Col. Morris Davis Discusses Guantánamo, Torture and Intelligence in the Wake of the Latest WikiLeaks Revelations


In the long years of the Bush administration’s “War on Terror” — perpetuated, lamentably, by President Obama — in which soldiers are terrorists, and terrorists are “warriors,” and both of these parties are “enemy combatants” or “alien unprivileged enemy belligerents,” those called upon to play a part in this dangerous aberration from international norms have frequently rebelled, placing their allegiance to the Constitution above the President’s whims, for example, in the cases of the many military defense attorneys who fought against the government, as well as defending their clients, in the Military Commission trial system that was ghoulishly resuscitated by Dick Cheney in November 2001.

Prosecutors, too, have resigned rather than take part in an unfair process, including, most famously,  Lt. Col. Stuart Couch, who resigned rather than prosecuting torture victim Mohamedou Ould Slahi, and Lt. Col. Darrel Vandeveld, who denounced the system’s inability to deliver justice in September 2008, leading, in part, to the release of former child prisoner Mohamed Jawad.

Also of note is Col. Morris Davis, the chief prosecutor of the Military Commissions from September 2005 to October 2007, when, having been a stauch advocate of the Commissions, he resigned because he had been put in a chain of command under the Pentagon’s senior lawyer Wiliam J. Haynes II, who believed in using information derived from torture in the Commisisons, thereby crossing a line that Davis was not prepared to cross.

Col. Davis is now the executive director of the Crimes of War Project, and he and I have been in touch for several years now, as I have covered aspects of his post-Guantánamo history (see here) and have cross-posted some opinon pieces he has written about Guantánamo (see here, here and here), and during my visit to the US in January to raise awareness of the plight of the remaining Guantánamo prisoners on the 9th anniversary of the prison’s opening, I was delighted that he agreed to take part in a panel discussion about Guantánamo that I had put together for an event at the New America Foundation (and also see our Russia Today interviews here).

Below, I’m cross-posting his latest offering about Guantánamo, an important review of flawed intelligence and the use of torture — at Guantánamo and elsewhere in the “War on Terror” — that was published by Der Spiegel in the wake of the recent release, by WikiLeaks, of classified military documents relating to the majority of the 779 prisoners held at Guantánamo since the prison opened in January 2002.

“The Government’s Narrative Was a Lie”
By Morris Davis, Der Spiegel, May 2, 2011

When he arrived at Guantánamo in 2005 as chief prosecutor, Colonel Morris Davis thought that he would be dealing exclusively with fanatical terrorists. But he soon realized that many prisoners shouldn’t have been imprisoned at all. In a contribution for SPIEGEL, he describes his path from idealism to disillusionment.

When I became the chief prosecutor for the military commissions at Guantánamo in September 2005, I arrived having heard the same stories Bush administration officials like Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld had been telling the public: the Guantánamo detainees were the worst of the worst, a bunch of totally committed terrorists that were all closely connected to Osama bin Laden. I recall especially the claim a senior official made that the detainees were so vicious they would gnaw through the hydraulic lines of the airplanes carrying them to Guantánamo just to kill Americans. They painted a picture of men that were so bad you thought: thank God they are locked away at Guantánamo.

Then I began reviewing files — some of them like the ones that have now been published on the Internet — and talking with people who had been involved with the case for a long time. I began to understand that, in large part, the government’s narrative had been a lie and that the picture of the detainees as a homogenous group of extremists so committed to terrorism that they all had to be locked away forever was distorted.

There clearly were — and there clearly still are — some incredibly bad men held in detention at Guantánamo. But it was equally clear that a significant number were simply teenagers, old men, or foreigners captured walking around in Afghanistan with a Casio watch like the ones that al-Qaida handed out in its Afghan training camps — people who did not come close to matching the label of “the worst of the worst.”

While I had doubts about some of the cases, I honestly believed that the cases we would choose to prosecute, a few dozen out of a detainee population of several hundred at the time, would get full, fair and open trials. I said a number of times in comments to journalists and in other public presentations I gave that televising the trials on Court TV would be fine with me so everyone had the opportunity to watch. I believed we were committed to doing this right and, therefore, we had nothing to be ashamed of or try and hide from public view.

Proud of Our Efforts

Shortly after I became chief prosecutor, I instructed the members of the prosecution team that we would not use any evidence obtained by torture or any of the enhanced interrogation techniques they thought were unduly coercive. I told them that if they saw something that made them uncomfortable or felt morally or ethically wrong to come see me and we would talk about it. We were not going to see how far we could press the issue and get away with it. We were going to do this so someday our families would look back and be proud of our efforts.

General John Altenburg was the convening authority, the official in charge of the military commissions, when I arrived and he supported me in that decision. I had a tremendous amount of respect for General Altenburg. I was convinced that he was intent on preventing Bush administration political appointees from meddling in the military commissions and giving military law and military lawyers a bad name. Looking back, the beginning of the end for me started with General Altenburg’s departure in late 2006.

