Archive for March, 2009

The Definitive Guantánamo Prisoner List: Andy Worthington interviewed on KBOO FM

Last week I had the pleasure of being interviewed — again! — by Linda Olson-Osterlund for KBOO FM, an excellent community radio station in Portland, Oregon. The show is available here.

Linda, as ever, was a thoughtful and well-informed host, and the time, sadly, flew by. Clearly, we could both talk for hours on the subject, but in the 26 minutes available to us, we discussed the origins of my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list — as, essentially, an off-shoot of the research I undertook for my book The Guantánamo Files, and the more than 300 articles I have written over the last two years — and my ongoing attempts to reveal the prisoners as human beings, held without rights, rather than as dehumanized statistics, the “worst of the worst” in the “War on Terror.”

We also discussed the Pentagon’s regular, and unprincipled allegations that dozens of released prisoners have “returned to the battlefield,” and the various reasons why these claims should be regarded with suspicion, and, in a timely manner, Linda raised the topic of the recent article by Lawrence Wilkerson, a former aide to Secretary of State Colin Powell, who, in a devastating critique of the Bush administration’s policies, stated unequivocally that no more than two dozen prisoners had any meaningful connection to al-Qaeda or other terrorist groups.

Linda also asked me about the stories of particular prisoners that have moved me over the years — a difficult question to answer, given that Guantánamo has produced so many heart-breaking stories (although I mentioned Omar Khadr and Mohamed Jawad, two of the juvenile prisoners whose stories took up so much of my life last year) — and we also discussed the many failures of the Pentagon’s recent report, which purported to prove that Guantánamo is run in accordance with the Geneva Conventions — including, in particular, the military’s shameful re-definition of “solitary confinement,” the importance of remembering how dreadful it is to be held without knowing when, if ever, your imprisonment will come to an end, and the horror of the military’s brutal response to the ongoing hunger strikes.

We also discussed the weaknesses in the Justice Department’s recent announcement that it was dropping the use of the term “enemy combatant” — in particular, the DoJ’s insistence that it can still legally detain people whose connection to terrorist activities is, at best, tangential (staying in a Taliban guest house, for example), the ongoing, and enormously significant inability to differentiate between the Taliban and al-Qaeda, and the overarching problem of conducting military operations in an environment, established by the Bush administration, in which US forces are regarded as soldiers, but those who oppose them are regarded as terrorists.

I also spoke about my dissatisfaction regarding the fact that the Obama administration has, to date, freed only one prisoner from Guantánamo (the British resident and torture victim Binyam Mohamed), in spite of the fact that, for example, six cleared Saudis could be released immediately, and, as our time ran out, I expressed my hope that more releases will follow, and, moreover, that they will take place sooner rather than later.

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

In the Guardian: Torture taints all our lives

For the Guardian’s Comment is free, “Torture taints all our lives” is an article I wrote following up on last Friday’s news that Britain’s Attorney General has instructed the Director of Public Prosecutions to investigate the claims by released Guantánamo prisoner Binyam Mohamed that MI5 agents had knowledge of his torture and provided information to his interrogators in Morocco.

I examine how the Bush administration’s post-9/11 policies infected the policies of its allies — particularly the UK, which appears to have raced to cement the “special relationship” by embracing the whole lawless “new paradigm” with particular enthusiasm — and I briefly mention recent allegations of British complicity in the use of torture in the interrogations of British nationals in Pakistan and Egypt before focusing on the baleful application of the Bush administration’s “War on Terror” policies in the UK: the use of detention without charge or trial, the use of secret evidence, and the government’s attempts to break our commitment to the UN Convention Against Torture by returning foreign nationals to countries where they face the risk of torture.

I also mention the Parliamentary meeting chaired by Diane Abbott MP in the House of Commons yesterday, to discuss the use of secret evidence and evidence obtained through the use of torture. I’ll be writing much more about this subject for the rest of the week, as this fundamental erosion of due process, which is already leeching out from the secret terror courts into other areas of the law — where, to put it bluntly, the government will find it convenient not to have to reveal any information publicly — not only constitutes an unprecedented threat to the fundamental principles of open justice in this country, but is also shamefully underreported.

The reason that this is so important is simple, really: without open justice we allow our elected representatives to indulge some of their worst totalitarian tendencies, whether they mean to or not — and all, apparently, because our government refuses to follow the rest of the world in finding a way to use evidence obtained by the intelligence services in open court, without compromising its methods or sources. If you have any doubts about this, have a look at some of my most recent articles (linked below) for several examples of how this eight-year old system — conceived in panic, and sustained by its own skewed but unchallengeable logic — is fatally undermining our belief in justice and what should be our abhorrence towards the use of torture.

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

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

Abu Zubaydah: The Futility Of Torture and A Trail of Broken Lives

Reinforcing claims made over the last few years — by FBI agents, by author Ron Suskind, and by myself — that the supposed senior al-Qaeda operative Abu Zubaydah was less significant than he was made out to be, the Washington Post ran a front-page story yesterday, in which, drawing on interviews with “former senior government officials who closely followed [his] interrogations,” Peter Finn and Joby Warrick reminded the world that Zubaydah was not actually a senior al-Qaeda operative and had no information about the inner workings of al-Qaeda.

Moreover, the sources cited by the Post maintained that his torture in secret CIA custody, which began shortly after his capture in March 2002 and transfer to a secret prison in Thailand, and was the first implementation of a torture program for “high-value detainees” that was endorsed at the highest levels of the Bush administration, was so worthless that “not a single significant plot was foiled” as a result of it.

Abu Zubaydah’s story

Clearly following up on the graphic descriptions of torture in Mark Danner’s recent article for the New York Review of Books, analyzing a leaked Red Cross report based on interviews with the 14 “high-value detainees” (including Zubaydah and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the self-confessed 9/11 mastermind), who were transferred to Guantánamo from secret CIA custody in September 2006, the Post’s article established that Zubaydah, “born in 1971 in Saudi Arabia to a Palestinian father and a Jordanian mother, according to court papers,” traveled to Afghanistan in 1991 to support the mujahideen fighting the Communist government that was clinging to power in the wake of the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, but was “seriously wounded by shrapnel from a mortar blast in 1992, sustaining head injuries that left him with severe memory problems, which still linger.”

In 1994, while based in Pakistan, Zubaydah began fundraising and coordinating recruits for the Khaldan training camp, in eastern Afghanistan. Although regularly described by the Bush administration as an al-Qaeda training camp, it is clear from numerous sources, including the 9/11 Commission Report, that Khaldan and another camp, Durunta, “were not al-Qaeda facilities,” although there was apparently some contact with Osama bin Laden when it came to exploiting promising recruits.

After his capture, in a house raid in Faisalabad, Pakistan, on March 28, 2002, Zubaydah was flown to a CIA-run “black site” in Thailand, where the FBI began interrogating him using old-school, torture-free methods, which had a proven track record. Within a matter of weeks, however, the FBI agents were shamefully discarded by the administration’s most senior officials, who believed that another major attack was imminent, and that only the use of torture would persuade a significant captured terrorist — as Zubaydah was presumed to be — to talk. The job of interrogating Zubaydah was handed over to the CIA, whose new repertoire of techniques consisted primarily of torture, including waterboarding (a form of controlled drowning), confinement in tiny, coffin-like boxes, extreme violence, prolonged isolation, and the use of sustained nudity and loud music and noise.

And yet, as the Post described it, Zubaydah “was not even an official member of al-Qaeda,” and was, instead, “a “kind of travel agent” for would-be jihadists. A former Justice Department official, who knows his case, explained, “He was the above-ground support. He was the guy keeping the safe house, and that’s not someone who gets to know the details of the plans. To make him the mastermind of anything is ridiculous.” What happened, it transpired, was that “because his name often turned up in intelligence traffic linked to al-Qaeda transactions,” some within the intelligence community presumed that he was a significant figure, whereas the truth was that, although committed to the idea of jihad, he did not share Osama bin Laden’s aims, and “regarded the United States as an enemy principally because of its support of Israel.” The officials explained that he “had strained and limited relations with bin Laden and only vague knowledge before the Sept. 11 attacks that something was brewing.”

Despite this, officials recalled that the pressure for information “from upper levels of the government,” where meetings were held daily to assess the terrorist threat, was “tremendous.” “They couldn’t stand the idea that there wasn’t anything new,” one of the Post’s sources said. “They’d say, ‘You aren’t working hard enough.’ There was both a disbelief in what he was saying and also a desire for retribution — a feeling that ‘He’s going to talk, and if he doesn’t talk, we’ll do whatever.’”

“Whatever” was, of course, the torture program, which “prompted a sudden torrent of names and facts,” although, as the Post’s article makes clear, nothing of value was gained through Zubaydah’s torture. “Nearly all of the leads attained through the harsh measures quickly evaporated,” former officials explained, “while most of the useful information from Abu Zubaydah — chiefly names of al-Qaeda members and associates — was obtained before waterboarding was introduced.”

The only useful lead cited — that of Jose Padilla, who had reportedly planned to detonate a radioactive “dirty bomb” in New York — is itself extremely dubious, as deputy defense secretary Paul Wolfowitz admitted in June 2002, shortly after Padilla was seized at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, and before he was declared an “enemy combatant” and imprisoned and tortured for three and a half years on the US mainland, that “there was not an actual plan” to set off a “dirty bomb,” and that his research had not gone much further than surfing the internet. Summing up the results of Zubaydah’s torture, a former intelligence official stated, bluntly, “We spent millions of dollars chasing false alarms.”

Ron Suskind’s exposure of the Abu Zubaydah story

None of this was, strictly speaking, news, although the Post is to be congratulated for securing further evidence to back up what was already known. Abu Zubaydah’s relative insignificance and the pointlessness of his torture was first revealed in 2006, in Ron Suskind’s book The One Percent Doctrine. Far from being “al-Qaeda’s chief of operations and top recruiter,” who would be able to “provide the names of terrorists around the world and which targets they planned to hit” (as TIME magazine — following the government line — described him after his capture), Zubaydah “turned out to be mentally ill and nothing like the pivotal figure they supposed him to be,” in the words of Barton Gellman, who reviewed Suskind’s book for the Washington Post in 2006. He “appeared to know nothing about terrorist operations,” and was, instead, the “go-to guy for minor logistics — travel for wives and children and the like,” reinforcing what former officials explained to the Post for Sunday’s article.

Suskind described how, through a close scrutiny of his diaries, in which FBI analysts found entries in the voices of three people — a boy, a young man and a middle-aged alter ego — which recorded in numbing detail, over the course of ten years, “what people ate, or wore, or trifling things they said,” Dan Coleman, the FBI’s senior expert on al-Qaeda, told his superiors, “This guy is insane, certifiable, split personality.”

Suskind also provided a colorful description of the results of Zubaydah’s torture, when he produced his “torrent” of false leads, explaining that he “confessed” to all manner of supposed plots — against shopping malls, banks, supermarkets, water systems, nuclear plants, apartment buildings, the Brooklyn Bridge, and the Statue of Liberty — and that, as a result, “thousands of uniformed men and women raced in a panic to each target … The United States would torture a mentally disturbed man and then leap, screaming, at every word he uttered.”

In key passages, Suskind explained, how, from early on, President Bush was briefed that Zubaydah was not as significant as had been presumed, a judgment that was “echoed at the top of CIA and was, of course, briefed to the President and Vice President,” but that this did nothing to prevent Bush, just a few weeks after his capture, from portraying Zubaydah as “one of the top operatives plotting and planning death and destruction on the United States.” According to Suskind, Bush told CIA director George Tenet, “I said he was important. You’re not going to let me lose face on this, are you?” He added that the President “was fixated on how to get Zubaydah to tell us the truth,” and asked, “Do some of these harsh methods really work?” As Suskind described it, “Interrogators did their best to find out,” introducing the torture techniques whose clinically regulated horrors were exposed so memorably by Mark Danner, and also by Jane Mayer in her book The Dark Side.

The FBI’s Dan Coleman speaks out

Suskind’s book was not the only occasion when Zubaydah’s story was publicized. In December 2007, when the story first broke that the CIA had illegally destroyed videotapes of interrogations including those of Zubaydah, Dan Coleman spoke out again, revisiting the CIA’s introduction of the torture program, after the successes recorded by the FBI, and telling the Washington Post how, when CIA operatives began holding him naked in his cell, “subjecting him to extreme cold and bombarding him with loud rock music,” FBI operatives who witnessed it said, “You’ve got to be kidding me. This guy’s a Muslim. That’s not going to win his confidence. Are you trying to get information out of him or just belittle him?”

Coleman also reiterated his skepticism about Zubaydah’s supposed importance, describing him as a “safehouse keeper” with mental problems, who “claimed to know more about al-Qaeda and its inner workings than he really did,” pointing out that his diaries were “full of flowery and philosophical meanderings, and made little mention of terrorism or al-Qaeda,” and explaining how he and others at the FBI had concluded not only that he had severe mental problems — particularly because of the head injury that he had suffered in 1992 — but also that this explained why he was regarded with suspicion by the al-Qaeda leadership. “They all knew he was crazy, and they knew he was always on the damn phone,” Coleman said. “You think they’re going to tell him anything?”

Abu Zubaydah’s own testimony — and that of Guantánamo prisoner Khalid al-Hubayshi

In my book The Guantánamo Files, and in an article last April, The Insignificance and Insanity of Abu Zubaydah, I also examined Zubaydah’s story, revisiting his tribunal at Guantánamo in 2007, when he stated that he was tortured by the CIA to admit that he worked with Osama bin Laden, but insisted, as Sunday’s Post article confirmed, “I’m not his partner and I’m not a member of al-Qaeda.” He added that his only role was to operate a guest house used by those who were training at Khaldan, and he also confirmed senior officials’ analysis of his relationship with bin Laden, saying, “Bin Laden wanted al-Qaeda to have control of Khaldan, but we refused since we had different ideas.” Further confirming points made in the Post’s article, he explained that he opposed attacks on civilian targets, which brought him into conflict with bin Laden, and although he admitted that he had been an enemy of the US since childhood, because of its support for Israel, pointed out that his enmity was towards the government and the military, and not the American people.

