Please Read “Dispelling the Myths of Guantánamo Bay,” Tom Wilner and Andy Worthington’s Chicago Tribune Op-Ed


Tom Wilner calling for the closure of Guantanamo outside the Supreme Court on January 11, 2012, the 10th anniversary of the prison's opening.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.

Yesterday, March 26, the Chicago Tribune ran an op-ed about Guantánamo by the co-founders of “Close Guantánamo,” Tom Wilner and Andy Worthington. Tom represented the Guantánamo prisoners in their Supreme Court cases in 2004 and 2008, and Andy is an independent journalist who has spent the last nine years working on Guantánamo.

The op-ed, “Dispelling the Myths of Guantánamo Bay,” is a response to recent inflammatory — and totally mistaken — comments made by Sen. Tom Cotton, the new Republican Senator for Arkansas. In a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on February 5, Sen. Cotton said, “In my opinion, the only problem with Guantánamo Bay is there are too many empty beds and cells there right now. We should be sending more terrorists there. As far as I’m concerned, every last one of them can rot in hell. But as long as they can’t do that, they can rot in Guantánamo Bay.”

As Tom Wilner and I point out in our op-ed, Sen. Cotton’s “assumption” about the  Guantánamo prisoners “is both false and dishonest.” Of the 122 men still held, 56 have been approved for release by high-level, inter-agency review processes, and only ten have been referred for prosecution.

We mention how the CIA sent its top Arabic specialist to Guantánamo in the summer of 2002, who “interviewed dozens of the detainees and discovered why we weren’t getting actionable intelligence: We had the wrong guys. He reported that most simply ‘didn’t belong there.'” His report, as we also note, “was buried.”

We also note how, in June 2004, a New York Times article reported, “In interviews, dozens of high-level military, intelligence and law enforcement officials in the United States, Europe and the Middle East said that, contrary to the repeated assertions of senior administration officials, none of the detainees at the United States Naval Base at Guantánamo Bay ranked as leaders or senior operatives of al-Qaida.”

16 alleged “high-value detainees” were subsequently sent to Guantánamo, from September 2006 to March 2008 (the last to arrive), but with just ten men facing, or having faced trials — and just six other having been subjected to trials (or having accepted plea deals) prior to their departure from the prison — it is clearly outrageous for Sen. Cotton to be making such disgraceful comments about Guantánamo and the men held there.

In our op-ed, Tom Wilner and I not only talk about the 56 men cleared for release (most for over five years); we also discuss the 56 others not cleared for release — currently undergoing the Periodic Review Board process that has, to date, approved eight men for release out of 12 cases considered. As we explain, the Guantánamo Review Task Force that President Obama established in 2009 concluded that the majority of these 56 were “too dangerous to transfer but not feasible for prosecution” (others were recommended for trials, until the trial system largely collapsed).

As we note, “The label creates the impression that the government knows for sure that these men are hardened criminals but can’t prosecute them because of some legal technicality,” whereas, in fact, “There is no credible evidence that they ever did wrong or intend to do harm in the future; what there is consists almost entirely of allegations by other detainees, many of whom have since recanted and are known to have made false allegations against others.”

False recidivism claims

Sen. Cotton — and those who think like him, both in Congress and in the US in general — are also affected by unsubstantiated claims about the recidivism of former prisoners that are issued twice a year by the Director of National Intelligence, and are, for the most part, uncritically reported in the mainstream media. After a visit to Guantánamo earlier this month (and a subsequent appearance on Fox News that you can find here), Sen. Cotton introduced, in Congress, the Guantánamo Bay Recidivism Prevention Act of 2015, which, as the Huffington Post described it, “would cut US funding to countries that receive former Guantánamo detainees who are later suspected of terrorism.”

According to the latest DNI report, issued earlier this month, 104 of the 614 men released from Guantánamo (16.9% of those released) were “confirmed” of “[r]eengaging,” with another 74 (12.1%) “suspected” of “[r]eengaging.” Lazy media outlets have spent years adding both figures together and publishing them in headlines (making 29% in this case) even though the “suspected” figures are profoundly unreliable, consisting of a single unverified source — and, to be honest, the “confirmed” figures are not necessarily any better.

