Guantanamo Bay’s (Other) Dirty Secret

Prisoners in medium security facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Abdul Zahir. Guantanamo prisoners are given a copy of the Koran. Photo credit: US Department of Defense, JTF-GTMO / Wikimedia and US Department of Defense

How afraid are US authorities of allowing even a single Guantanamo Bay detainee to touch American soil? Even though hundreds of people have been evacuated from the naval base ahead of Hurricane Matthew, a Category 4 storm barreling down on Cuba, the detainees and essential staff are forced to remain in harm’s way.

Eight years ago, President Barack Obama pledged to quickly close the controversial prison but with only about 100 days to go in his second term, it seems highly unlikely this will happen. And a new report shows why that is particularly shameful.

A Miami Herald investigation showed that many of the detainees held at Guantanamo Bay were not Taliban leaders, al Qaeda operatives, bomb makers or other “evil doers,” but rather low-level combatants or just Afghans who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. They still are in the wrong place because they certainly do not belong in a detention facility supposed to house “the worst of the worst.”

Just as shocking as the intelligence failures that identified some of the men as high value targets is that many of them are still being held without a trial at Guantanamo Bay — a decade or more after being captured — and long after it became clear that they were not as dangerous as once believed.

Cell block of Camp Delta. Photo credit: US Department of Defense

Cell block of Camp Delta.
Photo credit: US Department of Defense

Abdul Zahir, for example, was tagged and bagged as a chemical weapons manufacturer in 2002. In July, however, the Periodic Review Board declared that his detention “is no longer necessary to protect against a continuing significant threat to the security of the United States” and recommended a transfer.

“In making this determination, the Board considered the detainee’s candor in discussing his time in Afghanistan and involvement with the Taliban, the detainee’s limited role in Taliban structure and activities, and the assessment that the detainee was probably misidentified as the individual who had ties to al-Qaeda weapons facilitation,” the Review Board said in a summary of its final determination.

“They had the wrong guy the whole time,” Air Force Lt. Col. Sterling Thomas, Zahir’s defense attorney, told the Herald, adding that his client “shared a name with a terrorist that they thought they were looking for. He unfortunately was further condemned by the fact that United States forces couldn’t distinguish between bomb-making materials and the salt, sugar and petroleum jelly he had nearby when he was wrongly arrested.”

It is unclear why Zahir remains on Cuba. Now he is just one of 61 detainees left after the Obama administration successfully moved many of them to other countries.

The Herald also identified several other men who were initially held as dangerous operatives but, according to new intelligence reports, turned out to have been misidentified or to have been low-level fighters.

Mark Fallon, who served as Special Agent in Charge of the Department of Defense’s Criminal Intelligence Task Force, told the Herald that it became clear quickly that “the intelligence was grossly wrong.” His assessment was backed up by other sources.

The newspaper’s reporting raises as many questions as it answers, in particular why low-level fighters are being held for so long in a facility designed for top terrorists. Also, once it was determined that these men were not the threats they were previously believed to be, were they still subjected to “enhanced interrogation techniques?”

The answer to why the detainees were not evacuated and instead forced to ride out the storm on Cuba seems obvious in light of this report: Their lawyers probably would have advised them to sue the pants off the US upon touching US soil.


Related front page panorama photo credit: Adopted by WhoWhatWhy from Camp Delta (US Department of Defense)

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14 responses to “Guantanamo Bay’s (Other) Dirty Secret”

  1. Eugene Remy says:

    Many people are involved in illegal activities of the US government. Those who refuse to cooperate mysteriously disappear or die, just like my friend Shawn, a young pilot, who was killed in a car accident. A military truck smashed his car because he refused to work for the CIA and bring the ‘prisoners’ from Afghanistan, Iraq and Europe to Cuba, so the rest of CIA professionals could torture all these people and violate their rights.

