An interview with Andy Worthington, author of “The Guantánamo Files”

7.3.09

Andy Worthington, a London-based journalist, is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison, and has written over 300 articles about Guantánamo in the last two years, for publications including the New York Times, the Guardian, the Huffington Post, Antiwar.com and AlterNet, the Raw Story and the Future of Freedom Foundation. This week he published the first definitive list of all the prisoners who have been held at Guantánamo, with links and references to their stories. In a statement, he explained, “It is my hope that this project will provide an invaluable research tool for those seeking to understand how it came to pass that the government of the United States turned its back on domestic and international law, establishing torture as official US policy, and holding men without charge or trial neither as prisoners of war, protected by the Geneva Conventions, nor as criminal suspects to be put forward for trial in a federal court, but as ‘illegal enemy combatants.’” Following the publication of the list, journalist Elizabeth Ferrari interviewed Andy by email.

Elizabeth Ferrari: I have described the transfer of prisoners from Afghanistan to Guantánamo as a “rendition flight” – one that anyone who knew what to look for could recognize. Is that right, in your opinion? My memory is that the conditions of the prisoners was broadcast all over the American media and that we were shown these people, shackled and hooded, led into the prison.

Andy Worthington: You’re correct to describe the transfer of prisoners from Afghanistan to Guantánamo as a “rendition flight” — or, to be more accurate, many dozens of rendition flights. I generally describe it as rendition on an industrial scale. What’s interesting is that the US military was entitled to establish a prisoner of war camp outside Afghanistan, but, of course, Guantánamo was no such thing, and instead was — and is — an experiment in holding prisoners beyond the law, neither as prisoners of war nor as criminal suspects, who would be expected to face a trial in a federal court, but as “enemy combatants” without rights; essentially, subjects in an illegal and unconstitutional experiment in detention and interrogation.

Elizabeth Ferrari: Can you describe who these people are — these prisoners that Donald Rumsfeld said were “the worst of the worst”? Who are they and how did they get to Gitmo?

Andy Worthington: They are, for the most part, one or other of the following. The first group — roughly half of the total population — were or are completely innocent men. They were seized either through poor intelligence on the part of US forces (who had few reliable contacts in Afghanistan or Pakistan, and were often “played” by people pretending to be their allies) or through being sold as a result of substantial bounty payments offered for “al-Qaeda and Taliban suspects.” These averaged $5000 a head, which, in US terms, is the equivalent of being asked to shop your neighbor — or a business rival, an enemy, a stranger — for around $125,000.

The second group — again, roughly half of the prison’s population — were Taliban foot soldiers, recruited, often by unscrupulous sheikhs in their homeland, to help the Taliban establish a “pure Islamic state” by defeating their rivals, the Northern Alliance, in an inter-Muslim civil war that began long before the attacks of September 11, 2001, and that had, for the most part, nothing to do with al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden or international terrorism.

The Bush administration’s great mistake was to equate al-Qaeda with the Taliban, which potentially implicated the entire population of Afghanistan in a terrorist plot, and the administration’s first great acts of dangerous arrogance were, firstly, to declare that anyone who came into US custody — whatever the circumstances — was automatically an “enemy combatant” without rights, and, secondly, to refuse, against the wishes of the military, to hold “competent tribunals” — also known as battlefield tribunals — under the Geneva Conventions relating to prisoners of war.

Held close to the time and place of capture, and allowing battlefield prisoners the opportunity to call witnesses, these had, previously, been championed by the US military, and the government, as a just and effective way of separating soldiers from civilians caught up in the fog of war, and in the first Gulf War, for example, the military held around 1200 battlefield tribunals, and decided, in three-quarters of the cases, that it had detained the wrong men.

Without these safeguards, and with the administration’s frankly mind-boggling assertion that every single person who ended up in US custody was an “enemy combatant,” it becomes horribly easy to understand how farmers, taxi drivers, hospital administrators, missionaries, humanitarian aid workers, tourists, entrepreneurs, migrants and refugees all ended up at Guantánamo with the Taliban foot soldiers, and, somewhere amongst them, between 35 and 50 prisoners in total, according to a variety of intelligence estimates, who had any meaningful connection to al-Qaeda or other terrorist groups.

Elizabeth Ferrari: Andy, how did you get involved with these people?

