Archive for February, 2008

Guantánamo Britons’ Spanish extradition request: an update

Omar Deghayes

Yesterday Omar Deghayes and Jamil El-Banna, two of the three Britons freed from Guantánamo in December, returned to Westminster Magistrates’ Court in London for the third time since their release for an update on the progress — or lack of it — in the Spanish government’s request for their extradition, based on long-discredited allegations that were summarized in previous articles here and here.

Jamil El-BannaAs I was unable to attend yesterday’s hearing — and no major media outlet has seen fit to report on it — I spoke to Jackie Chase from Brighton’s Save Omar campaign, who filled me in on the morning’s events.

Speaking to a busy courtroom and an overflowing public gallery, Edward Fitzgerald QC, representing Mr. Deghayes and Mr. El-Banna, submitted medical reports which analyzed in detail his clients’ precarious mental state. Although he made a point of sparing the court the details of their abuse in US custody, which had created their current problems, he explained that the reports revealed that both men were suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

He also pointed out that a particular source of stress and mental anguish for the men derived from the electronic tagging devices that they have been obliged to wear since their return to the UK, which, he said, were causing them anxiety, because they were giving them flashbacks to their ordeal in the US prisons in Afghanistan and Guantánamo, and specifically to their interrogations and the array of brutal techniques that were used on them during the run-up to their interrogations.

Mr. Fitzgerald then asked for the tags to be removed, a request to which the prosecution graciously acquiesced. In their place, Mr. Deghayes and Mr. El-Banna are required to allow police representatives to visit them during the curfew hours that were also imposed on their return to the UK — between 8 pm and 7 am — to check that they are actually at home.

As for the extradition request, the Crown Prosecution Service reported that there had been no response from the Spanish government since the last hearing in January. The judge set a deadline of April 13 for the Spanish to respond to the medical reports, and to issues previously raised by Mr. Fitzgerald and his colleagues; namely, that the Spanish authorities had failed to explain why they had filed the extradition request on the men’s return, when they had not pursued it vigorously during their long imprisonment in US custody; and that they had also failed to explain why they wished to pursue the case when both the British and American governments had concluded that there was no case against either man.

In open discussions between the judge and the various lawyers, the prospect was raised that the Spanish government might drop its extradition request in the near future. If they respond by April 13, however, the formal extradition hearing will take place on May 15.

It is to be hoped that the Spanish will indeed drop their request for the return of two innocent men who are struggling to rebuild their lives. As the case of Farid Hilali revealed last week, the European Arrest Warrant, introduced to facilitate extradition proceedings between EU member states, is proving itself sorely lacking in any mechanism whatsoever to prevent extraditions when the country making the request is acting on “evidence” that fails to stand up to impartial scrutiny. See here, here and here for more on Mr. Hilali’s story.

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.

For the conclusion of the extradition story, see here.

Vivienne Westwood protests against Guantánamo at London Fashion Week

A Vivienne Westwood model protests against GuantanamoShowing at London Fashion Week yesterday evening for the first time in nine years, the ever-provocative Vivienne Westwood sent her lead model down the catwalk wearing Agent Provocateur’s Guantánamo orange “Fair Trial My Arse” knickers, conceived in conjunction with the legal charity Reprieve, which represents dozens of detainees held in Guantánamo without charge or trial. The underwear was first publicized yesterday in a column in the New Statesman by Reprieve’s director Clive Stafford Smith, and I reported on it here.

“I don’t know if I will actually wear them,” Westwood said backstage, as she showed reporters her necklace, which read, “I’m not a terrorist, please don’t arrest me.” Her son Joseph Corre, one of Agent Provocateur’s founders, added, “It’s about people standing up and deciding what side of the fence they’re on. Hopefully they’ll take a bit of notice. If not, they’ll get a great pair of knickers.”

A Vivienne Westwood model protests against Guantanamo

A Vivienne Westwood model advertises Reprieve

Photos above © Reuters/Alessia Pierdomenico. Top photo © AP/Kirsty Wigglesworth.

Clive Stafford Smith at 10 Downing StreetEarlier in the day, Clive Stafford Smith delivered a pair of the knickers to Prime Minister Gordon Brown at 10 Downing Street.

Reprieve’s press release, “Reprieve and Agent Provocateur Join Forces in the Case of the Contraband Underpants” is here (PDF). For more on the farcical episode in Guantánamo that led to the creation of the knickers, see here.

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed, and see here for my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009.

Guantánamo: Torture on trial

The Guantanamo Files“Torture on trial” is the title of an article I wrote for the Guardian’s “Comment is free” section today. It follows on from my article Six in Guantánamo Charged with 9/11 Murders: Why Now? And What About the Torture? by focusing on the revelation that “clean teams” of FBI agents re-interrogated the six detainees who were charged on Monday in connection with the 9/11 attacks, in an apparently successful attempt to secure evidence that was not based on torture.

In the article, I suggest that it may not be a coincidence that the administration made its announcement about the charges in an attempt to divert attention from last week’s revelation — by CIA director Michael Hayden — that three “high-value” detainees had been waterboarded in CIA custody, and point out that the extraordinary admission about the “clean teams” does not reflect well on the administration, because it demonstrates an attempt to rewrite history, and is also, I suspect, intended to stave off calls for the prosecution for “war crimes” of those who authorized the use of torture by US forces.

I also salute the law-abiding heroes of various US agencies, including the FBI and the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS), who opposed the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques,” and explain how the difficulties that will be faced in prosecuting these six men could have been avoided if the administration had worked within the existing parameters of domestic and international law.

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.

Pants to Guantánamo: Agent Provocateur and Reprieve make a cheeky statement about detention without charge or trial

Fair Trial My ArseHappy Valentine’s Day? With exquisite timing, lingerie darlings Agent Provocateur unveil their latest product, a pair of Guantánamo orange knickers emblazoned with the message “Fair Trial My Arse.”

Conceived after consultation with Reprieve, the London-based legal charity that represents dozens of Guantánamo detainees, the project arose after the farcical Case of the Contraband Underpants last August, when Clive Stafford Smith and Zachary Katznelson of Reprieve were accused of smuggling underwear into Guantánamo for two of their clients, Mohammed El-Gharani, a Saudi resident and Chadian national, who was just 15 years old when he was picked up in a random raid on a mosque in Pakistan, and British resident Shaker Aamer, a long-term hunger striker, who has been held in solitary confinement at Guantánamo for two and a half years.

