Archive for December, 2008

An interview with Guantánamo whistleblower Stephen Abraham (Part Two)

In the first part of this interview with Lt. Col. Stephen Abraham, Andy Worthington, the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison, examined why the government’s allegations against the prisoners at Guantánamo are unreliable.

A veteran of US Army intelligence, Lt. Col. Abraham worked for OARDEC (the Office for the Administrative Review of the Detention of Enemy Combatants), which was responsible for conducting the Combatant Status Review Tribunals (CSRTs) at Guantánamo, from September 2004 to March 2005. The tribunals, which were tasked with determining whether the prisoners at Guantánamo had been correctly designated as “enemy combatants,” who could be held without charge or trial, have been widely criticized for preventing the prisoners from having legal representation and for relying on secret evidence that was withheld from the prisoners.

However, it was not until last June, when Lt. Col. Abraham filed a statement in connection with one of the Guantánamo cases, that a former insider confirmed that the gathering of materials for use in the tribunals was severely flawed, consisting of intelligence “of a generalized nature — often outdated, often ‘generic,’ rarely specifically relating to the individual subjects of the CSRTs or to the circumstances related to those individuals’ status,” that “what purported to be specific statements of fact lacked even the most fundamental earmarks of objectively credible evidence,” and that the whole system was geared towards rubber-stamping the detainees’ prior designation as “enemy combatants.”

As I mentioned in Part One, Lt. Col. Abraham’s analysis of the failures of the tribunal process has recently assumed renewed significance, as a number of commentators — including reporters at the Weekly Standard, and researchers at the Brookings Institution (PDF) — have made the mistake of taking the government’s allegations at face value, and have stepped forward to warn Barack Obama that his promise to close Guantánamo will be difficult to fulfill, because, according to the government’s allegations against the remaining 252 prisoners, a significant number of them are connected with al-Qaeda, or were otherwise involved in militant activity.

In the second part of the interview, Lt. Col. Abraham continues to demonstrate — on many different levels — why the government’s apologists are misguided.

Andy Worthington: Moving on the judicial decisions in the last six months, I wondered if you could talk a little about the Supreme Court’s ruling, in June, in Boumediene v. Bush, that the prisoners had constitutional habeas corpus rights, and another important ruling in the same month, when, in Parhat v. Gates, an appeals court ruled that the evidence against Huzaifa Parhat, one of 17 Uighurs at Guantánamo (Muslims who had traveled to Afghanistan to escape Chinese oppression in their home province, had been caught up in the chaos of the US-led invasion in October 2001, and had then been sold to US forces) was inadequate, and that the government had failed to establish that he was an “enemy combatant.”

Stephen Abraham: These two decisions represent a remarkable moment in our history, not merely for what they have to say about the rights of a few detainees, but, instead, because of what they say about us, individually and as a nation. In Boumediene, the Supreme Court upheld the habeas rights of the detainees. But what was implied in the opinion is the notion that such a right can be denied no one, if not a detainee. Importantly, from this emerges the principle that certain rights really are inalienable, that they are not created by governments, that they are not indulgences to be dispensed and easily withdrawn, and that they may be abridged only under the most extraordinary circumstances.

Parhat represents, perhaps, an even more extraordinary moment, because of the judges’ comment that the government was not to be taken at its word. That is, just because it was said does not make it so. This statement resonated strongly with me because of the presumptions that overshadowed everything done at OARDEC. The tribunals were conducted in the shadow of irrebuttable presumptions, rules of play that could not be challenged. We were to presume the information we were given to be complete, accurate, uncontestable, and applicable. With that as the starting ground for the tribunals — or, for that matter, any administrative or judicial hearing — how could you possibly have an outcome other than was dictated by the convening authority, in this case the very government intent on keeping the detainees indefinitely?

If you’re engaging in a criticism of the administration, the CSRTs are such a small thing that they’re barely noticeable, but if you talk about Parhat as the clearest demonstration of hubris, of indifference to the Constitution, of antagonism towards constant principles, it is perhaps, in the eight years of this administration, the best example you will ever find, and probably the best example in the history of our nation.

These two decisions, separately and together, represent an incredible moment in our history, a moment when our government was reminded of the fact that it was and is not an institution above the laws by which we all exist and not an institution beyond the limits that we as citizens granted.

Andy Worthington: As you and I know, Parhat was one of the hollowest stories of the lot, but in general I know that the whole saga of the “classified evidence” is also hollow in so many cases, and that the vast majority of the prisoners were either completely innocent men caught in the wrong place at the wrong time or a bunch of Taliban foot soldiers who knew nothing about al-Qaeda.

Stephen Abraham: OK, but if what you want to do is make the story of Guantánamo about people wrongfully held, then to my mind it is not only ultimately not a compelling story, it’s not a very significant story. By that I mean, this world has seen millions of injustices. Even now, we could limit it to a day and find a million injustices. What is so amazing about this story is that a President, an administration — with the complicity of every citizen — was allowed to absolutely shred the limitations on executive power, and in doing so show a flagrant disregard for fundamental human liberties. Not just rights, but the very essence of what entitles a human being to be respected as such.

Think of Guantánamo as the first experiment in a much larger experiment, in which the ultimate conclusion that the administration hoped to reach was that human beings are little more than vassals, that they exist, they stand on the earth, only as the result of a royal indulgence. I mean, that’s really the issue. And as Parhat demonstrated, the presumptions of the validity of the evidence melted away. Finally, here was a court that got it. Just because the government says it’s so doesn’t make it so.

Andy Worthington: Well, exactly, but also because it took so long to get to point where a court was enabled to review the evidence.

Stephen Abraham: What we ultimately need to get to, where you have an adversarial process, is a declaration by a court that there are, firstly, no irrebuttable presumptions, that irrebuttable presumptions are an anathema in a system that, at its core, relies on, and claims to give regard to due process. You can’t have due process and irrebuttable presumptions, which lead to the certainty of a conviction, or a designation [as an “enemy combatant”]. Secondly, with respect to rebuttable presumptions, there must be certain limitations: they cannot relate to the weight of the evidence, to the quality of the evidence. You can’t say, “I presume this evidence to be valid, I presume the source to be beyond reproach,” because in that regard all you’ve done is give another name to an irrebuttable presumption.

And this is what OARDEC did. You can say anything you want as a detainee, but you may not contradict any of our “facts.” Why participate? That was the truly offensive element of what was going on. It wasn’t that we were told to reach a decision; rather it was that we were told to reach a decision based on a one-sided presentation of evidence that we were not allowed to question. And our tribunal — the tribunal I served on — said no.

Andy Worthington: Could you explain just a little bit about the tribunal that you served on, in which you and your fellow tribunal members decided that the prisoner in question was not an “enemy combatant”? This is another extremely important aspect of the rigged nature of the tribunals, of course, because you were then asked to change your opinion, and when you refused, you were never asked to serve on a tribunal again, and a new tribunal was convened which reversed your decision.

Stephen Abraham: Deciding the fate — what we thought would be deciding the fate of a Libyan of no particular significance [Abdul Hamid al-Ghizzawi, still imprisoned at Guantánamo]. We were given information relating to, or what I presumed would be relating to the individual that was the subject of our tribunal. The information related in very few respects to his pre-detention history. It spoke in very general terms of the organization of which he was said to be a member [the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group]. The information on the organization was extremely generic. It related to an organization that was antithetical to the interests of the standing government of Libya, a rather curious situation, in that I always thought that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. And yet, for whatever reason, it had been listed as an organization associated with terrorist activities. There was absolutely nothing in the information to suggest that he had in any way been closely associated with, or had acted in any way that facilitated or contributed to terrorist activities. Nor was there any information that was linked to him directly, or that linked him to al-Qaeda, to the Taliban, or to anything else.

Andy Worthington: So there was not even any kind of thread drawn to any terrorist organization?

Stephen Abraham: No, it was absurd. Six Degrees of Separation.

Andy Worthington: But with Huzaifa Parhat, for example, the allegation was that the Uighur resistance group (the East Turkistan Independence Movement) was associated with al-Qaeda by two degrees of separation, even though there was no evidence linking Parhat or any of the other Uighurs to the group itself. Was it not the same with the LIFG?

Stephen Abraham: Let me give you an extraordinary connection, the very nature of which I think is irrefutable. I was in Paris in 1975. So was Ayatollah Khomeini. Do I need to go any further?

Andy Worthington: But this is interesting as well, Stephen. Just to digress for a moment, the study of the prisoners that the Seton Hall Law School undertook (PDF) — and I also covered this topic in The Guantánamo Files — established that prisoners were accused of associations with supposed terrorist groups that weren’t on any official terrorist exclusion lists.

Stephen Abraham: OK, but I have to say this: We need to be very careful, because, in having tallied the indicators of criteria that were set forth within the Unclassified Summaries of Evidence that were presumed to form part of the basis for the determination of whether somebody was or was not an “enemy combatant,” what people need to understand is that many of the criteria that were used came from a static checklist. So in terms of a more refined narrative, there in fact might have been no indicators that the criteria used were most appropriate. The problem was that they were the only criteria that were available, so they essentially were checked off. They were close enough.

So we have to be very careful not so much for the individuals for whom there was an absence of the criteria, but those for whom there is alleged to have been a presence of the criteria, because to say that somebody is associated with the Taliban is fine as a checklist response, but the problem is that, unless you know what the evidence is that led to that conclusion you really can’t even decide from the presence of the checkmark in that box that it is a valid assessment. And the problem is that for most of the detainees, even the criteria by which they were ultimately concluded to be “enemy combatants” are, I think, based on incomplete information — on information that doesn’t rise to the level of probative, competent, material evidence — and a lot of false syllogisms.

Andy Worthington: And you know, presumably, about the “low evidentiary hurdle” that was established as part of the tribunals.

Stephen Abraham: The evidence — you know, I wish that we would stop using the word “evidence” because we give to the material that presented the imprimatur of validity. Most of the information, most of the material didn’t rise — in terms of a lawyer’s perspective, a litigator’s perspective — to the level of evidence, either qualitatively or quantitatively.

I think if we want to describe what OARDEC did, first it’s OK to call it a tribunal, but I think there are other words that should not be used. I think “findings” should not be used. For example, you can reach a conclusion on fundamentally or inherently unreliable information, but I wouldn’t call it a finding of fact. I wouldn’t call what was done a legal process. I would avoid using words that really are terms of art within the legal community, because they give a false sense of comfort: “They received evidence, so it must have been OK.” No, they didn’t receive evidence; they received material, the quality of which was never competently vetted. Nobody could speak for any of the necessary elements of information before it would be admitted in any court, and it’s fine to say, “well, this isn’t a court of law,” but at the very least it was a body — presumably of sound reason and of judgment well exercised — and if that was going to be the case you would certainly not have expected that what would be accepted would be the word of anybody who could just walk off the street and say, “That man’s guilty.” What is this, the Queen of Hearts?

Andy Worthington: That’s a very good point. And given that this was not supposed to be a legal process, but was supposed to be an administrative process that would stand up to outside scrutiny and that would justify itself, the important thing that you did, as somebody who had taken part in the process, was to say, “this does not stand up to any outside scrutiny whatsoever, so how could this possibly be any substitute for a valid legal process?”

Stephen Abraham: And really, in your last comment, you make the point. Let’s get rid of the notion of an administrative board, because, you know, it’s terms of art again. It’s a board that’s going to reach a decision based upon the presentation of factual matters. At the end of the day it has to be only one thing: fair. It only has to be fair. The problem was, these hearings were never set up to be fair, and when there is the risk that a hearing will not be fair, it is important that it be transparent, it is important that it be capable of review, it is important that the processes can be evaluated for the degree to which they comport with clearly defined procedures established before the hearings begin. You can’t take a person and say, “I will now give you the kind of proceeding to which you’re entitled based on what I’ve already decided about you.”

Andy Worthington: Moving on, I wanted to ask if you thought that your statement about the tribunals, which was included as a submission to the Supreme Court, made a difference to what the judges decided about the rights of the prisoners in Boumediene.

Stephen Abraham: I don’t know. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court didn’t decide that the tribunal proceedings — which were the subject of its review — were a sham. The judges didn’t argue the quality of the evidence. If they had, I would have said, “My God, I guess my submission made a difference, because I said the stuff was a joke.” All I can say is that the Supreme Court had denied the petition for review, had denied the petition for writ for certoriori, then there was the request to reconsider. Now these are always denied, but in this case it wasn’t.

My declaration was not on the first brief. It was on the last brief. It was after the government had responded. You know, you look to what is unique about this, that in some way affected the minds of two justices — or at least one — and you know the declaration was unique, but it spoke to facts, and I know, as somebody who’s practiced before the Supreme Court, that they rarely listen to the factual pleas. They want to know something broader, they want to know something that relates to legal issues, constitutional issues, and here’s this crazy brief that’s arguing facts. Certainly, it’s different, and I wonder how many petitioners are now going to submit declarations with their petitions for reconsideration, but the fact is that I don’t know if it had any influence. What I do think is that the justices looked at all of the briefs together, with all the materials that were submitted, and they said, “Enough is enough.”

Andy Worthington: Excellent. I really wanted to ask about that, because it was my understanding that you came from a slightly different field from the habeas lawyers, and you were somebody who had been there — inside the tribunal process — who said, “By the way, while you’re thinking about this, you might want to read my dozens of reasons that I’m going to put before you explaining why the whole tribunal process was a sham.”

I think we’re going to have to wind up soon, Stephen, so thank you very much indeed for your time. Before we finish, however, is there anything we haven’t touched upon that you wanted to mention?

Stephen Abraham: I was thinking about habeas corpus, and I was thinking that when we say habeas corpus, we understand it to be inseparable from notions of fundamental human rights, and when the Supreme Court was discussing this, a year ago, six months before they delivered their verdict in Boumediene, I couldn’t understand how they were having a debate for a half-hour about what I think was, by the nature of their discussion, a profound limitation of that right. To ask what the statutory basis is, or what the common law basis is, for the notion that a person is not born free, and does not have an immutable right to dignity and liberty (absent the legitimate exercise of the powers of state) was, I thought, a confession of the absence of the appreciation of that right.

Andy Worthington: Do you not think that Justice Scalia was playing into the hands of Dick Cheney and David Addington, and their desire to institute unfettered executive power? What struck me most about some of the exchanges in the oral hearing last December was that to varying degrees some of the justices were perturbed or outraged about the fact that they understood that that’s what the executive was trying to do, that the executive branch was trying to eliminate their part in the balance of powers in the United States.

Stephen Abraham: And that was really the funniest thing. If you look at what the Supreme Court did, 50 years from now people are going to wonder how this case should be characterized. And it will not be a fundamental liberties case; it will be a separation of powers case. And that’s the problem with it, because what gave rise to Boumediene was an administration that was turning an immutable right into a conferred right. That is the danger of the exercise of power, manifested by Guantánamo. Guantánamo’s merely an example of it, but the fact is that the moment you make liberty a conferred right you can eliminate it, you can suspend it, you can terminate it, but more importantly you can identify the moment of its creation.

That’s the worst part about it, because our government exists not by right but by consent, and it never had the power to create the right of liberty and of due process. Those are constraints on its exercise of power, and what the administration did was it reversed that, it said we have due process because we give it to you, because we created it and we can take it away. You have liberty, not because it is an immutable, fundamental right, but because we created it, and we gave it to you and we can take it away. And I hope that the five justices understood that to be the linchpin, the core, the thrust of the decision, and not a separation of powers issue.

The administration will change. Change is inevitable. But like a stream, the passage of water alone does nothing to change the nature of the water itself. If we make the issues of the last eight years the fault of particular men in a particular time and at a particular location, we will have missed an important lesson of what happened.

