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Context of 'January 20, 2009: Information on Guantanamo Detainees in Disarray, Say Obama Officials; Much Information Missing Entirely'

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Salim Ahmed Hamdan in 1999.Salim Ahmed Hamdan in 1999. [Source: Pubic domain via the New York Times]In the Hamdan v. Rumsfeld case, the Supreme Court rules 5-3 to strike down the Bush administration’s plans to try Guantanamo detainees before military commissions. Ruling in favor of detainee Salim Ahmed Hamdan (see November 8, 2004), the Court rules that the commissions are unauthorized by federal statutes and violate international law. Writing for the majority, Justice John Paul Stevens says, “The executive is bound to comply with the rule of law that prevails in this jurisdiction.” The opinion throws out each of the administration’s arguments in favor of the commissions, including its assertion that Congress had stripped the Supreme Court of the jurisdiction to decide the case. One of the major flaws in the commissions, the Court rules, is that President Bush unilaterally established them without the authorization of Congress. [New York Times, 6/30/2006] During the oral arguments three months before, Hamdan’s lawyer, Neal Katyal, told the Court: “The whole point of this [proceeding] is to say we’re challenging the lawfulness of the tribunal [the military commissions] itself. This isn’t a challenge to some decision that a court makes. This is a challenge to the court itself, and that’s why it’s different than the ordinary criminal context that you’re positing.” [Savage, 2007, pp. 274-275]
Major Defeat for Bush Administration - Civil libertarian and human rights organizations consider the ruling a shattering defeat for the administration, particularly in its assertions of expansive, unfettered presidential authority. Bush says in light of the decision, he will work with Congress to “find a way forward” to implement the commissions. “The ruling destroys one of the key pillars of the Guantanamo system,” says Gerald Staberock, a director of the International Commission of Jurists. “Guantanamo was built on the idea that prisoners there have limited rights. There is no longer that legal black hole.” The ruling also says that prisoners held as “enemy combatants” must be afforded rights under the Geneva Conventions, specifically those requiring humane treatment for detainees and the right to free and open trials in the US legal system. While some form of military trials may be permissible, the ruling states that defendants must be given basic rights such as the ability to attend the trial and the right to see and challenge evidence submitted by the prosecution. Stevens writes that the historical origin of military commissions was in their use as a “tribunal of necessity” under wartime conditions. “Exigency lent the commission its legitimacy, but did not further justify the wholesale jettisoning of procedural protections.” [New York Times, 6/30/2006] In 2007, author and reporter Charlie Savage will write, “Five justices on the Supreme Court said Bush had broken the law.” [Savage, 2007, pp. 275]
Hardline Conservative Justices Dissent - Stevens is joined by Justices David Souter, Stephen Breyer, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Justice Anthony Kennedy issues a concurring opinion. Dissenting are Justices Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia, and Clarence Thomas. Thomas, in a dissent signed by Scalia and Alito, calls the decision “untenable” and “dangerous.” Chief Justice John Roberts recused himself from the case because of his participation in a federal appeals court that ruled in favor of the administration (see November 8, 2004).
Not Charged for Three Years - Hamdan is a Guantanamo detainee from Yemen, captured in Afghanistan in November 2001 and taken to Guantanamo in June 2002. He is accused of being a member of al-Qaeda, in his function as driver and bodyguard for Osama bin Laden. He was not charged with a crime—conspiracy—until mid-2004. [New York Times, 6/30/2006]

Entity Tags: Samuel Alito, US Supreme Court, Salim Ahmed Hamdan, Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, John G. Roberts, Jr, Al-Qaeda, Antonin Scalia, Bush administration (43), Center for Constitutional Rights, Anthony Kennedy, John Paul Stevens, David Souter, International Commission of Jurists, Gerald Staberock, Geneva Conventions, Clarence Thomas

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Complete 911 Timeline, Civil Liberties

