Recently, I was interviewed by a young Spanish journalist, Francisco Castañón, for The Prisma, an online multicultural newspaper. The interview is here, and in it I explained how I came to write about Guantánamo, for my book The Guantánamo Files, and I also ran through aspects of the story of Guantánamo, past, present and future to help to explain why the prison is still open, and why its continued existence is so monstrously unjust. I hope you find it useful.
Since Obama took power in 2009, he has freed 73 of the prisoners in Guantánamo, of the 240 prisoners who were held when he took office. Three others have died. But in the last three years Congress approved new laws which made the promise to close the prison even more difficult to fulfill.
Kurnaz told how difficult it was to live in a solitary confinement cell, to keep himself alive in such a small space with just enough air to breathe.
Besides the international criticisms that the US government’s treatment of the prisoners is unlawful, the prison is very expensive to maintain: 454 million dollars a year, a figure which most Americans do not approve of.
Andy Worthington is an independent investigative journalist, writer, photographer, film-maker and political activist. He began his investigation for The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison in 2006.
He talked to The Prisma about his book and the present situation in the military camp.
The Prisma: Why is Guantánamo Bay still open, even though President Obama said in 2009 he was going to shut down the detention camp?
Andy Worthington: First of all, let me say that there are currently 164 prisoners, although 84 of them were approved for transfer out of the prison by a task force that President Obama established when he took office. This was high-level, involving officials in all the government departments and the intelligence agencies. They spent 2009 meeting every week, and they went through the files of all the prisoners. They made decisions about whether they were recommended for trial, recommended for release, or for ongoing detention without charge or trial in some cases.
So President Obama has released 70 of the 156 prisoners cleared for release by the task force, but for the last three years he has released very few prisoners, mainly because Congress passed new laws making it very difficult for him to do that, but also because he couldn’t be bothered to spend the political capital to do something that could make him unpopular in Congress.
Earlier this year, there were 86 men still held about whom the US government said, “we don’t want to hold these guys forever, we don’t want to put them on trial,” but they are still stuck in Guantánamo. In August Obama released two of them, so now there are 84. Over half of the people held in Guantánamo, the US government says it doesn’t want to carry on holding.
The Prisma: Why did you decide to write about Guantánamo?
Andy Worthington: Like many other people, I realized when Guantánamo opened, on the 11th of January 2002, that something had gone badly wrong. The United States was attacked horribly on September 11, 2001, but I think there was a kind of desire for revenge that was driving the US in response, and the government ended up picking people up randomly and bringing them to Guantánamo.
When the prison opened, it was unnerving to see the prisoners wearing orange jumpsuits, with blacked-out goggles on their eyes, in the famous photos that were released by the US government, which showed the prisoners cowering on the ground with soldiers shouting on them. To everybody apart from the Americans those were pretty horrible photos.
In 2004 the first British prisoners were released, and also in 2005, and particularly at that time people start hearing from English speaking British citizens about the kind of stuff that happened to them. My interest in Guantánamo grew as I heard these stories, and later in 2005 I started researching Guantánamo to find the stories of the released prisoners, to find what news reports there were about them. At that time the prison had been open for three and a half years but the Americans still hadn’t said who they were holding.
Then the US government lost a lawsuit and was compelled to release 8,000 pages of documents, including the names and nationalities of the prisoners, the allegations against them and the transcripts of tribunals held to decide if they were “enemy combatants.” The whole tribunal process was unjust but the transcripts provided an insight into who the prisoners were, and I used all this information as the basis for my book The Guantánamo Files.
The Prisma: When did the US government release that information?
Andy Worthington: It was in March, April and May 2006.
The Prisma: Did you meet some of the prisoners?
Andy Worthington: When I was initially doing my research I didn’t. I was in touch with a few lawyers who represented Guantánamo prisoners at the time, but as the years have passed I have been in touch with more of the former prisoners. In particular, I got to know Omar Deghayes very well, and he and the former prisoner Moazzam Begg appeared in “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo,” the documentary film that I co-directed.
The Prisma: What can you tell us about the prisoners’ experiences?
