Transcript: Andy Worthington’s speech on Guantanamo at the ICUJP luncheon in Los Angeles on Jan. 15, 2014

Partial transcript of the speech by Andy Worthington, an independent investigative journalist, on Guantanamo at the luncheon organized by Interfaith Communities United For Justice and Peace (ICUJP) and World Can’t Wait in Los Angeles on Jan. 15, 2014.

…So you may have figured out by now from the funny accent that Andy wasn’t kidding, that I am actually from the UK, and it is strange still to me to this day that I became so deeply involved in story of Guantanamo.

But Guantanamo is a story that involves human rights, and human rights are about all of us. So that’s the important thing, really, about the question of Guantanamo. It is the United States that runs the facility in Guantanamo that has been involved in all the wrongdoing at Guantanamo and elsewhere in the war on terror that I’ll be talking about.

But the reason I care about this is because it’s a human rights issue, and those are rights that apply to everybody. And what we have been seeing at Guantanamo is that some people have rights and other people don’t.

And standing up here on this podium as a foreigner, I’m of course aware that there are foreigners at Guantanamo but not United States citizens, but that’s not to say that United States citizens are always treated well by their government.

But the prison at Guantanamo is very specifically somewhere for holding non-U.S. citizens outside the law. That was the intention when the prison was opened.

I came to this story about 8 years ago, actually, and I was interested in Guantanamo as many people around the world had become interested in Guantanamo as the story…of this strange prison that had been opened by the Bush administration.

It was alarming to many people from the day that it opened.

I mean, I understand that it appeared to be less alarming for some Americans because there were men in orange jumpsuits and people in U.S. prisons wear orange.

Around the world, a lot of people were troubled from the very beginning as these images kneeling people with their ears covered or their eyes covered, hooded.

The whole thing didn’t seem to be something that fitted with any established notions of what it is that you do when you deprive people of their liberty. It didn’t seem to fit with the notion of taking people off the battlefield at wartime and holding them in accordance with the Geneva Convention. And you know, it didn’t do that because that isn’t what it was.

What this was was an experiment in holding people with no rights whatsoever, and the intention when the Bush administration opened it, it was that these men would be held without rights forever.

It actually took nearly 2.5 years of the prison being open before lawyers who have started working on the prisoners’ behalf almost as soon as the prison opened managed to get the case of the prisoners in front of the Supreme Court.

So. it bounced around the lower courts for a while and made it to the Supreme Court in June 2004, when the Supreme Court said to the Bush administration – unusually – “You know, these are guys that you’ve captured in wartime but they claim that they have – they’re claiming their rights but there is no way that they can establish if they claim that they were seized wrongly. There’s no means by which they can have that claim listened to. You have sealed them in Guantanamo with no way out.”

So they gave the prisoners habeas corpus rights. That was extremely important in one way which remains so to this day. It was important at that time because it broke the secrecy that was surrounding Guantanamo up to that point.

For the Bush administration to do what it wanted to do with people that it held without rights, which involved torturing and abusing them, it was necessary for them to have absolute secrecy, that no one outside of the people they trusted would be allowed in – except for representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross who are sworn to secrecy, although on occasion they have spoken about what they saw at Guantanamo. But that’s a side issue.

When the lawyers were allowed into Guantanamo because of the habeas ruling in Rasul v. Bush in June 2004, it pierced that secrecy once and for all, and lawyers have been there ever since however much they’re messed around by the authorities.

Now, it turned out that the Bush administration was really willing to accept the decision of the Supreme Court. So they worked with Congress to find ways to pass new legislations to repeal the rights that the prisoners had.

They were not actually reinstated by the Supreme Court until another round of to-ing and fro-ing and the ruling that was made in June 2008 that the prisoners had constitutionally guaranteed habeas corpus rights.

That was an interesting ruling. It involved the Supreme Court saying that the Congress had acted unconstitutionally in trying to deprive the men of their habeas rights that they said they had 4 years before. Because by this point, the prison’s been open 7.5 years and finally the men get their habeas corpus rights.

And court cases then proceeded to the district court in Washington, D.C. where judges impartially looked at the government’s supposed evidence, and we had what legally was the only golden period in Guantanamo’s history where in 2009 and late 2008.