Another source, who confirmed much of what the senior officials — and Zubaydah himself — said, was Khalid al-Hubayshi, a Saudi prisoner released from Guantánamo in 2005, who had spent some time at the Khaldan camp, and knew Zubaydah. Al-Hubayshi told his tribunal in 2004 that, far from being a mastermind, Zubaydah was responsible for “receiving people and financing the camp,” that he once bought him travel tickets, and that he was the man he went to when he needed a replacement passport. He also confirmed that Zubaydah did not have a long-standing relationship with bin Laden. When asked, “When you were with Abu Zubaydah, did you ever see Osama bin Laden?” he replied, “In 1998, Abu Zubaydah and Osama bin Laden didn’t like each other.” He added, “In 2001, I think the relationship was okay,” and explained that bin Laden put pressure on Zubaydah to close Khaldan, essentially because he wanted to run more camps himself.

It would, of course, be difficult to overestimate what a blow Zubaydah’s story is to the Bush administration’s supposed justification for turning its back on its obligations under the UN Convention Against Torture, but the Post’s article is of particular importance for two other reasons.

What will happen to Abu Zubaydah now?

The first of these concerns Zubaydah’s current status. He was noticeably missing from the 27 prisoners charged in the Military Commission trial system at Guantánamo (before Barack Obama suspended the trials on his second day in office), but no previous reports have addressed what may happen to him now. The Post reported that some US officials “are pushing to have him charged now with conspiracy,” but that others, including CIA officials, want him sent to Jordan, where he has been accused of involvement with plots to attack a hotel and Christian holy sites. The Post explained that these officials “fear the consequences of taking a man into court who was waterboarded on largely false assumptions, because of the prospect of interrogation methods being revealed in detail and because of the chance of an acquittal that might set a legal precedent.”

On the other hand, Zubaydah’s lawyers want him to be transferred to a country other than Jordan, perhaps Saudi Arabia, where he has relatives. Law professor Joseph Margulies, one of his attorneys, explained, “The government doesn’t retreat from who KSM [Khalid Sheikh Mohammed] is, and neither does KSM. With Zubaydah, it’s different. The government seems finally to understand he is not at all the person they thought he was. But he was tortured. And that’s just a profoundly embarrassing position for the government to be in.”

The “ghost prisoners” captured with Abu Zubaydah

The most extraordinary revelation in the Post’s article, however, concerns Noor al-Deen, a Syrian teenager who was captured with Zubaydah in Pakistan. According to the former officials who spoke to the Post, al-Deen, who, like Zubaydah, suffered gunshot wounds during his capture, “worshiped the older man as a hero.” Former CIA interrogator John Kiriakou explained that al-Deen was terrified, and feared that he was about to be executed. “He was frightened — mostly over what we were going to do with him,” Kiriakou said. “He had come to the conclusion that his life was over.”

Unlike the handful of other men seized with Zubaydah, who ended up being sent to Guantánamo (without extensive stays in secret CIA custody), al-Deen and another man, Omar Ghramesh, were subjected to “extraordinary rendition” and sent to third countries to be interrogated. Aspects of Ghramesh’s story have been known about for several years, via Abdullah Almalki, a joint Syrian-Canadian national, who was seized by Syrian intelligence agents in May 2002, at the request of the Canadian authorities, and imprisoned and tortured for 22 months in the notorious military prison known as the “Palestine Branch,” before being released without charge. In 2006, Almalki was interviewed by Stephen Grey for his book Ghost Plane, and explained that two suspects seized with Zubaydah — Omar Ghramesh and an unnamed teenager — were rendered to the “Palestine Branch” on May 14, 2002, along with Abu Abdul Halim Dalak, a student seized in Pakistan in November 2001. Ghramesh explained that in Pakistan US agents had shown him photos of Abu Zubaydah looking battered and bruised, and had told him, “If you don’t talk, this is what will happen to you.”

Until now, the identity of the “unnamed teenager” was unknown, but it is now apparent that he was Noor al-Deen. The Post explained that the US officials had stated that, “perhaps because of his youth and agitated state,” al-Deen “readily answered US questions,” confirming that Zubaydah “was a well-known functionary with links to al-Qaeda, but he knew little detailed information about the group’s operations.” Nevertheless, his questioning “went on for months,” first in Pakistan, then in Morocco, and then in Syria.

The Post noted that “attempts to firmly establish his current whereabouts were unsuccessful,” but in truth the disappearance of Noor al-Deen — and of Omar Ghramesh and Abu Abdul Halim Dalak — is actually a more important story than that of Abu Zubaydah. I do not state this to play down the significance of Zubaydah’s futile and counter-productive torture, because it remains, I believe, a key element in demolishing the myths that former Bush administration officials — and especially Dick Cheney — are still using in an effort to shield themselves from prosecution, but because these three men are just a few of the hundreds — or thousands — of men whose whereabouts must be accounted for if Barack Obama is to succeed in his mission “to regain America’s moral stature in the world.”

Unlike the prisoners in Guantánamo, who have at least had some kind of opportunity to challenge the basis of their detention, through two significant Supreme Court rulings granting them habeas corpus rights, these men — genuinely, America’s Disappeared — have effectively vanished off the face of the earth, and are about as far from having any rights as it is possible for a human being to be.

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

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

Note: The Washington Post’s article referred to Abu Zubaydah (whose real name is Zayn al-Abidin Muhammad Husayn — or Hussein) as Abu Zubaida.

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), 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.

Guantánamo, Bagram and the “Dark Prison”: Binyam Mohamed talks to Moazzam Begg

The British human rights group Cageprisoners has just published a fascinating interview with Binyam Mohamed, the British resident, subjected to “extraordinary rendition” and torture, who was freed from Guantánamo on February 23. I have covered Binyam’s story in great depth over the last few years (see the list of articles at the end of this interview), including a detailed analysis of an interview he did with the journalist David Rose for the Mail on Sunday, following his release, but this interview, in which Moazzam Begg, former prisoner and spokesman for Cageprisoners, generally refrains from asking questions about Binyam’s torture, is particularly noteworthy for its insights into the psychological effects of incarceration in the CIA’s “Dark Prison” in Afghanistan, life as a prisoner in Bagram and Guantánamo, tales of other prisoners, and reflections on the importance of the prisoners’ faith, and the authorities’ response to it.

Moazzam Begg: Bismillah ir-Rahman ir-Raheem (In the Name of Allah, the Most Beneficent, the Most Merciful). I’m sitting here with brother Binyam Mohamed.  Binyam, could you just introduce yourself a little bit and tell us who you are and where you’ve been for the past few years?

Binyam Mohamed: My name is Binyam Mohamed. I’m an Ethiopian citizen, born in Ethiopia. I came to the UK when I was 15 years old.

Moazzam Begg: You’re obviously well-known for having been held in Guantánamo Bay and the American secret prisons for the past few years. First of all, I’d like to say to you, brother, may Allah be praised for your return back to this country. I’d like to begin by asking you: you’ve been held in one of the world’s most notorious — if not the most notorious — prison, for all this time. Lots of people feel that the people there, despite all of the atrocities that they faced, are victims. Would you describe yourself as a victim or as a survivor?

Binyam Mohamed: First of all, I would praise Allah for the release, which happened after almost seven years of incarceration. I would say more like a survivor, because we had to survive so as not to lose our minds, and we came up with a lot of ways on how to survive in the situations that we found ourselves in.

Moazzam Begg: You were taken to custody in Pakistan and then moved over to Morocco, where you spent several months, or was it years?

Binyam Mohamed: I was held in Pakistan for almost three and a half months, and transported to Morocco, where I spent exactly 18 months.

Moazzam Begg: And then you were moved to Kabul in Afghanistan, to the “Dark Prison”?

Binyam Mohamed: And then I was moved to Kabul, where I spent almost five months.

Moazzam Begg: And then you were moved to the Bagram Detention Facility?

Binyam Mohamed: Yes, we were moved to Bagram around June 2004, where we spent three to four months.

Moazzam Begg: I realise you’ve already done interviews with other people. I’m not going to try to focus on the terrible torture that was meted out to you, but what I do want to focus on is people that you witnessed, and people that are still in the custody of the USA. When you were in the Bagram Detention Facility after being held in the “Dark Prison,” you came across a female prisoner. Can you describe a little bit about who you think she is and what you saw of her?

Binyam Mohamed: In Bagram, I did come across a female who wore a shirt with the number of “650,” and I saw her several times, and I heard a lot of stories about her from the guards and the other prisoners over there.

Moazzam Begg: And these stories said what about her, in terms of her description and her background?

Binyam Mohamed: What we were told first … we were frightened by the guards not to communicate with her, because they feared that we would talk to her and we would know who she was. So they told us that she was a spy from Pakistan, working with the government, and the Americans brought her to Bagram.

Moazzam Begg: So you think they spread the rumour that she was a spy … that would have kept you away from her and apprehensive towards her?

Binyam Mohamed: Basically, nobody talked to her in the facility, and she was held in isolation, where … she was only brought out to the main facility just to use the toilet. But all I knew about her was that she was from Pakistan, and that she had studied, or she had lived in America. And the guards would talk a lot about her, and I did actually see her picture when I was here a few weeks ago, and I would say she’s the very person I saw in Bagram.

Moazzam Begg: And that’s the very picture I showed you of Aafia Siddiqui?

Binyam Mohamed: That’s the very picture I saw.

Moazzam Begg: There have been all sorts of rumours about what happened to her — and may Allah free her soon — but part of those rumours include her being terribly abused. Do you have any knowledge of what abuse she might have faced?

Binyam Mohamed: Apart from her being in isolation — and the fact that I saw, when she was walking up and down, I could tell that she was severely disturbed — I don’t think she was in her right mind — literally, I don’t think she was sane — and I didn’t feel anything at that time, because, as far as I was concerned, she was a hypocrite working with the other governments. But had we known that she was a sister, I don’t think we would have been silent. I think there would have been a lot of maybe even riots in Bagram.

Moazzam Begg: Some of the brothers who later escaped from Bagram spoke about her and said that they learnt afterwards who she was and that they went on hunger strike. You might have left by this time, but were the other prisoners there upset by seeing a woman there, regardless, as a prisoner?

Binyam Mohamed: We were upset at witnessing just the weakened, the injured in front of us in Bagram, and had we known that there was a sister over there, I don’t think anyone would have been silent. But to keep Bagram as Bagram — quiet — the Americans put out the rumour that she was not a sister.

Moazzam Begg: That she was a spy.

Binyam Mohamed: That she was a spy and we had to stay away from her.

Moazzam Begg: Did you ever hear any rumours at that time of her having children, or anything like that?

Binyam Mohamed: I had heard — I’m not sure if from the guards or from the brothers — that she did have children, but the children were not in Bagram. They were somewhere else.

Moazzam Begg: And was there any rumour or discussion as to what happened to those children?

Binyam Mohamed: We had no idea what happened to the children.

Moazzam Begg: Eventually you moved to Guantánamo Bay, and one of the things that often comes out about the Bagram Detention Facility is that people were subjected to all sorts of different torture there, and then they compared that to Guantánamo. If you were able to compare the different prisons you were held in — from Morocco, from the “Dark Prison,” Bagram to Guantánamo — which would you say is the worst?

Binyam Mohamed: Personally, I take the “Dark Prison” as being the worst, and that’s because I was literally there not for gathering information. It wasn’t set up as a detention centre, it was literally there just to have somebody go insane.

Moazzam Begg: Can you describe a little the “Dark Prison” and what it’s like, because there are many reports we’ve had from those that were held there — and they seem to be consistent — but just to hear from you in terms of what effect it had on you: how was the “Dark Prison”?

Binyam Mohamed: Right from the beginning of where you can’t sleep unless you literally … you’re so tired you can’t stay awake, that just tells you that you’re in a place where your mind starts telling you that, to me, literally that I didn’t know I existed. In the other prisons I was in, it was, “When is this going to end?” In the “Dark Prison,” it wasn’t, “Is this going to end?” it was, “Is this real?”

Moazzam Begg: One of the hardest things I found, being held in Bagram myself,  was, I knew that I could deal with my own abuse, when they abused me in Bagram or Kandahar or Guantánamo, but the hardest thing was to watch it happen to someone else. Did you regularly see other people being abused by the American soldiers?

Binyam Mohamed: I used to literally see all kinds of abuses, and the humiliations, degrading treatment, but the Americans usually did it as a way of separating between those whom they liked and those who they didn’t like.

Moazzam Begg: Those who co-operated and those who didn’t?

Binyam Mohamed: Yeah … If you were safe from being abused, you literally didn’t want to be standing up for those who were being abused, because you would find yourself being in front of their abuse, and, for example, this happened in Bagram, where there was this Afghan who had been shot at least twenty times, and the guy had … he was just a skeleton, because he couldn’t eat. And they’d flown him from the hospital where he was staying to the Bagram Facility, just to instil fear into the population. Americans don’t care. They find you outside, shoot you twenty times, put you in a hospital. You start walking well, they put you in the system.

Literally, the guy couldn’t even … let alone walk, he couldn’t even sleep well. He was in the shower, where he was forced to go out back to his isolation, and the man couldn’t walk, so he asked to sit down. And these are the very guards who yesterday were smiling and laughing with us, they were telling this guy he had to talk. I tried to intervene. I couldn’t. The other brothers tried to intervene. They couldn’t. So we got into this confrontation where we tried telling them … they’re not going to have it. And this is in Bagram, so what happened was very simple. So we got into this confrontation where the guy at the … what they call “the Catwalk,” the bridge above us watching the showers, he was just about to shoot us, because we tried to tell the guards to let the guy to sit down and have a rest and then go back to his cell.

Moazzam Begg: The guard put a round in the chamber? He cocked the gun?

Binyam Mohamed: He was ready to shoot. He was ready to fire. And this was the kind of confrontation where when we tried to stand up against the oppression we saw inside the system. We can’t.

Moazzam Begg: One of the things that I remember from Bagram was that, even the issue of being able to pray together, to call the Adhan (call to prayer), to read the Qur’an, was regarded as a crime. Did you experience any of this?

Binyam Mohamed: In Bagram, we literally couldn’t pray, two people together, let alone a group. If they saw you praying just next to each other, they would force you to stop. And if you didn’t stop, you get put in isolation and suffer all the other abuses that they have — of tying you up for six hours or eight hours or whatever it is.

