For regular readers of The Future of Freedom Foundation, the release by Wikileaks, of classified military documents relating to almost all of the 779 prisoners held at Guantánamo will not have yielded any great surprises.
Since October 2008, I have been writing weekly columns for FFF, dealing exclusively with the horrors of Guantánamo and the Bush administration’s torture program, explaining how few of the prisoners held at Guantánamo had any involvement with terrorism, how many innocent men and boys were seized by mistake or sold to U.S. forces for bounty payments by the military’s Afghan and Pakistani allies, and how the “war on terror” initiated by the Bush administration was an abomination.
This was because Bush’s “war” — essentially maintained by the Obama administration — involved confusing terrorists with soldiers, and attempting to do away with the Geneva Conventions and the U.N. Convention Against Torture, as well as other traditions more specifically associated with the United States — the Constitution and the separation of powers, for example, sidelined by an executive branch that sought unfettered executive power.
In addition, Bush’s “war” led directly to the situation exposed most clearly in the recently released documents: the persistent attempts by interrogators to ramp up the significance of the innocents, the nobodies, and the insignificant Taliban foot soldiers in their possession through the only source available to them — the prisoners themselves.
Whether in Guantánamo or in secret CIA prisons, the prisoners — through repeated exposure to what were described as “family albums” of photos — were prevailed upon to provide statements or confessions about other prisoners. If the prisoners did not willingly provide information, either because they knew nothing, or were unwilling to do so, they were persuaded through the use of torture or other forms of coercion, or through bribery — the promise of better living conditions or of otherwise restricted “comfort items.”
The results are plain to see in the number of allegations, masquerading as evidence, which are attributed to “high-value detainees” like Abu Zubaydah, for whom the torture program under Bush was specifically developed (leading to his torture by waterboarding on 83 occasions in August 2002), and other notorious informants who, in exchange for preferential treatment, told lies about their fellow prisoners.
Although these false confessions were relied upon by the U.S. military (and, on many occasions, by the Justice Department and by the president’s own Guantánamo Review Task Force), they have been exposed, on an infrequent basis, in the mainstream media, and, more often, by judges in the District Court in Washington, D.C., who have refused to accept their statements as evidence in the prisoners’ habeas corpus petitions.
Until now, however, they were never gathered together in one place for discerning readers to be able to piece together the extent to which Guantánamo is — and was — a house of cards built on torture, bribery, and lies. However, while it is reassuring that the prevalence of these statements by tortured prisoners and other unreliable witnesses has been recognized in the U.S. media in the last week (see the McClatchy article “Eight Guantánamo detainees testified against 255”), the coverage by other media outlets has not necessarily been as rigorous as those who have been studying Guantánamo for many years were hoping for.
The academic and blogger Chris Floyd, for example, had harsh but just words for the New York Times in his article, “Normalizing Evil,” which dealt with the distortions apparent in the Times’ articles, “Classified Files Offer New Insights Into Detainees” and “Judging Detainees’ Risk, Often With Flawed Evidence.” Floyd might also have mentioned “As Acts of War or Despair, Suicides Rattle a Prison,” which examined the three deaths at the prison in June 2006 without mentioning U.S. soldiers’ claims, aired in Harper’s Magazine last year, indicating that the official suicide story was a cover-up.
Elsewhere, the Times’ coverage provided the basis for a bizarre article in The New Republic by Jeffrey Rosen, who tried to use the Times to score points against WikiLeaks, declaring:
Unlike the Times’s story, which was accompanied by seven carefully selected detainee assessments, WikiLeaks’s decision to publish all 779 of the raw assessments is a reckless act that can only harm the detainees themselves — making it harder for the Obama administration to release those it would like to free. As has long been known, the detainee assessments are a messy grab-bag of unsubstantiated fictions, hearsay about individual detainees, and tentative assessments of their genuine danger. The United States is in the middle of delicate negotiations with a variety of countries to accept some of the detainees for repatriation, and, now, every time a particular case comes up, the foreign governments the U.S. are asking to accept the detainees will find it politically harder to do so because of charges in the reports that may or may not be true.
