The New Yorker’s Amy Davidson Captures the Despair in WikiLeaks’ Guantánamo Files


Since Sunday night, when WikiLeaks’ Guantánamo Files first began appearing online, eight media partners have been putting out stories — McClatchy Newspapers, the Washington Post, the Daily Telegraph, Der Spiegel, Le Monde, El Pais, La Repubblica and Aftonbladet — as well as other media outlets, including the Guardian, the New York Times and NPR. There has been, to date, some wonderful reporting, and some that is not so good, and there is much more to come, but while I have so far been largely preoccupied coordinating the release of documents for Wikileaks with the various media partners, and have done numerous radio interviews (as well as appearing on Democracy Now! with Amy Goodman), I haven’t yet had much chance to report my own findings, beyond the introduction I wrote for WikiLeaks early on Monday morning.

I hope to have the opportunity to do more of my own reporting soon, but in the meantime I wanted to make available a particularly insightful piece by the New Yorker‘s Amy Davidson, which captures the essence of the files: quoting Carol Rosenberg and Tom Lasseter of McClatchy Newspapers identifying “a sort of mission creep beyond the post-9/11 goal of using interrogations to hunt down the al Qaeda inner circle and sleeper cells,” noting “how Guantánamo became a whisper factory,” in which the only “intelligence” is often the word of one prisoner against another (often after torture or bribery), and, pointedly, criticizing President Obama for not doing more to close Guantánamo by publicizing the prison’s countless failures, rather than retreating whenever criticized and providing more and more power to his critics, and supporters of the prison’s continued existence. “Why didn’t Obama declassify these documents himself?” Davidson asks, before noting that “Obama never effectively challenged the image of Guantánamo as a sort of Phantom Zone of super villains, rather than the humiliating hodgepodge it is,” and proceeding to explain how the administration then “gave up,” because, sadly, “The White House feared the fear itself.”

WikiLeaks: The Uses of Guantánamo
By Amy Davidson, The New Yorker, April 25, 2011

Here are some of the reasons we’ve held people at Guantánamo, according to files obtained by WikiLeaks and, then, by several news organizations: A sharecropper because he was familiar with mountain passes; an Afghan “because of his general knowledge of activities in the areas of Khost and Kabul based as a result of his frequent travels through the region as a taxi driver”; an Uzbek because he could talk about his country’s intelligence service, and a Bahraini about his country’s royal family (both of those nations are American allies); an eighty-nine year old man, who was suffering from dementia, to explain documents that he said were his son’s; an imam, to speculate on what worshippers at his mosque were up to; a cameraman for Al Jazeera, to detail its operations; a British man, who had been a captive of the Taliban, because “he was expected to have knowledge of Taliban treatment of prisoners and interrogation tactics”; Taliban conscripts, so they could explain Taliban conscription techniques; a fourteen-year-old named Naqib Ullah, described in his file as a “kidnap victim,” who might know about the Taliban men who kidnapped him. (Ullah spent a year in the prison.) Our reasons, in short, do not always really involve a belief that a prisoner is dangerous to us or has committed some crime; sometimes (and this is more debased) we mostly think we might find him useful.

The new set of files has information on more than seven hundred and fifty of the seven hundred and seventy-nine prisoners who have passed through Guantánamo. (A hundred and seventy-two are still there.) The documents are classified Secret/NOFORN (that is, no distribution to foreign countries), and WikiLeaks shared them with seven news organizations, on the condition that they evaluate them before they were released, when they were leaked to the New York Times, which brought in the Guardian and NPR — breaking the embargo. (How does that fit the complaint that WikiLeaks rushes things out indiscriminately?) These are Guantánamo’s files, and some of the information in them is disputed by the prisoners; some of it the government itself doesn’t believe any more, and some is contradictory. The greatest insight the files may give is into what our government thought it was doing, and why, when it decided to imprison certain people indefinitely and out of the reach of the rule of law — the logic, or illogic, of Guantánamo. Carol Rosenberg and Tom Lasseter, of the Miami Herald (representing the McClatchy papers, among those who had the files), write of records of interrogation after interrogation,

Yet there’s not a whiff in the documents that any of the work is leading the U.S. closer to capturing bin Laden. In fact, they suggest a sort of mission creep beyond the post-9/11 goal of using interrogations to hunt down the al Qaeda inner circle and sleeper cells.

