Guantánamo Comes To The United States: Andy Worthington’s Tour Report

17.11.09

Andy Worthington at the Q&A following the screening of "Outside the Law: Stories from Guantanamo," New America Foundation, Washington D.C., November 9, 2009When I last visited the United States (in March 2008, on my first ever visit), I recall that, although there was fine spring weather, and life appeared to be proceeding as usual, those outside the Republican party — and I met many in New York and Washington D.C. — were struggling to cope with a black cloud of despair, brought on by the Bush administration’s unprecedented lawlessness, which had been hovering over the country for six years, first through the establishment of an illegal prison at Guantánamo and an associated program of “extraordinary rendition,” torture and secret prison, and then through the illegal invasion of Iraq.

There were, at the time, murmurs of hope — focused either on Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton — but the way forward was not yet clear, and it sometimes seemed that there would be no end to the torture state established in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.

Fast forward to November 2009, and the political landscape has, of course, changed considerably. Barack Obama swept into office promising to undo the worst excesses of the Bush administration, ordering the closure of Guantánamo, rescinding a raft of George W. Bush’s orders and directives relating to the detention and interrogation of prisoners seized in the “War on Terror,” reinstating the absolute prohibition on the use of torture, and apparently guaranteeing the humane treatment of all prisoners in US military custody.

Throughout the year, unfortunately, the boldness of these initiatives has been steadily eroded, either by inertia, a lack of courage, or, in some cases, by actions that seemed all too obviously to contradict the fine words. Opportunities were missed at Guantánamo — primarily in not bringing the Uighurs (innocent men from China, seized by mistake) to settle in the US, as ordered last October by District Court Judge Ricardo Urbina, which, in addition, would have established a necessary precedent for accepting other cleared prisoners who cannot be repatriated onto the US mainland. As an unforeseen result, the right wing of the Republican party saw a win-win situation by reviving former Vice President Dick Cheney’s perennial lie that everyone in Guantánamo is a terrorist, and a fear-filled Congress mobilized to prevent the transfer of any cleared prisoner to the US mainland.

The government also dithered horribly over the specific cases of the prisoners, failing to do anything to facilitate the speedy passage of their habeas corpus petitions in federal courts (as ordered by the Supreme Court in June 2008), in which, despite the Justice Department’s obstruction, judges have so far ruled in favor of 30 out of 38 prisoners. Obama also compounded these failures by establishing an interagency Task Force, in which officials apparently found themselves unable to understand that few prisoners had any connection to terrorism whatsoever, and that the reason it was so difficult to draw together any meaningful information about many of the men was not because it was scattered across numerous departments and agencies, but because it simply did not exist.

Proof that this was the case was readily to hand, both in statements made by Lt. Col. Stephen Abraham, who served on the tribunals at Guantánamo that were responsible for gathering what evidence existed, and in the rulings made by the District Court judges, who, time and again, lambasted the government for its reliance on statements made by other prisoners, which were patently unreliable, on “mosaics” of intelligence that were full of holes, and, in one case, on an entirely false confession extracted through the use of torture and threats.

It has also been clear, since at least 2006, when researchers at the Seton Hall Law School analyzed the Pentagon’s own documents relating to the prisoners, that only eight percent were alleged to have had any connection to al-Qaeda, and that 86 percent were not “captured on the battlefield,” but were seized by the US military’s Afghan and Pakistani allies, at a time when bounty payments for “al-Qaeda and Taliban suspects,” averaging $5,000 a head, were widespread.

Outside the Law: Stories from GuantanamoWith the recent completion of my documentary, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed with Polly Nash), I thought it was time to pay another visit to the country whose cruel, lawless and counter-productive approach to warfare and countering terrorism has dominated my life for the last four years, and this desire (which, I freely admit, also included plans to hook up with, and in some cases to meet for the first time, good friends I have made through the Internet) was also driven by the realization that, with just two months until President Obama’s deadline for closing Guantánamo, the prison will not be closed on time. Moreover, numerous cleared prisoners — cleared for release both by military review boards under the Bush administration, and by Obama’s own Task Force — may remain at Guantánamo for the rest of their lives unless the Senate’s ban on bringing cleared prisoners to the US mainland is overturned.

