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.

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The 15th Anniversary of the Contentious “Triple Suicide” of Three Prisoners at Guantánamo

Yasser al-Zahrani and Ali al-Salami (aka Ali Abdullah Ahmed), two of the three prisoners who died at Guantánamo on the night of June 9, 2006, in what was described by the authorities as a “triple suicide,” an explanation that has been robustly challenged on numerous occasions in the years since. No known photo exists of the third man, Mani al-Utaybi.

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There are some days that are so significant that everyone remembers what they were doing. September 11, 2001 is one such day, when planes flew into the Twin Towers in New York, and for those paying attention to the US response to the 9/11 attacks, January 11, 2002 is also significant, when the first prisoners — “detainees,” in the Bush administration’s words — arrived at Guantánamo.

Almost immediately, defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld authorized the release of photos taken by a serving US soldier — photos that showed US soldiers shouting at men who were kneeling on gravel under the burning sun at a US naval base in Cuba, half a world away from the battlefields of Afghanistan, men who were wearing orange jumpsuits, and who had their eyes, ears and mouths covered, creating the vivid impression that they were being subjected to sensory deprivation.

For US viewers, the photos were not necessarily noteworthy. Prisoners on the US mainland often wear orange, and the clearly abusive conditions captured in the photos were part of a depressingly successful narrative that the Bush administration was selling to the American people — that these men were, as Rumsfeld described it, “the worst of the worst,” terrorists so hardened and so bloodthirsty that, as General Richard E. Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, described it, they “would chew through a hydraulics cable to bring a C-17 [transport plane] down.”

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Never Forget: The “Season of Death” at Guantánamo

Four of the five prisoners who died at Guantánamo between May 30 and June 9 in 2006, 2007 and 2009, hence my description of it as the “season of death.” The top row shows Yasser al-Zahrani and Ali al-Salami, two of the three men who died on the night of June 9, 2006. No photo exists of the third man, Mani al-Utaybi. The bottom row shows the only photo of Abdul Rahman al-Amri, who died on May 30, 2007, and Mohammed al-Hanashi (Muhammad Salih), who died on June 1, 2009. All the deaths were described by the authorities as suicides, but these claims are disputed.

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There are days in your life when events take place and everyone remembers where they were. The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 are one example; and, depending on your age, others might be the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the moon landing, the fall of the Berlin Wall, Nelson Mandela being freed from prison, and the “shock and awe” of the opening night of the illegal invasion of Iraq.

One of those occasions for me is June 10, 2006, when it was reported that three prisoners at Guantánamo had died, allegedly by committing suicide — two Saudis, Yasser al-Zahrani, who was just 18 when he arrived at Guantánamo, and Mani al-Utaybi, and Ali al-Salami, a Yemeni. The authorities’ response was astonishingly insensitive, with Rear Adm. Harry Harris, the prison’s commander, saying, “This was not an act of desperation, but an act of asymmetric warfare committed against us.”

While it remains deeply shocking to me, 14 years on, that suicide could be described as an act of war, this was not the only problem with the authorities’ response to the deaths. The Pentagon’s PR machine swiftly derided the men as dangerous terrorists, even though none of them had been charged or tried for any offence. In fact, one of them, Mani al-Utaybi, had been approved for transfer back to his home country — although the authorities were unable to say whether or not he had been informed of this fact before he died.

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13 Years Ago, Three Men Died at Guantánamo, Victims of a Brutal Regime of Lawlessness That Is Fundamentally Unchanged Today

Yasser al-Zahrani and Ali al-Salami, two of the three men who died at Guantánamo on the night of June 9, 2006, in circumstances that remain deeply contentious. The US authorities insist that they committed suicide, but other troubling accounts have robustly questioned that conclusion. No photo publicly exists of the third man, Mani- al-Utaybi.

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On the night of June 9, 2006, three prisoners at Guantánamo died, their deaths shockingly and insensitively described by the prison’s then-commander, Adm. Harry Harris Jr., as “an act of asymmetrical warfare against us.”

The three men were Yasser al-Zahrani, a Saudi who was just 17 when he was seized in Afghanistan in December 2001, Mani al-Utaybi, another Saudi, and Ali al-Salami, a Yemeni. All three had been prominent hunger strikers.

Al-Zahrani, the son of a prominent Saudi government official, was a survivor of the Qala-i-Janghi massacre, which John Walker Lindh, the “American Taliban,” who was recently released after 17 years in a US prison, also survived. Over 400 fighters, supporting the Taliban, had been told that if they surrendered, they would then be set free, but it was a betrayal. They were taken to a fort, Qala-i-Janghi, run by General Rashid Dostum, one of the leaders of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, where some of the men, fearing they would be killed, started an uprising with concealed weapons. Over the course of a week, the prisoners were bombed, set on fire, and, finally, flooded out of a basement, and when they finally emerged, only 86 of the original prisoners had survived.

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The Lonesome Death of Haji Naseem, A Mentally Ill Prisoner at Guantánamo

An undated photo of prisoners praying in Guantánamo (Photo: Andres Leighton / AP).

