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Context of 'January 11, 2002: First Prisoners Transferred to Guantanamo Bay'

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Less than two weeks after 9/11, White House counsel Alberto Gonzales sets up an interagency group to design a strategy for prosecuting terrorists, and specifically asks it to suggest military commissions as one viable option for prosecution of suspected terrorists.
Membership - The initial participants include Gonzales; White House lawyer Timothy Flanigan; Pentagon general counsel William Haynes; the vice president’s chief counsel, David Addington; National Security Council lawyer John Bellinger; and State Department lawyer Pierre-Richard Prosper, a former career prosecutor who now serves as State’s ambassador at large for war crimes issues and who will head the group.
Various Options - The group spends a month in a windowless conference room at State, bringing in experts from around the government, including military lawyers and Justice Department lawyers. The Justice Department advocates regular trials in civilian courts, such as the trials of the 1993 World Trade Center bombers (see February 26, 1993). However, many in the group object, noting that terrorist trials in regular courthouses on US soil pose security risks. The military lawyers propose courts-martial, which can take place anywhere in the world and would have military protection. A third option, military commissions, would offer the security of courts-martial without the established rules of evidence and procedure courts-martial have; setting up such a system might offer more flexibility in trying suspected terrorists, but many in the group wonder if President Bush would require Congressional authorization. Prosper will later recall, “We were going to go after the people responsible for the attacks, and the operating assumption was that we would capture a significant number of al-Qaeda operatives.” In addition to the use of military commissions, the group begins to work out three other options: ordinary criminal trials, military courts-martial, and tribunals with a mixed membership of civilians and military personnel. The option of a criminal trial by an ordinary federal court is quickly brushed aside for logistical reasons, according to Prosper. “The towers were still smoking, literally. I remember asking: Can the federal courts in New York handle this? It wasn’t a legal question so much as it was logistical. You had 300 al-Qaeda members, potentially. And did we want to put the judges and juries in harm’s way?” Despite the interagency group’s willingness to study the option of military commissions, lawyers at the White House, according to reporter Tim Golden, grow impatient with the group. Some of its members are seen to have “cold feet.” [New York Times, 10/24/2004; Savage, 2007, pp. 135]
Parallel Process at White House - Unbeknownst to Prosper’s group, the White House is crafting its own version of military commissions or tribunals (see Late October 2001). When President Bush issues his executive order creating military tribunals (see November 13, 2001), Prosper and his group will first learn about it by watching the nightly news. [Savage, 2007, pp. 138]

Entity Tags: US Department of Justice, US Department of State, William J. Haynes, Timothy E. Flanigan, Pierre-Richard Prosper, John Bellinger, Beth Nolan, Alberto R. Gonzales, Scott McClellan, Jay S. Bybee, John Ashcroft, David S. Addington

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Civil Liberties

CIA agent “Dave”.CIA agent “Dave”. [Source: CNN/House of War]One of the prisoners who is being interrogated by the two CIA agents tells Mike Spann that he has come to Afghanistan “to kill” him. With that, the prisoner lunges towards him. At this point accounts differ over what happens. According to an early account, Mike Spann immediately shoots the prisoner and three others dead with his pistol before the nearby Taliban prisoners join the skirmish and “beat, kick, and bite” Spann to death. [London Times, 11/28/2001] In the other account, the prisoner who lunged towards Spann, used a grenade to blow him and Spann up, killing both of them immediately. [Guardian, 12/1/2001] “Dave,” the second CIA agent, then shoots at least one of the foreign Taliban fighters dead and flees the vicinity. He goes to General Dostum’s headquarters in the north side of the fort where he contacts the American embassy in Tashkent, Uzbekistan using a satellite phone borrowed from the German TV crew. He tells the embassy, “We have lost control of the situation. Send in helicopters and troops.” [Guardian, 12/1/2001] One witness later recalls, “David asked his superiors for choppers to be brought in, as well as ground troops to get everyone out. They sent about 40 American soldiers, but the choppers were too far away in Uzbekistan. David’s people offered to bring in gunships and bomb the Taliban. They would flatten the whole castle and kill us all. David told them twice they shouldn’t do that. They were really pressing for airstrikes and after three hours they started.” [London Times, 11/28/2001] Meanwhile, Dostum’s soldiers began to shoot indiscriminately at the rows of bound prisoners. Some are killed and as prisoners stand up and run for cover, more are shot in their flight. John Walker Lindh too tries to run but after two or three paces a bullet hits him in his right thigh and he falls to the ground. Unable to walk, with chaos all around him, Lindh pretends to be dead. He remains on the ground for the next twelve hours. The Taliban soldiers soon overpower their Northern Alliance captors, take their weapons and break into the arms depot located towards the center for the compound where they help themselves to Dostum’s mortars and rocket launchers. [London Times, 11/28/2001; Guardian, 12/1/2001; United States of America v. John Walker Lindh, 6/13/2002 pdf file]