Moazzam Begg: Do you think that the American soldiers were doing this because they genuinely hated Islam — they were ignorant — or they were being told to do this?

Binyam Mohamed: I would say it’s a mix. I mean, most of them, they literally, I would say, were doing it because they hated Islam. And there were a few who were doing it because they were ordered. The ignorant I would say was one percent. There weren’t many ignorant people over there.

Moazzam Begg: I think ignorance breeds hatred, so my experience was that most of these guys, because they were ignorant, they had hatred. But if they had known properly, they would have had some respect for the religion of Islam. But even the idea of some of the basic normality that one would expect in that place — after all, they’re in a Muslim country administering Muslim prisoners — do you really think they had much knowledge of the culture, language and religion of the people they were guarding?

Binyam Mohamed: The problem with the Americans in Afghanistan — they hated the Arabs, and yet they hated the Afghans even more, and they tried to play the game of one above the other, and they tried the system of trying to get us to hate the Afghans, or getting the Afghans to hate the Arabs.

Moazzam Begg: So, divide and conquer?

Binyam Mohamed: Divide and conquer. I don’t think that the decision-makers were stupid enough to not know enough of Islam to be in Afghanistan. The ones at the bottom — the foot soldiers — they were just taking orders, and at the end of the day they’re still going to take orders whether they know Islam or not.

Moazzam Begg: Following on from that, did you come across any soldiers there who you think were good, ordinary, decent people who you could have a conversation with, and who were understanding?

Binyam Mohamed: I was actually in the position of talking to a lot of them because I knew English. Whenever they used to go on their files and check the profiles of people, they used to find out that I was in the US, so they had something to talk to me about. It was some kind of … something in common that they wanted to talk about. But with the rest of the people, it was basically that they didn’t want to know them.

Moazzam Begg: And did you find that being an English speaker was a blessing at the time, or was it a blessing and a curse, or was it just a curse?

Binyam Mohamed: Literally, it was a blessing at times and a curse at times.

Moazzam Begg: And that’s because everyone wants to interrogate you, that you understand what every order is?

Binyam Mohamed: Yeah, it works both ways. They find they can’t abuse me as much as they abuse a non-English speaker because they weren’t afraid of someone who couldn’t speak English reporting an incident that happened. A non-English speaker needs a translator, and the translation gets lost.

Moazzam Begg: One of the things that I came across in Bagram also was somebody who’d been terribly wounded. He’d been shot in his eye, and he had two huge exit wounds in his shoulder and chest. And that is the young boy Omar Khadr, who is the only Canadian — the only Westerner [Western citizen] — still in Guantánamo. I didn’t meet him in Guantánamo, I only met him in Bagram, and I was … my heart bled for him, because he was a very sweet young boy, and even to see him try to recite the Qur’an used to bring tears to my eyes. Did you have much interaction with Omar?

Binyam Mohamed: Omar Khadr was that sweet young boy, but I met him as a young man, and I met him while we were commissioned. We were put in the same block.

Moazzam Begg: You were both charged under the Military Commissions?

Binyam Mohamed: Both of us were charged almost the same time in 2005 — around November — so we met up in the beginning of 2006, back in Camp 5. And we started getting to know each other. I’d seen him before. I’d met with him before in the other block, but not like there, because we started going out to break together.

Moazzam Begg: That’s recreation, in the recreation yard?

Binyam Mohamed: What they call the recreation yard, where it is just a small cage — a four by four cell — over months and months, and we used to sit down together and we used to talk a lot.

Moazzam Begg: So they’d let you talk and walk together in the same recreation yard?

Binyam Mohamed: Actually, I had my own cage and he had his own cage. There was not that much interaction. But, I mean, at least we could talk much more freely than inside the block.

Moazzam Begg: What were your impressions of Omar Khadr?

Binyam Mohamed: [It was] kind of ridiculous, having a youngster being charged by the Commission system, and portrayed as this evil person. The reality is, here’s where the Americans have got it wrong. Omar stands as this youngster Muslim who’s been oppressed by the Americans, for no apparent reason except just being Muslim.  So there it is, and, I mean, if you go to Guantánamo, you know … I mean, he’s just a normal person.

Moazzam Begg: One of the people that I came across in Bagram — an American interrogator [Damien Corsetti] — has now turned against the American military in terms of what they did in Afghanistan and later in Iraq. He knew Omar Khadr also, and I spoke to him … I phoned him a couple of weeks ago, and he now is being a witness for the defence of Omar Khadr, because he was an interrogator at the time and he said I’ve now recognised what took place was wrong and I’m going to try and do something about it.

Binyam Mohamed: I think it’s been a long time, where we were expecting people were going to start taking responsibility for the crimes they’ve done, and portraying [us through] the allegations against us — whether we’d been charged or not — as criminals, and yet the real criminals are there in the White House, or in the Pentagon, wherever they are. People have to start taking responsibility.

Moazzam Begg: What is it that gives you, as a prisoner who served all this time in US custody, the strength to even say that I could have survived that? Where did your strength come from?

Binyam Mohamed: Strength comes from Allah. There’s no other place it comes from except from Allah, and if it wasn’t for Allah we would have been completely lost.

Moazzam Begg: Some of the American soldiers used to say to me: if I was in a cell like this, if I was imprisoned, I would have broken. And I used to respond by saying: at least I have five things to look forward to every day. But it wasn’t completely normal, even those five things that you did — the five prayers. How did you manage to perform your prayers for Jumu’ah (Friday), for Eid, in congregation. How did you do all these things?

Binyam Mohamed: Sadly I didn’t have any congregational prayer in any of the prisons I’ve been in.

Moazzam Begg: Seven years — you’d never pray in congregation, in jama’ah?

Binyam Mohamed: I don’t … there was no congregational prayer in any of the places I’ve been.

Moazzam Begg: And Jumu’ah and Eid?

Binyam Mohamed: No Jumu’ah, no Eid. None of those prayers were in congregation and the only congregational prayer that was allowed — which could have happened — was in Camp Four, and I never stayed in Camp Four.

Moazzam Begg: In the blocks, it’s not a congregational prayer, but people still pray behind one another. And this is just to explain that inside each block there’s 24 cells in Camp Delta, and 24 cells on either side — 48 altogether. The person who’s in the front would lead the prayer, regardless of who he was. And this is what used to happen, but nobody could actually physically stand together.

Binyam Mohamed: No, there was no standing together. I mean, even my experience was mostly in Camp 5 and Camp 6, where you’re actually don’t even see the person in front of you. It’s just a wall.

Moazzam Begg: These are concrete cement walls, as opposed to the cages, where you can see other people.

Binyam Mohamed: And the sound was just faint. It would just come through the crack of the doors, and it’s not like the cages, where the sound just travelled. But people kept up the prayers — as they called them, congregational prayers — to be together, because the one thing that the brothers wanted to do was to be together, and it’s still being practised in Camp 5 and Camp 6.

Moazzam Begg: You say of course the brothers wanted to be together, and the concept of brotherhood there is extremely important, particularly because of the adverse circumstances. There’s one brother there, in particular, who’s regarded in some of the press as one of the most influential people in Guantánamo Bay.  But this brother was supposed to be on the plane with you — or so you thought — when you returned to the United Kingdom. Can you tell me something of this brother?

Binyam Mohamed: This brother, who is Shaker Aamer, who was meant to have been on the plane with me, he was very influential in Guantánamo. I mean, he changed a lot of stuff, a lot of the abuses the brothers were going through, he changed a lot of that.

Moazzam Begg: And he changed it by …?

Binyam Mohamed: By gathering the brothers together and actually working a deal with the Americans, and going to Americans — going to the Americans with a proposal of what he wanted to change. And it was working well until some interrogators interfered with what was happening, and Shaker got the blame for it.

Moazzam Begg: You’re speaking of the hunger strikes, and the rights that he was trying to advocate for the prisoners — for better food, for non-abuse of the Qur’an, for the prisoners not to be strip-searched every time, and those sorts of things. That’s correct?

Binyam Mohamed: These were the things Shaker was working on, and I was literally next door, next to his cell He was in cell 17, I was in cell 19 (there was just one cell between us), and I knew exactly what he was trying to do, and we did try and work on all of this, and we accomplished a lot of things. That was back in 2005, but just one interrogator — he beat up one of the prisoners in interrogation, which just turned everything into a riot, and then Shaker was isolated from us from 2005.

Moazzam Begg: And he was taken away completely from everybody and held in one of the isolation camps in Camp Echo.

Binyam Mohamed: He was held in Camp Echo from 2005, to, I think, 2008, when they decided to take him out. Just a few months ago.

Moazzam Begg: Shaker Aamer was one of my closest friends, though I never saw him in Guantánamo or Bagram, and one of the worst things for me was the knowledge that both of us had sons born whilst we were in detention in Guantánamo. His family are all here in Great Britain — they’re all British. His youngest child is almost eight years old and he’s never seen him in his life. Do you remember Shaker talking anything about his family at all, or how he used to deal with being separated from them for such a long time?

Binyam Mohamed: When I was with Shaker, he was literally preoccupied with the hunger strikes, although, as always in Guantánamo, he did speak about his son, and how much he would like to come and stay with his son, and he was actually looking forward to coming to the UK to see his family here, and live with them. And, I think, back in 2005, there was an expectation that he would be here. I mean, he did expect there would come a day when he would come to the UK and meet his family.

Moazzam Begg: Shaker is still not being returned, but you were led to believe that he was going to be on the plane with you?

Binyam Mohamed: I spoke to the Foreign and Commonwealth officers on the plane about Shaker, and they did say that he was meant to be on the plane, and the UK had requested from the US for his release. But the only problem they’re having right now is that the US is refusing Shaker’s release to the UK.

Moazzam Begg: They’re refusing this, ironically, not because he was going to be charged under the Military Commissions or anything like that, but because he’s an influential person.

Binyam Mohamed: I would say the Americans are trying to keep him as silent as they could. It’s not that he has anything. What happened in 2005 and 2006 is something that the Americans don’t want the world to know — hunger strikes, and all the events that took place, until the three brothers who died … insider information of all the events, probably. Obviously, Shaker doesn’t have them, but the Americans think he may have some of them, and they don’t like this kind of information being released. And they try and delay a person’s release, because I was in the same position back in 2007. I was supposed to be released with the other three residents, but since I was right in the American authority, on this very issue — the hunger strikes in 2005, and the deaths — they decided to delay my release.

Moazzam Begg: You’ve spoken much of the hunger strikes. I know I’ve gone to Northern Ireland many times and spoken with a lot of former Irish prisoners and spoken to a lot of the hunger strikers, and have even met people who were with Bobby Sands before he died, and those people. Do you think that the hunger strike really made any difference?

Binyam Mohamed: Back in 2005 it actually did — it changed everything. The Americans did come and say that they were going to implement law, because in Guantánamo before 2005, there was no law, there was no rule. The colonel’s saying, “I do what I like,” but after the hunger strike — the big hunger strike of 2005 — they actually started implementing some kind of law that we knew about — not that we liked it, but we knew — that discard the rules that apply in Guantánamo.

Moazzam Begg: You weren’t — none of us were — treated as prisoners of war, but do you think that, had they done this, there would have been less problems between the prisoners and the administration?

Binyam Mohamed: Well, if you look at it, I mean, Camp 4, where there was a lot of people in Camp 4, there’s never been any kind of problems between the prisoners and the administration, or the guards. Even though Camp 4 is not like a POW camp, but there’s never been any kind of problem. But the isolations and the segregations that the Americans don’t want to admit as being segregation — like Camp 5, Camp 6 — that’s where all the problems are.

Moazzam Begg: When you say segregation, what do you mean?

Binyam Mohamed: Segregation, according to my reading of it, is being isolated in a cell, where you’re in your own cell — you’re being segregated from the next person. The American type of segregation is where you separate them from the public [general population] and you don’t get to see another person, so they don’t classify Camp 5 as a segregation camp, nor Camp 6.

Moazzam Begg: And these were then in fact isolated cells, where you don’t see or interact with any other people?

Binyam Mohamed: That’s exactly what Camp 5 and Camp 6 is.

Moazzam Begg: And do you think that much has changed since Barack Obama came into power, and what was the feeling in Guantánamo Bay when this happened?

Binyam Mohamed: When the administration changed over, Guantánamo Bay didn’t change anyhow. I mean, the prisoners didn’t even care. Neither were they upset, nor were they happy. They didn’t really care, because we don’t look upon an administration and build our hopes on some administration to come and change oppression. Our belief is in Allah, and Allah’s the One who’s going to change this oppression, not some new administration. So the people in Guantánamo really didn’t care. There was no emotion to it.

The side of the administration in Guantánamo, they started being more oppressive, and it’s, like, started implementing rules, degrading rules, where they pushed most of us to actually go on hunger strikes, and if you look at the records before the new administration took over, there was only about ten to twenty people who were on hunger strike, and right after the new administration took over, it went all the way to forty-something on tube-feeding, and another hundred just on hunger strike.

Moazzam Begg: Do you mean this is when they force-feed, they tie somebody down and they force a tube into their nose and force liquid food into them?

Binyam Mohamed: Yeah, that’s exactly what we call tube-feeding in Guantánamo.

Moazzam Begg: And so you say the hunger strikes — even now as we speak, or when you left — were still taking place?

Binyam Mohamed: I was registered the 41st tube-feeder, and after me there was another three who were being registered for tube-feeding — this is just in Camp 5. So, I mean, right now, I would say, unless the administration has worked out a deal with the hunger strikers, I would say the numbers are way above fifty right now.

Moazzam Begg: Even now, after Obama has said that he will close Guantánamo — he’s even said that he will no longer call these people “enemy combatants,” just last week — even despite all of this, people are hunger-striking?

Binyam Mohamed: The administration says a lot of things here, but they don’t control Guantánamo. Guantánamo is controlled by JTF (which is Joint Task Force), and JDG (which is Joint Defence Group), and they make the rules in Guantánamo, and the way they’re going on is … when I was there, there was no change. It’s just going to get worse, that’s the way it is.

Moazzam Begg: What do you think will happen, should happen, with the prisoners who are still over there?

