The Guantánamo Files: Andy Worthington interviewed by Kristina Božič


The Guantanamo FilesThe following interview, with Slovenian journalist Kristina Božič, took place in London in August 2007. An article based on the interview appeared in the Slovenian newspaper Dnevnik on 22 September 2007. This is an edited version of the full interview, as transcribed by Kristina and edited by Andy.

Andy Worthington says he has spent most of his adult life wishing that the world would be a more just and a better place, but has realized that this cannot happen quickly. However, he is not giving up on it. He started investigating the US prison at the naval base in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba –- a place he describes as “a very dangerous betrayal of justice” –- at the beginning of 2006. He has read 8000 pages of transcripts from the tribunals convened in Guantánamo to assess the detainees’ status as “enemy combatants,” and has written a book about who is in Guantánamo, The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison, which is published in Britain and in the USA in October.

Kristina Božič: What was your main source when writing the book?

Andy Worthington: It was the 8000 pages of the transcripts of the tribunals at Guantánamo that the Department of Defense released last March and April. None of the documents have got names on them, just the numbers –- the Internment Serial Numbers (ISNs) –- by which all the detainees were referred to. At the same time that these documents were released, after Guantánamo had been open for four years, the US government was also forced to release lists of the names and nationalities of who was in Guantánamo (with ISNs), and what I was therefore able to do was to match up the names to the transcripts. It took a lot of rather dull comparing and matching, but in the end this enabled me to place the detainees’ stories in context and in chronological order.

This brought the realization that the first men captured were seized in Afghanistan in November 2001, that many others were captured crossing the border to Pakistan, mostly in December 2001, and that others were caught in Pakistan in the following months, mostly without ever having set foot in Afghanistan. This way I started to build everything up, and it became the most significant insight that I had, in a way, because simply looking at the transcripts you come across stories that give you nothing to build on: the Americans say one thing and the detainee says another thing, and you really do not have any breakthrough points to establish who is telling the truth. This, of course, is the main problem with Guantánamo, and the reason why you should not bypass the law in the first place, because all you are left with is one person’s word against another’s.

But finding out that a whole lot of people were caught under similar circumstances gave me the ability to see that maybe all these people were in fact telling the truth, that some groups of men were serving as Taliban foot soldiers, for example, and that others were completely innocent: humanitarian aid workers, teachers of the Koran, economic migrants, refugees from persecution, for example, caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. Later on I filled in some gaps by establishing contacts with lawyers who represent the detainees in the USA.

Kristina Božič: Have you gone to meet any of the released detainees?

Andy Worthington: I have met a few of the British detainees, but basically most of the people who got released and wanted to talk had already spoken. So I did a lot of research on the internet, the kind of niggling research, where you do not stop Googling on page one but go to the tenth page, the fiftieth, sometimes to the seventieth and suddenly there is something, a piece of information that fills in another gap. I did a lot of research about who had been released, because 200 people were released before the tribunals even started, but even with this kind of research I was unable to find out anything about the stories of around 80 of these men. You can find their names; they are on one of the lists. They were sent home to a variety of countries, but there is no other information. Most of them were Afghans and Pakistanis, who just disappeared. Quietly went home, I suspect. But I did a lot of research to find out whether there was any information on these people, and it took weeks and weeks and weeks. At the beginning, when many Afghans were released from Guantánamo, the world’s media were interested and someone from the Associated Press or some other agency would go to Kabul to talk to these people, but with time they all lost interest. So whenever Afghans are released now, nobody even knows who many of them are. There is nobody in Kabul awaiting them.

Haji Faiz Mohammed and Jan Mohammed

The first of 163 Afghans released from Guantánamo, in October 2002: Haji Faiz Mohammed (left), who was 70 years old when he was captured, and Jan Mohammed, a baker.

Kristina Božič: Have you done any travels, though?

Andy Worthington: No, this was really an internet- and phone-based project, which demonstrates what can be done with the internet. It was possible because the Associated Press took the US government to court to get these documents released, and none of this would have been possible without them.

Kristina Božič: Do you feel that you established more of a storyline than the American army and intelligence?

Andy Worthington: Yes, because often they simply did not know what they were doing.

