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Will Bogdan’s Claims of Insufficient Staffing Cause Al Qaeda to Attack Guantanamo?

Jason Leopold, who has been filing requests for government documents like there is no tomorrow, apparently caught Department of Defense censors with their pants down. The result is a rare look into the kind of political shenanigans DoD uses to justify its policies at Guantanamo.

Leopold had requested a copy of the declaration by JTF-GTMO Detention Group (JDG) chief Colonel John Bogdan filed in the litigation surrounding the controversial groin and genital searches of detainees at Guantanamo. He received a redacted version on August 3. But Leopold noticed that the redactions didn’t match those of an earlier release of the document in July.

The practice of the groin and genital searches — including before and after visits to attorneys, to make family telephone calls, etc. — was overturned by Judge Royce Lamberth in a stinging ruling last month. But the government appealed that ruling and an appeals court reversed Lamberth’s opinion pending a full government appeal. The appeals court relied heavily on declarations made by both Bogdan and his US Southern Command superior officer, Marine General John F. Kelly.

Last month I examined the issues behind Kelly’s declaration. But Bogdan’s declaration was unaccountably sealed. Three days after the appeals court ruling, Leopold filed suit for Bogdan’s declaration.

As Leopold described it in an August 6 article at Al Jazeera (emphasis in original):

In response to the court filing, the government on Friday released a partially redacted version of Bogdan’s declaration, and argued that the blacked-out passages in the document should remain secret – because they contained sensitive “operational-security information” about Guantanamo.

But it appears government lawyers were unaware that another version of Bogdan’s declaration – one that contained a different set of redactions – was publicly released last month, in documents filed with the federal appeals court when the government asked Lamberth’s decision to be put on hold.

Redacted passages that the government says needs to remain secret are unredacted in the earlier version filed on the public record as part of the government’s appeal. At the same time, some unredacted passages in the declaration submitted on Friday are redacted in the public version of Bogdan’s declaration filed with the appeals court last month.

Leopold’s Al Jazeera article examines some of the differing redactions, and in general I agree with Steven Aftergood’s comments in the story regarding “the subjective nature of the redaction process.” However, a close read of all the redactions turns up a couple of odd new attempts at censorship by DoD of some of Bogdan’s statements, one of which in particular deserves a closer look.

Insufficient Staffing for Detainee “Movements”?

In a portion of his declaration explaining to the court why Guantanamo commanders cannot consider allowing attorneys to visit their clients at either Camps 5 or 6 — they currently meet at Camp Echo, about which more below — Bogdan made a remarkable claim (emphasis added): “As it currently stands, JTF-GTMO cannot support all daily movements with current staff levels, so movements must be prioritized.”

The “movements” concern prisoner movements outside their cell to anywhere else in the prison — to another cell, to see their attorney, to make a call to their family, to go to the hospital or clinic, etc. For an unspecified period Guantanamo authorities ran a “frequent flyer” program, transferring prisoners from cell to cell multiple times a week “to cause sleep deprivation and disorientation.”

A SOUTHCOM report on the death of prisoner Adnan Latif last September revealed that the brain-damaged detainee from Yemen was “moved from camp to camp over 67 times” during his stay at Guantanamo. So the issue of movements is not one only related to camp operations, but to the abuse and maltreatment of prisoners there. Indeed, some of these “movements” are initiated by violent beatings by so-called Emergency Reaction Forces.

Bogdan’s declaration regarding insufficient staffing levels at Guantanamo was part of the initial release of his sworn declaration last month, but it was censored in the August 3 release to Leopold. The statement was overlooked after the first release, but the retrospective redaction has brought attention to Bogdan’s claim.

In the government’s response to Leopold’s suit, defending the censorship of portions of Bogdan’s unclassified declaration, the government claims the redactions concern “procedures and rationales contained in the declaration [which] constitute sensitive information, the public disclosure of which will threaten the operational security and force protection of the Guantanamo facility.”

Indeed, the government goes so far as to claim the recent jail breaks at Abu Ghraib and in Pakistan speak to the dangers of a similar Al Qaeda attack on Guantanamo. While over ten years ago Al Qaeda was allegedly able to pull off the suicide bombing of the USS Cole in the port of Aden, but it is very difficult to see how Al Qeada or anyone could attack or pull off a prison break at Guantanamo.

According to Bogdan, the security has been so tight at the camp that if a detainee had been able to meet with an attorney at Camp 6, such a meeting would be forced to end if the detainee had to go to the bathroom. (The government tried to retrospectively censor this fact, too.)