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In the long and disgraceful history of Guantánamo, some of the most depressing occasions have involved the deaths of prisoners — nine in total — all of men completely deprived of justice, abused, imprisoned without charge or trial, and then lied about after their deaths by the US authorities.

I have covered these stories repeatedly over the years. The first deaths — three in total — occurred on one night in June 2006. These deaths — of Yasser al-Zahrani, Mani al-Utaybi and Ali al-Salami — were described by the US authorities as a triple suicide, although that claim has been challenged over the years, not least by former US personnel, present at the time, who have suggested that the men may have been killed in a secret prison within Guantánamo. 

Subsequent deaths at the end of May 2007 (of Abdul Rahman al-Amri) and the start of June 2009 (of Muhammad Salih aka Mohammed al-Hanashi) were also described by the authorities as suicides, but those claims have, in particular, been challenged by Jeffrey Kaye, a retired psychologist and investigative journalist, whose detailed analysis was featured in his 2017 book, Cover-up at Guantánamo: The NCIS Investigation into the ‘Suicides’ of Mohammed Al Hanashi and Abdul Rahman Al Amri. I’ve known Jeff for many years, and for further background, I recommend a couple of articles I published in 2017, Death at Guantánamo: Psychologist and Author Jeffrey Kaye Speaks to the Talking Dog and Guantánamo Suicides “Unlikely,” Says Investigator Jeffrey Kaye in New Edition of His Book, “Cover-up at Guantánamo”.

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Remembering Guantánamo’s Dead, 12 Years After the Three Notorious Alleged Suicides of June 2006

Yasser al-Zahrani and Ali al-Salami, two of the three Guantanamo prisoners who died in June 2006, allegedly by committing suicide. No photo of the third man, Mani al-Utaybi, has ever surfaced.Please support my work as a reader-funded journalist! I’m currently trying to raise $2500 (£2000) to support my writing and campaigning on Guantánamo and related issues over the next three months of the Trump administration.




 

Today, as we approach a terrible milestone in Guantánamo’s history — the 6,000th day of the prison’s existence, this coming Friday, June 15 — we also have reason to reflect on those who were neither released from the prison, nor are still held — the nine men who have died there since the prison opened, 5,995 days ago today.

On June 10, 2006 — exactly 12 years ago — the world was rocked by news of the first three of these deaths at Guantánamo: of Yasser al-Zahrani, a Saudi who was just 17 when he was seized in Afghanistan in December 2001, of Mani al-Utaybi, another Saudi, and of Ali al-Salami, a Yemeni.

The three men were long-term hunger strikers, and as such had been a thorn in the side of the authorities, encouraging others to join them in refusing food. Was this enough of them to be killed? Perhaps so. The official story is that they killed themselves in a suicide pact, their deaths, as Guantánamo’s commander, Adm. Harry Harris Jr., ill-advisedly claimed at the time, “an act of asymmetrical warfare against us,” and “not an act of desperation.” Read the rest of this entry »

Ten Years After His Release From Guantánamo, Sami al-Hajj Publishes His Compelling Memoir, ‘Prisoner 345,’ Free Via Al-Jazeera

'Prisoner 345': the front cover of Al-Jazeera journalist Sami al-Hajj's account of his six and a half years in US custody in the "war on terror," in Afghanistan and at Guantanamo. Please support my work as a reader-funded journalist! I’m currently trying to raise $2500 (£2000) to support my writing and campaigning on Guantánamo and related issues over the next three months of the Trump administration.





 

Just over ten years ago, on May 1, 2008, one of the better-known prisoners at Guantánamo, the Al-Jazeera cameraman Sami al-Hajj (aka al-Haj), was freed from the prison and repatriated to his home country of Sudan. I meant to mark the occasion with an article, but, at the time, I was caught up in issues involving my campaigning for social housing in the UK, and the local government elections that took place on May 3.

Now, however, belatedly, I’m getting round to it, as I want to promote ‘Prisoner 345: My Six Years in Guantánamo,’ Sami’s powerful and emotional account of his capture and imprisonment, which is available for free as a PDF via Al-Jazeera.

Sami’s story was of particular interest during his imprisonment because he was working for Al-Jazeera as a journalist and cameraman at the time of his capture, and his captors quite shamelessly tried to get him to work for them instead — as well as very publicly threatening the Qatar-based channel by imprisoning, without charge or trial, one of their journalists. Read the rest of this entry »

Radio: My Discussion with Scott Horton About the Shameful Rehabilitation of George W. Bush, As I Recall His 2002 Memo Authorizing Torture

Radio host Scott Horton and Andy Worthington, photographed calling for the closure of Guantanamo outside the White House on January 11, 2018, the 16th anniversary of the opening of the prison.Please support my work as a reader-funded journalist! I’m currently trying to raise $2500 (£2000) to support my writing and campaigning on Guantánamo and related issues over the next three months of the Trump administration.





 

Last week I was delighted to be invited to discuss Guantánamo, George W. Bush, torture and the “war on terror” by Scott Horton, the libertarian, Texan-based radio host, and the author of Fool’s Errand: Time to End the War in Afghanistan, in which, as Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg notes in a review, he “masterfully explains the tragedy of America’s longest war and makes the case for immediate withdrawal.”