Entity Tags: Northern Alliance, Mike Spann, Taliban, “Dave”, John Walker Lindh

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, War in Afghanistan

According to US military officials, the USS Bataan and USS Peleliu are used as prison ships to hold captives suspected of terrorist activities, including “American Taliban” John Walker Lindh (see December 14, 2001). Both vessels are operating in the Indian Ocean. The use of US naval vessels as prison ships is kept extremely secret; the press will not learn of the incidents for years, and even then, details will be sketchy. Questioned in 2004 about the use of US military ships as “floating prisons” (see June 2, 2008), Rear Admiral John Stufflebeem will say: “I don’t know the specifics. Central command determines for either medical considerations, for the protection of those individuals, for the isolation in the sense of not having forces that would try to come get somebody out of a detention center, for a security aspect, and obviously an interest to continue interrogation.” The US may also use ships in and around the British-controlled island of Diego Garcia, in the Indian Ocean, to hold prisoners indefinitely and “off the books.” And the US may use its ships for what is called “extraordinary rendition”—the secret transportation of prisoners to foreign countries where they can be interrogated and tortured in ways proscribed by US law. US and British officials will repeatedly deny the use of Diego Garcia in any such “floating incarcerations” or renditions. [Guardian, 6/2/2008] One reason for the use of naval vessels as prison ships may be necessity: the US is capturing scores of prisoners in Afghanistan, but the first detainee facilities at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba will not open until January 2002 (see January 11, 2002).

Entity Tags: John Walker Lindh, John Stufflebeem

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld makes a public announcement that he is planning to move Taliban and al-Qaeda suspects to the Guantanamo Bay Naval Station. The number of people in US custody and destined for Guantanamo is allegedly small. According to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, they number eight individuals aboard the USS Peleliu and 37 at a US base near Kandahar airport. [Dawn (Karachi), 12/28/2001] Troops, earlier stationed at nearby Camp Rhino, where John Walker Lindh was detained, are being transferred to Guantanamo. [GlobalSecurity (.org), 1/15/2005] The reason for choosing Guantanamo for detaining suspected al-Qaeda and Taliban members is unclear. Rumsfeld says: “I would characterize Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, as the least worst place we could have selected. Its disadvantages seem to be modest relative to the alternatives.” [Dawn (Karachi), 12/28/2001] Rumsfeld does not inform reporters of the legal opinion about to be released by the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) that he feels makes Guantanamo uniquely qualified to serve as a prisoner for terror suspects (see December 28, 2001). According to the OLC opinion, Guantanamo is outside the US itself, so US courts have no jurisdiction to oversee conditions or activities there. It is also not on soil controlled by any other court system. And, unlike other facilities considered for housing terror suspects (see January 11, 2002), Guantanamo is not on the soil of a friendly government with which the US has lease and status of force agreements, but rather on the soil of a hostile Communist government whose predecessor had signed a perpetual lease with the US. The base, therefore, is, according to the OLC, under the sole jurisdiction of the US military and its commander in chief, and not subject to any judicial or legislative review. In 2007, author and reporter Charlie Savage will write, “Guantanamo was chosen because it was the best place to set up a law-free zone.” [Savage, 2007, pp. 145]

