Seven years ago, on Jan. 11, 2002, when photos
of the first orange-clad detainees to arrive at a hastily erected prison at
Guantánamo Bay, Cuba were made available to the world's press, then-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 Guantánamo, 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 Jan. 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 Guantánamo
five days later, he called
the prisoners "among the most dangerous, best-trained, vicious killers
on the face of the earth."
Seven years after Guantánamo opened, it should be abundantly clear
that neither Rumsfeld nor Vice President Dick Cheney, President Bush, or any
of the other defenders of Guantánamo 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 [.pdf] 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 $5,000 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 Guantánamo.
No wonder, then, that many of these men had no useful or "actionable"
intelligence to offer to their interrogators at Guantánamo, 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
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
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
These include the intelligence officials who explained
in August 2002 that the authorities had netted "no big fish" in Guantánamo,
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 Guantánamo.
On Guantánamo'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
strikes at Guantánamo. 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.