No further information is provided by the DNI to assess whether or not the figures are reliable, and last June Peter Bergen and Bailey Cahall of New America, the think-tank in Washington D.C. that has regularly analyzed the figures, stated in an article for CNN that they had “identified 15 former Guantánamo detainees (2.5%) who are confirmed to have engaged in terrorist or insurgent activities against the United States or its citizens, while there are 21 individuals (3.5%) who are suspected of engaging in such activities.” The authors also “identified 18 former detainees (3%) who are confirmed or suspected of involvement in militant attacks against non-US targets,” and added, “Taking all three categories together, the New America list finds only a third as many Guantánamo prisoners have returned to the battlefield, compared to the US government estimate.”

In our op-ed, Tom Wilner and I did not take on the dubious recidivism claims, but it turns out that, like the supposed evidence against the Guantánamo prisoners (released by WikiLeaks in 2011, and partly analyzed by Andy here), they — and their impact on American perceptions of Guantánamo — are based far too much on what, in our op-ed, we describe as “false assumptions.”

As we also note, in the concluding lines of our op-ed, “The fight against terrorism requires us to make difficult decisions. If we want to get it right, we must make those decisions based on facts, not myths.”

We hope you agree, and will read the article and share it widely.

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer, film-maker and singer-songwriter. 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 the University of Chicago Press in the US, and available from Amazon, including a Kindle edition — 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.

17 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    After I posted the link to the op-ed on Facebook, and my friend Jan Strain shared it, I wrote:

    Thanks for sharing it, Jan. I was very pleased to work with Tom on it – and that the Chicago Tribune took it.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Jan Strain wrote:

    I’m happy a US paper published your work, Andy. You both deserve kudos for your efforts and gaining the attention of the Trib – not any small paper with circulation of 300-500K daily. Not a small number as papers go.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks again, Jan. Yes, it’s good to know that a wide readership in the Chicago area will be seeing this in the paper today.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Andy Moss wrote:

    After 13 years, the Chicago Tribune finally publishes a piece on Guantanamo (for years it rejected stories because there was no “local connection”).
    Great work Andy.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Andy. That’s very good to hear. No local connection, eh? So much for the “United States” in the “United States of America.”

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Andy Moss wrote:

    Seriously. Matt and I spoke to Tribune reporters years ago, who told us that the paper was only interested in GTMO if there was a “local connection.” That there have been at least 15 Guantanamo habeas lawyers in Chicago was not a “local connection” in the editors’ views.

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Outrageous, Andy. Of course, I am now connected, having visited Chicago twice!

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Diana Murtaugh Coleman wrote:

    Great work, Andy!

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Diana!

  10. arcticredriver says...

    Thanks again Andy!

    You wrote:

    We mention how the CIA sent its top Arabic specialist to Guantánamo in the summer of 2002, who “interviewed dozens of the detainees and discovered why we weren’t getting actionable intelligence: We had the wrong guys. He reported that most simply ‘didn’t belong there.’” His report, as we also note, “was buried.”

    Omar Khadr’s older brother, Abdurahman, agreed to be a CIA informant. After a year or so helping his handlers in Afghanistan he agreed to serve as a mole, in Guantanamo. He was to have been moved to cells near captives intelligence officials believed weren’t being candid, engender their trust, and then report back.

    He reached the same conclusions as the top Arabic specialist you mention — that all the people his handlers suspected had been telling the truth, that there was no cause for suspicion, that they didn’t belong in Guantanamo.

    Members of a European commission came to Canada to interview him, about his experience of being flown around on ghost planes.

    Maybe when Omar is finally free his brothers will feel free to speak about their experiences, without worrying what they said could be misinterpreted, and used to justify further detention.

    My copy of Mohammedou Slahi’s book arrived recently. If Harper loses his mandate next election maybe the new government will consider offering Slahi a home in Canada again. He did live in Canada for a year or so in 2000.

