Archive for May, 2009

Free The Guantánamo Uighurs!

On Friday, court-watchers received some deeply depressing news — 33 pages of unconstitutional hogwash directed at the Supreme Court by President Obama’s Justice Department (PDF), in which no stone of dubious legality was left unturned in the administration’s desperate and unprincipled attempts to mimic its predecessors by preventing 17 Uighurs at Guantánamo from being resettled in the United States.

This is a long-running saga, which I have reported at length over the last year, but it centers on two conflicting court rulings. The first, a great day for American justice, took place last October, when the US government had given up all pretense that the Uighurs were “enemy combatants.” This occurred after the government had suffering a withering court defeat in June, when a group of admirable judges compared its attempts to marshal evidence to a nonsense poem by Lewis Carroll, the author of Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland, and last October, in the District Court in Washington D.C., Judge Ricardo Urbina followed up on this historic decision by ruling that, because the Uighurs’ continued detention in Guantánamo was unconstitutional, because they were at risk of torture if returned to China, and because no other country had been found that was prepared to risk the wrath of the People’s Republic by emulating Albania, which accepted five other Uighurs in 2006, they were to be moved to the United States, where communities in Washington D.C. and Tallahassee, Florida, had prepared detailed plans for their resettlement.

The second ruling, on a day as bleak as Judge Urbina’s was inspiring, was delivered, in response to a groundless appeal by the Bush administration’s Justice Department, by two appeals court judges, A. Raymond Randolph and Karen LeCraft Henderson, who reversed Judge Urbina’s ruling three months ago. Noticeably, both Henderson and Randolph (who has the dubious distinction of having supported every position maintained by the Bush administration regarding Guantánamo that was later overturned by the Supreme Court) ignored the dissent of the third judge, Judith W. Rogers, who argued that the government’s case “misstates the law,” because “the Supreme Court has made clear that, in at least some instances, a habeas court can order an alien released with conditions into the country despite the wish of the Executive to detain him indefinitely.” Judge Rogers also maintained that, in Boumediene v. Bush (last June’s ruling that granted the Guantánamo prisoners habeas rights), the Supreme Court not only granted the prisoners “the privilege of habeas corpus to challenge the legality of their detention,” but also held that “a court’s power under the writ must include ‘authority to … issue … an order directing the prisoner’s release.’”

In presenting the government’s brief to the Supreme Court, Solicitor General Elena Kagan had the nerve to claim that the Uighurs “have already obtained relief,” explaining, “They are no longer detained as enemy combatants, they are free to leave Guantánamo Bay to any country that is willing to accept them, and in the meantime, they are housed in facilities separate from those for enemy combatants under the least restrictive conditions practicable.”

Cynics might note that living in Guantánamo, under whatever conditions, does not constitute the “relief” that the Supreme Court had in mind last June, but this did not deter the Solicitor General, who continued to channel the Bush administration by maintaining that the court of appeals “properly recognized that whether to admit an alien into the United States presents a question wholly distinct from issues concerning detention abroad — and a question that is reserved to the political Branches.” She added that the Supreme Court “has repeatedly stressed that whether to allow an alien into the United States is a sovereign prerogative that requires the consent of the political Branches.”

Moving on, the Justice Department entered a previously uncharted realm of callousness when its brief dismissed the reasons that the Uighurs cannot be returned to China — because of international treaties preventing the return of foreign nationals to countries where they face the risk of torture — by pretending that it was their own choice. The Uighurs, the government stated, “would like the federal courts to order that they be brought to the United States, because they are unwilling to return to their home country (emphasis added). But they have no entitlement to that form of relief.”

In an attempt to paint a rosy picture of the Uighurs’ current conditions of confinement, the Justice Department “sought to persuade the Court,” as SCOTUSblog put it, that the Uighurs “are not really being detained any longer.” Their “continued presence at Guantánamo Bay,” the brief stated, “is not unlawful detention, but rather the consequence of their lawful exclusion from the United States, under the constitutional exercise of authority by the political Branches, coupled with the unavailability of another country willing to accept them.” The brief added that, because their exclusion from the US “is constitutionally valid, their resulting harborage at Guantánamo Bay is constitutional as well.”

Elsewhere, the government also defended another ad-hoc policy of the Bush administration: the so-called “wind-up” period of indefinite duration, while efforts to resettle prisoners in third countries are underway. Rather disturbingly, the brief did not specify how long this “wind-up” period might last, but noted — with another burst of callousness towards men already deprived of their liberty for seven and a half years — that, although it would be “a reasonable period of time,” previous examples of what was regarded as “reasonable” lasted for “several years.”

Whether the Supreme Court will agree with the picture painted by the Justice Department is another matter, as it differs substantially from the interpretation offered by both Judges Urbina and Rogers, when they were given the opportunity to determine what the Court had intended when it granted the prisoners habeas rights in Boumediene. The Uighurs’ lawyers will now respond to the Justice Department’s brief, and the Supreme Court will decide whether to hear the case. As SCOTUSblog explained, “It is possible, though not a certainty, that the Court will make up its mind for or against review before recessing for the summer late next month,” adding, “If the Court accepts the government’s view, either by denying review or by granting review and ruling against the detainees’ release, the Uighurs’ fate will depend entirely upon efforts by the State Department to find another country willing to accept them — a prospect that appears to be diminishing, especially in foreign governments’ negative reaction to heavy political resistance in Congress to resettlement of any Guantánamo prisoner inside the US.”

This is an important point, and, sadly, it reveals nothing more than an administration that is rapidly losing its immediate post-election advantage by shifting in the wind and, as a result, giving more, and not less power to the cowardly or cynical politicians who have leapt on President Obama’s promise to close Guantánamo — as well as plans to move prisoners to the US mainland, and to release the Uighurs — with a despicable dose of NIMBYism (Not In My Back Yard) that demonstrates cynical political maneuvering at its worst.

As Eric Holder tours Europe looking for new homes for some of the prisoners that the administration’s inter-departmental review has cleared for release (who, like the Uighurs, cannot be repatriated because their home countries have notoriously poor human rights records), he is increasingly meeting resistance from countries whose governments argue, with some justification, that they cannot be expected to help out unless the US is also willing to play its part by accepting prisoners.

Without firm action by the administration, President Obama may just find that he has been outplayed, and that he will not only hand victory to the NIMBYists — who would like nothing better than to see Guantánamo stay open forever — if he is unable to close the prison by January 2010, but will also undermine his reputation abroad, and, in particular, in the Muslim world, where undoing the damage of the Bush years is critical.