2009 into 2010, several dozen prisoners – three dozen prisoners slightly more – had their habeas corpus petitions granted by U.S. district court judges, who looked impartially at what purported to be evidence on the part of the government who was given a very low hurdle to overcome to establish that these people were connected in any kind of meaningful manner whatsoever with Al Qaeda or Taliban. And judges were throwing out case after case, saying to the government “You have not established the case that you were making to detain these people and to deprive them of their liberties, some for years.”

Now, unfortunately, what happened after these initial successes was the conservative judges in the court of appeal in Washington, D.C. – the next layer up from the district court judges making these habeas rulings – decided that they were profoundly unhappy with the decisions being made and, for political and ideological reasons, re-wrote the rules governing the habeas corpus petitions to make sure that no more habeas corpus petitions would be granted.

They told the lower court to accept pretty much everything the government claimed unless the prisoners were able to prove the thing was wrong. And they were advocating the acceptance of material that was so flimsy and so, so – yeah flimsy, really, would do. This was not evidence that the prisoners, obviously, were in the position to challenge very easily. They were stuck in Guantanamo with no – I mean, with very little access to anything to try and prove that what the government was saying, however useless, was wrong.

So that was a very dark process that was undergone in the D.C. circuit court.

And many of the prisoners who lost their petitions subsequently, some of the prisoners who had their successful petitions vacated or reversed tried to appeal to the Supreme Court. This has happened for the last few years – a variety of different petitions to the Supreme Court. And the Supreme Court has turned down all of those. That’s really not a very good reflection on what the Supreme Court has done in these cases either.

So, I kind of started off there with a bit of a legal history that I hope that you find useful.

But to go back to where we were when the habeas corpus petitions were – the habeas rights were first granted by the Supreme Court and the administration tried to overturn that with new legislation. But the first lawyers were in the prison – the first lawyers were very significant in getting the stories out.

To those of us who are interested in listening, there’s something terribly wrong going on at Guantanamo.

And these stories also came out from former prisoners.

And I don’t know if any of you have been been watching this story from the beginning but in 2004 and 2005, British prisoners were released from Guantanamo – the British nationals. And nearly all of them then spoke extensively in the British press about what had happened to them.

And the pieces of the jigsaw puzzles started to come together of, you know, people were telling very similar stories about the kind of things that had happened to them. And the kind of things that were happening to them were terrible, you know?

There was the initial extremely brutal treatment in Afghanistan at the prisons that were in Bagram and Kandahar. There were clear stories emerging of people who had been murdered, particularly in Bagram.

And then there was the Guantanamo situation where in some ways things appeared to be slightly more clinical but there were also prolonged episodes of extreme brutality there as well.

And the reasons, as time went on, was that there were a number of different agencies involved and that some particular groups that were responsible for breaking the prisoners were introducing a number of torture techniques to Guantanamo which were applied to a significant number of prisoners.

The only figure that I’ve seen on this is that an intelligence official told the New York Times in 2004 that it applied to about 1 in 6 of the prisoners that were held in the summer/autumn, summer/fall 2002 period when there were about 650 prisoners. So over 100 prisoners.

And this was the program of prolonged sleep deprivation, where they moved prisoners from cell to cell every few hours for periods of weeks or even months, which they euphemistically and cynically called the “frequent flier program” – perhaps an example of what they thought passed for humor.

The other techniques that were used on the prisoners – they were short-shackled in painful positions; they had loud music blasted at them; noise was used on them; forced nudity; if they had phobias that the psychologists have identified, those would be played on them.

An absolutely terrible period in Guantanamo’s history, and stories of what happened here came out through all kinds of different groups.

Afghan prisoners, who probably were not speaking Arabic, for example – I remember an Afghan prisoner came out and said, “They stood me in front of the cold machine hundreds of times.” And he’s obviously talking about how he was subjected to this – they either turned the heat up really high or they turned the heat down really low – and he was subjected to that.

So, different elements of it were coming out from all over the place to show that this was a coherent story and something awful had happened.

So, I began trying to find out who the prisoners were in, I think, September 2005, and I went through what documentation was available, released prisoners, and there were at the time estimates of who was there. And a list that had been put together of people who might possibly be there. The Washington Post did one and a British group called Cageprisoners did another one.