Lieutenant Colonel Darrel Vandeveld, a former Army prosecutor at Guantanamo, resigns his position after becoming increasingly disillusioned and despondent over the treatment of detainees at the facility, many of whom he believes are likely innocent.
A Reluctant Believer in Stories of Abuse - Vandeveld began as an enthusiastic prosecutor. He joined to help avenge the 9/11 attacks, and served for seven years as a military lawyer in Bosnia, Africa, Afghanistan, and Iraq. “All of us fought because we believed that we were protecting America and its ideals,” he will later write. “But my final tour of duty made me question everything we had done.” Vandeveld was a prosecutor for the Office of Military Commissions in Guantanamo from June 2007 through September 2008. He will write, “Warning signs appeared early on, but I ignored them.” He was powerfully impressed when his superior officer, Colonel Morris Davis, resigned rather than agree to pursue politically motivated prosecutions (see October 4, 2007). Vandeveld’s own turning point came when he began working on the prosecution of Mohammed Jawad, who was 16 at the time he was captured (see December 17, 2002). When Vandeveld learned that Jawad claimed to have been horrifically abused while in US custody, as he later recalls: “I accused him of exaggerating and ridiculed his story as ‘idiotic.’ I did not believe that he was a juvenile, and I railed against Jawad’s defense attorney, whom I suspected of being a terrorist sympathizer.” He came to change his mind, eventually filing a declaration in federal court “stating that it is impossible to prepare a fair prosecution against detainees at Guantanamo Bay (see January 13, 2009).… I had concluded that the system of handling evidence is a haphazard farce. I saw this clearly with Jawad.” Vandeveld will write that he has seen evidence proving both Jawad’s age and his stories of being brutalized, including beatings, being thrown down a flight of stairs, and being subjected to an intense program of sleep deprivation (see June 19, 2008): “As a juvenile, Jawad should have been treated with care, held separately from the adult population, and provided educational and other rehabilitation services. Instead, he was placed in isolation and deprived of sleep. More than once he tried to commit suicide, according to detainee records” (see December 2003).
Torturing an Innocent Man - Vandeveld began combing through evidence suggesting that Jawad was innocent, and found that not only had Jawad been duped and drugged by the terrorists who recruited him, the evidence shows that he never carried out the attack against US soldiers of which he stands accused. Vandeveld writes of the difficulties he had in gathering the evidence; military investigators repeatedly kept it from him. “Only after long delays and many, many requests was it finally given to me,” he will later write, “because even after nearly seven years, the military commissions do not have a system in place for discovering exculpatory evidence or providing it to the defense” (see January 20, 2009).
Sinking into Despair - Vandeveld began working towards Jawad’s release to his family in Afghanistan. But Vandeveld’s superiors refused to countenance the idea. Vandeveld will write of his increasing depression and despair, and his inability to discuss his mental anguish with his family or friends due to the classified nature of the case. He finally turned to a Jesuit priest, Father John Dear, whom, he writes, “has written and spoken widely about justice.” He could not give Dear more than an overview of the situation, but Dear’s advice was blunt. “Quit Gitmo,” Dear told him. “The whole world knows it is a farce. Refuse to cooperate with evil, and start your life over.” But Vandeveld was afraid to take Dear’s advice. As he recalls, “I was afraid of losing friends, my job, whatever popularity I enjoyed, and my status as someone who was well thought of in this community.”
Resignation - It was Dear and, ironically, Jawad’s defense lawyer, whom Vandeveld descirbes as “a scorned adversary whose integrity and intelligence transformed him into a trusted friend,” who finally led Vandeveld to make a decision: he resigns. His final appearance before the Guantanamo military commissions was as a witness in Jawad’s defense (see January 13, 2009). “My testimony was a confession of sorts,” he later writes, “an acknowledgment of the error of my own ways as well as a candid admission of the shortcomings of the system that I had so enthusiastically supported.” [Washington Post, 1/18/2009] Vandeveld will write that Guantanamo has become a “stain” on the US’s international reputation (see January 18, 2009). He will also call for Jawad’s release (see January 13, 2009).

