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Guantanamo Ten Years Later: “It’s a Disgrace,” Says Expert Andy Worthington
(Photo: Troy Page / Truthout)

Guantanamo Ten Years Later: “It’s a Disgrace,” Says Expert Andy Worthington

(Photo: Troy Page / Truthout)

On January 12, the tenth anniversary of the notorious military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Truthout interviewed investigative journalist and Guantanamo expert Andy Worthington. Author of “The Guantanamo Files” and co-director of the film “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantanamo,” Worthington has spent the last six years painstakingly working to keep alive in the public consciousness the human faces and personal contexts of the 779 people imprisoned within the facility.

Most of these hundreds of men were held for years without being charged with a crime. Eigthy-nine of the remaining 171 prisoners have already been cleared for release, yet they continue to languish there long after the end of the Bush administration.

My conversation with Worthington covers many aspects of the offshore prison, including the ongoing struggle to close Guantanamo, relevant recent legislation, and the tragic legacy of predominantly innocent inmates who were swept up by US forces during the hysteria following 9/11.

Brad Jacobson: Is the US government any closer to closing the Guantanamo Bay prison today than it was five years ago?

Andy Worthington: No. In fact, it's worse than it was five years ago. President Bush was pretty much free to come up with diplomatic arrangements with various countries to release prisoners. It was a pretty straightforward process once they made their decisions they didn't want to hold people. It's become incredibly complicated under President Obama. And I would say that that started with his lack of caution.

He first of all said: “Here's an executive order, We're going to close Guantanamo in a year.” And then he didn't do anything. He set up a task force to review the cases. They went through it all very carefully; they were conscious they didn't want to make any mistakes. And during that time, in the absence of any public activity, it allowed his critics to start gathering. It allowed the Republicans to realize that they could pick up and dust off the old fear card that Dick Cheney had been so good at playing and start spreading negative propaganda about Guantanamo.

And over the last few years, what's happened is that, over and over again, Congress has enacted legislation to tie the president's hands on Guantanamo, preventing him from buying or adapting a prison on the US mainland to bring the prisoners to, preventing him from bringing prisoners to the US mainland to, first of all, face a trial, and, then, for any reason at all. Plus the kind of really crazy provisions that have been made in the last year – to demand that the secretary of defense certify that it's safe to release prisoners, for example.

The administration was also prohibited from releasing a prisoner to a country where there was a single alleged case of recidivism, of somebody allegedly returning to the battlefield.

The other problem is that the very right-wing judges in the DC circuit courts, for very plainly ideological reasons, have been revising the detention rules and the requirements for the habeas petitions to make sure that no prisoners get to leave Guantanamo by any legal means.

The rest of it is Obama's own failings, and severe and unprincipled opposition from Congress.

BJ: Ramzi Kassem, counsel for Guantanamo prisoners, said recently that of the 171 detainees still at Guantanamo, around 89 have already been approved for release, some who were approved for release during the Bush administration. Why do these prisoners remain in Guantanamo?

AW: Well, the simple answer is that about a third of them have no home that they can safely be returned to. Some of them, like the guys from China, are people from countries where it's not safe for them to return, where they face the risk of torture. There may be a handful of those who have been cleared who are from countries where the Congressional restrictions apply. Part of the problem is that the United States, at every level of government, has refused to allow prisoners who can't be returned home to live in the United States.

The other problem is that the other two-thirds of the prisoners are Yemeni, and both President Obama and Congress have acted to stop Yemenis from being released.

President Obama's particular role in that was in January 2010, when Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab from Nigeria tried to blow up a plane with a bomb in his underwear. When he was captured and it was revealed that he had been recruited in Yemen, and there was a huge Republican backlash, President Obama capitulated to that and issued a moratorium on releasing any Yemenis, and two years later – it's exactly two years now – that position hasn't changed.

So, 58 Yemenis are in Guantanamo. Obama's own task force said two years ago that these guys are not people the government wants to hold indefinitely, and yet, they're still held.

BJ: Guantanamo originally held 779 detainees. How many Guantanamo prisoners over the years have been convicted of a crime? And how many of these men were tried and convicted in US military commissions?

AW: Six were convicted in military commissions and one in a US federal court. Three of those in the military commissions were under Bush, three of them under Obama. Four of those six were by plea deals. And there was one man who the Obama administration managed to get to the US mainland – before this ban on transfers was imposed by Congress – who was convicted. So, seven in total.

BJ: Can you explain the significance of having been tried not in a US court of law but rather in a US military commission, where, for example, hearsay evidence is admissible during trials?

AW: Well, you know, they've been whittling away steadily at the rulings. So, the first version of the military commissions that Cheney envisioned would have allowed torture evidence. But the Supreme Court threw that out in 2006. When it was brought back by Congress, it contained looser rules and essentially invented war crimes – material support and conspiracy, and these things are not traditionally regarded as war crimes.

The place that's more appropriate for trying these kinds of crimes is federal court, where they actually have a statute for it. And with President Obama's final version, the third version of the military commissions, the whole process is much closer to federal courts to the extent that you could legitimately say, “Well, these processes are now so similar, why are you not just doing this in federal courts?”

