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The most astounding thing about America’s rendition programme, if also the most grimly predictable, was the incompetence. If you offer a bounty for “enemy combatants” anywhere in the world, but especially in a region notable for its poverty and corruption, chances are that you’ll find quite a lot of random and bewildered individuals handed over just for the reward.

If you then refuse to go through any due legal process but instead say vaguely that these prisoners are all “bad men” and just cut straight to the torturing, quite apart from the fact that you have just severed ties with any of the moral values you may have claimed to be defending, you are unlikely to get anything useful out of the process and you are wasting a lot of people’s time. Even if you have bagged some genuinely dangerous people, you will essentially be torturing a fair few innocent people for the sheer hell of it, which you may find backfires on you in the long run.

Here’s one example of how to wind up in Cuba without actually having committed any offence:
Yusuf was technically a citizen of Chad, but he was born in Medina, in Saudi Arabia, and had lived his whole life there. The US military could have got his birth certificate from their Saudi allies with a telephone call. It was a little more difficult for me, but I got it and it showed he was born in November 1986. After four years of intensive interrogation, far from securing a rich harvest of “enormously valuable intelligence” (General Geoffrey Miller’s words), the military could not even work out Yusuf’s age, just as they could not spell Binyam Mohamed’s name after years of torture in Morocco and Afghanistan.

[…] Yusuf explained how his [initial] interrogation quickly descended into farce. Early in his captivity the US agents questioned him with the assistance of a translator who used a dialect of Arabic in which the word zalat means money; in Yusuf’s Saudi dialect it means salad, or tomato. Yusuf reconstructed the interrogation aqs best he could remember it.

“When you left Saudi Arabia for Pakistan, what zalat did you take with you?” demanded the translator, suspecting that the money must have come from al-Qaeda sources.

“What? I didn’t have any zalat when I went to Pakistan.” The 14 year-old was confused. He had been through a difficult time since his seizure by the Pakistanis. He was prepared for any trick the Americans might spring on him, but all this talk about tomatoes was beyond him.

“Of course you had zalat. What do you take me for? An idiot!” The translator flared into hostility.

“I didn’t! Why would I?”

“Of course you did. Now tell me, where did you get the zalat you took with you?”

“I didn’t take any zalat with me. I didn’t!”

“Aha! So you got zalat in Pakistan when you arrived?”

“Well, yes, what zalat I wanted, I could get there. That’s natural.” Yusuf was trying to be conciliatory, though the conversation continued along this strange line.

The translator seemed suddenly excited. “Where could you get zalat in Pakistan, then? I want a list of places. Details. Descriptions, places. Details.”

Yusuf wanted to keep him in a good humour. Trying to remember Karachi, he began to discuss places in the market where one might buy salad. With each description of a market stall the translator turned to the American interrogator, who took careful notes.

That evening Yusuf was returned to the cage where he was being held. He was a very muddled adolescent. He talked through his bizarre interrogation with other prisoners, turning over each of his recollections.

Finally one of the older prisoners solved the puzzle: “You were talking about tomatoes. They were talking about money. That’s what it must have been.”
The whole sorry story is an object lesson in how not to react. Faced with a crisis that, while obviously a crisis, did not equate to something on the scale of, for example, the second world war, the Cheney/Bush administration panicked, started barking things like “Threatcon Delta” and jettisoned all notions of law. This is what you get if you draw your inspiration for how to behave primarily from Tom Clancy novels.
Ibn Sheikh al-Libi, a Libyan who was captured in November 2001, [was] the first big name of al-Qaeda who found himself in US custody. He was initially held by the FBI at the airport in Kandahar, then aboard the USS Bataan, an amphibious assault ship in the Arabian Sea, before vanishing to other secret locations. Jack Cloonan, an officer who had worked for the agency since 1972, claimed that the FBI was developing a good relationship with—and good intelligence from—al-Libi.

Talking to Jason Vest of the American Prospect magazine, Cloonan described the patient and effective approach that he had outlined to his agents for al-Libi’s interrogation. “I told them, ‘When you get access, don’t say anything at first. Sit. Say hello after a while. Offer him tea, dates, figs. Point out where Mecca is. Ask him if he wants to pray. And sit. And when he starts to look a little inquisitive, tell him who you are, and that he has rights and privileges, and that you’re going to give him his rights. Just like any other interview.’ So they do all this. And they start building rapport. And he starts talking… they’re getting good stuff, and everyone’s getting the raw 302s [interview summaries]—the agency, the military, the director. But for some reason, the CIA chef of station in Kabul is taking issue with our approach… a series of conference calls ensued among military, CIA and FBI officials; in the end… the CIA’s prerogative carried the day.”

At this point a Toyota Tundra pulled up at the detention centre where FBI agents were conducting the interrogations. There was a box in the back. The CIA’s agents started shackling him up and al-Libi spoke to the FBI for the last time. “I know this isn’t your fault,” he said, just before they taped up his mouth.