Entity Tags: Office of Military Commissions, Darrel Vandeveld, John Dear, Mohammed Jawad

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives

Pentagon press spokesman Geoff Morrell tells journalists that the Defense Department has new numbers documenting the “recidivism” of former Guantanamo detainees now engaged in terror activities. “The new numbers are, we believe, 18 confirmed and 43 suspected of returning to the fight,” Morrell says. “So 61 in all former Guantanamo detainees are confirmed or suspected of returning to the fight.” [US Department of Defense, 1/13/2009]
No Details on Numbers - The Pentagon figure would represent around 11 percent of the roughly 520 detainees released from the facility. National security expert Peter Bergen notes that the recidivism rate for prisoners in the US civilian judicial system is about 65 percent. Morrell defends the report, but refuses to say exactly where the information comes from. Instead, he says: “We don’t make these figures up. They’re not done willy-nilly.” Other Pentagon officials say they will not discuss how the figures were derived because of national security concerns. Morrell says the figures come from the Defense Intelligence Agency, “and they go over this with great care.” [CNN, 1/22/2009]
Law Professor: Pentagon Figures 'Egregiously' Wrong - In an exhaustive study of the Pentagon’s records of detainees, Seton Hall University law professor Mark Denbeaux disputes the Pentagon claim, calling it “egregiously” wrong (see January 16, 2009). “Once again, they’ve failed to identify names, numbers, dates, times, places, or acts upon which their report relies,” Denbeaux writes. “Every time they have been required to identify the parties, the DOD [Defense Department] has been forced to retract their false IDs and their numbers. They have included people who have never even set foot in Guantanamo—much less were they released from there. They have counted people as ‘returning to the fight’ for their having written an op-ed piece in the New York Times and for their having appeared in a documentary exhibited at the Cannes Film Festival. The DOD has revised and retracted their internally conflicting definitions, criteria, and their numbers so often that they have ceased to have any meaning—except as an effort to sway public opinion by painting a false portrait of the supposed dangers of these men. Forty-three times they have given numbers—which conflict with each other—all of which are seriously undercut by the DOD statement that ‘they do not track’ former detainees. Rather than making up numbers ‘willy-nilly’ about post release conduct, America might be better served if our government actually kept track of them.” [Seton Hall University, 1/15/2009] It is difficult to know exactly how many former Guantanamo detainees have returned to fighting, Denbeaux’s study finds, because of the incredibly poor record-keeping kept on detainees by the Pentagon (see January 20, 2009 ). Some of the detainees identified as recidivists never appeared on the detainee rolls. Some detainees were misidentified by the Pentagon, or identified as more than one person—and subsequently counted as more than one recidivist. Some have been dead for years, or are in the custody of other nations’ judicial systems. The Pentagon counts the so-called “Tipton Three” (see November 28, 2001) as “returning to the fight,” even though their only “terrorist activity” has been their participation in a documentary about unjust imprisonment in Guantanamo. The Pentagon also lists the recently released Uighurs, Chinese Muslims who were found to have no ties whatsoever to Islamic terrorism. One of the released Uighurs wrote a 2006 op-ed column for the New York Times protesting his imprisonment (see September 17, 2006), the extent of his documented “terrorist” actions. [New American, 1/27/2009]
Defense Secretary Downplays Report's Significance - Terrorism analyst Peter Bergen notes that many of the Guantanamo detainees were never terrorists at all, but were singled out as terrorists by Afghani villagers who told US authorities that they were members of al-Qaeda, either for personal revenge or for bounty money. Quoting former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Bergen says, “We know that a lot of people who were in Guantanamo don’t qualify as being the ‘worst of the worst.’” Bergen says that many of the “suspected” terrorists have done nothing more than publicly make anti-American statements, “something that’s not surprising if you’ve been locked up in a US prison camp for several years.” Defense Secretary Robert Gates, the only holdover from the Bush administration currently serving in President Obama’s cabinet and an advocate for closing the Guantanamo facility, downplays the number of detainees supposedly engaged in terrorism. “It’s not as big a number if you’re talking about 700 or a thousand or however many have been through Guantanamo,” he says. [CNN, 1/22/2009]

Entity Tags: Robert M. Gates, US Department of Defense, Peter Bergen, Donald Rumsfeld, Mark Denbeaux, Geoff Morrell, Defense Intelligence Agency

