Andy Worthington Tells the Truth About WikiLeaks’ Guantánamo Files in an Interview with Alexa O’Brien


Last week, after WikiLeaks and ten media partners (McClatchy Newspapers, the Washington Post, the Daily Telegraph, Der Spiegel, Le Monde, El Pais, La Repubblica, L’Espresso, Aftonbladet and myself) were obliged to bring forward the date for releasing secret military documents relating to the prisoners at Guantánamo, because of spoiler activity by the New York Times, the Guardian and NPR, which had obtained the documents from another source, I wrote a few articles (WikiLeaks Reveals Secret Guantánamo Files, Exposes Detention Policy as a Construct of Lies, and The Hidden Horrors of WikiLeaks’ Guantánamo Files), but was mainly involved in liaising with the media partners, to help to provide them with information about how to analyze the documents, and also in conducting numerous interviews — with Democracy Now! and also for a variety of radio shows in the US, in the UK and around the world.

Some of these (with the BBC and have already been mentioned, but over this weekend I’ll also be making available links to other shows that I’ve taken part in during the last few days. In a busy evening, in which I spoke on shows run by FAIR and the Nation (coming soon!), I also spoke to Alexa O’Brien, in a 13-minute interview for a WikiLeaks-themed site, WL Central, which is available here. I’m also delighted to reproduce below a transcript of the interview, which Alexa produced in an amazingly short amount of time (please note, however, that I’ve added new links, and replaced others).

An interview with Guantánamo expert Andy Worthington

Alexa O’Brien: I wanted to talk to you a little bit about a couple things that you had mentioned when you were talking with Amy Goodwin on Democracy Now! One of the things you talked about was that “guidelines” needed to be set up for filtering or discriminating the content that was found in the documents. Could you tell me a little bit about what that would be like in terms of application?

Andy Worthington: Well, you know, to be honest a certain amount of hard work is required and some of that has already been done by some of the journalists who’ve been writing about it already, who have worked out that a lot of this supposed “body of evidence” consists of allegations that have been made by a small number of prisoners, who have made repeated allegations against large numbers of their fellow prisoners, which have been called into doubt.

Now, you know, the doubts about this information are not necessarily mentioned — in fact, they are rarely mentioned in these military documents, but they have been mentioned elsewhere, and, so you know, a certain amount of cross-referencing is required. Some of these stories have emerged in media reports over the years, and some of them have emerged in court cases, where the prisoners have had their habeas corpus petitions examined by judges in a district court in Washington DC.

They [the allegations in the documents released by WikiLeaks] involve essentially a number of “high-value detainees” making allegations about a large number of the prisoners. These are people held for quite a long time, in secret CIA prisons, where they were subjected to torture. One of them is Abu Zubaydah and he turns up over and over again. He was the first “high-value detainee” that the Bush administration tortured, after lawyers specifically attempted to re-write the rules on torture so that they could torture him. He was waterboarded, subjected to a form of controlled drowning, 83 times in the month after his torture was approved by lawyers in the Justice Department.

On what basis they could possibly be regarded as credible, any of the claims that he made against his fellow prisoners, you know, is rather beyond me. And he is not the only one. There are other “high-value detainees” who appear in these documents.

Other problems are with informants within Guantánamo — people who have been regarded as useful within Guantánamo, because they have made allegations against a large number of prisoners. And, the easiest way to imagine this — the way that this happened — is that the authorities would show prisoners photographs of other prisoners and say, “Do you know this person? What do you know about this person?” And I think that helps to understand how easy it would be for somebody to say, “Oh yes. I know that person,” even if they didn’t, just to get somebody off their back, or, in the cases of some of the people in Guantánamo, to get favors. You know, there is an interrogator saying, “What would you like? Would you like a nice meal? Would you like a TV? What kind of stuff could we give you if you helped us out here?”

People — either because they are put under horrible pressure, or because they were enticed in this way — many people came up with these false stories about other prisoners.

As I say, these have been exposed in other contexts, but I would say even bigger than that is the problem with so many of the people held in Guantánamo and in the ‘War on Terror’ — people who have been released — who have said, “Look, in the end I cracked. I told them things that they wanted to hear that weren’t true.” It’s very understandable why people did that.

Very often when people think about the circumstances in which people are held, and they imagine themselves in it they say, “Well I am not sure how I would have taken it. I am sure I would have cracked within a short amount of time.” So that is what we are dealing with.