In a New Statesman article announcing the launch of the politically provocative pants, Clive Stafford Smith explains more:

“Along with our allies at the lingerie designers Agent Provocateur, we developed a line of intimate apparel in Guantánamo orange, with “Fair Trial My Arse” emblazoned across the derrière … [W]e suspect that Gordon Brown’s popularity will soar after he tries on his Valentine’s Day present from Reprieve: his own pair of Fair Trial My Arse pants, discreetly delivered to No 10 …

“Of course, bad taste aside, Fair Trial My Arse bears a serious message, particularly given this past week’s announcement that the US military plans death-penalty trials in Guantánamo Bay. The main objections to tribunals have been well summarised by Colonel Morris Davis, the former chief military prosecutor. In October, he resigned from his post making three allegations: that the politicians had taken over the process with little concern for fairness, that evidence extracted under duress would be admissible, and that there would still be secret proceedings.

“No matter what the Bush administration spin, this will indeed be a case of Fair Trial My Arse. We hope the slogan will become a rallying cry for the closure of Guantánamo Bay and the secret prisons that proliferate around the world. At the very least, perhaps it will inspire the Prime Minister to help us shame the United States authorities into providing a fair process for Shaker Aamer and Binyam Mohamed [another British resident still held in Guantánamo]. They are, after all, British residents who could tell you from first-hand experience that Guantánamo Bay is, indeed, pants.”

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 and the New York Times: FAIR sends letter to public editor

FAIR logoFollowing its expressions of concern (here and here) about the Editor’s Note that followed the publication of a front-page article in the New York Times last week by Carlotta Gall and myself, Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR) sent the following letter to the Times’ public editor:

A double standard on reporters who express opinions?
Letter to NY Times’ public editor Clark Hoyt

2/12/08

On February 12, FAIR sent a letter to the New York Times’ public editor Clark Hoyt regarding a recent editors’ note that suggested that the newspaper has double standards for reporters who publicly express opinions. The letter is below. We encourage others who have concerns to also contact Hoyt, at: public@nytimes.com.

***
Dear Clark Hoyt,

The New York Times recently published an unusual editor’s note about the February 4 front-page article, “Time Runs Out for an Afghan Held by the U.S.”

The note concerned Andy Worthington, one of the two journalists identified in the article’s byline:

Mr. Worthington has written a book, The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison, in which he takes the position that Guantánamo is part of what he describes as a cruel and misguided response by the Bush administration to the September 11 attacks. He has also expressed strong criticism of Guantánamo in articles published elsewhere.

The editors were not aware of Mr. Worthington’s outspoken position on Guantánamo. They should have described his contribution to the reporting instead of listing him as co-author, and noted that he had a point of view.

There is no indication that Worthington’s reporting was flawed in any way. What the paper is saying is that Worthington’s critical view of Guantánamo disqualifies him from having a byline on a Times article on the subject, and must be noted whenever he contributes to such a story.

Is this rule applied to all Times reporters covering any subject? It would seem not. The Times’ response to its chief military correspondent Michael Gordon expressing a point of view on national TV on the very topic he covers as a reporter provides an instructive comparison.

On the Charlie Rose show (1/8/07), the host asked Gordon if he believed “victory is within our grasp.” Gordon responded by endorsing the White House’s call for a “troop surge”:

“So I think, you know, as a purely personal view, I think it’s worth it [sic] one last effort for sure to try to get this right, because my personal view is we’ve never really tried to win. We’ve simply been managing our way to defeat. And I think that if it’s done right, I think that there is the chance to accomplish something.”

The Times’ public editor at the time, Byron Calame, wrote (1/28/07) that he “raised reader concerns about Mr. Gordon’s voicing of personal opinions with top editors.” The Washington bureau chief assured Calame that Gordon’s remarks were merely “a poorly worded shorthand for some analytical points about the military and political situation in Baghdad that Michael has made in the newspaper in a more nuanced and un-opinionated way.” Gordon continued to write about the “surge” for the Times, with no mention made of the fact that he had publicly voiced support for the military strategy.

Of course, Gordon is a Times staffer, while Worthington is a freelancer. But it’s unclear why you would want more stringent rules for opinions expressed by occasional freelancers as opposed to staffers who write regularly for your publication.

Another perhaps more relevant difference between the two cases is that Gordon’s opinion was strongly supportive of the White House, while Worthington had been critical. Was this a factor in the Times decision-making? Was the editor’s note prompted by Bush administration complaints?

The Times’ response regarding the Guantánamo article stands in sharp contrast to its inaction regarding a complaint brought by FAIR about another recent Times article, a front-page piece by Sheryl Gay Stolberg (1/28/08) that claimed that George W. Bush “has spent years presiding over an economic climate of growth that would be the envy of most presidents.” This assertion has no basis in fact (see FAIR’s Action Alert, 1/28/08), yet the Times had no response to FAIR’s request for a correction. When the paper moves swiftly to distance itself from an article with no apparent factual problems, one can’t help but wonder about the paper’s journalistic priorities.

We look forward to your response.

Isabel Macdonald
Communications Director
FAIR

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.

Six in Guantánamo Charged with 9/11 Murders: Why Now? And What About the Torture?

Andy Worthington, author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison, reports on the US administration’s recent announcement that it has filed charges against six Guantánamo prisoners for their alleged involvement in the 9/11 attacks.

Finally, then, nearly six and a half years after the 9/11 attacks, the US administration has charged six Guantánamo detainees with, amongst other charges, terrorism, murder in violation of the law of war, attacking civilians, and conspiracy — adding, for good measure, that it will seek the death penalty in the case of any convictions.

The six men are: Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM), who confessed in his tribunal at Guantánamo last March that he was “responsible for the 9/11 operation, from A to Z”; Ramzi bin al-Shibh, reportedly a friend of the 9/11 hijackers, who helped coordinate the plan with KSM after he was unable to enter the United States to train as a pilot for the 9/11 operation, as he originally planned; Mustafa al-Hawsawi and Ali Abdul Aziz Ali (aka Ammar al-Baluchi), who are accused of helping to provide the hijackers with money and other items; Walid bin Attash, who is accused of selecting and training some of the hijackers; and, rather less spectacularly, Mohammed al-Qahtani, who is accused of trying and failing to enter the United States in August 2001 to become the 20th hijacker on 9/11.

Five of the six detainees charged in connection with the 9/11 attacks

From the top: Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM), Ramzi bin al-Shibh, Mustafa al-Hawsawi, Ali Abdul Aziz Ali and Walid bin Attash.

The announcement of the charges is immensely significant. In one fell swoop, many of the complaints about Guantánamo appear to have been swept aside. These, chiefly, have centered on well-founded claims that the prison has mostly held innocent men or low-level Taliban foot soldiers. Of the 749 detainees who were held at the prison during its first two and half years of existence, none, according to dozens of high-level military and intelligence sources interviewed by the New York Times in June 2004, “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 reputedly significant detainees arrived at Guantánamo from secret CIA prisons in September 2004, and another 14 “high-value” detainees, including five of the men mentioned above, arrived in September 2006, but these arrivals — which, in themselves, revealed the existence of secret prisons that were even less accountable than Guantánamo — were hardly enough to convince any except the administration’s most fervent and unquestioning supporters that the whole extra-legal experiment was worthwhile.