My hope is that the Supreme Court will accept the case, and will rule in the Uighurs’ favor, but if that doesn’t happen, Obama needs to find the courage to resist the shrill opportunism of some of his least principled colleagues, and to order the Uighurs’ release into the United States, resurrecting the spirit of justice that prevailed last October, when Judge Urbina stated, “I think the moment has arrived for the court to shine the light of constitutionality on the reasons for detention. Because the Constitution prohibits indefinite detentions without cause, the continued detention is unlawful.”

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 also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009.

As published on Antiwar.com and the Huffington Post. 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), A Letter To Barack Obama From A Guantánamo Uighur (March 2009), Obama’s First 100 Days: A Start On Guantánamo, But Not Enough (May 2009), Pain At Guantánamo And Paralysis In Government (May 2009), Guantánamo: A Prison Built On Lies (May 2009), Guantánamo: A Real Uyghur Slams Newt Gingrich’s Racist Stupidity (May 2009), and the stories in the additional chapters of The Guantánamo Files: Website Extras 1, Website Extras 6 and Website Extras 9.

Guantánamo: Two Years of Blogging, A Million Words In The Archive

Happy birthday to me! It’s exactly two years since, after putting the manuscript for my book The Guantánamo Files to bed, and wandering around in a post-book completion daze for two weeks, I was galvanized into blogging action by the death at Guantánamo of a Saudi prisoner, Abdul Rahman al-Amri (I marked the second anniversary of his death with an article yesterday).

From those humble beginnings, I soon began approaching other websites — CounterPunch, the Huffington Post, Antiwar.com and AlterNet — looking for suitable outlets to apply the results of the research I had undertaken for 14 months for The Guantánamo Files to the still-unfolding story of Guantánamo, and discovered, as prisoners were released, as the Military Commissions were revived by Congress after being ruled illegal by the Supreme Court, and as new scandals emerged regarding the cruelty and ineptitude of the Bush administration, that to do justice to it would be a full-time job.

I’m glad to report that, along the way, I’ve picked up other work — for the Guardian on a regular basis, and on one memorable occasion for the New York Times — and also for a range of other organizations and publications, including Amnesty International, the Microsoft Encarta Encyclopedia, Index on Censorship, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), the Daily Star, Lebanon, the Raw Story, Cageprisoners, and the Future of Freedom Foundation, for whom I write a weekly column every Monday.

Moreover, I’m glad to say that, once the black cloud of despair and inertia was lifted from the nation on November 4 last year, the number of people who have been prepared to engage with the difficult topic of Guantánamo and other crimes committed as part of the “War on Terror” has increased significantly, even if the vacillations of the Obama administration have actually created more work for me than existed before. This month alone, visitors to my site have made 140,000 page visits, a far cry from June 2007, when I had just 10,000 page visits.

Oh, and that figure of a million words mentioned in the title of this post is just an estimate, although I think it’s a fair one. On the second anniversary of my life as a full-time journalist in the new media, this is my 482nd post, and as the majority of those were full-length articles, and my articles tend to credit readers with the stamina to cope with 2-3,000 words on any given topic, I’d say that, if anything, it’s perhaps a little on the low side.

Thanks to everyone who’s supported me these last two years — there are far too many of you to mention, but you know who you are — and I can only say in conclusion that I will continue to write about Guantánamo, about the crimes of the Bush administration, and about Obama’s slow progress in dealing with this horrendous legacy, until the prison has shut for good, and the remaining prisoners have either been repatriated, released in other countries, or put on trial in a venue that meets internationally recognized standards, and not, hopefully, in a rejigged version of the kangaroo courts dreamt up by Dick Cheney and David Addington, which, like everything to do with the “War on Terror,” were a manifestation of the most disgraceful combination of arrogance, lies, brutality, ineptitude and law-breaking that has ever besmirched the noble aspirations on which the United States was founded.

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 also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009.

Forgotten: The Second Anniversary Of A Guantánamo Suicide

Today, unnoticed in the Western media (although I can’t vouch for the Arabic world) is the second anniversary of the death at Guantánamo — apparently by suicide — of Abdul Rahman al-Amri, a Saudi prisoner, and a long-term hunger striker, who had admitted that he was a foot soldier for the Taliban, but who went to his death with a ludicrous and unsupported allegation against him that, to this day, is regarded by the Pentagon as “evidence” — a claim that, despite arriving in Afghanistan in September 2001, he became a “mid-level al-Qaeda operative” who “ran al-Qaeda safe houses” in the three months before his capture in December.

The date of al-Amri’s death is always significant for me, because it was in response to his death — and with no interest from the mainstream media — that I wrote my first two articles for my blog (after completing the manuscript for my book The Guantánamo Files), providing some background to his story that would otherwise have been overlooked.

I have followed this up in the two years since with several articles about the other prisoners who have died in Guantánamo: the three men who died in June 2006 — Ali al-Salami, Mani al-Utaybi and Yasser al-Zahrani — and the belated and inadequate results of an investigation into their deaths, and Abdul Razzaq Hekmati, the Afghan prisoner who died of cancer in Guantánamo on December 26, 2007, who was featured in a front-page story that Carlotta Gall and I wrote for the New York Times in February 2008.

Al-Amri’s death, like those of the three men the year before (two of whom were Saudis) provoked the Saudi government to break the festering mistrust that had developed between the Saudis and the US in the wake of the 9/11 attacks (in which most of the operatives were Saudis) by pushing the US government to repatriate the majority of the remaining 106 Saudi prisoners in Guantánamo (93 between June 2006 and December 2007), so that they could be put through a rehabilitation program that, with a high degree of success, has involved religious reeducation, counseling and support in finding wives and jobs, in order to enable them to re-enter Saudi society.

As a result of this pressure, only 13 Saudi prisoners remain in Guantánamo, even though, as I reported two months ago, six of these men were “approved for transfer” after multiple military review boards.

However, the 100 or so Yemenis still held at Guantánamo (who make up over 40 percent of the prison’s remaining population) have been less fortunate, even though one of the three men who died in June 2006 was a Yemeni. Only 13 Yemeni prisoners have been released throughout Guantánamo’s history, as negotiations between the US and Yemeni governments have dragged on interminably, and even a recent proposal — that the Saudis would take them, and put them through their rehabilitation program — has not yet resulted in any official agreement, despite being discussed during a recent visit to Saudi Arabia by defense secretary Robert Gates.

