My Article for PolicyMic: Engineered Outrage About the Bowe Bergdahl/Taliban Prisoner Swap Ignores the Men Still Held at Guantánamo


Dear friends and supporters,

If you have a few minutes to spare, I hope you’ll read “What We Should Really Be Talking About With the Bowe Bergdahl Controversy,” my first article for PolicyMic, looking at how the largely cynical attacks on President Obama for his prisoner swap at the weekend (in which five Taliban prisoners at Guantánamo were released in Qatar in exchange for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the sole US prisoner of war in Afghanistan) is obscuring the plight of the men still held at Guantánamo — and, specifically, the 78 men (out of 149 in total) who have been cleared for release.

All but three of these men were cleared for release in January 2010 by the high-level, inter-agency Guantánamo Review Task Force that President Obama established shortly after taking office in 2009. The three others were cleared for release in recent months by Periodic Review Boards, and yet all are still held, because, in Guantánamo’s disgusting, topsy-turvy world, in which the administration, Congress and the judiciary have all, in various ways, failed the prisoners, it is, in many ways, easier to be released from Guantánamo if you are regarded as somehow “significant,” than if you are palpably insignificant and cleared for release.

Responsible media, pundits and lawmakers should be pushing for all the cleared prisoners to be freed as soon as possible, and yet, disgracefully, what we have instead is an all-out assault on President Obama and his administration, which smacks of opportunism and prevents the focus of attention from being on the cleared prisoners in Guantánamo, who, yet again, will find it difficult not to conclude that they have been abandoned, and that their lives are insignificant to the US government and the American people.

I hope you have the time to read my article, and that you will like it, share it and retweet it if you find it useful.

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer and film-maker. He is the co-founder of the “Close Guantánamo” campaign, and 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. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here — or here for the US).

To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to Andy’s RSS feed — and he can also be found on Facebook (and here), Twitter, Flickr and YouTube. Also see the six-part definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, and “The Complete Guantánamo Files,” an ongoing, 70-part, million-word series drawing on files released by WikiLeaks in April 2011. Also see the definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all Andy’s articles.

Please also consider joining the “Close Guantánamo” campaign, and, if you appreciate Andy’s work, feel free to make a donation.

25 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    On Facebook, Amy Phillips wrote:

    Thank you for posting this. I am glad you took the time to write this and didn’t just throw any old statement out there like the mainstream.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Amy. Your support is very much appreciated – as is your understanding of the often disgraceful mainstream media reporting of the story.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Amy Phillips wrote:

    Thank you, yes, I’m reading it now and will share it soon. I hope it gets the attention it deserves.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Amy Phillips wrote:

    Wait, Andy it’s still not clear to me – you’re reporting that 3 of 5 were cleared for release, is this correct?

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Amy Phillips wrote:

    I mean sorry – let me be clear with my question: of the 5 swapped how many of them were officially cleared for release? I’m scanning your article but not finding specifics about their status.

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    No. Sorry if all the stats are confusing, Amy. As I mention in the 2nd paragraph, “The five released men were recommended for continued detention in January 2010 by the high-level, inter-agency Guantánamo Review Task Force.”
    The three men you were referring to are other men, recently cleared for release by Periodic Review Boards. They join 75 others cleared for release by the task force in January 2010 who are still held – a total of 78 men who, as I point out, will not be impressed that no one is pushing for their release because they’re not politically significant enough.
    Hope that makes sense!

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Amy Phillips wrote:

    Ok – no it made sense the first time but I wanted to be clear. So this has made everything worse…how completely just botched.

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    I don’t think it was handled particularly well by the Obama administration, Amy, but the media’s response has been rather shocking – the disdain for Bowe Bergdahl is a full-on presumption of guilt without any kind of due process, and the whinging about the release of Taliban prisoners very fundamentally ignores the reality of needing to negotiate with them prior to the troop drawdown in December.
    I’m hoping this all blows over, and doesn’t have a lasting impact on the prospects of the cleared prisoners in Guantanamo being released, as they have suffered for far too long.

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Malcolm Bush wrote:

    I have had a read though Cage today and found the Andy Worthington article, regarding the Prisoner Swap story. Thank you Andy Worthington and Cage for all the information you convey. The public really need access to such specialized reports, articles and so on.

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Malcolm. Interesting to hear that Cage are still following my work and cross-posting it. I didn’t know that.

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    Toia Tutta Jung wrote:

    I still don´t get why Bergdahl is so “significant”.

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    He was the only American PoW in Afghanistan, Toia, so perhaps that’s why. It’s certainly in marked contrast to the worthlessness of foreign lives as far as the US is concerned.