The prison’s been open for nearly 4 years and still the U.S. government hadn’t told the world who was being held there.

There were parents of disappeared people all around the Middle East and other countries who didn’t know whether their sons have been killed. They didn’t know if their sons were in Guantanamo. Some of them only found out that their children were in Guantanamo when the Pentagon lost a freedom of information lawsuit and was obliged to release 8,000 pages of documents in the spring of 2006, which for the first time told the world the names and nationalities of the men held in Guantanamo.

March 2006. So 4 years and 2 months after the prison opened, the Bush administration finally – and under duress – let the world know who was held there.

The 8,000 pages that were released included the allegations – the unclassified allegations – against the prisoners, and thousands of pages of transcripts from tribunals that had been held at Guantanamo.

Now, these are very one-sided tribunals convened by the Bush administration after they lost the first habeas corpus decision in the Supreme Court. And they didn’t want to oblige by giving the prisoners habeas corpus rights. They said, “We’ll hold an internal review process to assess whether these men are enemy combatants and we can continue to hold them.”

And they held the process and decided that most of them were. But they were horribly one-sided. The men didn’t have legal representation; they were just given a personal representative from the military who may or may not have wished to represent their interests. They weren’t allowed to see or hear what purported to be the classified evidence against them. And as I said, the major intention of it was to rubber-stamp their prior designation as enemy combatants, not to objectively assess whether or not they should have been seized in the first place or whether there were any grounds for imprisoning them.

But, in these thousands of pages of documents, there were transcripts made of what the prisoners said when they had the opportunity to go in front of a tribunal of U.S. military officers and explain their story.

And it turned out when I started reading them, some of these people just leapt out of the page at me. Some of them were, you know, they were so angry or they were so funny or they were so sympathetic or they were so insightful. There were all kinds of stories leaping out to me.

You know, it was when I begun to want to tell their story. So having started before their names and nationalities were released, which was really difficult to find out apart from the ones who have been freed, suddenly I had all of this information in front of me.

And I then, for some reason, decided that I can not sleep very much for 14 months and write a book about it, which I did.

But I had no idea when I was doing it that nobody else was going to do it. I thought that one of the major newspapers in the United States would assign people to cover this important story, but they didn’t.

I mean, it wasn’t an easy job going through all of this documents and coming up with a narrative, which is essentially what I did when I started going through the stories. I realized that were captured in different places. They were captured in different times. Some of them were captured together. And I kind of went through it and took it all apart in that way.

Human Rights Watch did tell me once that they’d put a couple of researchers on it but they couldn’t work out how to do it. So they were the only people that I had heard about who made an attempt to analyze it.

So I did that and I wrote a book, which I only had three copies of today but they’ve all gone. Sorry about that. You can, I think, buy it on Amazon. It’s called the “Guantanamo Files”, and I’m Andy Worthington, but you probably know that. But if you Google those things together, you might find it.

And I think it’s still a very good introduction to the stories of the men who were held and the lies that were told about them.

And I have, ever since that time, been writing about them generally online. I’ve built up this huge website of articles covering the men’s stories, continually trying to make people remember that these are human beings – they’re not just the worst of the worst who we don’t need to know who they are.

But also to expose the lies that have been told about them and to expose what’s wrong about the way people are held at Guantanamo. And that’s because if you’re going to deprive somebody of their liberty, you either charge them with a crime – arrest them, charge them with a crime, give them a trial – or you take them off the battlefield in accordance with the Geneva Conventions and hold them unmolested until the end of hostilities. And that wasn’t what happened at Guantanamo

And those men are still in that position. They’ve had rights granted to them that have come and gone. As I’ve explained, the habeas right was stripped away from them eventually by the D.C. circuit court and the Supreme Court, given a third opportunity to look at their cases, declined.

And crucially, they have in certain important ways been abandoned also by the administration.

First of all, the Bush administration. That was clear that people who set up that prison were hardly going to really have a reversal of opinions…

But under President Obama, there’s been a failure to address adequately the problems of Guantanamo.

And there has been the failure in Congress as well.

And if I may, I’ll explain a little bit now about those two things because we – I’m sure all of us started with some kind of hope at the start of the Obama administration that there would be action.