Binyam Mohamed: I mean, I had heard that this new administration said they’re going to close the place down in a year. It don’t take a year to release people, it don’t take a year to shut down a place. If this administration was trying to do right to a wrong, all they have to do is open a gate and let people out.

Moazzam Begg: The largest number of people still held there are the Yemenis.  Is there anything particular about the Yemenis that you think has prevented the Americans from releasing them so far?

Binyam Mohamed: I think the Americans are expecting … they’re pushing for a lot in Yemen, and the politics over there is keeping the Yemenis from release, and here’s where we have politics interfering with justice, and it should be justice above politics, but the world we’re in right now, that’s not the way it is.

Moazzam Begg: A lot of people who were affected by the “War on Terror” — and, of course, the people detained in Guantánamo — are exclusively Muslims. What do you think is the duty upon people from the Muslim world in particular towards those held in Guantánamo and the secret detention sites?

Binyam Mohamed: Don’t forget them from your prayers, and support them anyhow you can.

Moazzam Begg: There are many people who would think that what this whole episode would mean — for you, for me, for anyone else who’s been held in Guantánamo and so forth — is too much for a person to bear, and that after this sort of an experience, one should just come back home, keep your head down, and not get involved in anything, in terms of fighting for the rights of other prisoners. What response would you give to that?

Binyam Mohamed: These seven years has taught me a lot. I’ve learnt things which I didn’t even know, things that I couldn’t have learnt except through this experience. Putting your head down because of fear, that shouldn’t be an excuse not to do your duty. There’s oppression here. We have to stand up to it.

Moazzam Begg: Despite many people thinking about the terrible things that have happened in Guantánamo, some things out of it, many things, I see have come out of it that we couldn’t have expected. Many of the prisoners — myself included — memorised a lot of the Qur’an in Guantánamo and Bagram and so forth. What do you think would be the percentage of the people that have almost completed the whole memorisation of the Qur’an in Guantánamo now?

Binyam Mohamed: I would say it’s about ninety percent who memorised the Qur’an, and even the other ten percent, they have memorised it, it’s just they may have forgotten because the situation that they’re in at Guantánamo, it’s not very easy to keep yourself to yourself.

Moazzam Begg: There was a time when the Qur’an was being taken from the cells and being abused and thrown away, and some prisoners decided that they didn’t want the Qur’an in their cell anymore. How did these prisoners then continue their … the knowledge of the Qur’an?

Binyam Mohamed: It was amazing. Even I didn’t have a Qur’an most of the time, and what I would do was, I would get a person who’s memorised the Qur’an to read me a verse and memorise that verse from him, and just repeat it the whole day. And it’s just amazing. You may think it’s time-consuming, but at the end of the year, you’d find you’d memorised nearly half of the Qur’an that way.

Moazzam Begg: In fact, this is how the Qur’an was revealed to the Prophet (Salla Allahu alayhi wasallam — peace be upon him), and how it was distributed to the Sahaabah (his companions, may Allah be pleased with them). The Prophet (Salla Allahu alayhi wasallam) was an-Nabee al-Ummee — he couldn’t read or write — and it was done by word of mouth, and in fact had it not been for all the huffaadh (memorisers) of the Qur’an who were getting killed in the early battles, the Qur’an wouldn’t have been put in book form, so it seems so amazing that people have returned to this form of learning the Qur’an. Was it also like this in terms of other Islamic sciences, and other general sciences that people would discuss with one another, or was it just the Qur’an people taught one another?

Binyam Mohamed: People used to do this very thing with the Hadith (reports about the Prophet, Salla Allahu alayhi wasallam), and other kind of knowledge was there. And mainly in Guantánamo was just knowledge through word of mouth — there was no writing.

Moazzam Begg: One of the things that happens for convicted prisoners — in fact, some of the worst convicted prisoners in the world, I have to say — is that they can study PhDs, doctorates, their bachelor’s degrees and so forth. Were you given any access to this, despite not having been charged with a crime?

Binyam Mohamed: I had access on doing a PhD on torture and abuse, and I graduated from Guantánamo with a PhD in that … that’s all we got.

Moazzam Begg: You’re now a free man, or relatively free man — relatively free, because there are conditions still in your case. What are your hopes for the future — what do you want to see happen — in your own situation, and in the situation of the prisoners still there?

Binyam Mohamed: I would hope that my case is resolved, whichever it be — if it be with the Home Office, or the Foreign Office — and for the prisoners, I would like to see justice, and not propaganda: the release of all the prisoners in Guantánamo and the other prisons.

Moazzam Begg: We — all the former Guantánamo Bay detainees, or lots of us — have a case against the British government for complicity in our torture. Do you think that the British government or the intelligence services should be held to account, or should they be able to say sorry and walk away?

Binyam Mohamed: I would say a lot more than sorry. Sorry is not enough. Maybe sorry and change their policies.

Moazzam Begg: Coming out now a lot, just over the past couple of weeks, is that there are allegations against the British intelligence, for torture of British citizens in countries as wide and diverse as Egypt, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Morocco in your case, in my case Afghanistan and Pakistan. I think the problem is much bigger than they’re admitting. Do you think they’re going to admit it at some point?

Binyam Mohamed: I think the British government would admit a lot of this sometime in the future, unlike the Americans, who have … I would think the British are more intelligent than the Americans when it comes to this kind of stuff.

Moazzam Begg: Jazak Allah khair (may Allah reward you with good), Binyam Mohamed. May Allah accept all your struggles over the years, and replace them with a heavy balance for you on the Day of Judgement. Baarak Allah feek (may Allah bless you).

Binyam Mohamed: Wa iyyakum (and to you).

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

For a sequence of articles relating to Binyam Mohamed, see the following: Urgent appeal for British resident Binyam Mohamed, “close to suicide” in Guantánamo (December 2007), 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), 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? (February 2009), Seven Years of Torture: Binyam Mohamed Tells His Story (March 2009), Binyam Mohamed’s Plea Bargain: Trading Torture For Freedom (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).

A Letter To Barack Obama From A Guantánamo Uighur

There were once 22 Uighur prisoners in Guantánamo. Muslims from China’s oppressed Xinjiang province, they had all been swept up as human debris during “Operation Enduring Freedom,” the US-led invasion of Afghanistan that began in October 2001. The majority of these men were seized after fleeing to Pakistan from a run-down settlement in Afghanistan’s Tora Bora mountains, which had been hit in a US bombing raid. Initially welcomed by Pakistani villagers, they were then betrayed and sold to US forces, who were offering $5000 a head for “al-Qaeda and Taliban suspects.”

None of the men had been in Afghanistan to support al-Qaeda or the Taliban, and none had raised arms against US forces. They all maintained that they had only one enemy — the Chinese government — and explained that they had ended up at the settlement either in the hope of finding a way of rising up against their oppressors, which was unlikely, as the settlement was dirt-poor and had only one gun, or because they had hoped to travel to other countries in search of work — primarily Turkey, which has historic connections to the people of East Turkestan (as the Uighurs call their homeland) — but had been thwarted in their aims.

In May 2006, five of the 22 were freed from Guantánamo, after being cleared in a military review, and sent to live in a refugee camp in Albania, the only country that could be persuaded to accept them after the US authorities acknowledged that they would not return them to China, where they faced the risk of torture. For the other 17, justice was to prove more elusive, and it was until June 2008, in the wake of a Supreme Court ruling confirming that the Guantánamo prisoners had habeas corpus rights (the right to challenge the basis of their detention in court), that an appeals court in Washington ruled that the government had failed to establish a case that one of the men — Huzaifa Parhat — was an “enemy combatant.”

In the wake of the ruling, the government gave up attempting to prove that the other 16 Uighurs were “enemy combatants,” and when their case came up before District Court Judge Ricardo Urbina last October, he ruled that their continued detention was unconstitutional, and that, because no other country had been found that would accept them, they were to be admitted to the United States, to the care of communities in Washington and Tallahassee, Florida, who had prepared detailed plans for their resettlement.

This proved intolerable to the Bush administration, which appealed the decision. The Justice Department spouted unprincipled claims that the men were a threat (even though they had been cleared of being “enemy combatants”), and refused to acknowledge that a judge had the right to order the men’s release into the United States, thereby robbing the Supreme Court of a key element of the powers it intended to grant to the lower courts when it confirmed, in June, that the prisoners had habeas corpus rights.

Despite its manifest weaknesses, the government’s appeal — in a court that had a history of backing up cases relating to the “War on Terror” that were later overruled by the Supreme Court — was successful. This is the situation that prevails to this day, although on Monday the Uighurs’ lawyers announced that they planned “to petition the US Supreme Court to intervene on their clients’ behalf,” and, perhaps even more significantly, last week it was reported that the Obama administration was “set to reverse a key Bush administration policy by allowing some of the 240 remaining Guantánamo Bay inmates to be resettled on American soil.” As the Guardian described it, “Washington has told European officials that once a review of the Guantánamo cases is completed, the US will almost certainly allow some inmates to resettle on the mainland.”

If confirmed, it is possible that these men will include some, or all of the Uighurs, but in the meantime Abu Bakker Qassim, one of the five Uighurs freed in Albania in 2006, who left his pregnant wife and young son in a thwarted attempt to find work in Turkey, has just written a letter to President Obama, telling his story and appealing to the President to act on behalf of the remaining Uighurs in Guantánamo.

The letter was made available by Sabin Willett, one of the Uighurs’ attorneys, and is reproduced below:

Abu Bakker Qassim’s letter to Barack Obama

Dear Mr. President,

I express my gratitude and my best respect for the contribution of the United States of America to our Uighur community. At the same time, I express my gratitude for your right and prompt decision to close the jail of Guantánamo Bay. I hope you will forgive my English, which I have tried to learn.

I hope my letter will find you in a good health. Please allow me to express my wish and prayer to read my letter.

My name is Abu Bakker and I’m writing on behalf of Ahmet, Aktar, Ejup, with whom I have lived since May 2006 in Albania, the only country that offered us political asylum from Guantánamo when US courts concluded that we were not enemy combatants.

I would like to write something about myself. The Uighur people have a proverb: “Who thinks about the end will never be a hero.” Obviously it is human to think about the end, as it is human for me to remember things long ago.

30.12.2000. My last night in my little home. No one was sleeping … not even my eight-month twins in my wife’s womb. No one was speaking … even my two-year old son … I had decided that I would confess that night to my wife the end I had thought of in my heart, but I hesitated because of a question my son had asked me, that I could not answer. It was at the beginning of winter. We were standing near the oven, and I was cuddling his hands. He took with his little hands my forefinger.

Dad! Is a fingernail a bone?

No, I said. The fingernail is not a bone.

It is flesh?

No. Neither is it flesh.

So, the fingernail: what is it, Dad?

I didn’t know.

I don’t know, I said.

So small was my boy, and I couldn’t answer his questions. And when he grows up and the questions are not about the fingernail? How shall I answer then?

31.12.2000. Without telling the end, without turning back my head, without fear I started my long and already known way. “Ah, if only …! Ah, if only I reach Istanbul, am hired in the factory, to work day and night, to save my self and money. God is great! Ah, if only I could bring my wife there, my son and — the most important — to see my twins for the first time in Istanbul. To hold them on my breast, to pick up as I could … to show my son and to tell to them: We are from the place where the sun rises. I would embrace them, I would answer all of their questions, I would teach to them everything my mother taught me, as her mother taught her, to my grandmother her grandmother … as though in a movie with a happy ending: me film director, me scenarist, me at the lead role. The hero of my dearest people … Me.”

After three years and a half, questions after questions, the military tribunal in Guantánamo asked me:

If you will die here, what will you think at your last minutes?

I’m a husband and a father that is dying in the heroism’s ways, I answered and I asked the permission to put a question of my own.

If Guantánamo Bay were closed today, would you be a hero for your children?

I was proclaimed innocent. The lawyer proposed — meantime we were waiting for a state which will accept us — to live in a hotel in the Military Base of Guantánamo Bay. No way! We were put in a camp near to the jail, which was called “Iguana Camp.” We were nine. Sometimes, one of my friends asked the soldiers about the time. Even today, I hadn’t understood why he needed to know the time. I asked the time … I had reasons …

In Camp Iguana, there were iguanas. We fed them with bread, so they began to enter in our dormitory. All of us needed their company. Sometimes, when they were late, everyone missed them …

One morning, I had an unforgettable surprise from my friends. They gave to me cake from their meal, since that day was my twins’ birthday. The same day, in our dormitory entered two iguanas and I give to them the cake … thinking about my kids … thinking about my end … My dream finished from Istanbul to Guantánamo, from my kids to iguanas …

Finally in 2006 I arrived in Albania, my second homeland. The ring of the telephone! What anxiety! Are they alive? For the first time, I spoke with my wife and my kids. They were alive!

Every morning, I go out of my home before the sun rises and wait for him with the hands up and empty. Since I’m still from the country where the sun rises. I think about the family which perhaps I will never see again and I resolve not to forget my vow, seven years ago, to be their hero.

Yet, Mr. President, seventeen of my brothers remain in that prison today. It is three years since I left the prison, and still they are there. Please end their suffering soon. Your January 22 words were so welcome to us, and I congratulate you for that and for your historic election. But many months have passed.

For the four of us who remain in Albania (one of us is in Sweden today, trying for asylum), life is very hard, and our future still seems far away. I hope that one day soon your government and countrymen will meet our seventeen brothers. Maybe when that day comes there would be hope that we might come to America too.

Mr. President.

In life not everyone will reach his desired end. Perhaps you don’t know, but we are similar … Except as to the end. Since you, like me, without thinking abut the end of your long way, managed to be a hero … I’m at Your side … I’m proud of you …

Mr. President.

Please allow me to share with You a thought. Gift a pair of shoes to every child, to every woman, or every barefoot man since the barefoot people doesn’t think too much before walking on the dirty mud. Begin with everything from above.

Very truly yours,

Abu Bakker Qassim

Tirana, Albania
March 24, 2009

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

As published on the Huffington Post, Antiwar.com and CounterPunch. Also cross-posted on Common Dreams.

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), Will Europe Take The Cleared Guantánamo Prisoners? (December 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.

Binyam Mohamed’s Plea Bargain: Trading Torture For Freedom

So a closely guarded secret — that a tortured man was offered a plea bargain in exchange for his silence, in a kangaroo court dreamt up by powerful men with utter contempt for the law — is finally out of the bag.

