The Guantánamo Files: Andy Worthington’s US tour report

27.3.08

The Guantanamo FilesNormal service on my blog was lost for a week from March 9 as I made my first ever trip to the United States to promote my book The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison, armed only with a mobile phone, and with sporadic access to the internet.

How it is that I managed to make it so far in my life without visiting America is beyond me. New York was astonishingly familiar, not just because it has been a cultural reference point since my youth, but because all the supposed distinctions between the US and the UK turned out to be effectively non-existent. The “special relationship” at a governmental level may be largely reliant upon certain shared imperial ambitions, but on the ground, though clearly dependent upon shared language, it was apparent that, for several decades now, we have both been dipping into a cross-pollinated pool of common experience.

Introducing me effortlessly into US society, my old blogging chum The Talking Dog first extended the hand of American generosity, meeting me at the airport — after waiting for hours as my flight was delayed and I slowly cleared immigration — and driving me, to the accompaniment of his laconic but piercing insights into US politics, back to Brooklyn, where the TD family completed my welcome with warmth and enthusiasm — and a much-appreciated chicken dinner.

The media circus began on the Monday morning (March 10), when veteran activist Mort Mecklosky interviewed me by phone for an hour on WUSB 90.1 FM in Long Island. TD then escorted me to the offices of the Center for Constitutional Rights on Broadway, where I finally met some of the lawyers with whom I had been in contact by phone and email for many months, including Wells Dixon, Shayana Kadidal, Emi MacLean, Susan Hu and Jen Nessel. After a discussion about some of the most pressing issues relating to Guantanamo — the problems with repatriating cleared prisoners to countries where they face the risk of torture, and legal representation for the 14 “high-value” prisoners transferred to Guantánamo in September 2006, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four of the five others recently charged in connection with the 9/11 attacks — we adjourned to a lively corner café, where I enjoyed my first genuine US burger and fries and soaked up the buzzy ambience.

We then negotiated a chronically packed subway to Columbia University School of Law for a well-attended event, “The Future of Guantánamo,” which was organized by the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, with support from the American Constitution Society, CCR and Human Rights Watch. The event arose after I had hooked up with Brennan Center attorney Jonathan Hafetz last fall, as the story of Ali al-Marri, a US resident imprisoned without charge or trial as an “enemy combatant” on the US mainland, briefly hit the news. To my great delight, Wells Dixon, attorney for the Guantánamo Global Justice Initiative at CCR and Joanne Mariner, Terrorism and Counterterrorism Program Director at Human Rights Watch, were also enthusiastic to speak, and to endorse the event.

From L to R: Andy Worthington, Jonathan Hafetz, Joanne Mariner and Wells Dixon, March 10, 2008.

In what I hope might be a model for Guantánamo-related events to come, we each took a theme relating to the problems involved in closing Guantánamo. I began by outlining the research I had undertaken for The Guantánamo Files, and a broad sweep of my findings, and then spoke about the problems of Guantanamo’s cleared prisoners who cannot be repatriated — and what role Europe might have to play in solving what appears to be a horrendously intractable problem. Jonathan then took over, talking about the prisons beyond Guantánamo — those at Bagram in Afghanistan, in Iraq, and in various other places, as part of the CIA’s “extraordinary rendition” program, which we still know very little about — and the US “enemy combatants” Jose Padilla and Ali al-Marri (all crucial issues that need to be confronted whatever happens at Guantánamo). Joanne followed, speaking about perturbing proposals by the administration to overwrite all the unprecedented extra-legal innovations of the last six and a half years by introducing legislation authorizing “preventive detention” (in other words, attempting, retrospectively, to legitimize indefinite detention without trial), and Wells concluded by discussing the many disturbing facets of the process of Military Commissions dreamt up to try the Guantánamo prisoners. I have covered the Commissions at length here, but they remain of enormous importance, as their ultimate failure may be what is required to push the trials of those considered truly dangerous to the US mainland, and the US court system, which is where they should have been pursued in the first place.

