As Torture Rears Its Ugly Head at Guantánamo, Let’s Not Forget That the Entire Prison Must Be Closed


CIA torture architect James Mitchell and an undated photo of a “war on terror” prisoner being subjected to “extraordinary rendition” by US forces.

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I wrote the following article for the “Close Guantánamo” website, which I established in January 2012, on the 10th anniversary of the opening of Guantánamo, with the US attorney Tom Wilner. Please join us — just an email address is required to be counted amongst those opposed to the ongoing existence of Guantánamo, and to receive updates of our activities by email.

2020 has, to date, been noteworthy for how much attention has been focused on Guantánamo, the US naval base in Cuba that is home to the “war on terror” prison established in January 2002, and also to the inappropriately named Camp Justice, where trial proceedings for some of the men held in the prison take place.

First up was the 18th anniversary of the opening of the prison, on January 11, when campaigners from numerous NGOs and campaigning groups — including Close Guantánamo — held a rally outside the White House to call for the prison’s closure. I flew over from the UK to take part in this rally, as I have done every year since 2011, and then stayed on for a week to take part in two speaking events, six radio interviews, and an interview with RT, the only TV interview in the whole of the US broadcast media that dealt with the anniversary.

I returned to the UK on January 20, just as a second round of more prominent Guantánamo-related activity began at Camp Justice. For the first time in many years, dozens of journalists had flown to the naval base for the latest round — the 40th, astonishingly, since hearings began in 2012 — of pre-trial hearings for the proposed trial of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four other men accused of involvement in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

Often, in recent years, Guantánamo’s hardest-working reporter, Carol Rosenberg, who has been visiting and writing about the prison since it opened, initially for the Miami Herald, and most recently, for the New York Times, with the support of the Pulitzer Center, has been alone, or almost alone, in covering the commissions, but these particular hearings drew in crowds of reporters, because James Mitchell, one of the two architects of the CIA’s post-9/11 torture program (and who, with his colleague Bruce Jessen, was paid $81m for the privilege) was being questioned by defense attorneys for the five men.

The basis for the questioning involved evidence provided by the men during interrogations, and prosecutors’ assertion that they did not need to rely on statements made by the men in the CIA’s “black sites,” where they had been subjected to torture, because they were, instead, using later confessions made by the men to “clean teams” of FBI agents, who had interrogated them after their arrival at Guantánamo in September 2006 without using any forms of coercion.

The defense attorneys have, since 2018, been establishing a rich seam of evidence demonstrating that the FBI liaised far too closely with the CIA for there to be any credibility to the “clean team” argument, but, when Mitchell’s questioning began, what came to the fore most particularly was the entirety of the torture program itself. This was both important and ironic, as, to date, the grindingly slow progress of pre-trial hearings for the men facing prosecution has been because, while the defense teams have been seeking to expose what happened to their clients in the CIA’s “black sites,” prosecutors have been doing their utmost to try and keep all evidence of the men’s torture hidden.

In the many reports from the hearings, I was particularly impressed by an article for the Intercept by Margot Williams, a journalist and researcher who set up the New York Times’ “Guantánamo Docket,” which contains all the publicly-available files on the Guantánamo prisoners.

Torture and euphemism at Guantánamo

In an article entitled, “At Guantánamo Bay, Torture Apologists Take Refuge in Empty Code Words and Euphemism,” Williams wrote:

Euphemism is a foundation of the torture structure. Even Mitchell railed against some of the words used by the government to describe the program he was pursuing: “You want to watch the use of euphemism for what you’re doing. Don’t be fooled by ‘enhanced interrogation,’ you are doing coercive physical techniques,” he said last week. So there is a euphemism for the euphemism, which in plain English is torture.

As the testimony continues, euphemisms abound. There are code words for locations as well as code numbers and pseudonyms for names. An overlay of psychological terminology tries to give method and reason to examples of physical abuse. These phrases are used: “intelligence requirements,” “abusive drift,” “countermeasures to resistance,” “Pavlovian response,” “learned helplessness,” “negative reinforcement,” “conditioning strategy,” a chart of “moral disengagement.” Torturers used a technique known as “walling,” in which a detainee is thrown against a wall that is described as “safe” because it is made of plywood and constructed to have “bounce.” When walling was used, a beach towel was protectively wrapped around the prisoner’s neck and later became a “Pavlovian” tool that the detainee could be shown to remind him of the suffering he’d endured. This is how torturers speak, cloaking their actions in anodyne language.

During the hearings, CIA cables were either flashed on the overhead monitor if they had been declassified, or remained hidden from our view if they were still secret, recounting the number of slaps, the hours and days of sleep deprivation, the stopwatch counts of waterboard drownings, the rounds of “walling.” The effect is deadening to the observer; it seems part of a bureaucracy of nightmares.

Despite this, Walter Ruiz, who represents Mustafa al-Hawsawi, one of the five men accused of involvement in the 9/11 attacks, finally used the word “torture” when questioning Mitchell. “I know torture’s a dirty word,” Ruiz said, but added, “I’ll tell you what, judge, I’m not going to sanitize this for their concerns.”