Kristina Božič: So you started with the question, “Who is in Guantánamo?” Now that the book is written, do you feel you can give a three-sentence answer to this question?

Andy Worthington: I would say, first of all, that there are a few dozen people, who are genuinely dangerous to the Americans and to their allies. The rest were either Taliban foot soldiers, or completely innocent men. That’s the short answer. To break it down, however, will take a longer reply.

Over a quarter of the total number of people held in Guantánamo were Afghans, and out of this number there were a few senior Taliban leaders, but only half a dozen at most. The majority of the Afghans are, or were in Guantánamo because somebody did not like them and sold them. The Americans were working with warlords; they had no real intelligence on the ground about who they were working with, who they should trust, who was reliable. To a large degree they tended to believe people who presented themselves as their friends and who promised that they would show them who the ‘bad people’ were. They had no way of verifying who was telling the truth and they were not even interested. So that’s over a quarter of the people and that leaves about 550.

For these people it is harder to come up with a concise story. There are still a couple of dozen people nobody knows anything about, and there are many more about whom very little is known –- just their word against that of the Americans, with much of the information contained in lists of dubious “evidence” for tribunals in which they did not take part. A lot of the Saudis and Yemenis, for example, admitted that they went to Afghanistan to fight with the Taliban against the Northern Alliance –- before 9/11 –- because the sheikh in their local mosque told them that it was very important for them to go and help the Taliban establish “a pure Islamic state.” The majority of them did not pretend that they were not there to fight, but they were not there to fight against the Americans, but to fight other Muslims.

Some of them were not even told they were fighting other Muslims, but thought they were fighting Russians, which actually made sense because one of the leaders of the Northern Alliance was General Rashid Dostum. Afghan history is pretty complicated, because of shifting alliances over the years, and the clearest example is Dostum, who was fighting with the Russians throughout the 1980s before joining the Northern Alliance. Only later did he become friends with the Americans, so it is quite a confusing story. So the prisoners say, “We were fighting Dostum, who fought with the Russians. When did he become your friend? After 9/11? But I was first there before that.” So a large number of them were just foot soldiers. And one of the great ironies is that there are three nations in particular who were responsible for setting up and funding the whole training camp system in the 1980s –- Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the USA. So in a lot of ways this was kind of the bitter fruit of what the Americans were at least partly responsible for establishing, but then walked away from, after the fall of the Communists.

Then you’ve got a large number of people –- several hundred, at least –- who were not there to fight at all. They were there either because they were refugees or economic migrants –- many of them living and working in Afghanistan or Pakistan for years, some with local wives and children –- or because they were studying the Koran, or because they went there as missionaries to teach the Koran. Which again, with all the money powering these missionary projects through the Wahhabi mosques in Saudi Arabia, which were themselves funded by the American money from oil, is another great irony …

Kristina Božič: Are there any Chechens in Guantánamo?

Andy Worthington: No. There are no Chechens in Guantánamo. There were persistent rumors that Chechens were involved in Afghanistan, and it’s probable that some of the corpses at Tora Bora were Chechens. That was a battle in early December 2001, two months after the invasion of Afghanistan, when Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, other al-Qaeda leaders, a number of senior Taliban leaders, and groups of Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters were holed up in the Tora Bora mountains and the Americans let them escape by not guarding the exits to Pakistan, and there were plenty of American military people at the time who were not happy about that, to put it mildly.

Prisoners captured in the Tora Bora region

Some of the prisoners captured after the fall of Tora Bora.

When the battle for Tora Bora ended, there were around 200 people dead, but I have not seen any analysis about who those corpses were, whether anybody bothered or if they were all just dumped in a mass grave. I have no idea. But some of the fighters who were there and escaped said that the last of the fierce fighters in the mountains were Chechens and that they were killing other people who were trying to escape. So whether that proves it or not … There certainly were some Chechen fighters in Afghanistan, but the reports at the time, which were always mentioning Chechens, do not seem to be accurate. What there were instead at Guantánamo were a handful of people from various parts of the Russian Federation, some of whom had been to Chechnya, but very few, and not Chechens.