In the meantime, two Yemeni prisoners have had their habeas corpus petitions granted by US courts (and more are likely to follow), and with each passing day it becomes more apparent that President Obama’s promise to close Guantánamo within a year will only be achieved if a solution can be reached regarding the Yemeni prisoners.

The great irony about this delay is that, as my three years of research into the stories of the Guantánamo prisoners has demonstrated, the Yemeni prisoners, like their Saudi counterparts, are, for the most part, not the “hardcore terrorists” invoked in Dick Cheney’s fearful, self-seeking rhetoric (as he attempts to evade prosecution for his central role in the illegal and counter-productive “War on Terror”), but rather a mixture of innocent men — missionaries and humanitarian aid workers, sold for bounties by the US military’s unscrupulous allies — and low-level Taliban foot soldiers, recruited, like Abdul Rahman al-Amri, to support the Taliban in Afghanistan’s long-running civil war, in which the enemy was not the United States, but the Muslims of Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance.

In the absence of any news regarding Abdul Rahman al-Amri’s forgotten death, I can only reiterate what I wrote exactly a year ago, to mark the first anniversary of his death:

On this somber anniversary, the best I can do to mark the shameful circumstances of Abdul Rahman al-Amri’s passing (without having been granted an opportunity to present his case in a court of law) is to repeat one of the few statements attributed to him during his imprisonment in Guantánamo, which demonstrates, I believe, how he never presented a threat to the United States or its interests.

Responding to an allegation that he admitted to “carrying an AK-47 while retreating” to Pakistan (which was supposed to suggest militancy against the United States), he pointed out that “Americans trained him during periods of his service” with the Saudi army, and insisted that, “had his desire been to fight and kill Americans, he could have done that while he was side by side with them in Saudi Arabia. His intent was to go and fight for a cause that he believed in as a Muslim toward jihad, not to go and fight against the Americans.”

Two years after his death, Abdul Rahman al-Amri’s words remain as relevant as ever for many of those still held at Guantánamo, when, as President Obama vacillates, Dick Cheney’s monstrous lies once more draw politicians of both parties to resort to preposterous fearmongering, unable — despite the evidence available to them — to differentiate between the few dozen terrorists at Guantánamo, and the rest of the prison’s population: innocent men and foot soldiers in a distant war that preceded the attacks of September 11, 2001 and that had nothing to do with the events of that dreadful day.

One day, when historians look back on the history of Guantánamo, they will realize that, behind all the arrogant labeling of randomly-seized prisoners as “enemy combatants,” who could be held neither as prisoners of war nor as criminal suspects to be put forward for trials in federal courts, and behind all the torture that was introduced when these nobodies were unable to come up with “actionable intelligence,” was a war that, although justified in its pursuit of al-Qaeda, was fatally flawed when those who instigated it — and the politicians who supported them — decided to equate a despised government that had sheltered al-Qaeda (the Taliban) with al-Qaeda itself.

Four months into the new administration, the grievous errors made by the Bush administration in its pursuit of that small group of men who had gathered around Osama bin Laden, as the Saudi billionaire, or his proxies, launched the attack on the United States, have not been addressed in an adequate manner, and seem, instead, to have inflicted permanent damage on America’s moral compass.

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 also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009.

As published on the Huffington Post.

Life After Guantánamo: Lakhdar Boumediene Speaks

So many of the stories relating to Guantánamo are bleak that I thought it was worth mentioning a recent interview with Lakhdar Boumediene, who was released from Guantánamo two weeks ago after seven years and four months of pointless and brutal imprisonment.

I first reported the story of Boumediene and his five compatriots — Algerians who had settled in Bosnia in the 1990s, and who were kidnapped by US agents in January 2002, in connection with a non-existent plot to bomb the US embassy in Sarajevo, and flown to Guantánamo — in my book The Guantánamo Files. I also covered the Supreme Court case which bore Boumediene’s name — and which allowed the Guantánamo prisoners to challenge the basis of their detention in the US courts — last June, and followed up by reporting on the six men’s habeas corpus review last November, which led to the judge ordering the release of five of the men, including Boumediene, because the government had failed to establish a case against them.

I then watched, disheartened, as Boumediene and another of the cleared men, Sabir Lahmar, were left behind in Guantánamo when the other three men were released in December, because they did not have Bosnian citizenship, and because they had established that it was not safe for them to return to Algeria.  And finally, two weeks ago, I was relieved when Boumediene was finally released in France, after the government of Nicolas Sarkozy offered to take him (and his family, who had returned to Algeria after he was seized) as a gesture of goodwill towards the Obama administration — and because he has relatives in France — although I still find it disturbing that Lahmar, and other prisoners cleared after their habeas reviews (including the Uighurs and a former child prisoner, Mohammed El-Gharani) are still held.

The opening lines of an article based on the first interview with Boumediene, published in both the Washington Post and Le Monde, were particularly moving:

When the nightmare finally ended — seven years at Guantánamo Bay, two years of force-feeding through a tube in his right nostril, the long struggle to proclaim his innocence before a judge, and finally 10 days of hospitalization — Lakhdar Boumediene celebrated with pizza for lunch in a little Paris dive.

“When we were at the restaurant,” Boumediene said Monday, shortly after the meal that marked his release from doctors’ care and reentry into normal society, “I told my wife that for the first time I felt like a man again, tasting things, picking things up in my fingers, eating lunch with my wife and my two daughters.”

Boumediene proceeded to explain that his imprisonment had been “an ugly mistake” on the part of the US authorities, based primarily on his limited association with Belkacem Bensayah, the only one of the six men who did not have his habeas petition granted last November. Although the Washington Post prefaced his account — rather unnecessarily, I thought — with the caveat that his “version of events is impossible to verify independently,” the former aid worker with the Red Crescent explained that he “did not know Bensayah well,” but had helped him out, as a fellow Algerian, when he came to his office “seeking help for his family.” He added that, after Bensayah was arrested, he provided his wife with money for a lawyer, and concluded that, as a result of these connections, the US authorities had linked him to terrorist activities in Bosnia. These appear to have been based solely on Bensayah’s purported relationship with Abu Zubaydah, the supposed senior al-Qaeda operative, who was, in fact, the gatekeeper for an independent training camp, Khaldan, which was closed down by the Taliban in 2000 after its emir, Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi (who recently died in a Libyan jail), refused to work with al-Qaeda.

Boumediene also explained that a visit he had made to Pakistan in the early 1990s had “aroused the suspicions of US investigators,” even though he had had nothing to do with any kind of military activity or training while there, and had, instead, been “a proctor at a Kuwaiti-financed school for Afghan orphans,” and added that, because he had his passport renewed at the Algerian Embassy in Islamabad during his stay, and because numerous Algerian mujahideen had also renewed their passports, he was probably marked by the Algerian security services as a potential extremist.

