British journalist Andy Worthington, the author of “The Guantanamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America's Illegal Prison,” has been documenting the array of human rights abuses at Guantanamo for over six years now, after he personally became angry that the US government would not say who they were holding at Guantanamo. Worthington was recently a guest speaker alongside investigative journalist Jason Leopold at the UC Hastings College of Law, in San Francisco on January 13, 2012, hosted by the college's chapter of the National Lawyers Guild. The event, entitled “Ten Years of Guantanamo,” was held amidst protests around the world calling for the prison to be immediately shut.
Leopold, who has also written extensively about Guantanamo for Truthout, queried Worthington about a range of issues surrounding Guantanamo and the so-called “war on terror.” While exchanging stories of false imprisonment and torture, both journalists expressed a profound moral outrage, openly supporting a global coalition of human rights activists' call to shut the prison down, and, at a minimum, to release prisoners already cleared for release. Most of the conversation examined the reasons why the prison has not yet been closed, and then how, with these reasons in mind, activists can best strategize their organizing tactics for targeting lawmakers and building public support for closure.
While strategizing about ways to gain public support for shutting Guantanamo down, both Leopold and Worthington converged on the need to expose the extreme fearmongering perpetrated by US leadership in order to justify the human rights nightmare created by the war on terror. Looking specifically at the rhetorical strategies used to advocate for the recently passed National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), Worthington commented that elected officials are either “scared and [therefore are] disgraceful cowards or they're scaremongers, and I think most of them are scaremongers. They're playing the fear card. It's an insult to you … we face such grave economic problems at the moment, that to have these idiots obsessing only about a terrorism threat that they conjured up, is a disgrace.”
A central focus of Worthington and Leopold's discussion was the Obama administration's role in keeping Guantanamo open, despite the Executive Order that he issued on his second day of office calling for it to be closed. Leopold asserted, “There seems to be a certain segment that really does want to protect President Obama, not casting blame on him and shifting it onto Congress.”
Worthington agreed that President Obama shares as much responsibility as Congress, arguing that as soon as Obama issued the Executive Order to shut down Guantanamo, prisoners should have been released.
“There had been 65 prisoners still held, who had been cleared for release by military review boards under the Bush administration. When Obama came into office, he could have released some of those guys easily. But he did nothing,” said Worthington, adding that “it means nothing” to tell a prisoner that “we want to release you,” but can't do it because of the political environment. “It makes such a mockery of any concepts of justice and the law,” Worthington declared.
The Mainstream Media and Guantanamo's “True Secret”
Together, Leopold and Worthington dissected mainstream media coverage around the tenth anniversary, arguing that coverage was superficial, with no real follow-up after the initial January 11 anniversary. Worthington told of an experience at a press conference earlier in the week, where a US journalist suggested that perhaps President Obama has not shut Guantanamo down because of some “dark secrets” that cannot be made public for legitimate reasons of national security.
Worthington recounted telling this journalist that the truth is “much more mundane” than “some huge national security secret…. It's about cruelty, incompetence, embarrassment … issues where senior officials and senior lawyers are responsible for things that might rise to the level of war crimes. But above all, it's about the torture, abuse, coercion and bribery that was in Guantanamo. There was a 'house of cards' of evidence built out of nothing except the testimony of prisoners and their fellow prisoners, who were abused or persuaded in other ways to produce what masquerades as the evidence. That's the true secret.”
Taking an even deeper look into Guantanamo Prison's “true secret,” Leopold described an interview he conducted with a Guantanamo lawyer defending a so-called “high-value detainee.” Leopold could not even ask the lawyer what he'd had for lunch when meeting with the detainee, which Worthington confirmed was representative of how “nothing has been made unclassified” about those prisoners designated as high-value detainees.
“Why would that be? Would it happen to be coincidental that these were the guys who were held in secret CIA torture prisons for all these years, and the government is determined to keep a lid on any mention of that whatsoever? I can't see that there could possibly be any other conclusion,” said Worthington.