  13. Andy Worthington says...

    Malcolm Bush wrote:

    Thanks for the reply; I think You, Cage and a small few more are of great and ever growing importance. I am not entirely sure about this but there was some on the news tonight about a totally secret justice package for the UK, no news at all regarding some cases. This would mean the end of democracy in the UK.

  14. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Malcolm. I think it’s this story:
    Very worrying indeed – although I’m also still severely shocked by the media blackout that was imposed on Moazzam Begg’s bail application. It’s bad enough that it was turned down when Moazzam has had his passport taken away and clearly can’t leave the country, but the secrecy, it sees to me, is completely unjustifiable.

  15. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks to everyone liking and sharing the PolicyMic article. It’s just hit 100 shares, which is good.

  16. Andy Worthington says...

    Willy Bach wrote:

    It may transpire that Bowe Bergdahl had become disenchanted from the Afghan war mission. He may be reaching out for the peace movement:

    “Last e-mail to parents
    On June 27, 2009, Bergdahl sent a final e-mai­l to his parents:

    The future is too good to waste on lies. And life is way too short to care for the damnation of others, as well as to spend it helping fools with their ideas that are wrong. I have seen their ideas and I am ashamed to even be american.[sic] The horror of the self-righteous arrogance that they thrive in. It is all revolting.
    His e-mail went on to describe his disillusionment in the U.S. Army:

    In the US army you are cut down for being honest… but if you are a conceited brown nosing shit bag you will be allowed to do what ever you want, and you will be handed your higher rank… The system is wrong. I am ashamed to be an american. And the title of US soldier is just the lie of fools…I am sorry for everything here. These people need help, yet what they get is the most conceited country in the world telling them that they are nothing and that they are stupid, that they have no idea how to live. We don’t even care when we hear each other talk about running their children down in the dirt streets with our armored trucks… We make fun of them in front of their faces, and laugh at them for not understanding we are insulting them…I am sorry for everything. The horror that is america is disgusting…There are a few more boxes coming to you guys. Feel free to open them, and use them.”

  17. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, Willy, his profound – and articulate – disenchantment with the Afghan occupation was clear from the late Michael Hastings’ revelatory article about him for Rolling Stone in 2012, where the letter you quoted was first presented:
    It will be interesting to see if he is advised to stay quiet, or to speak out. If the former, then I understand, but if the latter then I would expect his criticism to be very powerful.

  18. Andy Worthington says...

    The PolicyMic article has 163 shares right now. Thanks, everyone.

  19. the talking dog says...

    My own take on the Bergdahl swap is here: Say what you will, but Obama seems hellbent on keeping up the pretense that everyone held at GTMO is a terrrrrorist (such as this piece in which he “acknowledges” the possibility that the five men just released might pose a security threat to the United States. My own view, of course, is that these men may indeed be dangerous– but it’s not as if they’ve been charged, tried and found guilty– that sort of thing being so “pre-9-11 thinking” and all. And so the pretense goes on, even as Obama’s own government cleared half the prisoners there for release, and implicitly cleared 45 or so others by acknowledging they can’t be tried for war crimes (although those men, at least, remain “too dangerous to try and too Muslim to release.”)

    So– Obama’s actions have allowed the usual harpies to shriek endlessly about how everyone at Guantanamo is a hardened terrorist– the actual facts be damned– and all the Obama Administration has done is largely to validate and to reinforce such nonsensical ravings, and arguably make it that much harder to release anyone else.

  20. Andy Worthington says...

    Hi TD,
    Great to hear from you, as ever. Thanks for the link to your article, which is excellent.
    Regarding Obama’s statements, however, I think he dealt in a mature, grown-up manner with the question of recidivism – the possibility that it might happen – although “mature” and “grown-up” are not adjectives I’d use to describe the many shrill opportunists who are now questioning his authority. I do, however, think that overall, and as usual, the administration has failed to manage the Guantanamo narrative effectively, although given the position taken by Obama’s many opponents, maybe that simply wasn’t possible. As I see it, he ought to have been allowed to save a US soldier’s life, without having to prove whether the man in question was worth it or not, and he ought to have been allowed to release men as part of the winding-down of operations in Afghanistan, without being told that he’s a criminal who deserves to be impeached for bypassing Congress, even though he has the right to do so.
    What really upsets me, though, is how this may impact on the cleared prisoners, who need the president to stand up for his right — no, his duty – to release them.