And so we sacrificed our values and our moral standing for goals that were increasingly — vanishingly — distant from the ones we had been told were so urgent; or for no real reason at all.

One sees how Guantánamo became a whisper factory: after years of interrogation, the subject many prisoners had left to talk about was other prisoners. Some were doing so after being tortured. The Times notes that Mohammed al-Qahtani was “was leashed like a dog, sexually humiliated and forced to urinate on himself” before implicating himself and sixteen other prisoners, and that those claims appear in the others’ files “without any caveat.” (Jane Mayer has written about the Qahtani case.) Rosenberg and Lasseter note that one prisoner, a Yemeni, gave information about a hundred and thirty-five other prisoners. On the whole, the interrogation system at Guantánamo comes across as a maddening, multi-directional game of telephone. Rosenberg and Lasseter:

Intelligence analysts are at odds with each other over which informants to trust, at times drawing inferences from prisoners’ exercise habits. They ordered DNA tests, tethered Taliban suspects to polygraphs, strung together tidbits at times in ways that seemed to defy common sense.

Some prisoners at Guantánamo, like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, really are high-level Al Qaeda operatives. That doesn’t mean it’s the right place for them, either: being at Guantánamo has served to keep them from facing a jury or judge and answering for their crimes. (We have courts, and Supermax prisons, in this country.) And, in many ways, K.S.M. is more of an outlier than the taxi driver. Here are other signs, according to the files, that a prisoner is dangerous: attitude toward the Star Spangled Banner; having been caught wearing a Casio F91W watch (a common model); perceived support for fellow inmates who committed suicide (there have been five).

And more: according to the Guardian, the “GTMO matrix of threat indicators for enemy combatants,” which runs to seventeen pages, also lists having a connection to Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, or I.S.I.; given how much money we’ve given Pakistan to fight the Taliban and Al Qaeda, that detail alone is enough to make one’s head spin, if the Casio didn’t do it already. (Another, not related to the new files: hundreds of inmates escaped from a prison in Afghanistan yesterday, apparently with the help of their guards.)

Is a Casio watch better than no reason at all? “It is undetermined as to why the detainee was transferred to GTMO,” the base commander wrote in a report on one of “three hapless Tajiks,” as the Guardian described them, who had been shipped there after being rounded up with others—not on what supporters of Guantánamo like to call the battlefield, but in the library at the University of Karachi, in Pakistan. They were held for two years.

And the Al Jazeera journalist, a Sudanese cameraman named Sami al-Hajj, was held for six years. There were vague allegations that he was helping Al Qaeda help the Chechens (he denied them and, indeed, he was released by the Bush Administration without charges against him), but his lawyer has said that his interrogators were just interested in Al Jazeera. And, indeed, one of the “reasons for transfer” to Guantánamo in his file is to “provide information on”

The al-Jazeera News Network’s training program, telecommunications equipment, and newsgathering operations in Chechnya, Kosovo, and Afghanistan, including the network’s acquisition of a video of [Osama bin Laden] and subsequent interview with [bin Laden].

Is that what Guantánamo is for? Every journalist should wonder what information he or she might have that the government could find useful. (The file also says that among the items al-Hajj had on him when he was arrested were “several photos of an infant.”)

Here’s another question: why didn’t Obama declassify these documents himself? His Administration has professed to be frustrated at its inability to convey to the public, early on, why Guantánamo should be closed. (See Eric Holdier’s press conference last month for an example.) Might it have helped if Obama had pointed to close-up pictures of the fourteen-year old, or the taxi driver, and really told their stories? He can be good at that, after all. Maybe it wouldn’t have been enough; maybe, clumsily handled, it could have backfired. But it could have shifted the narrative, and it would have been true. Instead, Obama never effectively challenged the image of Guantánamo as a sort of Phantom Zone of super villains, rather than the humiliating hodgepodge it is. When confronted with scare tactics, his Administration, as the Washington Post recounted in a long piece Saturday, retreated again and again; and then it just gave up. The White House feared the fear itself.

