Elizabeth Ferrari: Andy, last week was a terrible week for lies and misinformation regarding Guantánamo, particularly concerning the Yemeni prisoners and a Pentagon statement alleging that 1 in 5 released prisoners had engaged in terrorist activities. You wrote a number of articles about these topics (see here, here and here), and also discussed them on Democracy Now! on Friday, and I was hoping in this interview to follow up on some of these stories.
As you mentioned, the Pentagon is still putting out misleading reports that inflate the numbers of released detainees who “return to the battlefield.” The last one I read was even released by the same spokesman, Geoff Morrell, who did this under Bush and in the same dodgy language. This false report does undercut President Obama’s project to close Guantanamo.
The right wing will go on and makes their ridiculous claims, but more concerning is watching the Pentagon produce these reports at politically sensitive moments for Obama, and also for detainees who have been held without charge for years and years.
For those who missed your interview and your articles, could you run down how the Pentagon puts out these alarming reports and how Seton Hall and others have researched and refuted those claims?
Andy Worthington: Sure. The Pentagon has an alarming habit of releasing reports about alleged recidivists — prisoners who have apparently “returned to the battlefield” — at suspicious times. A claim about 61 recidivists, for example, was touted at a Pentagon press conference just a week before President Obama took office last year, and researchers from the Seton Hall Law School, who have been studying these claims assiduously, issued a wonderful report in response (PDF), in which, along with copious amounts of research, they noted that this was “the 43rd attempt to enumerate the number of detainees who have returned to the battlefield” and that “In each of its forty-three attempts to provide the numbers of the recidivist detainees, the Department of Defense has given different sets of numbers that are contradictory and internally inconsistent with the Department’s own data.”
Last May, the New York Times got in trouble when it published a front-page story based on another conveniently issued report, which claimed that 1 in 7 released prisoners — 74 in total — had returned to the battlefield. The problem was that the Pentagon had only provided names and “confirmation” for 27 of the 74 prisoners cited in the report, so that it was impossible to check any information about the other 47, and a week later, as I explained in my recent article:
[T]he Times allowed Peter Bergen and Katherine Tiedemann of the New America Foundation to write an op-ed criticizing Bumiller’s article, in which they concluded, from an examination of the report (PDF) that a more probable figure for recidivism — based on the fact that there were “12 former detainees who can be independently confirmed to have taken part in terrorist acts directed at American targets, and eight others suspected of such acts” — was “about 4 percent of the 534 men who have been released.”
The Times then published an Editor’s Note apologizing for the story, but the damage had already been done, and another Seton Hall report (PDF) — putting the real figure at around thirteen (or 2 percent) — was, as a result, a kind of exercise in damage limitation.
So this latest claim — unsubstantiated by any kind of supporting evidence whatsoever — was typical behavior, but its timing, coming, as it did, the day after Obama announced that no more Yemenis would be released from Guantánamo in the near future, was incredibly suspicious, as it indicated that there were figures within the Pentagon — Bush-era figures like Geoff Morrell, for example, and those pulling his strings — who were capitalizing on the situation to pursue what was presumably their own agenda: doing all they could to prevent the closure of Guantánamo, and to derail further the President’s already tattered plans to close the prison.
Elizabeth Ferrari: Who is setting the agenda at the Pentagon and, more broadly, in our national security establishment, that these reports are still being timed to contradict Obama? Could you speak to that? There seem to be any number of actors in this administration who are not on the same page as the president. Mr. Brennan is on the record supporting torture as a “tool.” Admiral Blair was involved in supporting the Church massacres in East Timor. We’ve just heard that Secretary Gates will be around for another year and, even overlooking his long career of helping politicians skirt the law and his CIA background, he was accommodating of Bush’s human rights violations. This crew is not a bunch of reformers.
Andy Worthington: Unfortunately, I have no idea, but either Obama is playing a devious game, pretending to want to close Guantánamo (which I’ve heard suggested, but actually don’t believe) or he’s not entirely in charge of the Pentagon. It’s long seemed to me that he kept Gates on because he and his close advisors literally didn’t have anyone on board who had the background and the contacts to control the Pentagon, so perhaps that’s it: he’s stuck with Gates, and stuck with other players who have their own agenda.
If this is the case, it’s rather alarming, of course, as it suggests that the military-industrial complex has its own momentum and that the only pressure to shut it down — or, at least, to scale back the profligate warmongering and spending that dominated the Bush years, and that is being repeated under Obama — has to come from the people.
Elizabeth Ferrari: In your articles, and on Democracy Now! you pointed out that President Obama is not making the same mistakes Bush did in that he is being careful about who he releases, whereas Bush made some releases against the advice of the “intelligence” community, which later turned out to be problematic. Could you help us understand the story on Yemen right now and why the president has decided not to release more prisoners to that country?
Andy Worthington: Pure fear. Political pragmatism. The uproar about releasing Yemenis, because of the failed Christmas plane bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s alleged connection to a Yemeni group containing Saudi ex-prisoners from Guantánamo (the ones released by Bush) was so intense that he felt he couldn’t take it on, and he did what he did last year, when his counsel Greg Craig was planning to bring some of the innocent Uighurs from Guantánamo to live in the US, but the administration was taking flak for releasing the torture memos and planning to release the photos of the abuse of prisoners in Afghanistan and Iraq. He capitulated, pure and simple.
In defense of John Brennan, the former CIA man who is one of Obama’s senior counter-terrorism advisors, I have to say that he put up a good fight when he appeared on the TV shows the previous weekend, defending how careful the administration has been in approving releases from Guantánamo, and generally putting on a great performance as a career official who appreciates how Obama has learned from and has rectified mistakes made by Bush, for whom Brennan also worked, of course.