Kristina Božič: 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: I would say it depends on how you define that. If you define it as, “were people fighting with the Taliban in the wrong place at the wrong time?” –- as the majority of them were not intending to fight against the USA –- then yes. And, of course, the many innocent people are exactly as defined and portrayed in Michael Winterbottom’s film.

Kristina Božič: The Americans made the claim that if one was in any way connected with the Taliban than one was considered a terrorist or at least labeled an “enemy combatant.” This connection seems very far-fetched.

Andy Worthington: Well, that was the problem, that instead of taking on al-Qaeda, which they were supposed to, they tarnished the whole of Afghanistan as al-Qaeda, because the Taliban were sheltering them. Yet analysts have pointed out that there were never more than fifty people in the overlap between the Taliban and al-Qaeda. So in theory anyone who was in Afghanistan could be said to be an “enemy combatant.” And of course many problems arose from this.

Kristina Božič: What kept you going through the 8000 pages?

Andy Worthington: It probably has a little to do with the fact that I am pig-headed and had decided that I wanted to know who was in there. Discovering that I had an opportunity to accomplish that by going through all these documents, once I started I just did not want to stop until I had done it.

Kristina Božič: One of the comments on your book, which can be read on your website before the book is published in October, is that you manage to show that today Guantánamo exists more for the sake of keeping a secret about Guantánamo, than for the sake of American safety. This seems a paradox.

Andy Worthington: Well, there are many different perspectives on what Guantánamo is really about. I have spoken to some people who have suggested that it was set up just to terrify people, that it did not really matter whether people there were guilty or not, since the administration just wanted to make a horrible example to convey that no one should mess with them. But if it was only that simple … The truth is that this is not what Guantánamo is based on. The Americans rounded up all these people, most of them between November 2001 and February 2002, with the majority being sold to them by their Pakistani and Afghan allies, who also sold them the stories that these people were guilty. The Americans decided that everybody they were going to come across was guilty. That was their presumption all along. However, they had to somehow prove it. But it is this presumption that I wanted to uncover. Not necessarily by attacking it from the opposite side, claiming all these men are innocent, because I do not think they were all innocent of everything, but what I wanted to establish was that if you have a few hundred people fighting with the Taliban that does not prove they were terrorists against the USA. This was one of my main motivations.

So I was analyzing how the Americans came up with their supposed intelligence and what I found as I went through the transcripts –- first the tribunals [the Combatant Status Review Tribunals] and then the subsequent administrative reviews [the annual Administrative Review Boards] –- was that there were embellishments to the stories. At first, for example, the story is that a prisoner was told by a sheikh at his mosque to go to Afghanistan to fight, he went there, he fought, he got caught and was put in prison, end of the story. But then all these other stories start coming out … and you do not know where these other allegations are coming from, which is the next big problem with Guantánamo, because the administration set it up not as a prison to keep these people locked away to make America safer, but as an interrogation center. A really horrific thing is the accumulation of additional evidence they get, where an alleged senior al-Qaeda operative starts telling them new stories. Some of these allegations come from the “high-value” prisoners –- people like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Abu Zubaydah –- and throughout this process they have this book of photos they have been showing to the prisoners, and under pressure many go, “Yeah, yeah, I saw him in Kabul in a training camp in 1999.” But this guy said he was in Yemen in 1999 in school. Why are they believing these unspecified allegations? This stuff –- unverifiable, quite possibly derived through torture –- just mounts up and mounts up.

Kristina Božič: They seem to be incredibly gullible.

Andy Worthington: Yes, because they are starting from the presumption of guilt. What has to happen is that an enormous amount of work has to be done to convince them that they have made a mistake.

Kristina Božič: You do not think they already know this and are now just looking for a way out?

Andy Worthington: Well, partly they know, but how much and who, I do not know. Six months after the prison was established, senior CIA people were saying that in most cases they had the wrong guys. There is a quote from someone at the CIA in August 2002 saying that half of these guys do not even know the world is round. But if you look at the pronouncements of various spokespeople for the administration and the kind of xenophobic paranoia of many of the right-wingers in the States, you see that they are not really dealing with common sense. They seem to believe their own hype on a lot of occasions.

Kristina Božič: How do you feel that Guantánamo will be perceived fifty years from today?