In charging detainees for their alleged connections with the 9/11 attacks, the administration has also managed to divert attention away from the stumbling progress of the trial system which will be used to prosecute the six men. The Military Commissions, dreamt up by Vice President Dick Cheney and his advisors in November 2001, judged illegal by the Supreme Court in June 2006 and reinstated later that year in the Military Commissions Act (MCA), have struggled repeatedly to establish their legitimacy.

Described by former military defense lawyer Lt. Cmdr. Charles Swift as fatally flawed because they included “no right to habeas corpus, no attorney-client privilege, forced guilty pleas for charges never made public, secret and coerced evidence, juries and presiding officers picked by executive fiat, [and] clients represented even if they declined legal counsel,” the Commission process was supposedly cleaned up during the passage of the MCA, so that prosecutors are prevented from using secret evidence or evidence obtained through torture (although the use of information obtained through “controversial forms of coercion” — torture, perhaps, by any other name — remains at the discretion of the government-appointed military judge), but they have failed, to date, to secure a single significant victory.

Their only alleged success — in the case of David Hicks, who accepted a plea bargain in March last year, admitting that he provided “material support for terrorism” and dropping well-documented claims that he was tortured by US forces in exchange for a nine-month sentence served in Australia — was undermined last fall by Col. Morris Davis, the Commissions’ former chief prosecutor, who resigned his post and then complained that the entire system was compromised by political interference. Currently, the Commissions are bogged down in pre-trial hearings for two detainees — alleged “child soldier” Omar Khadr, and Salim Hamdan, a driver for Osama bin Laden — whose cases have done nothing to assuage widespread concerns that the whole process remains both unjust and futile.

The 9/11 attacks

The terrorist attacks on New York on September 11, 2001.

Now, however, with the focus fixed firmly on 9/11 — the event that, all along, was supposed to have justified the invasion of Afghanistan, the detention without charge or trial of nearly 800 detainees in Guantánamo, and of hundreds more in Afghanistan and in secret prisons elsewhere — the administration must be hoping that the global response to the news will wipe away the last six years of injustice and direct all attention exclusively on that dreadful day in September 2001 when over 3,000 people — from 40 different countries — died in the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and in the wreckage of a plane in Pennsylvania.

In spite of its laudable focus, however, the announcement still raises more questions than it answers. It is surely no coincidence, for example, that it came just six days after Michael Hayden, the director of the CIA, admitted that three of the “high-value” detainees — including KSM — had been subjected to waterboarding, a long-reviled torture technique that simulates drowning.

Ever since its notorious “Torture Memo” of August 2002, the administration has attempted to insist that “enhanced interrogations” counted as 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,” but these are, in the end, merely feeble attempts at semantic window-dressing. Under its international obligations — as a signatory to the UN Convention Against Torture, for example, which makes it a crime for American officials to torture people either inside or outside the United States — the administration is prohibited from practicing torture, and waterboarding is clearly torture.

The second problem is with the charges themselves. Noticeably, both KSM and Ramzi bin al-Shibh bragged about their involvement with 9/11 before they were captured. In April 2002, al-Jazeera journalist Yosri Fouda was granted an exclusive interview with the two men, and his report featured the following passage:

“They say that you are terrorists,” I surprised myself by blurting out. A serene Ramzi just offered an inviting smile. Mohammed answered: “They are right. That is what we do for a living.”

Summoning every thread of experience and courage, I looked Mohammed in the eye and asked: “Did you do it?” The reference to September 11 was implicit. Mohammed responded with little fanfare: “I am the head of the al-Qaeda military committee,” he began, “and Ramzi is the co-ordinator of the Holy Tuesday operation. And yes, we did it.”

There, however, the open admissions come abruptly to an end, with the exception of the charges against Mohammed al-Qahtani, which I discuss below, and, presumably, Walid bin Attash’s seemingly unprompted confession, in his tribunal at Guantánamo last year, when he said that he was the link between Osama bin Laden and the Nairobi cell during the African embassy bombings in 1998, and also admitted that he had played a major part in the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000, explaining that he “put together the plan for the operation for a year and a half,” and that he bought the explosives and the boat, and recruited the bombers.

The aftermath of the attack on the USS Cole in 2000

The aftermath of the attack on the USS Cole in 2000.

For the rest — the charges against Mustafa al-Hawsawi and Ali Abdul Aziz Ali, the remaining charges against Ramzi bin al-Shibh, and the vast shopping list of plots that KSM admitted to involvement with during his tribunal — all came about during the three to four years that these men spent in a succession of secret prisons run by the CIA. Moreover, it was in these prisons that, in contrast to Michael Hayden’s claim that, of the six, only KSM was waterboarded, CIA operatives who spoke to ABC News in November 2005 said that 12 “high-value” detainees in total were subjected to an array of “enhanced interrogation techniques.” These included not only waterboarding, but also “Long Time Standing,” in which prisoners “are forced to stand, handcuffed and with their feet shackled to an eye bolt in the floor for more than 40 hours,” and “The Cold Cell,” in which the prisoner “is left to stand naked in a cell kept near 50 degrees,” and is “doused with cold water” throughout the whole period.

These statements make it clear that torture — which, in case we forget, is condemned not just because it is morally repugnant, but also because the confessions it produces are unreliable — contaminates almost the whole basis of yesterday’s charges, and casts doubt on at least some of the government’s assertions. In his tribunal at Guantánamo, for example, Mustafa al-Hawsawi admitted providing support for jihadists, including transferring money for some of the 9/11 hijackers, but denied that he was a member of al-Qaeda. Ali Abdul Aziz Ali was even more adamant that he had no involvement with terrorism. Although he admitted transferring money on behalf of some of the 9/11 hijackers, he insisted that he had no knowledge of either 9/11 or al-Qaeda, and was a legitimate businessman, who regularly transferred money to Arabs in the United States, without knowing what it would be used for.

Yesterday’s announcement also raises additional questions. Was Michael Hayden’s admission meant to pave the way for the charges just announced, or did it cause such a barrage of outrage — including claims that, now the administration has openly admitted waterboarding, it can itself be charged with war crimes — that the decision to start the prosecution process was rushed through to justify the torture?

Also worth asking is why two of three detainees whom Michael Hayden admitted were waterboarded — Abu Zubaydah and Abdul Rahim al-Nashiri — were not charged. It is surely not a coincidence that, in their tribunals last year, both men denied the allegations against them, and stated that they had only admitted to claims that they were involved with Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda because they were tortured.