Entity Tags: Al-Qaeda, US Department of Defense, Charlie Savage, Richard B. Myers, Taliban, Donald Rumsfeld

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, War in Afghanistan

Deputy Assistant Attorney Generals Patrick Philbin and John Yoo send a memorandum to Pentagon General Counsel William J. Haynes offering the legal opinion that US courts do not have jurisdiction to review the detention of foreign prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. Therefore detentions of persons there cannot be challenged in a US court of law. The memo is endorsed by the Department of Defense and White House legal counsel Alberto Gonzales. [Newsweek, 5/24/2004] The memo addresses “the question whether a federal district court would properly have jurisdiction to entertain a petition for a writ of habeas corpus filed on behalf of an alien detained at the US naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.” The conclusion of Philbin and Yoo is that it cannot, based primarily on their interpretation of a decision by the US Supreme Court in the 1950 Eisentrager case, in which the Supreme Court determined that no habeas petition should be honored if the prisoners concerned are seized, tried, and held in territory that is outside of the sovereignty of the US and outside the territorial jurisdiction of any court of the US. Both conditions apply to Guantanamo according to Philbin and Yoo. Approvingly, they quote the US Attorney General in 1929, who stated that Guantanamo is “a mere governmental outpost beyond our borders.” A number of cases, quoted by the authors, “demonstrate that the United States has consistently taken the position that [Guantanamo Bay] remains foreign territory, not subject to US sovereignty.” Guantanamo is indeed land leased from the state of Cuba, and therefore in terms of legal possession and formal sovereignty still part of Cuba. But Philbin and Yoo acknowledge a problem with the other condition: namely that the territory is outside the US’s jurisdiction. They claim with certainty that Guantanamo “is also outside the ‘territorial jurisdiction of any court of the United States.’” However, the Supreme Court should not have made a distinction between jurisdiction and sovereignty here; the wording of the decision is really, Philbin and Yoo believe, an inaccurate reflection of its intent: “an arguable imprecision in the Supreme Court’s language.” For that reason, they call for caution. “A non-frivolous argument might be constructed, however, that [Guantanamo Bay], while not be part of sovereign territory of the United States, is within the territorial jurisdiction of a federal court.” [US Department of Justice, 12/28/2001 pdf file]

Entity Tags: John C. Yoo, Alberto R. Gonzales, Patrick F. Philbin, William J. Haynes