Andy Worthington: I think it will be seen as a terrible injustice. Something like the internment of the Japanese Americans in the camps during the second world war. And of course it is not really isolated from the rest of the so-called “war on terror,” including Iraq, which should never have been included in the “war on terror” in the first place. There are also very horrible echoes also of Vietnam in many ways.

Kristina Božič: Has history, though, not seen this kind of situation before?

Andy Worthington: Not in the USA. Now obviously, America does not have a very clean history –- as in Central and South American in the 1970s and ’80s, for example, where American operatives were almost literally standing just inches away from some of the most horrific things that they engineered –- but nothing has ever quite happened like this before. I feel as if 9/11 was an excuse to just chuck every single rule of law out of the window and say, “anything goes.”

Kristina Božič: Would you agree with Amnesty International’s definition that we are looking at the Gulag of the 21st century?

Andy Worthington: Yes, it is there in the whole system of interrogation and torture and how they have picked out “enhanced interrogation techniques” from their covert programs over the years. Also, there are uncanny similarities between what they are doing and Stalin’s show trials. I do not see much difference. However, somewhere at the bottom of all this there is a terrorist problem, but before 9/11 they dealt with it through the law, prosecuting the terrorists who were involved in the first bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993, for example, through the existing legal system in the USA.

Kristina Božič: Some say that the Jose Padilla case also proved just that –- that terrorist suspects can be put through the established legal system.

Andy Worthington: Well, I do not know that the Padilla case proved that, really. Here we have a jury deciding that Padilla was guilty of little more than unspecified thought crimes, and let us not talk about the three and a half years that he was kept in solitary confinement, where he lost his mind …

Jose Padilla

Jose Padilla, held in a solitary confinement for three and a half years, takes a trip to the dentist.

Kristina Božič: Yes, it was not a fair trial, but some are trying to see the positive side of it, pointing out that it proved that terrorist cases can be tried through the existing legal system.

Andy Worthington: Well, in that sense it is something they will have to come to terms with, because Guantánamo … some say it is the tip of the iceberg, because there are something like 15,000 to 20,000 other people in American custody, held without charge or trial, and without access to the legal system. Most of them are in Iraq, where they have been in prison without access to anybody in their own country, and their cases are tied in with those of the men at Guantánamo because the way they are treated is the same as the treatment of the “enemy combatants” in Guantánamo. Then there are around 500 prisoners in Bagram in Afghanistan and hundreds more in other prisons in other places –- including Diego Garcia –- and in other prisons that are not directly under American ownership, where they are sent so that they can be tortured and the Americans can say that it has not got anything to do with them. How all these stories can get unraveled I have no idea, because all of it is absolutely self-defeating. Not only is torture morally repugnant, but it does not work. It recruits more people for the terrorist cause and it does not give the Americans the intelligence they want. You do not get intelligence from torturing people. The whole thing is a horrible failure. How it all gets undone –- I do not know, really.

Kristina Božič: What do you think about the theories that 9/11 was a set-up?

Andy Worthington: I try not to think about that, because you do not need a conspiracy theory. Let us accept that there were terrorist attacks. This is the real world we live in, and the response of the American government to the attacks was shocking. And this is what has to be dealt with. These events and people are bad enough without tacking the conspiracy theory onto them. I do not need a conspiracy theory to know that Dick Cheney is an evil man.

Kristina Božič: How much were people at the top of the administration aware of the actual conditions and the things that have been going on in Guantánamo?

Andy Worthington: I suspect [Defense Secretary] Donald Rumsfeld must have known a lot about it, because he was involved not only in establishing which army rules about the handling of prisoners could be thrown out and which new techniques could be applied, but he was also the one to whom reports of US interrogations were delivered, right from the beginning when they captured John Walker Lindh, the so-called “American Taliban,” in December 2001 in Afghanistan, who was stripped naked, and strapped to a gurney with duct tape. So Rumsfeld knew. How much he understood that what they were doing to people was torture, I do not know. I suspect people can fool themselves into thinking that it is not.