To my mind, Obama should have gone with Brennan — perhaps sending him out again to tackle some of those spreading hysteria and misinformation — instead of caving in, because I think Brennan’s on his side and knows how to talk tough to the barking lunatics who are usually the only ones raising their voices. But it didn’t work out like that, and I’m disappointed, as Obama only loses more ground and more authority when he backs down, instead of taking on his critics in a manner they understand. I actually think that the failure — or inability — of senior Democrats to shout down their opponents is one their major failings.
Elizabeth Ferrari: We’ve been inundated with information — or more precisely, with propaganda — by the supporters of the “War on Terror,” and it’s very difficult to keep everything straight and clear. As I understand it, there is a group of detainees who had been cleared for release because they were found by a judge to be students in a guesthouse, not combatants in any way. They were going to be released to Yemen. Is it right that all of that has been tabled?
Why were they being released to Yemen and, if you can, can you give the numbers you’ve assigned to them so we can look them up in your Definitive Prisoner List? It looks like these people are being held hostage to a political struggle in the United States. What will it take to get them released?
Andy Worthington: OK, so you’re talking about Alla Ali Bin Ali Ahmed, a student in a guest house in Pakistan, who triumphantly won his habeas corpus petition last May and was finally released by Obama in October. There were around 15 other men seized in that house — eight of whom are Yemenis — but although one was cleared for release by a military review board under the Bush administration (because he was only visiting on the night of the raid and didn’t even live there), and although the judge in Ali Ahmed’s case — Judge Gladys Kessler — stated that she thought it probable that the majority of the others seized in the raid were also students, none of them have won any court cases, because the habeas petitions move so slowly (largely through Justice Department obstruction).
It may well be that they have been cleared for release after the deliberations of Obama’s interagency task Force, which has been reviewing all the Guantánamo cases since last January, and has cleared around 40 of the remaining 86 Yemenis for release (in addition to the six men released before Christmas), but there’s no way of finding out, as only the Task Force and the prisoners’ lawyers know, and the lawyers are prevented from discussing the Task Force’s conclusions publicly.
As a result, I can’t give you any specific prisoner numbers to look up in my list, but if you go through all four parts, you’ll be able to find the 86 Yemenis who haven’t been released, and to either follow links to their stories, or find where they’re discussed in my book The Guantánamo Files. Some were also cleared under the Bush administration, but were never released, and a few are amongst the 32 out of 41 prisoners who won their habeas corpus petitions between October 2008 and December 2009, but have also not yet been released.
As for when any of these men will be released, your guess is as good as mine, after Obama’s capitulation. I can only repeat what I’ve said before, which is that someone in the administration needs to find some courage to stick to principles, as pragmatism is a slippery road.
Elizabeth Ferrari: It has been confirmed recently that Erik Prince is or was a CIA asset and that Blackwater has been involved in a multinational assassination program — in Germany, perhaps in Pakistan. To your knowledge, has the CIA used Blackwater operatives at Gitmo or at any of their other prisons, black sites or at Bagram, for example? Blackwater’s impunity in daylight is terrible enough. It’s very concerning to wonder what they do in secret and if they have been involved with detainees of the United States. Have you found any “fingerprints” to this effect?
Andy Worthington: In a word, no, but only, I’m sure, because I haven’t had the time to look. “Contractors” are all over the torture, “extraordinary rendition” and secret prison stories, so I’d be very surprised if Blackwater wasn’t involved somewhere along the line. I actually hope to do some more research into the secret prisons this year.
Elizabeth Ferrari: For those of us trying to follow these cases, what would you suggest tracking right now? What are you yourself looking out for?
Andy Worthington: Most of my time is still spent on the Guantánamo story, trying to publicize the horrendous crimes of the Bush administration — and to highlight the incompetence of senior officials, as much as their cruelty. If readers want a useful avenue to pursue, it would be to look at the cleared prisoners who can’t be repatriated because they face torture in their homelands — dozens of prisoners from Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Tunisia and Uzbekistan, as well as the last seven Uighurs — and to look at the work that Nancy Talanian is putting together at No More Guantánamos, trying to persuade communities across the States to pass resolutions specifically adopting certain prisoners and asking Congress to overturn its ban on accepting cleared prisoners into the US, following the example of Amherst, Massachusetts.
Countries in Europe have taken a handful of these men, but they’re finding little reason to do so when the US won’t take any itself, and my fear is that cleared prisoners will remain in Guantánamo — or in some other hellhole in the States, if that project ever comes off — for years, or for the rest of their lives, without concerted action to demand that the US government accepts responsibility for its own mistakes.
Otherwise, keep educated, spread the word, and keep an eye on the prison at Bagram airbase, which remains as much outside the law as Guantánamo was back in 2004, before the Supreme Court got involved, and lawyers were able to meet with prisoners to begin filing their habeas petitions, and to bring their stories of torture and abuse to the world. That process was derailed by Congress for another four years (although the administration failed to keep the lawyers out), but no lawyer has set foot in Bagram, and, although a District Court judge ruled last March that foreign prisoners rendered to Bagram and held for up to six years have the same habeas rights as the Guantánamo prisoners, the Obama administration appealed, and the Court of Appeals is currently considering that appeal.
Bagram’s also important because it’s where the war meets the detention policies, and I think we need to do all we can to bring together anti-war protestors, torture opponents, and opponents of the lawless detention polices of the last eight years, to try and get a new mass movement going at the start of this new decade.
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, updated in January 2010, details about the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, and launched in October 2009), and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.
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