This, he said, was confirmed when he traveled to Algeria in December 1999 to visit his family, but was “stopped at the airport and told he was on a list of people wanted for questioning.” Although he denied any connection to Algerian extremists, he had his passport confiscated. In an attempt to retrieve it, he made what he regarded as a mistake that also counted against him when he ended up in US custody, securing its return by registering for an amnesty that was being offered by President Bouteflika to his Islamist opponents. “That,” as the Post explained, “solved his problem in Algeria. But a document listing him as a beneficiary of the amnesty was found in his home after his arrest in Bosnia and, Boumediene speculated, served to reinforce US suspicions about his ties to al-Qaeda.”

Moving on to describe his time in Guantánamo, Boumediene said that he was interrogated more than 120 times, and confirmed what he and his compatriots had maintained throughout their time in Guantánamo, whenever their accounts were made available to the public: that the interrogations focused not on the long-discredited embassy plot, but on mining the prisoners for intelligence about Arabs and other foreign Muslims in Bosnia. “At first I thought they were honest,” Boumediene said, “and when I explained they would see I was innocent and would release me. But after the first two years or so, I realized they were not straight. So I stopped cooperating.”

Boumediene also recalled that, during one 16-day period in February 2003, “the interrogations went on day and night, sometimes with tactics such as lifting him roughly from the chair where he was strapped, so the shackles dug into his flesh.” He added that the interrogators, “some dressed in military uniforms and others in civilian clothes, were assisted by Arabic interpreters who seemed mostly to be from Egypt and Lebanon … and later included a few Moroccans and Iraqis.” The activities of the interpreters prompted what the Post described as Boumediene’s “only show of anger.” “They were dogs,” he said. “They often started doing the interrogations themselves. They would tell the interrogators they could get more information.”

Boumediene also explained that, at Christmas in 2006, he began a hunger strike, which lasted until his release, “in an effort to get someone to listen to his pleas of innocence,” and was force-fed twice a day through a tube inserted through his nose and into his stomach, a horribly painful experience that it is difficult to imagine enduring for nearly two and a half years. He added that he only broke his fast on two occasions: “once when he learned of President Obama’s election and again when the judge ordered his release.”

As the interview wound up, he said, “I have no idea why this happened to me. I’m a Muslim like any other. I pray and I observe Ramadan. But I don’t have any hatred against anybody.” He added that he was grateful to the French government for its assistance in rehousing him, and pointed out that his first priority was “to draw close to his family again,” but he pledged that, at some point in the future, he wants to sue the senior US officials who were responsible for the loss of over seven years of his life. “I don’t know whether it will be possible,” he said. “But even if it takes 100 years, I am determined to bring suit.”

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 also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009.

In the Guardian: The global reach of Britain’s torture policy

For the Guardian’s Comment is free, “Outsourcing torture to foreign climes” is an article I wrote following up on Ian Cobain’s article in today’s Guardian exposing the story of Jamil Rahman, a British citizen, raised in south Wales, whose claims of abuse in Bangladeshi custody while British intelligence officers stepped out of the room provide what appears to be the clearest example to date of close cooperation on the ground (rather than from a safe distance) between the UK intelligence services and proxy abusers or torturers.

In the article, I also look at other examples of British involvement in torture in other countries, focusing on the case of Binyam Mohamed, and the recent revelation of the existence of a British spy, Informant A, who visited Mohamed while he was held in Morocco, and the many cases in Pakistan, which Ian Cobain has reported in detail over the last year.

After a close reading of the government’s approach to “intelligence possibly derived through torture” (as discussed in the FCO’s most recent annual report — PDF, p. 16), I reach a rather unnerving conclusion about where, exactly, this “intelligence” was produced in the first place: essentially, through British involvement in the process, and not, as might be expected, from interrogations by brutal regimes with which the British government had no direct involvement.

The case of Jamil Rahman, who is starting civil proceedings against home secretary Jacqui Smith, confirms that we desperately need a proper investigation of the UK government’s complicity in the use of torture, to close a loophole that, with each passing day, seems only to demonstrate that, when it comes to manipulating the absolute prohibition of the use of torture, the British government was as enthusiastically lawless as the government of George W. Bush.

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.

Guantánamo And The Many Failures Of US Politicians

In the summer of 2002, as Jane Mayer described it in her book The Dark Side, “The CIA, concerned by the paucity of valuable information emanating from [Guantánamo], dispatched a senior intelligence analyst, who was fluent in Arabic and expert on Islamic extremism, to find out what the problem was.” After interviewing a random sample of two dozen or so Arabic-speaking prisoners, the analyst “concluded that an estimated one-third of the prison camp’s population of more than 600 captives at the time, meaning more than 200 individuals, had no connection to terrorism whatsoever.”

The analyst expressed his concerns to Maj. Gen. Michael Dunlavey, Guantánamo’s senior military commander, and “was further disconcerted to learn that the general agreed with him that easily a third of the Guantánamo detainees were mistakes.” “Later,” Mayer added, “Dunlavey raised his estimate to fully half the population.”

Dunlavey didn’t explain what he believed about the other half of the prison’s population, but in 2006 a team at the Seton Hall Law School in New Jersey analyzed the publicly available information about 517 prisoners, which had been released by the Pentagon, and discovered that, according to their own records, which explained the circumstances of the prisoners’ capture and described their purported connections to al-Qaeda and/or the Taliban, only 8 percent were alleged to have had any kind of affiliation with al-Qaeda, 55 percent were not determined to have committed any hostile acts against the US or its allies, and the rest, as Mayer put it, “were charged with dubious wrongdoing, including having tried to flee US bombs.” She added, “The overwhelming majority — all but 5 percent — had been captured by non-US players, many of whom were bounty hunters.”

Analyzing this information, and bearing in mind that, at the time the Seton Hall team compiled its report, records did not exist for 200 other prisoners because they had already been released, the stark conclusion is that, according to the Pentagon’s own findings, only around 40 of the prisoners were alleged to have had any connection with al-Qaeda, and the rest were either innocent men, Afghan Taliban recruits, or foreigners recruited to help the Taliban fight an inter-Muslim civil war that began long before the 9/11 attacks, and had nothing to do with al-Qaeda or international terrorism.