Most people do not understand what solitary confinement means, let alone the more brutal “enhanced interrogation techniques” –- the administration’s euphemism for torture. They think people simply get bored in there. They do not grasp that actually within a very short amount of time people can start to lose their minds. Gareth Peirce, the British lawyer who has been defending all kinds of people in contentious cases for decades, was opposed to the British government raising the pre-trial detention period from seven days, because she pointed out that even in seven days you can get innocent people to confess to things they did not commit. Most people have no idea what pressure you can be put under just by being in detention for a week.

But to return to Rumsfeld, I cannot work him out as much as Cheney, who I think genuinely enjoys making people suffer, and who, with his advisors –- especially David Addington –- was responsible for attempting to justify a lot of the torture policies. As for President Bush, I do not know really. After they caught Abu Zubaydah, one of the first supposedly senior al-Qaeda leaders, the CIA apparently told Bush that he was not actually as significant as they had thought he was, and Bush was upset, saying he did not want to lose face. But he was also interested in how they could get Zubaydah to talk, and whether there was possibly more going on than they knew, and supposedly he wanted to know what the “enhanced interrogation techniques” were. “Do they work? Is it a good idea to use them?” And coming from the president this was one of the things that kind of established the whole process.

Kristina Božič: But what can or should people do who are knowledgeable and aware but somehow powerless?

Andy Worthington: I think the first thing that everyone must keep on maintaining is that something has gone very wrong here. There are many people out there who are not raving right-wing lunatics, people who claim to be liberals, who say that we are faced with an existential threat like nothing that has ever happened before and that therefore our civil liberties need to be curtailed and the police should be able to hold people for as long as they want if they think that they are dangerous. It’s how we’ve had Belmarsh and the control orders for so long now in the UK, and it’s basically the justification for Guantánamo, and it’s really not a good idea. It is not always easy to defend the rights of people who may or may not be guilty from being treated this way in the face of people who are kind of up in arms, but I think it is important to say that we are not facing the most severe existential threat we have ever known. I suspect most people who say this were born after 1945. What are we talking about here? Are we comparing a little group of people who conducted an operation, horrific as it was, with the Nazis? It seems that people have forgotten this. Or people want their own existential horror in the same way that the war-mongering people in the States, who got the positions of power –- like Cheney in the first Bush administration –- never wanted there to be the absence of an enemy. When the enemy stopped being the Soviet Union, then they had to have a new one.

Now, there is a new threat, of course, I am not saying that there is not, but the Americans had a significant terrorist attack before 9/11 that was carried out by Timothy McVeigh, but they seem to have dated the whole origin of terrorism to 9/11, which in this country would be the same as saying that what happened on July 7, 2005 was the first terrorist attack in London, which it wasn’t. I lived here in the ‘80s and ‘90s when there were attacks by the IRA, and large numbers of people in London have lived through terrorist attacks.

Kristina Božič: Can Guantánamo then be described as something not unusual, as something that has been happening before, but has just never been put out so much in the open before, through the internet and through demands for transparency from other governments?

Andy Worthington: But it is something unusual. When the media focuses on the “extraordinary rendition” policy, they tend to focus on a small number of high profile cases, but there are numerous cases of these poor men who have done absolutely nothing and have been sent to prisons in Syria and elsewhere … The process of rendition actually encompasses the whole of Guantánamo and the secret prisons. Everyone who is in Guantánamo was rendered there.

Before 9/11 the Americans very specifically used rendition to bring people to justice in the USA or to move them to convenient allies like Egypt. These were all people who already had a judgment against them; they might have been judged in absentia but they had been judged guilty of a crime. I cannot see that there is anything wrong with a very tightly controlled program like that, or comparatively I cannot see much wrong with it compared to just ramping up the whole thing after 9/11 and rounding up anybody who they feel like. Anyone who the president thinks might be guilty can end up tortured in a CIA-run jail or in a Moroccan jail, on no basis whatsoever other then suspicion. That has got to be wrong. If you get back to the position you were at before, then OK, but you have to clear up all this stuff first.

I have tried to tell the story of most of the people in Guantánamo, which is going to have people saying to me, “how do you know that?” And I will have to say I do not know categorically, in the cases of all the men held at Guantánamo, but let us have a look at it. Over half of these people have been released. I think I am providing pretty compelling evidence that mostly this is a miscarriage of justice and that these are not acceptable figures within any kind of judicial system. Maybe 5% of them are guilty, but 95% they banged up anyway. In the judicial system we all live under that would never be acceptable. To get one criminal we lock up twenty innocent men?

