Seven Years of Guantanamo, Seven Years of Torture and Lies

Seven years ago, on January 11, 2002, when photos of the first
orange-clad detainees to arrive at a hastily-erected prison at
Guantanamo Bay, Cuba were made available to the world's press, defense
secretary Donald Rumsfeld reacted to the widespread uproar that greeted
the images of the kneeling, shackled men, wearing masks and blacked-out
goggles and with earphones completing their sensory deprivation, by stating that it was "probably unfortunate" that the photos were released.

Seven years ago, on January 11, 2002, when photos of the first
orange-clad detainees to arrive at a hastily-erected prison at
Guantanamo Bay, Cuba were made available to the world's press, defense
secretary Donald Rumsfeld reacted to the widespread uproar that greeted
the images of the kneeling, shackled men, wearing masks and blacked-out
goggles and with earphones completing their sensory deprivation, by stating that it was "probably unfortunate" that the photos were released.

As so often with Rumsfeld's pronouncements, it was difficult to work
out quite what he meant. He appeared to be conceding that newspapers
like Britain's right-wing Daily Mail, which emblazoned its
front page with the word "torture," had a valid point to make, but what
he actually meant was that it was unfortunate that the photos had been
released because they had led to criticism of the administration's
anti-terror policies.

Rumsfeld proceeded to make it clear that he had no doubts about the
significance of the prisoners transferred to Guantanamo, even though
their treatment was unprecedented. They were, in essence, part of a
novel experiment in detention and interrogation, which involved being
held neither as prisoners of war nor as criminal suspects but as "enemy
combatants" who could be imprisoned without charge or trial. In
addition, they were deprived of the protections of the Geneva
Conventions so that they could be coercively interrogated, and then,
when they did not produce the intelligence that the administration
thought they should have produced, they were -- as a highly critical Senate Armed Services Committee report
concluded last month -- subjected to Chinese torture techniques, taught
in U.S. military schools to train American personnel to resist
interrogation if captured.

But none of this mattered to Donald Rumsfeld. "These people are
committed terrorists," he declared on January 22, 2002, in the same
press conference at which he spoke about the photos. "We are keeping
them off the street and out of the airlines and out of nuclear power
plants and out of ports across this country and across other
countries." On a visit to Guantanamo five days later, he called the prisoners "among the most dangerous, best-trained, vicious killers on the face of the earth."

Seven years after Guantanamo opened, it should be abundantly clear
that neither Rumsfeld nor Vice President Dick Cheney, President Bush or
any of the other defenders of Guantanamo who indulged in similarly
hysterical rhetoric, had any idea what they were talking about.

The administration did all in its power to prevent anyone outside
the U.S. military and the intelligence services from examining the
stories of the men (or even knowing who they were) to see if there was
any truth to their assertions, but as details emerged in the long years
that followed, it became clear that at least 86 percent
of the prisoners were not captured on the battlefields of Afghanistan,
as the government alleged, but were seized by the Americans' allies in
Afghanistan -- and also in Pakistan -- at a time when bounty payments,
averaging $5000 a head, were widespread.

Moreover, it also emerged that the military had been ordered not to
hold battlefield tribunals (known as "competent tribunals") under Article 5 of the Third Geneva Convention,
which had been held close to the time and place of capture in every
military conflict since Vietnam, to separate soldiers from civilians
caught up in the fog of war, and that senior figures in the military
and the intelligence services, who oversaw the prisoner lists from a
base in Kuwait, with input from the Pentagon, had ordered that every Arab who came into U.S. custody was to be sent to Guantanamo.

No wonder, then, that many of these men had no useful or
"actionable" intelligence to offer to their interrogators at
Guantanamo, and how distressing, therefore, to discover that torture
techniques were introduced because, in a horrific resuscitation of the
witch hunts of the 17th century, prisoners who claimed to have no
knowledge of al-Qaeda or the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden were
regarded not as innocent men captured by mistake, or foot soldiers
recruited to help the Taliban fight an inter-Muslim civil war that
began long before the 9/11 attacks and had nothing to do with bin
Laden's small and secretive terror network, but as al-Qaeda operatives
who had been trained to resist interrogation.

The fruits of this torture are plain to see, in the copious number
of unsubstantiated -- and often contradictory or illogical --
allegations that litter the government's supposed evidence against the prisoners, but as recent reports by the Weekly Standard and the Brookings Institution
have shown, those who take the government's claims at face value end up
endorsing the kind of rhetoric spouted by Donald Rumsfeld when the
prison opened, and ignoring other commentators whose opinions are
considerably less shrill.

These include the intelligence officials who explained
in August 2002 that the authorities had netted "no big fish" in
Guantanamo, that the prisoners were not "the big-time guys" who might
know enough about al-Qaeda to help counter-terrorism officials unravel
its secrets, and that some of them "literally don't know the world is
round," and Maj. Gen. Michael E. Dunlavey, the prison's operational
commander in 2002, who traveled to Afghanistan to complain that too many "Mickey Mouse" prisoners were being sent to Guantanamo.

On Guantanamo's seventh anniversary, the challenge facing Barack Obama, as he prepares to fulfill his promise to close the prison,
is to untangle this web of false confessions, separate innocent men and
Taliban foot soldiers from genuine terrorists, scrap the reviled system
of trials by Military Commission that was established by Dick Cheney
and his legal counsel (and now chief of staff) David Addington, and
transfer those suspected of genuine links to al-Qaeda to the U.S.
mainland, to face trials in federal courts.

Anything less, and America's moral standing will remain tarnished.
It is, moreover, a mission that must not be subjected to unnecessary
delays. As has become apparent in the last few days, at least 30
prisoners -- mostly Yemenis, who now comprise 40 percent of the
prison's population -- have recently embarked on hunger strikes at Guantanamo. They are, understandably, incensed that Salim Hamdan, a driver for Osama bin Laden, was repatriated in November, to serve out the last month of the meager sentence
he received after a trial by Military Commission last summer, while
they, who have never been charged with anything, remain imprisoned with
no way of knowing if they will ever be released.

With the Associated Press
announcing that Hamdan has now been released and is reunited with his
family, it must surely be conceded that the hunger strikers have a
valid point, and that seven years without justice is far too long.