The Bleak Legacy of Donald Rumsfeld: Guantánamo, Torture and Two Failed and Astonishingly Destructive Wars


Former US defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who has died at the age of 88, and a grimly iconic photo of prisoner abuse in Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

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If there was any justice in this world, Donald Rumsfeld, the former US defense secretary from 2001 to 2006 under George W. Bush, who has died at the age of 88, would have been held accountable for his crimes against humanity at Guantánamo, in Afghanistan and in Iraq; instead, he apparently passed away peacefully surrounded by his family in Taos, New Mexico.

In response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Rumsfeld directed the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001, when the Geneva Conventions regarding the treatment of prisoners in wartime were shamefully jettisoned, and he was also responsible for the establishment of the prison at Guantánamo Bay, which opened on January 11, 2002.

At Kandahar and Bagram — and at numerous other prisons across Afghanistan — all those who came into US custody were regarded as “enemy combatants,” who could be held without any rights whatsoever. The torture and abuse of prisoners was widespread, and numerous prisoners were killed in US custody, as I reported in When Torture Kills: Ten Murders In US Prisons In Afghanistan, an article I published 12 years ago today.

In addition, the military under Rumsfeld were told not to hold competent tribunals under Article 5 of the Geneva Conventions, which were designed to assess, close to the time and place of capture, whether those detained had been civilians caught by mistake. Competent tribunals had been held in previous US wars, and in the First Iraq War of 1991, to provide just one example, the military held 1,196 of these tribunals, and in 886 cases (74%) concluded that the men in question had been seized by mistake, and sent them home.

In Afghanistan, however, an interrogator at the time noted that every Arab who came into US custody had to be sent to Guantánamo, and that most Afghan prisoners were also sent to Guantánamo too, until the interrogators worked out a way to keep men who were evidently innocent and seized by mistake off the record books so that they could be freed. The result, as Gregg Miller explained for the Los Angeles Times in December 2002, was that “Maj. Gen. Michael E. Dunlavey, the operational commander at Guantánamo Bay until October [2002], traveled to Afghanistan in the spring [of 2002] to complain that too many “Mickey Mouse” detainees were being sent to the already crowded facility.”

In a press conference shortly after Guantánamo opened, Rumsfeld coyly described it as the “least worst place” for a prison, evading his responsibility for establishing a prison in a location that was specifically chosen to be beyond the reach of the US courts. In December 2002, ignoring the complaints about “Mickey Mouse” prisoners, he specifically approved the use of torture techniques at Guantánamo, which included forced standing, in painful short-shackled stress positions, for a period of four hours, adding a hand-written note that read, “However, I stand for 8-10 hours a day. Why is standing limited to 4 hours?”

Rumsfeld’s approval of torture techniques justified a program that was applied to a significant proportion of the prison’s population (at least a hundred men), and also fed into the specific torture of a prisoner mistakenly regarded as being of particular significance — Mohammed al-Qahtani, who was reportedly intended to be the 20th hijacker on 9/11, and who was subjected to seven weeks of sleep deprivation and horribly abusive interrogations from November 2002 (two weeks before Rumsfeld’s approval) until January 2003.

In August 2003, Rumsfeld followed up by approving a specific torture program for another prisoner regarded as particularly significant — Mohamedou Ould Slahi, wrongly suspected of having aided the 9/11 hijackers, who, after weeks of brutal interrogations, ended up being taken out in a boat, violently beaten and threatened with death. Slahi’s extraordinary account of his experiences, Guantánamo Diary, was written while he was still held at the prison, and was published in 2015, although Slahi himself had to wait nearly two more years for his eventual release.

Rumsfeld is also notorious for his extreme reluctance to acknowledge that, amongst the 779 prisoners held by the US military at Guantánamo, some were children or juveniles — those under the age of 18 when their alleged crimes took place — who, according to the Optional Protocol to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict, which came into force on February 12, 2002, a month after Guantánamo opened, and was subsequently ratified by the US, “require special protection” — to be rehabilitated rather than punished, and, if imprisoned, to be held separately from adult prisoners.

“This constant refrain of ‘the juveniles,’ as though there’s a hundred children in there — these are not children,” Rumsfeld said at a press conference in May 2003, after the story first broke that juveniles were being held at Guantánamo. In the end, three Afghan boys were held separately prior to their release, but as I have established over the years, at least another 20 prisoners were also juveniles when they were seized — including the Canadian citizen Omar Khadr — and yet none of them received treatment that was any different from the abuse that was endemic in the prison.


In terms of the sheer loss of life, however, nothing can compare to Rumsfeld’s responsibility for the Iraq War, in which at least 200,000 civilians died. Rumsfeld, Vice President Dick Cheney and Rumsfeld’s deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, had been pushing for regime change in Iraq since the end of the First Iraq War in 1991, and their aims were promoted via the Project for the New American Century (PNAC), a neocon think-tank established in 1997, in which they, and other subsequent members of the administration of George W. Bush, were all members.