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives

Susan Crawford.Susan Crawford. [Source: Susan Crawford / Washington Post]The senior Bush administration official in charge of bringing Guantanamo Bay detainees to trial rules that the US military tortured a detainee, and therefore the US cannot try him. Susan Crawford, the convening authority of military commissions, says that the US tortured Mohamed al-Khatani, a Saudi national accused of planning to participate in the September 11 attacks (see August 4, 2001). Crawford says al-Khatani was interrogated with techniques that included sustained isolation, sleep deprivation, nudity and prolonged exposure to cold, and which cumulatively left him in a “life-threatening condition.” Crawford says: “We tortured [al-]Khatani. His treatment met the legal definition of torture. And that’s why I did not refer the case” for prosecution. Crawford is a retired judge who served as the Army’s general counsel during the Reagan administration and the Pentagon’s inspector general during the first Bush administration. She is the first senior official of the current Bush administration to publicly state that a detainee was tortured while in US custody.
Cumulative Effect Equals Torture - None of the individual techniques used against al-Khatani were torturous in and of themselves, Crawford says, but the cumulative effect—particularly their duration and the deleterious effect on al-Khatani’s health—combined to constitute torture. “The techniques they used were all authorized, but the manner in which they applied them was overly aggressive and too persistent,” she says. “You think of torture, you think of some horrendous physical act done to an individual. This was not any one particular act; this was just a combination of things that had a medical impact on him, that hurt his health. It was abusive and uncalled for. And coercive. Clearly coercive. It was that medical impact that pushed me over the edge” to call it torture. Al-Khatani has been in US custody since December 2001 (see December 2001), and was interrogated from November 2002 through January 2003 (reports of the exact dates vary—see August 8, 2002-January 15, 2003 and October 11, 2002). He was held in isolation until April 2003. “For 160 days his only contact was with the interrogators,” Crawford says. “Forty-eight of 54 consecutive days of 18-to-20-hour interrogations. Standing naked in front of a female agent. Subject to strip searches. And insults to his mother and sister.” He was threatened with a military dog named Zeus. He “was forced to wear a woman’s bra and had a thong placed on his head during the course of his interrogation,” Crawford says, and “was told that his mother and sister were whores.” With a leash tied to his chains, he was led around the room “and forced to perform a series of dog tricks,” according to reports from his interrogations. He was twice hospitalized with bradycardia, a potentially lethal condition where the heartbeat drops to abnormally low levels.
Ruling Halts Future Prosecution against al-Khatani - Crawford dismissed war crimes charges against al-Khatani in May 2008 (see May 13, 2008). In November, military prosecutors said they would refile charges against al-Khatani, based on subsequent interrogations that did not employ harsh techniques (see November 18, 2008). But Crawford says that she would not let any such prosecutions go forward. However, Crawford is not unaware of the potential danger posed by letting him go free. “There’s no doubt in my mind he would’ve been on one of those planes had he gained access to the country in August 2001,” Crawford says. “He’s a muscle hijacker.… He’s a very dangerous man. What do you do with him now if you don’t charge him and try him? I would be hesitant to say, ‘Let him go.’” Al-Khatani’s civilian lawyer, Gitanjali Gutierrez, says, “There is no doubt he was tortured.” Gutierrez says: “He has loss of concentration and memory loss, and he suffers from paranoia.… He wants just to get back to Saudi Arabia, get married and have a family.” Al-Khatani “adamantly denies he planned to join the 9/11 attack,” she adds. “He has no connections to extremists.” Gutierrez says she thinks Saudi Arabia has an effective rehabilitation program and Khatani ought to be returned there. [Washington Post, 1/14/2009; New York Times, 1/14/2009] His lawyers at the Center for Constitutional Rights describe him as a broken, suicidal man who can never be prosecuted because of his treatment at the hands of his captors. [New York Times, 1/14/2009]
