House Threatens Obama Over Chinese Interrogation Of Uighurs In Guantánamo

21.7.09

The seal of the US House of RepresentativesLast Thursday, while most US media outlets were focused relentlessly on the marathon endurance test that was Sonia Sotomayor’s Supreme Court confirmation hearing, the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s Subcommittee on International Organizations, Human Rights And Oversight held a hearing to investigate why the Bush administration had allowed Chinese interrogators to visit Guantánamo to interrogate the prison’s 22 Uighur inmates in 2002.

Although 13 of the Uighurs are still held at Guantánamo (five were released in Albania in 2006, and four in Bermuda last month), all of the men — Muslims from China’s Xinjiang province, who had fled persecution in China — were cleared of being “enemy combatants” by the Bush administration and by the US courts. They were sold to the US military by opportunistic Pakistani villagers, after fleeing from a run-down settlement in Afghanistan’s Tora Bora mountains, and should never have been held in the first place.

Thursday’s hearing involved some rather hard-hitting testimony about what those interrogations involved, about the complicity of the US military and of senior officials in Washington D.C., and, most disturbingly, about the political motivations of the visit, and led to questions from the subcommittee about why members of Congress are prohibited from meeting prisoners at Guantánamo when Chinese intelligence agents were not, and to a demonstration of evasion on the part of the government’s spokesman that was so thorough that one of the committee members threatened to declare him “in contempt of Congress” and to withdraw funding from his department.

The Associated Press reported that, in a written statement “that did not specifically mention the Uighurs” (PDF), Jay Alan Liotta, the Defense Department’s Principal Director in the Office of Detainee Policy, claimed that the Defense Department “provides safe, humane, transparent and legal custody for each detainee,” and that, when foreign governments are allowed access to a prisoner, it is “long-standing department policy that visiting foreign officials must agree that they will abide by all DoD policies, rules and procedures.”

During questioning, however, Liotta “referred most lawmakers’ at-times incredulous queries to the Justice Department, or claimed the answer they sought was a national secret and could not be shared in a public hearing” (as ABC News described it). He also attempted to explain two contradictory points of view held by the Pentagon: on the one hand, he said that “[w]ithout question the single greatest reason to limit access to detainees is to provide for [the] personal safety” of those who visit them — US politicians included — while on the other hand he stated that the Pentagon’s policy was also “built on a respect for the Geneva Conventions,” which “requires the United States to shield detainees from ‘public curiosity.’”

Dana RohrabacherThis infuriated members of the subcommittee. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Ca.), a long-time supporter of the Guantánamo Uighurs, who criticized Newt Gingrich for promoting “fear-mongering” about them back in May, was, as ABC News explained, “visibly upset by the Obama administration’s apparent decision to continue the Bush administration’s policy of barring detainee visits by lawmakers.” Rohrabacher stated, “I am being denied — all of us are being denied the same access that was denied during the last administration.” After referring to George W. Bush as “a horrible man, a horrible president!” Rohrabacher added, “these very same restrictions on us are being reaffirmed in today’s testimony by this administration.”

Rep. Jim MoranRep. Jim Moran (D-Va.) was even more annoyed. In what was described as “a series of rhetorical questions,” he said, “You allowed intelligence agents of a foreign country to interrogate [Uighur detainees], but you are concerned about their safety and that’s why you don’t allow United States members of Congress [to visit]?” and added, “You are concerned about ‘public curiosity’ — apparently you’re implying we’d be seeing them out of some public curiosity?”

When Liotta diverted questions to the Justice Department, or claimed that he could not answer because of national security issues, Moran grew even more angry. “My frustration continues to mount,” he said. “In order not to answer a question, you can suggest it be provided in classified form. That’s not acceptable. There is no classification of that answer. This is a manipulative, evasive tactic you are employing.” As ABC News described it, Moran suggested that Liotta “could be held in contempt of Congress, threatened to cut funding for the Office of Detainee Policy unless he got satisfactory answers, and said he thought Liotta ought to be fired,” and exclaimed, “To take up two hours of our time and not directly answer any of the relevant questions is an absolute insult to the United States Congress.”