  2. Montgomery Granger says:

    All detainees held at the U.S. military detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, are at least unlawful combatants and could have legally been shot dead on the battlefield. They were captured and kept alive because of their potential for having important information that could (and did) save many lives. Over 700 have been RELEASED and NONE have been executed, beheaded, hacked to death, blown up, dragged naked and lifeless through the streets, drowned or burned alive. Gitmo is the finest such facility on earth. ICRC physicians I worked with at Gitmo in 2002 and in Iraq in 2004-2005 told me, “No one does [detention operations] better than the U.S.” Why not bring them to the U.S.? Because they don’t have the right to be here. No one has a right to come to the United States. To me, this is sacred ground and their presence would defile it. Gitmo is and will always be the best, safest most secure place for unlawful combatant Islamists who want to kill us. Sincerely, Montgomery J. Granger, Major, U.S. Army, Retired.

    • jeffkaye says:

      Contrary to the picture drawn by Major (Ret.) Granger, who worked as a medical provider at Guantanamo during his stay there, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) found as early as January 2003 that the conditions of confinement at Guantanamo raised questions of “psychological torture.” According to a November 30, 2004 New York Times article by Neil Lewis – “Red Cross Finds Detainee Abuse in Guantanamo” – “the Red Cross team found a far greater incidence of mental illness produced by stress than did American medical authorities, much of it caused by prolonged solitary confinement.”

      The NYT article was based on a June 2004 visit to Guantanamo. The ICRC document the NYT viewed is quoted as saying, “The construction of such a system, whose stated purpose is the production of intelligence, cannot be considered other than an intentional system of cruel, unusual and degrading treatment and a form of torture.” The ICRC report itself has never been released.

    • Montgomery Granger says:

      And there is a reason such reports are never released, and that is to secure the legitimacy of the ICRC as a neutral entity. If every report were made public they would not be able to do their important work. With every detention mission there are two major aspects, incarceration and interrogation. I was involved with the incarceration mission. I do not claim to know about what occurred during the interrogation mission other than what I have observed, which isn’t much. I will say this, there is absolutely no moral comparison between how the U.S treats detainees and how our enemy treats detainees. As for the incarceration mission, the U.S. is second to none. As for the interrogation mission, you and I must decide based on all the information we can gather what we think and feel about it and why.

    • opit says:

      As a foreign civilian untrained in the niceties of international law, I am still convinced that one should not argue the finer points of U.S. military law in regards to culpability of foreign nationals as if it had ever had application in a conflict outside the borders of the USA itself.

      Nor has torture ever been a useful tool of interrogation. The reason it is unacceptable is simple. People will spin any tale to defer pain. The fact of the matter is, treatment of the prisoners has corrupted beyond retrieval any pretense of reasonable grounds. Worse, these prisoners were not just prisoners of US forces, but were the product of outside kettling operations conducted for financial reward.

      Given the current state of affairs, it is in fact not too much of a stretch to suggest their treatment was designed to produce false confessions and give the subjects no choice but to work as agents for black operations. Nor is Gitmo itself anything more than a remnant of the nature of US run internment.

    • Greg Y. says:

      Dear Major Granger,

      First, thank you for your devoted service to our country. The fact that you served in the conflicts of the past decade is definitely worthy of respect, so please take everything below as a respectful request for your consideration rather than any type of personal attack. From your other comments, you appear to be very thoughtful and well-informed, with particular knowledge about Guantanamo Bay. I wish I had the opportunity to discuss it with you further.

      Please consider:
      (1) Our (shared) oath was to support and defend the U.S. Constitution. One of the most important provisions of that document, and the most basic tenets of American independence, is the principle, enshrined in the 5th Amendment, that the government may not deprive any person (citizen or not) of life, liberty, or property without due process of law.

      (2) For many of the persons detained in Guantanamo Bay (particularly the ones referred to in this article), they were basically foot soldiers in an organization (the Taliban) that was heavily supported and even funded by the U.S. as a solution to the instability in Afghanistan after the Russian withdrawal. The Taliban functioned for a number of years, with at least tacit U.S. recognition, as the legitimate (although morally distasteful) government of Afghanistan, and it wasn’t until the Taliban refused to turn over Usama Bin Laden that the U.S. started to label them as a terrorist organization. The low level soldiers of the Taliban, while they may not be people we would agree with or like, had all the characteristics of a legitimate combatant armed force under the Geneva Convention and customary international law. So they should have been entitled to POW treatment as lawful combatants (after all, we did invade their country — rightfully so, I believe, but we didn’t treat every German soldier as an unlawful combatant in WWI & WWII).

