Moral Low Ground

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‘On This Day’ 2002: First Detainees Arrive at Guantanamo Bay

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From the moment the first busload of bedraggled prisoners arrived at the American military prison at Guantanamo Bay, US military policeman Brandon Neely knew something was terribly amiss.

“When I initially learned of my deployment to Guantanamo and the purpose we were going for, I was ready to go and face the world’s most dangerous men, these terrorists who had plotted and killed thousands of people in my country on 9/11,” the former Army specialist recalled. “I was ready to seek my own personal revenge on these people in whatever manner I could.”

But Neely quickly changed his mind once the prisoners arrived. One sad specimen after another exited the bus. The very first detainee he saw had only one leg; the guards nicknamed this man ‘Stumpy.’  “Those were the worst people the world had to offer?” Neely wondered.

Some of them were, but most of them weren’t. Such was the reality of Guantanamo Bay, or GITMO, as the world’s most notorious prison is called by the US troops stationed there. President George W. Bush called the GITMO detainees “the worst of the worst,” hard-core terrorists, every last one of them. General Richard Myers, Bush-era chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, made the ridiculous claim that the Guantanamo detainees were so bad-ass that they “would chew through a hydraulics cable to bring a C-17 [transport plane] down.”

However, the Pentagon’s own statistics show that more than half of all GITMO detainees did nothing to harm the United States, and only 8 percent were suspected terrorists. Almost nine out of 10 were handed over to American forces in exchange for bounty payments that averaged $5,000 per head, an enormous incentive in a country where the typical Afghan earns about $800 a year.

“People ended up at GITMO that had no reason being there,” confirmed Army Specialist Eric Barclais, a military intelligence interrogator, “Some folks were detained because they got turned in by neighbors or family members who were feuding with them.” Barclais admits that these men were often armed, but in Afghanistan “everyone had weapons.” Lots of farmers and goat herders ended up in American cages. Erik Saar, a former Army translator at Guantanamo, says that out of the many hundreds of detainees at GITMO “at best… a few dozen” were real terrorists.

Colonel Lawrence B. Wilkerson, a 31-year Army veteran and chief of staff for former Secretary of State Colin Powell, says there have been innocent men and boys imprisoned since 2002 at Guantanamo and that Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld covered up the imprisonment of hundreds of them in order to protect their plans to invade Iraq. These prisoners ranged in age from a 12 year-old child to a 93 year-old man.

“[Cheney] had absolutely no concern that the vast majority of Guantanamo detainees were innocent,” said the colonel, “If hundreds of innocent individuals had to suffer in order to detain a handful of hardcore terrorists, so be it.”

Top US officials also held innocent men in hopes of gleaning a “mosaic” of intelligence, making them pawns in a high-stakes American game of connect the dots. Only these dots were innocent men with wives and children back home, men whose lives have been forever damaged by what happened—and is still happening—to them at the hands of the United States government and military. Col. Wilkerson said that many detainees “clearly had no connection to al-Qaeda and the Taliban and were in the wrong place at the wrong time,” adding that “Pakistanis turned many over for $5,000 a head.”

It’s no wonder, then, that of the nearly 800 detainees that have been brought to Guantanamo Bay since the outset of the War on Terror, only a handful of them have been convicted of terrorism-related crimes and the vast majority of the others have been released without charges.

GITMO detainees were often brutally and sadistically tortured by their American captors as they were held, often for many years, without charges. Sami al-Haj a Sudanese cameraman for Al Jazeera, was on his way to Afghanistan to cover a story when he was arrested in Pakistan. He ended up spending six years in hellish conditions at GITMO before being released without charge. While imprisoned, al-Haj found a new calling as a jailhouse journalist. His dispatches from GITMO even made their way onto the pages of The Independent, one of Britain’s largest newspapers. Here’s a sampling of his reflections on life at Guantanamo:

“For more than four years many of us have been isolated in a small cell, less than 10 feet by 6 feet, with the intense neon light on 24 hours a day. Many of us are not allowed to exercise outside these cells for more than one hour, just once a week. We are provided with food and drinks which are not suitable for the iguanas and rats that live beside us on Torture Island.”

And:

“Here we encounter the ‘enhanced interrogation techniques.’ One such method is solitary confinement which, for a selected number of prisoners, has been known to last for years. Interrogation itself can last for 28 hours without interruption, the prisoner forced to crouch or stand in stress positions, deprived of sleep, sexually humiliated without any clothes, sometimes even having Israeli or U.S. flags wrapped around their heads. If they want to frighten us, then when we are bound and hooded they bring in the dogs.”

While Pentagon officials claim dogs are “only” used to intimidate prisoners, there have been reports of maulings. Former detainees tell of an inmate who had a chunk torn out of his calf by one, and a military lawyer in the trial of an Abu Ghraib dog handler, Sergeant Michael Smith, accused American soldiers of allowing their dogs to bite detainees.

