Why Guantánamo Mustn’t Be Forgotten in the Fallout from the CIA Torture Report


Anti-torture protestors outside the White House in May 2009, after President Obama's first 100 days in office.I wrote the following article for the “Close Guantánamo” website, which I established in January 2012 with US attorney Tom Wilner. Please join us — just an email address is required to be counted amongst those opposed to the ongoing existence of Guantánamo, and to receive updates of our activities by email.

It’s a week now since the 500-page executive summary of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s 6,700-page report into the post-9/11 CIA torture program was published, and here at “Close Guantánamo,” we are concerned that (a) the necessary calls for accountability will fall silent as the days and weeks pass; and (b) that people will not be aware that the use of torture was not confined solely to the CIA’s “black sites,” and the specific program investigated by the Senate Committee, and that it was a key element of the Bush administration’s post-9/11 detention program — in Afghanistan, in Iraq, and in Guantánamo, where elements of the current operations can still be defined as torture.

The Senate Committee report contains new information, of course — much of it genuinely harrowing — but journalists and researchers uncovered much of the program over the last ten years, and that body of work — some of which I referred to in my article about the torture report for Al-Jazeera last week — will continue to be of great relevance as the executive summary is analyzed, and, hopefully, as the full report is eventually made public.

Mainly, though, as I mentioned in the introduction to this article, it is crucial that the news cycle is not allowed to move on without an insistence that there be accountability. The Senate report chronicles crimes, authorized at the highest levels of the Bush administration, implemented by the CIA and two outside contractors, James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, who had worked for a military program designed to train soldiers how to resist torture if captured, but who had no real-life experience of interrogations, or any knowledge of Al-Qaeda or the individuals involved (see Vice News’ extraordinary interview with Mitchell here).

The use of torture is never allowed, as Article 2.2 of the UN Convention Against Torture, signed by Ronald Reagan in 1988 and ratified by the US in 1994, makes clear. That article states, “No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.”

The Convention also makes it clear that torturers must be prosecuted. Following the publication of the executive summary, Ben Emmerson, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, called for prosecutions.

In a statement, he wrote, “The individuals responsible for the criminal conspiracy revealed in today’s report must be brought to justice, and must face criminal penalties commensurate with the gravity of their crimes. The fact that the policies revealed in this report were authorised at a high level within the US Government provides no excuse whatsoever. Indeed, it reinforces the need for criminal accountability. International law prohibits the granting of immunities to public officials who have engaged in acts of torture. This applies not only to the actual perpetrators but also to those senior officials within the US Government who devised, planned and authorised these crimes.”

Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, has also called for prosecutions in a column for the Washington Post.

Torture at Guantánamo

As I also mentioned in the introduction to this article, we at “Close Guantánamo” are also concerned that people may fail to realize how torture was a key element in US detention policy, post-9/11, in Afghanistan, in Iraq and at Guantánamo. Torture and abuse sadly replaced the Geneva Conventions after 9/11, in Kandahar and Bagram in Afghanistan, at Abu Ghraib and numerous other facilities in Iraq, leading to the deaths of over 100 prisoners, and at Guantánamo torture and abuse have also been rife throughout the prison’s nearly 13-year history.

Most notoriously, Donald Rumsfeld, not to be outdone by the CIA program, implemented a torture program for one particular prisoner, Mohammed al-Qahtani, regarded as the intended 20th hijacker for the 9/11 attacks, whose use migrated — being applied, between 2002 and 2004, to over 100 prisoners in total, who were subjected to an array of techniques including prolonged isolation, the use of loud music and white noise, the use of extreme heat and cold, forced nudity, exploitation of phobias, painful shackling, and what was euphemistically called the “frequent flier program,” whereby prisoners were moved from cell to cell every few hours, to prevent sleep, for days, weeks or even, in some cases, months.

This torture program largely came to an end after the Supreme Court granted the prisoners habeas corpus rights at the end of June 2004, allowing lawyers to pierce the veil of secrecy that had enabled torture and abuse to proceed, almost unchecked, for over two years.

However, the punishment and isolation of prisoners regarded as significant and troublesome throughout the prison’s history, up to and including the present day, is a largely unwritten story that will, hopefully, be exposed one day, as it will, I believe, expose how the treatment of these men — who include Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in the prison — has involved torture and unacceptable abuse.