      (3) The fact that they happen to share a nationality, ethnicity, or even an organizational connection with people who have perpetrated atrocities against civilians and US service members doesn’t justify us treating them as guilty (as before, the vast majority of German soldiers were NOT war criminals, just soldiers fighting for their country).

      (4) Finally, and most importantly, if we allow acts of terrorism to lead us to such fear and hatred that we chuck our most cherished values and Constitutionally guaranteed liberties, then the terrorists have won far more effectively than they ever could on the physical battlefield, because they’ve incited us to reject the rule of law and to descend to their level, where might makes right and violence is the answer to everything.

      Please understand, I’m not saying that everyone in Gitmo is innocent. I’m not saying that the folks who do the day-to-day work of guarding and handling the detainees are doing anything wrong. However, I am saying that holding anyone, regardless of who they are or what crime we believe they have committed, for one and a half decades without even an attempt to give them a trial (i.e., due process of law), is deeply troubling and suggests that, as a nation, we’ve allowed our emotional response to violence to lead us to the brink of rejecting some of the most important rights and freedoms you fought to protect.

      To me, that’s just not worth it. When we trample on their fundamental rights, we create the precedent that will ultimately jeopardize our own. Or, to put it far better than I can, let me quote Chief Prosecutor (later Supreme Court Justice) Robert Jackson, from the Nuremburg Trials: “We must never forget that the record on which we judge these defendants is the record on which history will judge us tomorrow. To pass these defendants a poisoned chalice is to put it to our own lips as well.”

      Thank you for your consideration.

    • Montgomery Granger says:

      Dear Greg Y.,

      I appreciate and accept your due respect. I too, would like to extend the same to you in your thoughtful analysis, however, I beg to differ on the following points.

      Whether we like it or not or think it’s fair or right, foreign unlawful combatants and declared insurgents or even rebels within the United States are not entitled to habeas corpus or the protections of the United States Constitution. Refer to the AUMF, Geneva Conventions and the Law of Land Warfare (FM 27-10). The Suspension clause states that in times of rebellion or invasion the President may suspend habeas and may try such individuals in a military commission. Those incarcerated at the U.S> military detention facility at Guantanamo bay, Cuba, if accused of a war crime, are subject to military commission. The current version of which (the 2009 MCA) affords those accused of war crimes virtually the same rights you or I would enjoy in a U.S. Federal court of law. Previously, military commissions were more akin to the protections U.S. military personnel have through the UCMJ. Example is in 1942, 6 of 8 German saboteurs were executed less than 8 weeks after arriving in the U.S. The saboteurs were denied habeas, tried in a military commission (unanimously approved by the Supreme Court). The saboteurs were not following the Geneva Conventions or Law of War as it pertains to lawful combatants. They were declared spies for having the means and intent to carry out war crimes. Note: NONE of the 8 had hurt anyone or damaged any property. So far int he Global War on Terror we have RELEASED over 700 detainees, NONE of whom were executed, beheaded, hacked to death, blown up, dragged naked and lifeless through the streets, drowned or burned alive, all things our enemies have done to us and/or our allies. Unlawful combatants are not entitled to extra legal privileges. Only the decision by our government at the time to treat the unlawful combatants “within the spirit of Geneva.”

      During WWII the U.S. over 400,000 lawful combatant POW’s “until the end of hostilities.” Only those accused of war crimes faced military commissions. The same standard applies to detainees at Gitmo, even though they are not entitled to the protections of Geneva. We may lawfully hold them until the end of hostilities. As for the “foot soldier” thing, no; it doesn’t matter what their role is, they are all at least unlawful combatants and may have all been lawfully shot dead or executed. What the benevolent (and stupid) U.S. decided to do is release even the worst of the worst after declaring, sometimes erroneously or in spite of evidence that they were integral operators in terrorist organizations, was release them willy-nilly. 30 percent are known or suspected recidivists, some of them LEADERS in terrorists cells and organizations. That’s the 30 percent. I’m concerned about the 70 percent we DON’T know about. Where are they? Paris, San Bernardino, YOUR neighborhood? I agree some were legitimately no longer a threat to the U.S. or of any intelligence value, and were released. I don’t know how many of those are recidivists. The point is, while the war rages on, why take a chance? It’s suicide to do so.