General Altenburg was replaced a few months later by Susan Crawford. Ms. Crawford was closely connected to Vice President Dick Cheney and had worked for Cheney at the Pentagon. So we went from a career military officer who had proven he could stand up to the administration to a civilian political figure that was connected to the administration.

The atmosphere changed within a few months of Ms. Crawford taking control of the military commissions. A new attorney joined her staff, Brigadier General Tom Hartmann, and he out-ranked me; a point he made clear again and again. General Hartmann began to question my authority to exclude evidence obtained by waterboarding or any of the other methods many call torture. He told me, “President Bush said we don’t torture, and if the President says we don’t, what gives you the right to say we do?”

Exploited for Intelligence

He said the use of those interrogation methods produced good evidence and we should be using it. I asked Ms. Crawford for help, but she refused. I asked Defense Department General Counsel Jim Haynes for help, but he refused, too. The fact that Haynes wrote the memo authorizing the “enhanced interrogation techniques” should have told me, I suppose, that he was not going to find fault after those techniques were used.

The fundamental problem in the effort to prosecute detainees is that no one was sent to Guantánamo to face prosecution. They were sent there to be exploited for intelligence. At the end of World War II, when people were taken to Nürnberg, the war was over and the sole objective was to prosecute those suspected of war crimes. When detainees were sent to Guantánamo, on the other hand, the war in Afghanistan was, and still is, ongoing. The objective was to get information out of the detainees that would have intelligence value to the soldiers battling the Taliban and al-Qaida. Developing evidence to prosecute detainees for war crimes was just not a high priority.

There was real tension between the intelligence community and the law enforcement community, something I did not appreciate at first. They have different perspectives and different ways of conducting business. The intelligence community is not necessarily concerned with what you did yesterday, they want to know what you are planning to do tomorrow so that they can stop it from happening. They usually operate unseen and their rules are largely secret.

Law enforcement, on the other hand, is concerned with accountability for what you have already done, not necessarily what you are thinking about maybe doing at some point in the future. Their operations are usually more apparent and their rules are generally well known. Sometimes the intelligence and law enforcement efforts are complimentary, but at Guantánamo they were often in conflict.

Connecting Dots that Shouldn’t Be Connected

Another problem was that the military was unprepared to take on the large-scale interrogation mission it inherited after 9/11. We had trained hundreds of pilots and tank drivers, but we did not have a squadron of seasoned interrogators ready to spring into operation. So we largely contracted it out to commercial companies who provided us interrogators, often young people with minimal relevant experience.

I think you can see evidence of that in the case assessments that are available to the public on the Internet: faulty logic, weak analysis, and connecting up dots that should not be connected. Some useful information was developed, but a great deal of the huge volume of information was irrelevant and in many cases it was just wrong. Unfortunately, as a result, some people that should not have been imprisoned for any longer than it took to figure out that they were not the worst of the worst, or even close to it, are still at Guantánamo nine years later.

I remember the day in September 2006 when the high-value detainees reached Guantánamo. We were all very excited and anxious to get the prosecution process started. The military intelligence community at Guantánamo was excited, too. They had Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and the 13 other high-value detainees right there on their doorstep and they were anxious for a chance to interrogate them. Some seemed to think that they could get out of them information the CIA had been unable to extract. We objected and persuaded higher authorities to say the intelligence effort ended when the CIA handed the high-value detainees over to the Defense Department. We wanted a clean break between what happened to the high-value detainees in the past, while they were with the CIA, and our effort to prosecute them now that they were in Defense Department hands.

I was aware that some of the detainees were waterboarded. That happened before I was involved with the military commissions. It was part of a CIA program, not a military one.

Separating Intelligence from Law Enforcement

I know a lot of people think the military waterboarded detainees at Guantánamo — and to this day they probably think that it is still happening — but that was not the case and to my knowledge no one was ever waterboarded at Guantánamo. We had what I believe was complete access to information, particularly CIA information. I actually had a harder time getting information from my own colleagues in the Defense Department for some reason. And we were briefed on interrogation techniques that were used by the people who conducted the interrogations.

We had spent months assessing the information available on the high-value detainees and what parts of it we thought we could use in court. Because of the treatment they received in CIA custody and because of concern about exposing CIA personnel or the roles other countries had played, we wanted to separate the intelligence effort from the law enforcement effort to the extent we could.

In early 2007, we created so-called clean-teams made up of military and civilian law enforcement personnel that would try to interview each of the high-value detainees. It was an opportunity to explain to each detainee that he was in a new place, with new people, and under new rules. If the detainee wanted to talk, fine, but it was the detainee’s choice. The sessions I observed looked like a couple of people sitting around a table having a casual conversation. At times there were smiles and laughter.