Andy Worthington: It is quite extraordinary how some of these people survive what they went through. There are a number of ways that you can react to being in prison. Some people chose a pattern of non-resistance, so everything they were told to do they did. Other people couldn’t stand what was happening so they fought back against them, and if you do that they treat you very badly.
The main thing that a lot of people went through repeatedly was isolation, being put into isolation cells for more than 30 days at a time. Murat Kurnaz was a German prisoner, of Turkish origin, who explained in his autobiography how there was very little air in the cells. He explained how all the time in isolation he was lying on the floor breathing in a very shallow manner just to stay alive.
The US authorities also specifically had some techniques that they used to break people, because they thought that if they were punishing people they were going to get them to collaborate. However, people with experience dealing with interrogation will tell you that trying to break people is not the way to get them to collaborate with you.
The Prisma: How much money does it cost to the USA to maintain Guantánamo?
Andy Worthington: Everything has to be taken there from the US mainland, so it’s insanely expensive. The basic running cost is around 1.2 million dollars per year per prisoner, which is insane.
So, you’ve got 84 cleared prisoners at the moment, and that’s costing you 100 million dollars every year to hold guys that you said you don’t want to hold in the first place.
The Prisma: How can the international community allow the US government to do that in Guantánamo?
Andy Worthington: The problem is that there is no mechanism in place beyond complaining. The International Criminal Court is not recognized by the United States, so George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld cannot be taken to The Hague and held accountable for their actions, which, of course, include torture, which is illegal.
Another problem is getting other countries to cooperate, because many dozens of other countries were complicit in the “war on terror,” allowing US planes to use their airports or airspace when prisoners were kidnapped, or cooperating through intelligence gathering.
The Prisma: Is there any official investigation into the treatment of the prisoners in Guantánamo?
Andy Worthington: No, sadly, even though between February 2002 and June 2006 the US government behaved like there were no rules about how you treated prisoners, as though you could hold people without any rights.
Eventually, there was an internal investigation in the Department of Justice, into the behaviour of John Yoo and Jay Bybee. Yoo, as a lawyer in the Office of Legal Counsel, which is supposed to provide impartial legal advice to the executive branch, wrote memos in 2002 that said that the torture wasn’t torture — so that US operatives could engage in torture with impunity.
The ethics investigation concluded that Yoo and his boss Bybee had been guilty of professional misconduct, which was quite a serious conclusion, but President Obama allowed a Justice Department fixer to rewrite that conclusion. He said that everybody was under a lot of pressure, and they just exercised poor judgment, meaning that no sanctions were possible. That was pretty shocking.
The Prisma: How did the reports of how they treated the prisoners come out to the public?
Andy Worthington: It is interesting because the main thing happened in 2004, after the Abu Ghraib scandal first became public. Somebody inside the Bush administration couldn’t accept what was happening and leaked Yoo’s “torture memo” to the media. So here you have a senior lawyer, very close to Dick Cheney, the Vice President of the Unites States, saying torture isn’t torture unless it rises to the level of an organ failure or even death. Yoo lifted this from a medical insurance document, and cut and pasted into what he was preparing about torture. So in 2004 that document was leaked, and that provided a very big insight into the treatment of prisoners.
Other insights came through reporters working on aspects of the stories, but one of the most important sources was the prisoners themselves — either former prisoners or prisoners still held who told their accounts to their lawyers after the Supreme Court ruled in 2004 that they had habeas corpus rights, and lawyers were allowed to visit them.
Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer and film-maker. He is the co-founder of the “Close Guantánamo” campaign, and 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. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here — or here for the US).
To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to Andy’s RSS feed — and he can also be found on Facebook (and here), Twitter, Flickr and YouTube. Also see the four-part definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, and “The Complete Guantánamo Files,” an ongoing, 70-part, million-word series drawing on files released by WikiLeaks in April 2011. Also see the definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all Andy’s articles.
Thanks to everyone who has liked and shared this. I appreciate your interest, as always.
Writer, campaigner, investigative journalist and commentator. 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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