Last Thursday, while most US media outlets were focused relentlessly on the marathon endurance test that was Sonia Sotomayor's Supreme Court confirmation hearing, the House Foreign Affairs Committee's Subcommittee on International Organizations, Human Rights And Oversight held a hearing
to investigate why the Bush administration had allowed Chinese
interrogators to visit Guantanamo to interrogate the prison's 22 Uighur
inmates in 2002.
Although 13 of the Uighurs are still held at Guantanamo (five were released in Albania in 2006, and four in Bermuda last month), all of the men - Muslims from China's Xinjiang province, who had fled persecution in China - were cleared of being "enemy combatants"
by the Bush administration and by the US courts. They were sold to the
US military by opportunistic Pakistani villagers, after fleeing from a
run-down settlement in Afghanistan's Tora Bora mountains, and should
never have been held in the first place.
Thursday's hearing involved some rather hard-hitting testimony about
what those interrogations involved, about the complicity of the US
military and of senior officials in Washington D.C., and, most
disturbingly, about the political motivations of the visit, and led to
questions from the subcommittee about why members of Congress are
prohibited from meeting prisoners at Guantanamo when Chinese
intelligence agents were not, and to a demonstration of evasion on the
part of the government's spokesman that was so thorough that one of the
committee members threatened to declare him "in contempt of Congress"
and to withdraw funding from his department.
The Associated Press reported that, in a written statement "that did not specifically mention the Uighurs" (PDF),
Jay Alan Liotta, the Defense Department's Principal Director in the
Office of Detainee Policy, claimed that the Defense Department
"provides safe, humane, transparent and legal custody for each
detainee," and that, when foreign governments are allowed access to a
prisoner, it is "long-standing department policy that visiting foreign
officials must agree that they will abide by all DoD policies, rules
During questioning, however, Liotta "referred most lawmakers'
at-times incredulous queries to the Justice Department, or claimed the
answer they sought was a national secret and could not be shared in a
public hearing" (as ABC News
described it). He also attempted to explain two contradictory points of
view held by the Pentagon: on the one hand, he said that "[w]ithout
question the single greatest reason to limit access to detainees is to
provide for [the] personal safety" of those who visit them - US
politicians included - while on the other hand he stated that the
Pentagon's policy was also "built on a respect for the Geneva
Conventions," which "requires the United States to shield detainees
from 'public curiosity.'"
infuriated members of the subcommittee. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Ca.),
a long-time supporter of the Guantanamo Uighurs, who criticized Newt Gingrich
for promoting "fear-mongering" about them back in May, was, as ABC News
explained, "visibly upset by the Obama administration's apparent
decision to continue the Bush administration's policy of barring
detainee visits by lawmakers." Rohrabacher stated, "I am being denied -
all of us are being denied the same access that was denied during the
last administration." After referring to George W. Bush as "a horrible
man, a horrible president!" Rohrabacher added, "these very same
restrictions on us are being reaffirmed in today's testimony by this
Jim Moran (D-Va.) was even more annoyed. In what was described as "a
series of rhetorical questions," he said, "You allowed intelligence
agents of a foreign country to interrogate [Uighur detainees], but you
are concerned about their safety and that's why you don't allow United
States members of Congress [to visit]?" and added, "You are concerned
about 'public curiosity' - apparently you're implying we'd be seeing
them out of some public curiosity?"
When Liotta diverted questions to the Justice Department, or claimed
that he could not answer because of national security issues, Moran
grew even more angry. "My frustration continues to mount," he said. "In
order not to answer a question, you can suggest it be provided in
classified form. That's not acceptable. There is no classification of
that answer. This is a manipulative, evasive tactic you are employing."
As ABC News described it, Moran suggested that Liotta "could be held in
contempt of Congress, threatened to cut funding for the Office of
Detainee Policy unless he got satisfactory answers, and said he thought
Liotta ought to be fired," and exclaimed, "To take up two hours of our
time and not directly answer any of the relevant questions is an
absolute insult to the United States Congress."
Although Rep. Bill Delahunt (D-Ma.), the chair of the subcommittee,
had more sympathy for Liotta, explaining, "I understand that this is a
difficult moment for you," and adding, "I have no doubt that you have
received instructions ... You find yourself in a very awkward situation,"
this was electrifying theater of an important kind. However, it was not
the only shock of the day. The Uighurs' lawyers have long contended
that their clients were pawns in a diplomatic game, and in his
testimony, one of the attorneys, Jason Pinney, spelled out this
betrayal in stark terms (PDF).
"For the past four years, I have been part of a team at Bingham McCutchen that has represented - on a pro bono
basis - as many as eleven of the twenty-two Uighur men at Guantanamo,"
Pinney said. "None of these men are enemy combatants, and there has
never been any justification for holding them. Thirteen Uighurs are
still imprisoned at Guantanamo today. They remain there because no
country - including our own - has the courage to stand up to the
Chinese and offer them refuge."