In 2002, after the CIA analyst completed his survey of the Guantánamo prisoners, he wrote a report about what he had discovered. As Mayer described it, “He mentioned specific detainees by name, so there was no confusion about whom the United States was wrongly holding. He made clear that he believed that the United States was committing war crimes by holding and questioning innocent people in such inhumane ways.”

His report soon reached John Bellinger, legal counsel to National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice. “Immediately distressed,” as Mayer put it, Bellinger convened a meeting with the analyst, attended by Gen. John Gordon, the National Security Council’s senior terrorism expert (and a former Deputy Director of the CIA), and the two men then approached White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales to discuss the report’s significance.

When they went to meet Gonzales, however, they found him flanked by David Addington, Vice President Dick Cheney’s Legal Counsel, and Timothy Flanigan, a lawyer in the White House Counsel’s Office. “Neither had any official national security role,” Mayer wrote, “and no one had warned Bellinger that they would be there. But they did all the talking.”

According to two sources who told Mayer about the meeting, Addington dismissed Bellinger’s concerns by declaring, imperiously, “No, there will be no review. The President has determined that they are ALL enemy combatants. We are not going to revisit it!” After Bellinger fired back, pointing out that this was “a violation of basic notions of American fairness,” Addington replied, “We are not second-guessing the President’s decision. These are ‘enemy combatants.’ Please us that phrase. They’ve all been through a screening process. There’s nothing to talk about.” Mayer added, “The President had made a group-status identification, as far as he was concerned. To Addington, it was a matter of presidential power, not a question of individual guilt or innocence.”

How Cheney and Addington destroyed all notions of justice

I hope Jane Mayer — and her publishers — will forgive me for quoting at length from her book, but these passages — plus the research undertaken by the Seton Hall Law School, and, I believe, my own research for my book The Guantánamo Files, and the many hundreds of articles I have written in the last two years — should demonstrate, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the administration’s claim that its “War on Terror” prisoners were so exceptionally dangerous that they should be treated neither as prisoners of war, protected by the Geneva Conventions, nor as criminal suspects, entitled to the protections of the US legal system, was hyperbole of the most reckless and damaging kind.

Far from being a prison for “the worst of the worst,” Guantánamo was, in fact, nothing more than a chaotic assemblage of largely random prisoners, mostly bought from the US military’s opportunistic allies in Afghanistan and Pakistan, or from villagers and townspeople desperate for the bounty payments for “al-Qaeda and Taliban suspects,” averaging $5,000 a head, which were advertised on leaflets dropped from planes. These stated, “You can receive millions of dollars for helping the anti-Taliban force catch al-Qaeda and Taliban murderers. This is enough money to take care of your family, your village, your tribe for the rest of your life — pay for livestock and doctors and school books and housing for all your people.”

In addition, and contrary to Addington’s claims, none of the prisoners had been through a screening process at all. In all previous wars since Vietnam, the US military had held “competent tribunals” under Article 5 of the Geneva Conventions. These involved screening prisoners close to the time and place of capture, to ascertain whether they were combatants or civilians caught up in the fog of war, and during the first Gulf War, for example, the military held around 1,200 of these tribunals, and in three-quarters of the cases the prisoners were sent home. In the “War on Terror,” however, the competent tribunals were ruled out, and, in fact, the orders that came down from on high stipulated that every single Arab who came into US custody was to be transferred to Guantánamo.

Once in Guantánamo, there was no improvement. It was not until June 2004 that the Supreme Court ruled that the prisoners had habeas corpus rights, and even when this happened the government responded not by allowing the prisoners to challenge the basis of their unexplained detention in a US court, as the Supreme Court intended, but by introducing the Combatant Status Review Tribunals. A mockery of the Article 5 competent tribunals — given that the military knew almost nothing about the majority of the men in its custody — the tribunals drew largely on confessions made through the use of torture, coercion or bribery, or “generic” information that had nothing to do with the prisoners. In addition, as was explained by Lt. Col. Stephen Abraham, a veteran of US intelligence who worked on the tribunals, they were, essentially, designed not to ascertain whether the prisoners had been seized by mistake, but to rubberstamp their designation, on capture, as “enemy combatants” who could be held without charge or trial.

As a result, Mayer’s description of David Addington’s response to the complaints aired by John Bellinger should also confirm that this sinister experiment in arbitrary detention and interrogation — which involved the US not only tearing up the Geneva Conventions and the Army Field Manual, but also attempting to circumvent the anti-torture statute — was based on an arrogant presumption that the President was above the law, that “innocence” and “guilt” were irrelevant constructs, and that it was justifiable to hold any number of prisoners forever, and to interrogate them as often and as coercively as the government wished.

This was done in order to build up a “mosaic” of intelligence not just about the small group of men responsible for the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 (and the previous attacks on the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania and the attack on the USS Cole in 2000), but also about Afghan resistance to the US presence in Afghanistan, about every single Muslim resistance group around the world (whether “terrorists” or not), and — from exotic captives like the handful of Russians who were seized, or the 17 Uighurs (Muslims from China’s oppressed Xinjiang province, who had fled persecution in their homeland, and had nothing to do with al-Qaeda or the Taliban) — about the activities of their own governments.

Fearmongering, cowardice and terrible policy decisions

I mention all these facts at this particular time because the last few weeks have seen a torrent of scaremongering, misinformation and woefully misguided policy proposals pour forth from the nation’s politicians — and the President — with regard to Guantánamo, and I believe it is important to set the record straight.

First, up were Republicans, inspired, no doubt, by former Vice President Dick Cheney, who appears to be on an endless “Torture Tour,” touting lies about the efficacy of “enhanced interrogation techniques” in keeping the nation safe, and failing to mention how he used torture to produce lies to justify the invasion of Iraq. In a movement that rapidly snowballed, Senators and Representatives from across the country repeated unsubstantiated lies about the dangers posed by the prisoners in Guantánamo, and sounded fearful warnings about the implications of moving any of them to prisons on the US mainland.

By Wednesday this revival of cowardice and fear had swept up an alarming number of Democrat politicians, and when it came to funding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, politicians of both parties happily approved a budget of $91 billion, but refused to give the President the $80 million he had requested for the closure of Guantánamo.

On Thursday, Obama regained some of this lost ground. In a speech in which he made it clear that he was doing his best to clear up the “mess” left by his predecessors, he chastised the fearmongers for muddying a genuine debate about how to proceed. However, Obama too demonstrated that he has been infected by what he described as the Bush administration’s “season of fear,” by proposing that the prisoners at Guantánamo who will not be freed will either be tried in federal courts, put forward for trial in an amended version of the failed Military Commissions introduced by Dick Cheney and David Addington, or subjected to “preventive detention.”