For all this, however, it is Mohammed al-Qahtani’s inclusion on the list that remains the least explicable. Reportedly the intended 20th hijacker on 9/11, he appears to this day to be little more than that, a would-be jihadist, recruited to provide the “muscle” to subdue the passengers, who failed in his mission when he was refused entry to the United States in August 2001, having flown to Orlando to meet up with lead hijacker Mohammed Atta. This, of course, is disgusting enough in itself, and deserving of punishment if proved in a court of law, but as he did not actually take part in 9/11, or contribute to it in any meaningful way, it’s odd that he too has been charged, when the evidence of his torture at Guantánamo — rather than in a secret prison run by the CIA — is so readily available and so remorselessly revealing of the excesses of the administration’s torture policy at Guantánamo.

As Time magazine revealed in an interrogation log (PDF) made available in 2005, al-Qahtani was interrogated for 20 hours a day over a 50-day period in late 2002 and early 2003, when he was also subjected to extreme sexual humiliation (including being smeared with fake menstrual blood by a female interrogator), threatened by a dog, strip-searched and made to stand naked, and made to bark like a dog and growl at pictures of terrorists. On one occasion he was subjected to a “fake rendition,” in which he was tranquilized, flown off the island, revived, flown back to Guantánamo, and told that he was in a country that allowed torture.

In addition, as I explain in my book The Guantánamo Files, “The sessions were so intense that the interrogators worried that the cumulative lack of sleep and constant interrogation posed a risk to his health. Medical staff checked his health frequently — sometimes as often as three times a day — and on one occasion, in early December, the punishing routine was suspended for a day when, as a result of refusing to drink, he became seriously dehydrated and his heart rate dropped to 35 beats a minute. While a doctor came to see him in the booth, however, loud music was played to prevent him from sleeping.”

Even more significant, perhaps, is what al-Qahtani’s torture reveals about how the whole process that led to these proposed trials could have, and should have been different. It was the interrogation of al-Qahtani that finally prompted the FBI — which was already alarmed at the random, self-defeating violence at Guantánamo perpetrated by other agencies — to make an official complaint to the Pentagon in June 2004, highlighting abuses witnessed by its agents and singling out al-Qahtani’s treatment for particular criticism. The letter stated that al-Qahtani was “subjected to intense isolation for over three months” and began “evidencing behavior consistent with extreme psychological trauma (talking to non existent people, reporting hearing voices, crouching in a cell covered with a sheet for hours on end).”

Reports of al-Qahtani’s treatment also provoked a heroic attempt by Alberto J. Mora, the director of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) to persuade the Pentagon to call off the use of “enhanced interrogation.” Mora was ultimately unsuccessful — Donald Rumsfeld temporarily dropped the use of the techniques, but secretly mandated a new panel of pliant experts to reapprove them in an essentially undiluted form — but the complaints of both the FBI and the NCIS indicate how the interrogation process should have proceeded.

In fact, a senior FBI interrogator had worked on al-Qahtani before the CIA took over, who “slowly built a rapport” with him, “approaching him with respect and restraint,” according to officials who spoke to the New York Times. “He prays with them, he has tea with them, and it works,” the officials explained. Opening up to this skilled, and by now resolutely old-fashioned technique, al-Qahtani started to yield information, revealing that he had attended an important al-Qaeda meeting with two of the 9/11 hijackers in Malaysia in 2000, but officials in the Pentagon were frustrated that he failed to reveal anything else about al-Qaeda’s plans.

The truth, perhaps, is that he had no further information to give, and that, after failing to complete his mission, and with no inside knowledge because the “muscle” hijackers were not informed of the plans in detail, he returned to Afghanistan, where, after joining the Taliban in their resistance to the US-led invasion, he was caught crossing the Pakistani border in December 2001.

Dan Coleman, one of these old-school FBI interrogators, who retired from the agency in 2004, knows exactly where the faults lie with the Pentagon-led policy of combating terror with torture. As a top-level interrogator, who interrogated many of the terrorists captured before 9/11 (and convicted in the US courts) without resorting to “enhanced interrogation,” Coleman remains fundamentally opposed to torture, because it is unreliable, and because it corrupts those who undertake it.

In 2006, he told Jane Mayer of the New Yorker that “people don’t do anything unless they’re rewarded.” He explained that if the FBI had beaten confessions out of suspects with what he called “all that alpha-male shit,” it would have been self-defeating. “Brutality may yield a timely scrap of information,” he conceded. “But in the longer fight against terrorism,” as Mayer described it, “such an approach is ‘completely insufficient.’” Coleman added, “You need to talk to people for weeks. Years.” In 2005, he delivered an even more devastating verdict, which explains, succinctly, why the administration now faces such an uphill struggle to regain the moral high ground. “Brutalization doesn’t work,” he said. “We know that. Besides, you lose your soul.”

Click here for access to the tribunal transcripts of the “high-value” detainees.

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) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed (and I can also be found on Facebook and Twitter). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in July 2010, details about the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, on tour in the UK throughout 2011, and available on DVD here), my definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all my articles, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

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

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), Guantánamo’s shambolic trials (ex-prosecutor turns, 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).

In addition, 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).

Guantánamo Trials: Where Are The Terrorists?

As pre-trial hearings take place in the US prison complex at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, Andy Worthington, author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison, looks at the stories of the three defendants whose cases are being heard this week and next –- two alleged “child soldiers,” and a driver for Osama bin Laden –- and wonders what happened to the real terrorists.

According to a report by Jane Sutton of Reuters, the US military has spent $12 million on a mobile court complex –- including prefabricated holding cells shipped to the prison by barge and cargo plane –- which is intended to be used for the trial by Military Commission of up to 80 detainees, beginning in May. As Sutton describes it, the new court building, which “looks like a khaki-colored metal warehouse on the outside and a traditional courtroom inside,” has “enough room to simultaneously try up to six prisoners, lined up on faux-leather chairs at cherry-veneer tables.”

Known as Camp Justice –- a name that will, no doubt, be pilloried by the many critics of the Commissions, who claim that justice is the last thing that the trials will provide –- Canada.com reports that the complex was built by the Indiana National Guard, who “marked the entrance sign with the date September 11, 2007.” In what is described as “an obvious 9/11 reference,” Colonel Wendy Kelly, Director of Operations for the Military Commissions, explained, “It’s ironic, but that’s when they started construction.”

What is perhaps more ironic is that, despite the 9/11 references, and the fact that Guantánamo was, from its inception over six years ago, intended to hold and try those responsible for the 9/11 attacks, none of the defendants is accused of direct involvement in the events of that terrible day.

Omar Khadr

Omar KhadrThe first defendant to face pre-trial hearings was Omar Khadr, who is accused of murder in violation of the rules of war, attempted murder in violation of the rules of war, conspiracy, providing material support for terrorism, and spying. Khadr, whose father was an alleged financier for al-Qaeda, is at least tangentially connected to Osama bin Laden and the events of 9/11, having spent some of his childhood in a compound in Afghanistan that his family shared with bin Laden’s family. There, however, the connection ends, as what he is actually charged with centers on his alleged responsibility for the killing of a US soldier during a firefight in Afghanistan in July 2002.