Andy Worthington: I have previously been criticized for stating that I believe that the Bush administration’s response to 9/11 was both cruel and misguided, but I stand by that statement. I was doubtful from the beginning that either Dick Cheney or Donald Rumsfeld — veterans of the Nixon administration, and, in Cheney’s case at least, a notorious believer in unfettered executive power — could be trusted with America’s response, and as the first stories emerged from Guantánamo — really, in 2004, with the release of the first European prisoners — my worst fears were confirmed.

However, it was not until the summer of 2005 that I first became seriously involved in trying to understand what was going on at Guantánamo, when I came across the lists of prisoners compiled by the Washington Post and the British human rights group Cageprisoners. These were, at the time, largely speculative, because the administration had not even released the names of the prisoners, and accurate information was hard to come by, but I began Googling the stories of other released prisoners — many of them random Afghans — and became more and more convinced that a colossal miscarriage of justice had taken place.

My project really took off in the spring of 2006, when the prisoners’ names and nationalities were finally released, after a lawsuit brought by the Associated Press, along with 8,000 pages of the tribunals convened — as an insulting and toothless parody of the battlefield tribunals — to ascertain whether the prisoners had been correctly designated as “enemy combatants.” This was the administration’s shameless response to the Supreme Court ruling in June 2004 that Guantánamo was not beyond the law, and that the prisoners had habeas corpus rights (the right to ask a judge why they were being held).

The tribunals were, essentially, a device to rubber-stamp the government’s position (as has been admirably explained by Lt. Col. Stephen Abraham, who served as part of the process), but the prisoner lists, the allegations against the prisoners, and the transcripts of the hearings allowed me to establish an instructive chronology, explaining who was captured where and when: whether in Afghanistan, crossing into Pakistan from Afghanistan, or in Pakistan, for example, many hundreds of miles from the “battlefields.” This then allowed me, through what I can only characterize as judicious detective work, to present the prisoners’ stories in their own words, and to give some context for establishing which side was telling the truth: either the prisoners themselves, or the administration, which often mustered an array of transparently coerced or superficial evidence to justify its activities.

It’s not an exact science, of course, but to this day I remain proud of the fact that I not only attempted to give a voice to the voiceless, but also to make sense of the bigger picture, which involved challenging the government’s assertions. I know that it was a difficult task to undertake, but I remain disturbed by the fact that I was able to undertake this as a solitary independent journalist, and that no major media outlet devoted the required resources to investigating thoroughly the material that was made publicly available. By abdicating responsibility, they effectively allowed the administration’s claims to go unchallenged.

Elizabeth Ferrari: Binyam Mohamed, the British resident who was subjected to “extraordinary rendition” and torture, is home now. Here in the US, his case has been covered much more extensively than others — not all that well, but it was something. In your opinion, what consequences is your government (and mine) looking at, now that he is free?

Andy Worthington: Keeping a lid on the torture stories, in a nutshell. It appears that the British government has been shockingly complicit in feeding questions to proxy torturers in Pakistan, during the interrogations of captured British nationals, and the example of Binyam, when they fed questions to US intelligence, while he was being tortured in Morocco, was clearly related to this. In Europe, a big issue that is still being dealt with is the complicity of various governments with the Bush administration — from turning a blind eye to rendition flights to actively assisting in rendition cases — which will be a long struggle, as complicity in rendition and torture involves war crimes and no one wants to admit liability.

In the States, I’m delighted to see that we now have a government that is, I believe, committed to ending the brutal and counter-productive lawlessness of the Bush administration. There have already been disappointments, of course — one being the Justice Department’s refusal to consider the Jeppesen case, in which a Boeing subsidiary is accused of being the CIA’s travel agent for torture — but I can understand why Obama would not want to open the floodgates to claims that all US personnel involved in the “War on Terror” are potentially guilty of war crimes.

However, I believe that it’s not enough just to end the crimes without calling the criminals to account. I’d like to see those who made the decisions — in the White House, in the Pentagon, and in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel — be pursued in the courts, and I believe that not doing so is untenable in the long-term, not only because the US is obliged to seek the prosecution of those who break the terms of the anti-torture treaties, but also because, otherwise, it sends out a message that the president and his associates are, as they essentially asserted all along, above the law, and that whatever they do can be overlooked so long as they’re voted out of office at the end of it.

“Animal House on the Night Shift,” was how former defense secretary James R. Schlesinger mistakenly described the Abu Ghraib abuses in his report on the scandal in 2004 (as the abusers were only following the rules — or the specific lack of rules — laid down by the administration), but if Bush, Cheney, Addington, Rumsfeld, Haynes and others are allowed to get away with their crimes, the truth will be established that you can have “Animal House in the White House” for eight years — with torture dungeons thrown in for good measure — and no one can do anything about it.