Although Rep. Bill Delahunt (D-Ma.), the chair of the subcommittee, had more sympathy for Liotta, explaining, “I understand that this is a difficult moment for you,” and adding, “I have no doubt that you have received instructions … You find yourself in a very awkward situation,” this was electrifying theater of an important kind. However, it was not the only shock of the day. The Uighurs’ lawyers have long contended that their clients were pawns in a diplomatic game, and in his testimony, one of the attorneys, Jason Pinney, spelled out this betrayal in stark terms (PDF).

“For the past four years, I have been part of a team at Bingham McCutchen that has represented — on a pro bono basis — as many as eleven of the twenty-two Uighur men at Guantánamo,” Pinney said. “None of these men are enemy combatants, and there has never been any justification for holding them. Thirteen Uighurs are still imprisoned at Guantánamo today. They remain there because no country — including our own — has the courage to stand up to the Chinese and offer them refuge.”

As I have explained in numerous articles in the last year, all of this is true — and is disturbing enough on its own terms, particularly regarding the ongoing opposition to resettling some of the men in the United States — but as Pinney continued, an even more disturbing truth became apparent:

The problem, however, goes far beyond our failure to resettle these men. An objective look at the evidence reveals that out country imprisoned the Uighurs as part of quid pro quo with China. China is one of five countries on the United Nations Security Council. In 2002 and 2003, we needed China’s support to invade Iraq. In exchange for Chinese acquiescence in our war plans, we agreed, among other things, to label the Uighurs as terrorists and house them at Guantánamo.

What’s more, we agreed to provide the Chinese with special and unprecedented access to the Uighur men. In September of 2002, we allowed a delegation from the Communist Chinese government to travel to Guantánamo and interrogate the Uighurs imprisoned there. The interrogations lasted for days. Our clients were forced into cells, alone, with the Chinese. No representative from the United States was present during these interrogations. In the history of our republic, I cannot think of another example where a Communist country was invited in to interrogate, unsupervised, prisoners in a United States detention facility.

In a timeline of events, Jason Pinney spelled out more clearly how the Uighurs were used. On December 6, 2001, for example, the State Department refused to designate the East Turkestan Independence Movement (the Uighur separatist movement, to which the Uighurs in Guantánamo were falsely alleged to belong) as a terrorist group. However, on August 26, 2002, as Pinney described it, “US Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage [met] with senior Chinese officials in Beijing to discuss the invasion of Iraq and immediately announce[d] that [ETIM would] be placed on the State Department’s list of terrorist organizations.” The month after, the Chinese interrogators arrived at Guantánamo.

Jason Pinney also highlighted the double standards in the position taken by the Bush administration, and maintained by the Obama administration in the instructions given to Jay Alan Liotta:

Despite our best efforts, no one has been permitted to meet with our clients. The United Nations has been barred from meeting with the Uighurs. So have several human rights groups. The press has been denied permission to speak with the men, or to publish their pictures. Even the members of this Subcommittee have been denied access to the Uighurs, despite the blessing of counsel. The answer has always been the same. No contact has been allowed. The exception to this rule? The Communist Chinese government.

In a separate article, I reproduce in full the testimony of three of the Uighur prisoners, describing their interrogations by the Chinese agents, but what is particularly disturbing about their testimony — beyond the threats made by the agents — is the extent to which the US military helped out, “softening the men up” by routinely waking them up at 15-minute intervals the night before (as a Justice Department report explained last year), short-shackling them in painfully cold rooms in between interrogations, holding them in isolation for between five and 20 days after the interrogations, and physically forcing them to have their photos taken after they refused to cooperate. As Ablikim Turahun, one of the four men released in Bermuda last month, explained:

They attempted to take my picture; however, I did not agree to this. They called for American soldiers and ordered them to hold me, so that my picture could be taken. The soldiers grabbed me, pulling my beard, pressing on my throat, twisting my hands behind my back, and as a result my picture was taken by force.

Most disturbing of all, however, was the betrayal of the Uighurs’ personal details. Abu Bakker Qassim, one of the five Uighurs released in Albania in May 2006, explained, “When we were first interrogated at the Kandahar prison, we told the Americans that we would tell them everything if they would keep our materials confidential. They promised not to give our materials to the Chinese, or to hand us over to [the] Chinese.” At Guantánamo, however, “When some Uighur detainees refused to give their names, the Chinese interrogators said that the Americans they trusted had already provided them with their photos, full names and addresses.”