The rights of individuals were denied, the essence of those rights disparaged. This happened not because men made it happen, but because we let it happen. It happened not because we surrendered our rights but because we allowed others to redefine them in a way that foreclosed their exercise by others. It happened not because Guantánamo existed but because we allowed such institutions to be created. Closing Guantánamo is a symbolic act that will do nothing to eliminate the ground on which tyranny gains its foothold.

As we are reminded in the words of Martin Niemöller, each of us has the duty to speak for those for whom no one else has spoken. Where silence reigned, injustice found foothold. It is up to each of us to speak. It is up to us to ensure that institutions beyond the reach of laws exist nowhere on this earth. But more importantly than the bricks and mortar by which we build prisons, it is up to us to demand respect of law by all who govern and the dignity of all humans by all who are governed.

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, 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 also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009.

This interview was published exclusively on the website of the Future of Freedom Foundation.

See the following for a sequence of articles dealing with the crucial testimony of Lt. Col. Stephen Abraham and other Guantánamo whistleblowers: Guantánamo whistleblowers: Lt. Col. Stephen Abraham is not the first insider to condemn the kangaroo courts (July 2007), The Guantánamo whistleblower, a Libyan shopkeeper, some Chinese Muslims and a desperate government (July 2007), Guantánamo: more whistleblowers condemn the tribunals (August 2007), A New Guantánamo Whistleblower Steps Forward to Criticize the Tribunal Process (October 2007), Guantánamo whistleblower launches new attack on rigged tribunals (November 2007), Guantánamo and the Supreme Court: the most important habeas corpus case in modern history (December 2007), Guantánamo and the Supreme Court: What Happened? (December 2007), Guantánamo whistleblower Stephen Abraham addresses European Parliament (March 2008), The Supreme Court’s Guantánamo ruling: what does it mean? (June 2008), Guantánamo: Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics (February 2009).

The Ten Lies of Dick Cheney (Part Two)

In Part One of this article, Andy Worthington, author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison, examined Dick Cheney’s recent interview with ABC News, in which the Vice President presented a detailed defense of the administration’s national security policies, throwing down a very public gauntlet to critics of torture, Guantánamo, illegal wiretapping and the invasion of Iraq. Part One focused on Cheney’s lies regarding the use of torture and the implementation of warrantless wiretapping, and this second part examines his lies regarding Guantánamo and the invasion of Iraq.

5. On the prisoners in Guantánamo

When Jonathan Karl mentioned that President Bush had said that he wanted to close Guantánamo two years ago, and asked, “Why has that not happened?” Cheney said, “It’s very hard to do. Guantánamo has been the repository, if you will, of hundreds of terrorists, or suspected terrorists, that we’ve captured since 9/11. They — many of them, hundreds, have been released back to their home countries. What we have left is the hardcore. Their cases are reviewed on an annual basis to see whether or not they’re still a threat, whether or not they’re still intelligence value in terms of continuing to hold them. But — and we’re down now to some 200 being held at Guantánamo — that includes the core group, the really high-value targets like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

THE LIE: Cheney’s description of the remaining prisoners as “the hardcore” is typical, but by no means accurate, as the Vice President has always claimed that those in Guantánamo are “the hardcore” or “the worst of the worst.” Just two weeks after Guantánamo opened, on January 27, 2002, he told Fox News, “These are the worst of a very bad lot. They are very dangerous. They are devoted to killing millions of Americans, innocent Americans, if they can, and they are perfectly prepared to die in the effort.” And last July, on CNN, he said, “I think you need to have someplace to hold those individuals who have been captured during the global war on terror. I’m thinking of people like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed … There are hundreds of people like that, and if you closed Guantánamo, you’d have to find someplace else to put these folks.”

Given that over a hundred prisoners have been released since Cheney made this last pronouncement, it’s clear that his talk of “hardcore” prisoners is a repeated lie, adjusted according to how many prisoners are actually held at Guantánamo.

In addition, Cheney’s unsubstantiated claim about the remaining prisoners ignores the fact that, as I explained at length in The Guantánamo Files, and have repeatedly described in articles (most recently here), the majority of the prisoners at Guantánamo were captured not by US forces, but by their Afghan and Pakistani allies, at a time when the US military was offering substantial bounty payments for “al-Qaeda and Taliban suspects.” Moreover, they have never been screened adequately to determine whether they should have been declared as “enemy combatants” — not on capture (when they should have received Article 5 battlefield tribunals, according to the Geneva Conventions), not in the prisons in Afghanistan that were used to process them for Guantánamo (where the orders were that every Arab was to be sent to Cuba), and not in Guantánamo itself. The tribunals established to review the status of the prisoners in Guantánamo relied almost exclusively on woefully generic information, and on confessions obtained through the torture, coercion or bribery of other prisoners. As former insider Lt. Col. Stephen Abraham has eloquently explained, the entire process was designed not to provide justice, but to defend the administration’s blanket assertions that the prisoners were “enemy combatants.”

6. On the prisoners’ rights

Cheney continued, “Now, the question, if you’re going to close Guantánamo, what are you going to do with those prisoners? One suggestion is, well, we’ll bring them to the United States. Well, I don’t know very many congressmen, for example, who are eager to have 200 al-Qaeda terrorists deposited in their district. It’s a complex and difficult problem. If you bring them onshore into the United States, they automatically acquire certain legal rights and responsibilities that the government would then have, that they don’t as long as they’re at Guantánamo. And that’s an important consideration.

THE LIE: In this statement, Cheney’s lie, which reveals his disdain for the Supreme Court, is his claim that, as long as the prisoners are in Guantánamo, they don’t have “certain legal rights.” As far as the Supreme Court is concerned, the pretence that Guantánamo was beyond the reach of US law, and that the prisoners could be held without rights, was demolished in June 2004, when the highest court in the land ruled in Rasul v. Bush that Guantánamo was “territory over which the United States exercises exclusive jurisdiction and control,” and that, because the prisoners denied that they had “engaged in or plotted acts of aggression against this country,” and had “never been afforded access to any tribunal, much less charged with and convicted of wrongdoing,” they had habeas corpus rights; in other words, the right to challenge the basis of their detention before an impartial judge.

The administration then persuaded Congress to remove these rights in two appalling pieces of legislation — the Detainee Treatment Act of 2005, and the Military Commissions Act of 2006 — but the Supreme Court restored their habeas corpus rights in another landmark case in June 2008, Boumediene v. Bush, and made sure that Cheney could not persuade Congress to remove them again by ruling that this time their rights were constitutional.

The prisoners have therefore had “certain legal rights” since June 2004, although it is clear that Cheney still does not regard Supreme Court rulings as having any impact on the President’s whims as the Commander-in-Chief of a self-declared war without end.

7. On conditions at Guantánamo

Next, Cheney said, “These are not American citizens. They are not subject, nor do they have the same rights that an American citizen does vis-à-vis the government. But they are well treated.”

THE LIE: It is hard to conceive of a manner in which the prisoners at Guantánamo are “well treated.” A dedicated PR machine has attempted to make out that they are all coddled and well-fed, but the truth is that, unlike convicted criminals on the US mainland, who watch TV, have opportunities to socialize, receive family visits and have regular access to reading and writing materials, the prisoners in Guantánamo — who have never been charged with a crime, let alone convicted — are deprived of almost all “comfort items” to relieve the crushing monotony of their daily lives and the desperate uncertainty of their fate. They have, for example, never received a single visit from their loved ones, they are still hurled into isolation cells or beaten by armored response teams for the slightest infraction of the rules, and if they protest their seemingly endless imprisonment without charge or trial by embarking on hunger strikes, they are force-fed in the most brutal manner, even though force-feeding competent prisoners is illegal.

8. On the Military Commissions at Guantánamo

Cheney continued, “They also have the opportunity, and the process has just started now to be heard before a military commission with a judgment, fair and honest judgment made about their guilt or innocence, to be represented by counsel provided through that process.”

THE LIE: I have covered the Military Commissions in depth over the last year and a half, and at no point has it ever been demonstrated that the system dreamt up by Cheney and Addington in November 2001 is “fair and honest.” Every defense attorney appointed by the government has risked his or her career by openly criticizing the system, and several prosecutors have resigned in protest at what they regarded as a rigged system, the most significant being Col. Morris Davis, the former chief prosecutor, who complained of political interference, and Lt. Col. Darrel Vandeveld, who complained that evidence vital to the defense was routinely withheld. Both stories were covered in detail in my article, “The Dark Heart of the Guantánamo Trials.”

Other problems include the fact that two prisoners who were juveniles when seized (Omar Khadr and Mohamed Jawad) have been put forward for trials, despite the fact that no juvenile has been put forward for a war crimes trial since the Second World War, and despite claims that the allegations against them are rigged, and several insignificant Afghan prisoners have also been charged. In addition, those regarded as particularly significant (the alleged 9/11 co-conspirators, for example) have been allowed to make a mockery of the system, and on the eve of the Presidential election, a man named Ali Hamza al-Bahlul was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment for his association with al-Qaeda, even though he refused to mount a defense. In the rest of the world, that would be referred to as a show trial.

9. On the alleged recidivism of released prisoners

Cheney was asked about the danger of closing Guantánamo “too soon,” shortly after the following disturbing exchange took place:

Jonathan Karl: So when do you think we’ll be at a point where Guantánamo could be responsibly shut down?
Dick Cheney: Well, I think that would come with the end of the war on terror.
Jonathan Karl: When’s that going to be?
Dick Cheney: Well, nobody knows. Nobody can specify that.
Jonathan Karl: But basically it sounds like you’re saying Guantánamo Bay will be open indefinitely.

Cheney said, “Well, if you release people that shouldn’t have been released, and that’s happened in some cases already, you end up with them back on the battlefield. We’ve had, as I recall now — and these are rough numbers, I’d want to check it — but, say, approximately 30 of these folks who’ve been held in Guantánamo, been released, and ended up back on the battlefield again, and we’ve encountered them a second time around. They’ve either been killed or captured in further conflicts with our forces.”

THE LIE: The claim that 30 former prisoners “ended up back on the battlefield” is a staple of Pentagon propaganda, even though it has never been backed up with evidence. Instead, as the Seton Hall Law School noted in a report last December (PDF), the Pentagon regarded speaking out about Guantánamo as “returning to the battlefield” (as in the case of three Britons, Ruhal Ahmed, Asif Iqbal and Shafiq Rasul, who were involved in a film about their experiences, The Road to Guantánamo).

The Pentagon has also conveniently ignored the fact that at least six Taliban fighters were released because the US authorities had refused to consult with their Afghan allies. In 2004, officials in Hamid Karzai’s government blamed the US for the return of Taliban commanders to the battlefield, explaining that “neither the American military officials, nor the Kabul police, who briefly process the detainees when they are sent home, consult them about the detainees they free.”

The true number of prisoners who have “returned to the battlefield” is certainly less than the number quoted by the Pentagon — and by Dick Cheney — although it should also be noted that, even if it were correct, a recidivism rate of 6 percent is considerably lower than in any other US prison, and indicates, of course, that a large number of those released were not terrorists or militants in the first place.

10. On the reason for invading Iraq

Turning to Iraq, Jonathan Karl said, “You probably saw — Karl Rove last week said that if the intelligence had been correct, we probably would not have gone to war,” and Cheney responded, “I disagree with that. I think the — as I look at the intelligence with respect to Iraq, what they got wrong was that there weren’t any stockpiles. What we found in the after-action reports after the intelligence report was done and then various special groups went and looked at the intelligence and what its validity was, what they found was that Saddam Hussein still had the capability to produce weapons of mass destruction. He had the technology, he had the people, he had the basic feedstocks. They also found that he had every intention of resuming production once the international sanctions were lifted.”

THE LIE: Brazen to the end, Cheney has clung to the WMD deception as though it had ever been anything other than an excuse for regime change following the illegal invasion of a sovereign country, driven by a deranged desire to gain geopolitical supremacy and establish an ill-defined facsimile of the American political and economic system in the heart of the Middle East.

No one credible agrees with Cheney’s assessment of Saddam Hussein’s weapons capabilities — or his intentions — and in addition, of course, Cheney has a colourful and reprehensible record of bullying the intelligence agencies into finding reasons to invade Iraq, and promoting the fiction that Saddam Hussein was trying to obtain “yellowcake” uranium ore from Niger.

Moreover, two of Cheney’s particular enthusiasms — the torture of prisoners, and the invasion of Iraq — came together when Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, the head of the Khaldan military training camp in Afghanistan (which had little connection with al-Qaeda) was captured and sent to Egypt to be tortured, where he made a false confession that Saddam Hussein had offered to train two al-Qaeda operatives in the use of chemical and biological weapons. Al-Libi later recanted his confession, but not until Secretary of State Colin Powell — to his eternal shame — had used the story in February 2003 in an attempt to persuade the UN to support the invasion of Iraq.

This, of course, is disturbing enough, but as David Rose explained in an article in Vanity Fair that coincided with Cheney’s recent ABC News interview, al-Libi was not the only torture victim spouting nonsense about Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda.

According to two senior intelligence analysts, Abu Zubaydah, the facilitator for the Khaldan camp, who, like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, was subjected to torture — including waterboarding — also made a number of false confessions about connections between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda, beyond one ludicrous claim which was subsequently leaked by the administration: that Osama bin Laden and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi were working with Saddam Hussein to destabilize the autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq. One of the analysts, who worked at the Pentagon, explained, “The intelligence community was lapping this up, and so was the administration, obviously. Abu Zubaydah was saying Iraq and al-Qaeda had an operational relationship. It was everything the administration hoped it would be.”

However, none of the analysts knew that these confessions had been obtained through torture. The Pentagon analyst told David Rose, “As soon as I learned that the reports had come from torture, once my anger had subsided I understood the damage it had done. I was so angry, knowing that the higher-ups in the administration knew he was tortured, and that the information he was giving up was tainted by the torture, and that it became one reason to attack Iraq.” He added, “It seems to me they were using torture to achieve a political objective.”

This is the end, for now, of my tour through the dark, unjust and counter-productive world fashioned by Dick Cheney and his colleagues and close advisers in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, but I hope — as disturbing rumors begin to swirl — that it serves to confirm how a Presidential pardon for the Vice President would, effectively, be an endorsement for some of the cruellest manifestations of unfettered executive power and disdain for the rule of law that the United States has ever experienced.

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, 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 also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009.

As published on the Huffington Post, and as a single article on Antiwar.com; also cross-posted on Common Dreams.

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), Six in Guantánamo Charged with 9/11 Murders: Why Now? And What About the Torture? (February 2008), The Insignificance and Insanity of Abu Zubaydah: Ex-Guantánamo Prisoner Confirms FBI’s Doubts (April 2008), Guantánamo Trials: Another Torture Victim Charged (Abdul Rahim al-Nashiri, July 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) (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). Also see the extensive archive of articles about the Military Commissions.

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), The Trials of Omar Khadr, Guantánamo’s “child soldier” (November 2007), Former US interrogator Damien Corsetti recalls the torture of prisoners in Bagram and Abu Ghraib (December 2007), Guantánamo’s shambolic trials (February 2008), Torture allegations dog Guantánamo trials (March 2008), Sami al-Haj: the banned torture pictures of a journalist in Guantánamo (April 2008), Former Guantánamo Prosecutor Condemns “Chaotic” Trials in Case of Teenage Torture Victim (Lt. Col. Darrel Vandeveld on Mohamed Jawad, January 2009), Judge Orders Release of Guantánamo’s Forgotten Child (Mohammed El-Gharani, January 2009), Bush Era Ends With Guantánamo Trial Chief’s Torture Confession (Susan Crawford on Mohammed al-Qahtani, January 2009), Forgotten in Guantánamo: British Resident Shaker Aamer (March 2009), and the extensive archive of articles about the Military Commissions.