I have no problem with the first of these proposals, and was encouraged that, on the same day, the Justice Department announced that a former “high-value detainee” at Guantánamo, Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, would be tried in a New York court for his alleged participation in the 1998 African embassy bombings. However, I was disturbed that the President thought it worth proposing Military Commissions as a possible parallel path (given that no sticking plaster can disguise how corrupt the whole process was under the Bush administration), and completely dismayed that he could contemplate introducing a form of “preventive detention,” and was advocating legitimizing the Guantánamo regime (which is, of course, a form of “preventive detention”) for use on prisoners against whom no case can be brought because the supposed evidence will not stand up to independent scrutiny — meaning, of course, that it is tainted by torture or other forms of coercion, and is therefore not evidence at all.

A global witch hunt

At the start of this article, I presented some dark truths about Guantánamo in the hope that the account would demonstrate why the prison must be closed, and why few of the 240 men still held — perhaps 10 percent, perhaps a little more — represent a threat to the United States. In conclusion, if you’d like a few final, shocking facts about the Bush administration’s “War on Terror,” consider what David Addington, acting as the mouthpiece of the de facto President, Dick Cheney, was really doing when he dismissed John Bellinger’s complaints in the fall of 2002.

Far from just defending a detention policy that, with the blessing of Congress, had filled the cell blocks at Guantánamo (on the basis that the Authorization For Use Of Military Force, passed in the first week after the 9/11 attacks, authorized the President “to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001”), Addington was also defending the expansion and extension of this policy around the world. Taking into account the prisoners held in Afghanistan and Iraq, and those subjected to “extraordinary rendition,” the total number of prisoners held at Guantánamo actually makes up less than 1 percent of the total number of prisoners (at least 80,000 between 2001 and 2005, according to figures released by the Pentagon), who have been held at some point in the “War on Terror,” without either the effective protection of the Geneva Conventions or the protections of the US criminal justice system.

This was, if I may be blunt, a witch hunt on the most colossal scale, but I hope these statistics also help to explain why every facet of the Bush administration’s “War on Terror” needs dismantling, so that only two categories of prisoner are allowed in future: prisoners of war, seized in wartime and protected by the Geneva Conventions, and terrorists, to be treated as criminal suspects and put forward for trial in federal courts.

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 also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009.

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

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), Chaos and Lies: Why Obama Was Right to Halt The Guantánamo Trials (January 2009), Binyam Mohamed’s Plea Bargain: Trading Torture For Freedom (March 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), 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).

Did Hillary Clinton Threaten UK Over Binyam Mohamed Torture Disclosure?

I only ask because two weeks ago, as part of a long-running court case in which Binyam Mohamed, former Guantánamo prisoner and victim of “extraordinary rendition” and torture, is trying to persuade the British government to disclose evidence in its possession relating to his illegal imprisonment and torture, the government’s policy of resisting disclosure by whining that it would cause irreparable damage to the intelligence-sharing relationship between the US and the UK entered a critical new phase when a letter was delivered to the British government. Later revealed to Mohamed’s lawyers, it was marked as being the “Obama administration’s communication”, but had the names of the agency involved and the letter’s author blacked out.

The anonymous author stated that the position taken by the Obama administration was as follows: “If it is determined that [Her Majesty’s Government] is unable to protect information we provide to it, even if that inability is caused by your judicial system, we will necessarily have to review with the greatest care the sensitivity of information we can provide in the future.”

The letter then referred to President Obama’s release of four Justice Department memos purporting to redefine torture and defend its use by the CIA, stating, “Neither in [those four] memoranda, nor in any statements of the administration accompanying their release, was reference made to the identity of any foreign government that might have assisted the United States. Given the declassification of the highly sensitive information contained in the memoranda, the fact that the president refrained from providing any information about foreign governments is indicative that the United States continues to preserve the secrecy of such information as critical to our national security.”

The letter continued: “The seven paragraphs at issue [a summary of the UK documents, compiled by the judges] are based upon classified information shared between our countries. Public disclosure of this information, reasonably could be expected to cause serious damage to the United Kingdom’s national security. Specifically, disclosure of this information may result in a constriction of the US-UK relationship, as well as UK relationships with other countries.”

The identity of the author was one of many questions that bounced around the High Court on Friday, as Mohamed’s lawyers sought once more to challenge the British government’s refusal to release the documents in its possession, but the most interesting little tidbit of information to emerge from these discussions was when one of Mohamed’s barristers referred to the author of the letter as “he,” and a ripple of knowing laughter followed from those who had been informed of the identity of the author, prompting speculation, of course, that “she” was none other than Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary of State.

Is it true? Will we ever know? Perhaps not, but if it is, Ms. Clinton and her team are at least more subtle than their predecessors. Last August, when this whole charade began, Stephen Mathias, a deputy to John Bellinger, wrote a much more terse — and pompous — letter from the State Department, declaring, “Ordering the disclosure of US intelligence information now would have only the marginal effects of serious and lasting damage to the US-UK intelligence sharing relationship, and thus the national security of the United Kingdom, and of aggressive and unprecedented intervention in the apparently functioning adjudicatory processes of a longtime ally of the United Kingdom, in contravention of well established principles of international comity.”

Sadly, neither the British nor the American governments are listening to the judges — Lord Justice Thomas and Mr. Justice Lloyd Jones — who have never agreed that disclosure would be remotely damaging, and stated, many months ago, that they “did not consider that a democracy governed by the rule of law would expect a court in another democracy to suppress a summary of the evidence contained in reports by its own officials or officials of another State where the evidence was relevant to allegations of torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, politically embarrassing though it might be.”

For the most recent articles on Binyam Mohamed, see: UK Government Lies Exposed; Spy Visited Binyam Mohamed In Morocco, Government Bans Testimony On Binyam Mohamed And The British Spy, and In the Guardian: Spies, Lies and Threats in Binyam Mohamed’s Case.

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 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), Guantánamo, Bagram and the “Dark Prison”: Binyam Mohamed talks to Moazzam Begg (March 2009), Obama’s First 100 Days: Mixed Messages On Torture (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), 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).

In the Guardian: Spies, Lies and Threats in Binyam Mohamed’s Case

For the Guardian’s Comment is free, “More twists in the tale of Binyam Mohamed” is an article I wrote looking at recent developments in the case of British resident, former Guantánamo prisoner and torture victim Binyam Mohamed, following another inconclusive day in the High Court, where his lawyers have been engaged in a nine-month struggle to try to persuade the judges to order the release of documents relating to the British government’s knowledge of Binyam’s torture, in the face of repeated claims by the Foreign Office that disclosure would cause irreparable damage to the intelligence-sharing relationship between the US and the UK.

