Interview with Andy Worthington on Guantanamo Files

andy_worthington Andy Worthington is a journalist, blogger, and author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America's Illegal Prison. He is also co-director of a new documentary film, "Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo".

In 2009, Worthington revealed information about the demise of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi the former US 'ghost prisoner' whose alleged suicide death in a Libyan jail is still under suspicion.

Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi's testimony, which was obtained under torture and coercion, and later recanted, was cited by the George W. Bush Administration in the months preceding the 2003 invasion of Iraq as evidence of a connection between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda.

The head of the Washington office of Human Rights Watch stated al-Libi was "Exhibit A" in hearings on the relationship between pre-Iraq War false intelligence and torture. Confirmation of al-Libi's location came two weeks prior to his death.

Most recently, Worthington partnered with WikiLeaks on its latest release of thousands of pages of documents regarding the cases of 758 out of 779 Guantanamo detainees dating between 2002 and 2008. The documents consist of memoranda from JTF-GTMO, the Joint Task Force at Guantánamo Bay, to US Southern Command in Miami, Florida.

You can find Mr. Worthington on his Web site or on twitter @GuantanamoAndy.

Transcript

I wanted to talk to you a little bit about a couple things that you had mentioned when you were talking with Amy Goodwin on Democracy Now. One of the things you talked about was that 'guidelines' needed to be set up for filtering or discriminating the content that was found in the documents. Could you tell me a little bit about what that would be like in terms of application?

Well, you know, to be honest...a certain amount of hard work is required and some of that has already been done... I am glad to know...by some of the journalists who've been writing about it already...who have worked out that a lot of this supposed 'body of evidence' consists of allegations that have been made by a small number of prisoners... who have made repeated allegations against large numbers of their fellow prisoners, which have been called into doubt.

Now, you know, the doubts about this information are not necessarily mentioned, in fact, they are rarely mentioned in these military documents.

But they have been mentioned elsewhere...and, so you know, I suppose a certain amount of cross referencing is required.

You know, some of these stories have emerged in media reports over the years...and some of them have emerged in court cases, where the prisoner, you know, have had their habeas corpus petitions examined by judges in a district court in Washington DC. They involve essentially a number of 'high value' detainees making allegations about a large number of the prisoners.

These are people held for quite a long time, in secret CIA prisons, where they were subjected to torture.

One of them is Abu Zubaydah and he turns up over and over again.

He was the first 'high value' detainee that the Bush administration specifically attempted to re-write the rules on torture so that they could torture him.

He was water boarded...subjected to a form of controlled drowning 83 times, in the month after his torture was approved by lawyers in the Justice Department.

On what basis they could possibly be regarded as credible...any of the claims that he made against his fellow prisoners, you know, is rather beyond me. And, you know, he is not the only one. There are other high value detainees who appear in these documents.

Other problems are with informants within Guantanamo.

So, people who have been regarded as useful within Guantanamo, because they have made allegations against a large number of prisoners. And, the easiest way to imagine this is...that the way that this happened...is that the authorities would show prisoners photographs of other prisoners and say, "Do you know this person? What do you know about this person?"

And, and I think that helps to understand how easy it would be for somebody to say, "Oh yes. I know that person," even if they didn't. Just to get somebody off their back. Or in the cases of some of the people in Guantanamo...to get favors.

You know, there is an interrogator saying, "What would you like? Would you like a nice meal? Would you like a TV? What kind of stuff could we give you if you helped us out here?"

People...either because they are put under horrible pressure...or because they were enticed in this way...many people...or a certain number of people came up with these false stories about other prisoners.

As I say, these have been exposed in other context...but I would say even bigger than that is the problem so many of the people held in Guantanamo and in the 'War on Terror' have said...those people who have been released, "Look in the end I cracked. I told them things that they wanted to hear that weren't true."

It's very understandable why people did that.

Very often when people think about this circumstance in which people are held , and they imagine themselves in it they say, "Well I am not sure how I would have taken it. I am sure I would have cracked within a short amount of time."

So that is what we are dealing with.

And, it requires a certain amount of dedication on the part of people reading these stories...to understand, that it isn't a coherent network of intelligence.

Actually what it is, is a bunch of people rounded up largely indiscriminately...most bought by the US military...not screened adequately on capture, taken to Guantanamo, and when they didn't really know who they had...they started to try and piece it together.

And the only material that they had to do that with was the prisoners themselves.

Do you think that the American media is partly responsible for the manifestation of a system like Guantanamo?

Well, I don't think that they thoroughly complained enough about it...It was a difficult issue.

It is a difficult issue, in the sense of knowing exactly what to make of who is held there.

And you know, that is why it is important for people to understand how random it was, and how arrogant it was of the United States under President Bush to deny Geneva Convention Rightsto prisoners...and, to implement torture, all of these awful things.

I am not sure that everybody quite realizes how much...how wrong the whole foundation of the 'War on Terror' is.

Because, what we have at Guantanamo are people who are labeled 'enemy combatants' by the Bush administration.

Now, Obama, early on, his justice department dropped that terminology. They knew that, that was pretty toxic.

But they haven't replaced it with anything. There is no name for these people now.

But, what they are not is either criminal suspects allegedly responsible for terrorist activities...or enemy prisoners of war...held according to the Geneva Conventions.

Now those are the only two ways in which you are allowed to hold people prisoner and deprive them of their liberty.