The Ten Lies of Dick Cheney (Part One)

On December 11, the Senate Armed Services Committee (chaired by Senators Carl Levin and John McCain) issued a compelling report into the torture and abuse of prisoners in US custody (PDF), based on a detailed analysis of how Chinese torture techniques, which are used in US military schools to train personnel to resist interrogation if captured, were reverse engineered and applied to prisoners captured in the “War on Terror.”

The techniques, taught as part of the SERE programs (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape) include sleep deprivation, the prolonged use of stress positions, forced nudity, hooding, exposure to extreme temperatures, subjecting prisoners to loud music and flashing lights, “treating them like animals,” and, in some cases, the ancient torture technique known as waterboarding, a form of controlled drowning that the torturers of the Spanish Inquisition called “tortura del agua.”

The report rejected the conclusions of over a dozen investigations, conducted since the Abu Ghraib scandal in 2004, which identified problems concerning the treatment of prisoners in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantánamo, but which were not authorized to gaze up the chain of command to blame senior officials for approving the use of torture by US forces, and for instigating abusive policies.

This enabled the administration to maintain, as it did with Abu Ghraib, that any abuse was the result of the rogue activities of “a few bad apples,” but the Senate Committee report comprehensively demolished this defense. The authors wrote:

The abuse of detainees in US custody cannot simply be attributed to the actions of “a few bad apples” acting on their own. The fact is that senior officials in the United States government solicited information on how to use aggressive techniques, redefined the law to create the appearance of their legality, and authorized their use against detainees. Those efforts damaged our ability to collect accurate intelligence that could save lives, strengthened the hand of our enemies, and compromised our moral authority.

Those singled out for blame include President George W. Bush (for stripping prisoners of the protections of the Geneva Conventions in February 2002, which paved the way for all the abuse that followed), former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Vice President Dick Cheney’s former legal counsel (and now chief of staff) David Addington, former Pentagon general counsel William J. Haynes II, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Richard Myers, former White House general counsel (and later US Attorney General) Alberto Gonzales, former White House deputy counsel Timothy Flanigan, former Assistant Attorney General Jay S. Bybee, former Justice Department legal adviser John Yoo, former Guantánamo commanders Maj. Gen. Michael Dunlavey and Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller, and Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the former commander of coalition forces in Iraq.

The one senior official who was not mentioned — presumably because of the talent for remaining behind the scenes that once earned him the secret service nickname “Backseat” — was Dick Cheney. However, just four days later, as if to make up for his omission from the report, Cheney was interviewed by ABC News, and took the opportunity to present a detailed defense of the administration’s national security policies, throwing down a very public gauntlet to critics of torture, Guantánamo, illegal wiretapping and the invasion of Iraq, and raising fears that he was only doing so because a Presidential pardon is just around the corner.

Cheney’s most significant remark was his first admission in public that he was involved in approving the waterboarding of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the self-confessed mastermind of the 9/11 attacks (who, it should be noted, claimed responsibility for the attacks before he was captured by US forces). However, the entire interview is worth looking at, as Cheney’s version of the truth does not stand up to scrutiny, and features ten lies that should not be allowed to pass without further comment and analysis.

1. On the supposed legality of unauthorized wiretapping

Asked what he thought about suggestions from Barack Obama’s transition team that the Bush administration’s homeland security policy “has basically been torture and illegal wiretapping, and that they want to undo the central tenets of your anti-terrorist policy,” Cheney replied, “They’re wrong. On the question of terrorist surveillance, this was always a policy to intercept communications between terrorists, or known terrorists, or so-called ‘dirty numbers,’ and folks inside the United States, to capture those international communications. It’s worked. It’s been successful. It’s now embodied in the FISA statute that we passed last year, and that Barack Obama voted for, which I think was a good decision on his part. It’s a very, very important capability. It is legal. It was legal from the very beginning. It is constitutional, and to claim that it isn’t I think is just wrong.”

THE LIE: Although the Bush administration secured Congressional approval for the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) in the week after the 9/11 attacks (the founding document of the “War on Terror,” which granted the President seemingly open-ended powers “to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001”), the approval for the warrantless surveillance of communications to and from the United States that followed on September 25 was neither “legal” nor “constitutional.”

In a series on Dick Cheney in the Washington Post last summer, Barton Gellman and Jo Becker explained how, on the day of the 9/11 attacks, Cheney and David Addington swiftly assembled a team that included Timothy Flanigan and John Yoo to begin “contemplating the founding question of the legal revolution to come: What extraordinary powers will the President need for his response?” Gellman and Becker described how Flanigan, with advice from Yoo, drafted the AUMF, and Yoo explained that “they used the broadest possible language because ‘this war was so different, you can’t predict what might come up’.”

In fact, as the authors point out, they “knew very well what would come next: the interception — without a warrant — of communications to and from the United States.” Although warrantless communications intercepts had been forbidden by federal law since 1978, the administration claimed that they were “justified, in secret, as ‘incident to’ the authority Congress had just granted” the President, in a memorandum that Yoo finalized on 25 September. Far from being “legal” and “constitutional,” therefore, the secret memorandum was the first brazen attempt by the key policy-makers (in the Office of the Vice President and the Pentagon) to use the AUMF as cover for an unprecedented expansion of presidential power that was intended to cut Congress, the judiciary, and all other government departments out of the loop.

2. On the definition of torture

Moving on to the allegations of torture, Cheney said, “On the question of so-called ‘torture,’ we don’t do torture, we never have. It’s not something that this administration subscribes to. Again, we proceeded very cautiously; we checked, we had the Justice Department issue the requisite opinions in order to know where the bright lines were that you could not cross. The professionals involved in that program were very, very cautious, very careful, wouldn’t do anything without making certain it was authorized and that it was legal. And any suggestion to the contrary is just wrong.”

THE LIE: The claim, “we don’t do torture,” which President Bush has also peddled on numerous occasions, is an outright lie. The definition of torture, as laid down in the UN Convention Against Torture, to which the US is a signatory, is “any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person.” However, in the summer of 2002 (obviously with Cheney’s knowledge), John Yoo, with input from Addington, Gonzales and Flanigan, drafted another secret memorandum, issued on August 1 (PDF), which has become known as the “Torture Memo.” This extraordinary document — one of the most legally manipulative in the whole of the “War on Terror” — drew creatively on historical rulings about torture in countries including Northern Ireland and Bosnia, and attempted to claim that, for the pain inflicted to count as torture, it “must be equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death.”

Last summer, Yoo confirmed that Addington (left) was responsible for another of the memo’s radical claims — that, as Commander in Chief, the President could authorize torture if he felt that it was necessary — and also confirmed that a second opinion was signed off on August 1, 2002, which, unlike the first (leaked after the Abu Ghraib scandal in 2004) has never been made public. An unnamed source cited by Gellman and Becker explained that this second memo contained a long list of techniques approved for use by the CIA, which included waterboarding, but apparently drew the line at threatening to bury a prisoner alive.

As a result, all Cheney’s talk of “careful” and “cautious” legal advice is nothing more than a failed attempt to justify redefining torture. Outside of the White House and the Pentagon, it has always been abundantly clear that the SERE techniques (let alone the more extreme methods approved for use by the CIA) are torture, pure and simple, and the Senate Committee’s recent report quotes extensively from a number of bodies — the Air Force, the Defense Department’s Criminal Investigative Task Force, the Army’s International and Operational Law Division, the Navy and the Marine Corps — who were opposed to their implementation for this very reason. Others, who took their complaints to the highest levels, were Alberto J. Mora, the head of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, and the FBI.

3. On intelligence obtained through torture

Following his defense of the interrogation techniques authorized by the administration, Cheney continued: “Did it produce the desired results? I think it did. I think, for example, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who was the number three man in al-Qaeda, the man who planned the attacks of 9/11, provided us with a wealth of information. There was a period of time there, three or four years ago, when about half of everything we knew about al-Qaeda came from that one source.”

THE LIE: With exquisite timing, Cheney’s bombastic pronouncements about the torture of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM) and its supposed value coincided with the publication, in Vanity Fair, of an article by David Rose, in which a number of senior officials from both the FBI and the CIA directly refuted Cheney’s claims. The article, which is worth reading in its entirety, focused primarily on the torture of Abu Zubaydah, Binyam Mohamed and Jose Padilla (which I have discussed at length before), but there were also key insights into the torture of KSM. Although President Bush claimed that KSM had provided “many details of other plots to kill innocent Americans,” a former senior CIA official, who read all the interrogation reports from KSM’s torture in secret CIA custody, explained that “90 percent of it was total fucking bullshit,” and a former Pentagon analyst added, “KSM produced no actionable intelligence. He was trying to tell us how stupid we were.”

In addition, Cheney’s claims about KSM were directly contradicted by Jack Cloonan, a senior FBI operative whose torture-free interrogation of al-Qaeda operatives in the years before 9/11 provides an object lesson in how the administration should have operated afterwards. Disputing the unspecified claims that, as Cheney put it, the interrogation of KSM had produced “a wealth of information,” Cloonan said, “The proponents of torture say, ‘Look at the body of information that has been obtained by these methods.’ But if KSM and Abu Zubaydah did give up stuff, we would have heard the details.” Rose added that a former CIA officer asked, “Why can’t they say what the good stuff from Abu Zubaydah or KSM is? It’s not as if this is sensitive material from a secret, vulnerable source. You’re not blowing your source but validating your program. They say they can’t do this, even though five or six years have passed, because it’s a ‘continuing operation.’ But has it really taken so long to check it all out?”

However, what was probably the most damning opinion was offered by FBI director Robert Mueller:

I ask Mueller: So far as he is aware, have any attacks on America been disrupted thanks to intelligence obtained through what the administration still calls “enhanced techniques”?

“I’m really reluctant to answer that,” Mueller says. He pauses, looks at an aide, and then says quietly, declining to elaborate: “I don’t believe that has been the case.”

4. On approval for the use of torture on Khalid Sheikh Mohammed

The key elements of Cheney’s admission that waterboarding was used on Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and that Cheney believed that this was “appropriate,” are as follows:

Jonathan Karl: Did you authorize the tactics that were used against Khalid Sheikh Mohammed?
Dick Cheney: I was aware of the program certainly, and involved in helping get the process cleared, as the agency, in effect, came in and wanted to know what they could and couldn’t do. And they talked to me, as well as others, to explain what they wanted to do, and I supported it.
Jonathan Karl: In hindsight, do you think any of those tactics that were used against Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and others went too far?
Dick Cheney: I don’t.
Jonathan Karl: And on KSM, one of those tactics, of course, widely reported was waterboarding, and that seems to be a tactic we no longer use. Even that you think was appropriate?
Dick Cheney: I do.

THE LIE: Cheney’s explanation of how he came to “support” the CIA program that was responsible for the torture of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (and numerous other “high-value detainees”) suggests that he was little more than an adviser for a preconceived project. Yet again, nothing could be further from the truth.

To understand why, it is necessary to examine how the “Torture Memos” of August 2002 came about, by looking at the events of November 13, 2001, when, under the cover of his regular weekly meeting with the President, Cheney played the leading role in circulating and gaining approval for a presidential order that authorized the President to seize “terror suspects” anywhere in the world and imprison them as “enemy combatants” without charge or trial, (or, if required, to try them in Military Commissions, which were empowered to accept secret evidence and evidence obtained through torture).

Approved within an hour by only two other figures in the White House — associate counsel Bradford Berenson, and deputy staff secretary Stuart Bowen, whose objections that it had to be seen by other presidential advisors were only dropped after “rapid, urgent persuasion” that the President “was standing by to sign and that the order was too sensitive to delay” — the order was the first move in a deliberate ploy to strip prisoners of rights, so that they could be interrogated as the administration saw fit.

This was confirmed the following day, when Cheney told the US Chamber of Commerce that terrorists do not “deserve to be treated as prisoners of war.” It took him another ten weeks to persuade the President to agree with him, but in the meantime the pressure to approve the use of torture increased when, shortly after Guantánamo opened, a CIA delegation came to the White House to explain, as John Yoo described it, that they were “going to have some real difficulties getting actionable intelligence from detainees,” if interrogators were obliged to confine themselves to treatment permitted by the Geneva Conventions.

While this timeline confirms that CIA representatives pressed for removing the protections of the Geneva Conventions in mid-January 2002, it’s also clear that Cheney had a similar plan in mind at least two months earlier. After the CIA visit, Addington wrote another notorious memorandum — to which the rather less articulate Alberto Gonzales put his name — in which the Conventions’ “strict limits on questioning of enemy prisoners” were seen as hindering attempts “to quickly obtain information from captured terrorists.”

This was issued on January 25, and on February 6 Addington provided the President with the words for his next presidential order, which, as Cheney had signaled on November 14, stated that the protections of the Geneva Conventions did not apply to prisoners seized in the “War on Terror.” The final development came after the capture of Abu Zubaydah on March 28, 2002, when, as John Yoo explained, CIA officials returned to the White House to ask “what the legal limits on interrogation are.” As described above, this led to the “Torture Memos” of August 2002, even though the torture of Zubaydah began four months before the memos were issued.

In conclusion, then, although the CIA had some input, the development of the entire program, from November 13, 2001 to August 1, 2002, in which prisoners were defined as “enemy combatants,” stripped of all rights so that they could be interrogated, and then set up for torture, was driven not by the CIA but by Cheney and his close advisers.

In Part Two, Andy examines Cheney’s lies about Guantánamo and the invasion of Iraq.

The Guantanamo FilesAndy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, 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 also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009.

As published on the Huffington Post, and as a single article on Antiwar.com; also cross-posted on Common Dreams.

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), Six in Guantánamo Charged with 9/11 Murders: Why Now? And What About the Torture? (February 2008), The Insignificance and Insanity of Abu Zubaydah: Ex-Guantánamo Prisoner Confirms FBI’s Doubts (April 2008), Guantánamo Trials: Another Torture Victim Charged (Abdul Rahim al-Nashiri, July 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 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). Also see the extensive archive of articles about the Military Commissions.

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), The Trials of Omar Khadr, Guantánamo’s “child soldier” (November 2007), Former US interrogator Damien Corsetti recalls the torture of prisoners in Bagram and Abu Ghraib (December 2007), Guantánamo’s shambolic trials (February 2008), Torture allegations dog Guantánamo trials (March 2008), Sami al-Haj: the banned torture pictures of a journalist in Guantánamo (April 2008), Former Guantánamo Prosecutor Condemns “Chaotic” Trials in Case of Teenage Torture Victim (Lt. Col. Darrel Vandeveld on Mohamed Jawad, January 2009), Judge Orders Release of Guantánamo’s Forgotten Child (Mohammed El-Gharani, January 2009), Bush Era Ends With Guantánamo Trial Chief’s Torture Confession (Susan Crawford on Mohammed al-Qahtani, January 2009), Forgotten in Guantánamo: British Resident Shaker Aamer (March 2009), and the extensive archive of articles about the Military Commissions.

Is Robert Gates Guilty of Perjury in Guantánamo Torture Case?

The announcement on December 1 that President-Elect Barack Obama had retained Robert Gates as defense secretary was intended to demonstrate Obama’s desire for a “big-tent” administration that transcended partisan politics. Gates, who voiced his desire to close the Pentagon’s notorious Guantánamo Bay prison almost as soon as he took over from Donald Rumsfeld in December 2006, had subsequently encountered strong opposition from Vice President Dick Cheney. As a result of this stance, and his subsequent stewardship of the Iraq war, he was regarded as a trustworthy figure who might bridge the Bush and Obama divide.

This role, however, has been called into doubt by a declaration the defense secretary made in a Washington, D.C. District Court filing on December 12 during the habeas review of Guantánamo prisoner Binyam Mohamed. Mohamed’s lawyer, Clive Stafford Smith, says that unless Gates retracts his statement, he could find himself accused of perjury.

Mohamed has said that after being seized in Pakistan in April 2002 and held for three months, he was rendered by the CIA to Morocco, where he was tortured for 18 months.