Al-Haj also told of how he and other detainees were forced to watch interrogators having sex, of prisoners ridden like animals and of a female interrogator sexually abusing an inmate. Erik Saar, the Army translator, confirmed the sexual abuse in an interview with CBS 60 Minutes in which he describes an interrogation in which he translated for a female US soldier:

“As she stood in front of [the prisoner], she slowly started to unbutton her Army blouse. She had on… a tight brown Army shirt, [and she] touched her breasts, and said ‘Don’t you like these big American breasts?’ She wanted to create a barrier between this detainee and his faith, and if she could somehow sexually entice him, he would feel unclean in an Islamic way, he would not be able to pray and go before his God and gain that strength, so the next day, maybe he would be able to start cooperating, start talking to her…

She started to unbutton her pants and reached and put her hands in her pants and then started to circle around the detainee. And when she had her hands in her pants, apparently she used something to put what appeared to be menstrual blood on her hand, but in fact was ink… She pulled out her hand, which was red, and said, ‘I’m actually menstruating right now, and I’m touching you. Does that please your God? Does that please Allah?’… She took the ink and wiped it on his face and said, ‘How do you like that?'” 

“I know that the [detainee] was a bad individual… I hope he’s in captivity forever,” said Saar. “But I felt awful that night. I felt dirty and disgusting… I think the harm we are doing [at GITMO] far outweighs the good, and I believe it’s inconsistent with American values… it’s the moral antithesis of what we want to stand for as a country.”

Other Guantanamo detainees were tortured into making false confessions that they were terrorists. Fouad al-Rabiah was one of these. Andy Worthington, the world’s foremost journalistic authority on Guantanamo, told al-Rabiah’s shocking tale  on his GITMO blog. The former detainee says a senior interrogator admitted that US authorities had nothing on him but told him that “’there is no innocent person here, so you should confess to something so you can be charged and sentenced and serve your sentence and then go back to your family and country, because you will not leave this place innocent’… the United States government would never admit I had been wrongly held.”

It wasn’t long before Fouad al-Rabiah started telling the Americans whatever they wanted to hear, but this wasn’t an easy game to play. Even though al-Rabiah’s “confessions” were full of glaring inconsistencies, they led to further demands for information about things he had nothing to do with in the first place. His life was a living hell for seven and a half horrific years. Then, on September 17, 2009, US District Court judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly ordered Fouad al-Rabiah immediately released from Guantanamo Bay. She ruled:

“Not only did al-Rabiah’s interrogators repeatedly conclude that [his] confessions were not believable — which al-Rabiah’s counsel attributes to abuse and coercion… but it is also undisputed that al-Rabiah confessed to information that his interrogators obtained from either alleged eyewitnesses who are not credible and as to whom the Government has now largely withdrawn any reliance, or from sources that never even existed … If there exists a basis for al-Rabiah’s indefinite detention, it most certainly has not been presented to this Court… The Court does not accept confessions that even the Government’s own interrogators did not believe.”

It was the first time an American judge acknowledged that GITMO prisoners were indeed being tortured by their captors. Another high point came in 2006 when the US Supreme Court ruled in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld that detainees were entitled to at least minimal protections under the Geneva Conventions. Eventually, most of them were released, either to their home countries or to third countries willing to accept them after much behind-the-scenes arm-twisting by Washington.

Still, more than 100 detainees remain imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay. On his second day as President of the United States, Barack Obama declared: “First, I can say without exception or equivocation, that the United States will not torture. Second, we will close the Guantanamo Bay detention camp…no later than one year from the date of this order.” That was January 22, 2009. GITMO is still very much open, and despite his lofty rhetoric of change, torture still occurred under Obama’s watch. Detainees actually reported an increase in abuses after Obama took over. Reported abuses include: beating detainees before they visit their lawyers in order to discourage such meetings, spraying pepper gas into closed cells and onto the toilet paper of prisoners suffering from hemorrhoids, dislocation of limbs and force-feeding of hunger strikers.

In July 2009 Harper’s reported that at least 30 prisoners were being force-fed at Guantanamo, a clear violation of the Geneva Conventions. “Doctors should never be party to actual coercive feeding, with prisoners being tied down and intravenous drips or esophageal tubes being forced into them. Such actions can be considered a form of torture, and under no circumstances should doctors participate in them, [even under] the pretext of ‘saving the hunger striker’s life,’” asserted Red Cross adviser Hernan Reyes.

In 1975, the World Medical Association issued a declaration advising doctors not to force-feed prisoners who choose to hunger strike and understand the consequences, stressing that “forcible feeding is never ethically acceptable.” Following this guideline from the world’s foremost medical authority, Britain once permitted hunger-striking Irish Republican Army prisoners to starve themselves to death.

Pentagon officials euphemistically refer to force-feeding as “assisted feeding.” But this implies that the detainees are asking for help. They most certainly are not. Many Guantanamo inmates are prepared to die if they are not released or at least have their cases brought before a judge. “I am slowly dying in this solitary prison cell,” wrote detainee Omar Deghayes. “I have no rights, no hope. So why not take my destiny into my own hands, and die for a principle?”