And it requires a certain amount of dedication on the part of people reading these stories to understand that it isn’t a coherent network of intelligence. Actually what it is, is a bunch of people rounded up largely indiscriminately, most bought by the US military, not screened adequately on capture, taken to Guantánamo, and when they didn’t really know who they had, they started to try and piece it together. And the only material that they had to do that with was the prisoners themselves.

Alexa O’Brien: Do you think that the American media is partly responsible for the manifestation of a system like Guantánamo?

Andy Worthington: Well, I don’t think that they complained thoroughly enough about it. It was a difficult issue, it is a difficult issue, in the sense of knowing exactly what to make of who is held there, but, you know, that is why it is important for people to understand how random it was, and how arrogant it was of the United States under President Bush to deny Geneva Convention rights to prisoners, and, to implement torture, all of these awful things.

I am not sure that everybody quite realizes how wrong the whole foundation of the ‘War on Terror’ is. Because, what we have at Guantánamo are people who are labeled “enemy combatants” by the Bush administration. Now, Obama, early on, his Justice Department dropped that terminology. They knew that it was pretty toxic, but they haven’t replaced it with anything. There is no name for these people now.

But what they are not is either criminal suspects allegedly responsible for terrorist activities, or enemy prisoners of war held according to the Geneva Conventions. Now those are the only two ways in which you are allowed to hold people prisoner and deprive them of their liberty.

So there is still this third category of human being, invented by the Bush administration, called “enemy combatants,” and intended to be held without any rights whatsoever. What has happened is that terrorist suspects have been confused with soldiers, so that, apart from all the innocent people held at Guantánamo, there were many foot soldiers for the Taliban, and the purpose of Guantánamo has been to dress these people to be more significant than they were.

Many of them were not anything more than soldiers fighting against other Muslims in Afghanistan, and that particular conflict morphed into a ‘War on Terror’, a war against the US, after the US-led invasion [in October 2001].

Alexa O’Brien: I am trying to understand Guantánamo from an institutional perspective, in the sense that institutions are suppose to underpin and support democratic principles, or the foundational principles of a society. So, you have mentioned that there was a third category of human being: I wonder if there is a fourth category of human being called the corporation. You mention “fear politics” or the “season of fear.” What is the source of that? Is it simply socio-political phenomena that happens when a country is attacked? Or is there more to the story then simply the sophistry, or the propaganda, or the agenda-setting of politicians with a view towards national security? Are there other forces at play?

Andy Worthington: Well, I think there are a few forces at play, and I think the starting point would be to say that the Bush administration was so severely rattled, and understandably so after the 9/11 attacks, that, instead of taking a measured response, they wanted to be strong, they wanted vengeance, and they threw out what they regarded as all these weak kind of laws restricting what they could do.

So that was their starting point. Now I think it would be too generous to them to say that that remained their agenda for very long, because what has become apparent about the Iraq War over the years, has been that, in early December 2001, people [within the Bush administration] were pushing for moving on to Iraq.

On the day that the 9/11attacks took place, British officials who were in Washington D.C., told Jane Mayer of the New Yorker how shocked they were that hours after the attacks, people were talking about, “When can we invade Iraq?”

Iraq had no connection to it, but there were people who wanted Iraq to have a connection to it, and who were pushing for that invasion which eventually took place in March 2003. And, you know, one particular prisoner — and he turns up a lot in these documents just released, as well — he is called Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi. He was captured, he was sent to Egypt, where he was tortured on behalf of the CIA, and where he said that two al-Qaeda operatives had been meeting with Saddam Hussein to discuss obtaining chemical and biological weapons.

That was used by Colin Powell in his submission to the United Nations, a month before the invasion in February 2003, as a justification for war. Now al-Libi had recanted what he had said, what he had produced under torture in Egypt, but, you know, was that deliberately used to justify an invasion of Iraq? Or did Cheney and other people in the administration believe what al-Libi said?

It is one or the other. They either thought that torture was producing the information that they needed or, even more worryingly, they were cynically “exploiting” somebody like al-Libi to justify an illegal invasion of a sovereign country. Whichever one it is, it is bad. If it is the latter, then Cheney, who I believe was driving this, has committed the most enormous crime I think that a vice president of the Unites States could do.

Alexa O’Brien: This is my last question. Is there a historical parallel that comes to mind when you think about Guantánamo — either its model, or the crimes committed?

Andy Worthington: You know, in some ways, the United States has overreacted previously — in the Second World War, for example, with the internment of so many Japanese Americans — something that came to be looked at afterwards as a horrible overreaction.