Better known about is the abuse of hunger strikers, who are force-fed despite medical experts’ condemnation of force-feeding as an unacceptable course of action to pursue with mentally competent prisoners — see my article here about a letter written by 150 doctors condemning force-feeding during last year’s prison-wide hunger strike at Guantánamo.

In addition, in June this year, speaking about Israel’s plans to authorize the force-feeding of hunger-striking Palestinian prisoners — in passages that could have been equally applied to hunger strikers at Guantánamo — Juan Méndez, the UN Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, stated, “It is not acceptable to force-feed or use threats of force-feeding or other physical or psychological coercion against individuals who have opted for the extreme recourse of a hunger strike to protest against their detention without charge and conditions of detention and treatment. The desire of the inmates not to eat must be respected for as long as it is clear that they are making that choice voluntarily. Even if it is intended for the benefit of the detainees, feeding induced by threats, coercion, force or use of physical restraints are tantamount to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.”

Another aspect of torture that is of particular relevance to the torture report is that 13 “high-value detainees,” including notorious torture victims Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, who were flown to Guantánamo from CIA “black sites” in September 2006, are not only still held, but have been gagged since their arrival, in an effort to prevent the outside world from hearing about their torture, and to prevent anyone from being held accountable for it (a 14th man, it should be noted, is the only one to have been transferred to the US mainland, where he was tried and successfully convicted in federal court, in what should have been a model for all future prosecutions).

Apart from the partly censored transcripts of their Combatant Status Review Tribunals in early 2007 — legally required for them to be assessed as “enemy combatants” and thereby made eligible for military commission trials — their every exchange with their lawyers has remained classified. All exchanges between lawyers and prisoners are initially treated as presumptively classified, but in the cases of all the other prisoners, notes can be submitted to a Pentagon censorship board, which, with a semblance of fairness, decides what information can be unclassified and what should remain classified. In many of these other cases, much information has been unclassified — often casting the authorities in a poor light — but in the cases of the HVDs every word uttered remains classified.

In light of the torture report, questions must be asked about the dangerous and unacceptable cocoon of secrecy that still surrounds these men, just as it should also be noted that dozens more prisoners held at Guantánamo over the years — many of whom are still held — were also subjected to the CIA torture program in various “black sites,” as well as, in some cases, in the outsourced foreign torture prisons — in Jordan, for example — in which the Senate report was not particularly interested.

For there to be an adequate follow-up to the torture report, the cases of all these men should be examined. This is in addition to a proper investigation of the stories of all the other prisoners whose torture and abuse took place solely in Bagram or other non-CIA prisons in Afghanistan, and in Guantánamo.

In conclusion, I’d like to remind readers that Guantánamo’s final torture story concerns the very nature of detention at the prison — for the most part, arbitrary, open-ended imprisonment without charge or trial. In establishing Guantánamo, the Bush administration did away with the requirement that you can only be deprived of your liberty if you are charged with a crime and given a federal court trial, or if you are a soldier, kept off the battlefield until the duration of hostilities, and treated humanely and in accordance with the Geneva Conventions.

This “war on terror,” as we have learned, still may have no end, and trials, of course, have been forthcoming in very few cases. In fact, the authorities have openly stated that they are happy to imprison more people without charge or trial — because they regard them as dangerous but don’t have the evidence to prove it — than they are to put men on trial, even in the military commission system that fails to meet internationally recognized standards of fairness and justice.

As well as being profoundly unjust, this system of indefinite detention without charge or trial can be severely damaging to the prisoners’ mental health, as they have no idea when, if ever, they will be released — and, as we must realize, there is no automatic mechanism that will lead to their release, and they are, in a very real sense, all political prisoners, to be freed only as the result of political maneuvering, and by no other means.

And the final horror? Well, the final horror is that, in October 2003 — over eleven years ago, when Guantánamo had been open for less than two years — a man called Christophe Girod, a senior representative of the International Committee of the Red Cross, told the New York Times, “One cannot keep these detainees in this pattern, this situation, indefinitely.” He added, ”The open-endedness of the situation and its impact on the mental health of the population has become a major problem.”

I have returned to these comments time and again over the years, and for one simple reason: if arbitrary, open-ended detention was causing such mental health issues over eleven years ago, how almost unthinkably bad must it be now for so many men still held in Guantánamo, a prison that should never have been opened, and that, in light of the Senate torture report, needs closing as soon as possible.

