The Guantanamo Files & American Human Rights Hypocrisy
“The first step to reclaiming America’s standing in the world has to be closing” the Guantánamo Bay detention facility, President Obama declared in a 2008 campaign pamphlet, before promising to do just that. International leaders and an official United Nations report have called on the United States to close the prison, citing human rights abuses. Scores of GTMO detainees have been tortured, few made it to military tribunals, and almost none were awarded a civilian trial, let alone compensation after their eventual release.
Since its foundation in 2002, the Cuban-based detention camp has been an emblem of the War on Terror’s worst erosions of civil liberties, an icon of America’s moral degradation, and a crucial talking point for critics of American foreign policy around the world. So the international community generally lauded Obama’s election, and his promise to close the site, excited for a new era of justice and moral awakening. Three years later, however, the notorious prison is still open, still caging nearly 200 people who may never see a trial, and still a symbol of America’s disastrous disregard for human rights under the endless, sprawling War on Terror.
The recently released Guantánamo Files, a collection of previously secret reports on nearly every GTMO detainee, first obtained by transparency activists WikiLeaks and published in major newspapers worldwide, reveal devastating new insights into how and why the U.S. has imprisoned almost 800 people without trial in the detainment camp since 2002. While the physically abusive conditions have been relatively well documented, the GTMO Files detail another side: the horrifying system of exceedingly weak evidence and confusion on which hundreds of detentions were based.
The GTMO Files are rife with details and U.S.-official accounts of already known detainees, such as Abu Zubaydah, who was subjected to waterboarding torture a stunning 83 times, and yet who is of “high intelligence value” although evidence obtained via torture is illegitimate in a civilian court.
The U.S. military has caged Arabs of all ages. The youngest is Naqib Ullah, a 14-year-old boy with Tuberculosis, who was kidnapped, raped, and held in a camp by 11 Afghani men. Then the U.S. raided the camp and detained Naqib for eight months, interrogating him about his captors but never about any potential risk he might pose. The oldest is 89-year-old Mohammad Sadiq, who was suffering dementia, major depression, and osteoarthritis while captive for nearly a year.
Guantánamo has held several others with mental disabilities, such as Abdul Houari, who has psychosis, slowed mobile functionality, and a blind right eye, and yet was deemed with the explicit coercion of the Criminal Investigative Task Force to pose a “medium risk” threat. Or Mishal Alhabiri a suicidal, mentally impaired detainee of “low intelligence value” who posed a “low risk,” but who was never given a trial despite his detention.
The reasoning provided for detaining many prisoners is illogical, contradictory, or merely that of a realist military tending to national interests instead of basic rights. For example, Sheikh Salman Al Khalifa, a member of the Bahraini royal family, was detained specifically to provide information on a select few “personalities” and alleged “Taliban safehouses,” but was then deemed himself a potential “threat to the US, its interests and allies.”
For others, the U.S. didn’t bother with a pretense of a real, potential threat, and instead decided that extremely tangential information justified indefinite imprisonment without trial. Sami al-Hajj, an al-Jazeera cameraman, was locked up for six years, solely so the U.S. could interrogate him about the news network. According to human-rights lawyer Clive Smith, the U.S. was “only interested in turning him into an informant against al-Jazeera.” Al-Hajj went on a hunger strike in protest of his treatment, claiming he was being denied vital medication, and demanding better conditions prison-wide. Hundreds more have fasted in protest similarly.
The Taliban imprisoned a British man, Jamal al-Harith, because they thought he might be a spy. Then the U.S. found him and detained him as well, for essentially the same reason, claiming Jamal “was expected to have knowledge of Taliban treatment of prisoners and interrogation tactics.”
Equally baffling is the fact that the U.S. considered the basic, cheap, and globally available Casio F91W wristwatch to be a ‘sign of al-Qaeda,’ and frequently listed it as a “suspicious item,” purportedly because an al-Qaeda training camp purportedly distributed that model to several students. At least 50 GTMO detainees wear the watch, though no direct link between that model and a terror threat has been made.
Kafka would marvel at what some of the documents reveal: merely having information on other detainees, i.e. cooperating and informing on who could be threatening, was officially considered a suspicious sign that warranted further detention. There is no way out in a system with rules like that.
What’s Next for Guantánamo?
This all goes a long way to illustrate the constellation of falsified evidence, peripheral connections, and pervasive confusion holding the Guantánamo Bay prison together. As Carol Rosenberg and Tom Lasseter summarize, “Intelligence analysts are at odds with each other over which informants to trust, at times drawing inferences from prisoners exercise habits. They ordered DNA tests, tethered Taliban suspects to polygraphs, strung together tidbits at times in ways that seemed to defy common sense.” So why not simply shut it down? Far from advancing our ostensible goals in the War on Terror and producing valuable terrorist information, the facility has been a nightmare for the United States. We’re still fighting in Iraq, our war in Afghanistan is the longest in U.S. history, we’ve opened a new war in Libya, and we’re still directing drone strikes in Yemen and Pakistan. Osama bin Laden has been killed, with some tenuous and unconfirmed reports suggesting GTMO-torture aided that mission, but that was ten years into the global fight against a war tactic and band of Islamists. It hardly seems worth it, and we hardly appear any closer to ending these wars. Guantánamo has not been useful, to say the least.
Furthermore, Guantánamo has drawn massive criticism, and Obama has lost some approval points, likely affected in some part by his failure to close it down. Upon entering office, the President signed an executive order calling for the prison’s closure. So why hasn’t it been closed? Many speculate, but few have concrete answers.
Obama Administration officials complain that the GTMO debate “became suffused with fear — fear that transferring detainees to American soil would create a genuine security threat, fear that closing Guantánamo would be electoral suicide.” Some congressional Democrats, they said, even pleaded with the Administration to back off of the issue. Congress, in turn, put the blame back in Obama’s hands – an aide said “vulnerable senators weren’t going out on a limb…when the White House, with the most to lose, wasn’t even twisting arms.”
Others asked to speak on the matter claimed even more fundamental obstacles, as a Republican staffer said those seeking to close GTMO “could never figure out…who was in charge” of the effort, while another White House counsel Gregory Craig said “no one was coordinating. More officials observed repeated backtracking from both Congress and the Administration.
These, to be sure, do not sound like people genuinely interested in closing the facility. How could the lawmakers of the world’s greatest superpower appear so feeble and uninterested to solve such a glaring human rights debacle? The idea of “electoral suicide” likely points in the right direction. More and more often, presidents and congressmen choose to fight not for what they feel is righteous and in their citizens’ interest, but instead for what will get them reelected. Human rights tend to lose these battles frequently in America, as the lack of a real stand to close Guantánamo demonstrates all too clearly.
More problems, though, would arise. In April 2009, a Justice Department lawyer told Obama that no more than 36 GTMO detainees could be legally prosecuted, far fewer than the President expected, which should have indicated how weak and problematic GTMO evidence was. The next month, congress voted 90-6 to deny money designated to close the prison.
Dominating the debate preceding that vote was the detainees’ relocation, and the idea of bringing “terrorists” to American prisons or trying to get other countries to accept them. Obviously, as no remaining prisoners had been given trial, and much of the evidence used to detain them was either flimsy or merely based on their potential intelligence on actual terrorists, Obama could have argued that bringing GTMO detainees to the U.S. – where security would be extremely high – was not truly as dangerous as polemicists warned. But he did not. The president chose not to battle with congress, instead turning his attention to health care and other matters.
The U.S. on Human Rights
Despite the well-documented abuses of the Guantánamo Bay prison, not to mention hundreds more human rights problems, the U.S. frequently holds itself out as both an arbiter of human-rights morality and an exemplary model for lawful practices, as part of a larger theme of American Exceptionalism. The State Department annually publishes a thorough report on human rights abuses on every single country – except the U.S. This year, the Obama Administration made a special point to criticize China on that country’s various human rights deficiencies. Assistant Secretary of State Michael Posner declared the U.S. has “seen a serious backsliding on human rights” in China, specifically disparaging China’s detention practices, saying, “We have been and are very concerned over recent months by reports that dozens of people, including public interest lawyers, writers, artists like Ai Weiwei, and others, have been arrested, detained, or in some cases, disappeared, with no regard to legal measures.” While some would argue there is a difference between imprisoning ones own citizens and detaining prisoners of war abroad, there is an obvious irony in Posner’s remarks.
China made sure to take advantage of that irony, returning the U.S. comments with an extensive report on America’s 2010 human rights record. Chinese officials accuse the U.S. of turning “a blind eye to its own terrible human rights situation and seldom mentioned it,” before excoriating the Western empire on civil, political rights, racial discrimination, vast prison populations, economic inequality, and sexual violence.
Further, the report attacks American foreign policies, primarily for the U.S.’s disregard for civilian casualties in its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Then the officials cite Guantánamo and American secret prisons worldwide, noting various interrogation techniques used, and they criticize the U.S. for “mak[ing] arrests outside its border under the pretext of the ‘war on terror’.”
The report continues to discuss America’s stance on human rights in the global arena, calling attention to “a record 228 recommendations by about 60 country delegations for improving [the U.S.’s] human rights situation,” and deploring the U.S. for accepting only 40 of those. The Chinese officials damningly conclude “that the United States has a dismal record on its own human rights and could not be justified to pose as the world’s ‘human rights justice’.” Worse still, America “ignores its own serious human rights problems, but has been keen on advocating the so-called ‘human rights diplomacy,” and uses “human rights as a political instrument to defame other nations’ image and seek its own strategic interests.”
China has serious human rights abuses of its own to tend to, but this report could go a long way in highlighting U.S. disrespect for human rights on an international scale, and rightly works to discredit hypocritical American attempts to condemn other nations for its own problems.
Torture and Hypocrisy
One of the worst U.S. hypocrisies is its use of torture and its criticisms of other countries’ “harsh interrogation techniques.” As a New York Times editorial declares, and as most of the world acknowledges, “President Bush and his aides have not only condoned torture and abuse at secret prisons, but they have conducted a systematic campaign to mislead Congress, the American people and the world about those policies.” These torturous tactics include “simulated drownings, extreme ranges of heat and cold, prolonged stress positions and isolation.”
Meanwhile, the U.S. is eager to denounce other nations for torturing prisoners. According to cables WikiLeaks released last year, American “diplomats repeatedly refer to human rights abuses by security and law enforcement agencies within India,” specifically deploring “terrorism investigations and court cases [which] tend to rely upon confessions, many of which are obtained under duress if not beatings, threats, or, in some cases, torture.”
Throughout the Guantánamo Files, though, the word torture is never used. We know that some detainees were waterboarded and that too many others were subjected to physical and psychological torture, yet officials who wrote the files repeatedly referred to “interrogation” and “questioning.” Publicly, as well, U.S. diplomats are careful to discuss “enhanced interrogation techniques,” or other deceptive phrases, when referring to their own country’s tactics, no matter how often they accuse another nation of torture.
This type of hypocrisy emphasizes the U.S. as a ‘realist’ country, or one that bases nearly all decisions on its own national interests, and one whose interests routinely trump any human rights concerns. Unfortunately, American policies at the Guantánamo Bay prison camp emblematize this dynamic all too well. There is insufficient evidence to prosecute most of the remaining prisoners, and it’s too difficult to transport them safely and wisely elsewhere, so the site remains open. After years of intense international and domestic criticism, officials have cleaned up GTMO practices, no longer torturing detainees and abiding by somewhat higher standards. But this only came after heavy pressure, and when it became the United States’ interest to improve their international standing on human rights. Yet nearly 200 still sit caged without charge or trial, potentially for the rest of their lives, and criticism has largely died down, at least before WikiLeaks released the Guantánamo Files. Without significant pressure, it’s simply not in America’s national interest to close the prison down. For the United States, human rights only seem to matter when respecting them suits other interests, and when doing so fits the Exceptional narrative that we have written.