His claims of torture were upheld by the British High Court in a review this summer, which took place after Mohamed’s lawyers sued the British government for alleged complicity in their client’s rendition and torture. Both the British government and the British High Court accepted that Mohamed “has put forward a prima facie case of torture,” Stafford Smith said.

The court established that Mohamed was “unlawfully rendered from Pakistan to Morocco by the United States authorities,” his lawyers said, and was ”subject to unlawful incommunicado detention and torture during his interrogation there by or on behalf of the United States authorities.” The court also established that Mr. Mohamed was “unlawfully rendered by the United States authorities from Morocco to Afghanistan,” where he was “detained unlawfully and incommunicado” and was “tortured or subject to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment by or on behalf of the United States authorities in the ‘Dark Prison,’” a secret CIA facility near Kabul.

At the end of this ordeal, Mohamed said he made a number of false confessions about his involvement with al-Qaeda and a plot to detonate a radioactive “dirty bomb” in New York as a direct result of his torture in Morocco and at the hands of CIA agents in Afghanistan.

The Bush administration has never provided any explanation for Mohamed’s whereabouts from July 2002 to May 2004. In June, the US Supreme Court granted Guantánamo prisoners habeas corpus rights. Mohamed’s case was reviewed by Judge Emmet G. Sullivan in a Washington D.C. District Court.

Sullivan set a deadline of October 6 for the government to produce exculpatory evidence relating to the case (in other words, any evidence that tended to disprove the government’s claims). When the time arrived, however, the Justice Department dropped the claim about the “dirty bomb” plot.

At a hearing on October 30, Sullivan said, “That raises a question as to whether or not the allegations were ever true.”

Sullivan continued to press the government for exculpatory evidence. Although the “dirty bomb” plot claim had been dropped, he ordered the Justice Department to disclose any exculpatory evidence relating to the charge. In order to determine the reliability of Mohamed’s statements, he said he wanted to know how the interrogation sessions were conducted.

Sullivan also ordered the Justice Department to secure an affidavit from Gates. The defense secretary swore under penalty of perjury that all exculpatory evidence in Mohamed’s case — including evidence relating to the alleged “dirty bomb” plot — had been provided to Mohamed’s lawyers.

“It is the practice of the United States Government, in preparing factual returns in the Guantánamo Bay detainee habeas cases, to provide petitioners all evidence encountered in the development of the factual return that tends to materially undermine information presented in the return to support the petitioner’s classification as an enemy combatant,” Gates said in his declaration.

“Consistent with this practice, on August 12, 2008, the attorneys preparing the factual return in this case provided Petitioner with evidence encountered in the development of his return that meets this standard,” Gates added.

He also explained that following Sullivan’s ruling, “all exculpatory evidence reasonably available to the government” relating to the “withdrawn allegations” about the “dirty bomb” plot had been provided “on a rolling basis.” He added that 42 documents provided by the British government had also been handed over. “As a result,” he wrote, “the United States Government has turned over all reasonably available evidence that suggests Binyam Mohamed should not be designated as an enemy combatant.”

In a letter sent to the Justice Department on Monday December 15 (which has been seen by The Raw Story), Stafford Smith said he was trying to evaluate whether the defense secretary had deliberately perjured himself, or had been misled.

“I will say that I am extremely disappointed in the declaration that was filed on behalf of Secretary Gates on Friday,” Stafford Smith wrote, adding, “There is no question but that it is false.” He said he couldn’t conclude “whether I would categorize Mr. Gates’ statement as outright perjury, or as a misguided consequence of his reliance on an erroneous definition of the legal terms.”

“The vast majority of material (almost the entirety of the substantive evidence) submitted against Mr. Mohamed consists of statements attributed to him,” and therefore “would qualify as ‘exculpatory’ under Sullivan’s order,” he said.

Stafford Smith says it’s apparent that a wealth of material has not yet been turned over.

“Without going into anything that is classified, the Government has at no point in this case even acknowledged that Mr. Mohamed was rendered by the US to Morocco on July 21, 2002, or that he was held there for 18 months, or that he was abused there,” he wrote. “Nor has the government breathed a word about the five months he subsequently spent being abused and tortured in the Dark Prison in Kabul.”

Stafford Smith said his only interest was to secure justice for his client.

“Both my interest, and that of my co-counsel in the habeas and the military commissions litigation, is to represent our client in the best traditions of US justice,” he wrote. “It pains me to have to say that the government continues to ignore its own obligations, and is risking sanctions.”

“Nothing has changed,” Stafford Smith told The Raw Story last week. “Unless Robert Gates revises his opinions, his declaration will demonstrate that he has been drawn into the defense not of the nation, but of some of the worst excesses of the current administration, involving ‘extraordinary rendition’ and torture, and shameless attempts to cover up all evidence of wrongdoing.”

Gates could not be reached for comment.

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, 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 also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009.

As published exclusively on The Raw Story (as “Guantánamo lawyer says Gates may have committed perjury”).

For a sequence of articles relating to Binyam Mohamed, see the following: Guantánamo: Torture victim Binyam Mohamed sues British government for evidence (May 2008), Binyam Mohamed’s letter from Guantánamo to Gordon Brown (May 2008), Guantánamo trials: critical judge sacked, British torture victim charged (June 2008), Binyam Mohamed: UK court grants judicial review over torture allegations, as US files official charges (June 2008), Binyam Mohamed’s judicial review: judges grill British agent and question fairness of Guantánamo trials (August 2008), High Court rules against UK and US in case of Guantánamo torture victim Binyam Mohamed (August 2008), In a plea from Guantánamo, Binyam Mohamed talks of “betrayal” by the UK (September 2008), US Justice Department drops “dirty bomb plot” allegation against Binyam Mohamed (October 2008), Meltdown at the Guantánamo Trials (October 2008), Guilt By Torture: Binyam Mohamed’s Transatlantic Quest for Justice (November 2008), A History of Music Torture in the “War on Terror” (December 2008), British torture victim Binyam Mohamed to be released from Guantánamo (January 2009), Don’t Forget Guantánamo (February 2009), The betrayal of British torture victim Binyam Mohamed (February 2009), Hiding Torture And Freeing Binyam Mohamed From Guantánamo (February 2009), Binyam Mohamed’s Coming Home From Guantánamo, As Torture Allegations Mount (February 2009), Binyam Mohamed’s statement on his release from Guantánamo (February 2009), Who Is Binyam Mohamed, the British resident released from Guantánamo? (February 2009), Seven Years of Torture: Binyam Mohamed Tells His Story (March 2009), Binyam Mohamed’s Plea Bargain: Trading Torture For Freedom (March 2009), Guantánamo, Bagram and the “Dark Prison”: Binyam Mohamed talks to Moazzam Begg (March 2009), Obama’s First 100 Days: Mixed Messages On Torture (includes the Jeppesen lawsuit, May 2009), UK Government Lies Exposed; Spy Visited Binyam Mohamed In Morocco (May 2009), Daily Mail Pulls Story About Binyam Mohamed And British Spy (May 2009), Government Bans Testimony On Binyam Mohamed And The British Spy (May 2009), More twists in the tale of Binyam Mohamed (in the Guardian, May 2009), Did Hillary Clinton Threaten UK Over Binyam Mohamed Torture Disclosure? (May 2009), Outsourcing torture to foreign climes (in the Guardian, May 2009), Binyam Mohamed: Was Muhammad Salih’s Death In Guantánamo Suicide? (June 2009), Miliband Shows Leadership, Reveals Nothing About Torture To Parliamentary Committee (June 2009).

For a sequence of articles dealing with the Guantánamo habeas cases, see: Guantánamo and the Supreme Court: the most important habeas corpus case in modern history and Guantánamo and the Supreme Court: What Happened? (both December 2007), The Supreme Court’s Guantánamo ruling: what does it mean? (June 2008), Guantánamo as Alice in Wonderland (Uighurs’ first court victory, June 2008), What’s Happening with the Guantánamo cases? (July 2008), Government Says Six Years Is Not Long Enough To Prepare Evidence (September 2008), From Guantánamo to the United States: The Story of the Wrongly Imprisoned Uighurs (October 2008), Guantánamo Uyghurs’ resettlement prospects skewered by Justice Department lies (October 2008), After 7 Years, Judge Orders Release of Guantánamo Kidnap Victims (November 2008), A New Year Message to Barack Obama: Free the Guantánamo Uighurs (January 2009), The Top Ten Judges of 2008 (January 2009), No End in Sight for the “Enemy Combatants” of Guantánamo (January 2009), Judge Orders Release of Guantánamo’s Forgotten Child (January 2009), How Cooking For The Taliban Gets You Life In Guantánamo (January 2009), Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics (February 2009), Bad News And Good News For The Guantánamo Uighurs (February 2009), The Nobodies Formerly Known As Enemy Combatants (March 2009), Farce at Guantánamo, as cleared prisoner’s habeas petition is denied (April 2009), Obama’s First 100 Days: A Start On Guantánamo, But Not Enough (May 2009), Judge Condemns “Mosaic” Of Guantánamo Intelligence, And Unreliable Witnesses (May 2009), Pain At Guantánamo And Paralysis In Government (May 2009), Guantánamo: A Prison Built On Lies (May 2009), Free The Guantánamo Uighurs! (May 2009), Guantánamo And The Courts (Part One): Exposing The Bush Administration’s Lies (July 2009), Obama’s Failure To Deliver Justice To The Last Tajik In Guantánamo (July 2009), Obama And The Deadline For Closing Guantánamo: It’s Worse Than You Think (July 2009), How Judge Huvelle Humiliated The Government In Guantánamo Case (Mohamed Jawad, July 2009), As Judge Orders Release Of Tortured Guantánamo Prisoner, Government Refuses To Concede Defeat (Mohamed Jawad, July 2009), Guantánamo As Hotel California: You Can Check Out Any Time You Like, But You Can Never Leave (August 2009), Judge Orders Release From Guantánamo Of Kuwaiti Charity Worker (August 2009). Also see: Justice extends to Bagram, Guantánamo’s Dark Mirror (April 2009), Judge Rules That Afghan “Rendered” To Bagram In 2002 Has No Rights (July 2009).

Will the Bush administration be held accountable for war crimes?

The answer ought to be yes, if the verdict of the Senate Armed Services Committee Inquiry into the Treatment of Detainees in US Custody is to mean anything.

The bipartisan report (PDF), based on a two-year investigation and released on December 11 by Senators Carl Levin and John McCain, concludes that the torture and abuse of prisoners in US custody in the “War on Terror” is the direct result of policies authorized or implemented by senior officials within the current administration, including President George W. Bush, former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Vice President Dick Cheney’s former legal counsel (and now chief of staff) David Addington, and former Pentagon general counsel William J. Haynes II.

Since the scandal of the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq broke in April 2004, over a dozen investigations have identified problems concerning the treatment of prisoners in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantánamo, but until now no official report has gazed up the chain of command to blame senior officials for authorizing torture and instigating abusive policies, and the Bush administration has been able to maintain, as it did in the wake of the Abu Ghraib scandal, that any abuse was the result of the rogue activities of “a few bad apples.”

This is now untenable. As the report states,

The abuse of detainees in US custody cannot simply be attributed to the actions of “a few bad apples” acting on their own. The fact is that senior officials in the United States government solicited information on how to use aggressive techniques, redefined the law to create the appearance of their legality, and authorized their use against detainees. Those efforts damaged our ability to collect accurate intelligence that could save lives, strengthened the hand of our enemies, and compromised our moral authority.

Though containing little new information, the report is damning in its revelation of how senior officials sought out and approved the reverse engineering of techniques taught in the US military’s SERE schools (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape) for use on prisoners captured in the “War on Terror.” These, the authors note, include “stripping detainees of their clothing, placing them in stress positions, putting hoods over their heads, disrupting their sleep, treating them like animals, subjecting them to loud music and flashing lights, and exposing them to extreme temperatures.” In some circumstances, they also include waterboarding, a notorious torture technique which involves controlled drowning.

After noting explicitly that these techniques are taught to train personnel “to withstand interrogation techniques considered illegal under the Geneva Conventions,” and that they are “based, in part, on Chinese Communist techniques used during the Korean war to elicit false confessions,” the authors lay out a compelling timeline for the introduction of these techniques, beginning with a crucial memorandum issued by President Bush on February 7, 2002. This stated that the protections of the Geneva Conventions, which, the authors note, “would have afforded minimum standards for humane treatment,” did not apply to prisoners seized in the “War on Terror.” The report adds that “the decision to replace well established military doctrine, i.e. legal compliance with the Geneva Conventions, with a policy subject to interpretation, impacted the treatment of detainees in US custody.”

Having established the President’s role as the initial facilitator of abuse, the report then implicates those directly responsible for implementing the torture of prisoners, explaining how Haynes began soliciting advice from the agency responsible for SERE techniques in December 2001, and how Addington, Justice Department legal adviser John Yoo and White House counsel Alberto Gonzales attempted to redefine torture in the notorious “Torture Memo” of August 2002, which claimed that the pain endured “must be equivalent to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death”.

The authors also note how Rumsfeld approved the use of SERE techniques at Guantánamo in December 2002 (after Haynes had consulted with other senior officials), and explain how the techniques migrated to Afghanistan in January 2003, and were implemented in Iraq by Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the commander of coalition forces, in September 2003.

Even so, the report is not without its faults. The authors carefully refrain from ever using the words “torture” or “war crimes,” which is a considerable semantic achievement, but one that does little to foster a belief that the officials involved will one day be held accountable for their crimes. They also, curiously, omit all mention of Vice President Dick Cheney, and ignore the importance of the presidential order of November 2001, which authorized the capture and indefinite detention of “enemy combatants” and established the Military Commission trial system, even though the Washington Post’s Barton Gellman has established that Cheney played a significant role in this and all the other crucial documents that led to the torture and abuse of detainees.

Responses in the US media have been mixed. Oddly, most major media outlets chose to focus solely on Donald Rumsfeld’s responsibility for implementing abusive techniques (the Washington Post’s headline, for example, was “Rumsfeld Responsible for Detainee Abuse”), even though the report named at least 12 other senior figures involved in the approval and implementation of the policies.

More thoughtful commentators have questioned whether Barack Obama will pursue those responsible, noting that he will be unwilling to antagonize Republicans when he needs their support to tackle the economic crisis, and that many Democrats in Congress knew about the Bush administration’s policies, and in some cases were involved in approving them. An article in the Nation on December 17 noted that this complicity made “an unfettered review seem unlikely,” but the article also noted, more hopefully, “A growing body of legal opinion holds that Obama will have a duty to investigate war crimes allegations and, if they are found to have merit, to prosecute the perpetrators.”

As of December 17, those concerned with pursuing Bush administration officials for war crimes can at least be assured that the perpetrators now include Dick Cheney. In an interview with ABC News, the Vice President stuck to a now-discredited script, declaring, “we don’t do torture, we never have,” but admitting for the first time that he knew about the use of waterboarding on a handful of “high-value detainees,” and that he considered its use “appropriate.”

Only time will tell if Cheney’s admission will be regarded as a stalwart defense of national security, or as the last defiant gesture of a war criminal.

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, 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 also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009.

A version of this article was published exclusively in the Daily Star, Lebanon (as “Are US officials guilty of war crimes?”)

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), Six in Guantánamo Charged with 9/11 Murders: Why Now? And What About the Torture? (February 2008), The Insignificance and Insanity of Abu Zubaydah: Ex-Guantánamo Prisoner Confirms FBI’s Doubts (April 2008), Guantánamo Trials: Another Torture Victim Charged (Abdul Rahim al-Nashiri, July 2008), Secret Prison on Diego Garcia Confirmed: Six “High-Value” Guantánamo Prisoners Held, Plus “Ghost Prisoner” Mustafa Setmariam Nasar (August 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). Also see the extensive archive of articles about the Military Commissions.