Kristina Božič: However, we do seem to be living in a society that thinks this might be OK and worth it if it saves lives.

Andy Worthington: True. But only because it is not happening to them.

Kristina Božič: Do you expect to be blamed for not being objective in your book?

Andy Worthington: I am sure I will be blamed for not being objective, and it is kind of impossible to properly combat that one, because the whole place is outside of the law. Fundamentally, this is what it is about. That is why I have been talking about those figures, how successful judicial systems are in general. We conclude they are quite successful, that the whole system of prosecution, defense and the jury works pretty well. We know some innocent people go to prison and some guilty people are released, but generally it works well.

So my answer to people who would say that I am being biased is that when they say I am just defending all these terrorists, then I have to ask how they know they are terrorists. Just the fact that they claim this means that they are biased. I at least tried to present two sides of the story. Yes, I make a decision in some of these cases when I suggest that some of these people did not do what the Americans say they did. I cannot confirm it, but I am trying to be a lot more objective than those standing up there and saying that the president has the right to imprison any “terrorist” he wants. To define a terrorist you have to have some kind of a judicial system. Just the president saying someone is a terrorist does not make that person a terrorist. Otherwise let us forget it, what is the difference between this and the most vile totalitarian dictator that you know of? There is no difference.

Kristina Božič: In your previous two books you looked into opposition movements in England. Were there any similarities or parallel things when you researched The Guantánamo Files?

What I was drawing on, I suppose, was my involvement in studying protest movements and people who wanted to establish alternative ways of living in Britain, and how, at various times, they have been suppressed. What I was already interested in was how governments curtail civil liberties for the wrong reasons. Civil liberties have been steadily curtailed in the UK. People used to be able to gather quite freely 25 years ago in this country, but it has got more and more tightly controlled over the years. It is not enough to suggest that politicians are doing everything for our benefit. People tend to forget that they are supposed to work for us, but that they very easily start working for themselves. To go back to what I was saying before, when the police say to politicians, “we would like to be able to hold people for as long as we like,” and politicians say yes … The police are always going to ask for that, but just because they ask for it does not mean that politicians are supposed to say yes. They are supposed to weigh it up with the rights of the people –- and it is our right not to be held indefinitely.

What is difficult to get across to people who are not Muslims and who think that no one is going to be coming after them, is that the more powers you give to the government that they should not be given, the more you might want to get them back one of these days. How are you going to do that? You cannot necessarily trust that, because you are a law-abiding citizen, everything will be alright. I think it’s really important to remember that famous poem from the Nazi times, attributed to Pastor Niemöller, about how they came for the Jews, the Communists, the trade unionists etc, and the commentator did not speak out because he was not one of them, but when they came for him there was no one left to speak out. Obviously, there are a lot of people I can talk to who will look at me as if I am insane. With the attempt to introduce ID cards into this country, for example, they will say, “Why not? I have got nothing to hide.” But giving powers to the state that it does not need is not about not having anything to hide. Why would you willingly give something of yours to the state that it does not need?

The poem attributed to pastor Niemoller

Kristina Božič: To be safe?

Andy Worthington: To be safe? Well that is not going to help, is it? ID cards are not going to stop terrorism. If anything again happens in this country it will not make a blind bit of difference whether there are ID cards or not.

Kristina Božič: How can you explain that today Guantánamo Bay still exists?

Andy Worthington: I think it has continued its existence because the US administration rushed into it and did not listen to some of the experts –- in political circles, and also in the agencies; the FBI and the Naval Criminal Investigative Service in particular, but also in parts of the CIA –- who were asking where this kind of process ends. All they have done is to create a monster, and they have no idea how to deal with it now that it is set up.

Kristina Božič: What is hard to grasp is also somehow the lack of empathy and the acknowledgment of what is happening in front of our noses.