Sympathetic but Unbending - Crawford, a lifelong Republican, says she sympathizes with the situation faced by the Bush administration and the CIA after the 9/11 attacks. “I sympathize with the intelligence gatherers in those days after 9/11, not knowing what was coming next and trying to gain information to keep us safe,” she acknowledges. “But there still has to be a line that we should not cross. And unfortunately what this has done, I think, has tainted everything going forward.” Noting that the 2006 Hamdan v. Rumsfeld case (see June 30, 2006) disallowed torture but allowed for “coercive interrogation techniques,” Crawford says even those techniques should not be allowed: “You don’t allow it in a regular court.” Crawford says she is not yet sure if any of the other five detainees accused of participating in the 9/11 plot, including their leader, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, were tortured, but she believes they may have been. “I assume torture,” she says, and notes that CIA Director Michael Hayden has publicly confirmed that Mohammed was one of three detainees subjected to waterboarding, a technique classified by law as torture. Crawford has not blocked prosecution of the other five detainees. Ultimately, she says, the responsibility for the farrago of illegal detentions and torture rests with President Bush. He was right to create a system to try suspected terrorists, she says, but the implementation was fatally flawed. “I think he hurt his own effort.… I think someone should acknowledge that mistakes were made and that they hurt the effort and take responsibility for it.… We learn as children it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than it is for permission. I think the buck stops in the Oval Office.” [Washington Post, 1/14/2009]
Rules Change - Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell says that the Hamdan case changed the rules, and thus retroactively classified al-Khatani’s treatment as torture. “The [Defense] Department has always taken allegations of abuse seriously,” he says. “We have conducted more than a dozen investigations and reviews of our detention operations, including specifically the interrogation of Mohamed al-Khatani, the alleged 20th hijacker. They concluded the interrogation methods used at [Guantanamo], including the special techniques used on Khatani in 2002, were lawful. However, subsequent to those reviews, the Department adopted new and more restrictive policies and procedures for interrogation and detention operations. Some of the aggressive questioning techniques used on al-Khatani, although permissible at the time, are no longer allowed in the updated Army field manual.” [Washington Post, 1/14/2009]
Prosecutors Unprepared - When Crawford came to Guantanamo as convening authority in 2007, she says “the prosecution was unprepared” to bring cases to trial. Even after four years of working possible cases, “they were lacking in experience and judgment and leadership.” She continues: “A prosecutor has an ethical obligation to review all the evidence before making a charging decision. And they didn’t have access to all the evidence, including medical records, interrogation logs, and they were making charging decisions without looking at everything.” It took over a year, and the intervention of Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England, for prosecutors to turn over possibly exculpatory evidence to defense lawyers, even though the law requires that such evidence be turned over immediately. The entire system at Guantanamo is a blot on the reputation of the US and its military judicial system, she says: “There’s an assumption out there that everybody was tortured. And everybody wasn’t tortured. But unfortunately perception is reality.” The system she oversees cannot function now, she believes. “Certainly in the public’s mind, or politically speaking, and certainly in the international community” it may be forever tainted. “It may be too late.” [Washington Post, 1/14/2009]