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), The Trials of Omar Khadr, Guantánamo’s “child soldier” (November 2007), Former US interrogator Damien Corsetti recalls the torture of prisoners in Bagram and Abu Ghraib (December 2007), Guantánamo’s shambolic trials (February 2008), Torture allegations dog Guantánamo trials (March 2008), Sami al-Haj: the banned torture pictures of a journalist in Guantánamo (April 2008), Former Guantánamo Prosecutor Condemns “Chaotic” Trials in Case of Teenage Torture Victim (Lt. Col. Darrel Vandeveld on Mohamed Jawad, January 2009), Judge Orders Release of Guantánamo’s Forgotten Child (Mohammed El-Gharani, January 2009), Bush Era Ends With Guantánamo Trial Chief’s Torture Confession (Susan Crawford on Mohammed al-Qahtani, January 2009), Forgotten in Guantánamo: British Resident Shaker Aamer (March 2009), and the extensive archive of articles about the Military Commissions.

An interview with Guantánamo whistleblower Stephen Abraham (Part One)

Since the election of Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States, the closure of the “War on Terror” prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba has become a hot topic. Throughout his election campaign, Obama pledged to close Guantánamo, and he reiterated his promise during his first TV interview as President-Elect, on November 15.

In recent weeks, however, a number of commentators — including reporters at the Weekly Standard, and researchers at the Brookings Institution (PDF) — have stepped forward to warn the President-Elect that his promise will be difficult to fulfill, because, according to the government’s allegations against the remaining 252 prisoners, a significant number of them are connected with al-Qaeda, or were otherwise involved in militant activity.

The problem with all these reports is that those responsible for compiling them have taken the government’s allegations at face value, and have not investigated the many reasons for concluding instead that the government’s evidence is unreliable. In an attempt to encourage a much-needed scepticism regarding the government’s claims, Andy Worthington, the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison, recently conducted the following interview by phone with Lt. Col. Stephen Abraham, a man who knows more than most about why the allegations against the prisoners are fundamentally unreliable.

A veteran of US Army intelligence, Lt. Col. Abraham served from September 2004 to March 2005 as part of OARDEC (the Office for the Administrative Review of the Detention of Enemy Combatants), the organization responsible for conducting the Combatant Status Review Tribunals (CSRTs) at Guantánamo, as well as compiling the information used by those tribunals. The CSRTs, which began shortly after the Supreme Court ruled in June 2004, in Rasul v. Bush, that the prisoners at Guantánamo had statutory habeas corpus rights, were introduced as a deliberate attempt to subvert the Supreme Court ruling, and were widely criticized for preventing the prisoners from having legal representation and for relying on secret evidence that was withheld from the prisoners.

However, it was not until Lt. Col. Abraham filed a statement in connection with one of the Guantánamo cases that a former insider confirmed that the gathering of materials for use in the tribunals was severely flawed, consisting of intelligence “of a generalized nature — often outdated, often ‘generic,’ rarely specifically relating to the individual subjects of the CSRTs or to the circumstances related to those individuals’ status,” that “what purported to be specific statements of fact lacked even the most fundamental earmarks of objectively credible evidence,” and that the whole system was geared towards rubber-stamping the detainees’ prior designation as “enemy combatants.” In a subsequent statement, Abraham also pointed out that, because the tribunals had little or no access to the intelligence agencies, “Most of the information collected … consisted … of information obtained during interrogations of other detainees” (and may, therefore, have been made through the use of torture, coercion or bribery).

Andy Worthington: Good day, Stephen. It’s a pleasure for me to conduct this interview with you, as I have been following your story since it first broke last June. To begin, I was hoping that you could briefly describe your background.

Stephen Abraham: I’m 47 years old, and I was commissioned in the US Army as a second lieutenant in 1981, just after my 21st birthday. I was a reserve officer on active duty for the first six years, and I was an intelligence officer the entire time. I spent some time in Europe, as a HUMINT [human intelligence] officer working on issues involving terrorism, sabotage, treason and espionage. From this we may presume that I am not altogether unfamiliar with the composition of the respective intelligence services and other organizational interrelationships of relevance to the present subject.

I then planned to attend law school, but I was mobilized in support of “Operation Desert Storm,” and spent the time in Washington, working closely with different national intelligence components. I then went to law school, remained in the reserves, thought everything was going along fine, and then someone collapsed two buildings and the “War on Terrorism” began in earnest.

Andy Worthington: And how did you come to be involved in the tribunals at Guantánamo?

Stephen Abraham: Shortly after September 2001, I was mobilized for one year to the Joint Intelligence Center in the Pacific, where I served as lead terrorism analyst. I then returned to my family, my home and my livelihood [as a civilian attorney] until I was asked if I would consider working at OARDEC for six months. I said yes, viewing the offer, as the organization was described to me, as an opportunity of historic dimensions.

I was communicating back and forth with the individual who invited me, and during that time I was conducting a great deal of research regarding what I anticipated would be the scope of my duties. It was an expectation that fell short, and an enthusiasm that was dampened within a short time of my arrival.

Andy Worthington: I’ve read a lot about your experiences, but I’ve never heard you say before that it took such a short amount of time to become disillusioned. Can you explain more?

Stephen Abraham: Let’s begin by understanding very clearly the context in which I was to perform whatever duties would subsequently be assigned. OARDEC is an organization under the Secretary of the Navy, but which was mobilized very quickly in the wake of the Supreme Court’s two decisions in June 2004 [Rasul v. Bush and Hamdi v. Rumsfeld]. OARDEC had been set up to conduct annual review boards, and was dealing with what I call aspects of detention preliminary to war crimes tribunals — or, as we know them, the Military Commissions — but there was no institutionalising of the process used to determine whether individuals were “enemy combatants.” Until the Supreme Court made its ruling, there was no reason for them to do it.

Very quickly, in July 2004, the authorities realized that they now needed to hold what we refer to in shorthand as tribunals — the Combatant Status Review Tribunals (CSRTs). So they took the preexisting organization and said, we will have it do the CSRT process. At that point OARDEC became responsible for conducting tribunals. Slight problem: OARDEC had never conducted a tribunal, didn’t know how to conduct a tribunal, and was woefully understaffed to be able to do all of the things necessary to conduct a tribunal.

So whereas before you might have had officers determining whether someone is now a “nice guy” — by taking current information, contemporaneously collected; that is, information relating to their detention, and trying to make subjective decisions abut it — now suddenly you’re having to collect information that relates to periods of time perhaps years before the board is convening. The board was now going to have to consider information that might be collected from host nations, from other agencies, that might speak to moments years in the past. So OARDEC had to be able to collect information, process it, assimilate it, evaluate it and ultimately make decisions based on it.

The problem was that the organization only had a few individuals who were actively engaged in the information gathering functions of OARDEC and now they were handed a Herculean task. They very quickly increased the numbers of individuals that were assigned to the unit, but all the while the reserve components were stretched intolerably thin, which means essentially that the authorities were putting out calls not for the most qualified individuals, but for anybody who could spare six months of their lives. What this also means, with no disrespect intended towards any of the individuals who volunteered, is that they had whoever was available, whenever they could be available, and no matter what their skill set. So they got merchants, they got non-intelligence professionals, they got accountants, they got postal workers, they got anybody who was available. The organization got individuals with incredible military skill sets, but, unfortunately, skills geared towards conventional military tasks, not the legal tasks thrust upon the organization.

Andy Worthington: This sounds very much like what I’ve heard about the recruitment of personnel elsewhere in the “War on Terror.” In 2003, in a report produced for the Pentagon by the Center for Army Lessons Learned (PDF), the Center’s director, Lt. Col. Bob Chamberlin, concluded that the lack of competent interpreters “impeded operations” in Afghanistan and Iraq. “Laugh if you will,” he wrote, “but many of the linguists with which I conversed were convenience store workers and cab drivers, mostly over the age of 40. None had any previous military experience.” Most of the linguists, he insisted, only had “the ability to tell the difference between a burro and a burrito.” This, I think, is an example of a situation similar to what you were talking about at OARDEC, and, like your experiences, it demonstrates that whether or not there was any intention of establishing a high ideal, what was actually involved was simply making the most of whoever was available.

Stephen Abraham: Exactly. I should not have been surprised that there simply wasn’t going to be a readily available pool of skilled intelligence professionals, and if they had made the decision to create an organization, rather than to assign the task to an already existing organization, it might have been different. But as it was, the people with the skill sets required to jump right in and perform the function to the degree suggested by the Supreme Court were not available. So essentially what OARDEC did was the equivalent of insisting that an all-volunteer staff with limited relevant experience run before they walk or even crawl.

They were going to take people who for the most part, with few exceptions, had no experience reading and applying Supreme Court decisions. And to these people what they attempted to do was to give a layer of insulation. They said, “You don’t need to understand the legal nuances of what the Court was addressing. We’re going to give you implementing guidelines and regulations and that will be good enough. And then you will be able to perform all the functions of OARDEC.”

The problem is: if, as Secretary of the Navy, Gordon England said, at the very outset, they didn’t have the facilities, they didn’t have the resources, they didn’t have the budget, they didn’t have the manpower to do all these things, and they didn’t have the authority to task agencies to provide information, something was going to have to yield, and in this case it was, at its simplest level, any regard or any respect for the Supreme Court decision. So they could create an organization, they could give it a task, they could tell it, as if these were autonomic functions, what it would do, how it would wave its hands, how it would move paper from the left side to the right, but they couldn’t expect an independent, fact-finding and decision-making body. For it to do anything that reached the level of a competent tribunal, it wasn’t possessed of the ability to do that.

Andy Worthington: OK, so there’s a couple of fundamental problems here with the set-up, one of which is that you’re explaining that the personnel recruited were not able, in general, to do the job, but the other is to do with the information you were allowed, or not allowed access to —

Stephen Abraham: Absolutely. Bear in mind, in our discussion at this point, we have only touched upon general aspects of the organization. We haven’t even gotten to what are some of the more profound and serious issues that plagued the organization and in fact rendered its ability to perform its duties impossible. The best way, perhaps, to leap forward and describe that is to describe the environment in which most of the intelligence organizations work, and by this what I’m referring to are the organizations that, by necessity or function, would have dealt with the kind of information that, in all likelihood, would have related to the detainees or the environment, context or setting in which they presumably operated.

Most of that information — timely, raw information collected by a myriad of sources relating to their activities, at a human level — would have been some of the most classified pieces of information that you would expect to see. Not finished products, not analysis, but raw reports, highly classified and fairly sensitive. Now if I were to ask you, what did so-and-so do or what were the conversations he had on a particular day or at a particular location, or what corroborative information do you have relating to these activities, it might involve the use of very sensitive sources. Right away, the question is: what did OARDEC have access to? Directly, OARDEC had access to none of that information. Put a big zero there. Couldn’t have gotten it, couldn’t have seen it, couldn’t have had direct access to it, couldn’t in all likelihood have even requested it.

Andy Worthington: Because you weren’t allowed access to the agencies that had this information?

Stephen Abraham: What we didn’t have was the architectural capability to directly access the information. Now the argument might be made that very few people would have access to this type of information, but that’s rubbish, because, in the year that I was in the Pacific Theater, I had access that was appropriate to respond to the tasks assigned to me, and the fact is, if I was told to do something, I had access to the information needed to perform those tasks.

However, at OARDEC, for the vast majority of the people there, they were largely unaware of the sort of sources of information that should have been made available for them to be able to competently perform their tasks. They didn’t even know that many of these organizations existed, and even if they did they had no ability to get the information.

Andy Worthington: Do you think that this was deliberate on the part of the administration, that they weren’t actually seeking any quality of review of any information?

Stephen Abraham: There are two ways of looking at it, the result of which, from either perspective, is exactly the same. One, as you say, is that they always understood that, in some twisted Machiavellian way, if they gave the job to a non-functional organization, which, by any number of criteria, was incapable of performing its work as described, this would further a particular agenda.

The other way of looking at it is that they are blazingly incompetent. You know, if I tell you that you need to write a top secret report, but I don’t give you access to top secret information, or systems, or to an architecture that allows you to have access to that information, we can say, “I intended for you to fail,” just as we can also say that the deprivation of resources would render the task impossible. In either case, the end result is the same: you can’t do what I’ve asked you to do.

Andy Worthington: So do you think it was bit of both, if that’s possible?

Stephen Abraham: I think that either one is certainly plausible. If anyone who was responsible for setting up the organization insists that they had the knowledge to appreciate and understand fully what would have been required to perform the duties, then I have to ascribe to them a more sinister motive. On the other hand, if you take a less intellectually invested approach to it, and say, “Gosh, all I knew is that I had to run these tribunals,” then perhaps we can ascribe to them a degree of incompetence — or a failure to appreciate the degree of sophistication that needed to be incorporated into the construction of the organization. You can’t seriously believe that you can take a hundred people off the street, not vest them with the authority to request or to collect information — essentially, put them at the mercy of providers of information who, without any suggestion of common courtesy, need not respond to those requests — and expect them to be able to do their job.

If I task you with conducting a tribunal, but you have no experience conducting tribunals, you’ve never worked with intelligence organizations, you’ve never worked with this kind of information before — in other words, this is in every way alien to you — and I say, “Go search on the system for information relating to the detainees,” you don’t even know how to begin the search, and you ultimately come to the conclusion that there’s no information on the detainee within your system, so that there’s nothing you can physically do by yourself.

But then I say, “Don’t worry, we’ll request information from the other intelligence agencies,” but they have no obligation to respond to the requests, and you have no ability to confirm the diligence of their searches, and so, as you assess your ability to succeed at this mission, to what conclusions do you come? I would be fairly quick in saying, “I hope I’m not being paid or rated based on substantive performance markers, because this is a mission doomed to failure.”

I hate to say it, but within a very short period of time, as I spoke with one of the civilians who was there, and who was responsible for also engaging in this liaison function — you know, asking him, “Have you talked with this agency, with that agency? Where are the terminals that will allow access to particular categories of information?” — I was told, “We don’t have them.”

Of course, I could tell from the building itself, and its setting — I knew that they would have no access to that sort of information. When I asked what invested liaison officers there were from these other organizations, the answer was, “none.” When I asked what the timeline was for the collecting of information for requests and responses, it was woefully short and inadequate. There was no hammer, so to speak, if an agency decided not to participate.

Andy Worthington: But this, surely, was part of the process in which everything was expedited, whereby all 558 tribunals were supposed to take place in as short an amount of time as possible?

Stephen Abraham: Yes, but whether they had said three days, 30 days or 300 days, the bottom line is, if you had no ability to assess the completeness of information, then when you started the tribunal — in terms of your assessment of the quality of the record with which you’d be going forward — it was largely a futile exercise. After all, no matter how much time you spent developing a record, to what extent could you say that it was complete, that it was accurate, comprehensive, that it tended to draw an accurate picture of the detainee who was facing the tribunal? You just simply couldn’t. It was a random collection of information in almost every instance.

Andy Worthington: So what you have expressed in the past, about how generic information was put into the pot, because there was very little specific information relating to the prisoners in question, you’ve expressed this very well. Moreover, I understand from my sustained study of the prisoners’ stories for The Guantánamo Files that it is valid to look at the tribunals as a pale and mocking echo of the Article 5 battlefield tribunals that are supposed to take place close to the time and place of capture, according to the Geneva Conventions, so that people who know whether those captured are farmers or soldiers can come and give evidence, and say, “This is a farmer, you’ve got the wrong man.” This, of course, is what happened in all US wars since the Second World War, including “Operation Desert Storm.”

So the tribunals are a horribly dysfunctional echo of the battlefield tribunals, in which everything was expedited, and requests for outside witnesses, which were supposed to be part of the architecture of the tribunals, were never fulfilled — not a single outside witness was called — and my feeling is that no depth was really required in the tribunals because, as you’ve said, the impression that you came away with, having undergone this six-month experience, was that it was designed to rubber-stamp the prisoners’ prior designation as “enemy combatants.”