So there is still this third category of human being...invented by the Bush administration...called 'enemy combatants' intended to be held without any rights whatsoever.

And, what has happened there is that terrorists suspects have been confused with soldiers.

So, apart from all the innocent people held at Guantanamo...there were foot soldiers for theTaliban.

And the purpose of Guantanamo has been to dress these people to be more significant than they were.

Many of them were not...anything more than soldiers fighting against other Muslims in Afghanistan. And, that particular conflict morphed into a 'War on Terror', a war against the US...after the US led invasion.

I am trying to understand Guantanamo from an institutional perspective...in the sense that institutions are suppose to underpin and support democratic principles...or the foundational principles of a society. So, you had mentioned that there was a third category of human being...I wonder if there is a fourth category of human being called the corporation. You mention 'fear politics' or the 'season of fear'. What is the source of that? Is it simply socio-political phenomena that happens when a country is attacked? Or is there more to the story then simply the sophistry, or the propaganda, or the agenda setting of politicians with a view towards national security? Are there other forces at play?

I mean I think there are a few forces at play.

I think the starting point would be to say...the Bush administration was so severely rattled, and understandably after the 9/11 attacks.

And, that instead of taking a measured response they wanted to be strong. They wanted vengeance...and, they threw out what they regarded as all these weak kind of laws restricting what they could do...so that was there starting point.

Now I think, I think it would be too generous to them to say that, that remains their agenda for very long.

Because, what has become apparent on the Iraq War over the years, has been the...is early December 2001...people were pushing for moving on to Iraq.

On the day that the 9/11 attacks took place, British officials who were in Washington D.C., toldJane Mayer, of the New Yorker, how shocked they were that hours after the attacks, people were talking about, "When can we invade Iraq?"

Iraq had no connection to it.

But there were people who wanted Iraq to have a connection to it, and who were pushing for that invasion which eventually took place in March 2003.

And, you know, one particular prisoner...and he turns up a lot in these documents just released as well. He is called Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi.

He was captured. He was sent to Egypt, where he was tortured on behalf of the CIA...and where he said that two Al Qaeda operatives had been meeting with Saddam Hussein to discuss obtaining chemical and biological weapons.

That was used by Colin Powell in his submission to the United Nations, a month before the invasion in February 2003, as a justification for war.

Now al-Libi had recanted what he had said...that he had produced under torture in Egypt.

But, you know...was that deliberately used to justify an invasion of Iraq? Or did Cheney and other people in the administration believe what al-Libi said?

It is one or the other.

They either thought that torture was producing the information that they needed or, even more worryingly, they were cynically 'exploiting' somebody like al-Libi to justify an illegal invasion of a sovereign country.

Whichever one it is, is bad.

If it is the latter, then Cheney, who I believe was driving this, has committed the most enormous crime I think that a vice president of the Unites States could do.

This is my last question. Is there a historical parallel that comes to mind when you think about Guantanamo...either its model...of the crimes committed?

You know...in some ways...the United States reacted in the Second World War...the internment of so many Japanese Americans...for something that came to be looked at afterwards as a horrible overreaction.

There is a historical pattern, I suppose of overreacting to things...then being able to look back at it afterwards and say, "Oh dear. That was a bit over the top. That was wrong. We undermined our fundamental values by doing that."

Now, you know, we are nearly ten years on from the 9/11 attacks and from the opening of Guantanamo and I think it is time for that point to be reached.

But there are a number of forces within the United States, powerful forces, both in congress and in the media who are dedicated to keeping this alive.

They want more of this.

So you know, I think that actually the struggle that is still underway is the kind of struggle for the soul of America, and it doesn't just involve arbitrarily detaining a bunch of Muslims in this little corner of Cuba, outside of all the norms.

It is everything else that went with it.

It was the deliberate attempt...at the highest level of the Bush government to use torture as part of this process of holding people outside of the norms...of domestic and international law.

And, that has been accepted.

But Obama has failed by not calling to account the people within the Bush administration who authorized this, who implemented, who issued the legal advice.

There are too many people in the Unites States, who believe that torture justified.

It is counterproductive, and it is illegal. The story has drifted, and it needs to be addressed.

And, that is why I think it is so crucial.

I think that all of this is really two sided...with people who understand that there used to be right and wrong, and that something terrible has happened.

And the other people who have got increasingly violent and hysterical in their approach to things...and, fear is part of that. I am sure that this is being manipulated in some ways.

Who has made money out of not just the 'War on Terror', but the wars of the last ten years? Well, it tends to be arms manufacturers and big companies like Halliburton.

You know, very few people have actually benefitted financially. But the corporate interests that have are obviously tied in with the governments as well. So, all of that is worth looking at as well, really.

I thank you very much for your time. You have been very generous.

Okay. You are welcome.

Alexa O'Brien Alexa O'Brien researches and writes about national security and law enforcement. Her work has been published in The New York Times, VICE News, The Cairo Review of Global Affairs, Guardian (UK), The Daily Beast, NY Daily News, and featured on the BBC, PBS, NPR, Democracy Now!, and Public Radio International. She was shortlisted for the 2013 Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism in the United Kingdom and listed in The Verge 50. In 2016, she worked at The Constitution Project in Washington, D.C. as a staff researcher and writer on an independent commission studying Oklahoma's death penalty. She also provided research support to scholars of the first cost study conducted on that state's capital punishment system.