Unresolved were questions about the identity of the author of a recent letter reiterating the US position, but in my article I was more concerned to mention another recent development that threatens to cause fresh problems for the embattled FCO: the revelation last weekend, by David Rose, that a British spy had visited Mohamed in Morocco, and the curious and not altogether reassuring suppression, on Wednesday, of a meeting of the Commons Committee on Foreign Affairs, which was supposed to have heard testimony from Binyam’s lawyer, Clive Stafford Smith, regarding this extraordinarily significant revelation. Also included are excerpts from Stafford Smith’s letter to the Committee, in response to what appears to be nothing more than an attempt to postpone the inevitable.

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), Guantánamo, Bagram and the “Dark Prison”: Binyam Mohamed talks to Moazzam Begg (March 2009), Obama’s First 100 Days: Mixed Messages On Torture (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), 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 US Veteran Savages Cheney’s Lies

This wonderful condemnation of Dick Cheney’s hypocrisy and lies was posted as a comment on my site yesterday, in response to the speeches delivered by Barack Obama and the former Vice President on Thursday, and I liked it so much that I asked the author, a Vietnam vet from a military family, for permission to re-post it here.

There’s a wall in my house

There’s a wall in my house that my children and grandchildren call the military wall. At the top of this wall hangs the picture of my father, a WWII veteran, below his picture hangs the flag that covered his coffin. To the left of that flag hangs a picture of myself, a Vietnam era vet. To the right of the flag hangs a picture of my son, a Desert Storm vet. Below the flag hangs the picture of my three brothers, all veterans during some conflict or other in our nation’s history. I tell you this because the other day my grandson called me and informed me that he was going into the Army and that he would be sending me a picture for that wall. My heart sank down to the very pit of my stomach. You see so far my family has been very lucky, everyone on that wall has come home; now once more my government is going to place one of my own in harm’s way.

The reason I wrote this is because yesterday I watched the President and the former Vice President give their speeches on our country’s security. I heard from the President that which I joined the service to defend: the rule of law, the personal freedoms and rights that we should all hold dear, because they come at a high price. What I heard from the former Vice President was the same bullshit that I heard all eight years that he and his former boss were in office. What really bothers me is that there are people out there who believe this crap. They don’t understand that it is being peddled by people who didn’t even have the intestinal fortitude to fight for the country they claim to be trying to protect. The former Vice President got several deferments to keep out of the military during Vietnam, the former President joined the National Guard and then was too drunk half the time to even show up at his meetings. These are the people who have placed your children and grand-children in harm’s way.

When the former President of these United States condoned the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques”, as they wish to called them — I prefer their real name, TORTURE — they shamed this country, they shamed every man and woman in uniform and they shamed every soldier who has died to defend this country, our beliefs and what it is we stand for and have always stood for in the world. If we were at war with a country who did these things to our people we would put them on trial for war crimes and either put them in prison or execute them. So, Mr. President, this is the United States of America. The home of the free and the land of the brave. Do we all live by the law or do we all live by the law except the Executive Branch?

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 also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009.

My Message To Obama: Great Speech, But No Military Commissions and No “Preventive Detention”

First off, the President has lost none of his oratorical powers. His national security speech today, in which he sought — and, I think, largely found — the correct balance with regard to the horrendous legacy of Guantánamo, was well crafted and delivered. He delicately put down the fearmongers in both parties who have recently tried to make political capital out of Guantánamo, laid down facts about the prison with an admirable clarity, eloquently called for cross-party unity on this most pressing of issues, and also explained his proposed solutions in a comprehensive manner.

I analyze these points in the article below, but although I believe that this speech will help the President score points from those who have, of late, been seeking to undermine him, I also have to point out that, on two issues — the use of Military Commissions and the proposal to introduce a form of “preventive detention” — no amount of eloquence can erode my implacable opposition to both suggestions.

The President began by being openly critical of his predecessors, who, “faced with an uncertain threat … made a series of hasty decisions.” Even though those decisions were “motivated by a sincere desire to protect the American people,” he made it clear that many of them were “based upon fear rather than foresight,” and, interestingly, noted that the Bush administration “all too often trimmed facts and evidence to fit ideological predispositions” — a statement which appears to refer to the inadequacy of the evidence against numerous Guantánamo prisoners, which I have been writing about for over three years, and have highlighted in two recent articles.

Obama proceeded to point out that the Bush administration had also set aside America’s core principles “as luxuries that we could no longer afford,” but also extended the responsibility for allowing this to happen to “politicians, journalists and citizens,” who all “fell silent” in this “season of fear.”

“In other words,” he continued, “we went off course,” and he suggested that the American people had realized this when they “nominated candidates for President from both major parties who, despite our many differences, called for a new approach — one that rejected torture, and recognized the imperative of closing the prison at Guantánamo Bay.”

Moving on to specifics, Obama defended the absolute prohibition on the use of torture — although he didn’t, of course, mention some reservations about loopholes in this policy that I explored here — and unreservedly refuted claims that waterboarding was either necessary or useful (a familiar refrain, but one particularly focused just now on Dick Cheney, who appears to be on an endless Torture Tour). “I know some have argued that brutal methods like waterboarding were necessary to keep us safe,” he said, but added, “I could not disagree more. As Commander-in-Chief, I see the intelligence, I bear responsibility for keeping this country safe, and I reject the assertion that these are the most effective means of interrogation.”

On Guantánamo, Obama and his team had certainly done some research. The President made a point of mentioning twice that the Bush administration’s trials by Military Commission had led to only three convictions in seven years, and that 525 prisoners were released from the prison under his predecessor’s watch, and proceeded to emphasize that he was “cleaning up something that is — quite simply — a mess; a misguided experiment that has left in its wake a flood of legal challenges that my Administration is forced to deal with on a constant basis, and that consumes the time of government officials whose time should be spent on better protecting our country.”

Stressing that “the problem of what to do with Guantánamo detainees was not caused by my decision to close the facility; the problem exists because of the decision to open Guantánamo in the first place,” Obama pointed out that “the legal challenges that have sparked so much debate in recent weeks” — the court order to release 17 Uighurs into the United States, and the Supreme Court’s 2006 ruling on the invalidity of the Military Commissions — had taken place under the Bush administration, and, in the case of the Supreme Court, in a Court that “was overwhelmingly appointed by Republican Presidents.” This was true, but the emphasis he placed on it conveniently allowed him to evade responsibility for not intervening to prevent an appeal court from shamefully reversing the ruling about the Uighurs just three months ago.