The tortured man is, of course, Binyam Mohamed, the British resident whose 18-month ordeal in Morocco, at the hands of the CIA’s proxy torturers, and subsequent stay in the CIA’s “Dark Prison” near Kabul, made him one of the better-known torture victims of the Bush administration over the last year, as his case was heard in court rooms on both sides of the Atlantic.

The powerful men are former US Vice President Dick Cheney, and his chief of staff, David Addington — the prime architects of Guantánamo’s irresponsibly novel Military Commission trial system — and the proposed plea bargain (PDF), formulated last September and October, was, for a while, regarded by Binyam himself, and by his lawyers, as the only means whereby he could escape from being imprisoned indefinitely in Guantánamo as an “enemy combatant.” Binyam would have pleaded guilty “to being the Pope himself” if it would have ended his ordeal, Clive Stafford Smith, the director of the legal action charity Reprieve, said on Monday.

This was in spite of the fact that the deal itself was a shady bit of horse-trading in which torture was placed on one side of justice’s scales, and weighed up against a carefully calibrated package involving a supposedly lenient sentence, an end to Binyam’s claims that he was tortured, a partial confession to charges extracted through the use of torture, and a pledge that he would remain silent about what happened to him for the rest of his life.

In the end, Binyam refused to accept the plea bargain and the charges against him were dropped, as the facts regarding his torture by or on behalf of the US government — and the complicity of the British government — became so embarrassing for both parties that he queue-jumped to the top of the list in Barack Obama’s review of the Guantánamo cases, and returned to the UK a month ago. However, the details of the negotiations, revealed in a previously classified annex to a British High Court judgment last October, make for riveting reading.

The background to the plea bargain

The British judges — Lord Justice Thomas (photo, left) and Mr. Justice Lloyd Jones — were drawn into Binyam’s case last summer, in a judicial review that was triggered after his lawyers asked the British government to provide whatever information ministers were holding regarding British knowledge of Binyam’s rendition and torture, and sued them when they refused. In an extraordinary ruling in August, the judges were severely critical of the role of the British intelligence services in the first eleven months after Binyam was seized by Pakistani police at Karachi airport in April 2002 — particularly because MI5 had sent agents to interrogate him in May 2002, even though it was clear that he was being held illegally in Pakistan, and because the intelligence services had provided and received intelligence about him from July 2002 until February 2003, even though they had not been told where he was being held, and should not have been involved without receiving solid assurances about his welfare. “[B]y seeking to interview BM [Binyam] in the circumstances found and supplying information and questions for his interviews,” the judges wrote, “the relationship between the United Kingdom Government and the United States authorities went far beyond that of a bystander or witness to the alleged wrongdoing.”

The judges also indicated that they thought that information contained in 42 documents in the possession of the British government, which related to this period, should be made available to the public, but they bowed to pressure from the Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, who argued that it was not in the interests of national security to release the documents, and that their disclosure would damage the relationship between the British and American intelligence agencies.

However, the judges were reluctant to let go of the issue, and as further hearings followed — in response to developments in the United States, where Binyam’s habeas corpus claim was finally reviewed, following a significant Supreme Court ruling in June — they kept returning to the documents, and, in particular, to a brief summary of their contents, written by the judges themselves, which had been withheld from their initial ruling at David Miliband’s request, but which they regarded as being “of considerable importance in the context of open justice.”

In October, after Judge Emmet Sullivan, in the US, pressed for the release of the 42 documents to Binyam’s lawyers, the Justice Department responded by handing over just seven of the documents, heavily censored, and then proceeded to drop the main charge against Binyam: that he had been involved in a plot to detonate a radioactive “dirty bomb” in New York. As the case unravelled, the British judges met again, and it was at this ruling — just two days after the charges against Binyam were also dropped for his trial by Military Commission — that they wrote the annex about the proposed plea bargain that was finally released on Monday.

The plea bargain unveiled

In the annex, the judges explained that, in late August, when Clive Stafford Smith and Binyam’s military defense attorney. Lt. Col. Yvonne Bradley, had been asked if Binyam was “open to a plea agreement,” they responded by outlining the terms under which they were prepared to agree to a plea; essentially, that Binyam would enter a nolo contendere plea (literally, “no contest,” a peculiar arrangement whereby the accused neither confirms nor denies his guilt, but is sentenced anyway), and that the sentence should be no more than three years, and should grant him “credit for the time served since he was originally charged on 4 November 2005” (in the Commissions’ first incarnation, which was ruled illegal by the US Supreme Court the following year). The lawyers also requested that Binyam’s return to the UK would be guaranteed, and that he would not, under any circumstances, be required to “remain in Guantánamo Bay to be a witness against others.”

In response, the prosecutor, Lt. Col. Darrel Vandeveld, explained that the only arrangement available involved a sentence of three years, with no credit for time served, and also Binyam’s agreement that he would testify against others. He added, “This agreement will give [BM] a date certain for his release of course, and he avoids the possibility of an even harsher sentence with no guarantee that at the end of which, he will not continue to be held until the end of hostilities.”

This email was one of the last that Lt. Col. Vandeveld sent in connection with his role as a prosecutor. Soon after, he asked his superiors “to be permitted to leave the Commissions,” as a result of concluding, through his experiences in the case of an Afghan prisoner, Mohamed Jawad, that the prosecution office was irredeemably chaotic, that “potentially exculpatory evidence” had “not been provided” to Jawad’s defense team, so that it was “impossible for anyone in good conscience to stand up and say he or she is provided all the discovery in a case,” and that his accidental discovery of information relating to Jawad’s abuse in US custody had converted him from a “true believer to someone who felt truly deceived.”

Lt. Col. Vandeveld speaks

In a conversation on Tuesday, Lt. Col. Vandeveld confirmed the account presented by the judges, but added that his plan was rejected by the Chief Prosecutor, Col. Lawrence Morris, who insisted that he would settle for nothing less than a “double-digit sentence.” This also corresponds with the information presented to the British judges, who noted that discussions of a plea bargain for Binyam had first arisen in an atmosphere in which the US government “had not indicated whether it would seek the death penalty, but had made it clear that they would seek at least a term of imprisonment of 30 years,” and that, “even if he were acquitted he would still be detained as an ‘enemy combatant’ until the ‘war on terror’ was over.

This was clearly intolerable to the judges, who noted, with a typical restraint that failed entirely to mask their incredulity,

It is uncertain to us when the “war on terror” will be over, but we note in the dissenting opinion of Justice Scalia in Boumediene v. Bush [the ruling establishing the prisoners’ habeas corpus rights], that Justice Scalia considers the war began when “the enemy began by killing Americans and American allies abroad.” The first event he recites is the death of 241 at the Marine barracks in Lebanon. That was over 20 years ago.

On September 5, just four days before Lt. Col. Vandeveld was “removed” from his role as prosecutor (as he described it to me), he sent another email, this time explaining that “an additional year would be supported by the Chief Prosecutor,” rather than the three-year sentence initially proposed, but this arrangement faltered over plans for Binyam to serve this one-year sentence in the UK, because, as the judges explained, “the United Kindgom would not accept that BM could serve the balance of his sentence in the United Kingdom if a plea agreement was reached.”

The judges also noted that Lt. Col. Vandeveld concluded his email by “stating that the claims BM made about torture could be disproved and that BM knew his claims were false.” In my discussion with Vandeveld, I asked him about this statement, and about how it squared with his belief, stated last September, that he was “highly concerned, to the point that I believe I can no longer serve as a prosecutor at the Commissions, about the slipshod, uncertain ‘procedure’ for affording defense counsel discovery,” which “deprive the accused of basic due process and subject the well-intentioned prosecutor to claims of ethical misconduct.”

Lt. Col. Vandeveld explained that he was unable to discuss Binyam’s case or even the facts of the case in general, for reasons related to national security. He did note, however, that he strongly stood by the statements he made in emails released by the High Court. As a result of the restrictions on what he is able to discuss, Vandeveld refused even to confirm that Binyam had been held in Morocco. However, given his statements in another Commission case — that of Mohamed Jawad — it seems probable that he made the emailed comments because he had not been presented with any evidence proving that Binyam had been mistreated in US custody from January 2004 onwards, when he was flown to Afghanistan from Morocco (or, as the US authorities would have it, from the undisclosed and unacknowledged location where he was held for 18 months).

When confronted with this scenario, Lt. Col. Vandeveld again declined to comment, but it is worth noting, in this context, that, in a submission for Mohamed Jawad’s habeas corpus case in January, Vandeveld declared that, because it was impossible to certify that discovery had been made in a case as simple as Jawad’s, “no Commissions prosecutor could make such representations accurately and honestly” in any other case. At the time, he also added:

The chaotic state of evidence, overly broad and unnecessary restrictions imposed under the guise of national security, and the absence of any systematic, reliable method of preserving and cataloguing evidence, all of which have plagued the Tribunals and Commissions since their inception … make it impossible for anyone involved (the prosecutors) or caught up (the detainees) in the Commissions to harbor even the remotest hope that justice is an achievable goal.

Speaking to me on Tuesday, Lt. Col. Vandeveld reiterated that these fundamental problems ran through the entire system, and that there was, to his knowledge, not a single case that was uncontaminated. However, he specifically refused to attribute these travails to any party involved in the Commissions process, stating only that “the goal of achieving criminal justice sometimes conflicted with an equally important element of national security — intelligence gathering.”

Third time unlucky

A third attempt at arranging a plea bargain took place on October 20, after Lt. Col. Vandeveld’s departure, and, as the judges noted, “at the same time as the Convening Authority [Susan Crawford, a retired judge and protégée of Dick Cheney, who was responsible for deciding which cases should go to trial] dismissed the charges.” Again, the judges found the terms so shocking that they presented a detailed analysis.

In exchange for pleading guilty to two charges, and on the understanding that “the maximum statutory penalty, should his pleas of guilty be accepted for each charge, was confinement for life,” Binyam was assured that “the maximum period of confinement that would be adjudged and approved would be ten years, but the Convening Authority would order the suspension of the balance of the sentence over one year.”

However, in exchange for this one-year sentence, he had to “agree and accept as true an attachment setting out the facts supporting the charges.” This was not presented to the judges, so they had no idea what it contained. Moreover, he had to “agree to submit to interviews and to appear before courts or Military Commissions to testify” if requested by the US government, and it was left to the discretion of the Convening Authority to “decide that if BM failed to comply” with the provisions relating to his role as a witness, she “could vacate the suspended portion of the sentence and order it to be served in full.”

Moreover, Binyam was also required to agree “not to participate in or support in any manner any litigation or challenge, in any forum, against the Untied States or any other nation … with regard to [his] capture, detention, prosecution, post conviction confinement and detainee combatant status,” and was also required to dismiss any claims — either ongoing or in the future — challenging any of the above, and to assign to the US government “all legal rights” to implement these provisions on his behalf.

In other words, he would receive a one-year sentence, but only if he stayed silent about what happened to him, and was prepared to be a witness in whatever cases the US government proposed for the rest of his life. As the judges noted,

It was submitted to us that the effect … of the proposed agreement is that BM is being asked by the US military prosecutors to abandon his claim before this Court to obtain disclosure and not to bring any further actions in respect of his rendition and torture. It is also submitted that BM is being asked to agree this plea in circumstances where there are no pending charges against him, where he has no idea how any new charges against him will be framed and where he is not to receive sight of the 42 documents.

In addition, the judges noted that Clive Stafford Smith had stated,

There are other conditions being imposed by the prosecution. Mr. Mohamed must sign a statement saying he has not been tortured, which would be false. And he must agree not to make any public statement about what he has been through, which in my opinion would be an illegal restraint, contrary to public policy — how can anyone agree to remain silent about criminal offences committed against him, and how can any criminal prosecutor, acting properly, seek to impose such a condition?

A shocking corollary

This was extraordinary enough, but an even more shocking corollary was added on Tuesday, when Reprieve reported that, in early January this year — just six weeks before Binyam’s release — “the US military was still desperately trying to get Mr. Mohamed to plead guilty to something — anything — in order to save face.”

The final “offer,” as Reprieve explained, was that Binyam “should plead guilty and receive a sentence of only ten days in prison, less than one might expect for many driving offences.” Clare Algar, Reprieve’s executive director, added, “Mr. Mohamed rejected this offer, as he continued to insist that he was not guilty. Offering a man who is protesting his innocence freedom on the condition that he pleads guilty to something and serves a ten-day sentence is face-saving on an horrific scale.”

Lt. Col. Vandeveld was, however, less critical of the eleventh-hour offer. When I spoke to him, he said, “To offer a ten-day sentence in exchange for a suspect’s supervening human rights would be such a transparent ploy to silence a suspect, that to do so would be not only morally incorrect, but asinine, so I find it hard to believe that there was any nefarious purpose behind the final offer.” He said that he could ascribe no motive for the final plea offer, but as he explained so eloquently in the Jawad case, the Commissions were “incapable of delivering justice,” and it is, I believe, more appropriate to regard Col. Morris’s desperate, last-ditch attempt to salvage some credibility for the Commissions as symptomatic of what happens when military officials — however well-intentioned — find themselves caught up in a fatally flawed system that fails to live up to the high standards required by both the US legal system and the US military’s Uniform Code of Military Justice.

In an email, Col. Morris responded to a request for background information about the story. Noting that, in the Commissions process, “a prosecutor can only make a recommendation regarding terms of a plea, but all terms must be approved by the independent convening authority,” he stated,

Of course I couldn’t and haven’t commented on plea negotiations, as I owe the assurance to the system, including future persons we might negotiate with, that our candid and confidential discussions will remain that way, regardless of what’s reported and what might be inaccurate in that reporting. So I will bear that cost in this incident as well.

He added,

It is unremarkable that there were negotiations; the fact of negotiations, which we all know and I know especially well from my years as an Army public defender, is not necessarily an indicator of guilt, and a range of terms discussed does not necessarily represent either side’s commitment.

So who’s to blame?