Entity Tags: Susan Crawford, Gordon England, Gitanjali Gutierrez, George W. Bush, Geoff Morrell, Central Intelligence Agency, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, Bush administration (43), Center for Constitutional Rights, Mohamed al-Khatani, US Department of Defense, Michael Hayden

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives

Officials for the incoming Obama administration are dismayed to find that the task of closing Guantanamo Bay, one of President Obama’s first orders as president (see January 22, 2009), is going to be much harder than anticipated, because the records and details of the approximately 245 prisoners in custody are in terrific disarray. Obama officials, barred from examining classified records on the detainees until the inauguration, also find that many of the prisoners have no comprehensive case files at all. What information that does exist on the detainees is, according to a senior Obama official, “scattered throughout the executive branch.” Most detainees have little more than a dossier containing brief summaries of information, and lack any sort of background or investigative information that would be required for federal prosecutions. Obama named a Cabinet-level panel to review each case individually before the base is to be closed in a year, and those panel members will now have to spend weeks and perhaps months hunting down and correlating relevant material.
'Food Fights' among Bush Agencies - Officials from the former Bush administration admit that the files are incomplete, and that no single government office was tasked with keeping the information on Guantanamo detainees together. They blame the CIA and other intelligence agencies for not adequately sharing information, and add that the Bush administration’s focus was more on detention and interrogation, and much less on putting together information for future prosecutions. A former Pentagon official says that “regular food fights” between competing government agencies over the sharing of information contributed to the lack of coherent and consistent files. (A CIA official denies that the agency ever balked at sharing information with other governmental agencies, and says the Defense Department was more likely to be responsible for laspes in information.)
Former Bush Officials Say Obama Officials 'Look[ing] for Excuses' - However, other former Bush officials say the Obama team is trying to “look for excuses” instead of dealing with the complexities of the issues involved. Obama officials, after promising quick solutions, are now “backpedaling and trying to buy time” by blaming its predecessor, according to a former senior Bush official. He says that “all but about 60… are either high-level al-Qaeda people responsible for 9/11 or bombings, or were high-level Taliban or al-Qaeda facilitators or money people,” and the Obama administration will come to the same conclusion as Bush officials: that they need to stay in detention without trial or charges.
Files 'Not Comprehensive,' Problem Noted in Previous Judicial Proceedings - But Obama officials say they want to make their own judgments. A senior Obama official says: “The consensus among almost everyone is that the current system is not in our national interest and not sustainable. [But] it’s clear that we can’t clear up this issue overnight” in part because the files “are not comprehensive.” Justice Department lawyers claim that after the Supreme Court ruled detainees have habeas corpus rights (see June 30, 2006), Bush officials were “overwhelmed” by the sudden need to gather and correlate information and material. In one federal filing, the Justice Department told a court that the record for a particular detainee “is not simply a collection of papers sitting in a box at the Defense Department. It is a massive undertaking just to produce the record in this one case.” In another filing, Justice Department officials told a court that “defending these cases requires an intense, inter-agency coordination of efforts. None of the relevant agencies, however, was prepared to handle this volume of habeas cases on an expedited basis.” Some former military officials say that evidence gathered for military commissions trials was scattered and incomplete. One former Guantanamo prosecutor, Darrel Vandeveld, says evidence was “strewn throughout the prosecution offices in desk drawers, bookcases packed with vaguely-labeled plastic containers, or even simply piled on the tops of desks.” He says he once accidentally found “crucial physical evidence” that “had been tossed in a locker located at Guantanamo and promptly forgotten.” [Washington Post, 1/25/2009] Vandeveld says that evidence at Guantanamo was often so disorganized “it was like a stash of documents found in a village in a raid and just put on a plane to the US.” [United Press International, 1/14/2009]
Prosecutors Lacked Evidence Necessary for Prosecutions, Says Senior Official - “A prosecutor has an ethical obligation to review all the evidence before making a charging decision,” says Susan Crawford, the convening authority for the military commissions. “And they didn’t have access to all the evidence, including medical records, interrogation logs, and they were making charging decisions without looking at everything.” Crawford has stated that another detainee was tortured while at Guantanamo (see January 14, 2009). [ABA Journal, 1/14/2009]
Defense Department: Information There, but Scattered - Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell says the files are in good order: “Fundamentally, we believe that the individual files on each detainee are comprehensive and sufficiently organized,” however, “in many cases, there will be thousands of pages of documents… which makes a comprehensive assessment a time-consuming endeavor.… Not all the documents are physically located in one place,” but most are available through a database. “The main point here is that there are lots of records, and we are prepared to make them available to anybody who needs to see them as part of this review.” [Washington Post, 1/25/2009]

Entity Tags: US Department of Justice, Susan Crawford, Bush administration (43), US Department of Defense, Central Intelligence Agency, Geoff Morrell, Obama administration, Darrel Vandeveld