A recording of the event is available here, and additional photos are available here. I’d like to thank not only the speakers, and Columbia Law School, but also Ellen Fisher of the Brennan Center, who did such a great job of organizing the event.

After a brief visit to a bar with my fellow speakers — another first for the visitor! — and an interview with Jeff Farias of Air America radio, TD escorted me back to Brooklyn for another civilized night of good food and wine, punctuated only by shock at the day’s seismic news: the scandal, involving a prostitution ring, that was in the process of toppling New York governor Eliot Spitzer (henceforth to be known only as “Client No. 9”), who had set himself up for a spectacular fall by (a) antagonizing Wall Street and (b) being such a moralistic prig in his role as governor. The jury’s out as to which transgression was the more significant.

Eliot Spitzer

Eliot Spitzer: the resignation photo.

Tuesday dawned bright and early. Extending a by-now familiar hospitality, Mrs. TD took me on a walking tour through the streets of Brooklyn, arriving in Manhattan via the extraordinary view from Brooklyn Heights and the charms of the Brooklyn Bridge.

Manhattan from Brooklyn

Manhattan viewed from Brooklyn, March 11, 2008.

We parted downtown, and I then made my way, via Chinatown and Little Italy, to Tribeca, for an interview with Lenny Charles of the International News Network (INN), which aired later that day. The interview, in which we discussed in depth my New York Times front-page story with Carlotta Gall, Time Runs Out for an Afghan Held by the U.S., and the ramifications of the Times’ subsequent Editor’s Note apologizing for giving me a byline, is available here and here (on YouTube), although I apologize in advance for the rather poor quality.

Following my interview with Lenny, I took a cab to Penn Station, to catch one of the many cut-price coaches to Washington D.C. After passing through the Lincoln Tunnel, we traveled through the largely loveless industrial landscape of New Jersey, and proceeded through several hundred miles of mostly featureless flat lands, punctuated only by the mighty Susquehanna River and the sudden intrusions of deluxe, bespoke housing developments shrouded by trees. Mid-evening we rolled up in Bethesda, MD., where some old friends from my pre-Guantánamo days (we met at a wonderful Neolithic Temples Conference in Malta in 2003) welcomed me with a familiarity to which I had rapidly become accustomed.

This was clearly too short a visit, as we barely had time to eat, drink and recap on the events of the last year and a half (since we last saw each other in London), before I was deposited in the heart of activist D.C., around Dupont Circle, for my next public appointment at the New America Foundation on Connecticut Avenue. On arrival, I secured a quiet room for a telephone interview with Mary-Charlotte Domandi on the Santa Fe Radio Café. The interview is available here — it’s only the last ten minutes or so, as I was lost in transit when I was supposed to be on the end of a phone, although I hope to do a more extensive interview at some point in the future.

Mother Jones anti-torture issueAfter the interview, I had a brief opportunity to catch up with my old college friend Peter Bergen, who organized the event. The author of Holy War, Inc. and The Osama bin Laden I Know, Peter is also a respected journalist, a fellow at the New America Foundation, and the terrorism analyst for CNN. He recently wrote an article about “extraordinary rendition” (and co-wrote some important notes about those involved in the process, which drew partly on my research for The Guantánamo Files), for an issue of Mother Jones that was devoted to the elimination of the use of torture by US forces, and he reinforced my realization that America’s shameful use of torture has become an increasingly key issue, not only in progressive circles, but also in parts of the Republican party, by presenting me with a copy of the latest issue of Washington Monthly, in which a roll-call of varied contributors voiced their opposition to the use of torture, with many of them also highlighting the importance of the Geneva Conventions, and of not imprisoning people without charge or trial, as part of the conversation.

Washington Monthly anti-torture issueThe contributors include an astonishing array of principled people cut out of the loop by the Bush administration, including former President Jimmy Carter, former congressmen, senior military officials and government officials, FBI senior interrogator Jack Cloonan, several serving Senators, the chair and vice-chair of the 9/11 Commission, plus Carl Ford, the assistant secretary of state for intelligence and research in the Bush administration, William H. Taft IV, who was Colin Powell’s chief legal advisor, and Lawrence B. Wilkerson, who was Powell’s chief of staff.