A CIA agent leant close into al-Libi’s gagged face. “You’re going to Cairo, you know. Before you get there I’m going to find your mother and I’m going to fuck her!” he screamed, before stuffing al-Libi into the box to begin his trip. The CIA apparently thought that by rendering him to Egypt they could expedite the “mining” of his information.
From one perspective, the CIA’s approach worked splendidly: al-Libi gave them some spectacular information. It all turned out to be worthless, of course, from the non-existent New York radioactive bomb plot to the implication of innocent people as senior al-Qaeda operatives, and it certainly contributed to the prolonging of some people’s torture, but at least he talked. A win’s a win.

A certain theme emerges from looking at what has gone on behind the security screen marked “Enemy Combatants”: don’t trust anything run by soldiers, don’t trust anything run by the Americans, and that goes double for anything run by American soldiers:
Sean Baker, a member of the Kentucky National Guard, had suffered the most significant injury inflicted during the history of Guantanamo, and he wasn’t injured by a homicidal Muslim but by his fellow soldiers. They had been rehearsing how they would deal with the prisoners. […]

On 24 January 2003, not long after Baker was posted to Guantanamo, a sergeant called for a volunteer. Baker saw that no hand had gone up, “Right here, sarge,” he said.

Second-Lieutenant Shaw |Locke, in charge of an Emergency Reaction Force, told Baker what to do. “We’re going to put you in a cell and extract you,” he explained. “Have the ERF team come in and extract you. And what I’d like you to do is go ahead and strip your uniform off and put on this orange suit.”

The jumpsuit was the same as those worn by the prisoners.

“I’d never questioned an order before. But…” Baker recounted his story. “At first I said, my only remark was, ‘Sir?’ Just in the form of a question.”

“You’ll be fine,” Locke assured him.

“Well, you know what’s gonna happen when they come in there on me?”

“Trust me, Specialist Baker,” Locke said emphatically. “You will be fine.”

“Sir, you’re going to tell the ERF team that I’m a US soldier?” Baker said.

“Yes, you’ll be fine, Specialist Baker. Trust me.”

They agreed on a code word (“Red!”) that would instantly stop the exercise if it got out of hand.

Locke wanted the training to seem real. Apparently he did not let the ERF team know that Baker was play-acting. In their subsequent statements each soldier swore he thought this was a real extraction.

As he was instructed, Baker refused the ERF team’s orders and hid under the bunk. They entered the cell, beat him, choked him and slammed his head against the floor.

“Red!” Baker shouted.

The beating continued, particularly by the soldier on his back, a man called Scott Sinclair. “That individual slammed my head against the floor and continued to choke me,” he said. “Somehow I got enough air, I muttered out, ‘I’m a US soldier, I’m a US soldier’.” Even this—said with an American accent—failed to stop the attack, until one of the soldiers noticed something wrong. “Whoa, whoa, whoa!” the man shouted.

Baker started having seizures that morning. He was taken to the naval hospital at Guantanamo. “He’d had the crap beat out of him,” said Staff Sergeant Michael Riley, the platoon leader. “He had a concussion. I mean, it was textbook—blank. You know, a dead stare, but really looking through you.”

Baker suffered brain damage. A military medical board determined that he suffered from mood and seizure disorders caused by a traumatic brain injury he sustained [...] Baker was discharged from the military and is unemployed.

What would have happened if the subject had been a prisoner, instead of a soldier who ultimately shouted out with an American accent? “I think they would have busted him up,” says Baker. “I’ve seen detainees come out of there with blood on ‘em—if there wasn’t someone to say, ‘I’m a US soldier’, if you were speaking Arabic or Pashto or Urdu or some other language in that camp, we may never know what would have happened to that individual.”

My clients had suffered injuries as part of the ERF routine—Omar Deghayes was blinded in one eye, Sami al-Laithi had his vertebrae fractured and there were daily beatings that occurred during the “forcible cell extractions”. The prisoners can’t take the military to court for their beatings because the McCain Amendment, designed to outlaw torture, also abolished the Guantanamo prisoners’ right to bring a lawsuit against the United States. Sadly, neither can Specialist Baker, as soldiers are likewise forbidden from suing the military.
All extracts from Clive Stafford-Smith, Bad Men: Guantanamo Bay and the Secret Prisons

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Comments

( 3 comments — Leave a comment )
chiller
Sep. 21st, 2010 04:00 pm (UTC)
Sickening. We should have learned by now that it's a bad idea to ever give one human being absolute power over another human being.

Unless the human being in absolute power is me, obv.
webofevil
Sep. 21st, 2010 04:45 pm (UTC)
We’ve been through this. The complete axiom is not “absolute power corrupts absolutely, except chiller”.
chiller
Sep. 21st, 2010 05:34 pm (UTC)
It totally is. *mutters*
( 3 comments — Leave a comment )

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