There is nothing helpful about the kind of force-feeding that occurs at Guantanamo. Medical personnel reportedly used nasal-gastric (feeding) tubes that are thicker than necessary to deliberately harm detainees. These tubes are sometimes as thick as a finger. Some inmates vomited blood. Tubes were sometimes improperly inserted so that they enter a lung instead of the stomach. Needless to say, the process is excruciatingly painful. Detainees say the only thing that hurts more than when the tube is forced in is when it’s yanked out. One detainee said he passed out from the extraction. Here’s a description provided by a detainee’s lawyer:

“Nasal gastric tubes [were removed] by placing a foot on one end of the tube and yanking the detainee’s head back by his hair, causing the tube to be painfully ejected from the detainee’s nose. Then, in front of the Guantanamo physicians… the guards took a nasal gastric tube from one detainee, and with no sanitization whatsoever, reinserted it into the nose of a different detainee. When these tubes were reinserted, the detainees could see the blood and stomach bile from the other detainees remaining on the tubes. Medical staff made no effort to intervene. This was one of many incidents.”

Another detainee, Farhan Abdul Latif,  said the tube insertion felt like a nail going into his nostril, and like a knife going down his throat. He covered himself in his own excrement so that he might avoid the torture of “assisted feeding,” but to no avail—guards force-fed Latif through his shit-encrusted nostrils.

Guantanamo prisoners have also been excessively force-fed. There are reported cases of GITMO personnel lacing the “food” with laxatives so detainees developed diarrhea while  they were strapped down to their chairs and had no choice but to relieve themselves where they sat.

Sadly, more than half the prisoners currently being held at GITMO have been cleared for release. “The tragedy, I suppose, right now is that of the 171 prisoners in Guantanamo Bay, or at least one of the tragedies, is that more than half of them—89 according to the best estimates—have been cleared for release,” Clive Stafford Smith of the legal charity Reprieve told Democracy Now in January 2002 on GITMO’s 10th anniversary. “I mean, this is extraordinary. This is not me saying it. This is the—first the Bush administration, in a large number of those cases, and then the Obama administration, saying that these people are no threat to the West and should be released.”

However, with President Obama signing a National Defense Authorization Act containing a provision requiring the indefinite military detention of terrorism suspects (and allowing for indefinite detention without charge or trial of American citizens), hopes that GITMO will ever close have faded away. That doesn’t mean there haven’t been cracks in the system. Numerous high-ranking GITMO officials have resigned over what they claim is a corrupt military commissions system established to prosecute detainees at the prison. Former GITMO lead prosecutor Col. Morris Davis called trials there “rigged from the start.” After resigning, Davis said he was told point-blank by top Bush lawyer Jim Haynes that acquittals were unacceptable. At least four other military prosecutors—Maj. Robert Preston, Capt. John Carr, Capt. Carrie Wolf and Darrel J. Vandeval—requested to be removed from the GITMO military commissions because they also felt that the proceedings were unfair.

Marine Corps Gen. Michael Lehnert, the first commander of GITMO during America’s war against terrorism, has called for the prison’s closure, arguing that its continued existence helps America’s enemies and “validates every negative perception of the United States.”

“In retrospect, the entire detention and interrogation strategy was wrong,” Lehnert wrote in 2013. “We squandered the goodwill of the world after we were attacked by our actions in Guantanamo, both in terms of detention and torture.”

Others, however, remain steadfastly, even zealously, committed to keeping GITMO open, arguing that detainees there are not subject to protections against torture under domestic and international law and that the focus should be on the horrific crimes of al-Qaeda committed on September 11, 2001. The GITMO military commissions are about the “summary execution” of nearly 3,000 people on 9/11, not about how prisoners are treated, said military prosecutor Clayton Trivett Jr., who was involved in the prosecution of some of the most high-profile Guantanamo detainees. Among these are alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM) and alleged “20th 9/11 hijacker” Mohamed al Kahtani—who, despite strong evidence of guilt, was not brought to trial after Susan J. Crawford, the senior Bush administration official in charge of deciding who to charge, admitted that he was tortured in a “horrendous” manner.

There is no end in sight for Guantanamo. The American public now accepts the fact that the prison will remain open indefinitely. Better far away in Cuba than in my backyard, the thinking goes. The 19th century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche warned humanity to “be careful when you fight monsters, lest you become one.” It’s far too late for the United States to heed this wise counsel.

The damage has been done and it may be irreparable. America’s standing in the world has been reduced to that of a rogue state, with GITMO a big part of the reason why. President Obama missed a golden opportunity to help right the ship of American moral leadership when he broke his promise to close Guantanamo Bay. But few in this country seem to notice or care. Americans have become quite accustomed to their country behaving horrifically.

We have become the monsters we set out to fight.

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