The reason is that it's political. And it showed the administration's lack of will when they didn't stick to their word after they suspended the military commissions when Obama came into office.

Every step of the way, there are arguments about exactly what is permissible and what isn't. And I think that's a demonstration of how unwise it is to try and establish a brand-new legal system when there are obviously existing traditions that have a history of hundreds of years and aren't fraught with so many problems.

BJ: Of these convictions, do we know how many of them included testimony coerced through torture? Or is that unknowable because of the secrecy of military commissions?

AW: That's the problem with the information that passes for evidence overall. It's very difficult to ascertain how reliable it is. It's something that's been particularly evident in the prisoners' habeas corpus petition. Then the DC circuit court judges started saying that you must treat government intelligence reports – battlefield reports made on capture essentially – as reliable. They're not objective analyses of the truth about anybody.

All of the studying that I've done over the years of what purports to be the evidence establishes that there's very little that can be regarded as reliable, because the prisoners would produce statements, but under circumstances that were not conducive to them necessarily telling the truth.

BJ: On the same day in January 2009, when President Obama signed an executive order to close Guantanamo within a year, this order also included the banning of harsh interrogations, which included known torture techniques. We know that the president has broken his promise to close Guantanamo. Are you aware if torture techniques have been applied to prisoners at Guantanamo since this time?

AW: No, there hasn't. But the issue with Guantanamo is the actual nature of the prison itself, where people are held in open-ended detentions. Back in 2003, the International Committee of the Red Cross complained about the ruinous effect that had on the mental health of prisoners. And that's unique to that kind of situation.

BJ: What are the long-term psychological effects experienced by both prisoners who remain at Guantanamo and those who have already been released after years of imprisonment?

AW: Well, yeah, I think the effects are very troubling for anyone who's been held there. Some people have been released from the prisons with serious mental health problems and there's not really a framework in place, like there is in certain Western countries, to have support for the victims of torture, which is a very sad situation. I can't imagine how anyone could emerge unscathed from this kind of experience. You have, on the one hand, the open-ended detention, where people never know when it might come to an end, and on the other, you have the well-documented examples of brutality and abuse and, in some cases, torture, to which all or nearly all of those prisoners were subjected in the early years of their capture and detention.

BJ: Can you discuss the kinds of torture that Guantanamo detainees have been subjected to over the years?

AW: Well, there was a whole program that was initiated where people were essentially abused prior to interrogation. Sometimes the things they did would take days, sometimes weeks and sometimes months: so, prolonged sleep deprivation and moving prisoners from cell to cell – which they called the “frequent flyer program” – prolonged isolation, extreme use of heat and cold, of nudity, of hooding, of loud music, of sexual abuse, of various types of humiliation.

From all the reports, they were applied to about one in six of everyone who was held. And I think torture is an appropriate word for that package of techniques.

(Editor's note: Truthout has also reported on some forms of water torture that have occurred at Guantanamo.)

BJ: And do we know how many prisoners have died there as a consequence of this treatment?

AW: Well, six prisoners have died at Guantanamo, apparently by committing suicide, and two other prisoners have died of natural causes. Those are the figures from Guantanamo. If you were to look at the wider picture of detention in Iraq and Afghanistan, then there were over a hundred homicides in Iraq and well over a dozen, at least, in Afghanistan, probably more than that.

BJ: In June 2006, then-Guantanamo Bay prison commander Rear Adm. Harry Harris said of the reported suicides of three prisoners, “This was not an act of desperation, but an act of asymmetric warfare committed against us.” Since these three suicides in 2006, the issue of suicide and suicide attempts has received little press attention. Is this because suicides and attempts have decreased since then, or merely because the Pentagon has worked harder to suppress information about them?

AW: Well, there's been more deaths. One in 2007 and one in 2009 which were deaths by suicide, apparently. I was disappointed in both of those occasions that the media didn't really pick up on it, as though, once you've had suicides at Guantanamo, or reported suicides, the story is done. But I think that's how the mainstream media quite often behaves. If one atrocity happens, and if the second atrocity that happens is similar to the first atrocity, then they think they've already reported it. And I don't think there are very satisfactory explanations for any of those deaths at Guantanamo.

BJ: Haven't there also been many suicide attempts, as compared to the number of actual suicides?

AW: It's impossible to know what's really going on. It was very early on in the program's history that they redefined suicide attempts as “manipulative self-injurious behavior.” So, I don't know of any public information, really, about what's going on on that level.

BJ: Even during Obama's time in office, there's not much known about this?

AW: No. We know the conditions have been improved in certain ways, but it's not a transparent facility by any means.

BJ: How will President Obama's recent decision to sign into law the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) – mandating indefinite detention – impact the remaining prisoners at Guantanamo?

AW: Well, it's really unhelpful. It remains to be seen whether that will be implemented in any meaningful way. But the fact that they could've thought that it was appropriate is a direct result of what's been happening at Guantanamo. The mandatory military custody with no end in sight, with people labeled terrorism suspects, is exactly what Guantanamo is.