On the day of the 9/11 attacks, both Rumsfeld and Cheney sought to use the attacks to invade not just Afghanistan, but Iraq as well, and while I hold Dick Cheney responsible for using the lie, tortured out of CIA “black site” prisoner Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, that Saddam Hussein had been providing training to al-Qaeda in the use of chemical and biological weapons, which was subsequently used to justify the illegal invasion of Iraq in March 2003, Rumsfeld was in charge of the military occupation, and its disastrously simplistic notion that the US would be welcomed as conquering heroes for overthrowing Saddam Hussein.

Rumsfeld was also in charge of the US military’s treatment of prisoners in Iraq, including the torture and abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib that surfaced via photos in April 2004. He later claimed that the Abu Ghraib scandal was his darkest hour as defense secretary, but that is obviously nonsensical, as the torture of prisoners was specifically encouraged by Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller, the commander of Guantánamo from November 2002, when the widespread program of torture and abuse mentioned above was implemented, leading to Miller’s visit to Abu Ghraib in August 2003 to provide advice about how to secure “more productive” interrogations of prisoners. He subsequently produced a report in which he recommended “GTMO-izing” their approach, and using prison guards to “soften up” prisoners for interrogation.

Rumsfeld was also in charge of Camp Bucca, where many Abu Ghraib prisoners were sent after the scandal was exposed. However, torture, abuse and unexplained prisoner deaths were widespread at Camp Bucca, and it played a crucial role in the development of Daesh (Islamic State), which subsequently emerged as a brutal successor to al-Qaeda, and one which, it seems pretty clear, might not have taken off at all had it not been for the US war on Muslims in Afghanistan and Iraq.

As I mark Donald Rumsfeld’s death today, I certainly don’t mean to have focused attention on his mistakes, and his crimes, to the exclusion of all the other senior officials in the Bush administration, and their lawyers, who still deserve to be held accountable — a list that includes George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, their lawyers Alberto Gonzales and David Addington, Rumsfeld’s lawyer William J. Haynes III, and many, many others.

However, to the best of my knowledge, Rumsfeld is the first who we can no longer even dream will one day be called upon to try and justify his actions in a court empowered to punish those responsible for crimes against humanity; those crimes that the US government and its representatives have inflicted on Afghanistan, Iraq, in Guantánamo and in numerous other prisons since the “war on terror” began nearly 20 years ago.

* * * * *

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer (of an ongoing photo-journalism project, ‘The State of London’), film-maker and singer-songwriter (the lead singer and main songwriter for the London-based band The Four Fathers, whose music is available via Bandcamp). He is the co-founder of the Close Guantánamo campaign (and see the latest photo campaign here) and the successful We Stand With Shaker campaign of 2014-15, and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison 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, or you can watch it online here, via the production company Spectacle, for £2.55).

In 2017, Andy became very involved in housing issues. He is the narrator of the documentary film, ‘Concrete Soldiers UK’, about the destruction of council estates, and the inspiring resistance of residents, he wrote a song ‘Grenfell’, in the aftermath of the entirely preventable fire in June 2017 that killed over 70 people, and he also set up ‘No Social Cleansing in Lewisham’ as a focal point for resistance to estate destruction and the loss of community space in his home borough in south east London. For two months, from August to October 2018, he was part of the occupation of the Old Tidemill Wildlife Garden in Deptford, to prevent its destruction — and that of 16 structurally sound council flats next door — by Lewisham Council and Peabody. Although the garden was violently evicted by bailiffs on October 29, 2018, and the trees were cut down on February 27, 2019, the resistance continues.

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24 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    With the death of former US defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, I take a close look at his dreadful legacy, involving the prison at Guantanamo Bay, the use of torture, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians, and where torture and abuse were also rife, as I’m sure we all recall from the Abu Ghraib scandal.

    I also bemoan the fact that, unlikely though it is that any senior US official will ever be held accountable for their crimes against humanity committed in the “war on terror,” Rumsfeld’s death robs us, in his case, of even that slimmest sliver of hope.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Natalia Rivera Scott wrote:

    I hope that accountability comes for the war criminals still alive.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Me too, Natalia, but I suspect it may not happen. Dick Cheney’s 80 now, and no one knows how he’s still alive after four heart attacks, and even George W. Bush is 74.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Asif Rana wrote:

    But will they learn anything? Only that they can do it again, with impunity.

    Only sadness is the memories of what he did.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Some of what happened after 9/11 feels like an episode that was specific to the vengeance of that time, Asif – the rendition program, the torture, Guantanamo (which continues long after its illusory purpose evaporated) – but the wars destablilized entire countries. I can’t see there being change until there’s a major political change, away from the insane costs and pollution and damage of war, but that doesn’t look to be on the horizon at all , even though it’s evident, when you visit America, that it’s a country bled dry by the insane cost of the military-industrial complex.