And so, instead, on Sunday the Administration released a statement to “strongly condemn” the leak. It made a point of noting how cautious it had been about the prisoners, and how the Bush Administration had transferred many more of them out of Guantánamo than the Obama Administration had — as if that were a point of pride.

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 July 2010, details about the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, on tour in the UK throughout 2011, and available on DVD here — or here for the US), my definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all my articles, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

23 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    On Facebook, Giacomella Jackie Milesi Ferretti wrote:

    thanks Andy!!

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    George Kenneth Berger wrote:

    I’ll share and Digg this tomorrow. I am too tired to think straight.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Monica Leavitt wrote:

    It appears that Obama is strongly motivated by fear. That is not a leaderly quality.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Mui J. Steph wrote:

    I think Amy Davidson is far too soft on Obama. This president has failed a lot of things, like stopping torture of detainees in other prisons, or closing those prisons, or stopping Kill Teams and “trophy-hunting”. It’s almost as if MSM journalists are looking at this myopically so they don’t see a big picture, and that’s either willfully lying to self or something else.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Christine Casner wrote:

    Thank you, Andy!! “Homework” time. Much to read. Peace. ♥

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Mui J. Steph wrote:

    It’s a good thing we’ve had you throughout the years, Andy. Because we get news that way.

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Christine Casner wrote:


  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Mui J. Steph wrote:

    Although I like parts of Davidson’s article though.

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Thank you, my friends. Mui and Christine, I’m particularly buoyed by your incredible support.
    Peace to you all. It’s 2.30 am and I need to sleep. A radio station in Denver is calling at 8 am …

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    Maria Allison wrote:

    Belated thank you, Andy for all the work you have done on this. On the Davidson article, I see it as part of the overall picture.

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    Jamie Mayerfeld wrote:

    Thank you for this brilliant analysis and for all your amazing work.

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    Morning, all! Thank you, Maria and Jamie. Your support is much appreciated.
    I’m currently talking to Rick Barber on his “After Midnight” show on 850 KOA News Radio in Denver, Colorado. Good show!

  13. Andy Worthington says...

    Maria Allison wrote:

    Got the program on now, Andy!

  14. Andy Worthington says...

    Jacob Freeze wrote:

    From the New Yorker…

    “Mohammed al-Qahtani “was leashed like a dog, sexually humiliated and forced to urinate on himself” before implicating himself and sixteen other prisoners, and those claims appear in the others’ files “without any caveat.”

  15. Andy Worthington says...

    Maria Allison wrote:

    You were awesome, Andy!

  16. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Maria! Great that you were able to listen!
    I’m talking next with Steve Randall of FAIR on CounterSpin, at 1.15 pm Eastern time, 6.15 here in London:

  17. Andy Worthington says...

    George Kenneth Berger wrote:

    I just shared this, Andy. You are an admirable person.

  18. Andy Worthington says...

    Thank you, George. That’s very much appreciated.

  19. Andy Worthington says...

    Esther Angel wrote:

    Thank you, Andy! Shared and I will listen back to the two radio stations later (presuming they keep pods). Great work as always! Sounds like you would have to lock yourself away with all the phones unplugged if you want to get to write your own piece about it all. I’m glad you’re this popular, though, it all helps to shed more light on the cruelty of Gitmo.

  20. Andy Worthington says...

    Esther Angel wrote:

    Amy Davidson is far too polite about Obama’s failures. He should have not only released all this himself, but called for an indictment of Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld as war criminals. Then we could have all respected him for standing up and keeping his promises of change.

  21. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Esther. Great to hear from you.

  22. Andy Worthington says...

    Linda Olson-Osterlund wrote:

    Thanks Andy good critique of Obama among other things.

  23. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Linda. Always happy to hear from you. Hope we can talk soon on your show on KBOO FM out of Portlan, Oregon!

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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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