The Guantánamo Files: Andy Worthington interviewed for Foreign Policy Journal

13.2.09

Iranian journalist Kourosh Ziabari recently interviewed me by email about my book The Guantánamo Files, and my opinions about the Obama administration’s approach to foreign policy and the “War on Terror.” The interview was published on the website Foreign Policy Journal (as “Aberrations of Bush undermined every branch of US government: British Historian”).

Andy Worthington is a British investigative journalist and historian. His recent book The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison, is a key resource of information for those who want to have a collection of detailed dossiers of Guantánamo captives, their nationalities, family background and the illegal excuses for which they had been jailed.

He has opened up several cases to investigate the terrible and heart-rending methods of torturing which the prisoners of America’s underground jails have been subject to during the tenure of George W. Bush.

He has also unveiled that Dick Cheney, the then-Vice President of the US, was a prominent accomplice in the criminal treatment of teenage prisoners in Guantánamo Bay, such as Mohammed El-Gharani, the 14-year old Saudi boy who spent one-third of his life in the custody of America and has been persecuted in the most humiliating and shameful manner.

In an exclusive interview, Andy Worthington revealed that Guantánamo prison has been an international cage with detainees from 47 countries who were mainly put there without any habeas corpus, trial or official charge.

Kourosh Ziabari: First, I would like you to clarify whether we can be hopeful about the decree of President Obama on the closure of Guantánamo Bay prison as a symptom of major upcoming changes in US foreign policy?

Andy Worthington: Absolutely. Since Barack Obama emerged as a Senator worth watching in 2006, he has made clear his belief that the United States should return to being the nation of laws on which it was founded. In a major speech in August 2007, he said, “In the dark halls of Abu Ghraib and the detention cells of Guantánamo, we have compromised our most precious values. What could have been a call to a generation has become an excuse for unchecked presidential power. A tragedy that united us was turned into a political wedge issue used to divide us.”

He also said, “When I am President, America will reject torture without exception. America is the country that stood against that kind of behavior, and we will do so again. As President, I will close Guantánamo, reject the Military Commissions Act, and adhere to the Geneva Conventions. Our Constitution and our Uniform Code of Military Justice provide a framework for dealing with the terrorists. The separation of powers works. Our Constitution works. We will again set an example to the world that the law is not subject to the whims of stubborn rulers, and that justice is not arbitrary.”

So his Presidential orders, requiring that Guantánamo be closed within a year, ordering the CIA to close all secret prisons, reinstating the Geneva Conventions and upholding the absolute prohibition on torture are undoubtedly, as you say, “Signs of a major change in the policies of the US.”

Kourosh Ziabari: Some American lawmakers have proposed the indictment of ex-President Bush and then-Vice President Dick Cheney for admitting the illegal ways of torture, such as waterboarding, in the US underground prisons. Is it possible legally, and should it be pursued internationally?

Andy Worthington: You are, of course, correct to point out that former Vice President Dick Cheney admitted that a handful of prisoners were subjected to waterboarding, an ancient torture technique that involves controlled drowning, and it is noticeable that both Barack Obama and the new Attorney General, Eric Holder, have recently stated categorically that waterboarding is torture.

The problem, however, is that the Bush administration attempted to redefine torture, so that it could claim that what it was involved in was not torture, and it did so largely under the cover of legal opinions issued by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC). These opinions are traditionally regarded as beyond reproach. As Jane Mayer explained in her book The Dark Side, “The OLC plays a unique role in the federal government and issues opinions that are legally binding on the rest of the executive branch. If the OLC interprets the law in a certain way, unless the attorney general overrules it, the government must too. If the OLC says a previously outlawed practice, such as water-boarding, is legal, it is nearly impossible to prosecute US officials who followed that advice on good faith.”

However, it is my opinion, and I am not alone in thinking this, that President Obama should appoint a Special Prosecutor to investigate the legal opinions, as there is clearly a case to be made that the OLC, which was effectively under the control of the Vice President’s Office, issued opinions that were, in fact, legally indefensible.

What makes this situation even more pressing is that, in the weeks before Barack Obama’s inauguration as President, Susan Crawford, the senior Pentagon official overseeing the Military Commission trial system at Guantánamo, admitted that she had not pressed charges in the case of a Saudi prisoner, Mohammed al-Qahtani, because he had been tortured in US custody in Guantánamo. Crawford attempted to explain that the torture was the unforeseen result of combining a number of harsh techniques that had been legally approved, but the reality is that a senior official admitted that the administration tortured a prisoner in the “War on Terror,” and, according to the UN Convention Against Torture, to which the US is a signatory, those responsible for authorizing the use of torture must be prosecuted.

