drop “inhuman” extradition request for Guantánamo Britons (March 2008), UK government deports 60 Iraqi Kurds; no one notices (March 2008), Repatriation as Russian Roulette: Will the Two Algerians Freed from Guantánamo Be Treated Fairly? (July 2008), Abu Qatada: Law Lords and Government Endorse Torture (February 2009), Ex-Guantánamo prisoner refused entry into UK, held in deportation centre (February 2009), Home Secretary ignores Court decision, kidnaps bailed men and imprisons them in Belmarsh (February 2009), Britain’s insane secret terror evidence (March 2009).

David Miliband admits that two “extraordinary rendition” flights refuelled at Diego Garcia: Is this a joke?

Diego garcia

David Miliband, the British foreign secretary, is to be commended for his confession on Thursday that US “extraordinary rendition” flights had refuelled twice at an airbase on the British colonial territory of Diego Garcia, in the Indian Ocean. Leased to the US in the 1960s, in exchange for cut-price nuclear weapons, the island is effectively under US control, although it remains a British sovereign territory, and the British government maintains a small base on the island, which houses 50 military personnel.

It would be slightly churlish to point out that Mr. Miliband only made his confession because he was shamed into it through the persistent pressure exerted on the government by Reprieve, the London-based legal charity that provides frontline investigation and legal representation to prisoners held without trial in the “War on Terror,” and by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Extraordinary Rendition, led by the Tory MP Andrew Tyrie. Last October, Reprieve published a report on the use of Diego Garcia as a secret prison, and the parliamentary group used the Freedom of Information Act to request the minutes of discussions between the British and American governments in Washington last September, which were refused by the British government on the grounds that releasing the information “would prejudice the defence” of territory by “exposing plans to counter possible terrorist attacks.” Just three weeks ago, Mr. Tyrie pledged to appeal against the Foreign Office’s decision, and Mr. Miliband’s confession therefore appears to have been timed to put some distance between the government and its increasingly vocal critics.

There are, however, two simple reasons for not bashing Mr. Miliband too hard: firstly, because any confession, however forced, is better than none at all, and secondly, because it also highlights the evasiveness of other senior government figures — step forward, former PM Tony Blair and former foreign secretary Jack Straw — who maintained between 2005 and 2007 that nothing of the sort had ever happened.

In December 2005, Jack Straw stated, “Careful research by officials has been unable to identify any occasion since 11 September 2001, or earlier in the Bush administration, when we received a request for permission by the United States for a rendition through UK territory or airspace, nor are we otherwise aware of such a case.” Tony Blair followed this up by saying, “I have absolutely no evidence to suggest that anything illegal has been happening here at all.”

In January 2006, Mr. Straw repeated his assertions, stating, “The US would not render a detainee through UK territory or airspace without our permission,” and this was followed in March 2007, when Tony Blair assured the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) that, as the BBC put it, “he was satisfied that the US had at no time since 9/11 rendered an individual through the UK or through our Overseas Territories.”

As a result, the ISC’s Report on Rendition, published on June 28, 2007, stated, “we are satisfied that there is no evidence that US rendition flights have used UK airspace (except the two cases in 1998 referred to earlier in the report) and that there is no evidence of them having landed at UK military airfields,” and Foreign Office minister Lord Malloch Brown asserted in July 2007, “The US authorities have given assurances that no terrorist suspects have passed through Diego Garcia.”

Mr. Miliband, of course, had an explanation for his predecessors’ refusal to engage with the concept that, by facilitating, or even by turning a blind eye to the use of British airspace for “extraordinary rendition” flights transferring “War on Terror” suspects to exotic locations where, on numerous occasions, they were tortured, the British government was itself complicit in torture. He had, he said, only just been informed about it.

“I am very sorry indeed to have to report to the House the need to correct these and other statements on the subject, on the basis of new information passed to officials on 15 February 2008 by the US Government,” Mr. Miliband explained. “Contrary to earlier explicit assurances that Diego Garcia had not been used for rendition flights, recent US investigations have now revealed two occasions, both in 2002, when this had in fact occurred.” He added, “An error in the earlier US records search meant that these cases did not come to light. In both cases a US plane with a single detainee on board refuelled at the US facility in Diego Garcia. The detainees did not leave the plane, and the US Government has assured us that no US detainees have ever been held on Diego Garcia. US investigations show no record of any other rendition through Diego Garcia or any other Overseas Territory or through the UK itself since then.”

This is fine as far as it goes, but as I mentioned in October — the last time that the once tranquil island of Diego Garcia reared its ugly head as a rumoured base for a secret “War on Terror” prison — this story goes far deeper than profuse apologies for overlooking a twice-used pit-stop for terror planes.