The President had promised that he would do so. And on his second day in office, he issued an executive order promising to close Guantanamo in a year. When that year came around, it didn’t happen. It’s now considerably more than that, of course. It’s four, five? [Laughter] Sorry, I’ve only had three hours’ sleep. [Laughter] Five years. It’s five years. Sorry about that.

What happened? Why is it not closed? Well, four years since the promise elapsed but five years since he promised to close it – 09, 10, 11, 12, 13 – yeah? [Laughter] We could get bogged down on this. So President Obama made this promise and then nothing much happened.

He appointed a high-level task force – the Guantanamo Review Task Force – consisting of about 60 career officials from the main government departments in the intelligence agencies, and they met once a week to review the cases of the prisoners to decide who should be put on trial, who should be released.

And fairly early on in their deliberations, the task force decided that there were some people who were too dangerous to release but insufficient evidence existed to put them on trial. [Laughter] Yeah, an ironic laugh is good at that point because alarm bells should start ringing when people say they don’t have the evidence to put somebody on trial. It means that you don’t have the evidence. It’s not evidence; it’s something else. [Laughter]

And you know, that really strikes at the heart of the Guantanamo problem is that this was a place where people were brought in large numbers from America’s Afghan and Pakistani allies. These are people who, from the moment they were seized, were not treated in a manner conducive to getting reliable information about them. They’re then taken to Guantanamo where the system is set up whereby they’re actually encouraged to make false statements about each other, and this goes on and on and round and round.

And it brings in people from the black sites as well who were – who clearly were being tortured – and they’re providing information.

And all of this is based around what one former interrogator called “the family album”. So they’re showing the mug shots of all of the prisoners in the photo album, and they’re doing this all around everywhere.

A man who’s held in Jordan and tortured on behalf of the U.S. government in Jordan said that they did that to him everyday. They came with the photo album of people, and all it was everyday was “You know this guy. Tell us about this guy.” And he didn’t know anything about anybody but he had to try and pretend that he did.

This is happening everywhere across the whole network of these black sites and unlawful prisons, and it constitutes so much of what purports to be the evidence.

So this group of men, I will discuss in a little bit.

But let’s look at the men who were cleared for release because this was a fairly straightforward decision…

They’re actually approved for transfer, and we’ve seen that when people talk about subjects and the required security assessments, blah blah.

What was actually decided by the task force is, “Look, these are the people we don’t want to prosecute and we don’t want to carry on holding.” So it doesn’t really matter what you call them. You don’t want these people in your custody any longer.

And this report by the task force was issued in January 2010. And I’m doing my counting right now; I know that’s four years ago.

And there were 156 men of the 240 held when President Obama – his task force began deliberations. President Obama released 60 of these men throughout 2009 and into 2010, and then he hit what apparently was a brick wall.

And it was certainly difficult obstacles raised by Congress. And Congress has raised obstacles preventing him from bringing prisoners from Guantanamo to the U.S. mainland, which is what would be required either to give people federal court trials or to be able to close Guantanamo. So that’s quite fundamental.

But in recent years, what particularly has happened is that Congress said he couldn’t release prisoners unless he was prepared to certify that if they were released, they wouldn’t be able to engage in terrorism against the United States, you know, which is I think impossible. The administration described it as onerous but I think that’s actually impossible.

The release of prisoners grounded to a halt almost. Between September 2010 and August 2013 – so a period of three years – just five men were released from Guantanamo.

Now, bear in mind that during this period, after the cleared prisoners have been released and Congress raised these obstacles, there were throughout that period the high 80’s – 86, 87, 88 – men cleared for release that the government task force said it was not in America’s interest to keep holding. These men were still held and nobody was released.

Now, you know, I have no time for Congress raising these kind of cynical barriers designed to make life difficult for the President, but we can’t let the President off the hook because he had the power to do something about this all the time and he chose not to.

In the legislation is a waiver allowing him to bypass Congress if he regards it as being in the national security interest of the United States.

And, you know, your President can be fantastically eloquent when he wants to be, and on Guantanamo – on those occasions when he has spoken about it – he has been fanatically eloquent and one thing he’s made clear is that holding these men and keeping the prison open is not in the national security interest of the United States.

So he didn’t do anything about it because he didn’t want to spend the political capital, enraging Republicans and members of his own party in getting into a fight. So he didn’t.