Apart from the description of the supposed intelligence as “a messy grab-bag of unsubstantiated fictions, hearsay about individual detainees, and tentative assessments of their genuine danger,” this was nonsense, not only because the Times had published more than seven profiles in its “Guantánamo Docket” database (“about 20,” as stated in an article, “Answers to Readers’ Questions” on April 25), but also because of the entirely unjustified claim that publishing the files would damage the U.S. government’s “delicate negotiations” with other countries.
Back in September 2009, when the Swiss government was considering taking a handful of prisoners from Guantánamo, I briefed a Swiss journalist on the background to the Guantánamo stories, noting, in a description that is not out of place a year and a half later, “how prisoners had ended up in Guantánamo without anyone really knowing who they were — because the majority were handed over by the Americans’ Afghan or Pakistani allies, at a time when bounty payments for ‘al-Qaeda and Taliban suspects’ were widespread, and also because, once they ended up in U.S. custody, they were never adequately screened to ascertain whether or not they were combatants,” and also “how much of the supposed ‘evidence’ against the prisoners was extracted from other prisoners, or from the prisoners themselves, under dubious circumstances (involving, on the one hand, coercion or torture, and, on the other, bribery; in other words, ‘confessions’ in exchange for better living conditions).”
What I did not explain at the time, because it appeared to be spectacularly sensitive information, which could jeopardize the release of prisoners in the future, was that, when Swiss officials travelled to Guantánamo to see the files of the prisoners whose settlement they were being encouraged to pursue by the U.S. State Department, they were not shown responsible assessments of the prisoners’ status, but were, instead, shown documents which alleged that the men they had been asked to take were “low risk,” “medium risk,” and “high risk.”
At the time, I was appalled that the Obama administration was allowing such exaggerated and irresponsible assessments to be shown to the representatives of countries who were being asked to help the United States by taking in prisoners who could not be repatriated because they faced the risk of torture. I was also appalled to discover that the “low risk” prisoner was a Uighur, a Muslim from China’s Xinjiang province, whose habeas corpus petition had been granted by a U.S. judge in October 2008 after the Bush administration had dropped all pretence that he and 16 of his compatriots were “enemy combatants,” and who was, therefore, not “low risk” but absolutely no risk at all.
Finally, however, with the release of these documents by WikiLeaks, I understand that these are the documents that were shown to prospective host countries. I also understand that the risk assessments almost all betray the kind of exaggeration that plagued the Uighurs’ files, with innocent men and unwilling Taliban conscripts joining the Uighurs as “low risk” prisoners, and similar exaggerations infecting many of the other assessments, resulting in other innocent men and Taliban foot soldiers being labeled as “medium risk” or even as “high risk” prisoners — like the former child prisoner Mohammed El-Gharani, for example, who was just 14 years old when seized in a raid on a mosque in Pakistan.
El-Gharani was labeled as a “high risk” prisoner, but Judge Richard Leon, an appointee of George W. Bush, ordered his release in January 2009, when he realized that some of the informants mentioned above were responsible for the supposed evidence against him, which, amongst other outlandish fantasies, contained a claim that, at the age of 11, when El-Gharani had been with his parents in Saudi Arabia, he had been the leader of an al-Qaeda cell in London.
This story was discussed in a worthy article in the New York Times last week, which was worthy of Jeffrey Rosen’s appreciation, but he spectacularly missed the point by trying to blame WikiLeaks for damaging the prisoners’ chances of release. As I hope to have demonstrated, WikiLeaks’ release of all the files will actually help to shine a light on injustices that would otherwise remain hidden — and on perversities like the one I discussed above.
These revelations may, in the end, not bring about the closure of Guantánamo, although they should, but if that is the case it will be because of the actions of the administration, Congress, the judiciary, and the mainstream media, and not because of WikiLeaks.