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FDL Book Salon Welcomes Andy Worthington: The Guantanamo Files

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[Welcome Andy Worthington and Stacy Sullivan of Human Rights Watch, and please stay on topic, or please take other discussions to the previous thread. Thanks, Bev]

Andy Worthington has written an extraordinary book, The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison, that provides the only thorough accounting of the nearly 800 men who have passed through the US detention facility at Guantanamo Bay. In it, he details who they are, how they got there, how they were treated in US custody, and most shockingly, how few of them were actually involved in any kind of terrorist activity against the United States or its allies.

By methodically analyzing 7,000 pages of transcripts of the tribunals the Pentagon held at Guantanamo to assess the detainees’ status as “enemy combatants,” as well as sifting through news reports and interviews with lawyers and released detainees, Worthington concludes that although Guantanamo is holding some terror suspects who were allegedly involved in the planning of the 9/11 and other terrorist attacks (including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and several other so-called “high value detainees”), the overwhelming majority of the men who have passed through the prison were low level foot soldiers or humanitarian aid workers, religious teachers or economic migrants who were caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Worthington begins in Afghanistan, where the United States and its allies went to destroy al Qaeda’s infrastructure and rout the Taliban, but quickly found itself involved in one side of a long-standing civil war in Afghanistan. Unaware of the differences between Al Qaeda, the Taliban and the scores of other factions at the various camps in Afghanistan, he details how the United States wound up in custody of many detainees who had nothing to do with Al Qeada or terrorism against the United States, but who nonetheless, wound up at Guantanamo.

At the same time, Worthington takes us behind the scenes in Washington, where prior to US forces entering Afghanistan, the Bush administration issued a military order authorizing the President to capture anyone he regarded as a terrorist anywhere in the world, declare them an “enemy combatant” and hold them without charge or trial. He shows us how officials in the administration – namely Vice President Dick Cheney and his then legal counsel, David Addington – persuaded the president that detainees captured in the “war on terror” were not protected by the Geneva Conventions and that they could be interrogated with a variety of so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques.” He also details how Cheney’s cabal essentially defined torture out of existence, by seeking advice from the Department of Justice stating that interrogations constituted of torture only if the pain endured was “of intensity akin to that which accompanies serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death.” These instructions cleared the way for the serious mistreatment and abuse that took place not only at Guantanamo, but also at US detention facilities in Afghanistan, Iraq and secret CIA sites.

There is little question that Guantanamo was a mistake. In addition to putting a black spot on the United States’ reputation as a nation that adheres to the rule of law, evidence suggests that it has served as a valuable recruiting tool for Jihadists around the world. Virtually everyone – both US presidential candidates, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, even President Bush himself – have said they would like to see Guantanamo closed and officials have been working diligently to send home detainees cleared for transfer or release.

Today, roughly 250 men remain at Guantanamo. However, closing the prison is easier said than done, and the administration continues to insist on trying terrorism suspects by widely discredited military commissions that lack fundamental due-process guarantees and are extremely inefficient. To date, nearly seven years since Guantanamo opened, only two suspects have been convicted – former kangaroo skinner David Hicks, who negotiated a plea agreement and was sentenced to nine months in his native Australia, and Salim Hamdan, Osama bin Laden’s former driver who was tried this summer and sentenced to five and one-half years with five years credit given for time served.

Before we get into a discussion of how to close down Guantanamo and look at some of the problems with the military commissions, I’d like to start from the beginning and ask Andy how Guantanamo came to be established and how it came to pass that so many seemingly innocent men ended up detained there?

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Stacy Sullivan

Stacy Sullivan