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Civil Liberties

An aerial shot of Camp X-Ray.An aerial shot of Camp X-Ray. [Source: Public domain]The US prison camp at Guantanamo receives its first 20 prisoners from the Afghan battlefield. [Reuters, 1/11/2002] The prisoners are flown on a C-141 Starlifter cargo plane, escorted during the final leg of the journey by a Navy assault helicopter and a naval patrol boat. The prisoners, hooded, shackled, wearing blackout goggles and orange jumpsuits, and possibly drugged, are escorted one by one off the plane by scores of Marines in full battle gear. They are interred in what reporter Charlie Savage will later call “kennel-like outdoor cages” in the makeshift containment facility dubbed Camp X-Ray. [Guardian, 1/11/2002; Savage, 2007, pp. 142-143]
Leaked Photos of Transfer Cause International Outcry - Pictures of prisoners being transferred in conditions clearly in violation of international law are later leaked, prompting an outcry. But rather than investigating the inhumane transfer, the Pentagon will begin investigating how the pictures were leaked. [Associated Press, 11/9/2002]
Guantanamo Chosen to Keep Prisoners out of US Jurisdiction - The prisoners are sent to this base—leased by Cuba to the US—because it is on foreign territory and therefore beyond the jurisdiction of US law (see December 28, 2001). [Globe and Mail, 9/5/2002] It was once a coaling station used by the US Navy, and in recent years had been used by Coast Guard helicopters searching for drug runners and refugees trying to make it across the Florida Straits to US soil. In 1998, the Clinton administration had briefly considered and then rejected a plan to bring some prisoners from Kosovo to Guantanamo. Guantanamo was chosen as an interim prison for Afghanis who survived the uprising at Mazar-e Sharif prison (see 11:25 a.m. November 25, 2001) by an interagency working group (see Shortly Before September 23, 2001), who considered and rejected facilities in Germany and other European countries. Group leader Pierre-Richard Prosper will later recall: “We looked at our military bases in Europe and ruled that out because (a), we’d have to get approval from a European government, and (b), we’d have to deal with the European Court of Human Rights and we didn’t know how they’d react. We didn’t want to lose control over it and have it become a European process because it was on European soil. And so we kept looking around and around, and basically someone said, ‘What about Guantanamo?’” The base may well have not been the final choice of Prosper’s group; it was still researching a Clinton-era attempt to house Haitian and Cuban refugees there that had been challenged in court when Rumsfeld unilaterally made the decision to begin transferring prisoners to the naval base. [Savage, 2007, pp. 143-144]
No Geneva Convention Strictures Apply to 'Unlawful Combatants' - Rumsfeld, acting on the advice of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, publicly declares the detainees “unlawful combatants” and thereby not entitled to the rights of the Geneva Conventions. “Unlawful combatants do not have any rights under the Geneva Convention,” Rumsfeld says. Though, according to Rumsfeld, the government will “for the most part treat them in a manner that is reasonably consistent with the Geneva Conventions, to the extent they are appropriate.” [Reuters, 1/11/2002] There is no reason to feel sorry for these detainees, says Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He states, “These are people who would gnaw through hydraulic lines at the back of a C-17 to bring it down.” [New York Times, 6/21/2004]
British Officials: 'Scandalous' - Senior British officials privately call the treatment of prisoners “scandalous,” and one calls the refusal to follow the Geneva Convention “not benchmarks of a civilized society.” [Guardian, 6/13/2002]

Entity Tags: US Department of the Navy, United States, US Department of Defense, Pierre-Richard Prosper, Richard B. Myers, Clinton administration, Donald Rumsfeld, Charlie Savage, Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, Office of Legal Counsel (DOJ), Geneva Conventions

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

Guantanamo now holds about 300 prisoners, indicating that the number of detainees has grown at an average rate of 75 persons per month since January 11 (see January 11, 2002). [American Forces Press Service, 1/14/2003]

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives

Navy General Counsel Alberto J. Mora writes a secret, but unclassified, memo to Vice Admiral Albert Church, who led a Pentagon investigation into abuses at the US detention facility at Guantanamo Bay. Mora writes the memo in an attempt to stop what he sees as a disastrous and unlawful policy of authorizing cruel and inhuman treatment of terror suspects. The memo details in chronological fashion Mora’s earlier attempts to speak out against the Bush administration’s decision to circumvent the Geneva Conventions (see January 9, 2002 and January 11, 2002).
Specific Problems - Mora, a veteran of the Reagan and George H. W. Bush administrations and a strong supporter of the “war on terror,” argues that a refusal to outlaw cruelty toward US-held terrorist suspects is an implicit invitation to abuse. Mora also writes that the Bush administration’s legal arguments that justify an expansion of executive power in everything from interrogations to warrantless wiretapping are “unlawful,” “dangerous,” and “erroneous” legal theories. Not only are they wrong in granting President Bush the right to authorize torture, he warns that they may leave US personnel open to criminal prosecution. While the administration has argued that it holds to humane, legal standards in interrogation practices (see January 12, 2006), Mora’s memo shows that from the outset of the administration’s “war on terror,” the White House, the Justice Department, and the Defense Department intentionally skirted and at times ignored domestic and international laws surrounding interrogation and detention of prisoners.
Cruelty and Torture - Mora will later recall the mood in the Pentagon: “The mentality was that we lost three thousand Americans [on 9/11], and we could lose a lot more unless something was done. It was believed that some of the Guantanamo detainees had knowledge of other 9/11-like operations that were under way, or would be executed in the future. The gloves had to come off. The US had to get tougher.” But, Mora will say, the authorization of cruel treatment of detainees is as pernicious as any defined torture techniques that have been used. “To my mind, there’s no moral or practical distinction,” he says. “If cruelty is no longer declared unlawful, but instead is applied as a matter of policy, it alters the fundamental relationship of man to government. It destroys the whole notion of individual rights. The Constitution recognizes that man has an inherent right, not bestowed by the state or laws, to personal dignity, including the right to be free of cruelty. It applies to all human beings, not just in America—even those designated as ‘unlawful enemy combatants.’ If you make this exception, the whole Constitution crumbles. It’s a transformative issue.… The debate here isn’t only how to protect the country. It’s how to protect our values.” [Mora, 7/7/2004 pdf file; New Yorker, 2/27/2006]