Khadr’s defense team, led by Lt. Cmdr. William Kuebler, have long insisted that, as a “child soldier,” who was just 15 years old at the time of his capture, Khadr should not be subjected to a trial at all. As they stated in a brief submitted to the judge, Col. Peter Brownback, “If jurisdiction is exercised over Mr. Khadr, the military judge will be the first in western history to preside over the trial of alleged war crimes committed by a child. No international criminal tribunal established under the laws of war, from Nuremberg forward, has ever prosecuted former child soldiers as war criminals … A critical component of the response of our nation and the world to the tragedy of the use and abuse of child solders in war by terrorist organizations like al-Qaeda is that post-conflict legal proceedings must pursue the best interest of the victimized child –- with the aim of their rehabilitation and reintegration into society, not their imprisonment or execution.”

This was one of the main points Khadr’s lawyers made during Monday’s hearing, and in this –- along with repeated calls for the Canadian government to act on Khadr’s behalf –- they were backed up by an array of international bodies, including, in the last week alone, Unicef, the French government, and the collective weight of Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, and Human Rights First.

Khadr’s lawyers are also attempting to undermine the basis for subjecting their client to a trial by Military Commission in the first place, as they explained in another submission. Their opposition is based on the fact that, although initially implemented in 2003, the Commissions were struck down by the Supreme Court in June 2006, when the justices declared that they were illegal under US law and the Geneva Conventions, and were only resurrected three months later, in the draconian Military Commissions Act. On this basis, they maintain, the government is attempting to try Khadr retrospectively.

More significantly, Khadr’s lawyers are also challenging the very substance of the war crimes charges against their client, arguing, as civilian lawyer Rebecca Snyder explained on Monday, that Khadr is “not eligible to be tried for murder as a war crime because the alleged offense occurred during a firefight under traditional rules of war.” “Soldiers are nor protected targets,” she told the hearing. “That is part of what war is about, killing soldiers.” The prosecution’s response was to assert that Khadr was eligible for trial because “he conducted surveillance in civilian clothing and lived with women and children” at the compound where the firefight took place. “The accused and the terrorists he was working with did not belong to a legitimate army,” Maj. Jeffrey Groharing stated, adding, “They belonged to al-Qaeda.”

Omar Khadr (left) at his aborted trial in 2007

Omar Khadr (far left) during his aborted Military Commission in June 2007 (©AFP/Getty Images).

The most explosive revelation in the hearing, however, which threatens to derail the entire trial, only surfaced when the authorities mistakenly released a classified document to reporters attending the hearing. At Khadr’s last hearing, in November, the judge, Col. Peter Brownback, prevented the prosecution from showing a video, retrieved from the compound, which purportedly showed Khadr making and planting roadside explosives, for the express purpose of allowing the defense to examine new and “potentially exculpatory” evidence, previously concealed from the defense team.

The evidence, we were told at the time, came from a “US government employee,” who was an eye-witness to the firefight that led to Khadr’s capture. The details were not revealed, but Carol Williams of the Los Angeles Times was emboldened enough to report that the account “contradicts the government version of events and could exonerate Khadr of the war crimes with which he is charged.”

On Monday, the truth about this “potentially exculpatory” evidence, revealed in an error that is typical of the farcical episodes that regularly threaten to undermine the Commissions’ credibility, more than backed up Carol Williams’ claims.

According to Michelle Shephard of the Toronto Star, who got the story out first, Khadr was not the only person left alive when the grenade was thrown that killed Sgt. Christopher Speer. In an interview, a soldier who shot Khadr twice in the back explained that he “heard moaning coming from the back of the compound. The dust rose up from the ground and began to clear. He then saw a man facing him lying on his right side. The man had an AK-47 on the ground beside him and the man was moving. OC-1 [the soldier] fired one round striking the man in the head and the movement ceased. Dust was again stirred by this rifle shot. When the dust rose, he saw a second man sitting up facing away from him leaning against the brush. This man, later identified as Khadr, was moving … OC-1 fired two rounds, both of which struck Khadr in the back.”

The report continued by stating that OC-1 “felt” that it was Khadr who threw the grenade: “Based on his extensive combat experience, OC-1 believed Khadr and the man at the back of the alley with the AK rifle were the only two alive at the time of the assault. He felt … the grenade was thrown by someone other than the man who was firing the rifle.”

Shephard reported that “controversy erupted” following the accidental release of the document, and that, for an hour and a half, there was a stand-off between the authorities, who wanted the document returned, and the journalists, who refused. While this was obviously damaging enough from the point of view of publicity, she also made the more significant observation that, “If the document had not been released by mistake it would not have been made public, leaving some to question the Pentagon’s assertion that the Guantánamo trials will be transparent.”

“There’s no openness about this process,” Lt. Cmdr. Kuebler explained. “It’s not that the government shouldn’t be able to protect information when there is a legitimate need to protect it. It’s the government’s overuse of classification … that basically keeps 100 per cent of the evidence in the case outside of the public’s view except if the government decides to sort of dribble it out to you.”

Col. Brownback has not yet delivered his verdict on this latest revelation, but the Toronto Star made its position clear on Tuesday morning in an editorial. “Khadr is a poor poster boy for human rights,” the editors stated. “But he is a Canadian citizen who faces a military tribunal that does not meet American or Canadian standards of criminal justice. If convicted in Canada even of planned, deliberate murder, under the Youth Criminal Justice Act Khadr would have faced no more than six years in custody. By July 27, he will have spent six years in the Guantánamo brig. In Canadian terms, he will have served a full sentence for a crime for which he has not yet been tried, much less convicted. This is indecent. Few Canadians have sympathy for Khadr and his family. But what is happening in Guantánamo is not justice. It is vindictiveness. And the Harper government’s acquiescence is profoundly disturbing. Before Canada suffers yet more embarrassment, Khadr should be shipped back home, under a bond to keep the peace.”

Mohammed Jawad

If the thin case against Omar Khadr has only grown thinner after Monday’s revelation, the case against the second alleged “child soldier,” Mohamed Jawad, is thinner still. Jawad, whose pre-trial hearing is scheduled to begin next week, is less well-known than Khadr, although I wrote a detailed article about him when the charges against him were first announced in October.

Just 17 years old at the time of his capture, Jawad, who was born to Afghan refugees in Pakistan, is not even accused of killing anyone, and is, instead, accused of attempted murder in violation of the law of war, and intentionally causing serious bodily injury, for his alleged role in a grenade attack on a vehicle carrying two US soldiers and an Afghan translator in December 2002.