Stephen Abraham: What it was designed to do — and in that regard, let’s be clear, it succeeded beyond most people’s wildest expectations — was to get the outside lawyers off the administration’s asses. Let me explain what I mean by that. You had two Supreme Court decisions in 2004, saying — first O’Connor, then Stevens — you have to have some kind of a hearing that comports with notions of due process, and it’s not just limited to American citizens.

So the administration then very quickly had to create this tribunal process. What they had to be able to do was to represent to the world that the process exists, and that they were capable of performing the functions described within the context of the organization committed to that process. Now what I just said is utterly meaningless. It’s like a ne’er-do-well saying, “I have this capability of working.” The fact is, he sits on his ass doing nothing. So the administration had an organization that was capable of conducting a hearing — not particularly well, but it could certainly conduct a hearing — and, as you and many others have seen, it had the capability of conducting hundreds of hearings.

The problem was that, if you take the moment that the organization decides to have a hearing — Day One — and it sends out notices to the countries [with which the prisoners may, in some way, be involved], saying, “We’re going to hold a hearing,” the country itself has no duty, obligation or even a motive to respond. Essentially, their reaction to the letter is, “So what?” You also send the letter to different organizations outside of your own — outside of the Department of the Navy, in many instances outside of the Department of Defense — and you say, “We’re going to hold a hearing in 30 days,” to which they respond, “So?”

But you go further. You ask for information. And let’s keep this real, pragmatic. Let’s talk about what motivates responses. In a theoretical sense, you might expect the answer to be, “We’re all on the same side, we’ll get you what you need.” But that’s not a response that was received by OARDEC. Responses, though not always expressed openly, were motivated by a number of primary questions: “Who’s paying for this? What assets do I have available? What are you asking me to do? What’s your authority for asking me to do it? Have I programmed your request into my annual resource budget? Is this something I have that’s available because somebody else has already asked for it, so I can give you a copy, or are you asking me to do new work? How long is it going to take me to do it, and how will that interfere with other missions for which I have organizational or even statutory obligations?”

Andy Worthington: I understand that, and it’s very interesting on the level of, “Where’s the budget for my responsibility?”

Stephen Abraham: But not just, “Where’s the budget?” but, “Where’s my ability to do it?” And that then leads to the other organizations looking at OARDEC and saying, in essence, “Why do you think that I’m forced to respond to you?”

Andy Worthington: I’d like to ask you one more specific question about the gathering of information for the tribunals. In your declaration last November, you explained that, because OARDEC had little or no access to the intelligence agencies, “Most of the information collected … consisted … of information obtained during interrogations of other detainees.” This is a point that I think is particularly relevant at the moment, as various pundits begin looking at the Unclassified Summaries of Evidence and raising alarms about how dangerous the remaining prisoners are, and how very carefully Barack Obama should tread. Now I know, from my own study of the documents and from my knowledge of Guantánamo’s history, that the many allegations made by unattributed “al-Qaeda lieutenants” and “al-Qaeda operatives,” and other unidentified “sources,” are unreliable because they may have been made through the use of torture, coercion of bribery (the promise of better treatment in exchange for “confessions”), but I wondered if you could elaborate a little on your experiences of the information obtained from other prisoners.

Stephen Abraham: Though it would be wrong to characterize all of the information obtained from detainees as being the product of “torture, coercion or bribery,” it is important to consider the information both discretely and in the aggregate. What I mean by that is to look at the totality of the information on the one hand. How was it obtained? What were the motivations of the sources? What issues might have colored the testimony, such as fading memories over time, bias on the part of the witness, or promises of favors? Also, to what degree would comparisons of different pieces of evidence tend to belie assurances of legitimacy where the claims of a detainee against one particular detainee mirrored other claims against other detainees?

The problem is not just the issues we easily raise now, years after the tribunals were held, but the fact that the tribunal members never knew of these issues and never considered them in weighing the information presented at the hearings. Simply put, tribunal members were told to trust all of the information presented against the detainee without hesitation or question, and to distrust any inconsistent testimony or other information. That is not the hallmark of a fair hearing and not a hearing in which we, citizens of a nation of laws, should put any faith.

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, 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 also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009.

This interview was published exclusively on the website of the Future of Freedom Foundation.

In Part Two of this interview, Stephen Abraham and Andy Worthington discuss the significance of two cases in June: Boumediene v. Bush, in which the Supreme Court ruled that the Guantánamo prisoners had constitutional habeas corpus rights, and Parhat v. Gates, in which a court first ruled that the government’s evidence against a prisoner was inadequate. Lt. Col. Abraham also discusses the tribunal on which he served at Guantánamo, explains more about the inbuilt inadequacies of the tribunal process, and delivers an impassioned criticism of the administration’s motives for holding prisoners without charge or trial.

See the following for a sequence of articles dealing with the crucial testimony of Lt. Col. Stephen Abraham and other Guantánamo whistleblowers: Guantánamo whistleblowers: Lt. Col. Stephen Abraham is not the first insider to condemn the kangaroo courts (July 2007), The Guantánamo whistleblower, a Libyan shopkeeper, some Chinese Muslims and a desperate government (July 2007), Guantánamo: more whistleblowers condemn the tribunals (August 2007), A New Guantánamo Whistleblower Steps Forward to Criticize the Tribunal Process (October 2007), Guantánamo whistleblower launches new attack on rigged tribunals (November 2007), Guantánamo and the Supreme Court: the most important habeas corpus case in modern history (December 2007), Guantánamo and the Supreme Court: What Happened? (December 2007), Guantánamo whistleblower Stephen Abraham addresses European Parliament (March 2008), The Supreme Court’s Guantánamo ruling: what does it mean? (June 2008), Guantánamo: Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics (February 2009).

Freed Bosnian Calls Guantánamo the “worst place in the world”

As three Bosnian Algerians — Mustafa Ait Idr, Hadj Boudella and Mohammed Nechla — returned to their families in Bosnia-Herzegovina on Tuesday, Ait Idr spoke briefly to reporters. “For almost seven years,” he said, “I was at the end of the world, at the worst place in the world. It would have been hard even if I had done something wrong, but it is much harder if one is totally innocent.”

Back in the United States, meanwhile, one of the men’s lawyers, Rob Kirsch, called their release “a vindication for our legal system.” Kirsch was correct, as the three men are the first to be released from the prison as the result of a decision made in a US court, after District Court Judge Richard Leon ruled in a habeas corpus hearing last month that the government had provided no credible evidence that, as was alleged, the men intended to travel to Afghanistan to take up arms against US forces.

In addition, the refusal of the government to appeal Judge Leon’s decision “may mean,” as Carol Williams declared in the Los Angeles Times, “that the Bush White House has come to accept that its Guantánamo tactics are finally doomed.” In his ruling, Judge Leon made a point of imploring the Justice Department, the Defense Department and the intelligence agencies not to appeal his verdict, explaining, “It seems to me that there comes a time when the desire to resolve novel, legal questions and decisions which are not binding on my colleagues pales in comparison to effecting a just result based on the state of the record.”

Even so, it remains an appalling indictment of the Bush administration’s detention policies that it took nearly seven years for their case to be reviewed, and, as I reported last month, that throughout their long ordeal the men have been subject to chronic abuse and coercive interrogations aimed at milking them for their non-existent intelligence value, even as the supposed reason for their detention — an alleged plot to bomb the US embassy in Sarajevo — disappeared like a mirage.

Moreover, the nation’s politicians must also accept their share of the blame, and Barack Obama, who has pledged to close Guantánamo and to restore America’s moral standing, should be asking tough questions of his colleagues in Congress, as it was their support for two ill-conceived (and at least partly unconstitutional) pieces of legislation — the Detainee Treatment Act of 2005, and the Military Commissions Act of 2006 — that prevented the men’s release four years ago. In June 2004, the Supreme Court granted the Guantánamo prisoners habeas corpus rights (the rights they used to secure their release on Tuesday), but the DTA and MCA sought to strip the men of these rights, and it was only in June this year, when the Supreme Court revisited its ruling, granting the prisoners constitutional habeas corpus rights, that their road to freedom finally opened up.

Celebrations for the three released men were muted by the knowledge that two other prisoners whose release was ordered by Judge Leon remain in Guantánamo. Lawyers for Sabir Lahmar and Lakhdar Boumediene explained that, although the government had offered no explanation, they believed that they were not released because Lahmar was only ever a Bosnian resident, and Boumediene was stripped of his citizenship after a disagreement with the Bosnian authorities. However, the website Balkan Insight explained that local media were reporting that the two men “could soon be joining” Mustafa Ait Idr, Hadj Boudella and Mohammed Nechla.

The time for their release is clearly long overdue. As another of their lawyers, Stephen Oleskey, explained, Boumediene “has been on a hunger strike to protest his detention.” In the meantime, however, spare a thought for other prisoners, still largely unknown after nearly seven years in “the worst place in the world,” whose habeas cases may also show that the government has no credible evidence against them, and for the 17 Uighurs, wrongly detained Muslims from China’s oppressed Xinjiang province, whose release into the United States was ordered by Judge Ricardo Urbina on October 7, but who remain in Guantánamo because the government has appealed the ruling, even though no other country has been found that will accept them.

POSTSCRIPT: Mustafa Ait Idr spoke to Reuters after his return, explaining that “his US interrogators never questioned him on the main terrorism allegation against him.” “They’ve never asked anything about charges which were brought against us. They’ve never asked about Afghanistan,” he said. “They only questioned me about Islamic organizations working in Bosnia … I’ve spent many years in the worst place on earth for doing nothing.”

Reuters explained that Ait Idr, a computer science engineer who saw his youngest child Abdullah for the first time on Tuesday, looked “frail after his years in detention.” Reiterating complaints that he made to his lawyers in Guantánamo, he said that he had been denied crucial medication during his imprisonment. He also said that he was “often beaten” — and displayed a finger that was broken in US custody — and explained how “US medical personnel advised military staff where to hit prisoners in sensitive spots.” He added that he “was kept for four months, lightly dressed, in a very cold refrigerated container. For short periods of the day he was taken outside, where it was very hot. Other prisoners were subjected to long periods in total darkness or very bright light.” “There was torture every minute,” he stressed. “It did not matter to them if we were terrorists or not.” Even so, he said that the gravest offense was the desecration of the Koran.

However, he bore no malice towards the US military, and explained that he did not hate Americans. “They only did what they’ve been ordered to do,” he said. “They did not hate us but had to obey their superiors.”

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, 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 also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009.

As published on the Huffington Post.

Note:

The prisoners’ numbers (and variations on the spelling of their names) are as follows:

ISN 10003: Mohammed Nechla (Nechle)
ISN 10004: Mustafa Ait Idr
ISN 10006: Hadj Boudella (Boudella al-Hajj)

See the following for articles about the 142 prisoners released from Guantánamo from June 2007 to January 2009, and the eleven prisoners released from February to June 2009, whose stories are covered in more detail than is available anywhere else –- either in print or on the Internet –- although many of them, of course, are also covered in The Guantánamo Files: June 2007 –- 2 Tunisians, 4 Yemenis (here, here and here); July 2007 –- 16 Saudis; August 2007 –- 1 Bahraini, 5 Afghans; September 2007 –- 16 Saudis; September 2007 –- 1 Mauritanian; September 2007 –- 1 Libyan, 1 Yemeni, 6 Afghans; November 2007 –- 3 Jordanians, 8 Afghans; November 2007 –- 14 Saudis; December 2007 –- 2 Sudanese; December 2007 –- 13 Afghans (here and here); December 2007 –- 3 British residents; December 2007 –- 10 Saudis; May 2008 –- 3 Sudanese, 1 Moroccan, 5 Afghans (here, here and here); July 2008 –- 2 Algerians; July 2008 –- 1 Qatari, 1 United Arab Emirati, 1 Afghan; August 2008 –- 2 Algerians; September 2008 –- 1 Pakistani, 2 Afghans (here and here); September 2008 –- 1 Sudanese, 1 Algerian; November 2008 –- 1 Kazakh, 1 Somali, 1 Tajik; November 2008 –- 2 Algerians; November 2008 –- 1 Yemeni (Salim Hamdan) repatriated to serve out the last month of his sentence; January 2009 –- 1 Afghan, 1 Algerian, 4 Iraqis; February 2009 — 1 British resident (Binyam Mohamed); May 2009 — 1 Bosnian Algerian (Lakhdar Boumediene); June 2009 — 1 Chadian (Mohammed El-Gharani), 4 Uighurs, 1 Iraqi, 3 Saudis (here and here).

Will Europe Take The Cleared Guantánamo Prisoners?

As rumors continue to fly regarding Barack Obama’s plans to close the notorious “War on Terror” prison at Guantánamo Bay, one country in the European Union, Portugal, took the opportunity offered last Wednesday by the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights — one of whose Articles declares, “Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution” — to announce that it was prepared to accept prisoners cleared from Guantánamo who are unable to be repatriated, and to urge other EU countries to do the same.

In a letter to other EU leaders, Luís Amado, Portugal’s Foreign Minister, declared, “The time has come for the European Union to step forward. As a matter of principle and coherence, we should send a clear signal of our willingness to help the US government in that regard, namely through the resettlement of detainees. As far as the Portuguese government is concerned, we will be available to participate.”

The Portuguese offer addresses a problem that has plagued Guantánamo for years, and that is, moreover, one of the major obstacles to Barack Obama’s promise to close the prison: what to do with the prisoners who have been cleared for release from Guantánamo after multiple military reviews, but who cannot be freed because of international treaties preventing the return of foreign nationals to countries where they face the risk of torture?

These men, numbering at least 60 of the remaining 255 prisoners, are from countries including Algeria, China, Libya, Tunisia and Uzbekistan. They are no longer regarded as a threat to the United States or its allies, but they remain in Guantánamo because, until now, only one country has stepped forward to give new homes to cleared prisoners. Albania accepted eight cleared prisoners — five Uighurs (Muslims from China’s oppressed Xinjiang province) in May 2006, and three others (an Algerian teacher, an Egyptian cleric and a refugee from the former Soviet Union) in December 2006.

A week after Barack Obama’s election victory, a number of human rights groups — including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch — launched a campaign in Berlin aimed at persuading European governments to accept cleared prisoners, but until the Portuguese government spoke out last week, the response had been lukewarm.

On November 13, Amnesty International announced that Switzerland had refused asylum applications by three cleared prisoners from Algeria, China and Libya, and on December 12 the Irish Times confirmed that Justice Minister Dermot Ahern had stated that the Irish government was “not contemplating the resettlement of any Guantánamo inmates,” apparently dashing the hopes of Uzbek refugee Oybek Jamoldinivich Jabbarov, who was sold to US forces in Afghanistan seven years ago, that he might finally be released from Guantánamo.

In addition, the legal action charity Reprieve, whose lawyers represent around 30 Guantánamo prisoners, has so far failed to interest the British government in accepting the return of Algerian national Ahmed Belbacha (photo, left), even though he lived in the UK for two years and only left Algeria because he was threatened by Islamist militants, and has also had no success in persuading the French government to accept Nabil Hadjarab, a former resident with family in France, and in resettling six Tunisians and an Egyptian who had all been residents in Italy. One other country, Sweden, which was widely perceived as sympathetic to refugees, dashed all hopes that it would lead the way in repatriating Guantánamo prisoners in June this year, when it refused asylum to Adel Abdul Hakim, one of the five Uighurs freed in Albania. Hakim had applied for asylum in November 2007, after securing a visa to visit his sister, who is part of a Uighur community in Stockholm.