Andy Worthington: Part of that, oddly enough, is that, when the US administration released these documents, nobody took the time to go through them. I did. I am not wanting to blow my own trumpet, but I know how difficult it was. Instead, the majority of the media decided they could not extract a narrative from the documents, that it was too difficult to tell who was telling the truth and who was not, so therefore it was better not even to go there. That played into the hands of a government that was reveling in its ability to imprison people without charge or trial. They really should have gone further than that when those documents were released, investigated it further and said, “look, these are the people behind these numbers.” I know why they did not do it, but I hope that what I am doing and what the book of poems [Poems From Guantánamo] that just came out will do, is to say, “Look, these are all people. We know that most of them are not the worst of the worst. More than half the people who were held there were released and, moreover, the US managed to get away with that without really facing the fact that they let go more than half of those whom they were claiming were the worst of the worst. What does this tell us? Of course, the administration claims that most of the people it has released are not innocent; they are just not dangerous any more. They are very persistent in changing the meaning of the language they use. They even have a term for it: “No Longer Enemy Combatant.”

Kristina Božič: But people seem to forget or not follow up these lies, perhaps because they are bombarded with loads of information all the time?

Andy Worthington: It is possibly also just the way we are living. Over thirty years ago there was an enormous amount of pressure in the USA to end the Vietnam War. Something like 80,000 Americans died in the war … So what are we up to in Iraq? Four thousand? When it was 80,000 people, it was obviously everywhere; every community had someone who died. Four thousand dead, but ten times that many who have been severely injured must be slowly getting to the sort of numbers where in every part of the States there is someone who knows someone who is mutilated or who died as a result of the Iraq war. And this then will raise the question, “why, what is it about?” I do not know why more people are not more offended by it. But, apparently, everyone is comfortable, everyone is making money, no one is really thinking about the bigger picture. This is one aspect of it. Compared to thirty years ago in Britain, this looks like a nice comfortable place and everyone can go shopping. Similarly, if I buy clothes without wondering who made them, or buy things in a supermarket without wondering how they were grown, then everything is very distant. And these are also the circumstances that make it easier for an authoritarian government to thrive, selling fear to people, as they are comfortable and removed from everything. I think this complacency is terrible, but it is a symptom of our time.

Kristina Božič: Where does the road take you now? Do secret prisons present another challenge to be uncovered for you?

Andy Worthington: I would hope to be able to investigate that further but it is quite a hard project. Various journalists have been working on that. I know some of these stories –- some are reported in my book –- but I do not really know how to go about uncovering the whole truth. However, I cannot really imagine letting go of this story, not until something has happened to bring it to an end.

Kristina Božič: The Tipton Three, who were imprisoned in Guantánamo, said that the end can only mean justice, and that means bringing Rumsfeld, Bush and other criminals to court. That seems hardly possible, and so the story seems a long way from ending.

Andy Worthington: I cannot really see the end either. I cannot see how the Americans are going to get out of this. I really do not see it. I do not see how they are going to stop what they have started in Iraq; I do not see how they will stop any of it. They are down to eighty people in Guantánamo who they say are dangerous enough that they want to put them on trial in their Military Commission show trials. That is ten or eleven percent of the people they have imprisoned. And when it comes down to it, there will probably be less than eighty, and at the moment it is not even clear whether they can go ahead with these trials. Can they maybe put them into the American system? The Padilla case showed that a jury does not necessarily mind if these people have been tortured for years. If they can do that then they can probably close the whole system down eventually, because otherwise it seems that they have to hold people like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed forever without charge.

Kristina Božič: 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: Yes, absolutely. Cheney and Rumsfeld both worked for Nixon, and Cheney in particular believes that the executive branch of the state should not be answerable to anybody. So 9/11 presented an opportunity for them to do that. It is a very dangerous situation. Although the lawyers will say that they have not got anybody free from Guantánamo, that what gets people free is public pressure, it remains a fact that it was the lawyers who faced tremendous abuse when they first started representing detainees from Guantánamo, but who nevertheless stood up for the separation of powers, and the importance of not allowing the executive to grant itself dictatorial powers. This is very commendable and very important.

Kristina Božič: So what do you believe pushes the United States to release detainees?