      At the risk of sounding flip, have you noticed that the Global War on Terror is HERE? Terrorist attacks on U.S. soil have INCREASED since 9/11, more so since 2009 than before it. That means EVERYWHERE is the battlefield. There is no such thing as “lone wolf” attacks. That’s an invented term in an effort to apologize for or disassociate acts of terror that seem unrelated to the terror perpetrated say, in Iraq or Syria.

      Spies and saboteurs during the Civil War were not lone wolves either. They were spies and saboteurs, just like those caught dry-foot on U.S. soil from Germany in 1942.

      No one at Gitmo is “innocent.” They are all at least unlawful combatants with ZERO rights under U.S. or international law. Those who are guilty have been lawfully tried. When KSM finally receives a verdict, hopefully he will be found guilty as well.

      Robert Jackson’s comment at Nuremberg is well taken, but does not apply here, as those trials were focused on lawful combatants accused of war crimes. In WWII spies were shot on the spot in the field. We chose not to shoot the Gitmo detainees because they may have possessed valuable information that could save many lives (and did).

      History SHOULD judge the U.S. as the most compassionate and benevolent country ever. Almost no other government on earth would have gone and continue to go to such extraordinary lengths to protect, secure and care for those presumed to be so dangerous that they must be held until justice, however it is perceived, runs its course.

      I think that Judge Jackson would find what we are doing extraordinary and fascinating, and he would want to be a part of it.

    • Giovanni Bianchini says:

      What an ignorant person you are? First the US executes, blows up, beheads and drags naked through the streets, the thousands of people whose lives they have ruined, whose countries they have destroyed, whose cultures they have wiped out in the name of democracy, hegemonic foreign policy and a host of other USAID sponsored terror via the CIA funded death squads all over the world. You sir are one reason why the US is the most hated country on the face of the earth. You have say these detainees have no right to be in the US, what right do they have to be detained in a country illegally occupied by your government. Please tell me how you justify that. Please Mr. Granger, you are the reason there is war in the world, why countries are attacking and arming themselves against the US. You do not belong in Guantanamo, nor any other country other than your own.

    • Montgomery Granger says:

      Temper tantrum noted. The U.S. is STILL in Germany, Japan and Italy (is that your home?) not as conquerers but as friends. These countries are among the most peaceful and prosperous on earth, not in spite of the U.S. but because of the U.S. We have been dragged into foreign conflict for centuries; Barbary Wars, WW I & II, Global War on Terror. There is a great difference between armed conflict for conquest and armed conflict for liberty. You despise us because you want to BE us, but cannot without our help. Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines were all awarded to the U.S. in the Treaty of Paris of 1898, following the Spanish-American War. Castro needs to return Cuba to the U.S. And if the Philippines choose to shift to the Chinese and/or Russians, we need to take it back, too.

    • raysusan49 says:

      To all of that breast beating and justifications for all those illegal wars…..Major Smedley Butler has the answer, “War is a racket.” Try pumping the brakes just a bit next time….

    • Montgomery Granger says:

      Of course war is a racket in a capitalist society! Profit is part of every war (and successful business). Who makes more of the biggest, baddest weapons wins! Take away the profit in war and you take away victory. Pump your brakes and you lose.

    • opit says:

      And proof of the actions of ‘friends’ are those which could be construed to be war.

    • raysusan49 says:

      YAAAWN! So said many previous ‘bad ass’ Nations that crumpled under the weight of all the conquest, colonization, and War. ZZZZZZ Sorry but your vision of Empire has all but failed…We ALL lose but you’re vision is tunneled so I wouldn’t expect you to ‘see’.zzzzzzzzzz

    • opit says:

      “The U.S. is STILL in Germany, Japan and Italy not as conquerors but as friends” And in fact, such an assertion is made by US commenters constantly. Propaganda requires incessant practice to be convincing. I have yet to be the recipient of testimonials from conquered peoples how wonderful it was that such happened. We could try starting with Leonard Pelletier still incarcerated following Wounded Knee.