Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

Guantánamo – Why you need to care.

And what of the conditions there? After last year’s revelations from Abu Ghraib, and to a lesser extent Guantánamo, is there any reason to believe that people are now being treated humanely (humanely in the real sense, not that which Donald Rumsfeld espoused, which involved solitary confinement, physical beatings and humiliation)? “I don’t think conditions have detiriorated. I suspect, if anything, they’ve improved somwehat. It was Colin Powell who said, immediatly after the publication of the Abu Ghraib phtotographs, “Just see what America will do”. What America has basically done is cover up the chain of command, as Seymour Hersch puts it, that does lead from the White House and the Pentagon down to those places. On the other hand, while the leadership of the American Military has not been called to account, and for the time being it is effectively immune to any accountability or sanctions over what has happened, I do think that the continuing publicity and exposure has probably made it more difficult for people to get away with abuse. I think they’re probably being more careful than they were. I don’t have too much to base that on, though, other than I suppose the fact that the stories one hears from detainees or rather through detainees lawyers, do suggest that the very worst cases did happen before conditions were exposed in 2004. I think the overuse of brutality and torture has somewhat diminished. The Administration has been forced to condemn torture. On the other hand what persists is indefinite detention without any form of trial, without any idea of what the reasons for detention are. This starts with the suspension of the Geneva Conventions. With the unilateral withdrawal from the provisions of the conventions by the US government, they seem to be able to decide who gets the Geneva Convention apparently at whim. It would seem that Saddam Hussein does get it, so there’s a great hue and cry when photos of Hussein in his prison cell are published, but those people in Guantánamo and Bagram don’t get the Geneva Convention. One move that was not greatly noticed was last autumn, when the Geneva Convention was deemed applicable to Iraqi insurgents, and then they abruptly changed their minds and removed that status. Of course they wanted to treat them more harshly, and to interrogate them. There are rumours that some Iraqi insurgents have been taken to Guantanamo, though there’s no confirmation of it.”

The real issues. From Saddam Hussein’s underwear to the Koran, the Media make choices

“The photos prompted an angry US military to launch an investigation and the Red Cross to say the photos may violate the Geneva Conventions. [..] The photos not only angered the US military, which issued a condemnation rare for its immediacy, but also were expected to further fuel anti-American sentiment in a country edging toward open sectarian conflict.” Al Jazeera reporting on the publication of photos showing Saddam Hussein, in custody, in his underwear.

“Pentagon spokesman Lawrence Di Rita said Wednesday there are no credible allegations that U.S. military personnel at Guantánamo Bay threw a Koran down the toilet.” Fox News [26th May 2005]

Speaking about the release of British prisoners from Guantánamo, South-African born writer Gillian Slovo suggested that it was a cynical move on the part of the American administration to defuse interest in the UK, its most important ally. Rose sees some truth in this: “The British media, those parts that carried stories on Guantánamo, were more vociferous than anywhere else in the world, and were putting pressure on both the British Government and the American Government. Because the British Government is obviously an important ally of the Americans, the media spotlight in this country made things somewhat uncomfortable for the Bush administration. It was a hassle they could do without. I can say, from personal experience, that it is now much harder to interest news editors in more stories on Guantánamo than it was when there were British citizens there. There are still five UK residents there, who are not British citizens, and that’s the last issue which some expect to get resolved quite quickly. The truth is that there is much less of a hue and cry in Britain about Guantánamo than there was before they were released, so in a certain sense the heat is off.”

Indeed the heat seems to be focussing on the most unlikely of places – Saddam Hussein of later, for example. To what extent are stories like the photos of Saddam Hussein dressing a calculated distraction? “I think it is a distraction – says Rose – With a few notable exceptions (Guardian, Observer, New York Times, Washington Post, etc.) there is a deep unwillingness by many in the media, on both sides of the Atlantic, to really engage with what’s happening at Guantánamo Bay, and still, four years after September 11th, it persists that the normal rules for combat and the treatment of suspects don’t apply. Government spin to ‘friendly’ press like the Murdoch newspapers and television empire in America, will easily trump disclosures elsewhere, and meanwhile the great mass of public opinion, especially in America, remains unmoved. The words ‘Guantánamo Bay’ didn’t fall from John Kerry’s lips once during his election campaign, and it’s clear that in many parts of America there is complete indifference to what has been going on there and elsewhere. They’ve become in effect secret prisons.”

This poses difficult questions about media coverage and responsibility. Is it fair to say, in a certain sense that the media and the public have become jaded with the ‘story’ of Guantánamo? “Well,the caravan moves on. You up the ante when you disclose that people have been tortured, when you disclose the utter illegality of their treatment, when you’ve shown the human consequence (as for example the play by Gillian Slovo and Victoria Brittain does so well), where else do you go? Having weathered the storm, it’s quite easy for the Bush Administration to continue to get away with it. I think the only way the system will now change is by pressure from within America, from public opinion and Congress, and there’s absolutely no sign of this happening. I was in Washington a couple of weeks ago, talking with a senior staffer with Arlen Specter, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and he was saying that the Committee was thinking of holding its first meeting since September 11th on this question of detention of prisoners in the war on terror. That’s not indicative of a huge amount of pressure building up in America to tackle this issue. It’s an uphill struggle now.”

