In January, when I visited the US for events to mark the 10th anniversary of the opening of the “war on terror” prison at Guantánamo Bay, and to renew calls for the prison to be closed, as President Obama promised on his second day in office, I paid a flying visit to San Francisco to take part in a conversation about Guantánamo past, present and future with my friend and colleague Jason Leopold, the lead investigative reporter for Truthout. Our hour-long conversation was filmed, and I posted an unedited version last month, but now I’m delighted to present an edited, 20-minute version, along with an insightful commentary, which was posted on Truthout yesterday.
The video was filmed and edited by Hans Bennett, a multi-media journalist whose work focuses on the movement to free Mumia Abu-Jamal and all political prisoners, and was produced in association with Angola 3 News, a project of the International Coalition to Free the Angola 3. As Angola 3 News noted, “In 2007 and 2011, Amnesty International issued statements in support of Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox, the two members of the Angola 3 who remain in prison today, after more than 39 years of solitary confinement.”
I’m very pleased with the analysis of our conversation, which is posted below. I don’t want to flag up too much of it in this introduction, as I hope you have the time to read it — and to watch the video — but I was delighted with the explanation about Guantánamo’s “True Secret,” which was my response to a journalist suggesting, at a press conference in Washington D.C. on January 11, that “perhaps President Obama has not shut Guantánamo down because of some ‘dark secrets’ that cannot be made public for legitimate reasons of national security.” As I explained at the press conference, and again in San Francisco:
[T]he truth is “much more mundane” than “some huge national security secret … It’s about cruelty, incompetence, embarrassment … issues where senior officials and senior lawyers are responsible for things that might rise to the level of war crimes. But above all, it’s about the torture, abuse, coercion and bribery that was in Guantánamo. There was a ‘house of cards’ of evidence built out of nothing except the testimony of prisoners and their fellow prisoners, who were abused or persuaded in other ways to produce what masquerades as the evidence. That’s the true secret.”
British journalist Andy Worthington, the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison, has been documenting the array of human rights abuses at Guantánamo for over six years now, after he personally became angry that the US government would not say who they were holding at Guantánamo. Worthington was recently a guest speaker alongside investigative journalist Jason Leopold at the UC Hastings College of Law, in San Francisco on January 13, 2012, hosted by the college’s chapter of the National Lawyers Guild. The event, entitled “Ten Years of Guantánamo,” was held amidst protests around the world calling for the prison to be immediately shut.
Leopold, who has also written extensively about Guantánamo for Truthout, queried Worthington about a range of issues surrounding Guantánamo and the so-called “war on terror.” While exchanging stories of false imprisonment and torture, both journalists expressed a profound moral outrage, openly supporting a global coalition of human rights activists’ call to shut the prison down, and, at a minimum, to release prisoners already cleared for release [89 of the remaining 171 prisoners]. Most of the conversation examined the reasons why the prison has not yet been closed, and then how, with these reasons in mind, activists can best strategize their organizing tactics for targeting lawmakers and building public support for closure.
While strategizing about ways to gain public support for shutting Guantánamo down, both Leopold and Worthington converged on the need to expose the extreme fearmongering perpetrated by US leadership in order to justify the human rights nightmare created by the war on terror. Looking specifically at the rhetorical strategies used to advocate for the recently passed National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), Worthington commented that elected officials are either “scared and [therefore are] disgraceful cowards or they’re scaremongers, and I think most of them are scaremongers. They’re playing the fear card. It’s an insult to you … we face such grave economic problems at the moment, that to have these idiots obsessing only about a terrorism threat that they conjured up, is a disgrace.”
A central focus of Worthington and Leopold’s discussion was the Obama administration’s role in keeping Guantánamo open, despite the Executive Order that he issued on his second day of office calling for it to be closed. Leopold asserted, “There seems to be a certain segment that really does want to protect President Obama, not casting blame on him and shifting it onto Congress.”
Worthington agreed that President Obama shares as much responsibility as Congress, arguing that as soon as Obama issued the Executive Order to shut down Guantánamo, prisoners should have been released.
“There had been 65 prisoners still held, who had been cleared for release by military review boards under the Bush administration. When Obama came into office, he could have released some of those guys easily. But he did nothing,” said Worthington, adding that “it means nothing” to tell a prisoner that “we want to release you,” but can’t do it because of the political environment. “It makes such a mockery of any concepts of justice and the law,” Worthington declared.
The Mainstream Media and Guantánamo’s “True Secret”
Together, Leopold and Worthington dissected mainstream media coverage around the tenth anniversary, arguing that coverage was superficial, with no real follow-up after the initial January 11 anniversary. Worthington told of an experience at a press conference earlier in the week, where a US journalist suggested that perhaps President Obama has not shut Guantánamo down because of some “dark secrets” that cannot be made public for legitimate reasons of national security.
Worthington recounted telling this journalist that the truth is “much more mundane” than “some huge national security secret … It’s about cruelty, incompetence, embarrassment … issues where senior officials and senior lawyers are responsible for things that might rise to the level of war crimes. But above all, it’s about the torture, abuse, coercion and bribery that was in Guantánamo. There was a ‘house of cards’ of evidence built out of nothing except the testimony of prisoners and their fellow prisoners, who were abused or persuaded in other ways to produce what masquerades as the evidence. That’s the true secret.”
