American Crime Case #54: The Guantánamo Torture Chamber

Updated

Bob Avakian has written that one of three things that has “to happen in order for there to be real and lasting change for the better: People have to fully confront the actual history of this country and its role in the world up to today, and the terrible consequences of this.” (See “3 Things that have to happen in order for there to be real and lasting change for the better.”)

In that light, and in that spirit, “American Crime” is a regular feature of revcom.us. Each installment focuses on one of the 100 worst crimes committed by the U.S. rulers—out of countless bloody crimes they have carried out against people around the world, from the founding of the U.S. to the present day.

See all the articles in this series.

Guantánamo, 2002

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Update, January 2022: Since this American Crime installment was originally posted in 2017, the U.S. torture camp at the Guantánamo Naval Base in Cuba has been a continuing crime. January 2022 marks the 20th year since it was first set up. Biden is the fourth president—two Democrats and two Republicans—to preside over a facility whose torture practices have been, for two decades, an extreme violation of U.S. and international law. Biden, as well as Trump, should now be included to the long list of “The Criminals” responsible for this American Crime.

Since 2002 a total of 799 prisoners have been sent to Guantanamo to be illegally detained, held indefinitely, and tortured. As of January 2022, there are 39 detainees still being held there; 27 of them have never been charged with a crime. And 26 are survivors of secret CIA “black sites”—hidden locations in over 50 countries where the CIA set up secret prisons to torture detainees who had been “rendered” from different places around the world and brought there.

The original American Crime below gives examples of the torture carried out against detainees at Guantanamo, and more has since come to light. In 2014 the Senate Intelligence Committee report on CIA torture was released.1 On October 21, 2021, news of the testimony by Pakistani detainee Majid Khan at his sentencing hearing in Guantanamo took center stage. Arrested in March 2003, Khan is the only known legal resident of the U.S. in the Guantanamo torture chamber.2 He has now been imprisoned for 19 years.

Khan read a 39-page statement3 describing, in vivid detail, what was done to him by CIA agents over a three-year period in one black site after another—treatment so grotesque it is difficult to confront. Khan was finally taken to Guantanamo, which he described as “a death by a thousand cuts. I could give you 600 pages of daily logs containing specific details of the arbitrary abuse and indignities that I suffered during those years at [Guantanamo's] Camp 7.” After hearing Khan's testimony, seven of the eight U.S. military officers that made up his “jury” sent a letter to a top Pentagon official overseeing the case, requesting clemency for Khan. In the letter they wrote that Khan “was subjected to physical and psychological abuse well-beyond approved enhanced interrogation techniques, instead being closer to torture performed by the most abusive regimes in modern history….”

The 2021 U.S. military defeat in its war in Afghanistan and withdrawal of U.S. troops4 removed the supposed military and legal justification used for the continued existence of America's offshore torture chamber.5 Yet the demands to shut down Guantanamo and hold all the torturers accountable continue to be ignored.

Rather than closing Guantanamo, the Biden administration's Defense Department reportedly plans to take a year or more for construction of a second military “courtroom” at Guantanamo, even more secure from public scrutiny than the current one. These are military courts, with military judges, prosecutors, and jurors applying military law. The interests of U.S. “national security” have been invoked to stop certain witnesses from testifying. And the U.S. continues to hold detainees there without ever charging them with any crime. All this underscores the truth of what is pointed out in the following American Crime piece:

These crimes against humanity were also a way to “change the rules”—to redefine how the U.S. is to be looked at both internationally and domestically, hoping to train sections of the people to embrace brutal bellicosity and arbitrary dispensing of law and justice as the “new normal.”

* * *

The Crime:

In January 2002, in the wake of the attacks of September 11, 2001, George W. Bush’s administration established the Guantánamo Bay Detention Camp on the Guantánamo Naval Base in Cuba. For the last 15 years and continuing today, Guantánamo has functioned as a torture center, where hundreds have been sent after having been illegally detained, held indefinitely, and tortured.6

Guantánamo was set up under the authority given Bush by Congress under the “Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Terrorists” law passed on September 14, 2001. It gave Bush broad powers to prosecute a “war on terror”—to essentially act with impunity to protect what the president determined to be “America’s interests”. Bush then signed a military order on November 13, 2001, the “Detention, Treatment, and Trial of Certain Non-Citizens in the War Against Terrorism,” to allow detainment and trial of “unlawful enemy combatants” by military commissions under presidential authority alone. Soon hundreds of men around the world, anyone the U.S. or its allies suspected as a target of its “war on terror” as well as many others, were seized and detained in this prison indefinitely for years, without trials or even charges, hearings or access to the legal system in most cases. This was a war crime in clear violation of the Geneva Conventions and international law.