There is a waiver in this new legislation, whereby, for the purposes of national security, if the administration says it's safe to release the prisoners, then they can do that without having to discuss it with Congress. It was imposed as part of the various compromises that were involved. The administration knows that it has had it hands absolutely tied by Congress. The last two people who left died. No living prisoner has been released from Guantanamo in the last year. That's not acceptable at all.

This provision has definitely been inserted there deliberately to allow a way of getting people out of Guantanamo. It's not going to lead to a rush of releases, but as it stood, until this was passed, there was no way the administration could get anyone out of Guantanamo at all.

We'll see whether the president is courageous enough to take the opportunity offered by this waiver. Unfortunately, we don't have much evidence of that based on past behavior.

BJ: In April 2011, WikiLeaks released thousands of secret documents from Guantanamo, which included 759 documents, called Detainee Assessment Briefs, which shed further light on the lack of credible evidence on which many Guantanamo prisoners were being held – they included chefs, farmers, taxi drivers, children, elderly, people with mental illnesses, even an Al Jazeera journalist, Sami al-Hajj. What were the key findings in these documents?

AW: I worked with WikiLeaks as a media partner, and there were eight or nine other newspapers involved, including McClatchy and The Washington Post. The documents were fascinating because, primarily, they provided the intelligence assessments and the names of who these people were who were making unreliable statements about other prisoners.

I've been going through them ever since to compile the necessary evidence to demonstrate what looks like a whole load of intelligence documents and military assessments full of really interesting allegations against prisoners that, when analyzed, are full of statements made by a handful of particular, notoriously unreliable informants.

BJ: They also revealed that one informant, a Yemeni named Mohammed Basardah, who'd been detained at the US military's Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, where many detainees were held before being transported to Guantanamo, had been released by incriminating 123 other prisoners. What do we know about Basardah?

AW: Well, this is well known within Guantanamo to the attorneys, because it had become apparent to them many years ago that he kept turning up, making allegations that the prisoners strenuously denied. I think if any of us was put into the position that people were put in at Guantanamo, maybe we would be broken and tell lies about people. I'm not blaming him for what may have happened to him under pressure. But it's apparent that this is a man whose prolific testimony was actually unreliable, and without it, half of the government's supposed evidence disappears.

BJ: Today, on the tenth anniversary of the first detainees' arrival at Guantanamo, protests are happening around the world. What impact do you think these demonstrations will have on pressuring the Obama administration to close Guantanamo, especially during an election year?

AW: Well, it's going to be difficult during an election year. But that's no reason not to put pressure to resolve a problem that only gets worse, morally, as time goes on. The guys who are still in Guantanamo in this unique position – not held like any other prisoner, still really with most of the legacy of the Bush administration's decision to hold them without any rights whatsoever – with that still lingering on, it's a disgrace. So, putting pressure on the administration in an election year is going to be difficult, but it's not as though those of us putting pressure on them have any doubts that we're doing is right.

But I think, more than that, people need to be prepared for maybe a slightly longer-term push for the closure. If people are prepared to work toward that, then, what many of us are trying to do is, to have the idea in place to push for at the end of the election, if it's not going to happen before.

With the Guantanamo lawyers, I just established a web site called Close Guantanamo. We're encouraging people to sign up so that we can show, we hope, hundreds of thousands of people that we'll be able to recruit throughout the year to express their concerns about this.

We need decent and honest Americans of all political persuasions to say, “This is a disgrace, and we'd like it brought to an end.”

BJ: While researching for this interview, I found an article that you co-authored with New York Times reporter Carlotta Gall. This then led me to an editor's note released by the Times after they published the article, which said, in part, “The editors were not aware of Mr. Worthington's outspoken position on Guantanamo. They should have described his contribution to the reporting instead of listing him as co-author, and noted that he had a point of view.” Have you ever talked to anyone about this incident?

AW: I once mentioned it to a whole load of veteran investigative journalists in the UK, who said, “Okay, well, it's really of a badge of honor to be kind of spurned that way by the mainstream.”

You know, it's interesting. It was a great story. Carlotta had previously discovered some key elements in the story. I approached her, she realized its significance, and we worked on this story.

Now, clearly, The New York Times checked out who I was before they published it. And then, that afternoon – so, just a few hours after it came out – somebody got onto them, and I can only presume that it was from the Pentagon or somewhere in the Bush administration, saying, “We need you to pull this guy.” So, instead of saying, “Maybe he has a point of view because he's done a lot of research and his conclusions were based on his research,” they caved and apologized for giving me a byline. You know, reporters have to be objective even though that's not possible, to be totally objective. But, you know, these are arbitrary decisions that are made.

But the point of view thing is fantastic. I mean, that is something where you have to say, “Okay, sorry, I didn't realize that I was supposed to vacate my mind before trying to do some work here.” There is a fundamental problem in not accepting that, sure, I had a point of view, but I didn't build the facts around my opinion. My opinion came out of my research.