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    David Barrows wrote:

    Don’t forget that Rumsfeld sold poison gas to Sadaam Hussein during the Reagan administration. With poison gas going to Iraq while we covertly sold weapons to Iran to raise money to fund the Contras in Central America, the Reagan administration must have been hoping that both nations would wipe each other out.

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, that’s a powerful reminder of the disgraceful reality of countries like ours, which pretend to be so noble, actually playing both sides and making money all around, David.

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Dave Lang wrote:

    Good riddance to the bastard.

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    It’s hard to disagree with that assessment, Dave. So much blood on his hands.

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    Lilia Patterson wrote:

    Kissinger who acted as the godfather to both Bush and Rumsfeld in fact was quoted as saying “let each of them wipe each other out”, when it came to Iran and Iraq. The same strategy continues today.

    When the US went to the Hague prior to the invasion of Iraq, to seek justification to invade Iraq based on the gassing of the Kurds, they specifically stated that excuse wouldn’t work, since the US sold the gas to Saddam in the 1st place. As we all know, the US invaded anyhow.

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    Such a sordid history, Lilia.

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    Robert Corsini wrote:

    And the one man who had the courage to expose the hell of the US occupation of Iraq, Julian Assange, has been sitting in solitary confinement in a London prison awaiting extradition to the U.S.

  13. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, well said, Robert – and not just the hell of the Iraq War, but also the Afghan War, and the shocking reality of men held at Guantanamo on the basis of a grim merry-go-round of false confessions.

  14. Andy Worthington says...

    Robert Corsini wrote:

    Andy, it’s all deeply sickening.

  15. Andy Worthington says...

    It is indeed, Robert, and even if we end up seeing some sort of end to the 9/11/”war on terror” era, via the withdrawal from Afghanistan, the closure of Guantanamo (or, at least, the release of everyone not charged with terrorism-related crimes) and the eventual release of Julian Assange, it seems we will still be largely led by old white men who either don’t understand, or are incapable of addressing the challenges humanity faces as a result of our capitalist obsession with exploitation – of natural resources, of people, and of entire countries.

  16. Andy Worthington says...

    Pat Sheerin wrote:

    I just hope that Bush, Blair and all the other heartless war criminals are today reflecting on their own mortality (and their “legacy” – which is all that remains after their death).

  17. Andy Worthington says...

    I do wonder if any of them are capable of self-reflection, Pat, but I doubt it. And, of course, there’s a fundamental problem with “leaders”, in that a significant number of people value “strong leadership”, with apparently little or no concern about whether that is actually a manifestation of an unhinged ego, or of sociopathic or psychopathic tendencies.

  18. Andy Worthington says...

    Amy Laura Hall wrote:

    Many of them have also been sold a form of faith that tells them they are tools of providence — ordained by God to carry out His dominion. It is a form of social Darwinism and Ayn Rand, with bits of Bible talk sewn in. I’m watching Nashville, which I hadn’t seen before, and the scene reminds me so much of Christian publishing, and publishing about Christianity in the US. One of the main religion editors at the NYT now says she is proud to be associated with Billy Graham, and NC PBS is selling Graham as a good, if complicated, citizen. I’m embedded in a school that receives many of the young people in this network of Christianity, and they’ve been taught either to ignore torture or to accept it as God’s necessary politics. I’m often implicitly having to argue against Peter Feaver and his Center for American Grand Strategy. Jesus plus nothing, as Jeff Sharlet put it.

  19. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks for that analysis of the dangerous role that militant, right-wing, Christianity plays in all this, Amy, which is easy to overlook from a UK perspective, where it plays a much, much smaller role. I’m reminded too of the scandal in 2010 when it emerged that a US gun manufacturer was including Biblical quotes on its gunsights.

  20. Andy Worthington says...

    Turdi Ghoja wrote:

    I hope no one is naive enough to waste their prayer by saying RIP

  21. Andy Worthington says...

    The fawning apologists of the mainstream media might want to think about that, Turdi.

  22. Andy Worthington says...

    Medea Benjamin wrote:

    What a grim legacy!

  23. Andy Worthington says...

    Absolutely, Medea. And while Cheney looked and sounded malignant, Rumsfeld came across like some kind of grandfather, and had a sometimes amusing delivery, all of which could have hidden the deadly effects of his arrogance to anyone who wasn’t really paying close attention.

  24. Andy Worthington says...

    For a Spanish translation, via the World Can’t Wait’s Spanish website, see ‘El sombrío legado de Donald Rumsfeld: Guantánamo, tortura y dos guerras sorprendentemente destructivas que fueron un fracaso’:

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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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