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer and film-maker. He is the co-founder of the “Close Guantánamo” campaign, the director of “We Stand With Shaker,” calling for the immediate release from Guantánamo of Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in the prison, 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, the full military commissions 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.

9 Responses

  1. Anna says...

    Today is also Chelsea Manning’s 27th birthday. Her input into the discussion about ‘war on terror’ abuse and torture in Iraq and Afghanistan was and still is a vital element and she deserves as much as ever our gratitude and admiration.
    Wishing her if not a truly ‘happy’ then at least a peaceful birthday with lots of warm messages from all over the world, so she knows she is not being forgotten.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Anna. Yes, there were events in London today. I caught the tail end of one at St. Martin’s in the Fields Church, by Trafalgar Square.
    There was a great article in the Guardian, featuring cards and messages from supporters, including the talented Molly Crabapple: http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2014/dec/16/-sp-dear-chelsea-manning-birthday-messages-from-edward-snowden-terry-gilliam-and-more

  3. Rick Brohmer says...

    Andy, there will come a day when these sick son of bitches will turn on you and when they do I will find your grave and piss on it. Until that day!


  4. arcticredriver says...

    Thanks Andy! I can’t agree more on the need for more open-ness, in revealing details of the USA’s use of torture, and in complying with the Geneva Conventions requirement to prosecute Americans we have reason to believe committed war crimes, in the same courts, under the same standards, as the USA has tried to prosecute foreigners accused of war crimes.

    You probably noticed this — it is reported that the CIA paid each of the two psychologists who “designed” the program tens of millions of dollars.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Good to hear from you, arcticredriver. Yes, $81 million for a program that was horribly brutal – and didn’t even work according to its own warped logic. Despicable. And still all the torturers walk free. It really is time this sick situation was brought to an end – with prosecutions.

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Diana Murtaugh Coleman wrote:

    Thanks, Andy, for uncompromising focus and energy.

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Diana. Your supportive words are greatly appreciated!

  8. arcticredriver says...

    I think it was interesting to see John Yoo interviewed for his reaction to the Torture Report.

    I saw him on several panels of “experts”. I don’t think any of the interviewers explicitly told their viewers that he was the author of the infamous Torture Memos — a real failure of journalistic integrity on their part. And, if I recall correctly, none of his fellow panelists chewed him a new one, or even mentioned his complicity.

    Yoo repeatedly stated that, in his opinion, the report indicated that CIA torturers had gone farther than the Bush cabinet had authorized, that several of the torture techniques were not on the list of approved techniques.

    So, John Yoo, not only a moral coward, but a cowardly inconsistent one. Surely his role should be enough for his University to strip him of his academic tenure, at a bare minimum?

    The techniques that Yoo claimed showed the CIA torturers had gone “too far”, like “rectal feeding”, I think he is wrong to imply they were more brutal than the techniques he recommended allowing in his memos. I think his narrow and self-serving criticism of the CIA torturers is based on his imagination not coming up with those techniques himself, back in 2002. I think he was clearly prepared to recommend any conceivable technique, in 2002. He did, after all, clear gouging out a victim’s intact healthy eye, without anaesthetic, purely to instill pain and fear. As painful and inherently crippling as rectal feeding may have been I am sure having your eye ripped out could be a lot worse.

    Andy, I hope you don’t mind me trying to make a point I have tried to make on other threads — because it is one that I think can’t be repeated enough.

    Yoo’s memos said for a technique to be considered torture it had to inflict pain equivalent to death or organ failure. Every captive who passed through Bagram spent at least his first few days, hooded, shackled, with his wrists suspended from the ceiling. They all had every passing GI rain down a painful beating on them. At least two men died from the administration of this technique.

    I think since men died from this technique it is a technique that passes even John Yoo’s narrow criteria to be considered torture. How many captives passed through Bagram? Thousands, all torture victims.

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, arcticredriver. I like your point about the torture in Bagram – for which those responsible were largely rewarded, lest we forget – and I think you’re right. Unfortunately, Yoo still has his job, and, as you note, in TV appearances, no one even calls for him to be held accountable for his actions.
    I can only hope that the calls for accountability continue, and everything is not conveniently brushed under the carpet again.

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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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