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Opaque Guantánamo

Jameel Jaffer,
Director, Knight First Amendment Institute
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January 14, 2007

In a June 2003 statement President Bush observed, that governments that use torture often seek to “shield their abuses from the eyes of the world by staging elaborate deceptions and denying access to international human rights monitors.” He was not speaking of his own government, but he might as well have been. United Nations human rights experts sought access to Guantánamo repeatedly – in January 2002, January 2004, June 2004, April 2005, May 2005, and June 2005. Each of their requests was denied.

It wasn’t until October of 2005 that the Bush administration finally relented, and even then the administration conditioned access to Guantánamo on the experts’ agreement not to seek private interviews with individual prisoners. Understandably, the experts found that condition unacceptable. As one of the experts asked, “How can I assess whether torture or ill-treatment is practiced in any prison in the world if the only people with whom I can talk are the prison guards and the doctors, but not the detainees?”

As for “staging elaborate deceptions,” the Bush administration did that, too. In an effort to allay concerns about the treatment of prisoners at Guantánamo, the Defense Department offered a handful of journalists the opportunity to observe interrogations from behind a glass wall. Journalists who accepted the offer were shown an interrogator and prisoner sharing a milkshake from McDonald’s and engaging in friendly conversation. No maltreatment, no abuse, no torture.

As Neil Lewis reported for The New York Times, however, “it became apparent to reporters comparing notes . . . that the tableau of the interrogator and prisoner sharing a McDonald’s meal was presented to at least three sets of journalists.” Evidently, the whole “tableau” had been fabricated with the specific purpose of misleading the journalists and the public.

What do interrogations at Guantánamo really look like? Government documents from 2002, 2003, and 2004 show that prisoners were deprived of sleep, isolated for long periods of time, exposed to extreme temperatures, threatened with dogs, blinded with strobe lights, bombarded with deafening music, and shackled in excruciatingly painful “stress positions.” In one document (pdf), obtained by the ACLU and its partners under the Freedom of Information Act, an FBI agent describes an interrogation that took place in February 2004:

[The prisoner] did not recognize the interviewers and when he told them he didn’t want to speak to anyone unless they were introduced by his regular interrogators, he was yelled at for 25 minutes, . . . was short-shackled, the room temperature was significantly lowered, strobe lights were used, and possibly loud music . . . . They yelled at him and told him he was never leaving here . . . . After the initial 25 minutes of yelling, [the prisoner] was left alone in the room in this condition for approximately 12 hours.

Documents released only last week remind us that such interrogations were not unusual. The documents show that, in response to an internal FBI inquiry, twenty-six different FBI agents reported that they had witnessed military interrogations that they considered to be abusive. What came of those reports is unclear, and what interrogation methods are being used now is not known. Five years since the first prisoners were brought there, Guantánamo remains as impenetrable and opaque as ever.

Jameel Jaffer served as a monitor at the Guantánamo Bay military commissions and is Deputy Director of the ACLU’s National Security Program.

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