As the Editors wrote in their introduction to the issue, “In most issues of the Washington Monthly, we favor articles that we hope will launch a debate. In this issue we seek to end one. The unifying message of the articles that follow is, simply, Stop. In the wake of September 11, the United States became a nation that practiced torture. Astonishingly — despite the repudiation of torture by experts and the revelations of Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib — we remain one.”

The realization that four particular policies introduced by the Bush administration — the use of torture, the use of “extraordinary rendition,” imprisonment without charge or trial and the jettisoning of the Geneva Conventions — had crystallized as rallying points for an increasing number of Americans, was one of the main revelations of my visit. It was not that I didn’t know how significant these aberrations were before traveling to the States — and how many people were opposed to them with every fiber of their being — but it was not until I spent time in the US that I realized how fundamentally the administration’s flight from long-established laws is perceived as not only endangering troops abroad and eroding America’s moral standing, but also — and perhaps even primarily — as a fundamental betrayal of America’s core values, and it was genuinely moving to discover that the idealism on which the nation was founded is still considered of paramount importance today.

Andy Worthington at the New America Foundation

At the New America Foundation, March 12, 2008.

For the event at the New America Foundation, “Life at Guantánamo Bay,” which was introduced and moderated by Peter, I ran through the findings of my research into Guantánamo to a packed house of policy makers, academics, activists and others involved in international politics. I’m delighted that Tom Wilner, a partner at Shearman and Sterling, and an indefatigable opponent of the administration’s post-9/11 policies, whom I had the pleasure to meet and interview while he was visiting London last September, took time out of his busy schedule to add his insights into the legal betrayals perpetrated by the administration. I’m just as delighted that, when a Department of Defense official asked us to explain away the administration’s claim that those held at Guantánamo had been trained to resist interrogation, and that therefore any plea of innocence was suspicious, Tom was even more vociferous than me in noting that, although this could conceivably be true, there was also no way of distinguishing between trained al-Qaeda liars and genuinely innocent men, as they were both telling the same story.

A video of the event is available above, on YouTube, and an audio recording is available here. Both, I think, confirm that Tom and I agreed that the closest analogy to the situation in Guantánamo was the witch-hunts of the 17th century, and also confirm that Tom’s mantra — “All we’ve ever been asking for is a fair trial for these men” — remains as potent now as it was when he first began demanding rights for the Guantánamo prisoners in January 2002. I’d like to thank Peter and Elizabeth Wu at the New America Foundation for organizing the event, and Tom for coming along to add his considerable first-hand experience to the fruits of my research.

After the event, I made my way to the BBC World studios, a few blocks away, for an interview with Philippa Thomas that was broadcast on BBC World News. Topically, the interview focused on the claims and counter-claims regarding the mental state of the supposed “high-value” prisoner Abu Zubaydah, and on the hollowness of the administration’s claims that they were treating the Guantánamo prisoners humanely by allowing some of them, after six years of unprecedented isolation, to phone their families for the first time. I then attempted to relax for a few hours at Peter’s house before returning to Dupont Circle for a dinner hosted by Citizens for Global Solutions, a pioneering grass-roots membership organization that campaigns to encourage Americans to engage with the wider world.

This was a fascinating and engaging affair. My hosts Tom Moran, Raj Purohit and Rich Stazinski of Citizens for Global Solutions had invited a small group of other interested parties — including representatives of the Cato Institute and the Center for Victims of Torture, and two friends of mine, Guantánamo lawyer David Remes and Anant Raut, a former Guantánamo lawyer who now works for the House Committee on the Judiciary — to discuss Guantánamo, the wider issues of the “War on Terror” and the administration’s flight from the law, over fine food and wine. It’s an excellent formula, and we all, I think, established contacts that we can build on as we work towards reestablishing America’s moral authority in the years to come — as well as having a rollicking intellectual party.