And it took until last year for the men held at Guantanamo – 166 at that time – to realize that yet another anniversary had gone by and nothing was happening. You know, they sat there for three years and the five men were released, and the only men who were released were ones who have agreed to plea deals in their trials by military commission or a few men who had won their habeas corpus petitions in those long years before the D.C. circuit court said…they can’t.

So no one was being released at the free will of the administration. They waited there. Men died – that was a good way to get out of the prison.

Is it any wonder these men were in despair? They had been abandoned by all three branches of the United States government.

And they embarked in a hunger strike last February, and the hunger strike grew very, very quickly.

The authorities at Guantanamo amusingly spent quite some time at the beginning trying to claim that there were only five or six men on hunger strike, and the reports from the prisoners themselves via their lawyers were that the numbers were climbing and eventually they came to be and then for months building up to at least 100 prisoners. By early summer, it was more than that. This was probably the military’s own estimate. The prisoners said it was about 130. The maximum number that the military admitted was 106. That’s out of a population of 166. Two-thirds of the people there on a hunger strike.

And many of these men were force-fed. And you know what I’m glad to say happened during that period last year was that the world’s media woke up to what was happening. People began to notice in significant numbers what was happening at Guantanamo.

One million of us – and I’m sure some of you did – signed petitions calling on President Obama to close Guantanamo. One million people signed two petitions. That was unheard of in the U.S. before. We struggled to get a few thousand people interested.

So people knew something wrong was happening, and the prisoners were speaking directly to the people.

The New York Times – I’m very glad to note – published an account of the hunger strike prominently that was written by one of the prisoners – Shaker Aamer, who is the last British resident in Guantanamo. If you don’t know him, his name is spelled S-h-a-k-e-r and Aamer is A-a-m-e-r. So shaker like something you shake.

Shaker Aamer, the most fantastically eloquent man, keeps sending these messages out from inside the prison about the injustices that are happening there, these different perspectives on it, and his insights into the cruelty of it. He was getting the word out. People really woke up to it.

The European Parliament criticized President Obama and the United Nations criticized President Obama. Senator Carl Levin criticized President Obama. Senator Dianne Feinstein criticized President Obama. He was getting more and more flak.

It was a kind of – the tide was turning slightly as well institutionally in the establishment that there were people recognizing that, you know, it doesn’t look good. And people genuinely, you know, in the – within the establishment people who genuinely do care about values thinking this is really not helpful in any level; this is not what we claim to believe and this is certainly not what we want to be projecting abroad.

So President Obama finally acted and he stood up in a major speech in May and he promised to resume releasing prisoners from Guantanamo. He promised to appoint two new envoys to help with the closure of Guantanamo. He promised to drop his ban on releasing cleared Yemenis.

So, the Yemenis make up the majority of the cleared prisoners. You’re probably not keeping track of all the numbers unless you’re slightly obsessive compulsive. [Laughter]

So, the number of cleared prisoners – 86 at the time of the 166 men still held – over half of them, and of those, the majority or two-thirds of these men are Yemenis. And the problem has been that since December 2009 when a Nigerian man tried and failed to blow up a bomb in his underwear on a plane bound for Detroit, and it was found that he had been recruited in Yemen, there was a huge backlash and President Obama imposed a ban on releasing any Yemenis.

That’s, you know, that’s a very broad sweep of guilt, as I’m sure you all realize that what do these men in Guantanamo who’d been cleared for release by a government task force have to do with whoever it was that was doing this stuff now in Yemen. But apparently it was enough that they were all from Yemen, and nobody seemed to want to argue with that.

So, the President’s ban stood – no Yemenis were released. Of course, Congress when they weighed in banning any attempt by anybody to release anyone from Guantanamo, they started slapping bans on Yemen as well.

It was significant that President Obama dropped his own ban but we haven’t seen any Yemenis released yet. What we have seen is that he appointed two envoys.

So, there are now two career diplomats – a man called Paul Lewis in the Pentagon and a man called Cliff Sloan in the State Department. I would encourage you singly and collectively to, you know, find out who these men are and to write to them because they are dealing directly with the transfer of prisoners out of Guantanamo, and they ought to, I think, be amenable to answer questions from their fellow citizens about what’s happening. Paul Lewis and Clifford Sloan.

