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An interview with Andy Worthington, author of "The Guantánamo Files"

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Andy Worthington, a London-based journalist, is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison, and has written over 300 articles about Guantánamo in the last two years, for publications including the New York Times, the Guardian, the Huffington Post and AlterNet. This week he published the first definitive list of all the prisoners who have been held at Guantánamo, with links and references to their stories. In a statement, he explained, “It is my hope that this project will provide an invaluable research tool for those seeking to understand how it came to pass that the government of the United States turned its back on domestic and international law, establishing torture as official US policy, and holding men without charge or trial neither as prisoners of war, protected by the Geneva Conventions, nor as criminal suspects to be put forward for trial in a federal court, but as ‘illegal enemy combatants.’”

 Elizabeth Ferrari: I have described the transfer of prisoners from Afghanistan to Guantánamo as a “rendition flight” -- one that anyone who knew what to look for could recognize. Is that right, in your opinion? My memory is that the conditions of the prisoners was broadcast all over the American media and that we were shown these people, shackled and hooded, led into the prison. 

Andy Worthington: You’re correct to describe the transfer of prisoners from Afghanistan to Guantánamo as a “rendition flight” -- or, to be more accurate, many dozens of rendition flights. I generally describe it as rendition on an industrial scale. What’s interesting is that the US military was entitled to establish a prisoner of war camp outside Afghanistan, but, of course, Guantánamo was no such thing, and instead was -- and is -- an experiment in holding prisoners beyond the law, neither as prisoners of war nor as criminal suspects, who would be expected to face a trial in a federal court, but as “enemy combatants” without rights; essentially, subjects in an illegal and unconstitutional experiment in detention and interrogation.

Elizabeth Ferrari: Can you describe who these people are -- these prisoners that Donald Rumsfeld said were “the worst of the worst”? Who are they and how did they get to Gitmo?

Andy Worthington: They are, for the most part, one or other of the following. The first group -- roughly half of the total population -- were or are completely innocent men. They were seized either through poor intelligence on the part of US forces (who had few reliable contacts in Afghanistan or Pakistan, and were often “played” by people pretending to be their allies) or through being sold as a result of substantial bounty payments offered for “al-Qaeda and Taliban suspects.” These averaged $5000 a head, which, in US terms, is the equivalent of being asked to shop your neighbor -- or a business rival, an enemy, a stranger -- for around $125,000.

The second group -- again, roughly half of the prison’s population -- were Taliban foot soldiers, recruited, often by unscrupulous sheikhs in their homeland, to help the Taliban establish a “pure Islamic state” by defeating their rivals, the Northern Alliance, in an inter-Muslim civil war that began long before the attacks of September 11, 2001, and that had, for the most part, nothing to do with al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden or international terrorism.

The Bush administration’s great mistake was to equate al-Qaeda with the Taliban, which potentially implicated the entire population of Afghanistan in a terrorist plot, and the administration’s first great acts of dangerous arrogance were, firstly, to declare that anyone who came into US custody -- whatever the circumstances -- was automatically an “enemy combatant” without rights, and, secondly, to refuse, against the wishes of the military, to hold “competent tribunals” -- also known as battlefield tribunals -- under the Geneva Conventions relating to prisoners of war.

Held close to the time and place of capture, and allowing battlefield prisoners the opportunity to call witnesses, these had, previously, been championed by the US military, and the government, as a just and effective way of separating soldiers from civilians caught up in the fog of war, and in the first Gulf War, for example, the military held around 1200 battlefield tribunals, and decided, in three-quarters of the cases, that it had detained the wrong men.

Without these safeguards, and with the administration’s frankly mind-boggling assertion that every single person who ended up in US custody was an “enemy combatant,” it becomes horribly easy to understand how farmers, taxi drivers, hospital administrators, missionaries, humanitarian aid workers, tourists, entrepreneurs, migrants and refugees all ended up at Guantánamo with the Taliban foot soldiers, and, somewhere amongst them, between 35 and 50 prisoners in total, according to a variety of intelligence estimates, who had any meaningful connection to al-Qaeda or other terrorist groups.

Elizabeth Ferrari: Andy, how did you get involved with these people?

Andy Worthington: I have previously been criticized for stating that I believe that the Bush administration’s response to 9/11 was both cruel and misguided, but I stand by that statement. I was doubtful from the beginning that either Dick Cheney or Donald Rumsfeld -- veterans of the Nixon administration, and, in Cheney’s case at least, a notorious believer in unfettered executive power -- could be trusted with America’s response, and as the first stories emerged from Guantánamo -- really, in 2004, with the release of the first European prisoners -- my worst fears were confirmed.

However, it was not until the summer of 2005 that I first became seriously involved in trying to understand what was going on at Guantánamo, when I came across the lists of prisoners compiled by the Washington Post and the British human rights group Cageprisoners. These were, at the time, largely speculative, because the administration had not even released the names of the prisoners, and accurate information was hard to come by, but I began Googling the stories of other released prisoners -- many of them random Afghans -- and became more and more convinced that a colossal miscarriage of justice had taken place.

My project really took off in the spring of 2006, when the prisoners’ names and nationalities were finally released, after a lawsuit brought by the Associated Press, along with 8,000 pages of the tribunals convened -- as an insulting and toothless parody of the battlefield tribunals -- to ascertain whether the prisoners had been correctly designated as “enemy combatants.” This was the administration’s shameless response to the Supreme Court ruling in June 2004 that Guantánamo was not beyond the law, and that the prisoners had habeas corpus rights (the right to ask a judge why they were being held).

The tribunals were, essentially, a device to rubber-stamp the government’s position (as has been admirably explained by Lt. Col. Stephen Abraham, who served as part of the process), but the prisoner lists, the allegations against the prisoners, and the transcripts of the hearings allowed me to establish an instructive chronology, explaining who was captured where and when: whether in Afghanistan, crossing into Pakistan from Afghanistan, or in Pakistan, for example, many hundreds of miles from the “battlefields.” This then allowed me, through what I can only characterize as judicious detective work, to present the prisoners’ stories in their own words, and to give some context for establishing which side was telling the truth: either the prisoners themselves, or the administration, which often mustered an array of transparently coerced or superficial evidence to justify its activities.

It’s not an exact science, of course, but to this day I remain proud of the fact that I not only attempted to give a voice to the voiceless, but also to make sense of the bigger picture, which involved challenging the government’s assertions. I know that it was a difficult task to undertake, but I remain disturbed by the fact that I was able to undertake this as a solitary independent journalist, and that no major media outlet devoted the required resources to investigating thoroughly the material that was made publicly available. By abdicating responsibility, they effectively allowed the administration’s claims to go unchallenged.

Elizabeth Ferrari: Binyam Mohamed, the British resident who was subjected to “extraordinary rendition” and torture, is home now. Here in the US, his case has been covered much more extensively than others -- not all that well, but it was something. In your opinion, what consequences is your government (and mine) looking at, now that he is free?

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Elizabeth Ferrari is a San Francisco author and activist.
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