Andy Worthington: There are various angles. One is public pressure, but there is also a very political angle to almost all the releases from Guantánamo, which has absolutely nothing to do with whether these men are terrorists or not. It has to do with the fact that within European countries there was clearly pressure from a lot of people asking, “What is happening to these people in there? Get them home, they are our citizens.” And then from other countries, where this is not the case –- the Yemen and some of the north African regimes where nobody is representing the rights of the detainees –- the detainees remain where they are. One of the really unfortunate things about who is left in Guantánamo is how many of them are in the worst of all possible situations, because they had left their home countries for whatever reasons: some had fled persecution, others were economic migrants and were living in Afghanistan or in Pakistan. And with these people, the Americans are struggling to find a way out, because I think the majority of the key players –- with some notable exceptions; Cheney, for example –- do want to close Guantánamo down as much as possible. It is quite ironic, as they cannot send them home, because their home governments might not treat them very well –- saying this after they have been living in this five-star hotel in US custody…

Kristina Božič: The British have also refused to accept back their ex-resident, whose resident permit expired, because he did not reapply for it since he was in Guantánamo. So Britain does not want to take him back, while his wife and children still live here.

Andy Worthington: This is Jamil El-Banna, who is one of the five residents that Britain has now asked to have back from the Americans. It is an interesting story, as it is still unfolding. The British government was initially prepared for him to be sent back to Jordan, the country of his birth, from where he had fled, even though he has a wife and five children in Britain. And he only ended up in Guantánamo because of the complicity of the British intelligence services, which is pretty shocking. They have been complicit in various cases of the people in Guantánamo, and I cannot really understand how they work.

Jamil’s friend Bisher al-Rawi returned to Britain in March, even though the British government had said all along that it would not accept any residents back, as it would set a terrible precedent. But the pressure was on, because Bisher had been working for British intelligence, keeping an eye on Abu Qatada. He’s a Jordanian, whom the British want to send back to Jordan, and he went to the same mosque as Bisher. Qatada is a radical cleric, but the government claims that he is the spiritual representative of al-Qaeda in Europe. And when the British wanted to keep tabs on Qatada, and ultimately to arrest him, it was Bisher who helped them, working as an unpaid informer. Jamil, on the other hand, who had also met Qatada, had also been asked to work as an informer, but had refused, although he had been told that this would not cause any problems for him.

So on what basis British intelligence betrayed Bisher and Jamil to the Americans in the first place I really do not understand, but all the intelligence stuff gets pretty murky when you start looking at it objectively. Bisher’s family came from Iraq and he was the only member of his family who did not become a British citizen, because he hoped that one day the family would be able to reclaim their property in Iraq. If it were not for this, he would have been out of Guantánamo years before as a British national. He went to set up a peanut-processing factory with his brother and with Jamil in Gambia, and that’s where he was kidnapped by the Americans after the British provided them with false intelligence. All this came out over a year ago when Bisher and Jamil’s lawyers came across memos that the British had sent to the Americans when they were heading off for the Gambia. The British basically lied about them. They said they were suspected terrorists, they did not mention that Bisher was working for them … I really do not understand what game they were playing. They said that they told the Americans that they did not want them to be captured, but at the same time they provided false intelligence information to the Americans that pinpointed them as terrorists.

I kind of wonder whether everybody was under so much pressure from the Americans that they just felt they had to give them something. The Americans were twisting everybody’s arms to hand them over some terrorist suspects. They went crazy after 9/11, having had so little information for years, because they had neglected their intelligence services, and during my research it seemed to me that they believed that they could capture every single person in the world who might be in some way connected to terrorism and would then be able to question them all. That seems to me to be the main basis of Guantánamo and the secret prisons. But they didn’t think about what they would do with these people in the long-term. The only way for them to be safe, it seemed, was to capture every single person who might be a terrorist suspect anywhere in the world. And yet what they ended up with was 95 percent innocent men or Taliban foot soldiers, while the truly dangerous people escaped in front of their noses.


The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison by Andy Worthington is 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.

Kristina Božič can be contacted at:

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  1. Cuba » Blog Archives » Out, Damned Scholars says...

    […] The Guantánamo Files: Andy Worthington interviewed by Kristina Božič is not giving up on it. He started investigating the US prison at the naval base in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba […]

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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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