    Thanks again

  11. arcticredriver says...

    Andy, with regard to Chicago’s connection to Guantanamo — could the new connection be former Chicago Police Department officer Richard Z.? He was Slahi’s main Guantanamo interrogator. Coverage of his torture of Slahi, in both Slahi’s book and the unclassified version of the Senate Intelligence Committee report, helped trigger more focus on his use of torture while he was Police officer.

    Some Chicago reporting described the CPD operating a “black site” — a detention facility where some suspects were taken, without being booked into the roster of CPD detained captives, and were interrogated without benefit of legal counsel. Some suspects were reported to have been subjected to questionable interrogation techniques there — or to have been subjected to clearly illegal interrogation techniques.

    Personally, while the techniques reported to have been used at this site would have been criminal acts, I think it was a mistake for the Chicago reporting to describe them as comparable to the CIA black sites. It sounds like the Chicago suspects were only held, off the books, for a couple of days. The Chicago suspects were reported to have been at risk of beatings, death threats, and a couple of days of sleep deprivation. That is bad, probably meets most reasonable people’s definition of torture, but it is not equivalent to water-boarding, or months of detention in total darkness and ear-splitting, deafness-inducing 24×7 noise.

    After Z returned from Guantanamo he held two more senior roles in the CPD. He led a counter-terrorism unit for the CPD, and he became a counter-terrorism instructor at the CPD’s Police Academy. After his retirement he became a counter-terrorism director for another Chicago agency.

    There is a Prosecutor in Chicago who was re-examining all the complaints filed against him during his three plus decades as a Police officer.

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, arcticredriver. It’s always interesting when Abdurahman is mentioned, as so many people don’t know that he was recruited as an informant, to work within Guantanamo and then elsewhere, until he gave it up. I must admit I hadn’t heard before that he had specifically reached the same conclusions as the CIA’s Arabic expert – or that he had been interviewed by European parliamentarians. I wish I had the time for some online searching …

  13. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks for the discussion of the Chicago “black site,” arcticredriver. I agree that it doesn’t actually sound comparable to a CIA “black site.” To me it sounds like the kind of interrogation one could expect at a forward operating base in Afghanistan, which is morally, legally and ethically dubious, of course, but all the more so, frankly, when located in a civilian environment where the requirements of law enforcement dictate that interrogations cannot, under any circumstances, involve torture or other forms of abuse.

  14. arcticredriver says...

    Abdurahman’s story is an interesting, complicated one. PBS Frontline bought or licensed the CBC documentary, “Son of al Qaeda”. They made it available on their site. I am pretty sure he explicitly says he told his handlers that none of the guys he was situated next to belonged in Guantanamo.

    When I saw it, way back in 2004, I was struck by how differently he was being treated than someone who informed on organized crime figures. If he had informed on the Mafia, not al Qaeda, he would have been put in a witness protection program.

    Sadly, we know he told at least one big fib. He confirmed or initiated the notion that the eldest brother, Abdullah, had been the director of an al Qaeda training camp. The notion that Abdullah had directed a training camp was not a credible notion. First, one would think all directors of training camps would be veterans; second, Abdullah would have been just a kid, still a teenager; third, no evidence has been made public that anyone in the family was a member of al Qaeda.

    Abdullah and Abdurahman attended the Khaldan training camp — which was not an al Qaeda camp. But they attended it when they were eleven or twelve years old. There is a French guy who wrote a book on his experiences in Afghanistan, who attended Khaldan at the same time as the brothers. He wrote that they were so hot-headed, and had such sibling rivalry, that one day, they came close to turning their AK-47s on one another, when they were on the firing range — which could have been very dangerous for the instructors and other trainees. I think this story, if true, would strongly erode any notion either of the siblings had the discipline to be a camp director.

    I introduced myself to Abdurahman outside the courtroom where Abdullah was having one of his first extradition hearings, in December 2005. I briefly met him and Nazim Baksh, the CBC journalist, following a screening of “Son of al Qaeda”, circa 2008, and again, after the premier of “You don’t want the truth”, in 2010. At some point he has had fourth of his top front teeth broken off. I didn’t want to ask, but I suspect retaliation for agreeing to serve as a CIA mole.