With this response, I believe Col. Morris confirmed that the murky world in which he, Binyam Mohamed and Binyam’s lawyers found themselves was not one of his own making, and those of us searching to understand how a recognized component of US legal processes became used to trade allegations of torture in exchange for freedom and silence need to follow the chain of command from the prosecutors — via the ambiguous figure of Susan Crawford (who, as Col. Morris noted, had the final say over all plea negotiations) — to Dick Cheney and David Addington, the architects of the arrogant and counter-productive Commissions process, and also to the politicians who voted to revive the Commissions, after the Supreme Court killed them off in June 2006.

For Cheney and Addington, of course, the reins of power have now been removed from their vice-like grip, but the politicians who voted for the Military Commissions Act in the fall of 2006 ought not only to be ashamed of what they did, but also to be told, in no uncertain terms, that the next time some bright spark turns up suggesting that a modified version of the Commissions needs to be implemented for the two dozen prisoners at Guantánamo who are regarded as genuinely dangerous, they should atone for their previous negligence by refusing to have anything to do with it.

As Barack Obama declared in August 2007 (and as I will repeat until he fulfills his promises), “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.”

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

As written exclusively for Cageprisoners.

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

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

For updates on Binyam, see:  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).

Prosecuting the Bush Administration’s Torturers

It’s a sign of how much the Bush administration skewed America’s moral compass that we are currently facing the possibility that the only way to bring the torturers to account is through a “Nonpartisan Commission Of Inquiry” — essentially, a toothless truth and reconciliation commission — of the type proposed by Sen. Patrick Leahy, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

We know that both President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder believe that the Bush administration approved the use of torture. In an interview with ABC News on January 11, President-Elect Obama responded to a recent CBS interview with Dick Cheney, in which the then-Vice President had sounded his usual alarms abut the need for “extraordinary” policies to deal with terror suspects, by stating, “Vice President Cheney I think continues to defend what he calls extraordinary measures or procedures and from my view waterboarding is torture. I have said that under my administration we will not torture.”

Two days later, at his confirmation hearing, Eric Holder reinforced Obama’s opinion. Noting, as the New York Times described it, that waterboarding had been used to torment prisoners during the Inquisition, by the Japanese in World War II and in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, and adding, “We prosecuted our own soldiers for using it in Vietnam,” he stated unequivocally, “Waterboarding is torture,” and reiterated his opinion just three weeks ago, in a speech to the Jewish Council of Public Affairs in Washington. “Waterboarding is torture,” he said again, adding, “My Justice Department will not justify it, will not rationalize it and will not condone it.”

It took the Bush administration many years to admit that it had authorized the use of waterboarding — a form of controlled drowning with a long and ignoble history  — but Gen. Michael Hayden, the director of the CIA, broke the silence last February, admitting, in an open session of Congress, that three “high-value detainees” in the “War on Terror” — Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM), Abu Zubaydah and Abdul Rahim al-Nashiri — had been waterboarded in secret CIA custody.

In December, Vice President Dick Cheney also confessed, telling ABC News that he had been involved in approving the waterboarding of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. This was the exchange, with ABC’s presenter, Jonathan Karl:

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.

As I explained in an article at the time, Cheney’s claim that he was merely responding to pressure from the CIA was patently untrue, as it was clear from at least November 2001 that the crucial decisions to hold prisoners without any rights whatsoever — which led inexorably to decisions that they could be interrogated illegally, and then to decisions that they could be tortured with impunity — originated in the Vice President’s Office. However, even without a clear admission by Cheney that he was responsible for establishing the program, his confession that he was intimately involved in approving plans to waterboard a prisoner in US custody establishes, beyond any doubt, that he was involved in approving the use of torture.

Nor are these the only occasions when senior officials have admitted that the Bush administration was involved in torture. In January, just a week before Barack Obama took office, retired judge Susan Crawford, the “Convening Authority” for the Military Commission trial system at Guantánamo (another brain-child of Cheney and his legal counsel, David Addington), admitted, in a Washington Post interview with Bob Woodward, that Mohammed al-Qahtani, a Saudi prisoner in Guantánamo, regarded as the potential 20th hijacker for the 9/11 attacks, had been tortured. “We tortured Qahtani,” Crawford, a protégée of Cheney and a close friend of Addington, admitted. “His treatment met the legal definition of torture.”

What was remarkable about this confession — beyond it being the first instance of a senior Bush administration official admitting that anyone had been tortured — was that al-Qahtani had not been subjected to waterboarding, but had, instead, been subjected, over a two-month period in late 2002 and early 2003, to a combination of other techniques, approved by defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld. For Crawford, however, it was the combined effect of these techniques — which included extreme sleep deprivation and sustained acts of humiliation — that led to her decision not to put al-Qahtani forward for a trial by Military Commission.

“The techniques they used were all authorized, but the manner in which they applied them was overly aggressive and too persistent,” she said. “You think of torture, you think of some horrendous physical act done to an individual. This was not any one particular act; this was just a combination of things that had a medical impact on him, that hurt his health. It was abusive and uncalled for. And coercive. Clearly coercive. It was that medical impact that pushed me over the edge,” and to conclude that it was torture.

Further evidence that senior officials were intimately involved with the use of torture by US forces came last week, in a detailed analysis by Mark Danner, in the New York Review of Books, of a leaked secret report by the International Committee of the Red Cross, based on interviews with the 14 “high-value detainees” — including KSM, Abu Zubaydah and Abdul Rahim al-Nashiri — who were transferred to Guantánamo in September 2006. Danner’s article did not cite confessions by senior officials that they had authorized the use of torture — although it did include the Red Cross’s own unprecedented conclusion that, “in many cases, the ill-treatment to which they were subjected while held in the CIA program, either singly or in combination, constituted torture” — but what it did establish, with a chilling clarity, is that every slight amendment to the horrors of the torture program had to be approved further up the chain of command

“It wasn’t up to individual interrogators to decide, ‘Well, I’m gonna slap him. Or I’m going to shake him. Or I’m gonna make him stay up for 48 hours,’” CIA interrogator John Kiriakou explained. “Each one of these steps … had to have the approval of the Deputy Director for Operations,” he continued. “So before you laid a hand on him, you had to send in the cable saying, ‘He’s uncooperative. Request permission to do X.’ And that permission would come.” And as Danner noted, soon after the first “high-value detainee,” Abu Zubaydah, was captured in March 2002, CIA officers “briefed high-level officials in the National Security Council’s Principals Committee,” including Vice President Dick Cheney, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, and Attorney General John Ashcroft, who “then signed off on the [interrogation] plan.”

As a result of America’s commitment to the UN Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, which was presented to the US Senate by Ronald Reagan on May 20, 1988, we should, therefore, be applauding an announcement by the Obama administration that those responsible for authorizing the use of torture will imminently be facing prosecution. As the Convention makes clear, “Each state party shall ensure that all acts of torture are offences under its criminal law,” and shall, when alleged acts of torture are discovered, “submit the case to its competent authorities for the purpose of prosecution.” And under Article VI of the US Constitution, “all treaties made … under the authority of the United States shall be the supreme law of the land.”

Instead of prosecution, however, we have Sen. Leahy’s proposed “Nonpartisan Commission Of Inquiry,” and those calling for President Obama to appoint an Independent Prosecutor kept firmly outside the corridors of power.

So how did this happen, and what does it mean? Well, to be blunt, a “Nonpartisan Commission Of Inquiry” is politically useful because it implicitly acknowledges that, although senior officials in the Bush administration committed war crimes, they only did so because they believed that another major terrorist attack was imminent, and because they thought that only torture would enable them to “break” those who possessed vital knowledge that they would not disclose by any other means.

There are, of course, two major problems with this explanation: firstly, senior officials in the administration — including George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, David Addington (photo, left), Donald Rumsfeld and William J. Haynes II, the Pentagon’s general counsel — behaved with an arrogance that is, to my mind, unprecedented in American history, refusing to listen to the many critics (including, to name just two, the FBI and the Naval Criminal Investigative Service), who warned them that what they were doing — or were planning to do — was counter-productive, morally corrosive and illegal; and secondly, because, as the UN Convention Against Torture makes clear, “No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification for torture.”

As commentators have been pointing out since the confessions of Dick Cheney and Susan Crawford, “International treaties which the US signs and ratifies aren’t cute little left-wing platitudes for tying the hands of America. They’re binding law according to the explicit mandates of Article VI of our Constitution” (Glenn Greenwald in Salon, on January 18). However, while the Obama administration is clearly unwilling to do what it should, the key to breaking this deadlock — beyond the responsibility that rests on every law-abiding American citizen to demand that no one (not even the President or Vice President of the United States) is above the law — can be found by looking at the reason that Dick Cheney felt so empowered to publicly declare his crimes before leaving office, which is also the reason that those who expected last-minute pardons of senior officials by President Bush were disappointed.

This key, as Cheney himself admitted, consists of the legal advice regarding the use of torture — and other crimes — that was given to senior officials by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC). These documents — some of which were recently released by the Obama administration’s Justice Department — include the notorious “Torture Memo” of August 2002 (PDF), which purported to redefine torture, described in the UN Convention as “any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person,” as, instead, an act producing pain of a kind “that would be associated with serious physical injury so severe that death, organ failure, or permanent damage resulting in a loss of significant body function will likely result,” and they were regarded as a “golden shield” by the administration, for good reason.

As Jane Mayer explained in her book The Dark Side, “The OLC plays a unique role in the federal government. Sometimes referred to as the Attorney General’s private law firm, its small but often brilliant staff of lawyers, many of whom are political appointees, issue 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 waterboarding, is legal, it is nearly impossible to prosecute US officials who followed that advice on good faith.”

It is for this reason, of course, that Dick Cheney stated, in his December interview with ABC News, “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.” It also explains why George W. Bush felt able to leave office without pardoning anyone responsible for war crimes.

However, the good news, for those who are less than happy living in a country where the highest officials in the land can get away with torture simply by being voted out of office, is that the legal advice prepared by the OLC for use by the Bush administration has been the subject of a four-year investigation, which began in 2003 when law professor Jack Goldsmith took over from Jay S. Bybee (now a judge on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals) as the head of the OLC. Goldsmith memorably withdrew many of the OLC’s most controversial memos before leaving the OLC just a year later, complaining, as Newsweek explained last month, that he was “astonished” by the “deeply flawed” and “sloppily reasoned” legal analysis in the memos — including the “Torture Memo” — that were written primarily by Bybee and by John Yoo, a lawyer in the OLC (and now a visiting professor at the Chapman University School of Law), “including their assertion … that the president could unilaterally disregard a law passed by Congress banning torture.”

According to Newsweek’s Michael Isikoff, who broke the story on the Rachel Maddow Show, H. Marshall Jarrett, the head of the Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR), “confirmed last year he was investigating whether the legal advice in crucial interrogation memos ‘was consistent with the professional standards that apply to Department of Justice attorneys,’” and a draft of the report, submitted in the final weeks of the Bush administration, was apparently “causing anxiety among former Bush administration officials.”

This, it was clear, was because, as Isikoff explained, “OPR investigators focused on whether the memo’s authors deliberately slanted their legal advice to provide the White House with the conclusions it wanted.” A former Bush lawyer, speaking anonymously, added that he “was stunned to discover how much material the investigators had gathered, including internal e-mails and multiple drafts that allowed OPR to reconstruct how the memos were crafted.”

What this means, I believe, is that the investigators discovered not just how Yoo and Bybee — and, later, Stephen Bradbury, the OLC’s acting head from 2005 onwards — produced legal advice that was inconsistent with the OLC’s professional standards, but also how that advice was not produced independently, but in response to demands from Dick Cheney and David Addington, and as a result of close collaboration.

It is, I hope, the smoking gun that leads to the Office of Vice President Dick Cheney — and to David Addington — as it is abundantly clear that, far from maintaining distance between Cheney’s office and the OLC, the “war team” of those who believed in unfettered executive power, including Cheney, Addington, Yoo, Pentagon lawyer Timothy Flanigan, and White House counsel, and later Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, effectively conspired in unison to justify their actions, and I raise it again here, not because there have been any great new developments in the last month — although the Justice Department’s unlikely defense of John Yoo is worth looking at, as is a New York Times article about the “torture lawyers,” and a profile of Bybee in the Las Vegas Sun — but simply because it is far too important to be allowed to drop off the radar.

“No one is above the law,” Attorney General Eric Holder has repeatedly stated. If Holder means what he says, we must demand that the OPR’s report is released.

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

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

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), 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.

Guantánamo’s Long-Term Hunger Striker Should Be Sent Home

Ahmed Zuhair, a 35-year old Saudi prisoner at Guantánamo — and a father of ten — has been on a hunger strike since June 2005, at the start of a fraught summer at the prison in which up to 200 prisoners (over a third of Guantánamo’s total population at the time) embarked on a mass hunger strike in protest at their ongoing — and seemingly endless — imprisonment without charge or trial, and also as a protest against the day-to-day conditions in the prison, where casual brutality was still widespread, and a severe regime of punishment was still in place.

This regime had been instigated by Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller, the prison’s commander from November 2002, whose approach to dehumanizing the prisoners, and making every shred of comfort in their lives dependent on their perceived cooperation with the interrogators, impressed Donald Rumsfeld to such an extent that, in the fall of 2003, he sent him to Iraq to “Gitmo-ize” the prison system there, leading directly to the implementation of the sadistic regime that was exposed when the Abu Ghraib scandal broke in April 2004.

There was a brief hiatus in the hunger strike in August 2005, when the prisoners were allowed to form a very short-lived Prisoners’ Council. This secured some concessions from the authorities, including an increase in the amount of food they were given, and the implementation of a new system of punishments and rewards, which brought to an end the exclusive use of orange uniforms, and the introduction of a graded system that gave white uniforms to “compliant” prisoners, and tan-colored uniforms to those who were somewhere between “compliant” and “non-compliant.” However, the authorities failed to effect major changes to how Guantánamo was run, and, after another violent incident, when an interrogator threw a mini-fridge at a prisoner during an interrogation, the mass hunger strike resumed, and was even more widespread than it had been before.

Illegal force-feeding

The authorities responded, as they had with the many other hunger strikes throughout the prison’s ignoble history (most of which had been prompted by abuse of the Koran), by force-feeding prisoners who refused to eat, even though medical ethics have long prohibited force-feeding mentally competent hunger strikers, recognizing that it is often the only manner in which they can make protests about the conditions of their confinement. By January 2006, the strike was finally brought under control when the authorities imported a number of restraint chairs to make sure that it “wasn’t convenient” for the strikers to continue, as Gen. Bantz J. Craddock, the head of the US Southern Command, explained to the New York Times.