To give just two examples from my earlier article, “In June 2006, Dick Marty, a Swiss senator who produced a detailed report on ‘extraordinary rendition’ for the Council of Europe … concluded that Diego Garcia had been used as a secret prison. Having spoken to senior CIA officers during his research, he told the European Parliament, ‘We have received concurring confirmations that United States agencies have used Diego Garcia, which is the international legal responsibility of the UK, in the “processing” of high-value detainees.’”

Even more compelling evidence came from Barry McCaffrey, a retired four-star US general, who is now professor of international security studies at the West Point military academy. As I described it in October, McCaffrey “has twice let slip that Diego Garcia has, as the administration’s opponents have struggled to maintain, been used to hold terror suspects. In May 2004, he blithely declared, ‘We’re probably holding around 3,000 people, you know, Bagram air field, Diego Garcia, Guantánamo, 16 camps throughout Iraq,’ and in December 2006 he slipped the leash again, saying, ‘They’re behind bars … we’ve got them on Diego Garcia, in Bagram air field, in Guantánamo.’”

As soon as the news broke, General Michael Hayden, the director of the CIA, who recently admitted that the CIA had waterboarded “high-value” terror detainees who ended up at Guantánamo, stepped forward to deny that Diego Garcia had ever been used as a “War on Terror” prison. “That is false,” he said, adding, as the New York Times put it, that “neither of the two detainees carried aboard the rendition flights that refuelled at Diego Garcia ‘was ever part of the CIA’s high-value terrorist interrogation program.’” He also explained that one of the detainees “was ultimately transferred to Guantánamo,” while the other “was returned to his home country,” which was identified by State Department officials as Morocco. With remarkable insouciance, Gen. Hayden added, “These were rendition operations, nothing more.”

With apparent evidence that a secret prison had indeed existed on Diego Garcia shut out of the discussions — and no mention made of the name of the casually rendered Moroccan, or of the proof offered by Stephen Grey, the author of Ghost Plane: The Inside Story of the CIA’s Secret Rendition Programme, that on September 11, 2002, the day that 9/11 plotter Ramzi bin al-Shibh (a “high-value” detainee if ever there was one) was seized in Karachi, one of the CIA’s planes landed at Diego Garcia — it is no surprise that, before Mr. Miliband had the opportunity to sit down after his contrite performance, Reprieve immediately issued a press release calling for a public inquiry.

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, and see here for my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009.

As published on Indymedia.

“The Guantánamo Files” reviewed by New Internationalist

The Guantanamo FilesThe following review of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison appeared in the January 2008 issue of New Internationalist.

According to recent reports, George Bush is looking for a pretext to close the abomination that is Guantánamo Bay. Together with its lesser-known satellites, Abu Ghraib in Iraq, Bagram airbase in Afghanistan and various secret torture camps in eastern Europe, Guantánamo Bay has long been a symbol of Bush’s incoherent and botched ‘War on Terror’.

There have been previous attempts to pierce the fog of secrecy and lies that protects this illegal prison situated outside US judicial scrutiny on the soil of another country. Most notably, the human rights lawyer Clive Stafford Smith wrote in Bad Men of the inhumane treatment of several of his clients and the horrific limbo of their existence as they are held for years, without trial or due process, as ‘illegal enemy combatants’, a designation recognized only by its inventor, the US.

Andy Worthington’s book, The Guantánamo Files is, as far as I am aware, the first to concentrate not on the processes of the camp but on the lives of those trapped within its walls and wire. Drawing on Pentagon documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act and on the testimonies of the men themselves, Worthington pieces together their stories before, during and — for the fortunate — after their incarceration. From its inception in 2002, a central plank of the dehumanizing strategy at Guantánamo has been the withholding of information about its unfortunate inmates. Andy Worthington has done them and the cause of truth an inestimable service in telling the individual stories of these men, the vast majority of whom committed no crime more heinous than being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

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, and see here for my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009.

Michael Goldfarb on Guantánamo and the “War on Terror”: “we’re making these things up as we go along”

Radio 5 Live logoA week ago, I was invited by the BBC to be a guest on Richard Bacon’s show on Radio 5 Live as part of an hour-long discussion about whether or not the six Guantánamo detainees charged in connection with the 9/11 attacks would receive a fair trial. The other guest was Michael Goldfarb, the online editor of WorldwideStandard.com, the Weekly Standard’s Blog, who subsequently published a post that attempted to undermine my point of view, by mentioning one of my articles, published on CounterPunch (and here with links), in which I reported claims made by one of the Guantánamo detainees, Abdul Hamid al-Ghizzawi, that he has been infected with AIDS during his imprisonment at Guantánamo.

Mr. Goldfarb was dismissive of the article, which came as no surprise to me, because it also revealed — as confirmed by the Chief Medical Doctor at Guantánamo — that Mr. al-Ghizzawi has contracted tuberculosis during his imprisonment, and that he also suffers from hepatitis B, which was dormant before his arrival at the prison.