The DC Circuit Court vs. Habeas Corpus
A June 2004 ruling by the US Supreme Court granted habeas corpus rights to the wartime prisoners at Guantanamo. Worthington argues that this is because the court recognized that they weren't being granted the rights in the Geneva Conventions accorded to soldiers. In response to this decision, “Bush's Congress” tried to revoke these habeas corpus rights, and, in 2008, the Supreme Court affirmed their habeas corpus rights and ruled that Congress had acted unconstitutionally.
Following the 2008 ruling, the Guantanamo prisoners were then “able to file their cases in front of District Court judges in Washington DC, who all got together to decide how they were going to do it, to decide what kind of standard was required to detain people, because the Supreme Court had not spelled that out. Nobody ever had really properly spelled out what an ‘enemy combatant' meant,” said Worthington. They decided that it meant the accused person had to be part of al-Qaeda or the Taliban.
Commenting on this decision, Worthington emphasized that the “fundamental problem identified – 'Are you a terrorist or a soldier?' – wasn't addressed … But at least they tried to codify what it meant.” Worthington reported feeling vindicated when dozens of District Court rulings harshly criticized the evidence being used against the Guantanamo prisoners, with Worthington commenting that these rulings read “remarkably like what I and other people who've been looking at these cases closely for years have been saying.”
Around two dozen prisoners were released as a result of this process, leading the government to appeal to the DC Circuit Court. Once there, Worthington reports that the District Court judges did not adequately test “the allegations made by the government,” or properly “balance those against the claims made by the prisoners.”
“They've steadily – in ruling after ruling,” unfairly given “presumption of accuracy to whatever nonsense the government comes up with,” said Worthington. “We are hoping that the latest ruling will lead to an appeal to the Supreme Court, and that the Court will take [it] up.”
The NDAA's Silver Lining
As Worthington and Leopold began to criticize the NDAA, Leopold chided those who had objected to it solely because it meant that “US citizens can be detained and go to Guantanamo … One thing that's not been discussed in this context is that indefinite detention is a human rights issue, regardless of the fact that it involves Americans; it's simply a human rights issue.”
Worthington added: “I understand people's concern about this applying to US citizens, and I absolutely understand that lawmakers had US citizens in mind, but they had foreigners in mind, as well. Where it came from was Guantanamo, because it's been happening for ten years in Guantanamo. The foreigners have been thrown into a hole and held without charges or a trial in indefinite military detention. It's the same thing.”
Analyzing it further, Worthington felt that the real intention of the NDAA is “to make sure that no one can be released from Guantanamo,” by creating a standard for release that is basically impossible to meet. First off, it “requires the Secretary of Defense to guarantee that if a prisoner is released, he will not be able to be involved in anti-American actions. You can't make that kind of guarantee … it's deliberately so.” The second key requirement is “not allowing anyone released to a country where there is an allegation that there is a single person from that country [who] has engaged in any recidivist activities…. How is that supposed to be fair?”
Looking beyond these provisions mentioned, Worthington asserted that “there is a glimpse of hope in this legislation that most people haven't noticed. There is a waiver in the legislation…. that says if the president is prepared to tell Congress that he and his administration are satisfied that releasing a prisoner is safe, he does not have to jump through these impossible hoops. It means that the president is giving himself and his administration the power to release prisoners. Now, will he do it? He looks unlikely to do it because anything he does about Guantanamo rocks a boat that he doesn't want rocked, and enables Republicans to speak up. But he could do it, and we can put pressure on him.”
Focusing on how to create such political pressure, Worthington reflected that “I think shame is where we're at now, after ten years.” Lawmakers should be told: “We know that you care about how you will be thought of. It isn't all just about short-term gain and political expediency. You want to be remembered as a good man or woman who tried to do a good job. You will not be remembered that way. No one in a position of responsibility will be if they consistently and persistently fail to close Guantanamo, because the longer it goes on, the more shameful it will be …The last living person left there over a year ago. After that, the last two people to leave were dead; they left in coffins. That will continue to happen.”