Guantanamo and the Many Failures of US Politicians

In the summer of 2002, as Jane Mayer described it in her book The Dark Side,
"The CIA, concerned by the paucity of valuable information emanating
from [Guantanamo], dispatched a senior intelligence analyst, who was
fluent in Arabic and expert on Islamic extremism, to find out what the
problem was." After interviewing a random sample of two dozen or so
Arabic-speaking prisoners, the analyst "concluded that an estimated
one-third of the prison camp's population

In the summer of 2002, as Jane Mayer described it in her book The Dark Side,
"The CIA, concerned by the paucity of valuable information emanating
from [Guantanamo], dispatched a senior intelligence analyst, who was
fluent in Arabic and expert on Islamic extremism, to find out what the
problem was." After interviewing a random sample of two dozen or so
Arabic-speaking prisoners, the analyst "concluded that an estimated
one-third of the prison camp's population of more than 600 captives at
the time, meaning more than 200 individuals, had no connection to
terrorism whatsoever."

The analyst expressed his concerns
to Maj. Gen. Michael Dunlavey, Guantanamo's senior military commander,
and "was further disconcerted to learn that the general agreed with him
that easily a third of the Guantanamo detainees were mistakes."
"Later," Mayer added, "Dunlavey raised his estimate to fully half the

Dunlavey didn't explain what he
believed about the other half of the prison's population, but in 2006 a
team at the Seton Hall Law School in New Jersey analyzed the publicly
available information about 517 prisoners, which had been released by
the Pentagon, and discovered that, according to their own records,
which explained the circumstances of the prisoners' capture and
described their purported connections to al-Qaeda and/or the Taliban,
only 8 percent were alleged to have had any kind of affiliation with
al-Qaeda, 55 percent were not determined to have committed any hostile
acts against the United States or its allies, and the rest, as Mayer
put it, "were charged with dubious wrongdoing, including having tried
to flee U.S. bombs." She added, "The overwhelming majority - all but 5
percent - had been captured by non-U.S. players, many of whom were
bounty hunters."

Analyzing this information, and
bearing in mind that, at the time the Seton Hall team compiled its
report, records did not exist for 200 other prisoners because they had
already been released, the stark conclusion is that, according to the
Pentagon's own findings, only around 40 of the prisoners were alleged
to have had any connection with al-Qaeda, and the rest were either
innocent men, Afghan Taliban recruits, or foreigners 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 al-Qaeda or international

In 2002, after the CIA analyst
completed his survey of the Guantanamo prisoners, he wrote a report
about what he had discovered. As Mayer described it,

He mentioned specific detainees by name, so there was no confusion
about whom the United States was wrongly holding. He made clear that he
believed that the United States was committing war crimes by holding
and questioning innocent people in such inhumane ways.

His report soon reached John
Bellinger, legal counsel to National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice.
"Immediately distressed," as Mayer put it, Bellinger convened a meeting
with the analyst, attended by Gen. John Gordon, the National Security
Council's senior terrorism expert (and a former deputy director of the
CIA), and the two men then approached White House Counsel Alberto
Gonzales to discuss the report's significance.

When they went to meet Gonzales, however, they found him flanked by David Addington, Vice President Dick Cheney's
legal counsel, and Timothy Flanigan, a lawyer in the White House
Counsel's Office. "Neither had any official national security role,"
Mayer wrote, "and no one had warned Bellinger that they would be there.
But they did all the talking."

According to two sources who told
Mayer about the meeting, Addington dismissed Belllinger's concerns by
declaring, imperiously, "No, there will be no review. The President has
determined that they are ALL enemy combatants. We are not going to
revisit it!" After Bellinger fired back, pointing out that this was "a
violation of basic notions of American fairness," Addington replied,
"We are not second-guessing the President's decision. These are 'enemy
combatants." Please use that phrase. They've all been through a
screening process. There's nothing to talk about." Mayer added, "The
President had made a group-status identification, as far as he was
concerned. To Addington, it was a matter of presidential power, not a
question of individual guilt or innocence."