One of the major obstacles to European support, of course, has been the Bush administration’s unwillingness to accept responsibility for its own mistakes by working to secure the release of cleared prisoners into the United States. For several years, State Department officials have been touring the world, attempting to persuade third countries to accept some of these men, but without success. Their failure is partly because the administration refuses to concede that any prisoners seized in the “War on Terror” are innocent men captured by mistake — choosing instead to refer to them as “No Longer Enemy Combatants” or “enemy combatants” who have been “approved for transfer” — but it is also because the administration has taken a hectoring tone with other countries, chastising them for failing to help, rather than addressing them in a conciliatory manner.

Unfortunately, comments made since the Portuguese announcement by the State Department’s legal adviser, John Bellinger, have done nothing to suggest that the prevailing attitude has changed. Speaking to Reuters, Bellinger called Luis Amado’s letter “extraordinarily significant.” He revealed, “It is the first time that any country except Albania has privately or publicly stated that they are prepared to resettle Guantánamo detainees who are not their own nationals.” This was not strictly accurate, as Germany, Spain and the UK have also accepted the return of legal residents, but what made Bellinger’s comments particularly troubling was when he added, “It really is the first crack in the ice of what has been European opposition to helping with Guantánamo in any way. For five or six years there has been consistent criticism but no constructive offers to help … Europe need to stop simply calling for its closure but to step up and actually help with its closure.”

As a result of these unhelpful comments, it seems probable that the plight of Guantánamo’s refugees in limbo is unlikely to change until Barack Obama takes over from George W. Bush in January, when he will, hopefully, be able to muzzle State Department criticism of US allies, and secure cooperation as part of his honeymoon period. However, good will alone may not be enough to persuade other countries to help the new President to close Guantánamo. Speaking to the Washington Post, Jennifer Daskal, senior counter-terrorism counsel for Human Rights Watch, suggested that the Portuguese announcement might be “the start of a trend,” but added that she believed European cooperation would hinge on a willingness by the United States to take cleared prisoners as well. “The new Obama administration,” she said, “is going to have to jump-start this by accepting some of the detainees.”

In particular, President Obama will need to address the plight of the 17 remaining Uighurs in Guantánamo. With the exception of five Bosnian Algerians, whose release was ordered last month by District Court judge Richard Leon, after he was allowed to review the government’s evidence against the men, and ruled that the administration had failed to establish a case for holding them, the Uighurs are the only prisoners at Guantánamo who have been cleared of being “enemy combatants.”

In June, when an appeals court was finally allowed to review the case against one of the men, Huzaifa Parhat, the judges demolished the government’s allegations, ruling that Parhat’s status as an “enemy combatant” was invalid, and comparing the government’s evidence to a nonsense poem by Lewis Carroll, the author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. In the months that followed, the government abandoned trying to prove that any of the Uighurs were “enemy combatants,” and when their case reached the Washington D.C. District Court in October, Judge Ricardo Urbina ruled that their continued detention was unconstitutional, and ordered their release into the United States, as no other country had been found that would accept them.

Unfortunately for the Uighurs, the government, which was still drunk on the dreams of unfettered executive power that had sustained it for over seven years, refused to accept that the Supreme Court’s momentous ruling in June, which granted the Guantánamo prisoners “the privilege of habeas corpus to challenge the legality of their detention,” also held that “a court’s power under the writ must include ‘authority to … issue … an order directing the prisoner’s release.’”

Effectively arguing that the whims of the executive trumped the ruling of a judge, the government also attempted to resuscitate claims that the Uighurs were involved in militancy, even though it had been established without a doubt that they had only one enemy — the Chinese government — and even though the administration itself had abandoned any claims of militancy when it accepted that none of the men were “enemy combatants.”

The appeals court judges have yet to deliver a final ruling on the Uighurs, but in the meantime it became apparent last week, in comments that John Bellinger made to the BBC, that he supports the government’s unprincipled and unjustifiable opinions, when he stated that the Uighurs were “properly detained,” because, although they “wanted to fight the Chinese,” they “were in training camps.”

Bellinger’s words not only suggest, incredibly, that the administration believes it is justified in holding anyone as an “enemy combatant” who has attended any kind of military training camp (even those that have no connection whatsoever with al-Qaeda or the Taliban); they also cut off any hope that another country will be prepared to accept the Uighurs. For Barack Obama to succeed in closing Guantánamo, he will not only need to repudiate opinions like these, but will also need to find the courage to follow Judge Urbina’s ruling that holding the Uighurs is unconstitutional, and to secure their release to the communities in Washington D.C. and Tallahassee, Florida, who have already made detailed plans to welcome them. Anything less, and his mission to close Guantánamo and regain America’s moral standing may well be doomed.

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, 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 also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009.

As published exclusively on the website of the Future of Freedom Foundation.

For a sequence of articles dealing with the Uighurs in Guantánamo, see: The Guantánamo whistleblower, a Libyan shopkeeper, some Chinese Muslims and a desperate government (July 2007), Guantánamo’s Uyghurs: Stranded in Albania (October 2007), Former Guantánamo detainee seeks asylum in Sweden (November 2007), A transcript of Sabin Willett’s speech in Stockholm (November 2007), Support for ex-Guantánamo detainee’s Swedish asylum claim (January 2008), A Chinese Muslim’s desperate plea from Guantánamo (March 2008), Former Guantánamo prisoner denied asylum in Sweden (June 2008), Six Years Late, Court Throws Out Guantánamo Case (June 2008), Guantánamo as Alice in Wonderland (July 2008), From Guantánamo to the United States: The Story of the Wrongly Imprisoned Uighurs (October 2008), Guantánamo Uyghurs’ resettlement prospects skewered by Justice Department lies (October 2008), A Pastor’s Plea for the Guantánamo Uyghurs (October 2008), Guantánamo: Justice Delayed or Justice Denied? (October 2008), Sabin Willett’s letter to the Justice Department (November 2008), A New Year Message to Barack Obama: Free the Guantánamo Uighurs (January 2009), Guantanamo’s refugees (February 2009), Bad News And Good News For The Guantánamo Uighurs (February 2009), and the stories in the additional chapters of The Guantánamo Files: Website Extras 1, Website Extras 6 and Website Extras 9.

A History of Music Torture in the “War on Terror”

As the British legal action charity Reprieve launches a new initiative, Zero dB (against music torture), which encourages musicians to take a stand against the use of their music as part of an arsenal of torture techniques employed by the US military and intelligence agencies, Andy Worthington, author of The Guantánamo Files, looks at the history of music torture in the “War on Terror,” and examines musicians’ responses to it.

Hit Me Baby One More Time

There’s an ambiguous undercurrent to the catchy pop smash that introduced a pig-tailed Britney Spears to the world in 1999 — so much so that Jive Records changed the song’s title to “… Baby One More Time” after executives feared that it would be perceived as condoning domestic violence.

It’s a safe bet, however, that neither Britney nor songwriter Max Martin ever anticipated that this undercurrent would be picked up on by US military personnel, when they were ordered to keep prisoners awake by blasting ear-splittingly loud music at them — for days, weeks or even months on end — at prisons in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantánamo Bay.

The message, as released Guantánamo prisoner Ruhal Ahmed explained in an interview earlier this year, was less significant than the relentless, inescapable noise. Describing how he experienced music torture “on many occasions,” Ahmed said, “I can bear being beaten up, it’s not a problem. Once you accept that you’re going to go into the interrogation room and be beaten up, it’s fine. You can prepare yourself mentally. But when you’re being psychologically tortured, you can’t.” He added, however, that “from the end of 2003 they introduced the music and it became even worse. Before that, you could try and focus on something else. It makes you feel like you are going mad. You lose the plot and it’s very scary to think that you might go crazy because of all the music, because of the loud noise, and because after a while you don’t hear the lyrics at all, all you hear is heavy banging.”

Despite this, the soldiers, who were largely left to their own devices when choosing what to play, frequently selected songs with blunt messages — “Fuck Your God” by Deicide, for example, which is actually an anti-Christian rant, but one whose title would presumably cause consternation to believers in any religion — even though, for prisoners not used to Western rock and rap music, the music itself was enough to cause them serious distress. When CIA operatives spoke to ABC News in November 2005, as part of a ground-breaking report into the use of waterboarding and other torture techniques on “high-value detainees” held in secret prisons, they reported that, when prisoners were forced to listen to Eminem’s Slim Shady album, “The music was so foreign to them it made them frantic.” And in May 2003, when the story first broke that music was being used by US PsyOps teams in Iraq, Sgt. Mark Hadsell, whose favored songs were said to be “Bodies” by Drowning Pool and “Enter the Sandman” by Metallica, told Newsweek, “These people haven’t heard heavy metal. They can’t take it.”

Approval for the use of music torture in the “War on Terror”

Depending on people’s musical tastes, responses to reports that music has been used to torture prisoners often produces flippant comments along the lines of, “If I had to listen to David Gray’s ‘Babylon’/ the theme tune from Barney the Purple Dinosaur/ Christina Aguilera, I’d be crying ‘torture’ too.” But the truth, sadly, is far darker, as Sgt. Hadsell explained after noting that prisoners in Iraq had a problem with heavy metal music. “If you play it for 24 hours,” Hadsell said, “your brain and body functions start to slide, your train of thought slows down and your will is broken. That’s when we come in and talk to them.”

Hadsell, like senior figures in the administration, was blithely unconcerned that “breaking” prisoners, rather than finding ways of encouraging them to cooperate, was not to best way to secure information that was in any way reliable, but the PsyOps teams were not alone. In September 2003, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the US military commander in Iraq, approved the use of music as part of a package of measures for use on captured prisoners “to create fear, disorient … and prolong capture shock,” and as is spelled out in an explosive new report by the Senate Armed Services Committee into the torture and abuse of prisoners in US custody (PDF), the use of music was an essential part of the reverse engineering of techniques, known as Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape (SERE), which are taught in US military schools to train personnel to resist interrogation. The report explains:

During the resistance phase of SERE training, US military personnel are exposed to physical and psychological pressures … designed to simulate conditions to which they might be subject if taken prisoner by enemies that did not abide by the Geneva Conventions. As one … instructor explained, SERE training is “based on illegal exploitation (under the rules listed in the 1949 Geneva Convention Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War) of prisoners over the last 50 years.” The techniques used in SERE school, based, in part, on Chinese Communist techniques used during the Korean war to elicit false confessions, include stripping detainees of their clothing, placing them in stress positions, putting hoods over their heads, disrupting their sleep, treating them like animals, subjecting them to loud music and flashing lights, and exposing them to extreme temperatures. It can also include face and body slaps, and until recently, for some who attended the Navy’s SERE school, it included waterboarding.

The Senate Committee’s report, which lays the blame for the implementation of these policies on senior officials, including President George W. Bush, former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Vice President Dick Cheney’s former legal counsel (and now chief of staff) David Addington, and former Pentagon general counsel William J. Haynes II, makes it clear not only that the use of music is part of a package of illegal techniques, but also that at least part of its rationale, according to the Chinese authorities who implemented it, was that it secured false confessions, rather than the “actionable intelligence” that the US administration was seeking.

The experiences of Binyam Mohamed and Donald Vance

In case any doubt remains as to the pernicious effects of music torture, consider the following comments by Binyam Mohamed, a British resident, still held in Guantánamo, who was tortured in Morocco for 18 months on behalf of the CIA, and was then tortured for another four months in the CIA’s “Dark Prison” in Kabul, and Donald Vance, a US military contractor in Iraq, who was subjected to music torture for 76 days in 2006.

Speaking to his lawyer, Clive Stafford Smith, the director of Reprieve, Mohamed, like Ruhal Ahmed, explained how psychological torture was worse than the physical torture he endured in Morocco, where the CIA’s proxy torturers regularly cut his penis with a razorblade. “Imagine you are given a choice,” he said. “Lose your sight or lose your mind.”

In Morocco, music formed only a small part of Mohammed’s torture. Towards the end of his 18-month ordeal, he recalled that his captors “cuffed me and put earphones on my head. They played hip-hop and rock music, very loud. I remember they played Meatloaf and Aerosmith over and over. I hated that. They also played 2Pac, “All Eyez On Me,” all night and all day … A couple of days later they did the same thing. Same music. I could not take the headphones off as I was cuffed. I had to sleep with the music on and even pray with it.”

At the “Dark Prison,” however, which was otherwise a plausible recreation of a medieval dungeon, in which prisoners were held in complete darkness and were often chained to the walls by their wrists, the use of music was relentless. As Mohamed explained:

It was pitch black, and no lights on in the rooms for most of the time … They hung me up for two days. My legs had swollen. My wrists and hands had gone numb … There was loud music, Slim Shady and Dr. Dre for 20 days. I heard this non-stop over and over, I memorized the music, all of it, when they changed the sounds to horrible ghost laughter and Halloween sounds.  It got really spooky in this black hole … Interrogation was right from the start, and went on until the day I left there. The CIA worked on people, including me, day and night. Plenty lost their minds. I could hear people knocking their heads against the walls and the doors, screaming their heads off … Throughout my time I had all kinds of music, and irritating sounds, mentally disturbing. I call it brainwashing.

Vance’s story demonstrates not only that the practice of using music as torture was being used as recently as 2006, but also that it was used on Americans. When his story first broke in December 2006, the New York Times reported that he “wound up as a whistle-blower, passing information to the FBI about suspicious activities at the Iraqi security firm where he worked, including what he said was possible illegal weapons trading,” but that “when American soldiers raided the company at his urging, Mr. Vance and another American who worked there were detained as suspects by the military, which was unaware that Mr. Vance was an informer.”

Vance, who was held at Camp Cropper, explained that he was routinely subjected to sleep deprivation, taken for interrogation in the middle of the night, and held in a cell that was permanently lit by fluorescent lights. He added, “At most hours, heavy metal or country music blared in the corridor.” Speaking to the Associated Press last week, he explained that the use of music as torture “can make innocent men go mad,” and added more about the use of music during his imprisonment, stating that he was “locked in an overcooled 9-foot-by-9-foot cell that had a speaker with a metal grate over it. Two large speakers stood in the hallway outside.” The music, he said, “was almost constant, mostly hard rock. There was a lot of Nine Inch Nails, including ‘March of the Pigs.’ I couldn’t tell you how many times I heard Queen’s ‘We Will Rock You.’” He added that the experience “sort of removes you from you. You can no longer formulate your own thoughts when you’re in an environment like that.”

After his release, Vance stated that he planned to sue former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, on the basis that his constitutional rights had been violated, and noted, “Saddam Hussein had more legal counsel than I ever had.” He added that he had written a letter to the camp’s commander “stating that the same democratic ideals we are trying to instill in the fledgling democratic country of Iraq, from simple due process to the Magna Carta, we are absolutely, positively refusing to follow ourselves.”

Musicians take action

The last time that the US administration’s use of music as torture hit the headlines was in June, when Stafford Smith raised the issue in the Guardian, and when, in an accompanying article, the Guardian noted that David Gray’s song “Babylon” had become associated with the torture debate after Haj Ali, the hooded man in the notorious Abu Ghraib photographs, told of being stripped, handcuffed and forced to listen to a looped sample of the song, at a volume so high he feared that his head would burst, Gray spoke up to condemn the practice. “The moral niceties of whether they’re using my song or not are totally irrelevant,” he said. “We are thinking below the level of the people we’re supposed to oppose, and it goes against our entire history and everything we claim to represent. It’s disgusting, really. Anything that draws attention to the scale of the horror and how low we’ve sunk is a good thing.”

In a subsequent interview with the BBC, Gray complained that the only part of the torture music story that got noticed was its “novelty aspect” — which he compared to Guantánamo[‘s] Greatest Hits — and then delivered another powerful indictment of the misappropriation of his and other artists’ music. “What we’re talking about here is people in a darkened room, physically inhibited by handcuffs, bags over their heads and music blaring at them for 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” he said. “That is torture. That is nothing but torture. It doesn’t matter what the music is — it could be Tchaikovsky’s finest or it could be Barney the Dinosaur. It really doesn’t matter, it’s going to drive you completely nuts.” He added, “No-one wants to even think about it or discuss the fact that we’ve gone above and beyond all legal process and we’re torturing people.”