Throughout his detention, Jawad has denied the allegations. In his Administrative Review Board in 2005, he insisted that he had been brought to Afghanistan from Pakistan to clear mines, and gave a long story about how he had ended up at the site of the attack with another man, who had actually thrown the grenade, whereas he had been given another grenade, but had been left unattended in the market. As I explained in my previous article, Jawad “said that, while shopping for raisins, he took the grenade out of his pocket and put it on the sack of raisins, but that when the shopkeeper saw it he ‘told me it was a bomb and that I should go and throw it in the river. I put the thing back in my pocket and I was running and shouting to stay away, it’s a bomb! When I got close to the river, people [the police] caught me.’”

As I also explained in October, whether Jawad was directly involved in the attack or not, “the decision to prosecute a teenager, who had no connection whatsoever with al-Qaeda, and who, at best, was a minor Afghan insurgent,” appeared, after nearly six years of chest-thumping claims that Guantánamo houses “the worst of the worst,” to be “both desperate and risible.”

Salim Hamdan

Salim HamdanThe third defendant, whose case resumed on Thursday, is Salim Hamdan, a Yemeni who was one of Osama bin Laden’s drivers. While this too connects him to al-Qaeda, there are doubts as to whether, as the prosecution claims, he was involved in any of al-Qaeda’s plans. Lt. Cmdr. Charles Swift, Hamdan’s first military lawyer, who was passed over for promotion and essentially lost his job as a result of his vigorous defense of Hamdan (which led to the Supreme Court’s ruling against the Commissions in June 2006), certainly thought that there was little evidence against him when he first took up his case in 2003.

Last March, he told Marie Brenner of Vanity Fair, “He had never been involved in any shootings or real violence. OK, so he was a driver for one of the worst men on earth. All that really links him is that he worked for a motor pool … I thought, I can work with this.” Extrapolating a little from Swift’s argument, it is, I think, perfectly valid to regard the focus on Hamdan in the Commissions as equivalent to hauling up Hitler’s driver alongside Hermann Goering and Rudolf Hess at the Nuremberg Trials.

While Hamdan’s case, like that of Omar Khadr, has attracted significant media attention over the years, his mental state has generally been overlooked, although this omission has now been corrected in the brief filed by Swift’s replacement, Major Thomas Roughneen and his team. As well as refuting allegations that he was anything more than a hired driver, who, as Carol Rosenberg described it in the Miami Herald, was working “for an income, not ideology,” his lawyers are arguing that the father of four, who has never seen his youngest daughter –- and has been prevented from seeing DVDs of her, which were made by his family –- is unfit to stand trial, because of the deterioration in his mental health.

In pursuit of this claim, they secured the services of Emily Keram, a clinical and forensic psychiatrist, who spent 70 hours with Hamdan in Guantánamo. Dr. Keram concluded that after each meeting he “met diagnostic criteria for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Major Depression,” including “nightmares, intrusive thoughts, memories and images, amnesia for details of traumatic events, lack of future orientation, anxiety, irritability, insomnia, poor concentration and memory, exaggerated startle responses, and hypervigilance.”

“At times,” she added, “his symptoms impaired his ability to participate in the evaluation,” and she also noted that his symptoms “were severely exacerbated by his incarceration in solitary confinement.” Dr. Keram’s conclusion was that “Mr. Hamdan is unable to materially assist in his own defense,” and she warned that, if he remains in solitary confinement, “his condition will deteriorate and he will be at risk of developing more serious psychological symptoms.”

It is, however, a note by Andrea Prasow, one of Hamdan’s defense lawyers, that raises more fundamental questions about the Military Commissions, which are not generally being asked, even though the tawdry spectacle of the combined weight of the US military being focused on two children and one of bin Laden’s drivers should make this oversight abundantly clear: where, in this whole surreal farce, are the real terrorists?

In a submission arguing that Hamdan’s detention in Camp VI –- the most recent camp for Guantánamo’s general population, in which the detainees are held in almost total isolation –- is causing him to become so “emotionally distraught and withdrawn” that it is “materially interfering with our ability to prepare [his] defense,” Prasow notes, “Mr. Hamdan is aware that Omar Khadr … and Ibrahim al-Qosi, who was charged under the previous commission system, are held in Camp IV.” One of the older camps, Camp IV is the least brutal of Guantánamo’s cell blocks, where the relatively small number of detainees share communal dorms, and are allowed to take part in sports, but it is Hamdan’s reference to Ibrahim al-Qosi that is particularly significant.

The real terrorists?

Al-Qosi, a Sudanese detainee, is one of seven other alleged al-Qaeda operatives charged in the first round of Military Commissions (between 2003 and 2005, before they were derailed by the Supreme Court), when, it was claimed, he had worked as the deputy for al-Qaeda’s financial chief, Sheikh Sayyid al-Masri, had been financed by Osama bin Laden to fight in Chechnya in 1995, and had worked as a bodyguard, driver, supplies manager and cook for bin Laden from 1996 until his capture in December 2001, as he attempted to cross the border from Afghanistan to Pakistan.

In spite of this array of charges, however, neither he nor the other six supposedly significant al-Qaeda members –- who include at least two who have proclaimed their membership of al-Qaeda –- have yet been charged under the new system, even though, as Hamdan clearly feels, and observers might also conclude, there is possibly more of a case to be made against at least some of these men.

Even more obvious cases for prosecution, of course, are some, or all of the 14 “high-value” detainees who were transferred to Guantánamo from secret CIA prisons in September 2006. They include Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the self-confessed architect of 9/11, alleged senior al-Qaeda operative Abu Zubaydah, and Abdul Rahim al-Nashiri, who is accused of being the mastermind behind the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000. All three are currently back in the public eye, following an admission by CIA director Michael Hayden that they were waterboarded by the CIA. The others include 9/11 associate Ramzi bin al-Shibh, and others allegedly connected with 9/11, the 1998 African embassy bombings, the USS Cole operation, and the Bali nightclub bombing in 2002.

Reading between the lines in search of an explanation, it’s worth focusing on the infighting between the various officials involved in the Commission process, which acrimoniously spilled over into the public arena last fall, when Col. Morris Davis, the Commissions’ chief prosecutor, noisily resigned, blaming political interference from his superior officers, in a chain that led upwards from Brig. Gen. Thomas Hartmann, the Commissions’ legal advisor, and Susan Crawford, the Commission’s convening authority, to Defense Department General Counsel William J. Haynes II and Vice President Dick Cheney.

Abu Zubaydah, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed & Abdul Rahim al-Nashiri

The three “high-value” detainees whom Michael Hayden admitted were waterboarded by the CIA. From L to R: Abu Zubaydah, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Abdul Rahim al-Nashiri.

Col. Davis was upset that he was required to obey Haynes, with whom he disagreed profoundly over the latter’s desire to use evidence obtained through torture. The politicization of the process became apparent when it was revealed that the only person convicted in a Commission to date, the Australian David Hicks, had been offered a plea bargain –- in exchange for his silence regarding his well-documented claims of torture and abuse at the hands of the US military –- by Dick Cheney, and that Brig. Gen. Hartmann also wanted to offer a plea bargain to Hamdan, in spite of Davis’ own opposition.