As I have explained in numerous articles in the last year, all of
this is true - and is disturbing enough on its own terms, particularly
regarding the ongoing opposition to resettling some of the men in the
United States - but as Pinney continued, an even more disturbing truth
The problem, however, goes far beyond our failure to
resettle these men. An objective look at the evidence reveals that out
country imprisoned the Uighurs as part of quid pro quo with
China. China is one of five countries on the United Nations Security
Council. In 2002 and 2003, we needed China's support to invade Iraq. In
exchange for Chinese acquiescence in our war plans, we agreed, among
other things, to label the Uighurs as terrorists and house them at
What's more, we agreed to provide the Chinese with special and
unprecedented access to the Uighur men. In September of 2002, we
allowed a delegation from the Communist Chinese government to travel to
Guantanamo and interrogate the Uighurs imprisoned there. The
interrogations lasted for days. Our clients were forced into cells,
alone, with the Chinese. No representative from the United States was
present during these interrogations. In the history of our republic, I
cannot think of another example where a Communist country was invited
in to interrogate, unsupervised, prisoners in a United States detention
In a timeline of events, Jason Pinney spelled out more clearly how
the Uighurs were used. On December 6, 2001, for example, the State
Department refused to designate the East Turkestan Independence
Movement (the Uighur separatist movement, to which the Uighurs in
Guantanamo were falsely alleged to belong) as a terrorist group.
However, on August 26, 2002, as Pinney described it, "US Deputy
Secretary of State Richard Armitage [met] with senior Chinese officials
in Beijing to discuss the invasion of Iraq and immediately announce[d]
that [ETIM would] be placed on the State Department's list of terrorist
organizations." The month after, the Chinese interrogators arrived at
Jason Pinney also highlighted the double standards in the position
taken by the Bush administration, and maintained by the Obama
administration in the instructions given to Jay Alan Liotta:
Despite our best efforts, no one has been permitted to
meet with our clients. The United Nations has been barred from meeting
with the Uighurs. So have several human rights groups. The press has
been denied permission to speak with the men, or to publish their
pictures. Even the members of this Subcommittee have been denied access
to the Uighurs, despite the blessing of counsel. The answer has always
been the same. No contact has been allowed. The exception to this rule?
The Communist Chinese government.
In a separate article, I reproduce in full the testimony of three of the Uighur prisoners,
describing their interrogations by the Chinese agents, but what is
particularly disturbing about their testimony - beyond the threats made
by the agents - is the extent to which the US military helped out,
"softening the men up" by routinely waking them up at 15-minute
intervals the night before (as a Justice Department report explained
last year), short-shackling them in painfully cold rooms in between
interrogations, holding them in isolation for between five and 20 days
after the interrogations, and physically forcing them to have their
photos taken after they refused to cooperate. As Ablikim Turahun, one
of the four men released in Bermuda last month, explained:
They attempted to take my picture; however, I did not
agree to this. They called for American soldiers and ordered them to
hold me, so that my picture could be taken. The soldiers grabbed me,
pulling my beard, pressing on my throat, twisting my hands behind my
back, and as a result my picture was taken by force.
Most disturbing of all, however, was the betrayal of the Uighurs'
personal details. Abu Bakker Qassim, one of the five Uighurs released
in Albania in May 2006, explained, "When we were first interrogated at
the Kandahar prison, we told the Americans that we would tell them
everything if they would keep our materials confidential. They promised
not to give our materials to the Chinese, or to hand us over to [the]
Chinese." At Guantanamo, however, "When some Uighur detainees refused
to give their names, the Chinese interrogators said that the Americans
they trusted had already provided them with their photos, full names
Qassim explained that the danger was that "the Chinese could now
randomly oppress our family members," but when he "asked the
interrogators why they released all of our materials to the Chinese
even though they promised to keep our information confidential," they
"did not feel a bit ashamed about it. They apologized by saying that
someone in Washington gave our materials to the Chinese."
a result of the hearing, the subcommittee pledged to continue its
attempts to hold the Bush administration accountable for its actions.
"I want to know who was to blame for that decision," Dana Rohrabacher
said of the Chinese interrogations, and Bill Delahunt made clear (PDF)
that it was the subcommittee's "intention to provide a venue, whether
here in Washington or elsewhere, for these men - who have fled Chinese
persecution - to come forward and testify so that our colleagues and
the American people can have an opportunity to hear them - first-hand -
and make their own judgment."
Delahunt remained appalled that the Committee's request to visit the
Uighurs had been denied by the Bush administration, and that "we never
received a satisfactory explanation for why our visit was refused," and
his response to the only explanation he did receive, via a Fox News
broadcast in which the DoD stated, "no Congressman can interrogate or
question detainees because it is not part of their oversight
responsibilities," was an unwavering assertion of Congressional powers:
Let me first address the issue of oversight
responsibility. I want to be very clear - there was no Congressional
oversight during the Bush-Cheney Administration. It simply did not
exist. As former Senator Chuck Hagel said, the Bush-Cheney
Administration treated Congress "like a Constitutional nuisance." I
reject any suggestion that the Executive can define what constitutes
the Congressional oversight. It is not the prerogative of the Executive
to determine the role of the first branch of government. I am confident
this position is shared by most, if not all, members of Congress.
Delahunt also quoted George Washington's hope that America "might
become a safe and agreeable asylum to the virtuous and persecuted part
of mankind, to whatever nation they might belong," and maintained that
the US still had an obligation to "parole and resettle at least some of
the Uighurs at Guantanamo into the United States." He announced his
intention to send a letter to this effect to President Obama and
defense secretary Robert Gates in the near future, and, in conclusion,
I can only hope that it meets with success.
Accepting some, or all of the remaining Uighurs into the United
States would not only help to encourage other countries to accept
cleared Guantanamo prisoners, but would also send a clear signal that
Obama regrets sending Jay Alan Liotta to the House hearing to provide
"an absolute insult to the United States Congress," and is, moreover,
determined to establish without a doubt that he repudiates the terrible
effects of the Bush administration's almost indiscriminate detention
policies in the "War on Terror."
Note: For further testimony - from Bruce Fein,
Principal, The Litchfield Group, and from Tom Parker, Policy Director,
Counter-Terrorism and Human Rights, Amnesty International USA - click here.
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