There was nothing coercive that I saw in those sessions, but the question remains whether after you cross the line can you ever walk it back to the right side. Once you ring the torture bell can you ever un-ring it? We did not know then if the clean-team effort would produce anything useful or if judges would permit it in court, but we thought we had nothing to lose if we gave it a try. That was more than four years ago and we still do not know the answer.

“We Tortured Qahtani”

One case where torture clearly took place at Guantánamo is the case of Mohammed al-Qahtani, the man I believe was supposed to be the real 20th hijacker on 9/11. It was the dirtiest of the cases prior to the arrival of the high-value detainees and I was working on it personally. Once the personnel at Guantánamo realized the detainee they had in custody was the same person that had been turned away at the airport in Orlando, Florida while Mohammed Atta was waiting, they turned up the pressure to get information out of him.

Secretary Rumsfeld approved a harsh interrogation plan and over a period of weeks, Qahtani was separated from the other detainees, held in isolation in the brig, subjected to extreme temperatures, constant loud music, sleep deprivation, forced to stand nude in front of females, restrained in stress positions, threatened with rendition to a country where he would be tortured, threats to his family, and on and on. In an interview published in the Washington Post in January 2009 in the final days of the Bush administration, Ms. Crawford explained why she never sent the Qahtani case to trial. She said: “We tortured Qahtani. His treatment met the legal definition of torture.”

He is still at Guantánamo. The Obama administration has completely ignored its obligation under domestic and international law to investigate and prosecute allegations of torture. Apparently we are looking forward and pretending nothing bad happened in our past.

The final moment for me was in October 2007. My dispute with General Hartmann over torture and evidence and meddling with the process reached Deputy Secretary of Defense, Gordon England, and he issued an order that said my chain of command was Hartmann and then Jim Haynes. Hartmann did not believe we tortured — remember, President Bush said we didn’t — and Haynes had given legal approval for torture, the memo Secretary Rumsfeld signed. I read the order, saw who had command authority over me, and I resigned.

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.

18 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    On Facebook, George Kenneth Berger wrote:

    I’ll share and Digg it now.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Monique D’hooghe wrote:

    dugg and shared

  3. Donn Edwards says...

    The USA lost the war on terrorism the day it opened Guantanamo. I know all the gung-ho people who chant “U-S-A” don’t see it, but they are blinded by the propaganda they want to believe.

    The fact is that as long as Gitmo is open and Bradley Manning is in solitary, no civilised society can support or believe the justifications of the US war machine.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Donn. Succinct and very accurate.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Esther Angel wrote:

    I have to get onto this digging business, so far I only Like and tweet…

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Esther Angel wrote:

    Dugg! Woohoooooooo!!!

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Excellent. Welcome on board, Esther. Now it’s time for someone to suggest that there’s another social network we all need to join …

  8. Norwegian Shooter says...

    Col. Davis is an American hero.

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Well, I hope he sees that. I let him know about my cross-post a few hours ago, at exactly the same time that he was emailing me about the new website for the Crimes of War Project!

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    Back on Facebook, Willy Bach wrote:

    Good article, Andy, once more underlining the whole sham of Guantanamo. You would think the Obama regime would refute this — no, they just ignore the mounting evidence and the increasing number of people who understand why this is such a disgrace.

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    Very true, Willy. Sadly, the administration is good at ignoring everything that involves critics exerting pressure to close Guantanamo. WikiLeaks got a week to raise the plight of the remaining prisoners, but then bin laden’s death came along so conveniently, and now those of us with a sense of history, truth and responsibility are in another crazy world, once more fighting those who turn their own success — the death of their number one bogeyman — into yet another reason to be afraid, to advocate torture, and to praise Guantanamo. How do we win against these kind of people?

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    Willy Bach wrote:

    Andy, yes, I think the de-railing was a deliberate distraction by those who seek to renew their ugly mandate to torture (and have a swipe at Obama).

  13. Andy Worthington says...

    Sadly, yes, Willy, that sounds all too plausible.

  14. Barry Wingard says...

    Great article Andy, history will remember your noble undertaking as the authority on GTMO.

    Col. Davis is what America can be once again and a personal hero of mine.

  15. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Barry. Great comments on Morris Davis’s significance, and thanks also for your reflections on my role. I rarely think about any of this in a historical perspective, and when I do it’s usually to conclude, sadly, that far too many people don’t like to be told about the crimes being committed in their names while they’re actually happening!

  16. Andy Worthington says...

    Back on Facebook, Gabriele Müller wrote:

    Shared, thank you.

  17. Ali Khawaja says...

    Hi Andy –
    what you stand up for, those people that you defend who have no one else in the world, against all odds – you have my immeasurable gratitude.


  18. Andy Worthington says...

    Thank you, Ali. Your supportive words are very much appreciated.

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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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