Sunday, October 03, 2004

All For Nothing

How bad must things be inside the Bush Administration for so many military and intelligence personnel to come out publicly against their policies? On the heels of outgoing Marine Lieutenant Commander James Conway's criticism of the Administrations orders to invade, then pull out of Fallujah:
Lieutenant Colonel Anthony Christino, who retired last June after 20 years in military intelligence, says that President George W Bush and US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld have 'wildly exaggerated' their intelligence value.

Christino's revelations, to be published this week in Guantánamo: America's War on Human Rights, by British journalist David Rose, are supported by three further intelligence officials. Christino also disclosed that the 'screening' process in Afghanistan which determined whether detainees were sent to Guantánamo was 'hopelessly flawed from the get-go'.

It was performed by new recruits who had almost no training, and were forced to rely on incompetent interpreters. They were 'far too poorly trained to identify real terrorists from the ordinary Taliban militia'.

According to Christino, most of the approximately 600 detainees at Guantánamo - including four Britons - at worst had supported the Taliban in the civil war it had been fighting against the Northern Alliance before the 11 September attacks, but had had no contact with Osama bin Laden or al-Qaeda.

This story only serves to solidify the charges levelled in Seymour Hersh's devastating account of the Bush Administration's treatment of "enemy combatants" in both Guantanamo and Abu Grhaib prison.
 In the late summer of 2002, a CIA analyst [Gordon] made a quiet visit to the detention centre at the US Naval Base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, where an estimated 600 prisoners were being held, many, at first, in steel-mesh cages that provided little protection from the brutally hot sun. Most had been captured on the battlefield in Afghanistan during the campaign against the Taliban and al-Qaida.

The Bush administration had determined, however, that they were not prisoners of war but "enemy combatants", and that their stay at Guantánamo could be indefinite, as teams of CIA, FBI, and military interrogators sought to prise intelligence from them. In a series of secret memorandums written earlier in the year, lawyers for the White House, the Pentagon and the justice department had agreed that the prisoners had no rights under federal law or the Geneva convention. President Bush endorsed the finding, while declaring that the al-Qaida and Taliban detainees were nevertheless to be treated in a manner consistent with the principles of the Geneva convention - as long as such treatment was also "consistent with military necessity".

But the interrogations at Guantánamo were a bust. Very little useful intelligence had been gathered, while prisoners from around the world continued to flow into the base, and the facility constantly expanded. The CIA analyst had been sent there to find out what was going wrong. He was fluent in Arabic and familiar with the Islamic world. He was held in high respect within the agency, and was capable of reporting directly, if he chose, to George Tenet, the CIA director. The analyst did more than just visit and inspect. He interviewed at least 30 prisoners to find out who they were and how they ended up in Guantánamo. Some of his findings, he later confided to a former CIA colleague, were devastating.

"He came back convinced that we were committing war crimes in Guantánamo," the colleague told me. "Based on his sample, more than half the people there didn't belong there. He found people lying in their own faeces," including two captives, perhaps in their 80s, who were clearly suffering from dementia. "He thought what was going on was an outrage," the CIA colleague added. There was no rational system for determining who was important.

When Gordon came back and reported what he had found,
Nothing changed. "The Pentagon went into a full-court stall," the former White House official recalled. "I trusted in the goodness of man and thought we got something to happen. I was naive enough to believe that when a cabinet member" - he was referring to Rumsfeld - "says he's going to take action, he will."

Over the next few months, as the White House began planning for the coming war in Iraq, there were many more discussions about the continuing problems at Guantánamo and the lack of useful intelligence. No one in the Bush administration would get far, however, if he was viewed as soft on suspected al-Qaida terrorism. "Why didn't Condi do more?" the official asked. "She made the same mistake I made. She got the secretary of defence to say he's going to take care of it."

There was, obviously, a difference between the reality of prison life in Guantánamo and how it was depicted to the public in carefully stage-managed news conferences and statements released by the administration. American prison authorities have repeatedly assured the press and the public, for example, that the al-Qaida and Taliban detainees were provided with a minimum of three hours of recreation every week. For the tough cases, however, according to a Pentagon adviser familiar with detainee conditions in mid-2002, at recreation time some prisoners would be strapped into heavy jackets, similar to straitjackets, with their arms locked behind them and their legs straddled by straps. Goggles were placed over their eyes, and their heads were covered with a hood. The prisoner was then led at midday into what looked like a narrow fenced-in dog run - the adviser told me that there were photographs of the procedure - and given his hour of recreation. The restraints forced him to move, if he chose to move, on his knees, bent over at a 45-degree angle. Most prisoners just sat and suffered in the heat.

One of the marines assigned to guard duty at Guantánamo in 2003, who has since left the military, told me, after being promised anonymity, that he and his enlisted colleagues at the base were encouraged by their squad leaders to "give the prisoners a visit" once or twice a month, when there were no television crews, journalists, or other outside visitors at the prison.

"We tried to fuck with them as much as we could - inflict a little bit of pain. We couldn't do much," for fear of exposure, the former marine, who also served in Afghanistan, told me.

"There were always newspeople there," he said. "That's why you couldn't send them back with a broken leg or so. And if somebody died, I'd get court-martialled."

The roughing up of prisoners was sometimes spur-of-the-moment, the former marine said: "A squad leader would say, 'Let's go - all the cameras on lunch break.'" One pastime was to put hoods on the prisoners and "drive them around the camp in a Humvee, making turns so they didn't know where they were. [...] I wasn't trying to get information. I was just having a little fun - playing mind control." When I asked a senior FBI official about the former marine's account, he told me that agents assigned to interrogation duties at Guantánamo had described similar activities to their superiors.

Why is this all so important? Because, as others have reported, with our actions we have lost our standing as the world's moral compass. What credibility could we possibly have in the Arab world now? We have held people without charges for years. We have tortured, humiliated and killed innocent civilians. And even when we have captured terrorists and enemy combatants we have chosen revenge based torture methods which almost never result in reliable information. When someone is stripped naked and isolated for weeks on end, beaten and starved and screamed at and threatened, they will say anything to make it stop.

The scariest thing of all might just be how easy it was for our government to sink to the terrorist's level. And make no mistake, that is exactly what they wanted.


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