Taking an even deeper look into Guantánamo Prison’s “true secret,” Leopold described an interview he conducted with a Guantánamo lawyer defending a so-called “high-value detainee” [Abu Zubaydah]. Leopold could not even ask the lawyer what he’d had for lunch when meeting with the detainee, which Worthington confirmed was representative of how “nothing has been made unclassified” about those prisoners designated as high-value detainees.
“Why would that be? Would it happen to be coincidental that these were the guys who were held in secret CIA torture prisons for all these years, and the government is determined to keep a lid on any mention of that whatsoever? I can’t see that there could possibly be any other conclusion,” said Worthington.
The DC Circuit Court vs. Habeas Corpus
A June 2004 ruling by the US Supreme Court granted habeas corpus rights to the wartime prisoners at Guantánamo. Worthington argues that this is because the court recognized that they weren’t being granted the rights in the Geneva Conventions accorded to soldiers. In response to this decision, “Bush’s Congress” tried to revoke these habeas corpus rights, and, in 2008, the Supreme Court affirmed their habeas corpus rights and ruled that Congress had acted unconstitutionally.
Following the 2008 ruling, the Guantánamo prisoners were then “able to file their cases in front of District Court judges in Washington DC, who all got together to decide how they were going to do it, to decide what kind of standard was required to detain people, because the Supreme Court had not spelled that out. Nobody ever had really properly spelled out what an ‘enemy combatant’ meant,” said Worthington. They decided that it meant the accused person had to be part of al-Qaeda or the Taliban.
Commenting on this decision, Worthington emphasized that the “fundamental problem identified — ‘Are you a terrorist or a soldier?’ — wasn’t addressed … But at least they tried to codify what it meant.” Worthington reported feeling vindicated when dozens of District Court rulings harshly criticized the evidence being used against the Guantánamo prisoners, with Worthington commenting that these rulings read “remarkably like what I and other people who’ve been looking at these cases closely for years have been saying.”
Around two dozen prisoners were released as a result of this process, leading the government to appeal to the DC Circuit Court. Once there, Worthington reports that the District Court judges did not adequately test “the allegations made by the government,” or properly “balance those against the claims made by the prisoners.”
“They’ve steadily — in ruling after ruling,” unfairly given “presumption of accuracy to whatever nonsense the government comes up with,” said Worthington. “We are hoping that the latest ruling will lead to an appeal to the Supreme Court, and that the Court will take [it] up.”
The NDAA’s Silver Lining
As Worthington and Leopold began to criticize the NDAA, Leopold chided those who had objected to it solely because it meant that “US citizens can be detained and go to Guantánamo … One thing that’s not been discussed in this context is that indefinite detention is a human rights issue, regardless of the fact that it involves Americans; it’s simply a human rights issue.”
Worthington added: “I understand people’s concern about this applying to US citizens, and I absolutely understand that lawmakers had US citizens in mind, but they had foreigners in mind, as well. Where it came from was Guantánamo, because it’s been happening for ten years in Guantánamo. The foreigners have been thrown into a hole and held without charges or a trial in indefinite military detention. It’s the same thing.”
Analyzing it further, Worthington felt that the real intention of the NDAA is “to make sure that no one can be released from Guantánamo,” by creating a standard for release that is basically impossible to meet. First off, it “requires the Secretary of Defense to guarantee that if a prisoner is released, he will not be able to be involved in anti-American actions. You can’t make that kind of guarantee … it’s deliberately so.” The second key requirement is “not allowing anyone released to a country where there is an allegation that there is a single person from that country [who] has engaged in any recidivist activities … How is that supposed to be fair?”
Looking beyond these provisions mentioned, Worthington asserted that “there is a glimpse of hope in this legislation that most people haven’t noticed. There is a waiver in the legislation … that says if the president is prepared to tell Congress that he and his administration are satisfied that releasing a prisoner is safe, he does not have to jump through these impossible hoops. It means that the president is giving himself and his administration the power to release prisoners. Now, will he do it? He looks unlikely to do it because anything he does about Guantánamo rocks a boat that he doesn’t want rocked, and enables Republicans to speak up. But he could do it, and we can put pressure on him.”
Focusing on how to create such political pressure, Worthington reflected that “I think shame is where we’re at now, after ten years.” Lawmakers should be told: “We know that you care about how you will be thought of. It isn’t all just about short-term gain and political expediency. You want to be remembered as a good man or woman who tried to do a good job. You will not be remembered that way. No one in a position of responsibility will be if they consistently and persistently fail to close Guantánamo, because the longer it goes on, the more shameful it will be … The last living person [to leave] left there over a year ago. After that, the last two people to leave were dead; they left in coffins. That will continue to happen.”
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 please also consider joining the new “Close Guantánamo campaign,” and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.
The sad part in all of this – is that the (majority) of the American people don’t seem all that embarrassed or ashamed about their behaviour towards the world. It seems quite the contrary – they seem proud and boastful about their actions. They do whatever, whenever, however and without any true justification. Just look at this law they are enacting against their own citizens abroad. They only need be suspected of terrorism and the government can freely assassinate whom ever they choose to. Shocking!!!
Thanks, Tashi. Yes, I agree – and unfortunately, trusting a government that behaves in such an aggressive manner towards so many perceived threats puts a country on the road to fascism.
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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