One particularly interesting campaigning aspect that emerged from this session of epicurean brainstorming, which served only to confirm the mounting revulsion towards the administration’s policies that I mentioned above, was focused on reports from various diners of the growing success of attempts to engage evangelical groups in a reading of the Gospels that reclaims a message of peace from those who have used it only to foment war and destruction.

We were all aware, however, that, although hope is in the air for the first time in eight years, a great deal of work still needs to be done to persuade millions of Americans to care about the torture and illegal imprisonment of foreign “enemy combatants.” Having expressed my incredulity that the case of the American “enemy combatant” Jose Padilla, who was tortured for three and a half years on the US mainland, had not stirred both fear and indignation, I concluded that perhaps the best way forward was to focus on Iraq, which, until the ailing US economy recently reared up as the prime talking point, was the issue capable of arousing the most interest. It remains, I think, the key rallying point, not just because of its money-guzzling futility — and its increasingly harsh toll on those who have signed up to serve their nation — but also because the whole unprincipled policy of torture, imprisonment without charge or trial and the abandonment of the Geneva Conventions is barely concealed behind its bellicose front.

Following a last pint at a nearby bar, and further discussions with Tom and Rich, the working part of my visit was mostly complete. After staying the night at Peter’s, I booked another cut-price coach to New York in the morning, caught a cab to 19th Street NW (gaining my only fleeting glimpse of the White House en route), and returned to New York, where I was largely at liberty to take some time to explore the city’s attractions. My host for my last two nights — a close friend of one of my own close friends, whom I’d met briefly in London last fall — maintained the ludicrously high standards of hospitality that I’d been fortunate enough to experience throughout my visit. After meeting at a group art show in a print studio on West 37th Street, we took a cab back to her wonderful bohemian loft in Tribeca — a true original, not some Yuppie makeover — for a top-notch Chinese takeaway bought by her flatmate, and chit-chat into the wee small hours.

After a slow start on the Friday morning, I took a cab to East 39th Street for an interview with the eloquent and empathic Michael Jones for a forthcoming edition of the radio show Voices of Our World. The show, which provides voices to those marginalized by the inexorable march of insatiable global capital, will air sometime in the first half of April, and I’ll publicize it when it’s available.

I then spent the afternoon pounding the sidewalks, shopping — or attempting to shop — for gifts for my family before meeting up with Joanne Mariner for a drink and a chat in a bar near Gramercy Park, where Joanne sprung one of the week’s surprises on me, which had passed me by while I was removed from my computer: the arrival at Guantánamo –- while most voices from the administration were still suggesting that the prison’s closure was what they had in mind –- of a new and supposedly “high-value” prisoner called Muhammad Rahim. It was, I admit, hard to comprehend, particularly following the largely inexplicable transfer of five prisoners into Guantánamo last year, but it perhaps proves once more that, when it comes to Guantánamo, logic is something that is left outside the gates.

I later learned that another significant story that had passed me by was a momentous decision, in the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, that cleared prisoner Ahmed Belbacha, an Algerian national and British resident, who has been spurned by the British government, but is terrified of returning to Algeria, “deserves to have his case returned to a federal judge for review,” as the Associated Press described it. The ruling, which, as the AP added, “mark[ed] the second time in eight months the appeals court has gone against the Bush administration on an important Guantánamo Bay issue — a development the government and congressional Republicans had not planned on,” was so significant that David Remes, Belbacha’s lawyer in the States, noted that one of his colleagues had described it as “the single biggest decision for asylum seekers we’ve had in the entire Gitmo litigation.”

The rest of my trip was a rush of culture — privileged entry to the National Arts Club for a concert by BeBop survivor Bob Mover and an accomplished six-piece band, followed by champagne and cookies in the Tiffany-decorated drawing room, a drive back to Tribeca with a bunch of lovely New York artists, writers and actors, and another late night, in which the discussion turned, productively, to the differences between now, when we were discussing the possibilities of America being led by a black man or a woman (or, at worst — and still largely unthought — a maverick Republican resolutely opposed to torture, because he had experienced it himself), and 2004, when artists and activists had dutifully put on events to raise money for John Kerry, with little enthusiasm. Hovering over it all, however, was Barack Obama’s ability to indicate that a genuine seismic change in American society was possible, a situation which, I suggested, was akin to the Tony Blair experience of 1997 in the UK, but hopefully with far more substance and willingness to embrace a new vision.

Greenwich Village

Greenwich Village, March 15, 2008.

And that, essentially, was that. After another late start, my host took me on a tour through SoHo and Greenwich Village, where we picked up the greatest falafels in New York and watched a couple of drunks fighting playfully over outdoor chess tables, and left me — as was appropriate — to leave America alone, making my way to JFK airport and the long, jetlag-inducing journey home. It was raining when I arrived in London, and I was genuinely drained, but it was delightful to be back home with my family, even though a part of me — and there’s no way to write this without it sounding appallingly sentimental — was still on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, discussing, with those most affected by it, the implications of the policies implemented by the most rogue administration in US history.

Note: my thanks to Helen and Will at Pluto Press for funding my visit, and to Mary and Stephanie at the University of Michigan Press for arranging my interviews.

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.

2 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    Before I set off for the States, I received the following message, which I thought I’d share:

    Hello Andy,
    Very much looking forward to your participation in the CCR sponsored panel at Columbia Law School on Monday. I am hoping that someone somehow has already brought my novel to your attention. Called “smart, macabre satire of the War on Terror” by Washington City Paper, it concerns an ordinary NYer who becomes subject to Sec 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act when her library card goes astray. In dread of detention at Guantánamo she practices home waterboarding in her bathtub to increase her odds of survival. Of course, you have not read about my book in the NY Times but perhaps your readers will be interested to learn of it. It is hilariously funny and the sort of humor that Britons will greatly enjoy. Looking forward to shaking your hand and saying hello personally.
    Thank you,
    Frances Madeson
    Author of “Cooperative Village”
    Here’s the link (looks good):
    http://www.amazon.com/Cooperative-Village-Frances-Madeson/dp/0979277205

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Here’s a fascinating article by Raj Purohit of Citizens for Global Solutions, whom I met at the dinner in Washington D.C. mentioned above, which, I’m honoured to discover, was inspired by what we talked about that evening. It’s available at:
    http://blog.psaonline.org/2008/04/23/post-gitmo-hot-potato/

    We hosted a dinner for Andy Worthington, the author of “The Guantánamo Files,” a few weeks ago and something he said struck a chord with everyone in attendance. During a back and forth pertaining to the positive statements made by Senator McCain, Senator Obama and Senator Clinton vis-à-vis Guantánamo – all seem keen to close it – Andy asked us to consider the end game for the U.S. Specifically he asked what would happen to the prisoners.

    Of course the first reaction of most of the individuals in attendance was predictable – these prisoners would be repatriated back to their home countries. However, as Andy prodded us to consider that assumption we all stumbled upon the problem that he was grappling with. It became clear that there would be many countries that would refuse to take back their citizens. After all, the U.S. has been stating since the first prisoner transfer to Guantánamo that it is holding the worst of the worst. With that statement on the record it seems fair to assume that some countries will choose to wash their hands of the matter. Why risk internal strife by bringing back someone who is a radical, has become radicalized or is likely to embarrass his home government by questioning why they did not do more to seek the release of an innocent national? What will the U.S. do if it ends up with a group of prisoners who have nowhere to go and are not deemed to have committed acts that warrant a trial?

    The three candidates for President seem to understand that Guantánamo is a blot on the U.S. image in the world and I am convinced that all of them would like to close it. However, in an incredible irony, it seems possible that the next U.S. President may find that closing Guantánamo proves to be harder than it was for the Bush Administration to open it.

    I am going to start making a few calls on this issue to see what the latest thinking is within Defense department circles and will report back in the days ahead.

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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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