Those who read the full article would also have discovered that Mr. al-Ghizzawi’s case is central to complaints made in sworn statements last year by military officers, who worked on the tribunals at Guantánamo, that the entire system was rigged, through the use of generalized and often generic information masquerading as specific intelligence against individual detainees, to rubber-stamp the administration’s untested claims that everyone who had ended up in US custody — however randomly — was an “enemy combatant,” who could be held indefinitely without charge or trial.

After the members of his first tribunal decided, based on the “paucity and weakness of the information provided both during and after the CSRT hearing,” that there was “no factual basis” for concluding that Mr. al-Ghizzawi was an “enemy combatant,” — and that, by extension, it was probable that the true story, as Mr. al-Ghizzawi explained, was that he was a shopkeeper, married to an Afghan woman, who was seized by Afghan bounty hunters and sold to the US military — the US military dismissed the members of his first tribunal and held a second, secret tribunal in which they concluded that he was an “enemy combatant” after all.

In the interests of shedding some light on Mr. Goldfarb’s opinions, I reproduce below a transcript of part of last Monday’s show, in which he helpfully described how, after 9/11, the US administration turned its back on 232 years of the law, replacing it with an ad-hoc system in which, to quote his exact words, “we’re making these things up as we go along.”

About twenty minutes into the show, Richard Bacon discussed the greater transparency that would be involved in the cases if they were transferred to US federal courts.

Richard Bacon: Why can’t they be tried in front of a jury in a federal court?

Michael Goldfarb: Well, frankly, there are security issues. You know, we’re not going to expose American citizens to sitting on a jury for al-Qaeda members […]

Richard Bacon: […] So a terror suspect has never been tried in the United States in a civil or federal court?

Michael Goldfarb: Terror suspects have been tried in a federal court …

Richard Bacon: Well, why was that jury exposed to them?

Michael Goldfarb: I mean, if you arrest someone in this country, we’ve dealt with these things differently. The fundamental issue here is that we’re making these things up as we go along. There was no way to do this. […]

Andy Worthington: It’s an extraordinary confession that “we’ve been making this up as we go along.” That’s exactly what seems to have been happening since 9/11 in terms of the detention, interrogation and prosecution of these detainees. You know, what interests me is the issue that you raised of successful prosecutions that took place in the United States of terrorists before 9/11, and this is something that seems to be missed out on, because we’re led to believe that the world started anew on 9/11. Whereas in fact, those of us who have longer memories will remember that there were the African embassy bombings and that there were earlier events, and that there were successful prosecutions.

Richard Bacon: And those juries were exposed to terrorists?

Andy Worthington: Yes, exactly, and it goes deeper than that …

Michael Goldfarb: And that really worked out to prevent 9/11, didn’t it? That really worked out to stymie the onslaught of these terrorists …

Richard Bacon: Are you saying that it somehow contributed to 9/11?

Michael Goldfarb: I’m saying it was an ineffectual response to terrorism, to simply put them in civilian courts and say, “oh, we’re going to treat this as though they’re just criminals like any others.” They’re not criminals like others.

Andy Worthington: I don’t see that that’s an issue at all, and I see that they are criminals like others, actually. And the point I wanted to raise is that there’s an interesting man named Dan Coleman, who was a former FBI interrogator, and he worked with a lot of these terrorist suspects before 9/11, and the interesting thing, the particularly interesting thing about the way Dan Coleman worked, which is germane to the whole thing we’re talking about here, is that he — and other FBI interrogators — said, you might be able to get some tiny bit of information by beating the crap out of somebody, by torturing them, but that is not how to get to dig to the real truth about what’s going on. You do that by building a relationship with the prisoners that you have, and a good interrogator can do that. And then you take them through the court system, because they’re criminals.

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, and see here for my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009.

As published on the Huffington Post and CounterPunch.

Expelled UN official criticizes Afghan policy re: Taliban – and defends ex-Guantánamo detainee

In an important front-page story in the Guardian, Michael Semple, the Irish UN official arrested in Afghanistan at Christmas — along with British EU official Mervyn Patterson — and subsequently expelled for posing a threat to national security by making contact with the Taliban, has robustly defended his actions.

The British Royal marines in Helmand province, Afghanistan

British Royal Marines in Helmand province. Expelled UN official Michael Semple insists, “There is no purely military solution to the current insurgency,” and advocates a policy of wooing insurgents away from the Taliban.

