Guantánamo: the tipping point?


A prisoner, in the early days of Guantanamo, being moved on a gurney, as prisoners were in the prison's early years.This has been a busy week for Guantánamo-related issues. On Wednesday, a fourth prisoner –- Abdul Rahman al-Amri, a Saudi –- died at the prison, having apparently committed suicide, his death largely overshadowing the release of a major study into the US authorities’ conduct in the “War on Terror” by the Intelligence Science Board, a panel of experts from organizations including the Defense Intelligence Agency, the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI, the Naval Criminal Investigative Service and Army Intelligence. The panel’s findings demolish the administration’s cherished belief that “enhanced interrogation techniques” (Bush-speak for torture) are effective.

The experts concluded, as the New York Times put it, that they are “outmoded, amateurish and unreliable,” and Arab News described how the panel found that “popular culture and ad hoc experimentation have fueled the use of aggressive and sometimes physical interrogation techniques to get those captured on the battlefields to talk, even if there is no evidence to support the tactics’ effectiveness.” One of the report’s consultants, Randy Borum, a psychologist at the University of South Florida and a consultant for the Defense Department, criticized “an assumption that often passes for common sense that the more pain imposed on someone, the more likely they are to comply,” and the panel suggested that interrogation should be restructured using “tricks of veteran homicide detectives, the persuasive techniques of sophisticated marketing and models from American history.”

The week’s events are also noteworthy for a milestone in the story of Guantánamo that has so far passed without comment. Unnoticed in the largely bland reporting from the major media and the mud-slinging from the US authorities regarding Abdul Rahman al-Amri’s alleged status as an al-Qaeda operative is a statistic that should be seized upon by all those pressing for the closure of Guantánamo: the number of prisoners held in Guantánamo is now exceeded by those who have been released outright (or, in significantly fewer instances, transferred to the custody of their home governments). With al-Amri’s death, 385 prisoners remain in Guantánamo, whereas 386 have been released or transferred. I need hardly add that, when over half of the Guantánamo prisoners have been released, the authorities’ initial assertions that Guantánamo housed “the worst of the worst” are more risible than ever.

Reporting precise details of the numbers of prisoners at Guantánamo has always been a difficult task, in particular because the Pentagon is so careless about its records, repeatedly issuing press releases referring to an “approximate” number of prisoners, as if those responsible cannot be bothered to provide accurate details. Astute observers will note that this milestone has been reported previously, but will probably be unaware that this is largely because, in tallying up the figures, researchers have been misled by a press release that followed the release of 16 prisoners in December 2006. In an announcement on 17 December 2006, the Pentagon had the temerity to state, “This increases the number of detainees who have departed this year to 114,” conveniently failing to mention that three of the 114 –- the men who apparently committed suicide in June 2006 –- “departed” in coffins.

Could this, then, be the tipping point for Guantánamo? Of those remaining, at least 80 have been cleared for release, reducing “the worst of the worst” to around 305. The Pentagon has suggested that around 80 of these men will be subjected to Military Commissions, the innocuous-sounding show trials that would have done Stalin proud, which are designed solely to secure prosecutions based on secret evidence and to prohibit absolutely any mention of torture on the part of the US authorities.

The remaining 225 prisoners, however, remain in a legal limbo, unable to challenge the assumptions that underpin their detention –- a right which was asserted by the Supreme Court in June 2004 and June 2006 but which was struck down by a supine Congress in October 2006 –- and prey to an administration which has declared its willingness to hold them forever. In the wake of the latest death at Guantánamo, public pressure must focus on these men –- low-level Taliban recruits, humanitarian aid workers, religious teachers and students, and other completely innocent people caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, and largely sold to the Americans by the Afghan or Pakistani authorities –- to demand that their right to challenge the basis of their detention be reinstated as a matter of urgency. Visit the website of the American Civil Liberties Union to sign a petition demanding the reinstatement of habeas corpus for the Guantánamo prisoners, and feel free to publicize “the tipping point” wherever you see fit.

For more on Guantánamo, see my book 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.

4 Responses

  1. University Update says...

    Guantánamo: the tipping point?

  2. Candace says...

    Actually all of the men, even those tried in commission, are in a legal limbo. This week the military confirmed that even should Khadr be acquitted in his commission hearing he would not be released… because “he is a dangerous man”. Confirming that the military commissions are devoid of any legitimate process (just in case anyone had any doubt… )..

  3. Candace says...

    one last thought… if we don’t count the other three deaths in tallying those who exited why does this past weeks death tip the scales?…maybe we have to wait for one more to leave on his feet instead of in a box to say there are more that were released than are currently there?

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Hi Candace,
    My point in declaring this “the tipping point” was particularly to point out the hypocrisy of the Pentagon declaring that three dead men were included in the figures of those who have “departed” Guantanamo. I’d prefer to exclude those who have died from the figures of those who have either been released or who remain in Guantanamo, but I understand what you’re saying, and will make an issue of it when the next living prisoner is returned home.
    Thanks also for the comments re: Omar Khadr. I do wonder how the administration has the nerve to even propose a legal system in which a prisoner is tried and then, if acquitted, kept in prison anyway, but I suppose, to those in charge, it’s just another twist on imprisoning people without charge or trial in the first place.

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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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