    I think I mentioned my speculation that the CIA intended his last CIA assignment, to penetrate the “Bosnian Mujahideen” was intended to be a suicide mission. His inability to stick to his cover story during the fifteen minute press conference, when he arrived back in Canada makes me think the CIA knew he would not be able to maintain his cover story if he met any genuine jihadis in Bosnia. I suspect they planned for the Bosnian Mujahideen to kill him, and this act would help them flush out the genuine jihadi sleeper cells.

    Personally, I doubt al Qaeda ever tried to use long-term sleeper cells, and that there was no network of al Qaeda sleeper agents in Bosnia. I think Osama bin Laden knew that his converts needed constant re-inforcement of al Qaeda’s principles, and that it would be far too easy for sleeper agents trying to live a cover story of normalcy to slip into genuine normalcy.

    If they could get their imagined Bosnian mujahideen to kill him it would save them paying out the payment they told him they were accumulating for him in his secret CIA account; it would free them of the danger he might become a whistleblower.

    Personally, I think it would have made sense for the Government of Canada to find a scholarship fund to fund the education of all the Khadr siblings, to the post-secondary degree or certificate level. I think it would have been a lot cheaper than covert surveillance, and more likely to help prevent them being radicalized, and become a risk, if they had an education that enabled them to get a good job.

  15. Andy Worthington says...

    Good to hear from you, arcticredriver. Apologies for the delay in replying. I’m away with my family on an Easter break.
    Perhaps when Omar is finally a free man we’ll get some sort of definitive history of the Khadr family. I certainly agree with you that it would have made more sense, from the point of view of security, for the Canadian government not to have been so set on demonising everyone in the family – and that applies to Omar’s current situation too, which can be doing Harper and his colleagues no favours when it comes to Canada’s national security. Mostly, though, his treatment is morally and ethically repugnant.
    I continue to be interested in Abdurahman’s story. I don’t think I ever saw the documentary, although I recall doing significant research into his story while writing The Guantanamo Files. And also, of course, his file was conveniently missing from those secured by Bradley Manning and released to WikiLeaks, as I wrote about back in 2011:
    For those interested in Abdurahman’s story, here are transcripts from the documentary Son of Al-Qaeda:

  16. arcticredriver says...

    With regard to Abdurahman’s file not being available to Bradley Manning — I read a memo that stated that Abdurahman, and two other captives, were not going to be made available to the ICRC. There was a vague excuse offered. Sorry, I can’t remember the date, the excuse, or the IDs of the other two men.

    But given that he was a CIA mole — a volunteer not a genuine captive — and intelligence officials had reason to doubt whether he could be trusted to not reveal the mole program to the ICRC, I think we have to wonder whether the other two men may also have been CIA moles, or men being groomed to be double agents following their release.

  17. Andy Worthington says...

    Hi arcticredriver,
    Interesting. I have no recollection of that particular memo, but I can think of three other prisoners prevented from meeting ICRC representatives or otherwise treated exceptionally: Mohammed al-Qahtani, the alleged 20th hijacker, for whom Donald Rumsfeld approved a specific torture program; Mohamedou Ould Slahi, the author of the acclaimed and recently published “Guantanamo Diary,” who was hidden while he was also subjected to a specific torture program; and Abdallah Tabarak, a Moroccan – and an alleged bodyguard of Osama bin Laden – who was secretly released in 2003, although it was publicly stated that he was released a year later. I recall conflicting rumours about him – either that the Moroccans claimed they would be able to extract information from him that the Americans had been unable to access, or that he had been “turned.”
    I have no idea about the accuracy of either claim, although it’s interesting that you mention men groomed to be double agents following the AP story in November 2013 about the secret camp in Guantanamo where exactly that was taking place, and which I wrote about here:
    We never heard any more about that particular story – and of course it could be very dangerous for any double agent to be identified – but it would be a reasonable bet that there must have been some men freed who had been “turned.”

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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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