There is a historical pattern, I suppose, of overreacting to things, then being able to look back at it afterwards and say, “Oh dear. That was a bit over the top. That was wrong. We undermined our fundamental values by doing that.”

Now, you know, we are nearly ten years on from the 9/11 attacks and from the opening of Guantánamo, and I think it is time for that point to be reached, but there are a number of forces within the United States — powerful forces, both in congress and in the media — who are dedicated to keeping this alive. They want more of this.

So you know, I think that actually the struggle that is still underway is a kind of struggle for the soul of America, and it doesn’t just involve arbitrarily detaining a bunch of Muslims in this little corner of Cuba, outside of all the norms. It is everything else that went with it. It was the deliberate attempt, at the highest level of the Bush government, to use torture as part of this process of holding people outside of the norms of domestic and international law.

And, that has been accepted. Obama has failed by not calling to account the people within the Bush administration who authorized this, who implemented it, who issued the legal advice, but there are too many people in the United States who believe that torture is justified. And it is not, of course. It is counterproductive, and it is illegal. The story has drifted, and it needs to be addressed, and that is why I think it is so crucial.

I think that all of this really involves two sides, with people who understand that there used to be right and wrong, and that something terrible has happened, and, on the other side, people who have got increasingly violent and hysterical in their approach to things — and, fear is part of that. I am sure that this is being manipulated in some ways.

Who has made money out of not just the ‘War on Terror’, but the wars of the last ten years? Well, it tends to be arms manufacturers and big companies like Halliburton. You know, very few people have actually benefitted financially. But the corporate interests that have are obviously tied in with the governments as well. So, all of that is worth looking at as well, really.

Alexa O’Brien: I thank you very much for your time. You have been very generous.

Andy Worthington: Okay. You are welcome.

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.

10 Responses

  1. Jeffrey Kaye says...

    Andy, I’m so glad to see you out there, giving the great analysis about what this giant leak actually means, to provide context.

    Since I know you are one of the press outlets who Wikileaks utilized for release, I hope you can get back to them to let them know their database has one serious error.

    The file for detainee ISN 990 is actually that for detainee ISN 1001. When you click on the file for Abdul Khadr, you get the DAB for Hafizullah Shabaz Khaul. The actual file for ISN 1001 and Khaul are dimmed on the Wikileaks site, as if they are not available, or yet prepared for download, when actually they are there, under Abdul Khadr’s name and ISN number.

    This is especially frustrating, as there are many who would like to see Abdul Khadr’s file, as he is the brother of Omar Khadr. Even more, Abdul Khadr is better known as Abdurahman Khadr, the second oldest of the Khadr sons, and an admitted informant for the CIA, even when he was placed into Guantanamo, where he communicated with his brother Omar.

    So if you can help clear up the document issue at Wikileaks, it would be tremendously helpful.

  2. Andy Worthington Tells the Truth About WikiLeaks' Guantánamo Files … | The Daily Conservative says...

    […] the original post: Andy Worthington Tells the Truth About WikiLeaks' Guantánamo Files … Share and […]

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Hi Jeff,
    Thanks for the supportive words — and also for your work analyzing some of the documents, which readers can find at FireDogLake and on your own site:
    I had noticed the confusion regarding Abdurahman Khadr’s file, and will try and make sure that it’s acknowledged. Strange that such an important file is missing, though …

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    On Facebook, George Kenneth Berger wrote:

    I’m sharing it now, Andy. Digging too.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Jamie Mayerfeld wrote:

    I’m sharing it, too. And digging.

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Mezentian Gate wrote:

    nothing like sharing your passion, Mr Worthington– thank you

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Willy Bach wrote:

    Thanks Andy, rigorous and professional as usual, thanks for all the hard work (I sent something).

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Eileen Brophy wrote:

    Sorry but that sounds to me like a justification for the existence of Guantanamo and there is NO justification for it at all!! Especially the holding and torturing of innocent people simply because they were Muslims. I think Andy Worthington should have read The American Nazi Secrets to see what the US is capable of, before writing this.

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Thank you, my friends, for the supportive words. And Eileen, I’m not sure what I did to give you the impression that I was somehow justifying the existence of Guantanamo, but as far as I know I have never done so, or attempted to do so, and have, in fact, spent the last five years working incessantly to point out that Guantanamo is an extralegal abomination, and that there is no justification whatsoever for its existence.

  10. Important Files Missing in WikiLeaks Guantanamo Release « Social Justice Concerns says...

    […] following is the exchange we […]

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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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