However, what I was not entirely prepared for was the extent to which these stories are either unknown or unacknowledged because of what I came to call “the Obama effect,” a belief, amongst many on the left, that Obama had waved a magic wand and made everything better, so that Americans could look in the mirror and feel good about themselves again, even though the political reality is actually far more complicated, and involves the difficulty of effecting any meaningful change given the general intransigence of Congress, and hidden pressure behind the scenes from other actors, including the Pentagon and the intelligence services, compounded by the administration’s frequent inability to act decisively.

The America I encountered this time, then, was in some ways suffering more than in March 2008, with the recession biting hard, the GOP apparently rabid, and the sheen on Obama’s halo slowly giving way to a realization, on the left, that, even with the best intentions, he cannot be a savior for the United States, and that, in any case, the best intentions are rarely enough to win over the lawmakers in Congress, dissenters in his own party, and, very possibly, the wayward might of the military-industrial complex.

As a result it was a fascinating, if sometimes frustrating time to visit, as activists attempt to build up a base of supporters again, struggling even to engage anti-war protestors, who seem to have overlooked the fact that, even on the campaign trail, Obama’s trade-off for scaling down operations in Iraq was to promise an increase in military action in Afghanistan, and everyone on the left (and, presumably, in the center) tries to decipher the administration’s intentions, and the meanings of its actions.

I have written about my experiences in New York in a previous article, and have also posted a link to a video of a talk I gave before a screening of “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” in Fairfax, Virginia, organized by my friends Jacob Hornberger and Bart Frazier of the Future of Freedom Foundation, who, along with The World Can’t Wait in New York and San Francisco, sponsored my trip and looked after me in fine style, as well as continuing to support me through the weekly column that I write for them about Guantánamo and related issues. I know that their principled stand on torture and the Bush administration’s flight from the law is not shared by all libertarians, and I admire their dedication to pursuing these topics until constitutional values are restored, and those responsible are held to account.

Fairfax was the scene of my only stopover in a hotel, followed by a hearty breakfast with Jacob and Bart. I then took the Metro into Washington D.C. and made my way, on what was actually a hot and sunny early afternoon, to the offices of the New America Foundation, where my old college friend Peter Bergen had organized a screening, which had been publicized to the Foundation’s extensive mailing list, and also to many of my own contacts among the Guantánamo lawyers.

As a result, it was a full house, and I was delighted with the response to the film, and delighted with the Q&A after the screening, moderated by Peter, in which I was joined by lawyers Tom Wilner (who is featured in the film) and David Cynamon (who represents three Kuwaitis who are still held), for a lively and hard-hitting discussion of both the film and the current state of play at Guantánamo. I was also delighted that friends, colleagues and acquaintances from the legal world — both civilian and military lawyers — who, over the years, have been drawn into the dark heart of Guantánamo, also attended the screening, and that I got to meet up with some of them.

Peter Bergen, David Cynamon, Andy Worthington and Tom Wilner at the Q&A following the screening of “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” at the New America Foundation, Washington D.C., November 9, 2009

Peter Bergen, David Cynamon, Andy Worthington and Tom Wilner at the Q&A following the screening of “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” at the New America Foundation, Washington D.C., November 9, 2009.

Afterwards, Tom Wilner took myself and others out for a meal, and, as I grappled with the largest steak I have ever seen in my life, we discussed some more of the burning questions relating to Guantánamo: how to keep pressure on the administration to do the right thing when, as I had the opportunity to explain throughout my tour, Obama and his advisors are clearly not the same as the Bush administration, as they know right from wrong and have respect for the law, but still find themselves blundering in policy decisions — at Bagram, for example, and in their willingness to endorse Military Commissions and preventive detention for the prisoners at Guantánamo — that are profoundly disturbing.

On Tuesday morning, I took a wretchedly expensive cab to Dulles Airport for my flight to San Francisco, where I was met by Curt Wechsler of The World Can’t Wait, who thoroughly looked after me throughout my visit. Curt took me from the airport to Berkeley, where I was interviewed by Dennis Bernstein for his show “Flashpoints” on KPFA (available here), and then to a hall in North Berkeley for the first screening of “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” on the West Coast. This was a lively affair, despite ”the Obama effect,” and well attended by the dedicated Bay Area activists who have been working so hard to remove torture lawyer John Yoo from his tenure at UC Berkeley School of Law.