How Cheney and Addington destroyed all notions of justice

I hope Jane Mayer - and her
publishers - will forgive me for quoting at length from her book, but
these passages - plus the research undertaken by the Seton Hall Law
School, and, I believe, my own research for my book The Guantanamo Files,
and the many hundreds of articles I have written in the last two years
- should demonstrate, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the
administration's claim that its "war on terror" prisoners were so
exceptionally dangerous that they should be treated neither as
prisoners of war, protected by the Geneva Conventions, nor as criminal
suspects, entitled to the protections of the U.S. legal system, was
hyperbole of the most reckless and damaging kind.

Far from being a prison for "the
worst of the worst," Guantanamo was, in fact, nothing more than a
chaotic assemblage of largely random prisoners, mostly bought from the
U.S. military's opportunistic allies in Afghanistan and Pakistan, or
from villagers and townspeople desperate for the bounty payments for
"al-Qaeda and Taliban suspects," averaging $5,000 a head, which were
advertised on leaflets dropped from planes. These stated,

You can receive millions of dollars for helping the anti-Taliban force
catch al-Qaeda and Taliban murderers. This is enough money to take care
of your family, your village, your tribe for the rest of your life -
pay for livestock and doctors and school books and housing for all your

In addition, and contrary to
Addington's claims, none of the prisoners had been through a screening
process at all. In all previous wars since Vietnam, the U.S. military
had held "competent tribunals" under Article 5 of the Geneva
Conventions. These involved screening prisoners close to the time and
place of capture, to ascertain whether they were combatants or
civilians caught up in the fog of war, and during the first Gulf War,
for example, the military held around 1,200 of these tribunals, and in
three-quarters of the cases the prisoners were sent home. In the "war
on terror," however, the competent tribunals were ruled out, and, in
fact, the orders that came down from on high stipulated that every single Arab who came into U.S. custody was to be transferred to Guantanamo.

Once in Guantanamo, there was no
improvement. It was not until June 2004 that the Supreme Court ruled
that the prisoners had habeas corpus rights, and even when this
happened the government responded not by allowing the prisoners to
challenge the basis of their unexplained detention in a U.S. court, as
the Supreme Court intended, but by introducing the Combatant Status
Review Tribunals. A mockery of the Article 5 competent tribunals -
given that the military knew almost nothing about the majority of the
men in its custody - the tribunals drew largely on confessions made
through the use of torture, coercion, or bribery, or "generic"
information that had nothing to do with the prisoners. In addition, as
was explained by Lt. Col. Stephen Abraham,
a veteran of U.S. intelligence who worked on the tribunals, they were,
essentially, designed not to ascertain whether the prisoners had been
seized by mistake, but to rubberstamp their designation, on capture, as "enemy combatants" who could be held without charge or trial.

As a result, Mayer's description of
David Addington's response to the complaints aired by John Bellinger
should also confirm that this sinister experiment in arbitrary
detention and interrogation - which involved the U.S. not only tearing
up the Geneva Conventions and the Army Field Manual, but also
attempting to circumvent the anti-torture statute - was based on an
arrogant presumption that the president was above the law, that
"innocence" and "guilt" were irrelevant constructs, and that it was
justifiable to hold any number of prisoners forever, and to interrogate
them as often and as coercively as the government wished.

This was done in order to build up a "mosaic" of intelligence
not just about the small group of men responsible for the terrorist
attacks on September 11, 2001 (and the previous attacks on the U.S.
embassies in Kenya and Tanzania and the attack on the USS Cole
in 2000), but also about Afghan resistance to the U.S. presence in
Afghanistan, about every single Muslim resistance group around the
world (whether "terrorists" or not), and - from exotic captives like
the handful of Russians who were seized, or the 17 Uighurs
(Muslims from China's oppressed Xinjiang province, who had fled
persecution in their homeland, and had nothing to do with al-Qaeda or
the Taliban) - about the activities of their own governments.

