Recently, I was asked, by Saurabh Kumar Shahi of the Sunday Indian newspaper, to take part in an interview for the paper’s monthly “Media Watch” supplement, and I was happy to do so. The interview is available here, and I’m cross-posting it below, as Saurabh asked some great questions, giving me an opportunity to run through Guantánamo’s history, and to explain why it was, and remains a disgraceful aberration, and also to explain why, under President Obama, it remains open, despite his promise to close it.
The Sunday Indian: How did it all begin: your journey as a journalist and historian?
Andy Worthington: I was always interested in history, and in writing. I studied English Language and Literature at New College, Oxford, in the 1980s, but my journey really began when I published two books on modern British social history, dealing with protest movements, dissent, state oppression and civil liberties in 2004 and 2005, After that, I felt able to move into the field of human rights.
The Sunday Indian: How did you get interested and involved in the Guantánamo detention camp?
Andy Worthington: I had been interested since the prison opened, on January 11, 2002, and the world first saw the shackled prisoners in their orange jumpsuits, with their eyes and ears covered, closed, subjected to sensory detention. Like many others, it told me that something had gone terribly wrong in the United States in response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, as these men were obviously not being held either as prisoners of war or criminal suspects.
Of course, it took many years for the truth of what was happening at Guantánamo to emerge, and in fact, much of the story only emerged in the spring of 2006, as I began researching the story full-time for my book The Guantánamo Files, when the Pentagon was obliged, through a lawsuit, to release the names and nationalities of all the prisoners — for the first time since the prison opened — and 8,000 pages of documents about them.
These included the allegations against them, and transcripts of the tribunals convened to assess whether they had been correctly designated on capture as “enemy combatants,” who could continue to be held indefinitely. The tribunals were a sham, as they were designed to rubber-stamp the prisoners’ designation as “enemy combatants,” and they were not allowed lawyers, or to see or hear the classified evidence against them, preventing them from challenging the allegations effectively, but they did allow their voices to be heard, and they were invaluable as I set about analyzing and transcribing the documents, creating a chronology, and establishing who the prisoners were.
The Sunday Indian: You started with the question, “Who is in Guantánamo?” After you completed the book, do you feel you can give a three-sentence answer to this question?
Andy Worthington: I can — or three paragraphs, at least. There were three types of prisoners at Guantánamo — those who were completely innocent, and who were swept up through poor intelligence, through a deliberate lack of adequate screening on capture, and because America’s Afghan and Pakistani allies, who seized around 90 percent of the prisoners, were being paid substantial bounty payments for handing over al-Qaeda and Taliban suspects, or those who could be dressed up as al-Qaeda or Taliban suspects.
The largest group consisted of foot soldiers for the Taliban — either Afghans, who were often unwilling conscripts, or Arab recruits, usually drawn to help the Taliban fight the Northern Alliance in what was portrayed as a struggle to establish a pure Islamic state. One of the greatest institutional crimes of the “War on Terror” was to claim that soldiers were not soldiers, but were “enemy combatants,” who were essentially interchangeable with terrorists, and could be held without rights.
The third group, consisting of a few dozen prisoners, are genuine terror suspects — those involved with the 9/11 attacks or other acts of international terrorism. And in the case of these prisoners, my belief is that they should have been tried in federal court, rather than being subjected to a program of “extraordinary rendition” and torture, and a government and lawmakers who wanted — and still want — to try them in specially convened military courts that do not have internationally recognized legitimacy.
The Sunday Indian: Do you think that the American media is partly responsible for the manifestation of a system like Guantánamo?
Andy Worthington: Not the initial manifestation, but certainly its continued existence. The media should have asked more questions in the first few years of Guantánamo’s existence. When the submerged truth about the systematic violence and abuse in the “War on Terror” became apparent in April 2004, with the release of the torture photos from Abu Ghraib, the media should have made sure that Guantánamo, and the abuses of the “war,” remained under permanent scrutiny, but they did not. The research I have undertaken as a freelance investigative journalist should have been undertaken by the mainstream US media.
In addition, since President Obama came to power, and found himself unable to close Guantánamo, the mainstream media has not focused sufficiently on this failure, and on the disgraceful activities of lawmakers (mainly in the Republican Party), who have made Guantánamo a negative campaigning issue, and have passed outrageous laws severely restricting the President’s ability to close the prison.