Qassim explained that the danger was that “the Chinese could now randomly oppress our family members,” but when he “asked the interrogators why they released all of our materials to the Chinese even though they promised to keep our information confidential,” they “did not feel a bit ashamed about it. They apologized by saying that someone in Washington gave our materials to the Chinese.”

Rep. Bill DelahuntAs a result of the hearing, the subcommittee pledged to continue its attempts to hold the Bush administration accountable for its actions. “I want to know who was to blame for that decision,” Dana Rohrabacher said of the Chinese interrogations, and Bill Delahunt made clear (PDF) that it was the subcommittee’s “intention to provide a venue, whether here in Washington or elsewhere, for these men — who have fled Chinese persecution — to come forward and testify so that our colleagues and the American people can have an opportunity to hear them — first-hand — and make their own judgment.”

Delahunt remained appalled that the Committee’s request to visit the Uighurs had been denied by the Bush administration, and that “we never received a satisfactory explanation for why our visit was refused,” and his response to the only explanation he did receive, via a Fox News broadcast in which the DoD stated, “no Congressman can interrogate or question detainees because it is not part of their oversight responsibilities,” was an unwavering assertion of Congressional powers:

Let me first address the issue of oversight responsibility. I want to be very clear — there was no Congressional oversight during the Bush-Cheney Administration. It simply did not exist. As former Senator Chuck Hagel said, the Bush-Cheney Administration treated Congress “like a Constitutional nuisance.” I reject any suggestion that the Executive can define what constitutes the Congressional oversight. It is not the prerogative of the Executive to determine the role of the first branch of government. I am confident this position is shared by most, if not all, members of Congress.

Delahunt also quoted George Washington’s hope that America “might become a safe and agreeable asylum to the virtuous and persecuted part of mankind, to whatever nation they might belong,” and maintained that the US still had an obligation to “parole and resettle at least some of the Uighurs at Guantánamo into the United States.” He announced his intention to send a letter to this effect to President Obama and defense secretary Robert Gates in the near future, and, in conclusion, I can only hope that it meets with success.

Accepting some, or all of the remaining Uighurs into the United States would not only help to encourage other countries to accept cleared Guantánamo prisoners, but would also send a clear signal that Obama regrets sending Jay Alan Liotta to the House hearing to provide “an absolute insult to the United States Congress,” and is, moreover, determined to establish without a doubt that he repudiates the terrible effects of the Bush administration’s almost indiscriminate detention policies in the “War on Terror.”

Note: For further testimony — from Bruce Fein, Principal, The Litchfield Group, and from Tom Parker, Policy Director, Counter-Terrorism and Human Rights, Amnesty International USA — click here.

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, CounterPunch, Antiwar.com and ZNet. Cross-posted on Common Dreams and uruknet.

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), Free The Guantánamo Uighurs! (May 2009), Who Are The Four Guantánamo Uighurs Sent To Bermuda? (June 2009), Guantánamo’s Uighurs In Bermuda: Interviews And New Photos (June 2009), Andy Worthington Discusses Guantánamo on Democracy Now! (June 2009), Guantánamo And The Courts (Part One): Exposing The Bush Administration’s Lies (July 2009), Is The World Ignoring A Massacre of Uighurs In China? (July 2009), Chair Of The American Conservative Union Supports The Guantánamo Uighurs (July 2009), and the stories in the additional chapters of The Guantánamo Files: Website Extras 1, Website Extras 6 and Website Extras 9.

10 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    Here are a few comments from the Huffington Post:

    Valtin wrote:

    A tremendous article, Andy. One feels tremendous frustration as the U.S. executive has become subordinate to the Pentagon and the CIA. No matter what the President’s agenda, he cannot or won’t do anything that truly curtails the power of the military and intel agencies. How ironic that Huff Post headlines right now a triumphalist statement that the vote against the F-22 is some major blow against the “military-industrial complex”. When you’ve got McCain touting such a victory, you might want to check and see if all your senses have been stolen.