Not every musician shared David Gray’s revulsion. Bob Singleton, who wrote the theme tune to Barney the Purple Dinosaur, which has been used extensively in the “War on Terror,” acknowledged in an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times in July that “if you blare the music loud enough for long enough, I guess it can become unbearable,” but refused to accept either that songwriters can legitimately have any say about how their music is used, or that there were any circumstances under which playing music relentlessly at prisoners could be considered torture. “It’s absolutely ludicrous,” he wrote. “A song that was designed to make little children feel safe and loved was somehow going to threaten the mental state of adults and drive them to the emotional breaking point?” He added, “The idea that repeating a song will drive someone over the brink of emotional stability, or cause them to act counter to their own nature, makes music into something like voodoo, which it is not.”

Singleton was not the only artist to misunderstand how music could indeed constitute torture — especially when used as part of a package of techniques specifically designed to “break” prisoners. Steve Asheim, Deicide’s drummer, said, “These guys are not a bunch of high school kids. They are warriors, and they’re trained to resist torture. They’re expecting to be burned with torches and beaten and have their bones broken. If I was a prisoner at Guantánamo Bay and they blasted a load of music at me, I’d be like, ‘Is this all you got? Come on.’ I certainly don’t believe in torturing people, but I don’t believe that playing loud music is torture either.”

Furthermore, other musicians have been positively enthusiastic about the use of their music. Stevie Benton of Drowning Pool, who have played to US troops in Iraq, told Spin magazine, “People assume we should be offended that somebody in the military thinks our song is annoying enough that played over and over it can psychologically break someone down. I take it as an honor to think that perhaps our song could be used to quell another 9/11 attack or something like that.”

Fortunately, for those who understand that using music as part of a system of torture techniques is no laughing matter, the Zero dB initiative provides the most noticeable attempt to date to call a halt to its continued use. Christopher Cerf, who wrote the music for Sesame Street, was horrified to learn that the show’s theme tune had been used in interrogations. “I wouldn’t want my music to be a party to that,” he said.

Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine has been particularly outspoken in denouncing the use of music as torture. In 2006, he also spoke to Spin magazine, and explained, “The fact that our music has been co-opted in this barbaric way is really disgusting. If you’re at all familiar with ideological teachings of the band and its support for human rights, that’s really hard to stand.” On this year’s world tour, Rage Against the Machine regularly turned up on stage wearing hoods and Guantánamo-orange jumpsuits, and during a recent concert in San Francisco, Morello proposed taking revenge on President George W. Bush: “I suggest that they level Guantánamo Bay, but they keep one small cell and they put Bush in there … and they blast some Rage Against the Machine.”

And on December 11, just after the Zero dB initiative was announced, Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails posted the following message on his blog:

It’s difficult for me to imagine anything more profoundly insulting, demeaning and enraging than discovering music you’ve put your heart and soul into creating has been used for purposes of torture. If there are any legal options that can be realistically taken they will be aggressively pursued, with any potential monetary gains donated to human rights charities. Thank GOD this country has appeared to side with reason and we can put the Bush administration’s reign of power, greed, lawlessness and madness behind us.

Even James Hetfield of Metallica, who has generally been portrayed as a defender of the US military’s use of his band’s music, has expressed reservations. In a radio interview in November 2004, he said that he was “proud” that the military had used his music (even though they “hadn’t asked his permission or paid him royalties”). “For me, the lyrics are a form of expression, a freedom to express my insanity,” he explained, adding, “If the Iraqis aren’t used to freedom, then I’m glad to be part of their exposure.” Hetfield laughed off claims that music could be used for torture, saying, “We’ve been punishing our parents, our wives, our loved ones with this music for ever. Why should the Iraqis be any different?” However, he also acknowledged the reason that the military was using his music. “It’s the relentlessness of the music,” he said. “It’s completely relentless. If I listened to a death metal band for 12 hours in a row, I’d go insane, too. I’d tell you anything you wanted to know.”

While these musicians have at least spoken out, others — including Eminem, AC/DC, Aerosmith, the Bee Gees, Christina Aguilera, Prince and the Red Hot Chili Peppers — remain silent about the use of their work. Britney Spears’ views are also unknown, but if her comments to CNN in September 2003 are anything to go by, it’s unlikely that she would find fault with it. When Tucker Carlson said to her, “A lot of entertainers have come out against the war in Iraq. Have you?” Britney replied, “Honestly, I think we should just trust our president in every decision he makes and should just support that, you know, and be faithful in what happens.” Perhaps she should speak to Pamela Anderson, who recently posted a simple message to Barack Obama on her blog: “Please Shut down Guantánamo Bay — figure it out — make amends/stop torture — it’s time for peaceful solutions.”

The Guantanamo FilesAndy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, 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 also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009.

Note: The photo of Donald Vance is by Lauren Victoria Burke/AP, and the photo of Rage Against the Machine is by Chiaki Nozu/ Filmmagic.com/ Getty Images.

As published on CounterPunch, the Huffington Post, Antiwar.com, ZNet and AlterNet — and picked up on by BoingBoing.

For a sequence of articles relating to Binyam Mohamed, see the following: Guantánamo: Torture victim Binyam Mohamed sues British government for evidence (May 2008), Binyam Mohamed’s letter from Guantánamo to Gordon Brown (May 2008), Guantánamo trials: critical judge sacked, British torture victim charged (June 2008), Binyam Mohamed: UK court grants judicial review over torture allegations, as US files official charges (June 2008), Binyam Mohamed’s judicial review: judges grill British agent and question fairness of Guantánamo trials (August 2008), High Court rules against UK and US in case of Guantánamo torture victim Binyam Mohamed (August 2008), In a plea from Guantánamo, Binyam Mohamed talks of “betrayal” by the UK (September 2008), US Justice Department drops “dirty bomb plot” allegation against Binyam Mohamed (October 2008), Meltdown at the Guantánamo Trials (October 2008), Guilt By Torture: Binyam Mohamed’s Transatlantic Quest for Justice (November 2008), Is Robert Gates Guilty of Perjury in Guantánamo Torture Case? (December 2008), British torture victim Binyam Mohamed to be released from Guantánamo (January 2009), Don’t Forget Guantánamo (February 2009), The betrayal of British torture victim Binyam Mohamed (February 2009), Hiding Torture And Freeing Binyam Mohamed From Guantánamo (February 2009), Binyam Mohamed’s Coming Home From Guantánamo, As Torture Allegations Mount (February 2009), Binyam Mohamed’s statement on his release from Guantánamo (February 2009), Who Is Binyam Mohamed, the British resident released from Guantánamo? (February 2009), Seven Years of Torture: Binyam Mohamed Tells His Story (March 2009), Binyam Mohamed’s Plea Bargain: Trading Torture For Freedom (March 2009), Guantánamo, Bagram and the “Dark Prison”: Binyam Mohamed talks to Moazzam Begg (March 2009), Obama’s First 100 Days: Mixed Messages On Torture (includes the Jeppesen lawsuit, May 2009), UK Government Lies Exposed; Spy Visited Binyam Mohamed In Morocco (May 2009), Daily Mail Pulls Story About Binyam Mohamed And British Spy (May 2009), Government Bans Testimony On Binyam Mohamed And The British Spy (May 2009), More twists in the tale of Binyam Mohamed (in the Guardian, May 2009), Did Hillary Clinton Threaten UK Over Binyam Mohamed Torture Disclosure? (May 2009), Outsourcing torture to foreign climes (in the Guardian, May 2009), Binyam Mohamed: Was Muhammad Salih’s Death In Guantánamo Suicide? (June 2009), Miliband Shows Leadership, Reveals Nothing About Torture To Parliamentary Committee (June 2009).

For a sequence of articles dealing with the use of torture by the CIA, on “high-value detainees,” and in the secret prisons, see: Guantánamo’s tangled web: Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Majid Khan, dubious US convictions, and a dying man (July 2007), Jane Mayer on the CIA’s “black sites,” condemnation by the Red Cross, and Guantánamo’s “high-value” detainees (including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed) (August 2007), Waterboarding: two questions for Michael Hayden about three “high-value” detainees now in Guantánamo (February 2008), Six in Guantánamo Charged with 9/11 Murders: Why Now? And What About the Torture? (February 2008), The Insignificance and Insanity of Abu Zubaydah: Ex-Guantánamo Prisoner Confirms FBI’s Doubts (April 2008), Guantánamo Trials: Another Torture Victim Charged (Abdul Rahim al-Nashiri, July 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). Also see the extensive archive of articles about the Military Commissions.

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). 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), The Trials of Omar Khadr, Guantánamo’s “child soldier” (November 2007), Former US interrogator Damien Corsetti recalls the torture of prisoners in Bagram and Abu Ghraib (December 2007), Guantánamo’s shambolic trials (February 2008), Torture allegations dog Guantánamo trials (March 2008), Sami al-Haj: the banned torture pictures of a journalist in Guantánamo (April 2008), Former Guantánamo Prosecutor Condemns “Chaotic” Trials in Case of Teenage Torture Victim (Lt. Col. Darrel Vandeveld on Mohamed Jawad, January 2009), Judge Orders Release of Guantánamo’s Forgotten Child (Mohammed El-Gharani, January 2009), Bush Era Ends With Guantánamo Trial Chief’s Torture Confession (Susan Crawford on Mohammed al-Qahtani, January 2009), Forgotten in Guantánamo: British Resident Shaker Aamer (March 2009), and the extensive archive of articles about the Military Commissions.

Relatives of 9/11 Victims Condemn Shameful and Unconstitutional Guantánamo Trials

As regular readers know, I don’t normally cross-post other people’s articles, but as a long-standing opponent of the trial system for “terror suspects “ at Guantánamo (the Military Commissions, conceived by Vice President Dick Cheney and his close advisers in November 2001), I was disturbed to note that, on Monday, US citizens who had lost family members in the 9/11 attacks arrived at Guantánamo to attend pre-trial hearings for Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four other men accused of planning and facilitating the attacks. They had been invited by the Pentagon, and chosen on a lottery basis.

I have no objection to relatives of the victims attending legitimate trials, but the Commissions are no such thing (see my article The Dark Heart of the Guantánamo Trials for a detailed explanation), and their presence served only to confirm that the Pentagon, which has been attempting to use the trial for propaganda purposes since April this year, had invited them along in an attempt to provide legitimacy to a system that is woefully flawed, and a betrayal of the notions of justice and respect for the law on which the United States was founded (see my article about the recent one-sided show trial of Ali Hamza al-Bahlul for evidence).

Yesterday was the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). This visionary and aspirational document, forged in the wake of the atrocities of the Second World War, set out a template for human rights that has reflected humanity’s highest notions of justice and equality ever since. The Articles in the UDHR that particularly reflect on US conduct in the “War on Terror” and the establishment of the Military Commissions are Articles 5, 9, 10 and 11: “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment,” “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile,” “Everyone charged with a crime is entitled to a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal,” and “Everyone charged with a penal offence has the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty.”

It seemed appropriate, therefore, that, to mark the occasion, the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) released a letter written by 33 relatives of 9/11 victims, who spoke out because they, too, were disappointed by the Pentagon’s actions, and wished to express their condemnation of what they regard as a “shameful,” “secretive and unconstitutional” trial system that is not “capable of achieving the justice that 9/11 family members and all Americans deserve.”

The full text of the letter is reproduced below:

9/11 Family Members Challenge Legitimacy Of Guantánamo Military Commissions

As family members who lost loved ones on 9/11, we feel compelled to speak out about this week’s proceedings at Guantánamo. Recently, the Guantánamo military commissions office announced that victims’ family members would be permitted, on a lottery basis, to attend the Guantánamo legal hearings of those accused of planning the 9/11 attacks. The lottery system inherently results in the granting of media attention to the select few who are chosen, and whose views are not necessarily representative of all victims’ families. The media coverage of Monday’s commission hearings included statements attributed to attending family members that the tribunals provided a fair hearing for these prosecutions and that family members “were struck by the extensive rights accorded the accused men.”

While we support everyone’s right to their individual opinions about these proceedings, including, of course, other family members who have suffered the devastation we have, we also feel obliged to make clear that many of us do not believe these military commissions to be fair, in accordance with American values, or capable of achieving the justice that 9/11 family members and all Americans deserve.

We believe that the secretive and unconstitutional nature of these proceedings deprive us of the right to know the full truth about what happened on 9/11. These prosecutions have been politically motivated from the start, are designed to ensure quick convictions at the expense of due process and transparency, and are structured to prevent the revelation of abusive interrogations and torture engaged in by the U.S. government. Unfortunately, any verdict borne of these proceedings will lack legitimacy and leave us wondering if true justice has been served. No comfort or closure can come from military commissions that ignore the rule of law and stain America’s reputation at home and abroad.

We are strongly encouraged by the incoming administration’s promise to end this shameful system, and we are hopeful for a fresh start for these and all other Guantánamo prosecutions in U.S. courts worthy of American justice. It is time for our nation to stop betraying its own values – and the values of so many who died on 9/11.

Anne M. Mulderry, Kinderhook, New York, mother of Stephen V. Mulderry
Terry Kay Rockefeller, Arlington, MA, sister of Laura Rockefeller
J. William Harris, Arlington, MA, brother-in-law of Laura Rockefeller
Loretta Filipov, Concord, MA, wife of Alexander M. Filipov
Alissa Torres, New York, NY, wife of Luis Eduardo Torres
Bob McIlvaine, Oreland, PA, father of Bobby McIlvaine
Wright Salisbury, Lexington, MA, father-in-law of Edward Hennessy, Jr.
Barbara and Jim Fyfe, Durham, NC, parents of Karleton Douglas Beye Fyfe
Robyn Bernstein, Bolton, MA, daughter of Roberta Bernstein Heber
Patricia J. and James L. Perry, M.D., Seaford, NY, parents of NYPD officer John W. Perry
Rita Lasar, New York, NY, sister of Abraham Zelmanowitz
Valerie Lucznikowska, New York, NY, aunt of Adam Arias
Marion Kminek, Cape Coral, FL, mother of Mari-Rae Sopper
Kate Walsh Calton, Tampa, FL, wife of James Walsh
Beverly Eckert, Stamford, CT, wife of Sean Rooney
Monica Gabrielle, wife of Richard Gabrielle
Lorie Van Auken, wife of Kenneth Van Auken
Dr. Robin S. Theurkauf, wife of Thomas Theurkauf
Andrea N. LeBlanc, Lee, NH, wife of Robert G. LeBlanc
Frank Tatum, Stillwater, NY, son of Diane Moore Parsons
Antonio Aversano, Hadley, MA, son of Louis F. Aversano, Jr.
Nissa Youngren, Rochester, NY, daughter of Robert G. LeBlanc
Paula Shapiro, Pala, CA, mother of Eric Adam Eisenberg
Patricia Casazza, wife of John Casazza
Mindy Kleinberg, wife of Alan Kleinberg
Sheila Rooney, Fayetteville, NY, sister of Sean Rooney
Rosemary Dillard, wife of Eddie A. Dillard
Blake Allison, Lyme, NH, husband of Anna S.W. Allison
Roxanna K. Myhrum, Cambridge, MA, niece of Sean Rooney
Carolyn LeBlanc, Lee, NH, daughter of Robert LeBlanc
Matthew Lasar, New York, NY, nephew of Abe Zelmanowitz

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press/the University of Michigan Press, 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 also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009.

Note: The picture at the top of the article is a courtoom drawing by artist Janet Hamlin, showing Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, center, and co-defendant Walid Bin Attash, left, during the pre-trial hearing on Monday, December 8, 2008, at Guantánamo.

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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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