Friday, February 10, 2006

America's Shame

An investigation by the widely respected National Journal of government records relating to 446 detainees at Guantanamo has uncovered a shameful story of official lies, routine abuses of due process rights, and, not surprisingly, the long-term detention of many innocent people. Stated briefly, the facts are these:
  1. Contrary to frequent assertions that the prison at Guantanamo holds only the worst terrorists--those who would be killing Americans in Afghanistan or plotting the next 9/11 if freed--most are victims of mistaken identity or are, at worst, low-level Taliban or Al Qaeda soldiers with no knowledge of operational issues.
  2. Due to the frustration that Pentagon officials felt over their inability to gain information from these prisoners (who, of course, had no useful information to provide in the first place), increasingly harsh interrogation techniques were authorized by the Pentagon and employed at Guantanamo.
  3. Torture produced information--almost all of it false.
  4. On the basis of false accusations, innocent people being held at Guantanamo were "proved" to be dangerous terrorists.

If this sounds far-fetched, please read the story. Or at least consider some of these excerpts, which, I remind you, are based on government files and Combatant Status Review Tribunal records:

A. False Accusations

Much of the evidence against the detainees is weak. One prisoner at Guantanamo, for example, has made accusations against more than 60 of his fellow inmates; that's more than 10 percent of Guantanamo's entire prison population. The veracity of this prisoner's accusations is in doubt after a Syrian prisoner, Mohammed al-Tumani, 19, who was arrested in Pakistan, flatly denied to his Combatant Status Review Tribunal that he'd attended the jihadist training camp that the tribunal record said he did.

Tumani's denial was bolstered by his American "personal representative," one of the U.S. military officers--not lawyers--who are tasked with helping prisoners navigate the tribunals. Tumani's enterprising representative looked at the classified evidence against the Syrian youth and found that just one man--the aforementioned accuser--had placed Tumani at the terrorist training camp. And he had placed Tumani there three months before the teenager had even entered Afghanistan. The curious U.S. officer pulled the classified file of the accuser, saw that he had accused 60 men, and, suddenly skeptical, pulled the files of every detainee the accuser had placed at the one training camp. None of the men had been in Afghanistan at the time the accuser said he saw them at the camp.

The tribunal declared Tumani an enemy combatant anyway.

B. Flimsy Evidence

"There is no smoking gun," said John Chandler, a partner in the Atlanta office of Sutherland Asbill & Brennan. One of his Guantanamo clients, picked up in Pakistan, is designated an enemy combatant in part because he once traveled on a bus with wounded Taliban soldiers in Afghanistan. The prisoner denies it, saying it was only a public bus. But then there's the prisoner's Casio watch. According to the Defense Department files, his watch is similar to another Casio model that has a circuit board that Al Qaeda has used for making bombs. The United States is using the Qaeda-favored Casio wristwatch as evidence against at least nine other detainees. But the offending model is sold in sidewalk stands around the world and is worn by one National Journal reporter. The primary difference between Chandler's client's watch and the Casio in question is that the detainee's model hasn't been manufactured for years, according to the U.S. military officer who was his personal representative at the tribunal.

C. Coerced Statements

One man slammed his hands on the table during an especially long interrogation and yelled, "Fine, you got me; I'm a terrorist." The interrogators knew it was a sarcastic statement. But the government, sometime later, used it as evidence against him: "Detainee admitted he is a terrorist" reads his tribunal evidence. The interrogators were so outraged that they sought out the detainee's personal representative to explain it to him that the statement was not a confession.

A Yemeni, whom somebody fingered as a bin Laden bodyguard, finally said in exasperation during one long interrogation, "OK, I saw bin Laden five times: Three times on Al Jazeera and twice on Yemeni news." And now his "admission" appears in his enemy combatant's file: "Detainee admitted to knowing Osama bin Laden."

I continue to wonder why Americans aren't outraged. More and more, I'm being forced to conclude that Americans' commitment to human rights may be, on the whole, very weak.

(For two appropriately outraged reactions, see Stuart Taylor's editorial in the National Journal and this commentary at Body and Soul, where I first saw the story.)