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

President Barack Obama signs a series of executive orders mandating the closure of the Guantanamo Bay detention facility within one year’s time, and declares that prisoners at that facility will be treated within the parameters of the Geneva Conventions. Obama’s order also mandates the closure of the CIA’s secret prisons overseas. Another element of those orders bans the practice of torture on detainees (see January 22, 2009). Obama calls the order the first move by his administration to reclaim “the moral high ground” vacated by the previous administration. Americans understand that battling terrorism cannot continue with a “false choice between our safety and our ideals,” he says. [Los Angeles Times, 1/23/2009; Washington Post, 1/23/2009] “We can no longer afford drift, and we can no longer afford delay, nor can we cede ground to those who seek destruction,” he adds. [Associated Press, 1/22/2009] “We believe we can abide by a rule that says, we don’t torture, but we can effectively obtain the intelligence we need.” [New York Times, 1/23/2009] The Washington Post reports that the orders essentially end the “war on terror” as it has been managed by the Bush administration, and writes, “[T]he notion that a president can circumvent long-standing US laws simply by declaring war was halted by executive order in the Oval Office.” However, Obama’s order does not detail what should be done with the detainees currently housed at Guantanamo. According to a White House summary, Obama’s orders “set… up an immediate review to determine whether it is possible to transfer detainees to third countries, consistent with national security.” If a prisoner cannot be transferred, “a second review will determine whether prosecution is possible and in what forum.” Obama says, “The message that we are sending the world is that the United States intends to prosecute the ongoing struggle against violence and terrorism and we are going to do so vigilantly and we are going to do so effectively and we are going to do so in a manner that is consistent with our values and our ideals.” The US will now “observe core standards of conduct, not just when it’s easy, but also when it’s hard,” he adds. The orders do not specifically ban the practice of “rendition,” or secretly transferring prisoners to the custody of other nations, some of which practice torture. “There are some renditions that are, in fact, justifiable, defensible,” says a senior Obama administration official. “There’s not going to be rendition to any country that engages in torture.”
Republicans, Conservatives Object - Representative Peter Hoekstra (R-MI), a supporter of torture by the Bush administration, says Obama’s orders are imprecise and vague: “This is an executive order that places hope ahead of reality—it sets an objective without a plan to get there.” [Los Angeles Times, 1/23/2009; Washington Post, 1/23/2009] “What do we do with confessed 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and his fellow terrorist conspirators.” Hoekstra asks, “offer them jail cells in American communities?” [Financial Times, 1/22/2009] Conservative news outlet Fox News tells its viewers, “The National Security Council told Fox that for now even [O]sama bin Laden or a high-ranking terrorist planner would be shielded from aggressive interrogation techniques that the CIA says produced lifesaving intelligence from… Mohammed.” [US News and World Report, 1/23/2009]
'A New Era for America' - Newly installed Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has a different view. “I believe with all my heart that this is a new era for America,” she tells reporters as she assumes her duties at the State Department. [Agence France-Presse, 1/22/2009] Former Bush official John Bellinger, the National Security Council’s top legal adviser, praises Obama’s orders, calling them “measured” and noting that they “do not take any rash actions.” Bellinger adds: “Although the Gitmo order is primarily symbolic, it is very important. It accomplishes what we could never accomplish during the Bush administration.” [New York Times, 1/23/2009] Retired admiral John Hutson agrees. “It is a 180 degree turn,” says Hutson. “It restores our status in the world. It enables us to be proud of the way we are prosecuting the war.” Closing the Guantanamo prison camp and banning torture “is the right thing to do morally, diplomatically, militarily and constitutionally,” Hutson adds, “but it also makes us safer.” Senator John Kerry (D-MA) calls the move “a great day for the rule of law.” [Financial Times, 1/22/2009; New York Times, 1/23/2009]

Entity Tags: Peter Hoekstra, Hillary Clinton, John Bellinger, Obama administration, John D. Hutson, John Kerry, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, National Security Council, Fox News, Washington Post, Bush administration (43), Barack Obama, Central Intelligence Agency

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Complete 911 Timeline, Civil Liberties