In conversations with their lawyers, prisoners explained how the restraint chairs worked. Emad Hassan, a Yemeni, said, “The head is immobilized by a strap so it can’t be moved, their hands are cuffed to the chair and the legs are shackled. They ask, ‘Are you going to eat or not?’ and if not, they insert the tube. People have been urinating and defecating on themselves in these feedings and vomiting and bleeding. They ask to be allowed to go to the bathroom, but they will not let them go. They have sometimes put diapers on them.” Another prisoner, the Bahraini Isa al-Murbati (released in August 2007), told his lawyer, Joshua Colangelo-Bryan, that, after he refused to be force-fed voluntarily, “soldiers picked him up by the throat, threw him to the floor and strapped him to the restraint chair.” Colangelo-Bryan added that his client explained that, after he was “fed two large bags of liquid formula, which were forced into his stomach very quickly,” he “felt pain like a ‘knife in the stomach.’”

Prisoners also explained, as the Times described it, that “medical staff also began inserting and removing the long plastic feeding tubes that were threaded through the detainees’ nasal passages and into their stomachs at every feeding, a practice that caused sharp pain and frequent bleeding.” They added that, until that point, “they had been allowing the hunger strikers to leave their feeding tubes in, to reduce discomfort.”

As indicated above, Gen. Craddock had a different appraisal of the situation, telling reporters that soldiers began using the chairs “after finding that some were deliberately vomiting or siphoning out the liquid they had been fed.” “It was causing problems because some of these hard-core guys were getting worse,” he said. “The way around that is you have to make sure that purging doesn’t happen. Pretty soon it wasn’t convenient, and they decided it wasn’t worth it.”

As a result of the introduction of the restraint chairs, the number of hunger strikers fell from a total of 41, on December 15, to just five, with three of the five — including Ahmed Zuhair — being force-fed.

A year later, Zuhair and the other two long-term hunger strikers — Abdul Rahman Shalabi, a Saudi, and Tarek Baada, a Yemeni — were still refusing to eat, and were still being subjected to the twice-daily insertion of the tubes into their stomachs, according to a report by imprisoned al-Jazeera cameraman Sami al-Haj (released in May 2008), who had embarked on a hunger strike himself. Al-Haj also explained that, “at the end of January [2007] there were at least 42 people on hunger strike.”

Ahmed Zuhair’s legal challenges

Like most long-running stories, the men’s ordeal then slipped off the media’s radar, only resurfacing last October, when Zuhair’s lawyers submitted documents to a federal court in Washington D.C., which, they said, established that their client was subjected to “cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.” In a struggle with the authorities that had been going on for over three years, Zuhair repeatedly tried to resist being force-fed, which led to regular “forced cell extractions” by teams of armored guards, and which were justified, according to Army Col. Bruce Vargo, the commander of the guard force at Guantánamo, on the basis that Zuhair had “a very long history of disciplinary violations and noncompliant, resistant and combative behavior.”

In a subsequent report, on November 28, after his lawyers sought to have him subjected to an independent medical examination, one of his lawyers, Ramzi Kassem, explained that, although the military alleged that Zuhair weighed 137 pounds and was “in no immediate danger,” he estimated, after a recent visit, that he weighed no more than 100 pounds, and “also appeared to be ill, vomiting repeatedly during meetings” at the prison. “Mr. Zuhair lifted his orange shirt and showed me his chest,” Kassem explained. “It was skeletal.“ He added, “Mr. Zuhair’s legs looked like bones with skin wrapped tight around them.”

The latest twist in Zuhair’s case came on March 18, with a widespread hunger strike raging at Guantánamo once more (involving up to 50 prisoners), when the Obama administration rejected a proposal whereby Zuhair would end his hunger strike if he was moved from the chronic isolation of Camp 6, where prisoners are held in solid-walled, windowless cells for an average of 22 hours a day, to the communal facilities in Camp 4, where prisoners spend most of their time outdoors.

Responding in the government’s court filing, Col. Vargo claimed that Zuhair’s “history of disciplinary infractions” — 80 in the last four months, apparently — made him “ineligible” for Camp 4, and added, as the Associated Press described it, that “agreeing to transfer him would create a ‘very real risk’ that other prisoners will seek similar deals.” “The potential impact on Guantánamo’s security and the threats to the safety of Guantánamo’s staff and camp population cannot be overstated,” Col. Vargo concluded.

No one mentioned that he’d been cleared for release

However, the most extraordinary aspect of Ahmed Zuhair’s plight, which was not mentioned in press reports on Wednesday, is that he was actually cleared for release from Guantánamo, after the latest round of annual reviews — known as the Administrative Review Boards — on December 23, although he was not informed until February 10, and his lawyers were not told until February 16.

This rather makes a mockery of the Guantánamo authorities’ complaints about the “threat” he poses, and the allegations, still cited in news reports, that “US authorities allege that he trained with the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and was a member of an Islamic fighting group in Bosnia in the mid-1990s,” but above all it confirms — as if any confirmation were required — that, in the isolated world of Guantánamo, what counts against the majority of the prisoners is not the supposed rationale for their detention in the first place, which is often nothing more than a distant memory, but their behavior in detention. This might make sense in a conventional prison, where prisoners have been convicted of crimes, and the authorities have a responsibility to maintain order, but in Guantánamo, where few of the current prisoners have even been charged with a crime, and only one man — Ali Hamza al-Bahlul — has been convicted (after a one-sided show trial last November), it is both cruel and unjustifiable.

While this reflects badly on the prison authorities, I believe it also reflects badly on the Obama administration. After two months, the new President has only released one prisoner from Guantánamo: the British resident and torture victim Binyam Mohamed, whose case established that, if the stakes are high enough — in other words, if you were subjected to extraordinary abuse, whose disclosure could cause enormous embarrassment (or even a call for criminal investigations) on both sides of the Atlantic — you can be fast-tracked to the front of the new administration’s review process.

Send the Saudis home, President Obama

I don’t begrudge Binyam Mohamed his freedom, of course, as it was long overdue, but I’m disappointed that, of the 59 prisoners who have been cleared for release (a quarter of Guantánamo’s current population), not a single man has been freed since Barack Obama took office. I understand that, in many cases, this is because the State Department is still trying to find third countries to re-house men from countries including Algeria, China, Libya, Tunisia and Uzbekistan, who cannot be repatriated because of fears that they will be tortured, and that in the cases of 12 Yemenis, this is because the US and Yemeni governments are still struggling to establish a mutually acceptable basis for the return of prisoners. However, in the case of Zuhair, and five other Saudis cleared for release, these explanations are not applicable.

In 2006 and 2007, after the Saudi government established a rehabilitation program that satisfied the Bush administration, 108 Saudi prisoners were repatriated, and although there have, in recent months, been howls of outrage from right-wing commentators, after a handful of these men resurfaced in connection with militant groups in Saudi Arabia and Yemen, the rate of recidivism has been insignificant, and is far outweighed by the program’s success in divesting ex-prisoners of the false notions of jihad encouraged by radical clerics, and in supporting them as they reestablish themselves in Saudi society.

Given the close ties between the US and Saudi governments, the success of the rehabilitation program, and recent suggestions that the Saudi government may take Yemenis from Guantánamo who have family ties to Saudi Arabia, my concluding questions are simple: why, after three and half years on an agonizing hunger strike, has Ahmed Zuhair not been repatriated, to end his torment and to reunite him with his family, and why, in addition, have the other five Saudis — some of whom have been cleared for release for several years — also not been repatriated?

Perhaps the Obama administration needs reminding that another reason the majority of these men were released so swiftly and in such large numbers (which was not the Bush administration’s normal method of operating) was in response to exceptional pressure exerted by the Saudi authorities following the deaths of three men in Guantánamo in June 2006 (two of whom were Saudis), and the death of another (also a Saudi) in May 2007. All these men had been long-term hunger strikers — and the three who died in 2006 had been force-fed until just before their deaths — and, in addition, Mani al-Utaybi, one of those who died in 2006, had been cleared for release since November 2005, although Navy Commander Robert Durand admitted, with a kind of off-hand callousness, that he “did not know whether al-Utaybi had been informed about the transfer decision before he killed himself.”

In Ahmed Zuhair’s case, this danger period — when he could have died before knowing that he had been cleared for release — has now passed, but it remains inexplicable that he continues to be held in conditions that constitute a severe danger to his health, when there is no longer any reason to hold him.

Responding to the government’s filing on Wednesday, Ramzi Kassem stated, “They want to pressure Ahmed to break his hunger strike by continuing to detain him in the excessively harsh environment of Camp 6. Moving Ahmed to Camp 4 to encourage him to cease striking would rob … prison authorities of the sick victory of breaking him.” He might also have added that holding Zuhair — and other cleared prisoners — in Camp 6 makes a mockery of the supposedly “humane” conditions at Guantánamo, which apparently conform to the requirements of the Geneva Conventions, according to a recent Pentagon report submitted as part of the new administration’s review of Guantánamo.

For these men, who have never been charged or tried for any crime, and have, moreover, been cleared for release, there is simply no justification for holding them in the isolation of a prison block modeled on a maximum security prison for convicted criminals on the US mainland, instead of transferring them to a block where, after seven years in an abominable experiment that has still not come to an end, they would finally have the opportunity to socialize, to feel the fresh air and to see the sunlight.

This is the least that President Obama should do, but in the case of Ahmed Zuhair and the other cleared Saudis he should go one step further and send them home.

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

POSTSCRIPT: Confirming, as so often, that the Pentagon’s information about the prisoners is frequently unreliable, I’ve been informed by Ramzi Kassem that Ahmed is actually in his mid-forties, and was not born in 1973, as the Pentagon stated.

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

For a sequence of articles dealing with the hunger strikes at Guantánamo, see Shaker Aamer, A South London Man in Guantánamo: The Children Speak (July 2007), Guantánamo: al-Jazeera cameraman Sami al-Haj fears that he will die (September 2007), The long suffering of Mohammed al-Amin, a Mauritanian teenager sent home from Guantánamo (October 2007), Guantánamo suicides: so who’s telling the truth? (October 2007), Innocents and Foot Soldiers: The Stories of the 14 Saudis Just Released From Guantánamo (Yousef al-Shehri and Murtadha Makram) (November 2007), A letter from Guantánamo (by Al-Jazeera cameraman Sami al-Haj) (January 2008), A Chinese Muslim’s desperate plea from Guantánamo (March 2008), Sami al-Haj: the banned torture pictures of a journalist in Guantánamo (April 2008), The forgotten anniversary of a Guantánamo suicide (May 2008), Binyam Mohamed embarks on hunger strike to protest Guantánamo charges (June 2008), Second anniversary of triple suicide at Guantánamo (June 2008), Guantánamo Suicide Report: Truth or Travesty? (August 2008), Seven Years Of Guantánamo, And A Call For Justice At Bagram (January 2009), British torture victim Binyam Mohamed to be released from Guantánamo (January 2009), Don’t Forget Guantánamo (February 2009), Who’s Running Guantánamo? (February 2009), Obama’s “Humane” Guantánamo Is A Bitter Joke (February 2009), Forgotten in Guantánamo: British resident Shaker Aamer (March 2009). Also see the following online chapters of The Guantánamo Files: Website Extras 2 (Ahmed Kuman, Mohammed Haidel), Website Extras 3 (Abdullah al-Yafi, Abdul Rahman Shalabi), Website Extras 4 (Bakri al-Samiri, Murtadha Makram), Website Extras 5 (Ali Mohsen Salih, Ali Yahya al-Raimi, Abu Bakr Alahdal, Tarek Baada, Abdul al-Razzaq Salih).

The Guantánamo Files: Andy Worthington on the Jeff Farias Show

On March 18 I was interviewed by Jeff Farias for his long-running progressive radio show (the interview starts about 25 minutes in, and lasts for around 25 minutes). The spur was my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published two weeks ago, and Jeff and I discussed the importance of making the stories of the prisoners available, which gave me the opportunity to explain the background to the prisoners’ capture: how many were captured for bounty payments averaging $5,000 a head (equivalent to $250,000 in the US), betrayed by business or political rivals in Afghanistan, or picked up on the street, from buses at checkpoints, or in raids on mosques and houses in Pakistan that were either completely random, or, in many cases, based on distinctly suspicious “intelligence.”

Jeff also asked me my opinion about how much damage Guantánamo has caused around the world, and I was able to explain that, although it has undoubtedly caused widespread resentment and anger in the Muslim world in particular, it’s important to remember that, in spite of regular pronouncements by the Pentagon, and by Bush administration officials — especially Dick Cheney — that numerous prisoners have “returned to the battlefield,” a large number of those who have been released managed to endure their ordeal with remarkable fortitude, sustained primarily by their faith, and that it is actually remarkably difficult to turn peace-loving individuals seized by mistake — or, for that matter, ordinary Taliban recruits who had been encouraged to believe in the Taliban’s “holy war” against its Muslim rivals in the Northern Alliance — into terrorists.

Speaking of Cheney, we also discussed the ex-Vice President’s recent scare-mongering interview, discussed the morally corrosive and futile use of torture, and how fundamentally distressing it is that the CIA embarked on a torture policy in spite of ferocious complaints by other agencies including the FBI and the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, who withdrew from situations in which torture and coercive interrogations were used. What’s particularly distressing is that these agencies’ experience in successfully interrogating prisoners without the use of torture was shamefully discarded by the administration, whose senior officials — none of whom had a background in the military or in the intelligence agencies — preferred to believe their own insular hype about being “tough” on terror suspects, which was inspired more by Fox’s 24 than it was by any credible accounts of the use of torture.

We also talked about Mark Danner’s recent article in the New York Review of Books discussing, and drawing from the secret report presented to the Bush administration by the International Committee of the Red Cross, after it had been allowed to interview the 14 “high-value detainees,” including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who had been held — and tortured — for years in secret CIA custody. This allowed me to express some doubts about how parts of the mainstream media had questioned the truth of the accounts, even though Danner had spelled out explicitly that the similarities in the prisoners’ accounts of their strictly regimented torture (in which every move had to be authorized from the highest levels of government) were particularly difficult to criticize, as the men had been held in total isolation from one another, and had had no opportunity to compare notes and to fabricate stories accordingly.