On Wednesday, after a relaxing morning with my hosts, Ruth Fallenbaum (of Psychologists for an Ethical APA, who are opposed to psychologists’ complicity in programs of torture at Guantánamo and elsewhere) and the author Zeese Papanikolas, Curt collected me and drove me back to San Francisco for a screening at San Francisco University School of Law, hosted by Professor Peter Jan Honigsberg (also the author of Our Nation Unhinged), where a good crowd of students gathered for a lunchtime screening, and where I also had the pleasure to meet Frank Lindh, the father of John Walker Lindh, the so-called “American Taliban.”

After the screening, and a Q&A with the students, I was delighted to be interviewed by Sari Gelzer of Truthout, for a video (including excerpts from the film) that will be posted in the near future. Curt then took me on a short sightseeing tour before we returned to Berkeley for a well attended talk at Revolution Books, where I once more ran through the history of Guantánamo, bringing the story up to date with a request for the community to follow up on the recent precedent established in Amherst, Massachusetts, whose townspeople recently voted to ask the Senate to reverse its ban on accepting cleared prisoners into the United States, and volunteered to accept two particular prisoners, Ahmed Belbacha and Ravil Mingazov (see the website “No More Guantánamos” for further information).

I was also particularly pleased to finally meet up with the psychologist, activist and blogger Jeff Kaye, a friend, colleague and supporter, whose investigations into the Bush administration’s torture program ought to be required reading for anyone seeking to understand the psychological aspects of the “War on Terror” detention and interrogation policies, and how they fit into the bigger picture of CIA activity since the Second World War.

This was not quite the end of my trip, but my scheduled events had come to an end, and after another fine morning with Ruth and Zeese, Curt delivered me back to the airport for a flight back to New York, a reunion with my hosts, The Talking Dog and his family, and a late night chat in which the Dog and I attempted, once more, to unravel the motives of the Obama administration. After just a few hours’ sleep, I awoke for a scheduled interview on Democracy Now! to be greeted by a phone call alerting me to the fact that Attorney General Eric Holder was about to announce that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his alleged co-conspirators in the 9/11 attacks were to be put forward for a federal court trial in New York, and that five other prisoners were to be put forward for trial by Military Commission.

My interview, in which I discussed the breaking news — and which also included excerpts from “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” — is available here, and it was a perfect way to round off my visit. It remained only for me to meet up once more with Debra Sweet, the Director of The World Can’t Wait, to discuss strategies for the coming months, and to have a final meal with my hosts. I hope to return in January, but in the meantime I can only encourage anyone concerned about the closure of Guantánamo to follow Amherst’s example by campaigning for the release of cleared prisoners into the United States, and to keep a close eye on the administration’s plans to try prisoners by Military Commissions and to hold others indefinitely. The concepts of “hope” and “change” may have become somewhat debased in the last ten months, but I believe that engagement, rather than resignation, is the way forward.

Please contact me if you are interested in learning more about the cleared prisoners at Guantánamo who cannot be repatriated, and please contact either myself or Polly Nash if you are interested in broadcasting, distributing or showing “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo.”

For excerpts and extras, follow the links on the Spectacle website. A short trailer is available here, and please visit this page for photos and reviews of the UK launch on October 21, 2009.

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed (and I can also be found on Facebook and Twitter). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009, details about my film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash, and launched in October 2009), and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

5 Responses

  1. Connie L. Nash says...

    http://oneheartforpeace.blogspot.com/2009/11/more-about-dr-aafia-siddiqui-whos-next.html
    oneheartforpeace: More about Dr. Aafia Siddiqui (who’s next court event is scheduled for Thursday) Source: http//www.oneheartforpeace.blogspot.com See the post several items below for more details…Bottom line, this coming hearing/event scheduled for Thursday is NOT I am surmising the actual trial (or there would be more available publicity, I’m quite sure and the event would have been labeled “TRIAL”. See more and add your comments/questions…Look for more to come.

    (Thought this would be appropriate since when I was at last hearing a few weeks ago, Andy was busy in NYC also and so some in NYC empathetic to plight of so many detainees may also want to be a witness in the courtroom Thursday for Aafia’s sake and also as a reminder to Corrections that they are being watched.)

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