FAIR article: Dangerous Revisionism Over Guantánamo

29.4.09

Back in November, I took exception to the opening line in a New York Times front-page story, “Next President Will Face Test on Detainees” (published on the eve of the US election), which stated, “They were called the Dirty 30 — bodyguards for Osama bin Laden captured early in the Afghanistan war,” and contacted FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting), the US media watch group, who commissioned me to write an article for the February edition of their magazine, Extra!.

The article, “Dangerous Revisionism Over Guantánamo: Citing dirty evidence to defend dubious detentions,” is now available on FAIR’s website, so you can find out why I was so appalled by the statement, but essentially it was because the Times failed to mention “well-documented claims that the allegations about the men being bin Laden’s bodyguards came from confessions made by Mohammed al-Qahtani,” one of Guantánamo’s most notorious torture victims, and also failed to note “complaints made at Guantánamo about the quality of the evidence against one of the so-called ‘Dirty 30,’ Farouq Saif.”

In 2006, Corine Hegland at the National Journal discovered that one of the allegations against Saif — that he had been seen at Osama bin Laden’s private airport in Kandahar, “carrying an AK-47 and wearing fatigues” — had been made by “a notorious liar,” according to an FBI memo that Saif’s Personal Representative (a military officer assigned in place of a lawyer) presented to his tribunal, and it was also noted that this same prisoner had made false allegations against another 59 prisoners.

I also mentioned that the Times might have noted complaints made by Lt. Col. Stephen Abraham, a veteran of US intelligence who worked on the tribunals, who explained in 2007 that the team responsible for compiling the summaries of evidence against the prisoners had little or no access to the intelligence agencies, and that, as a result, “most of the information collected … consisted … of information obtained during interrogations of other detainees,” casting further doubt on its reliability.

In February, I wrote another article, “Guantánamo: Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics,” following up on themes developed in my article for FAIR, and examining further difficulties in reporting accurately about Guantánamo, particularly in relation to claims made by Bush administration officials about the quality of the supposed evidence against the prisoners.

In this article, I chastised the Washington Post for uncritically allowing a “former senior official” to claim, with regard to the remaining 241 prisoners, “All but about 60 who have been approved for release are either high-level al-Qaeda people responsible for 9/11 or bombings, or were high-level Taliban or al-Qaeda facilitators or money people.” My concern stemmed from the unassailable fact that it has long been established that only between 35 and 50 are regarded by intelligence officials as connected in any meaningful way with al-Qaeda or other terrorist groups, and more recently, in fact, Lawrence Wilkerson, Colin Powell’s former Chief of Staff, put that figure at no more than 25.

I meant to write another article on this topic, when one of Guantánamo’s notorious liars — perhaps the very man who made false allegations against Farouq Saif and 59 other men — was profiled in the Washington Post (also in February), although I was unable to find the time. However, for those interested in questioning the quality of the government’s evidence against the Guantánamo prisoners, his story is particularly fascinating, and, although I can’t, of course, blame anyone held at Guantánamo for succumbing to pressure — whether through coercion or bribery — and making false confessions, it was noticeable, when a judge cleared this particular prisoner for release from Guantánamo at the end of March, that there was no hint, from either the Pentagon or the Justice Department, that the extent of his false allegations against other prisoners had been fully understood.

And yet, of course, these false allegations are of enormous concern to those prisoners still held in Guantánamo, who, over the years, have been accused of all manner of crimes by one or other of Guantánamo’s notorious liars, because their cases are currently being reviewed by the Obama administration, and what will happen to them depends, crucially, on the quality of the evidence against them.

I can only hope, therefore, after Attorney General Eric Holder recently declared that the administration was “relatively close” to making decisions about what to do with an initial group of Guantánamo prisoners, that he and his colleagues have also been paying attention to these important stories.

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.

5 Responses

  1. Frances Madeson says...

    Andy,
    Never underestimate the training and orientation of lawyers to determine the quality of evidence. It’s a key part of their professional responsibility and a first principle in lawyering.

    Despite everything that’s happened in the often misguided legal front of the War on Terror, our DOJ lawyers are not fools. Not at all. I’ve had the honor and pleasure of watching them in action in federal court appearances here in NYC and their skill (even under the former administration) was undeniable. What was missing was a proper charge from above, which President Obama and AG Holder have now supplied.

    Your examples are important ones but they will by no means prove to be the only such distortions. I’m confident that as these exceedingly talented and experienced legal minds proceed through the record as presented, they will find many, many, many, many more instances of dissonance between surface appearances and actuality–what really happened and why. Believe it or not, this puzzling, almost game like process, is one of the most fascinating and pleasurable aspects of their jobs, wherein they sharpen their wits and compete with each other for clarity of vision and marksmanship.

    Plus, the lawyers, as people, know the bar on their performance has been raised, that eyes (Talking Dog’s alone should put the fear of God in them) are on them, and I believe they will be scrupulous in their discernment of the value of the evidence, case by case. This is how they will redeem themselves, not for us, or in the eyes of their colleagues (with the pathetic don’t-let-this-happen-to-you examples of Bybee and Bradley freshly in their awareness), or for some external career standard, but in their own eyes, inside their own consciences where they have to live.

    They’ve been granted a rare and wonderful opportunity, both individually and for the pride and reputation of their agency–a shot to make it right (not force an outcome but ensure a high-quality process). I bet they take it, with gratitude, and exceed our expectations.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    I only hope you’re right. Frances, although I’ve seen little evidence to date (in the habeas reviews, for example, or in invoking state secrets in the Jeppesen CIA rendition case) to suggest that there has been the major shift of focus in the Justice Department (at least in relation to terrorism-related issues) that I hoped there would be after the Bush years.

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