    The Uighur story is fascinating and depressing. You describe very well how these people became pawns in the U.S. drive to get all support for its predatory invasion of Iraq. The Chinese participation in this is despicable, too. But at least they thought they were defending their country, as they fear separatists’ actions in Xinjiang province. Great Han chauvinist opposition to autonomous moves by ethnic Muslims in Xinjiang also utilizes fears of Islamic jihad to suppress a people. While I condemn this, it at least has to do with a portion of China that is “legally” part of that country. The U.S. on the other hand was interested in invading a country half way around the world.

    And the Uighurs themselves… puppets used by both sides, turned into un-people for torture and abuse from both the U.S. and China.

    Again, I always admire the breadth and cogency of your reporting.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Salpha wrote:

    Mr. Worthington, the more I read you the more I am disillusioned with President Obama. What happened with “Yes we can”. The only answer that comes to mind as to why Pres. Obama is not leading in the right direction is because of the uproar the media created when it was announced that some detainees could be released in the US if Guantanamo was closed. The reaction from the population seems to be: ‘Not in my backyard’. To me the people of the US are not to blame for this. The culprit is mostly the big media who are just interested in creating controversy and not enlightening the public plus enhancing fear and enabling characters like Newt Gingrich to continue the misinformation. Since the uproar was so big the spineless Democrats joined in.
    The media has become a business for profit only. As a result the quality of the information or the quest for the truth is being lost in the process.
    As we have seen, selling the war in Iraq was an easy thing, the media had become the fourth branch of government, the consequences were tragic for the US images around the world and a vast waste of money for the US citizens.
    In my opinion, the only hope is that good bloggers such as you Mr. Worthington will put enough pressure on the media to return to their duty so Pres. Obama delivers on his promises. Right now he is wasting his immense political capital.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    porsche996 wrote:

    Unbelievable Thanks Andy and HP for this, The corporatist MSM will ignore it? That’s as shameful as the actions of SECDEF. It’s very disturbing to me, that the transition of power to this administration has not included a new reorganized Joint Chiefs and the booting of the Bush intelligence aparatchik, Gates and Hayden. WTH? Is that unprecedented in US History. Why can’t the POTUS replace these positions of the corrupt regime? The continued abuse of these prisoners and others is disgraceful and this story of quid pro quo trades to our new masters the RED Chinese are just revelatory for Americans and need wider dissemination, IMO.

  4. mui says...

    Woah. I wish I had been able to watch this.
    I am trying to find an archived video of this hearing on cspan. No luck. anyone have a link?

    “U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage meets with senior Chinese officials in Beijing to discuss the invasion of Iraq and immediately announces that a group called the “East Turkistan Islamic Movement” (“ETIM”) will be placed on the State Department’s list of terrorist organizations.”
    Pinney testimony:
    http://foreignaffairs.house.gov/111/pin071609.pdf
    Dick Armitage claims that he’s innocent of all wrong doing: http://www.laprogressive.com/2009/04/16/neocon-dick-armitage-i-should-have-resigned/
    And yet, here he is, cited as doing something very dubious once again.

    *Testimony Sean R. Roberts, PhD
    June 16, 2009
    http://www.internationalrelations.house.gov/111/rob061609.pdf
    “When the United States recognized ETIM as a terrorist group with ties to Al Qaeda in 2002, few scholars studying the Uyghur people had ever heard of this group. I, for example, spent much of
    the second half of the 1990s living among Uyghur communities in Kazakhstan, but I had not heard of the group prior to its classification as a terrorist organization by the United States. This
    was particularly puzzling to me since I had become personally acquainted with most of the major Uyghur diaspora political groups in the course of my research, participating as an observer at many of the meetings organized by transnational Uyghur political organizations in the second half of the 1990s. Given how little was known of this organization in 2002, many scholars even questioned whether ETIM existed at all and whether the group’s recognition by the United States was entirely motivated by a desire to gain China’s support for the American-led Global War on Terror.

    It appears, however, that the ETIM, or at least an organization known as the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Party (ETIP), did exist in 2002 since at least one western journalist was able to interview its leader, Hasan Mahsum, in Pakistan shortly after ETIM was designated by the United States as a terrorist organization. At that time, Mahsum asserted that ETIM, or ETIP, had not received
    assistance from Al Qaeda and had no intention of targeting the United States or Americans. Rather, he painted a picture of a small group of religious Uyghur men who had lofty goals of challenging Chinese rule in their homeland but little capacity or resources to do so.