A struggle that isn’t made any easier by the Newsweek retraction of a story suggesting that a Koran had been flushed down a Guantánamo toilet. Interestingly Rose included a similar allegation, that a Koran had been thrown in a toilet bucket (crucially in Kandahar, Afghanistan but by US troops nonetheless).”It’s very strange. Initially, in the Observer, in March 2004, when I interviewed the ‘Tipton three’, they described how the Koran was thrown into a toilet bucket in Kandahar. We published it and nobody denied it. Nobody batted an eyelid. Similar claims were published elsewhere, from other detainees. Even Erik Saar, the former Guantánamo interrogator, whose own book came out about a month ago, said that Korans were being abused in Afghanistan, but also to some extent in Guantánamo. Newsweek then produces an anonymous official, whose story is a bit suspect if you think about it. I don’t think it would be possible to flush a Koran down a toilet, especially not a Guantánamo toilet which is just a little hole in the floor. I think it would take you several hours, you’d have to do it page by page. I do think the allegation was probably wrong in its specifics, but it is strange that when there has been considerable evidence of religious abuse of various kinds (Erik Saar describes for example detainees being smeared by women with fake menstural blood, which is unpleasant for anybody, but for Muslims who have particularly strong taboos in relation to this it takes on another dimension), that this particular one becomes a cause célèbre. Of course it suits the Administration beautifully. There’s this whole process in America at the moment to prevent journalists, or make it very hard for journalists to write stories from anonymous sources. Well, when whistleblowers are penalised as heavily as they are in America, you have to use anonymous sources at times. It takes an enormous amount of courage for someone to put their name to some of the things that people have said. I was very lucky to have found Tony Christino for my book who was prepared to stand up and say “my Secretary of State for Defense lied” but it’s rare that you find a source of that courage and quality who will go on record. So it’s a fantastic diversionary tactic for the White House, this story.”

America’s Burden

While the ideological lead for this system may have been put in place by Bush, Rumsfeld, Cheney & Co. the responsibility for running these detention centres falls with the US Military. Rose’s book is not an unchecked criticism of the US military, but rather the system they enforce. Indeed he counters a misconception held by many about the Military: “The American Military is a reflective microcosm of American society. There are tremendous liberals in the Military as well as conservatives. The people I find inspiring in the Military are the defense lawyers, the judge advocates, the people who are defending those brought before the military commissions, who’ve just completely put their careers on the line because they believe this process is wrong, and they’ll do anything they can to defend their clients. They take their jobs with the utmost seriousness, and don’t mind if it means sacrificing their careers. There are people, I’m certain, that regard the job of guarding Guantánamo detainees, and the interrogation of them with torture and coercion, with considerable enthusiasm. But there are certainly parts of the Military that regard the whole experiment with considerable concern.”

Pragmatically the problem of Guantánamo remains an American one. It has been created by the American administration, and so Americans must change it. Rose is clear that, to his mind, to tackle the issue requires mainstream political mobilisation, and a cultural sea change: “People must try to make it more of a mainstream political cause. One of the depressing things in the UK has been that, with the exception of the Liberal Democrats and some left wing Labour MPs, there’s actually been very little real political reaction in Britain. In America it’s even worse.In the red States of America there is complete indifference at best, and vehement hostility to those who raise concern about Guantánamo at worst, in operation. That’s reinforced by cultural messages too. I’m thinking about things like ‘patriotic country music’, which was enormously in fashion after 9/11 and remains so to some extent. In particular, I’m thinking about a song by Toby Keith, called the red, white and blue, which sold twenty million copies. The chorus, after various descriptions of what happened during 9/11, ends with “This big dog will rage when you rattle its cage, we’ll put a boot in your ass, it’s the American Way”. That’s a very impregnable attitude, and changing it is very difficult.”

Keith’s song was written in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, and the sentiment is understandable in that context. Can we see Guantánamo like that? A regrettable but understandable reaction, rather than the introduction of a new system? “It’s an interesting question, and one that I’m asked a lot. Is this whole system, Guantánamo and the other prisons in the network, a blip? Will people in the future look back on this moment and shudder, as they do now with McCarthyism? Or is it a more permanent shift in the nature of the way America does business? I do fear that it may be the later. It’s still too early to be sure, but the difference between the attitude that characterised McCarthyism, and that which we’re dealing with in Guantánamo, is that McCarthyism directed this venom against American citizens, so it wasn’t long before there was a backlash. This is something directed against foreigners, and, I think, it’s much harder for Americans to see, that foreigners deserve human rights too.”

And finally, how many prisoners are being held in Guantánamo? “Right now it’s about 500, which is down from the peak of 650. There have been rumours that they will, some time this year, set free another batch of prisoners, possibly up to 200, but it hasn’t happened yet. One of the things about Guantánamo is that it has always been an experiment. I think they always knew that they were pushing the envelope of legality to the absolute limit. I think they suspected that they wouldn’t get away with everything they wanted, but the chips are basically falling their way, and when everything is settled, in a legal sense, Guantanamo will continue to be used for a lot of prisoners.”

David Rose’s Guantanamo Site

Tales of torture, and so on – Jon Ronson, author of The men who stare at goats, in interview

Official Joint Task Force Guantanamo Bay Site

Guantanamo Bay – a Human Rights Scandal – Amnesty International

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