One reason for wanting plea bargains is that, as with Hicks, they remove the thorny problem of how to deal with claims by detainees that they have been subjected to torture, which, rather inconveniently for the administration, remains illegal under domestic and international law. If Hamdan can also be persuaded to accept a plea bargain, the administration can at least trumpet another “success,” and can possibly roll out a few more examples of low-level players to make it appear that the system is working.

Omar Khadr’s case is more complicated, but the inclusion of Mohamed Jawad may be because the military and the administration hope that they can actually produce a successful prosecution without having to resort to a plea bargain. Significantly, Jawad has never claimed that he was tortured by US forces. In his tribunal, he claimed that a false confession was tortured out of him by Afghan soldiers, but, with no evidence of mistreatment by the US military, the authorities may well be hoping that they can brush that inconvenient allegation aside. Certainly, it’s inconceivable that attempts would realistically be made to locate the Afghan soldiers who first seized Jawad in Afghanistan, and to bring them to Guantánamo to give evidence.

None of this explains what will eventually happen to the “high-value” detainees, for whom plea bargains are out of the question, but whose conviction, in a court shorn of all mention of torture, is obviously desired. But it may explain why a selection of small fish are still being used to test the waters, while the real monsters are kept out of sight and, it is hoped, out of mind.

I wonder how long they can keep it up. Until the next administration takes over? Or the one after that? Or forever? Noticeably, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Abu Zubaydah and Abdul Rahim al-Nashiri all mentioned, in their tribunals at Guantánamo in spring 2007, that they had been tortured during their long years in secret CIA prisons, and I’m reminded of comments made by Michael Scheuer, the former director of the CIA’s bin Laden unit, who was heavily involved in the small number of relatively controlled “extraordinary renditions” that took place before 9/11. Gazing in shock at the frenzied expansion of the program after 9/11, Scheuer told Jane Mayer, “The policymakers hadn’t thought what to do with them,” adding that once a prisoner’s rights were violated there was no way of reintegrating them into the court system. “All we’ve done is create a nightmare,” he added. “Are we going to hold these people forever?”

Physically, we now know where these men are –- in Camp VII, a secluded addition to the prison complex whose existence remained a closely guarded secret until this week –- but legally they might as well be on the moon.

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, Antiwar.com, CounterPunch and AlterNet.

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), Six in Guantánamo charged with 9/11 attacks: why now, and what about the torture? (February 2008), Guantánamo’s shambolic trials (ex-prosecutor turns, 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).

Scott Horton on Guantánamo and the New York Times’ Editor’s Note

In an article entitled “Objectivity” or Spinelessness? for his “No Comment” column for Harper’s, Scott Horton responds to yesterday’s New York Times’ Editor’s Note, in which the Times’ editorial board distanced itself from my descriptions of Guantánamo as “a cruel and misguided response by the Bush Administration to the Sept. 11 attacks,” and my “outspoken position on Guantánamo.” The Editor’s Note followed the publication of Time Runs Out for an Afghan Held by the U.S., a front-page article about Abdul Razzaq Hekmati, the Afghan detainee who died in Guantánamo on December 30, which was co-authored by Carlotta Gall and myself.

I shall only reproduce one paragraph of the article here, which I believe defends my right to adopt an “outspoken position on Guantánamo.” Scott describes as “preposterous … the suggestion that there is something ‘outspoken’ in calling to close Guantánamo and labeling the facility what it is. The posture adopted in Worthington’s book is indeed very radical. Among the radicals who have embraced it are the American Bar Association, Pope Benedict XVI, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Dalai Lama, Chancellor Angela Merkel, the English Lord Chancellor, Lord Falconer, and hundreds of other political and spiritual leaders around the world.”

You’ll have to visit Harper’s to discover the rest.

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.

New York Times: Editor’s Note on Guantánamo article on Tuesday’s front page

Today’s New York Times runs the following Editor’s Note, as a response to the front-page article, Time Runs Out for an Afghan Held by the U.S., which ran on Tuesday.

“A front-page article on Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2008 described the problems of the tribunals at the American military base in Guantánamo, as seen through the failure to resolve the case of Abdul Razzaq Hekmati, an Afghan war hero who died there Dec. 30 after a five-year-long detention. The article quoted several Afghan officials who said they were prepared to offer evidence that he was falsely accused, but were never given a chance to do so.

”Andy Worthington, a freelance journalist who worked on the article under contract with The New York Times and was listed as its co-author, did some of the initial reporting but was not involved in all of it, and The Times verified the information he provided. That included the fact of Mr. Hekmati’s death, and the content of transcripts released by the Pentagon showing that the accusations against Mr. Hekmati had been made by unidentified sources and that the tribunal at Guantánamo had never called outside witnesses requested by detainees.

”Mr. Worthington has written a book, “The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison,” in which he takes the position that Guantánamo is part of what he describes as a cruel and misguided response by the Bush administration to the Sept. 11 attacks. He has also expressed strong criticism of Guantánamo in articles published elsewhere.

”The editors were not aware of Mr. Worthington’s outspoken position on Guantánamo. They should have described his contribution to the reporting instead of listing him as co-author, and noted that he had a point of view.”

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.

Iraq’s refugees in Syria: Mike Otterman reports

I don’t normally post other people’s articles on my site, but I thought this article by Mike Otterman, author of American Torture: From the Cold War to Abu Ghraib and Beyond, was worth reproducing in full. Mike, a fellow Pluto Press author, who blogs at American Torture (named after the book), and who was also kind enough to allow me to start cross-posting on his site last year, is currently touring the countries bordering Iraq, talking to some of the millions of Iraqi refugees whose stories will be featured in a forthcoming book. The article, focusing on the story of Aisha, a refugee from Baghdad, who is struggling to survive in Damascus, was published on the Australian website NewMatilda.com.

Between Iraq and a Hard Place

In Syria, Iraqi refugees are preparing to return to the warzone they once called home. “We’d rather die in Iraq than starve as foreigners,” they tell Mike Otterman.

Aisha approached our crowded table, navigating around the sheesha pipes scattered across the smoky Damascus cafe. Her eyes barely lifted from the grimy tiled floor when she began murmuring something under her breath. Tamara, my Arabic speaking colleague, translated: “She says her husband wants to kill her. She wants to tell us more.”

An Iraqi boy in Saida Zeinab, Syria

An Iraqi boy in Saida Zeinab. Photo © Tamara Fenjan.

We were in Jeramana –- an Iraqi enclave seven kilometres south east of the gritty Syrian capital –- talking to Iraqis whose lives have been eviscerated in the wake of the US-led invasion.

Aisha’s eyes spoke volumes as she told us her story.