The Sunday Indian: Can you describe who these people are — these prisoners that Donald Rumsfeld said were “the worst of the worst”? Who are they and how did they get to Gitmo? After meeting some of the former prisoners up close, did you find them to be the “beasts” the media has portrayed them to be?
Andy Worthington: I hope to have partly answered this question above, about who the prisoners are. As for meeting former prisoners, I have met several, and they have been people caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, and fascinating individuals who have managed to survive what happened to them and to emerge without malice. It is a testament to their faith, and to the close bonds of friendship between the prisoners at Guantánamo.
The Sunday Indian: Would you agree with the conclusion, which the film “The Road to Guantánamo” tried to convey, that the majority of people in Guantánamo were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time?
Andy Worthington: Not entirely. Certainly, there were many innocent people swept up through American incompetence and arrogance, and through offering bounty payments to their allies, but again, as I mentioned above, many of the prisoners were — or are — soldiers, so the problem really is that America decided to equate soldiers with terror suspects and to hold all of them as “the worst of the worst,” when that simply was not appropriate. If the soldiers were held as prisoners of war, according to the Geneva Conventions, they would now be asking when the “war” in which they are held will actually end, and if the terror suspects had been treated as criminals, and not subjected to torture (as with many of the soldiers that the Bush administration decided were terrorists), they would probably, by now, have been successfully tried, and, if guilty, convicted and sentenced.
The Sunday Indian: Would you agree with Amnesty International’s definition that we are looking at the Gulag of the 21st century?
Andy Worthington: Essentially, yes. America has reassured brutal governments and dictatorships around the world that arbitrary detention and torture are acceptable, when they are not, and it remains a major problem that the Obama administration has chosen to “look forward rather than back,” and has not held senior officials and lawyers in the Bush administration accountable for their crimes.
However much Guantánamo is improved and made more humane, it remains an abomination, with a legacy of torture and the permanent injustice of holding men neither as prisoners of war nor as criminal suspects, possibly forever, and on a basis that, despite the best efforts of the Supreme Court (which gave the prisoners habeas corpus rights in 2004 and again in 2008, after Congress had tried to remove them), are essentially meaningless, as right-wing appeals court judges have effectively gutted habeas of all meaning, thereby ensuring that Guantánamo effectively remains a place where arbitrary detention still prevails.
The Sunday Indian: Another book on Guantánamo, Joseph Margulies’ Guantánamo and the Abuse of Presidential Power, makes the claim that the actual aim of the whole “war on terror” is to make the executive branch more powerful and to give the president unprecedented powers. Would you agree with this?
Andy Worthington: Partly. Dick Cheney, in particular, was a great believer in the President’s right to do as he saw fit without any interference, and establishing a permanent “war” was certainly a good way of ensuring that the President would endlessly be able to claim that he needed to be free to act without undue scrutiny in the interests of “national security.” In fact, though, the main problem is that the fear stoked up in the ‘War on Terror” also infected Congress and parts of the judiciary, and has enabled the injustices of the “War on Terror” to continue without the President’s powers being the only problem.
What we need is an end to the “War on Terror,” and a return to the values that existed before 9/11 — respect for the Geneva Conventions, terrorism as a crime, and an abhorrence of torture and of arbitrary detention.
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) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed (and I can also be found on Facebook, Twitter, Digg and YouTube). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in June 2011, “The Complete Guantánamo Files,” a 70-part, million-word series drawing on files released by WikiLeaks in April 2011, and details about the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, and available on DVD here — or here for the US). Also see my definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all my articles, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.
On Digg, wanacare wrote:
Thanks Andy Worthington, you are certainly a courageous hero for liberty and justice for all. Today around the world people are realizing that 99% of us must begin to push, push, and work to make most of the leaders of our countries who made up of the 1% Elite and don’t care what it takes to make themselves richer and more powerful do what is less vile, corrupt and horrifying, including stopping the imprisonment of uncharged & cleared Guantanamo tortured men and children.
Thanks, wanacare. I appreciate your support, and applaud your sentiments.
Investigative journalist, author, filmmaker, photographer and Guantanamo expert
Email Andy Worthington
Please support Andy Worthington, independent journalist: