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Guantanamo on trial

In order to cover up previous crimes - committed at Guantanamo or elsewhere - the United States is engaged in one big open-ended crime.

Let’s say the government of North Korea was operating a maximum-security prison camp on South Korean territory, where it regularly detained individuals without charge and tortured them both physically and via more creative methods such as prolonged exposure to Sesame Street music.

Most of the detainees had been cleared for release - many of them for years - and the United Nations had deemed the operation in violation of international humanitarian law.

Were this the case, odds are there’d be a bit of a sustained fuss about it among the members of the political establishment in the United States.

Not so with Guantánamo Bay, despite the fact that all of the aforementioned hypotheticals, in fact, describe the reality of the infamous offshore detention facility.

Guantánamo has been under US control since the turn of the last century, when Cuba was pressured to amend its constitution following the Spanish-American War to eventually allow for a perpetual lease of the area by the Americans. Although the US sends Cuba annual checks in the amount of $4,085 for this privilege, Cuba hasn’t cashed them since 1959.

The military base became particularly useful after 9/11 and the launching of the global war on terror, which produced lots of folks requiring detention. In an article for “The Atlantic,” former Guantánamo-based Marine Scott Packard enumerated some of the perks offered by “non-US soil.”

“If the detainees weren’t in the US, then they wouldn’t have the same rights under American laws, the argument went. Some of these included the right to legal representation, rights of prisoners, and rights to the American legal system. One government official referred to the base [at Guantánamo] as the ‘legal equivalent of outer space.’”

In total, Guantánamo has held approximately 779 prisoners since January 2002, a mere eight of whom have been convicted. About 149 men remain interned at the camp. The majority have never been - and never will be - charged with a crime, and have furthermore been cleared for release by a task force comprising the Homeland Security Department and other US institutions as well as military and intelligence outfits.

As James Connell, defence attorney for 9/11 “high-value detainee” Ammar al-Baluchi, commented during a recent talk at the American University of Beirut,  “If these people say it’s safe to release you, it’s safe.”

Why, then, the excessive inertia?

For starters, most of those cleared for release are from Yemen, which was formerly subject to a moratorium on prisoner transfers after it was established that the Nigerian would-be “underwear bomber” had received training in that country.

Barack Obama reversed the ban in May of last year, but, fortunately for Guantánamo fans, presidential pronouncements often have little bearing on reality - as evidenced by, inter alia, his 2008 promise to swiftly shutter the prison camp.

Predictably, Fox News excoriated Obama for “standing by [his] announcement, even though al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the al-Qaeda affiliate in Yemen that US intelligence officials say is now the greatest al-Qaeda threat to the US homeland, was formed in part by several former Guantánamo Bay detainees who were released in 2006.”

Of course, the argument could also be made that there is a positive correlation between indefinite wrongful imprisonment and feelings of dislike for the US. In fact, were one to design the ideal terrorist incubator, it might end up closely resembling Guantánamo.

Open-ended crime

In a report submitted to the UN Committee against Torture, which on 12 and 13 November reviewed the US performance for the first time since 2006, Connell doesn’t beat around the bush explaining US aims vis-à-vis the five 9/11 detainees at Guantánamo: “The State Party seeks to execute [these] men imprisoned at Guantánamo Bay before they can reveal the truth of their torture.”

In order to cover up previous crimes, then, the US is engaged in one big open-ended crime. Connell’s client al-Baluchi is particularly well acquainted with both sides of the spectrum.

Born in 1977, al-Baluchi - the nephew of alleged 9/11 mastermind, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed - was abducted by the US in Pakistan in 2003. The recipient of CIA torture at one or more “black sites” abroad, he was transferred in 2006 to Guantánamo, which Connell refers to as “a dark grey site.” He is accused of war crimes for allegedly wiring funds that were ultimately used to carry out the 9/11 attacks.

As Connell told me in Beirut, there are only two declassified facts relating to al-Baluchi’s experience in CIA custody. One is that he sustained a head injury; the other, revealed by the Gawker website last year, is that he was the inspiration for one of the characters in what Gawker describes as filmmaker “Kathryn Bigelow's Osama bin Laden revenge-porn flick ‘Zero Dark Thirty.’”

As for all other details regarding his ill treatment, al-Baluchi is prohibited from discussing them with anyone aside from Connell, who can in turn be criminally prosecuted for bringing them up in such relevant situations as courts of law and meetings with human rights officials.

The banishment of what is obviously integral information to any judicial reckoning on 9/11 is made possible by the de facto classification of “the observations and experiences” of victims of CIA torture, as Connell notes in his report. The US justification for this policy, he writes, is that the victims “‘have been exposed to highly classified sources and methods,’ i.e., the interrogation techniques and conditions of confinement.”

Never mind that denying people the right to their own experiences doesn’t exactly mesh with the US portrayal of itself as a beacon of freedom, and is instead more reminiscent of police state behaviour.