Scott and I have been talking several times a year — and sometime more frequently — since September 2007, when we first spoke about the case of US “enemy combatant” Jose Padilla, tortured on the US mainland. Our interviews have generally been for 20-25 minutes, but for our latest interview the brakes were off, and we spoke for a whole hour.

The show is available here, or here as an MP3, and I wholeheartedly recommend it as a tour through the darkness of the “war on terror” declared by the Bush administration after the 9/11 attacks, as manifested in CIA “black sites,” in the CIA’s “extraordinary renditions” to torture prisons in other countries, in Guantánamo, and in the wars — and the accompanying lawless prisons — in Afghanistan and Iraq. We also looked at the sad failures of the Obama years — not only his failure to close Guantánamo, but how extrajudicial assassination by drones replaced the messy detention, rendition and torture program of the Bush years, but is no more legally or morally acceptable. Read the rest of this entry »

Guantánamo Suicides “Unlikely,” Says Investigator Jeffrey Kaye in New Edition of His Book, “Cover-up at Guantánamo”

Jeffrey Kaye and the cover of his book, Cover-Up at Guantanamo.Please support my work as a reader-funded journalist! I’m currently trying to raise $2500 (£2000) to support my writing and campaigning on Guantánamo and related issues over the next three months of the Trump administration.





 

In the long and sordid history of Guantánamo, few people — if any — have devoted as much time to the horrors of the prison’s operations as Jeffrey Kaye, a US psychologist (now retired), who has assiduously investigated and reported on issues of human experimentation at Guantánamo, and the contentious deaths of prisoners, primarily for Truthout, for FireDogLake and Shadowproof, and on his own website, Invictus.

Last September, Jeffrey published an e-book, Cover-up at Guantánamo: The NCIS Investigation into the “Suicides” of Mohammed Al Hanashi and Abdul Rahman Al Amri, also available as a paperback, in which, as he describes it, “using never-before-seen reports from government investigators, eyewitness testimony, and medical and autopsy records, including documents recently released by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS),” he documented, in extraordinary detail, how the formal investigations into the deaths of Mohammed Al Hanashi and Abdul Rahman Al Amri, who died in 2007 and 2009, respectively, allegedly by committing suicide, are “revealed as rife with problems.” He also set up an accompanying website, Guantánamo Truth, collecting online all the documents he has sought out and received in the course of his investigations.

As I explained in an article in April, after Jeffrey had been interviewed by The Talking Dog, we have “known each other for many years, meeting for the first time at Berkeley Says No to Torture Week (in October 2010) … and then again in January 2012, and again in January 2014, and I have long taken an interest in his work, cross-posting articles of his in 2011 and 2012 — see The Time is Right for Americans to Pay Attention to Human Rights Watch’s New Torture Report, New Revelations About The Use of Water Torture at Guantánamo, More Evidence of the Use of Water Torture at Guantánamo and in Afghanistan and Iraq, and also two articles written with Jason Leopold, US Training Manual Used As Basis for Bush’s Torture Program Is Released by Pentagon and Pentagon Report into the Drugging of Guantánamo Prisoners Is Released, and, of particular relevance right now, Were Two Prisoners Killed at Guantánamo in 2007 and 2009?,” his first investigations into the deaths of al-Hanashi and al-Amri. Read the rest of this entry »

Judge Confirms That Trial of James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, Architects of CIA Torture Program, Will Go Ahead

James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen as they appeared in videos of their depositions as part of the court case against them in 2017.Please support my work! I’m currently trying to raise $2500 (£2000) to support my writing and campaigning on Guantánamo and related issues over the next three months of the Trump administration.





 

Great news from Washington State, as Judge Justin Quackenbush, a federal court judge, has ruled that a “civil lawsuit brought by three victims of the CIA’s torture program against the two psychologists who created it will go to court on 5 September” after finding that “more than a year of discovery had yielded sufficient evidence to support the plaintiffs’ claims,” as Larry Siems, the editor of Mohamedou Ould Shahi’s acclaimed prison memoir, Guantánamo Diary, explained in an article for the Guardian.

The decision was expected, as Judge Quackenbush had allowed the case to proceed last April, a highly important decision that I wrote about at the time in an article entitled, In Historic Ruling, US Court Allows Lawsuit Against James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, Architects of CIA Torture Program, to Proceed. I also wrote a follow-up article in June this year, In Ongoing Court Case, Spotlight On James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, Architects of the Brutal, Pointless CIA Torture Program, after the New York Times obtained videos of the depositions made by Mitchell and Jessen, in which the two men attempted to defend their positions (the Times also obtained the depositions of two former CIA officials and of the plaintiffs, as well as newly declassified CIA documents).

As Larry Siems explained following this week’s ruling, “It will now be up to a jury in Spokane, Washington, to decide if the psychologists, who reportedly were paid $75m-$81m under their contract with the CIA to create the so-called enhanced interrogation program, are financially liable for the physical and psychological effects of their torture.” Read the rest of this entry »

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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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