This led to a discussion of how to proceed with bringing to justice those responsible for authorizing torture, which should be straightforward, given that senior Bush administration officials have admitted that they used waterboarding, that Eric Holder has declared that waterboarding is torture, and that those responsible for authorizing torture must be prosecuted according to the terms of the government’s obligations under treaties and agreements including the UN Convention Against Torture. This led to a discussion of the “golden shield” — the cover allegedly provided by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, whose lawyers (primarily John Yoo) issued legal advice, including the notorious “Torture Memo” of August 2002, which attempted to redefine torture — and how a crucial element in calling the Bush administration to account is the highly critical internal report on the OLC’s advice that has not yet surfaced.

We also discussed my concern that, although holding those responsible for authorizing torture is essential to restore America’s moral standing, we need a mechanism to discover what has happened to the many other prisoners — probably in the hundreds — who were subjected to “extraordinary rendition” and spirited away to face torture in third countries, and Jeff followed up by discussing how important it is to make sure that laws are in place to prevent such activities from happening again. This allowed me to point out that, unless the crimes of the administration are addressed, and all such activities brought to an end, without any exceptions or loopholes, the only conclusion that can be drawn is that the White House is above the law, and that any number of crimes can be committed with impunity so long as those responsible are voted out of office in the end.

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

Lawrence Wilkerson Tells The Truth About Guantánamo

As regular readers know, I don’t normally cross-post articles from other sites, but I’m making an exception for this guest column in the Washington Note by Lawrence Wilkerson, the Chief of Staff of former Secretary of State Colin Powell, because it addresses some crucial aspects of the Bush administration’s detention policy in the “War on Terror” that are not as widely known as they should be, and which echo some of the important issues that I’ve tried to raise in my book The Guantánamo Files and my subsequent writing.

The first of these is that, behind all the rhetoric about “the worst of the worst” — some of which continues to this day — the screening of those who ended up in US custody in Afghanistan, before their transfer to Guantánamo, was essentially non-existent, for a variety of reasons, including a lack of competent personnel, a disregard for what would happen when bounty payments were offered for “terror suspects” in some of the poorest parts of the world, and relentless pressure for “actionable intelligence” from senior figures within the administration, especially Donald Rumsfeld, who as Wilkerson notes, memorably, demanded that military personnel “just get the bastards to the interrogators.”

To this I would only add, as I have mentioned many times before, that the administration refused to allow the military to hold “competent tribunals” (aka battlefield tribunals), under Article 5 of the Geneva Conventions, which are used to separate soldiers from civilians seized by mistake (and whose use had been championed by the US military from Vietnam onwards), and also that, as a former interrogator in Afghanistan (writing under the name of Chris Mackey) noted in his book The Interrogators, the orders that came down from senior commanders overseeing prisoner lists in Camp Doha, Kuwait (with input from the Pentagon and the White House), were that every Arab was to be sent to Guantánamo, and that, until Guantánamo was almost full, every Afghan too. In addition, the tribunals used to assess the prisoners’ significance at Guantánamo — the Combatant Status Review Tribunals — were a sham, devoid of genuine intelligence and largely reliant on confessions extracted from other prisoners under unknown circumstances, so that, as a result, many of the 241 prisoners who are still at Guantánamo today have never been adequately screened to ascertain if they actually constitute a threat to the United States.

Wilkerson also writes about how “several in the US leadership became aware of this lack of proper vetting very early on,” but failed to act on it because of fears that, after the intelligence failures that led to the 9/11 attacks, they were unwilling to admit to further errors. He also correctly criticizes the over-use of the “mosaic philosophy” of intelligence, which posits that actionable truth emerges through the long, slow accumulation of tiny pieces of intelligence that eventually build up to create a useful picture, as a basis for holding and interrogating the majority of the prisoners rounded up through initial failures of intelligence, and criticizes the administration’s inability to catalog evidence, as revealed by both Lt. Col. Stephen Abraham, who worked on the tribunals at Guantánamo, and Lt. Col. Darrel Vandeveld, a former prosecutor in the Military Commission trial system, whose testimony I have covered extensively.

He also dismisses claims by former administration officials — especially Dick Cheney, whose recent scare-mongering interview is thoroughly lambasted — that useful intelligence was gained from Guantánamo (as David Rose also explained in an article three months ago in Vanity Fair, based on interviews with former CIA officials, and with Robert Mueller, the head of the FBI), and asserts that “no more than a dozen or two of the detainees” have any worthwhile intelligence — even less than the “35 to 50” described over the years by intelligence officials — adding that “even their alleged contribution of hard, actionable intelligence is intensely disputed in the relevant communities such as intelligence and law enforcement.”

Finally, he defends Deputy Secretary of Defense Gordon England, and John Bellinger, Legal Advisor to Condoleezza Rice, both as National Security Advisor and as Secretary of State, for their attempts to address the chronic failures of Guantánamo, and also defends attempts by his former boss, Colin Powell, and his deputy Richard Armitage, to address these same issues. This is, I think, the only point at which his arguments fail to stand up to scrutiny, as any of these significant figures should, if they had been agitated enough by the issues, have resigned and aired their complaints in public, but I must admit that I’m almost prepared to overlook these glosses in exchange for Wilkerson writing, in response to Cheney’s familiar, “Dark Side” warnings that “Protecting the country’s security is a tough, mean, dirty, nasty business,” and “These are evil people,” that “Cheney and his like are the evil people and we certainly are not going to prevail in the struggle with radical religion if we listen to people such as he.”

Some Truths About Guantánamo Bay by Lawrence Wilkerson

There are several dimensions to the debate over the US prison facilities at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba that the media have largely missed and, thus, of which the American people are almost completely unaware. For that matter, few within the government who were not directly involved are aware either.

The first of these is the utter incompetence of the battlefield vetting in Afghanistan during the early stages of the US operations there. Simply stated, no meaningful attempt at discrimination was made in-country by competent officials, civilian or military, as to who we were transporting to Cuba for detention and interrogation.

This was a factor of having too few troops in the combat zone, of the troops and civilians who were there having too few people trained and skilled in such vetting, and of the incredible pressure coming down from Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and others to “just get the bastards to the interrogators.”

It did not help that poor US policies such as bounty-hunting, a weak understanding of cultural tendencies, and an utter disregard for the fundamentals of jurisprudence prevailed as well (no blame in the latter realm should accrue to combat soldiers as this it not their bailiwick anyway).

The second dimension that is largely unreported is that several in the US leadership became aware of this lack of proper vetting very early on and, thus, of the reality that many of the detainees were innocent of any substantial wrongdoing, had little intelligence value, and should be immediately released.

But to have admitted this reality would have been a black mark on their leadership from virtually day one of the so-called Global War on Terror and these leaders already had black marks enough: the dead in a field in Pennsylvania, in the ashes of the Pentagon, and in the ruins of the World Trade Towers. They were not about to admit to their further errors at Guantánamo Bay. Better to claim that everyone there was a hardcore terrorist, was of enduring intelligence value, and would return to jihad if released. I am very sorry to say that I believe there were uniformed military who aided and abetted these falsehoods, even at the highest levels of our armed forces.

The third basically unknown dimension is how hard Secretary of State Colin Powell and his deputy Richard Armitage labored to ameliorate the GITMO situation from almost day one.

For example, Ambassador Pierre Prosper, the US envoy for war crimes issues, was under a barrage of questions and directions almost daily from Powell or Armitage to repatriate every detainee who could be repatriated.

This was quite a few of them, including Uighurs from China and, incredulously, citizens of the United Kingdom (“incredulously” because few doubted the capacity of the UK to detain and manage terrorists). Standing resolutely in Ambassador Prosper’s path was Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld who would have none of it. Rumsfeld was staunchly backed by the Vice President of the United States, Richard Cheney. Moreover, the fact that among the detainees was a 13 year-old boy and a man over 90 did not seem to faze either man, initially at least.

The fourth unknown is the ad hoc intelligence philosophy that was developed to justify keeping many of these people, called the mosaic philosophy. Simply stated, this philosophy held that it did not matter if a detainee were innocent. Indeed, because he lived in Afghanistan and was captured on or near the battle area, he must know something of importance (this general philosophy, in an even cruder form, prevailed in Iraq as well, helping to produce the nightmare at Abu Ghraib). All that was necessary was to extract everything possible from him and others like him, assemble it all in a computer program, and then look for cross-connections and serendipitous incidentals — in short, to have sufficient information about a village, a region, or a group of individuals, that dots could be connected and terrorists or their plots could be identified.

Thus, as many people as possible had to be kept in detention for as long as possible to allow this philosophy of intelligence gathering to work. The detainees’ innocence was inconsequential. After all, they were ignorant peasants for the most part and mostly Muslim to boot.

Another unknown, a part of the fabric of the foregoing four, was the sheer incompetence involved in cataloging and maintaining the pertinent factors surrounding the detainees that might be relevant in any eventual legal proceedings, whether in an established court system or even in a kangaroo court that pretended to at least a few of the essentials, such as evidence.

Simply stated, even for those two dozen or so of the detainees who might well be hardcore terrorists, there was virtually no chain of custody, no disciplined handling of evidence, and no attention to the details that almost any court system would demand. Falling back on “sources and methods” and “intelligence secrets” became the Bush administration’s modus operandi to camouflage this grievous failing.

But their ultimate cover was that the struggle in which they were involved was war and in war those detained could be kept for the duration. And this war, by their own pronouncements, had no end. For political purposes, they knew it certainly had no end within their allotted four to eight years. Moreover, its not having an end, properly exploited, would help ensure their eight rather than four years in office.

In addition, it has never come to my attention in any persuasive way — from classified information or otherwise — that any intelligence of significance was gained from any of the detainees at Guantánamo Bay other than from the handful of undisputed ring leaders and their companions, clearly no more than a dozen or two of the detainees, and even their alleged contribution of hard, actionable intelligence is intensely disputed in the relevant communities such as intelligence and law enforcement.

This is perhaps the most astounding truth of all, carefully masked by men such as Donald Rumsfeld and Richard Cheney in their loud rhetoric — continuing even now in the case of Cheney — about future attacks thwarted, resurgent terrorists, the indisputable need for torture and harsh interrogation and for secret prisons and places such as GITMO.

Lastly, there is the now prevalent supposition, recently reinforced by the new team in the White House, that closing down our prison facilities at Guantánamo Bay would take some time and development of a highly complex plan. Because of the unfortunate political realities now involved — Cheney’s recent strident and almost unparalleled remarks about the dangers of pampering terrorists, and the vulnerability of the Democrats in general on any national security issue — this may have some truth to it.

But in terms of the physical and safe shutdown of the prison facilities it is nonsense. As early as 2004 and certainly in 2005, administration leaders such as Deputy Secretary of Defense Gordon England, and John Bellinger, Legal Advisor to National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice and, later, to that same individual as Secretary of State, and others were calling for the facilities to be shut down. No one will ever convince me that as astute a man as Gordon England would have made such a call if he did not have a plan for answering it. And if there is not such a plan, is not its absence simply another reason to condemn this most incompetent of administrations? After all, President Bush himself said he would like to close GITMO.

Recently, in an attempt to mask some of these failings and to exacerbate and make even more difficult the challenge to the new Obama administration, former Vice President Cheney gave an interview from his home in McLean, Virginia. The interview was almost mystifying in its twisted logic and terrifying in its fear-mongering.

As to twisted logic: “Cheney said at least 61 of the inmates who were released from Guantánamo during the Bush administration … have gone back into the business of being terrorists.” So, the fact that the Bush administration was so incompetent that it released 61 terrorists is a valid criticism of the Obama administration? Or was this supposed to be an indication of what percentage of the still-detained men would likely turn to terrorism if released in future? Or was this a revelation that men kept in detention such as those at GITMO — even innocent men — would become terrorists if released because of the harsh treatment meted out to them at GITMO? Seven years in jail as an innocent man might do that for me. Hard to tell.

As for the fear-mongering: “When we get people who are more interested in reading the rights to an al-Qaeda terrorist than they are with protecting the United States against people who are absolutely committed to do anything they can to kill Americans, then I worry,” Cheney said. Who in the Obama administration has insisted on reading any al-Qaeda terrorist his rights? More to the point, who in that administration is not interested in protecting the United States — a clear implication of Cheney’s remarks.

But far worse is the unmistakable stoking of the 20 million listeners of Rush Limbaugh, half of whom we could label, judiciously, as half-baked nuts. Such remarks as those of the former vice president’s are like waving a red flag in front of an incensed bull. And Cheney of course knows that.

Cheney went on to say in his McLean interview that “Protecting the country’s security is a tough, mean, dirty, nasty business. These are evil people and we are not going to win this fight by turning the other cheek.” I have to agree but the other way around. Cheney and his like are the evil people and we certainly are not going to prevail in the struggle with radical religion if we listen to people such as he.

When — and if — the truths about the detainees at Guantánamo Bay will be revealed in the way they should be, or Congress will step up and shoulder some of the blame, or the new Obama administration will have the courage to follow through substantially on its campaign promises with respect to GITMO, torture and the like, remains indeed to be seen.

On that revelation and those actions rests much of the credibility of our nation’s return to sobriety and our truest values. In fact, on such positive developments may ultimately rest our entire future as a free people. For there shall inevitably be future terrorist attacks. Al-Qaeda has been hurt, badly, largely by our military actions in Afghanistan and our careful and devastating moves to stymie its financial support networks.

But al-Qaeda will be back. Iraq, GITMO, Abu Ghraib, heavily-biased US support for Israel, and a host of other strategic errors have insured al-Qaeda’s resilience, staying power and motivation. How we deal with the future attacks of this organization and its cohorts could well seal our fate, for good or bad. Osama bin Laden and his brain trust, Ayman al-Zawahiri, are counting on us to produce the bad. With people such as Cheney assisting them, they are far more likely to succeed.

Lawrence B. Wilkerson was chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell and is chairman of the New America Foundation / US-Cuba 21st Century Policy Initiative.

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

For more on Dick Cheney, see The Ten Lies of Dick Cheney (Part One) and The Ten Lies of Dick Cheney (Part Two).

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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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