    This portrait of the organization is consistent with my understanding of the Uyghurs who lived in Afghanistan during the 1990s. While it has been documented that a small number of Uyghurs had made their way to Afghanistan in the later 1990s, most of them had gone to the country with the intent of making their way to points further westward where they hoped to obtain political refugee status. It is likely that some of the Uyghurs coming through Afghanistan at this time did find the Jihadi ideals of local groups attractive, but there is also evidence that the Taliban regime was not welcoming of Uyghurs who sought assistance for militant endeavors after 1999. In that
    year, the People’s Republic of China had sent a diplomatic delegation to meet with the Taliban, and this delegation had reportedly made a deal with its Afghan counterparts, where China would provide the pariah government of Afghanistan with a variety of assistance, including updated weaponry, in exchange for the Taliban’s pledge to not harbor Uyghur militants. Although it has not been substantiated, there were also rumors that China established similar agreements with Bin Laden and Al Qaeda. Whether or not the rumors concerning Al Qaeda bear any truth, China did enter into negotiations with the Taliban, and following those negotiations, stories spread in the South Asian media that the small number of Uyghurs thought to be in militant training camps inside Afghanistan were arrested, executed, or forced to leave the country.”

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Hi Mui,
    Excellent comments. Thanks for bringing Sean Roberts’ testimony to my attention, which contains extremely important information about the insignificance of ETIM, and the Taliban’s relationship with the Chinese government.

    Also, there’s a link to a webcast of the hearing on the House Committee’s site, although I haven’t had the opportunity to check it out:
    http://foreignaffairs.house.gov/hearing_notice.asp?id=1099

  6. mui says...

    Thank you. I seem to be having technical issues with the committee webcast.
    I am happy that Delahunt said he wanted justice for the Gitmo Uighurs.
    I am not happy that Pres. Obama is either sleepwalking or continuing Bush policy re: all Gitmo detainees.
    I am not happy about what has been suggested and its lack of traction in the media. And I am willing to bet anyone 100 bucks that ETIM as a “terrorist organization” does not even remotely resemble trumpeted Mainland Chinese/State Dept. claims. I might even go out on a limb and say it doesn’t exist, because it is defunct, and that the Mainland Chinese have manufactured their claims about ETIM by stringing together some unrelated incidents, and adding some padded facts and figures into the mix. Our gov. should have expected that from a gov. that calls the Dalai Lama a “terrorist.” But the State Dept., Colin Powell & Armitage, went ahead anyway and put ETIM on the state dept. terrorist list. Our media swallowed it whole or were complicit in the UN/China/Iraq thing. Because of that, 22(?) Uighurs sat in Gitmo and were labeled as “terrorists” by the rest of the world. And in effect, the Bush administration gave Mainland China a wink and a nod to go ahead and do what it wanted in Xinjiang, so that they could conduct their own rape and pillage in Iraq.
    100 dollars for any journalist willing to investigate and uncover real facts and figures, not stenographic repeats of the Mainland gov. claims, and a/prove me wrong or b/otherwise.

    The Turkish Prime Minister is breaking away from the East/West pledge of allegiance to Mainland China and calling it genocide. I hope he knows what he is doing, and it results in less international isolation for the Uighurs and better human rights.
    http://www.cnn.com/2009/WORLD/europe/07/11/turkey.china.uyghurs/
    But after 8 years of Bush, I think of John Adams on the knavery of priests and politicians, and don’t want to underestimate any politician in that dept. worldwide.

  7. US helped Chinese interrogate Uighurs at Guantánamo « The Lift – Legal Issues in the Fight against Terrorism says...

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    [...] that they had been seized by mistake, but that did not prevent senior officials from allowing Chinese interrogators to visit them at Guantánamo and, it seemed, securing a guarantee in UN negotiations that China [...]

  9. No Escape from Guantanamo: Uighurs Lose Again in US Court « EUROPE TURKMEN FRIENDSHIPS says...

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    [...] the years, the Uighurs became pawns in the Bush administration’s diplomatic relations with the Chinese government, but were mostly [...]

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