The hyper-classification scheme also happens to violate the Convention against Torture, which enshrines the right of torture victims to seek acknowledgement and compensation. Ever one step ahead, the US has auto-immunised itself from criticism on this front by deciding that the convention doesn’t apply to the 9/11 detainees at Guantánamo.

This is, of course, in keeping with the mentality propagated by George W. Bush, who in 2002 determined that the whole business of the Geneva Conventions - which prescribe humane treatment for prisoners - was irrelevant when it came to al-Qaeda or Taliban suspects.

Andy Worthington, author of the 2007 book, “The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison,” reflects on the Bush approach as follows:

“This was the rationale for holding prisoners neither as criminal suspects or as prisoners of war, but as a third category of human being, without any rights, which was disturbing enough, but it also paved the way for the use of torture, as people with no rights whatsoever had no protection against torture and abuse.”

Regarding the memorandum that sanctified these policies, Connell stresses that the document was never formally repealed and that its foundations thus continue to underlie the US outlook.

Meanwhile, the perception that the US has moved beyond its torture phase is nothing if not misguided, although forms of torture have become more palatable (in more ways than one).

The compulsive force-feeding of Guantánamo detainees, for example, opens up another can of worms on the torture scene - or in this case, butter pecan-flavoured Ensure.

'The least worst place'

Although recognised as torture by the UN and other mainstream bodies, force-feeding has many enthusiastic promoters.

One concentrated cheerleading session took place on the pages of the Washington Post in 2013, and was conducted by Marc A. Thiessen, a current fellow at the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute and a former speechwriter for Bush and ex-Secretary of Defence, Donald Rumsfeld. The latter’s eloquent utterances have included a reference to Guantánamo as “the least worst place” for a detention centre.

In his ode to force-feeding, Thiessen advertises a YouTube video featuring a young girl named Natalie who cheerfully demonstrates how to insert nasogastric feeding tubes. He reasons: “If a young girl like Natalie can handle a feeding tube, so can the big tough al-Qaeda terrorists at Guantánamo Bay.”

One of the many problems with such statements is that internment at Guantánamo does not automatically make you a terrorist - something the Washington Post’s fact-checkers should be acutely aware of.

But the all-pervasive image of the prison camp as a den of super-terrorists (who are nonetheless simultaneously emasculated in Thiessen’s Orientalist rendition) does wonders as far as ensuring public support for its perpetuation.

Thiessen gushes about the undeserved humaneness supposedly on display in Guantánamo, where detainees “even choose the flavour of Ensure they will use…the detainees can smell and even taste it when they belch.”

A former Guantánamo official has furthermore told Thiessen that hunger strikers in 2005 requested to keep their feeding tubes inserted and “were sufficiently nourished to run laps around the inner yard with the tube coiled up around an ear.”

While Connell sees hunger strikes as one of the few ways in which detainees can protest their abominable conditions, Thiessen has uncovered the truth of the matter, which is that “many of the detainees refusing food at Guantanamo are not doing so voluntarily but are under pressure from terrorist leaders inside the camp.”

As I pointed out in a recent op-ed for Al-Jazeera, it’s not clear why the US is so intent on keeping detainees alive when the ultimate goal is to kill them. If inmate deaths by starvation are seen as unacceptably damaging to the national image, it seems that more straightforward methods of image maintenance might include ceasing to illegally detain and torture people in the first place.

To be sure, it’s a bit ambitious to expect digestive freedom from a system that classifies thoughts and minds. Although we’re allowed to hear all about prisoners’ belches, we’re prohibited from knowing, for instance, how it was that al-Baluchi sustained his head injury in CIA custody.

A common refrain during my meeting with Connell in Beirut and his university talk was thus: “I cannot confirm or deny that.” Similarly, the description of the Twitter account @GitmoWatch, from which Connell and a group of volunteers live-tweet the Guantánamo military commissions, specifies that re-tweets do not constitute “endorsement, confirmation, or denial.” One misstep, and Connell himself can end up on trial.

The secrecy that enshrouds Guantánamo is especially pronounced in the case of the clandestine Camp Seven that houses al-Baluchi and 14 other “high-value” detainees in super-max incarceration conditions. Connell is the only lawyer ever permitted to meet with his client inside the facility, an honour that was granted him in August 2013. The visit required first being driven around in circles in a van with garbage bags covering the windows for disorientation purposes.

All of the material he collected at Camp Seven - notes, drawings, photographs - was submitted for review and came back classified. But as Connell told me, the outing at least produced a breakthrough in his relationship with al-Baluchi, who had previously refused to speak with him due to his - not unfounded - view of Connell as a powerless component of an arbitrary system of injustice.

On this occasion, however, al-Baluchi had the opportunity to host his lawyer and two colleagues in what Connell describes as “the most secret picnic of all time,” which transpired when the Camp Seven inmates realised that their guests had come on a 12-hour visit with no food and donated their own meals.

Granted, it was presumably Thiessen’s “terrorist leaders” who gave the order for the calculated show of humanity.

Measuring absurdity

Obligatory self-censorship is not the only obstacle facing defence attorneys at Guantánamo. The manic redaction schemes that have become the US modus operandi obviously also affect the defence’s ability to gather necessary information.