Elizabeth Ferrari: There have been reports here in the US that the abuse of the remaining prisoners at Gitmo is ramping up, in the twilight of that operation. Is that true as far as you know?

Andy Worthington: I would say that it’s possible, and that I have no reason to doubt the statements made to Reuters by Ahmed Ghappour, a lawyer with the legal charity Reprieve. I was pleased to see that the Pentagon’s report on conditions at the prison (PDF) recommended that prisoners should be allowed more opportunities to socialize, to address the horrendous isolation to which the majority of the men are subjected, but I was disappointed that the report concluded that force-feeding hunger strikers is humane, when it is patently not, and that the casual brutality of the guard teams who quell even the most minor infractions of the rules with extreme violence was not even addressed. The only way the prison can really conform to the Geneva Conventions is when it’s been closed down.

Elizabeth Ferrari: In the US, we have a new president. What would you like to say to him? His new head of CIA defended rendition at his confirmation hearing. What are your thoughts for Mr. Panetta and for President Obama?

Andy Worthington: I’d like to just remind him of his words in August 2007, and to ask him to fulfill all his promises. He said, “In the dark halls of Abu Ghraib and the detention cells of Guantánamo, we have compromised our most precious values. What could have been a call to a generation has become an excuse for unchecked presidential power … When I am President, America will reject torture without exception … As President, I will close Guantánamo, reject the Military Commissions Act, and adhere to the Geneva Conventions. Our Constitution and our Uniform Code of Military Justice provide a framework for dealing with the terrorists … The separation of powers works. Our Constitution works. We will again set an example to the world that the law is not subject to the whims of stubborn rulers, and that justice is not arbitrary.”

There really are no half-measures. With Obama’s promise, America has emerged from an extraordinarily bleak period in which the fear of terror — however legitimate — combined with the leadership of men devoted to something that closely resembled dictatorial power, sullied America’s reputation, and laid waste to the principles on which the country was founded. There is a better way, and it involves dialog, and not the “dark side” — dialog with one’s enemies, and dialog with those who have been captured. Only a stupid man believes that you can beat the truth out of a prisoner.

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.

As published on Democratic Underground, After Downing Street, OpEdNews and Scoop.co.nz.

3 Responses

  1. the talking dog says...

    It’s not an exact science, of course, but to this day I remain proud of the fact that I not only attempted to give a voice to the voiceless, but also to make sense of the bigger picture, which involved challenging the government’s assertions. I know that it was a difficult task to undertake, but I remain disturbed by the fact that I was able to undertake this as a solitary independent journalist, and that no major media outlet devoted the required resources to investigating thoroughly the material that was made publicly available. By abdicating responsibility, they effectively allowed the administration’s claims to go unchallenged.

    Well said, Andy. While there have been admirable exceptions (Carol Rosenberg of the Miami Herald comes to mind), and the Washington Post and New York Times have paid attention to some aspects of the story, especially as “news” would emerge from Supreme Court cases or for other reasons, the day to day, painstaking investigation of material actually disclosed by the Government has just been left on the table; similarly, I have found that some of the most significant figures in the story have also been almost entirely or entirely ignored by “proper” journalism and journalists (and hence, usually fertile ground for “citizen journalism”).

    In a way, this story is almost the paradigm of our time: the Government tells us something that to anyone with any level of sophistication should seem preposterous on its face (e.g., if these men are really “the worst of the worst,” (1) why are we releasing so many, (2) why are we charging so few, (3) why is the military handing out almost no jail time to the tiny number actually “convicted”, (4) why haven’t those allegedly responsible for 9-11 been brought to the dock, etc.). And yet, amidst a deafening media silence (or a stenographic media uncritically repeating official proclamations)… nothing is questioned, certainly not in “polite company”. Just as no one questioned Bernard Madoff, or “credit default swaps,” or AAA sub-prime mortgages, or tax cuts for wealthy people that led to pile-ons of trillions in dollars in debt or any of the other “faith based initiatives” of our time. Somehow, no one is critical of anything anymore to the point of actually rolling up their sleeves and doing the boring gruntwork of figuring out what the hell is really happening.

    Thank you, Andy. On behalf of the entire “reality based community” for your yeoman’s efforts at keeping it real.

  2. Frances Madeson says...

    Hear, hear. Beautifully said, sir.

  3. doc says...

    Were any of the prisoners in Guantanamo journalists?

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