He has since he made that speech in May released 11 people. So there are now 155 men in Guantanamo. That’s the achievement. Set against that is the now 76 men still held okayed for release.

And of the other men, when the task force concluded its deliberations, it recommended a few dozen for prosecution, and they recommended alarmingly this group of what was 48 men for indefinite detention without charge or trial. So, you know, that’s significant.

President Obama reacted to this recommendation by the task force and issued his own executive order authorizing the ongoing detention without charge or trial of these 48 men. Two them subsequently died. These 46 men.

That’s the only specific bit of his policy where he is directly responsible for having decided himself that he will indefinitely detain people without charge or trial. There should be no circumstances under which an American President is signing executive orders authorizing anyone to be held indefinitely without charge or trial. They’re either criminal suspects or they’re prisoners of war. So that is to his shame.

He promised when he issued that executive order, though, that there would be periodic reviews of these men’s cases. Now, he issued the executive order in March 2011. First periodic review took place two months ago. So it took nearly three years. My math is good again. [Laughter] It took nearly three years for him to do that.

That man was a Yemeni who spent six hours testifying from Guantanamo, with his lawyer by his side, via video link to the review board panel, which is military and intelligence people sitting on the U.S. mainland. We didn’t hear anything more about it. Nothing was unclassified from that six hour testimony. No one, it seems, was even prepared to even say whether they were going to un-classify some of it and release it at some point. That was looking like another veil of secrecy. And then we heard just last week that this man is being cleared for release. Now, he’s a Yemeni; he gets added to the pile of Yemeni cleared for release who don’t leave.

But hopefully, you know, people in the administration would realize that, you know, that’s kind of wrong, isn’t it? You know, you’ve got to start releasing people.

You know, my major message would be to you that we have to put pressure on President Obama to release all of these men. There are the 55 – now, 56 – Yemenis, and I could think of no bigger thing than for us to all to do than to find ways to say to the administration “Just release these men”. And they would say, “We have security concerns about Yemen”, and you have to say, “We have security concerns about – we have concerns about our humanity actually, Mr. President.”

Year after year goes by and what do you really think about these men? That some of them may be really annoyed about what happened to them? Yes. Are they going to commit some terrible terrorist atrocity? No. Most of these men want to go back to their lives, to resume their lives. These men were never terrorists – none of them.

The terrorist suspects in Guantanamo – and there are very few of them – no one’s clearing them for release.

The men who were cleared for release were either completely innocent people at the wrong place at the wrong time or low-level foot soldiers with the Taliban in a civil war against the Northern Alliance that became the War on Terror after the 9/11 attacks. They’ve never been held as soldiers.

The shorthand for everyone in Guantanamo is they’re all terrorists, and this hysteria goes on and on and on.

You test it. You look at the way that your elected representatives talk about Yemen and the prospects of releasing people to Yemen and the security situation.

It’s time to let these men go. So, I think that’s the most powerful message that we can send President Obama.

There are 21 other released prisoners, and clearly Paul Lewis and Cliff Sloan are dealing with this as I imagine they are trying to deal with the Yemen issue. 21 men are from a variety of countries. Some chiding on that would be helpful.

What I do wonder is if homes can’t be found for all of these men – if they can’t either be returned home or they can’t safely be given to third countries because they’re from countries where they face the risk of torture or ill treatment if they return home, it always seems to me there’s been a very strong moral case for the United States to accept responsibility for its own mistakes and re-house them here. But that has been resisted in every level of government. But I think there’s a very strong moral case to be made.

And if you’re interested, there is an organization set up by a woman in Amherst, Massachusetts called No More Guantanamos, where what they have done is pass resolutions in Amherst and some other places in Massachusetts, and one was passed in Berkeley a few years ago, saying “If we could get our elected representatives to drop their restrictions on bringing people to the United States, we would like to adopt one of these men in Guantanamo who cannot be safely returned home.”

I think that’s a good campaign and a good moral cause and a good way of saying “As Americans, we do not like what’s been done in our name; we don’t like this absolute prohibition on bringing people here if there’s no where else for them to go.”

I probably could think a whole lot more of things to say but I think I’ve covered most of the major ground…


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