Later, after discussion of al-Hawsawi’s torture by other interrogators, Ruiz asked Mitchell, “Did it matter in your assessment that Mr. Al Hawsawi had been tortured in this many ways? Did it matter to you?” As Williams noted, “Mitchell objected to the characterization of Hawsawi’s treatment as ‘torture,’” and the judge, Air Force Col. W. Shane Cohen, stated, “Of course he says no because he doesn’t think it is torture.” However, Ruiz had the last word, when he “showed a video clip of a 2018 podcast in which Mitchell said: ‘We never used the word torture. Because torture’s a crime.’”

It remains to be seen, however, whether all this discussion of torture will impact in any meaningful way on the Groundhog Day absurdity of the commissions, whose default position is the unresolvable tension noted above between the defense attorneys’ push for transparency, and the prosecutors’ obsession with secrecy.

Don’t forget the rest of the Guantánamo prisoners

In addition, while the spotlight was shining on the five men charged in connection with the 9/11 attacks, there seemed, sadly, to be little focus on the 35 other men who are still held at Guantánamo, with the exception of Abu Zubaydah, for whom the torture program was invented, and who, as the Washington Post explained in an editorial on January 27, “was ‘waterboarded’ so severely that he began having involuntary body spasms and began to cry,” as Mitchell explained in Guantánamo, adding that he “choked up at the horrific spectacle,” and yet “defiantly told the commission that he felt a ‘moral obligation to protect American lives [that] outweighed the temporary discomfort of terrorists who had voluntarily taken up war against us.’”

The Post’s editorial was entitled, “We need to start paying attention to the fate of prisoners in Guantánamo Bay,” and was a rare example of the mainstream US media drawing the connection between the five men in Camp Justice and the 35 other men still held.

As the Post’s editors stated, “What seems beyond debate, now, is that the Guantánamo Bay episode has gone on for too long and at too high a cost to the United States, both in damage to our international reputation and to our actual goals in the war against terrorism. There are 40 detainees left at the prison, of an original total of 780. Of these, only two have been convicted by military commissions; seven others have been charged and face trial; three have been recommended for trial; and the rest [28 men in total] have not been charged but have been deemed impossible to transfer out for security or other reasons. And so dozens of men still live in limbo; unresolved, too, is the final accountability of Mr. Mohammed, who deserves judgment and punishment but whose case instead languishes in military commission purgatory.”

The Post’s editorial concluded, “Little or no attention is being paid to this situation at the highest levels in either Congress or the executive branch, which is headed by a man who ran on a promise to bring more prisoners to Guantánamo Bay and do ‘worse than waterboarding’ if elected. As [James Mitchell’s] chilling testimony reminds us, though, there is much unfinished business still left from 9/11. And attention must be paid.”

At “Close Guantánamo,” we wholeheartedly support this call for “the Guantánamo Bay episode” to be brought to an end, and pledge to do what we can this election year to keep reminding the world that, while we must pay attention to the five men subjected to a broken trial system discredited by the use of torture, we must also not forget the other men still held at the Guantánamo — the “high-value detainees,” like Abu Zubaydah, who were also tortured in CIA “black sites” but haven’t even been charged, and the “lower-value detainees,” held separately in Camp 6, who make up about half of the remaining 40 prisoners, and who also haven’t ever been charged with anything resembling a crime. They include five men unanimously approved for release by high-level US government review processes under President Obama, but who were not freed before he left office, as well as other men who were nothing more than, at most, foot soldiers for the Taliban in an inter-Muslim civil war that predated the 9/11 attacks and the US-led invasion of Afghanistan, and who are only still held because, throughout their long, unjust and sometimes brutal imprisonment at Guantánamo, they have embarked on hunger strikes, or have demonstrated a “bad attitude.”

While torture ought to shock the conscience, we should also not forget that holding men forever without charge or trial is also profoundly unjust and unjustifiable.

* * * * *

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer, film-maker and singer-songwriter (the lead singer and main songwriter for the London-based band The Four Fathers, whose music is available via Bandcamp). He is the co-founder of the Close Guantánamo campaign (and see the latest photo campaign here) and the successful We Stand With Shaker campaign of 2014-15, and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (click on the following for Amazon in 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, or you can watch it online here, via the production company Spectacle, for £2.55), and for his photo project ‘The State of London’ he publishes a photo a day from seven years of bike rides around the 120 postcodes of the capital.

In 2017, Andy became very involved in housing issues. He is the narrator of the documentary film, ‘Concrete Soldiers UK’, about the destruction of council estates, and the inspiring resistance of residents, he wrote a song ‘Grenfell’, in the aftermath of the entirely preventable fire in June 2017 that killed over 70 people, and he also set up ‘No Social Cleansing in Lewisham’ as a focal point for resistance to estate destruction and the loss of community space in his home borough in south east London. For two months, from August to October 2018, he was part of the occupation of the Old Tidemill Wildlife Garden in Deptford, to prevent its destruction — and that of 16 structurally sound council flats next door — by Lewisham Council and Peabody. Although the garden was violently evicted by bailiffs on October 29, 2018, and the trees were cut down on February 27, 2019, the resistance continues.