Having established this background, Obama then openly criticized “some of the fear-mongering that emerges whenever we discuss this issue,” adding, “Listening to the recent debate, I’ve heard words that are calculated to scare people rather than educate them; words that have more to do with politics than protecting our country.” Explaining, “I want to solve these problems, and I want to solve them together as Americans,” he insisted that “the wrong answer is to pretend that this problem will go away if we maintain an unsustainable status quo,” adding, “Our security interests won’t permit it. Our courts won’t allow it. And neither should our conscience.”

Moving on to the specific issues relating to the closure of Guantánamo, Obama began by assuring would-be critics that “we are not going to release anyone if it would endanger our national security, nor will we release detainees within the United States who endanger the American people” (a statement intended, I think, to provide reassurance that the Uighurs are not a threat). He then got down to details, beginning with a pledge that, “[w]here demanded by justice and national security,” “some detainees” — mercifully, not all 240 — will be transferred to secure prisons on the US mainland (with some added reassurance that “nobody has ever escaped from one of our federal ‘supermax’ prisons”).

After dismissing some of the shrill rhetoric about the recidivism rates of released prisoners by blaming it on the Bush administration’s “poorly planned, haphazard approach” to releasing prisoners (and not, of course, mentioning that another shoddy and exaggerated report was leaked by his own Defense Department just yesterday), Obama promised that, “when feasible, we will try those who have violated American criminal laws in federal courts,” mentioning, thankfully, how federal courts have been perfectly capable of prosecuting terrorists (as, for example, in the cases of Ramzi Yousef and Zacarias Moussaoui), and also mentioning today’s reassuring announcement that one of Guantánamo’s “high-value detainees,” Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, an alleged associate of the African embassy bombers, will be tried in a federal court in New York.

More worryingly, Obama also confirmed that, in some cases, he would indeed be pressing for trials using a revised version of the Military Commissions that were first conceived as an appropriate venue for “terror suspects” by Dick Cheney and David Addington, arguing — wrongly, I believe — that they have a noble history, are “an appropriate venue for trying detainees for violations of the laws of war,” and will, with some tweaking, be “fair, legitimate, and effective.”

We can at least be reassured that, unlike Cheney and Addington, Obama promised to “work with Congress and legal authorities across the political spectrum on legislation” relating to the Commissions, but I have to say that I will continue to campaign against the revival of the Commissions in any form, and that I also regard today’s decision to charge Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani in a federal court as a clear indication that trials in the US court system are the only legitimate way forward, and that setting up a two-tier system — of federal courts on the one hand, and Military Commissions on the other — appears to be nothing but a recipe for disaster.

Moving on, Obama dealt with the question of 21 prisoners whose release has already been ordered by the lower courts (following the Supreme Court’s ruling last June, in Boumediene v. Bush, that the prisoners have habeas corpus rights), by rather over-egging the point that “this has absolutely nothing to do with my decision to close Guantánamo,” that “[t]wenty of these findings took place before I came into office,” and, as an almost apologetic footnote, which betrays, I think, his preference for his own inter-departmental review of the Guantánamo cases over those made by the courts, stating, “The United States is a nation of laws, and we must abide by these rulings.”

After dropping, in passing, the news that the review team has now approved 50 prisoners for transfer to other countries (a few weeks ago, it was just 30), Obama moved on to a topic that is at least as worrying to lawyers, civil libertarians and those concerned with constitutional issues as the proposal to revive the Commissions: those prisoners who, as the President put it, “cannot be prosecuted yet who pose a clear danger to the American people.”

Although it was refreshing to hear Obama state, “I want to be honest: this is the toughest issue we will face,” the examples he gave of prisoners who might be imprisoned indefinitely under a form of “preventive detention” — “people who have received extensive explosives training at al Qaeda training camps, commanded Taliban troops in battle, expressed their allegiance to Osama bin Laden, or otherwise made it clear that they want to kill Americans” — cannot be regarded as a separate category of prisoner from those, like Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, who will face a trial in a US federal court.

Frankly, to even entertain the prospect that a third category of justice (beyond guilt and innocence) can be conjured out of thin air without fatally undermining the principles on which the United States was founded is to enter perilous territory indeed. Fundamentally, Guantánamo is a prison that was founded on the presumption that the Bush administration’s “new paradigm” justified “preventive detention” for life, and although Obama stepped up his assurances at this point in his speech — talking about “clear, defensible and lawful standards,” “fair procedures,” and “a thorough process of periodic review” — it is simply unacceptable that “preventive detention” (which he referred to, euphemistically, as “prolonged detention”) should be considered as an option, however much he tried to legitimize it by stating, “If and when we determine that the United States must hold individuals to keep them from carrying out an act of war, we will do so within a system that involves judicial and congressional oversight.”

To put it bluntly, it doesn’t matter how much you dress it up. Look at the sentence, “Hold[ing] individuals to keep them from carrying out an act of war,” replace “an act of war” with “a crime, any crime,” and you will, I hope, realize why the proposed policy is so terrifying and so thoroughly unacceptable. If a President came to power promising to “hold individuals to keep them from committing a crime, any crime,” I’d be very worried indeed.

I’ll leave it to others to analyze the rest of the President’s speech, which dealt with broader questions of national security — including the “State Secrets” doctrine, the release of the torture memos issued by the Office of Legal Counsel, and the decision not to release photos of abuse in US prisons in Afghanistan and Iraq — not because I have no interest in these issues, but because I don’t want to distract attention from the two particular responses to the “mess” inherited from the Bush administration that I find deeply troubling: the decision to revive the Military Commissions, and the decision to push for a form of “preventive detention.”

I’m dismayed by the first, because, as I made clear, I think it represents an unnecessary and unjustifiable two-tier system, but I’m almost speechless with despair about the second, and would urge anyone who believes in the fundamental right of human beings, in countries that purport to wear the cloak of civilization with pride, to live as free men and women unless arrested, charged, tried and convicted of a crime, to resist the notion that a form of “preventive detention” is anything other than the most fundamental betrayal of our core values.

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 also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009.

As published on the Huffington Post and CounterPunch. Also cross-posted on Foreign Policy Journal and Common Dreams.

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), Chaos and Lies: Why Obama Was Right to Halt The Guantánamo Trials (January 2009), Binyam Mohamed’s Plea Bargain: Trading Torture For Freedom (March 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), 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).

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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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