But that was not the case at Camp Echo, and it’s ultimately at Camp Echo where meetings with detainees and their attorneys must take place, according to camp officials. The claims about poor staffing levels are very convenient in pushing all meetings to Camp Echo (a claim that did not pass muster with Judge Lamberth, who said in his ruling that accommodations could be made at Camps 5 and/or 6, and the supposed need for lots of searches ameliorated).

I’d guess the poor staffing argument was not something Guantanamo wished to be public, especially at the same time they are pushing as propaganda the very low probability chance of Al Qaeda somehow invading Guantanamo (as if Guantanamo were somehow located somewhere akin to urban Baghdad).

Camp Echo Set Up for… Eavesdropping

According to Bogdan’s declaration:

Camp Echo is specifically set up and designated to facilitate meetings with detainees, including legal visits, in a secure and safe environment. The meeting rooms at Camp Echo are specifically designed for attorney meetings and can accommodate up to five people, including the detainee. For example, Camp Echo meeting rooms have restroom facilities for the detainee, which are not available in the rooms at Camp 6.

But Camp Echo was the focus of a big controversy last Spring, when it was discovered that “smoke detectors” in the attorney-client meeting rooms at Camp Echo were in fact “high-tech audio surveillance and monitoring equipment.”

According to a subsequent report by the Center for Policy and Research (CPR) at Seton Hall University School of Law, “Following the public discovery of the listening devices, Army Colonel John Bogdan ordered the use of audio in Echo II to be disconnected, but not dismantled.” The rooms in question were the same rooms earlier used by the FBI, CIA and other agencies in the interrogation of the so-called “high-value detainees.”

In a meeting on the matter at the military commissions, Bogdan “confirmed that there was one infrared camera mounted on the wall opposite ‘from where the detainee would be locked in when there was not a meeting,’ and another encased point-tilt-zoom camera mounted in a corner.” Moreover, at least one video surveillance camera was so sensitive it was “capable of zooming to read ‘very tiny writing’ on a document used during an attorney-client discussion.”

Can attorneys or detainees trust that such monitoring of privileged meetings isn’t still taking place? As CPR pointed out in their report, “written Standard Operating Procedures ‘neither permit nor forbid’ audio monitoring.”

In his declaration, Bogdan said he started to implement the new groin/genital search policy in December 2012. In that same month, according to the CPR report, he authorized an intelligence directorate request for an upgrade of the video surveillance cameras at Camp Echo “from an analog to a digital capacity.” Bogdan’s story of what he knew and when about the audio and video surveillance doesn’t hold water, but for a detailed examination, check out the Seton Hall report.

In summary, it would appear that DoD is trying to hide its argument about supposed staffing difficulties at Guantanamo — arguments it surely must make to Congress, by the way — in order to buttress its claim that the only place detainees can meet with attorneys is at Camp Echo, where, conveniently enough, they have bugged all the meeting rooms. They are holding to their arguments despite the fact a federal judge found them seriously wanting.

DoD believes its ace in the hole is the claim of dangerous attacks from Al Qaeda. It’s the same message they are playing in the mainstream press, used to justify more funding for anti-terror programs, the ongoing crackdown on whistleblowers like Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden, and to hold off any release of prisoners from Guantanamo Bay.

Nothing about DoD’s arguments make any sense. The SOUTHCOM report on the death of Adnan Latif, used to justify the groin and genital search policy, is riddled with holes. Moreover, as Jason Leopold, the most consistent reporter challenging DoD’s spin on Guantanamo, has noted (see here and here), the entire regime at the Cuban-sited prison appears to be in a near shambles: SOPs not followed, personnel not trained, accountability totally absent.

The onerous search policy at Guantanamo appears to be mostly a clumsy bureaucratic maneuver to blame the detainees at Guantanamo for the mistakes and failures of command. Any military officer or soldier should be ashamed of such an action. The nation should be ashamed. Meanwhile, dozens of detainees at the facility remain on hunger strike, many of them still force-fed, despite the condemnations of national and world health organizations and human rights groups.

Only a full, transparent, and wide-ranging investigation into Guantanamo and other U.S. detention and interrogation sites — including an investigation of actions at this point under the Obama Administration — will provide the opportunity of knowing the truth behind all the spin and lies coming out of the Pentagon and CIA.

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Jeff Kaye

Jeff Kaye

Jeffrey Kaye is a retired psychologist who has worked professionally with torture victims and asylum applicants. Active in the anti-torture movement since 2006, he has his own blog, Invictus, previously wrote regularly for Firedoglake’s The Dissenter, as well as at The Guardian, Truthout, Alternet, and The Public Record. He is the author of Cover-Up at Guantanamo, a new book examining declassified files on treatment of prisoners at the Guantanamo detention camp.