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 six-part definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, The Complete Guantánamo Files, the definitive Guantánamo habeas list, the full military commissions list, and the chronological list of all Andy’s articles.

Please also consider joining the Close Guantánamo campaign, and, if you appreciate Andy’s work, feel free to make a donation.

17 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    In my latest article, cross-posted from, I assess the significance of the questioning of CIA torture architect James Mitchell, in pre-trial military commission hearings at Guantanamo for the five men accused of involvement in the 9/11 attacks.

    The hearing was significant because, in a forum in which the US government has, in eight long years of pre-trial hearings, attempted to keep the torture program hidden, the five men’s brutal torture in CIA “black sites” has been exposed more fully than before, although it still remains to be seen how, in the long run, the 9/11 trial can take place and deliver anything resembling justice.

    In my article, I also express my hope that those paying attention to the hearings – which are continuing this week – don’t forget that 40 men are still held at Guantanamo, and that there can be no justice for any of them until the prison is closed for good.

    This is because most of the men still held have not even been put forward for trials, and will, if Donald Trump has his way, continue to be held without charge or trial at Guantanamo until they die, a bleak situation, bringing despair to the men still held, that is, of course, a fundamental betrayal of the values that the US claims to hold dear.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Asiya Muhammad wrote:

    So now they have openly admitted it, any chance of some justice for all those who were tortured by these evil methods. It’s astonishing that people can be kidnapped, rendered, tortured and released and just be ignored and expected to just move on with their lives.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, it’s hard not to reach the conclusion, Asiya, that it doesn’t matter what is revealed, as nothing will ever be allowed to undermine the US establishment’s intention to (a) hold these men forever, regardless of whether or not they can ever be prosecuted, and (b) not allow any US official to be held publicly accountable for the torture program.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Asiya Muhammad wrote:

    Andy it’s so so wrong. People who went through these horrors deserve justice.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, absolutely, Asiya, but because certain people within the US establishment are adamant that no one must be held accountable for the torture program, I suspect that there are plans that involve ensuring that the proceedings never actually progress to the trial stage, so that the men will be held forever without it ever appearing that that was anyone’s intention.
    All we can really hope for right now, in terms of justice, is that we find a way to free the “lower-value detainees”, whittling down the number of men held, so that it eventually becomes untenable to keep Guantanamo open, at a cost of $500m a year, when it holds significantly less people than the 40 men currently held. If they end up on US soil, I suspect that all the permanent delaying tactics will no longer work, but that also explains why there has been so much opposition to proposals to move prisoners to the US mainland under any circumstances.

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Asiya Muhammad wrote:

    Andy it’s an absolute horror, not only for those still held but those who survived the torture programme. Justice is important for everyone 😔

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Which is why we must keep fighting for it, Asiya. Historic injustices have often, eventually, been recognised, as with the treatment of Japanese Americans in WWII, for example, but it can take decades; much more, sadly, than the 18 years of the “war on terror” that we’ve already endured. But clearly we have to keep fighting, because the alternative is so much worse: the normalisation of what is actually profoundly unacceptable, and a signifier of dictatorship.

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Asiya Muhammad wrote:

    Andy, absolutely.

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    David Knopfler wrote:

    Due process indefinitely delayed demonstrates a tyranny not a democracy.

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    It does indeed, David – and that was one of the main messages that I was trying to convey on my recent US trip, and will continue to do my utmost to point out throughout the year.

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    David Knopfler wrote:

    Andy, it’s remarkable how poorly some people understand a simple thing when their salary depends on them not doing so.

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    And how many others, David, simply don’t have any curiosity – at all – about how their country is run.

  13. Andy Worthington says...

    David Knopfler wrote:

    Andy, those that crave power rely on that.

  14. Andy Worthington says...

    And have been working assiduously at dumbing people down since the 1980s, David.

  15. Anna says...

    ” temporary discomfort of terrorists who had voluntarily taken up war against us” and that from a supposedly professional psychologist.
    There is no such thing as ‘temporary’ suffering for torture victims, as they will carry that burden for the rest of their lives.
    This apart from the bloody arrogant presumption that the people he tortured or at the very least helped torture, were indeed terrorists. That in itself should disqualify Mitchell from any worthwhile opinions, as it proves once more his bias and that those ‘interrogations’ were perpetrated not necessarily to gain any actionable intelligence but in order to produce ‘proof’ for conclusions already decided in advance. Such as convincing the public that these scapegoats for 9/11 were indeed the perpetrators. Good article on this matter today from a US psychiatrist:

  16. Andy Worthington says...

    Good to hear from you, Anna. That’s a good article for Al-Jazeera by William Hopkins of Freedom from Torture, spelling out how unacceptable it is for Mitchell not to be held accountable for his actions, and to be able to get away with it by saying, as he has in the past, “I’m just a guy who got asked to do something for his country.”

  17. Andy Worthington says...

    Spanish readers can find a Spanish version of this article here, courtesy of the World Can’t Wait:

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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