In an interview with Henry McDonald, the Guardian’s Irish correspondent, Semple — described just five months ago by the British Ambassador to Afghanistan as a man who “speaks fluent Pashtu, and understands the grain and granularity of Afghan society better than almost any other foreigner” — insisted that he and Patterson were the victims of local political rivalries, and pointed out, in a concise but significant critique of Western policy, that a purely military solution to the Taliban problem is impossible. He added that, given the potential fluidity of regional Afghan politics, two-thirds of current Taliban supporters could be persuaded to turn against the Taliban. As an example of how shifting political allegiances are not only significant, but have, historically, been overlooked and misunderstood by the West, he also spoke about the case of Haji Naeem Kochi, a tribal leader who was sent to Guantánamo and released in September 2004.

In the interview, Semple said that a local leader in Helmand province had falsely blamed him and Patterson for talking to “one of the irreconcilables” — i.e. insurgents linked to al-Qaeda. Insisting that they had done no such thing, he said that the local leader had “totally manufactured” the controversy to guard the resources given to him by the central government, for one simple reason: he was afraid that his power base would crumble if former insurgents and former Taliban members were brought into the peace process. “We were victims of local politics initially and being seen to take on the foreigners — in this case us — is seen as very popular in many places in Afghanistan. We were soft targets and the whole thing was spun well by him,” Semple said. He added, crucially, “There is a critical difference between what is discreet and what is covert. What we were doing was simply discreet because that was what was required. But it was totally in line with official policy to bring people in from the cold.”

As an example of bringing insurgents “in from the cold,” Semple told McDonald about Mullah Mamuk, a leader in Helmand province, whose local enemies told western forces in 2001 that he was a terrorist. When a reward was then offered for his capture on a widely-distributed “Wanted” poster, Mamuk approached the Taliban for protection, as Semple explained: “So naturally Mamuk goes to the Taliban to feel safe and takes those men he commands who are loyal to him with him, shows Taliban commanders the poster and says ‘It looks like I am now with you.’ He added, “The authorities simply got the wrong guy and drove him into the Taliban’s hands. Now he is currently fighting against the British in Helmand but in my opinion local leaders like Mamuk can be won back over again.”

Advocating the creation of a “network of patronage” to lure men like Mamuk away from the Taliban, Semple continued, “It’s worth remembering there are an awful lot of Mullah Mamuks out there who can easily switch sides away from the Taliban and that is why I firmly believe that with good management you could break two-thirds of the insurgents away from those irreconcilables.”

Providing examples, he explained that some of the men who were sent to Guantánamo during the first two years after the US-led invasion in October 2001 had in fact “switched sides to the Karzai government.” “Take Haji Naeem Kochi, someone I have known for a very long time in Afghanistan,” he said. “After 9/11 and the invasion he ended up doing time in Guantánamo Bay. When he came back … I met up with him. The first thing I asked him was did he learn any English and he replied: ‘Yes, but all I learned was sit up and sit down from the American guards.’ Yet despite doing time in Guantánamo he is now a member of the peace commission aimed at reconciling all Afghans.”

The case of Haji Naeem Kochi is significant, not only for what it reveals about the US-led forces’ misunderstandings about tribal allegiances in Afghanistan, but also because it led to large numbers of regional pro-Karzai leaders — several dozen at least, and possibly more — being sent to Guantánamo. Kochi was just one of many startling examples, as I explain in my book The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison. The following is an excerpt from Chapter 17:

“Having failed to round up a single Taliban leader throughout 2003, only one of the 90 men captured in this period was flagged as a significant catch — and even he turned out to be nothing of the sort. 62-year old Haji Naeem Kochi, a tribal elder of the nomadic Kochi tribe, was the object of a manhunt from the earliest days of ‘Operation Enduring Freedom,’ when the Americans bombed numerous locations in an attempt to kill him. Human Rights Watch reported that defense department officials told them that he ‘was a former Taliban official and a “scumbag” involved in smuggling arms over the Pakistani border,’ but when he was finally captured by US forces, on his way to meet President Karzai to discuss a tribal dispute on 1 January 2003, his reputation seemed to vanish like a mirage. Instead of validating the Americans’ concerns, this frail, unthreatening man, who suffered from diabetes and wore a surgical belt after one of his kidneys was removed, was so insignificant that he was released from Guantánamo in September 2004.”

At the conclusion of his interview, Semple drew a comparison between “what he and Patterson were seeking to achieve in Helmand and what the US had done in Anbar province in Iraq, where American forces opened talks with Sunni insurgents which resulted in setbacks for al-Qaeda,” as McDonald described it. “There are many people who served with the Taliban regime who are now well-placed inside the Karzai regime or else are pillars of Afghan society,” Semple said. “They are now living at peace with [it] even if they are critical of it, which is their right. Our mandate was to support the government’s reconciliation process — that’s what we were doing in Helmand before Christmas. There is no purely military solution to the current insurgency. There isn’t a serious actor in Afghanistan who says the only way forward is to fight your way out.”

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, and see here for my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009.

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. 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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