Recent reports about the Guantánamo Bay military prison have documented and confirmed the torture of detainees, and offered new insight into the wobbly legality of military commissions.
Scores of prisoners remain there and according to a Seton Hall report an elaborate system has been installed to eavesdrop on attorneys meeting with the prisoners, thereby undermining the legitimacy of the military tribunals. The Constitution Project also released an exhaustive report confirming what has been known for years – that torture of prisoners did occur at Guantánamo. Many of the prisoners are on hunger strikes, they see no escape from a place where they are being indefinitely held. “The situation is desperate now,” prisoner Samir Najl al Hasan Moqbel wrote in a recent column for The New York Times.
Today, President Obama, during a White House news briefing, said he still would like to see Gitmo shuttered. Obama promised to close the prison during his first term, but failed. Some reporting said the administration did not have much of a strategy in place for closing the prison.
Obama said, “I continue to believe that we need to close Guantánamo. I think it is critical for us to understand that Guantánamo is not necessary to keep us safe. It is expensive, it is inefficient, it hurts us in terms of our international standing, it lessens cooperation with our allies on counterterrorism efforts, it is a recruitment tool for extremists. It needs to be closed,” The Huffington Post’s Ryan J. Reilly reports.
He continued, “The notion that we’re going to continue to keep over 100 individuals in a no-man’s land in perpetuity – even at a time when we’ve wound down the war in Iraq, we’re winding down the war in Afghanistan, we’re having success defeating al Qaeda, we’ve kept pressure up on all these transnational terrorist networks, when we’ve transferred detention authority to Afghanistan – the idea that we would still maintain, forever, a group of individuals who have not been tried, that is contrary to who we are, it’s contrary to our interests, and it needs to stop.”
The Center for Constitutional Rights, which has long represented some of the prisoners, lauded Obama’s comments, but noted the president should not place the entire onus on Congress to close the prison.
For instance, CCR said that Obama “still has the power to transfer the men right now. He should use the certification/waiver process created by Congress to transfer detainees with the 86 men who have been cleared for release, including our client Djamel Ameziane.”
President Obama promised but failed to shutter the Guantánamo Bay military prison and has refused to launch an investigation into the use of torture at the prison and other unknown or “black sites.” But groups like Human Rights Watch and many others, including inmates at the prison, strive to highlight the injustices and atrocities of the prison, rendition and military commissions.
It’s not an easy endeavor in a nation where polls suggest that many people are not terribly concerned about the rights of people who the American government has labeled terrorist suspects. In a piece for The New York Times op-ed page that garnered notice, Samir Najl al Hasan Moqbel, a prisoner at Guantánamo for more than 10 years, explained his reasons for going on a hunger strike. He’s never been charged with a crime, he has been left to languish in a dark hole, where prison officials brutally force-feed him. “The situation is desperate now,” he writes. “All of the detainees are suffering deeply. At least 40 people are on a hunger strike. People are fainting with exhaustion every day. I have vomited blood.”
It has been widely documented that military detainees have been tortured at Guantánamo and other unknown or “black” sites overseas, with the knowledge of top administration officials in the administration of George W. Bush. In 2011, Human Rights Watch issued a report documenting evidence that top Bush administration officials, including the president, approved of torture. (Office of Legal Counsel memoranda were eventually made public reveling the lengths attorneys took to justify torture.) The Constitution Project, as reported by The New York Times’ Scott Shane, has released an exhaustive report, more like a book, that adds “considerable detail” to the treatment of military detainees. See the group’s Task Force on Detainee Treatment.
Another report from Seton Hall School of Law provides more evidence that the Guantánamo military tribunals are a sham.
Law Professor Mark Denbeaux, director of the law school’s policy and research center, said government surveillance of conversations between attorneys and military detainees greatly undermines the already wobbly legitimacy of the military commissions.
Damien Corsetti was an interrogator at the Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan in 2002, where, according to The New York Times, he was known as the “King of Torture.” In 2006, he was prosecuted for alleged abusive treatment he committed while an interrogator, but was acquitted. Nevertheless, he told our Witness to Guantanamo project that he had mistreated his prisoners.