To illustrate the absurd lengths to which the state goes to disappear large swathes of reality, Connell and his team calculated the distance that would have been covered by stringing together all the redacted words from a batch of FBI documents given to them for use in the al-Baluchi case.

The result? 2.01 miles (3.2 km) - which happens to be the exact length of the ferry route at Guantánamo Bay.

Just when you start to think there can’t possibly be room for any more absurdity in such a small place, Connell tells you that his current position also bars him from citing mainstream news articles or NGO reports in the public domain that might confirm classified information. Even the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence - the very congressional body tasked with investigating the CIA’s secret detention program - has been prevented from receiving testimony from prisoners regarding the conditions of their detention.

But these ubiquitous silencing tactics actually say a lot about the nature of US society, which is apparently bereft of a capacity for self-reflection that might eventually challenge its noxious essence.

Despite its obvious transgressions against humanity, however, the US continues to elevate itself to the position of supreme civilising force and global purveyor of freedom. And it’s certainly setting a powerful example, even for fanatical jihadist groups; see, for instance, news headlines such as “Captives held by Islamic State were water-boarded.”

Although the maintenance of prison camps on occupied territory might strike some observers as an unfashionably outdated practice, Connell stresses that “there is no end in sight” for Guantánamo; detention facilities are being refurbished, new housing for lawyers is under construction, and a new $40 mm cable will reportedly provide improved internet access.

One of Obama’s defining presidential stunts has, of course, been to uphold his predecessor’s policies while pretending not to - and at times to even outdo Bush, who transferred and repatriated more Guantánamo detainees than the man who promised to close the prison. On the Guantánamo front, Obama’s performance is facilitated by a political establishment that pretends to comprise polar opposite views but never fails to rally behind imperialist oppression.

Lisa Hajjar - frequent visitor to Guantánamo and author of Torture: A Sociology of Violence and Human Rights, and organiser of Connell’s talk in Beirut - describes the auspicious political environment:

“Many Republicans and more than a few Democrats in Washington believe that the prison and the military commissions are necessary and wonderful additions to the American legal apparatus. Hence… there is a sufficiently strong bipartisan consensus in Congress that makes closure nearly impossible.”

When I met with Hajjar in Beirut, she described Guantánamo as a sort of “tail that wags the dog.” What this boils down to is that, in order to justify the continued operation of a camp that essentially functions as a toxic waste dump for the excesses of the war on terror, the US must remain in a state of perpetual war.

But there are other tails at work, too. The arms industry, for example, is fairly adept at helping to wag the state into profitable conflicts of which phenomena like Guantánamo are a logical by-product.

A 2013 al-Jazeera Fault Lines documentary titled “Life After Guantánamo” features retired Army Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, former Chief of Staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell, who remarks on the US tendency to detain folks who “weren't guilty of anything except having been in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

And the wrongs only accumulate from there, thanks in large part to the quandary outlined by Wilkerson:

“You've told the American people [that the Guantanamo detainees are] hard-core al-Qaeda operatives; you can't then suddenly say, ‘Oh, made a mistake! These people are not really tough al-Qaeda operatives - oh my God, we've got to reverse this, we gotta close this camp.’ You can't do that.”

Toward justice?

Suppose that North Korea sought to sentence American citizens to death on the basis of information obtained in part via torture. You probably wouldn’t have US Justice Department attorneys applauding torture as an acceptable component of the judicial process.

But in the case of non-North Korean scenarios, Reuters quotes prosecutor Clay Trivett’s nonchalant explanation: “We were in a situation where we were at war and we needed intelligence.”

Never mind that people on the receiving end of torture will often confess to things they didn’t do - or turn in others for things they didn’t do.

As a result of his own torture at the hands of the CIA, al-Baluchi has suffered neurological damage and post-traumatic stress disorder. Reuters notes that “[h]is symptoms include memory loss and delusions.”

The whole “memory loss” bit could presumably come in handy in the course of US attempts to disappear individual events, but it’s delusional to think the self-assumed American monopoly on recent history can outlive reality. This is particularly true given the increasing mass of civilians killed by drone strikes and other indications that crime is the norm and not the exception in US foreign policy.

Though it’s overly optimistic to suggest there are substantial signs of hope at the moment, there are perhaps a few reasons to be slightly less than completely and irreparably depressed.

For example, as Connell pointed out in his university talk, the ongoing trials in Argentina for crimes that were committed during the military dictatorship of 1976-83 - and that included torture - prove that impunity isn’t necessarily eternal.

He went on to recall the words of Martin Luther King, Jr.: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

There may be many things Connell can’t confirm or deny at this point, but we can pretty easily confirm the universe has a long way to go.

- Belen Fernandez is the author of The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work, published by Verso. She is a contributing editor at Jacobin magazine. 

Photo: This photo made during an escorted visit and reviewed by the US military, shows the razor wire-topped fence and a watch tower at the abandoned "Camp X-Ray" detention facility at the US Naval Station in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, 9 April, 2014 (AFP).