Aisha is 25 years old and was born in Al-Saydiya, a predominantly Sunni area in Baghdad. She divorced her husband five years ago. “He used to beat me so much I had to leave him,” she said haltingly as she pulled at the ends of her hair.

Her ex-husband, Mohammed, now 35, married her under a false name to escape serving in the Iraqi army. They had two daughters, now aged five and seven. As we talked, the eldest dozed off with her head down on the neighboring table, feet dangling off the chair.

Soon after the divorce, Mohammed started threatening her for custody of the children. The harassment took a darker turn in early 2007 when Mohammed “joined al-Qaeda,” said Aisha. That March, Aisha, along with a group of onlookers, stood stunned as they watched her husband kill a local Sunni Sheikh in cold blood. “I saw him shooting the Sheikh as he walked out the mosque,” she said.

The next day he called her parents’ house where Aisha and her daughters lived to deliver an ultimatum. “He gave me three options,” she recalled. “One, you and the girls come back to me and join Al Qaeda. Two, give up the children. Or three, die.”

Aisha was defiant. “I was not going to give up my daughters and join a group of murderers,” she said.

But four months later, on 21 June last year, she received the first of three letters under the door of her home. “Leave the house or we will kill you –- after the third warning you will die.” It was signed, “The Lion Group” –- the name of the local al-Qaeda upstart.

Undaunted, Aisha stayed put. Then, rumors started flying around her neighborhood. “He spread the word that I was with the Americans to turn people against him,” she said. Being labeled an American sympathiser was considered a mark of death.

Another letter followed five days later repeating the same threat. Then, on 1 July, she received her third and final letter. “God willing,” it said, “we will kill you this time.”

Aisha decided it was time to go.

She left with her daughters and mother the same afternoon, while her father stayed in the house. Aisha first stayed with her sister as she prepared for her journey. On 6 July, Aisha and her daughters took the 13-hour bus ride to Damascus and eventually got a job at a cafe. Aisha was now a refugee and had joined an estimated two million other Iraqis in the Syrian Arab Republic.

Syria has been a regional savior to refugees fleeing the carnage in Iraq. While Iraq’s other neighbors have largely shunned escaping refugees, Syria’s Ba’athist government opened its doors to up to 60,000 Iraqis each month from February 2006 to October 2007 –- when entry visa regulations were tightened. Today, about 600 per day still trickle into the country.

Syria’s treatment of Iraqis refugees is mixed. The State allows them to work, but turns a blind eye to Iraqis exploited in the workforce. Miriam, a 26 year old who lives in Jeramana with her brother and elderly parents, works at a leather handbags factory despite a large, badly bandaged gash on her right hand. She works nine hours a day, six days a week, and makes US$120 per month. That equals 51 cents per hour.

Aisha makes US$150 per month at the cafe. Even combined with her savings, she said it is not enough to support herself and two young daughters. Rent alone in Jeramana for a one-bedroom flat is around US$150 per month. Aisha is struggling and she is not alone.

Along “Iraqi Street” in Saida Zeinab –- another Damascus enclave that holds around 500,000 Iraqis –- many children and elderly beg for spare change while grizzled ex-Iraqi Army Generals sit around open fires talking about better times under Saddam. Screaming children, street cats, motorbikes, pushcarts, trucks, buses, and old taxis vie for space on the crowded laneways. Vendors hawk everything from Iraqi flags to cheap American cigarettes, fresh goat cheese, and grilled fish.

In a dusty lot in Saida Zeinab, every morning over a dozen coach buses return Iraqis to the country they once called home. While some Iraqis are lucky enough to find work, the majority live in Syria off savings. When these run dry, many choose to take the perilous journey back home. Buses charge 1,000 Syrian pounds –- about US$10 –- for a one-way ticket to Baghdad.

A bus driver gathers Iraqi passports in preparation for a journey to Baghdad

A bus driver gathers Iraqi passports in preparation for a journey to Baghdad. Photo © Michael Otterman.

Kaezem from Monsour, Baghdad, was waiting to board one of the coaches. “I heard it was safer in Baghdad, but the first reason I leave is that I’m out of money,” he said.

A heavy set man dressed in black and his aunt, an older woman with tired eyes, also said they were out of money. “We can’t work,” said the man, as he sat on a bus ready to depart to Baghdad. “We’ve sold everything,” the aunt added. “The water heater, our furniture, everything. The only thing I have left are these clothes,” she said as she pulled on her sleeve.

“We’d rather die in Iraq than starve as foreigners in Syria,” muttered the man.

Services in Saida Zeinab and Jeramana are provided by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the Syrian Arab Red Cross. At the UN registration centre in Douma –- the world’s largest –- up to 500 Iraqis a day are interviewed and receive official UN refugee status. Once recognised, they are entitled to free medical services, and in some cases food handouts or monthly stipends.

While we met many Iraqis in Saida Zeinab and Jeramana that had chosen to register, the bulk knew little about the UNHCR services. Most complained bitterly that they were simply waiting for resettlement by the UN.

Iraqis deemed facing the gravest threat by UN case officers are referred to other nations for resettlement. UNHCR-Syria has referred 8256 individuals for resettlement abroad. So far, 677 of those have been resettled, mainly in Sweden and the Netherlands.

Aisha hopes for resettlement in the US, Sweden or Australia, but for now she takes one day at a time. Last week she was told by friends that her ex-husband Mohammed is currently in Damascus, roaming the streets to find and kill her.

“Of course I’m afraid, but my life is in God’s hands,” she said as she looked at her sleeping daughter.

“I don’t know if I’ll be alive tomorrow.”

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.

For other articles on Iraq, see: Book Review: Road From Ar Ramadi: The Private Rebellion of Staff Sergeant Camilo Mejía (January 2008), UK government deports 60 Iraqi Kurds; no one notices (March 2008), A History of Music Torture in the “War on Terror” (December 2008), The Ten Lies of Dick Cheney (Part Two) (December 2008), Refuting Cheney’s Lies: The Stories of Six Prisoners Released from Guantánamo (January 2009), Even In Cheney’s Bleak World, The Al-Qaeda-Iraq Torture Story Is A New Low (April 2009), Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi Has Died In A Libyan Prison (May 2009), Dick Cheney And The Death Of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi (May 2009), Lawrence Wilkerson Nails Cheney On Use Of Torture To Invade Iraq (May 2009), Cheney’s Lies Undermined By Iraq Interrogator Matthew Alexander (May 2009).

For articles on Abu Ghraib, see: Remember Abu Ghraib? (a review of Mark Danner’s Torture and Truth), Former US interrogator Damien Corsetti recalls the torture of prisoners in Bagram and Abu Ghraib (December 2007), Film Review: Standard Operating Procedure (a review of Errol Morris’ challenging documentary about the scandal) (July 2008), In the Guardian: The 5th anniversary of the Abu Ghraib scandal (April 2009), The Torture Photos We’re Not Supposed To See (May 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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