Kourosh Ziabari: Which pretexts were employed by the US government for the imprisonment of Guantánamo detainees? Were these alleged reasons rational and acceptable at all?

Andy Worthington: Incredibly, senior figures in the administration, primarily Vice President Dick Cheney and a team of legal advisers, led by his legal counsel David Addington, decided that prisoners in the “War on Terror” were neither prisoners of war, protected from cruel and inhuman treatment by the Geneva Conventions, nor criminal suspects to be put forward for a trial in a federal court, but “illegal enemy combatants,” who could be held indefinitely without charge or trial. This was to facilitate their interrogation, without the restraints of either the Geneva Conventions or US law, which, of course, prohibit coerced interrogations.

It reveals, tragically, what happens when protections on prisoners are removed, as it enabled the administration to justify the introduction of “extraordinary rendition,” kidnapping terror suspects anywhere in the world, and sending them to be tortured in third countries, and in turn, to establishing its own torture prisons, run by the CIA, and introducing torture as an interrogation tool or as a prelude to interrogation when senior officials came to believe that prisoners at Guantánamo and elsewhere were deliberately withholding information.

Kourosh Ziabari: How could the American administrators and former statesmen justify the felonies and crimes which they carried out in these years under the flag of “war on terror” against nations? Shouldn’t they limit their international interventions and return back to their frontiers?

Andy Worthington: I think the problem is that the Bush administration’s extraordinary aberrations undermined every other branch of government, pouring scorn on the State Department’s long-standing attempts to highlight human rights abuses around the world. Hopefully, the disgruntled State Department officials who have had to endure the last eight years will now have an opportunity once more to engage with the world and establish a viable moral compass.

I should also note that the “War on Terror” endangered US personnel abroad, and also encouraged brutal regimes around the world to justify their own transgressions by citing the example of the US.

Kourosh Ziabari: It’s widely believed that the US invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan which has so far caused a civilian death toll of 3 million (and counting) should be branded as “war crimes and crimes against humanity.” Do you agree with the proposal?

Andy Worthington: Well, to be fair, the invasion of Afghanistan had the backing of the UN even if the decision to equate the Taliban with al-Qaeda was a fundamental intelligence failure, and one which contributed significantly to Guantánamo being a prison full of people with no intelligence value whatsoever.

However, the invasion of Iraq was of course, neither backed by the UN nor legal in any other sense, and was, instead, an almost bewilderingly stupid manifestation of a policy of regime change and nation-building, masquerading as an act of self-defense, and based on severely manipulated intelligence reports.

As a result, it can be added to the crimes of the Bush administration, but, as with all the other crimes, what concerns me most at present is how Barack Obama can find a way to undo the damage caused by the previous administration as swiftly and effectively as possible, while also making sure that it is substantially more difficult, in future, to embark on an illegal war in the first place. I’d also like to see the same constraints applied in the UK, where, effectively, one man, Tony Blair, and a cowed Cabinet led the UK to join the United States in its disastrous neo-colonial invasion and occupation, despite widespread opposition from the public.

Kourosh Ziabari: Finally, would you please explicate about the results of your investigations into the cases of Guantánamo prison and give us some information on the number of prisoners, nationalities and the employed torturing methods?

Andy Worthington: 779 prisoners have been held at Guantánamo in total, from 42 different countries, including Iran. Of these, 242 are still held, 532 have been released, and five have died.

The means of torture — which were, effectively, less severe manifestations of the techniques used on Mohammed al-Qahtani, and which were applied to at least a hundred prisoners — included “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,” as a Senate Armed Services Committee report concluded in December.

What was extraordinary and inexplicable about the approval for these techniques is that they were reverse engineered for use on terror suspects based on techniques taught in US military schools to train US personnel to resist interrogation if captured, and were, explicitly, drawn from Chinese Communist torture techniques used in the Korean War to elicit false confessions!

As the Senate Committee report stated, incredulously, “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.”

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

2 Responses

  1. Frances Madeson says...

    I think it’s worth repeating that several (was it four, Andy?) of the Guantanamo dead were suicides, driven to their acts by the almost unbelievable indifference of the world to their plight.

  2. MichaellaS says...

    tks for the effort you put in here I appreciate it!

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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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