Entity Tags: Geneva Conventions, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, US Department of Defense, Alberto Mora, Albert T. Church III, US Department of Justice, Bush administration (43)

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Civil Liberties

WikiLeaks, a non-profit whistleblower group, releases some files on about 750 prisoners held at the US-run prison in Guantanamo, Cuba. This covers all but about 15 of the prisoners who have passed through the prison since it opened in early 2002 (see January 11, 2002). Nearly all of the prisoners were accused of belonging to al-Qaeda or the Taliban, or associated Islamist militant groups. The files were written by US military intelligence officials between the prison’s opening and January 2009. They contain assessments on whether each prisoner should remain in US custody, be imprisoned by another country, or be set free. Most of the prisoners have been released over the years, and no new prisoners have been sent to Guantanamo since 2007, but 172 prisoners remain at Guantanamo in April 2011. Seven news organizations—the New York Times, The Guardian, McClatchy Newspapers, the Washington Post, El Pais, Der Spiegel, and NPR (National Public Radio)—were given early access to the files by WikiLeaks in order to vet and analyze them. Their publication was sped up when the New York Times prepared to publish them after claiming to get copies of them from another unnamed source. The Obama administration immediately condemns the publication of the classified information in the files. [New York Times, 4/24/2011; New Yorker, 4/25/2011]
Files Often Contain Dubious Evidence - Journalists who analyze the files question the accuracy of their prisoner assessments. The New York Times comments that the files “show that the United States has imprisoned hundreds of men for years without trial based on a difficult and strikingly subjective evaluation of who they were, what they had done in the past, and what they might do in the future.” Furthermore, the files “reveal that the analysts sometimes ignored serious flaws in the evidence—for example, that the information came from other detainees whose mental illness made them unreliable. Some assessments quote witnesses who say they saw a detainee at a camp run by al-Qaeda but omit the witnesses’ record of falsehood or misidentification. They include detainees’ admissions without acknowledging other government documents that show the statements were later withdrawn, often attributed to abusive treatment or torture.” [New York Times, 4/24/2011] The Guardian comments that Guantanamo has been “a place that portrayed itself as the ultimate expression of a forensic and rational war run by the most sophisticated power on the planet, with the best intelligence available. The reality was an almost random collection of [prisoners who were] the bad, the accidental, and the irrelevant.” [Guardian, 4/25/2011] McClatchy Newspapers comments: “The world may have thought the US was detaining a band of international terrorists whose questioning would help the hunt for Osama Bin Laden or foil the next 9/11. But [the files] not meant to surface for another 20 years shows that the military’s efforts at Guantanamo often were much less effective than the government has acknowledged. Viewed as a whole, the secret intelligence summaries help explain why in May 2009 President Barack Obama, after ordering his own review of wartime intelligence, called America’s experiment at Guantanamo ‘quite simply a mess.’”
Files Dependant on Dubious Informants - McClatchy further claims that the files were “tremendously dependant on informants—both prison camp snitches repeating what they’d heard from fellow captives and self-described, at times self-aggrandizing, alleged al-Qaeda insiders turned government witnesses who Pentagon records show have since been released.” The information in the files is based on other sources, including intelligence documents and some confessions. [McClatchy Newspapers, 4/24/2011] The New York Times similarly comments that “Guantanamo emerges from the documents as a nest of informants, a closed world where detainees were the main source of allegations against one another and sudden recollections of having spotted a fellow prisoner at an al-Qaeda training camp could curry favor with interrogators.” [New York Times, 4/24/2011]