When he began working in summer 2002, Corsetti believed in what he was doing. He thought they were all guilty and, like most Americans, he was angry. He explained how he had obtained information regarding several alleged plots through his interrogations in time for the U.S. to intervene and prevent the incidents from occurring. He saved American lives.
In the months that followed, however, he and other interrogators began to have doubts about their work. They asked a Judge Advocate General, or JAG lawyer, for advice. The JAG attorney assured them that their actions were legal because the Bush administration had decided not to adhere to the Geneva Conventions. After hearing the JAG assessment, Corsetti felt obligated to follow orders.
Corsetti told us how he would hood prisoners, tighten the cord at the neck, and then pour water over the hood. The process wasn’t quite the same as “waterboarding,” but the detainees did experience the sensation of drowning or suffocating.
He forced prisoners into extremely uncomfortable and awkward “stress positions” for hours. He noted how the military later renamed the term “stress positions” to “safety positions,” explaining that the safety positions were for the safety of the interrogators and the military personnel on the base, not the detainees.
Adnan Latif, a Yemeni citizen, died at Guantanamo in early September. The military has not revealed how Adnan Latif died, but only that he was found unconscious in his cell. However, like the detainee described below, Adnan Latif had lost hope, attempting suicide several times at Guantanamo. He was the ninth man to have died in Guantanamo, six reportedly had committed suicide.
Adnan Latif had been held in the detention center since early 2002, although he had never been charged with a crime. Both the Bush and Obama administrations recommended his transfer out of Guantanamo. In addition, in 2010 a federal district court granted Adnan Latif’s habeas petition for release. That decision, however, was overturned by the federal court of appeals last year, and the Supreme Court would not hear his further appeal. After Adnan Latif’s death, I decided to write the following piece about another tragic incident at the naval base.
A young man barely out of his teens had tried to commit suicide by hanging himself in a Guantanamo prison cell. Although the prison guards were required to walk by the cells every 5-10 minutes, the guards did not discover him in time. When the guards cut him down and carried him to the clinic, he was brain dead. Prison guards, hospital corpsmen and other military staff who passed by him in the clinic saw the inert young man with his head slumped on his chest and his body shackled to his bed.
The military staff nicknamed him “Timmy,” after the disabled character in the animated show “South Park.” He was fed through feeding tubes pushed up through his nostrils and down into his stomach. Ensure and similar liquids were poured into the tubes at mealtimes.
The Witness to Guantanamo project has interviewed 97 people in 14 countries including former detainees, as well as people who had lived or worked at the naval base or who had worked on Guantanamo issues, such as prison guards, interpreters, chaplains, medical personnel, psychologists, prosecutors, JAG attorneys, habeas attorneys, interrogators, FBI agents, NCIS agents, high-ranking government officials, high-ranking military officials and parents and wives of former detainees. Recently, the project interviewed the hospital corpsman who told us about “Timmy.” We asked him for his thoughts on “Timmy” and why he thought the young detainee had tried to commit suicide.
By Cynthia L. Cooper, an award-winning journalist and lawyer, and Elizabeth Holtzman, a lawyer, former prosecutor and former member of Congress who served on the House committee that investigated Watergate.
When President George W. Bush and his team left office, mounds of misdeeds were left to fester. Some of their transgressions in office were so shocking – lying to Congress in order to embroil the nation in war and occupation, illegally wiretapping Americans without warrants, authorizing torture that had been outlawed by U.S. and international law – that he and Vice President Cheney probably should have been impeached and removed from office.
Instead, they completed their terms and sped away. Even though Bush publicly announced in his 2010 memoir that he had personally authorized waterboarding, a recognized form of torture -- “Damn right,” he is quoted as saying – hardly a peep was heard about seeking accountability. But how can that be? Key to preserving our democracy is the concept that no person is above the law.
In order to ignite a national conversation on the topic, we set out to show how and why the president and vice president should be held accountable – especially, how they can be prosecuted. That meant looking at the available evidence, investigating precisely what laws are implicated and determining, as best as possible, whether a prima facie case could be made. We found enough to make a courageous prosecutor sit up and take notice, although the statute of limitations is ticking in some areas. We found clear problems under laws related to the conspiracy to deceive Congress, foreign intelligence surveillance and U.S. anti-torture laws – each of which needs prosecutorial attention.