Lawrence Wilkerson, who served as former Secretary of State Colin Powell’s chief of staff and now chairs the New America Foundation/US-Cuba 21st Century Policy Initiative, writes an op-ed titled “Some Truths about Guantanamo Bay” for the Washington Note. Wilkerson explains why he believes so many people were captured and so many of those were tortured, for so little gain, and in the process covers several other issues regarding the Bush administration.
Handling of Terror Suspects - Wilkerson writes that the entire process of capturing, detaining, and processing suspected Islamist militants was marked by incompetence and a casual, improvisational approach. Most of the “suspects” captured during the first weeks and months of the Afghanistan invasion (see October 7, 2001) were merely picked up in sweeps, or bought from corrupt regional warlords, and transported wholesale to a variety of US bases and military camps, and then sent to Guantanamo, mostly in response to then-Defense Secretary Rumsfeld’s exhortation to “just get the b_stards to the interrogators.” Wilkerson blames the civilian leadership, for failing to provide the necessary information and guidance to make sensible, informed decisions about who should and should not have been considered either terror suspects or potential sources of information. When detainees were found not to have had any ties to Islamist radical groups, nor had any real intelligence value, they were kept at Guantanamo instead of being released. Wilkerson writes that “to have admitted this reality would have been a black mark on their leadership from virtually day one of the so-called Global War on Terror and these leaders already had black marks enough.… They were not about to admit to their further errors at Guantanamo Bay. Better to claim that everyone there was a hardcore terrorist, was of enduring intelligence value, and would return to jihad if released.” He writes that State Department attempts to rectify the situation “from almost day one” experienced almost no success.
Data Mining Called for Large Numbers of Detainees - Wilkerson notes what he calls “ad hoc intelligence philosophy that was developed to justify keeping many of these people,” a data mining concept called in the White House “the mosaic philosophy.” He explains: “Simply stated, this philosophy held that it did not matter if a detainee were innocent. Indeed, because he lived in Afghanistan and was captured on or near the battle area, he must know something of importance (this general philosophy, in an even cruder form, prevailed in Iraq as well, helping to produce the nightmare at Abu Ghraib). All that was necessary was to extract everything possible from him and others like him, assemble it all in a computer program, and then look for cross-connections and serendipitous incidentals—in short, to have sufficient information about a village, a region, or a group of individuals, that dots could be connected and terrorists or their plots could be identified. Thus, as many people as possible had to be kept in detention for as long as possible to allow this philosophy of intelligence gathering to work. The detainees’ innocence was inconsequential. After all, they were ignorant peasants for the most part and mostly Muslim to boot.” Unfortunately for this data mining effort, the gathering, cataloging, and maintenance of such information was carried out with what he calls “sheer incompetence,” rendering the information structure virtually useless either for intelligence or in prosecuting terror suspects.
No Information of Value Gained from Guantanamo Detainees - And, Wilkerson adds, he is not aware of any information gathered from Guantanamo detainees that made any real contribution to the US’s efforts to combat terrorism: “This is perhaps the most astounding truth of all, carefully masked by men such as Donald Rumsfeld and Richard Cheney in their loud rhetoric—continuing even now in the case of Cheney—about future attacks thwarted, resurgent terrorists, the indisputable need for torture and harsh interrogation, and for secret prisons and places such as Gitmo.”
Hindrance to Prosecution - This incompetence in gathering and storing information had a powerful impact on the ability of the US to prosecute the two dozen or so detainees who actually might be what Wilkerson calls “hardcore terrorists.” For these and the other detainees, he writes, “there was virtually no chain of custody, no disciplined handling of evidence, and no attention to the details that almost any court system would demand” (see January 20, 2009).
Shutting Down Guantanamo - Wilkerson writes that the Guantanamo detention facility could be shut down much sooner than President Obama’s promised year (see January 22, 2009), and notes he believes a plan for shutting down the facility must have existed “[a]s early as 2004 and certainly in 2005.”
War on Terror Almost Entirely Political - Wilkerson charges that the Bush administration’s driving rationale behind the “never-ending war on terror” was political: “For political purposes, they knew it certainly had no end within their allotted four to eight years,” he writes in an op-ed about the US’s detention policies. “Moreover, its not having an end, properly exploited, would help ensure their eight rather than four years in office.”
Cheney's Criticisms of Obama 'Twisted ... Fear-Mongering' - Wilkerson excoriates former Vice President Dick Cheney for his recent statements regarding President Obama and the “war on terror” (see February 4, 2009). Instead of helping the US in its fight against al-Qaeda and Islamic terrorism, Wilkerson writes, Cheney is making that fight all the more difficult (see February 5, 2009). “Al-Qaeda has been hurt, badly, largely by our military actions in Afghanistan and our careful and devastating moves to stymie its financial support networks. But al-Qaeda will be back. Iraq, Gitmo, Abu Ghraib, heavily-biased US support for Israel, and a host of other strategic errors have insured al-Qaeda’s resilience, staying power, and motivation. How we deal with the future attacks of this organization and its cohorts could well seal our fate, for good or bad. Osama bin Laden and his brain trust, Ayman al-Zawahiri, are counting on us to produce the bad. With people such as Cheney assisting them, they are far more likely to succeed.” [Washington Note, 3/17/2009]

Entity Tags: Colin Powell, Barack Obama, Bush administration (43), Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, US Department of Defense, Lawrence Wilkerson, Obama administration, US Department of State

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives

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