Files Also Based on Torture and Legally Questionable Methods - The files rarely mention the abuse and torture scandals concerning treatment of US prisoners in Guantanamo, in secret CIA prisons, in other overseas US-run prisons, and in prisons run by some US allies where the use of torture was more widespread. However, there are hints. For instance, one file on an Australian man sent to Guantanamo in 2002 mentions that he confessed while “under extreme duress” and “in the custody of the Egyptian government” to training six of the 9/11 hijackers in martial arts. But despite the apparent seriousness of this accusation, he was released in early 2005. Additionally, important prisoners such as Abu Zubaida held in secret CIA prisons were shown photos of Guantanamo prisoners and asked about them around the time they were subjected to waterboarding and other torture methods. The interrogations of Zubaida, who was waterboarded many times (see May 2003), are cited in over 100 prisoner files. However, his accusations against others have been systematically removed from government filings in court cases in recent years, which would indicate that officials are increasingly doubtful about his reliability and/or the legality of his tortured confessions. Also, many foreign officials were allowed to interrogate some prisoners in Guantanamo, including officials from China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Yemen, Kuwait, Algeria, and Tajikistan. Information in some files comes from these legally questionable interrogation sessions. [McClatchy Newspapers, 4/24/2011; New York Times, 4/24/2011] One well-known case of torture involved Mohamed al-Khatani, the alleged 20th 9/11 hijacker (see December 2001). While being held in Guantanamo, he was interrogated for months with techniques that the senior Bush administration official in charge of bringing Guantanamo prisoners to trial later said legally met the definition of torture (see August 8, 2002-January 15, 2003 and January 14, 2009). His file says, “Although publicly released records allege detainee was subject to harsh interrogation techniques in the early stages of detention,” his confessions “appear to be true and are corroborated in reporting from other sources.” Claims al-Khatani made regarding 16 other Guantanamo prisoners are mentioned in their files without any caveats about the interrogation methods used on him. [New York Times, 4/24/2011]
Some Prisoners Unjustly Held - Some prisoners appear to be clearly innocent, and yet they often were held for years before being released. Some prisoners are still being held even though their files indicate that their interrogators are not even sure of their identities. In some cases, prisoners were held for years not because they were suspected of any crime, but because it was thought they knew useful information. For instance, files show one prisoner was sent to Guantanamo because of what he knew about the secret service of Uzbekistan. [McClatchy Newspapers, 4/24/2011; New York Times, 4/24/2011] In a cruel twist of fate, one man, Jamal al-Harith, appears to have been imprisoned mainly because he had been imprisoned by the Taliban. His file states, “He was expected to have knowledge of Taliban treatment of prisoners and interrogation tactics.” [Guardian, 4/25/2011]
Prisoner Releases Based More on Luck than Evidence - The New York Times claims the determination of which prisoners were released has mostly been a “lottery” that was largely based on which country the prisoner came from. “Most European inmates were sent home, despite grave qualms on the analysts’ part. Saudis went home, even some of the most militant, to enter the rehabilitation program; some would graduate and then join al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Yemenis have generally stayed put, even those cleared for release, because of the chaos in their country. Even in clearly mistaken arrests, release could be slow.” [New York Times, 4/24/2011] In 2009, the new Obama administration put together a task force that re-evaluated the 240 prisoners remaining at Guantanamo. However, these more recent assessments remain secret. [New York Times, 4/24/2011]

Entity Tags: WikiLeaks, Jamal al-Harith, US Military, Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, Mohamed al-Khatani, Barack Obama, Abu Zubaida

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

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