Fearmongering, cowardice, and terrible policy decisions

I mention all these facts at this
particular time because the last few weeks have seen a torrent of
scaremongering, misinformation, and woefully misguided policy proposals
pour forth from the nation's politicians - and the president - with
regard to Guantanamo, and I believe it is important to set the record

First, up were Republicans,
inspired, no doubt, by former Vice President Dick Cheney, who appears
to be on an endless "Torture Tour," touting lies about the efficacy of "enhanced interrogation techniques" in keeping the nation safe and failing to mention how he used torture to produce lies
to justify the invasion of Iraq. In a movement that rapidly snowballed,
U.S. Senators and U.S. Representatives from across the country repeated
unsubstantiated lies about the dangers posed by the prisoners in
Guantanamo and sounded fearful warnings about the implications of moving any of them to prisons on the U.S. mainland.

By Wednesday this revival of cowardice and fear had swept up an alarming number
of Democrat politicians, and when it came to funding the wars in Iraq
and Afghanistan, politicians of both parties happily approved a budget
of $91 billion, but refused to give the president the $80 million he had requested for the closure of Guantanamo.

On Thursday, Obama regained some of this lost ground. In a speech
in which he made it clear that he was doing his best to clear up the
"mess" left by his predecessors, he chastised the fearmongers for
muddying a genuine debate about how to proceed. However, Obama too
demonstrated that he has been infected by what he described as the Bush
administration's "season of fear," by proposing that the prisoners at
Guantanamo who will not be freed will either be tried in federal
courts, put forward for trial in an amended version of the failed military commissions introduced by Dick Cheney and David Addington, or subjected to "preventive detention."

I have no problem with the first of
these proposals, and was encouraged that, on the same day, the Justice
Department announced that a former "high-value detainee" at Guantanamo,
Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani,
would be tried in a New York court for his alleged participation in the
1998 African embassy bombings. However, I was disturbed that the
president thought it worth proposing military commissions as a possible
parallel path (given that no sticking plaster can disguise how corrupt the whole process was under the Bush administration), and completely dismayed
that he could contemplate introducing a form of "preventive detention,"
and was advocating legitimizing the Guantanamo regime (which is, of
course, a form of "preventive detention") for use on prisoners against
whom no case can be brought because the supposed evidence will not
stand up to independent scrutiny - meaning, of course, that it is
tainted by torture or other forms of coercion, and is therefore not
evidence at all.

A global witch hunt

At the start of this article, I
presented some dark truths about Guantanamo in the hope that the
account would demonstrate why the prison must be closed, and why few of
the 240 men still held - perhaps 10 percent, perhaps a little more -
represent a threat to the United States. In conclusion, if you'd like a
few final, shocking facts about the Bush administration's "war on
terror," consider what David Addington, acting as the mouthpiece of the
de facto president, Dick Cheney, was really doing when he dismissed
John Bellinger's complaints in the fall of 2002.

Far from just defending a detention
policy that, with the blessing of Congress, had filled the cell blocks
at Guantanamo (on the basis that the Authorization For Use Of Military Force,
passed in the first week after the 9/11 attacks, authorized the
president "to use all necessary and appropriate force against those
nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized,
committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September
11, 2001"), Addington was also defending the expansion and extension of
this policy around the world. Taking into account the prisoners held in
Afghanistan and Iraq, and those subjected to "extraordinary rendition,"
the total number of prisoners held at Guantanamo actually makes up less
than 1 percent of the total number of prisoners (at least 80,000
between 2001 and 2005, according to figures released by the Pentagon),
who have been held at some point in the "war on terror," without either
the effective protection of the Geneva Conventions or the protections
of the U.S. criminal justice system.

This was, if I may be blunt, a witch
hunt on the most colossal scale, but I hope these statistics also help
to explain why every facet of the Bush administration's "war on terror"
needs dismantling, so that only two categories of prisoner are allowed
in future: prisoners of war, seized in wartime and protected by the
Geneva Conventions, and terrorists, to be treated as criminal suspects
and put forward for trial in federal courts.

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