  21. Anna says...

    What I find shocking is neither the release of Bowe Bergdahl nor that of the five Afghans, but the fact that -when political expediency is in play- the president uses his executive power to release five persons who were not cleared for release and who -according to his own words- might be a security risk for the US, while blocking the release of those who already have been cleared for release as they are deemed NOT to pose any security risk. How does that man manage to look himself in the eyes in the mirror, when he brushes his teeth before going to sleep?
    The umptiest proof -if any were still needed- that releasing prisoners has nothing to do with justice, the rule of law or even plain common sense, and everything with political games, in which each and every prisoner is a pawn that can be (mis)used at will.
    After all, he could at least have added the cleared Afghans to the swap.

    As for Bergdahl, I feel sorry for him. He evidently had seen through the lies of the US/NATO war machine in Afghanistan and followed his conscience, albeit in a rather foolish manner, which I suppose also is additional testimony of how little the US military understand about the countries they are sent to occupy.
    I would expect that if indeed he deserted the army, he will be offered a plea deal: no comments about the US war crimes committed there (but OK for any horror stories from ‘taliban captivity’, although I bet he was overall treated better than the average US ‘prisoner of war’), or you’ll get the full measure of our wrath. That is, provided he will ever get a chance to talk publicly at all. At any rate, he also is a mere pawn.

  22. Andy Worthington says...

    Well, yes, Anna, it’s not good, is it? I do understand the desire to get a US soldier back, and the need to engage with the enemy prior to winding down the long occupation, but I too am appalled that Obama has done so little to release the men cleared for release – and not including the four cleared Afghans in the deal just seems to be rubbing salt in the wound. Very disappointing.

  23. arcticredriver says...

    Thanks Andy!

    This is an important story, for many reasons.

    I wasn’t aware of this, but Sergeant Bergdahl’s dad grew his beard and hair, and learned Pashto, so his son’s captors would identify more easily with him. That’s admirable devotion.

    One Republican Congressman called a tweet Bergdahl sent out, which contained a wish that all the Guantanamo captives would be released soon — was a smoking gun.

    Some cooler heads are arguing Bergdahl shouldn’t be treated as a traitor, or a deserter, without an inquiry.

    I don’t know if it is true, but veterans of Vietnam are typically portrayed as being plagued by mental issues way more often than veterans of earlier wars. If it is true I have a theory. Soldiers in WW2 thought, at the time, and afterwards too, that they were fighting for a good cause. They also were very unlikely to be involved in atrocities against civilians. And civilians, back home, honored them, and didn’t call them baby-killers. Well Vietnam wasn’t a “good war”, and lots of GIs were involved in war crimes, or knew about war crimes. In Vietnam there were practically no battles, so the Pentagon kept track by posting regular “body counts”, and those body counts routinely converted every innocent civilian casualty into a Viet Cong. Good men, or boys, since many soldiers in Vietnam were only 18, can get carried along by the group mentality, and commit war crimes, and then suffer great guilt afterwards.

    Just like in VIetnam, the DoD won’t acknowledge causing civilian casualties. Like Vietnam GIs commit atrocities upon the civilians they are nominally there to help. If Bergdahl did go AWOL, due to a crisis of conscience, he will be in good company. No one is spitting on veterans of Afghanistan, but I am afraid there has been an even more alarming incidence of the casual killing of civilians in Afghanistan, for sport, or due to a reckelss disregard for civilian lives, or due to the irresponsible moral cowardice of US intelligence analysts. Even though no one is spitting on veterans of Afghanistan I am afraid that lots of them will suffer deep psychological repercussions as they surface from the group think that enabled those atrocities. If Bergdahl did experience these feelings, in Afghanistan, he just experienced them earlier.

  24. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks for your thoughts, arcticredriver. Yes, Bob Bergdahl has demonstrated, in a profound manner, his love for his son, and I think it’s also clear that he has drawn parallels with the men at Guantanamo that the warmongers don’t want to hear, even though it’s very accurate to do so.
    I also appreciate your comments about Vietnam – and I think in many ways we’re looking at a similar scenario now, as regards the damage done to soldiers by what they have had to do since 9/11, even though it still isn’t widely acknowledged. I hope Bowe Bergdahl gets to be part of a movement that, as the Afghan occupation winds down, produces compelling testimony that war doesn’t work.

  25. Andy Worthington says...

    In November 2017, Bergdahl was given a dishonourable discharge but no prison sentence at the end of a trial. As Peter Bergen wrote for CNN, “The prosecution in the case asked the judge, Army Col. Jeffery R. Nance, for 14 years of imprisonment. Nance opted for no prison time and a dishonorable discharge for Bergdahl.”
    I recommend his article, which also explains how prejudicial comments by Donald Trump played a role in the judge’s ruling. See:

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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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