All told, about 780 men, of 50 different nationalities, have been brought to Guantánamo since January 2002. The Bush administration claimed that most of the men had been captured fighting in Afghanistan, but studies have shown that the great majority (perhaps over 80 percent) “...were captured not by Americans on the battlefield but by Pakistanis and Afghans, often in exchange for bounty payments.” The U.S. widely distributed leaflets in the region offering $5,000 or more per prisoner. By May 2011, 600 detainees had been released after years of detention, most of them without any charges, or transferred to facilities in their home countries. Department of Defense-released data indicate that most detainees were low-level offenders who were not affiliated with organizations on U.S. terrorist lists. In 2010, Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, a former aide to Secretary of State Colin Powell, stated in an affidavit that top U.S. officials—including George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld—had known that the majority of the detainees initially sent to Guantánamo were innocent but they were held anyway.

At Guantánamo and elsewhere, the U.S. legally justified and created new “enhanced interrogation techniques” (commonly considered by most of the international community to be torture).

The case of Mohamedou Ould Slahi. Slahi had fought alongside the al-Qaida Afghanistan insurrection against their Russian invaders in the 1980s but had renounced the group in the 1990s. In November 2001, he voluntarily submitted for questioning at the local police station in his home town of Nouakchott, Mauritania. He was quickly whisked off to a U.S.-arranged Jordanian “rendition” (forced transport) flight which took him to a prison in Amman, Jordan, where he was held and tortured for seven-and-a-half months.

Slahi was then secretly sent briefly to Bagram prison in Afghanistan and quickly on to Guantánamo. There he underwent a couple of years of aggressive “enhanced interrogation techniques,” before finally being released without charge in 2016—14 years after his initial detention.

Slahi details his experience in his 2005 book Guantánamo Diary, written while he was imprisoned, including the horrific torture and abuses he suffered especially during his first two years or so there. He identifies Richard Zuley, notorious 30-year Chicago police lieutenant known for using various torture techniques to obtain confessions, as one of his interrogators. Slahi described extreme isolation for months, extreme sleep deprivation with three shifts of interrogators for 20 out of 24 hours a day for 70 days. He was kept in a “frozen room” for hours on end, sometimes nude, sometimes doused with water, forced to drink salt water, shackled in stress positions, and sexually assaulted. He was bombarded with loud music and strobe lights, and repeatedly beaten. He suffered many death threats, and Zuley also threatened to arrest or capture his mother and bring her back to the “all-male” Guantánamo prison which he interpreted as a rape and death threat.

Most of his charges are corroborated by the U.S. government’s own reports and documents describing many similar accounts, and that Slahi’s torture was planned and approved at the highest levels.

The abuse and torture at Guantánamo, massaged by new “official definitions” of these words, were standard operating policy and procedure permitted by the highest levels of the Bush and Obama governments.

Nine men have died while in custody at Guantánamo, six of whom the Department of Defense claims were suicides, although there is certainly evidence of aggressive torture-induced homicides at Guantánamo as well as the U.S. prison at Bagram in Afghanistan.

The case of the simultaneous triple “suicides” of three detainees at Guantánamo on June 9, 2006. Salah Ahmed al-Salami from Yemen was 37, Mani Shaman al-Utaybi from Saudi Arabia was 30, and Yasser Talal al-Zahrani from Saudi Arabia was 22, and had been imprisoned at Guantánamo since he was captured at age 17.

None of the three men had been charged with a crime, but all had participated in hunger strikes to protest the conditions and abuse at the prison (along with many other prisoners, some who were then further tortured through force-feeding). Hours after their deaths, the commander of the Guantánamo Naval Forces, Rear Admiral Harry Harris, announced to the media that the three detainees had hanged themselves. This conclusion was quickly upheld by the U.S. Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS). However, at least three independent investigative bodies raised serious questions about the official “suicide” conclusions, and produced evidence that suggested the three prisoners died of torture and their deaths were being covered up as suicides.

A recently released (2016) book by Joseph Hickman, staff sergeant who was on duty in Guantánamo on June 9, 2002, extensively documents his conclusion that the U.S. government was using Guantánamo not just as a prison, but as a training ground for interrogators to test advanced torture techniques.

Currently 41 men are still detained at Guantánamo—men who the U.S. government claims are “too difficult to successfully prosecute but too dangerous to release.” At least in some cases, the U.S. may be refusing to release them for fear they would publicly disclose how they were abused and tortured in Guantánamo.

In sum, the U.S. prison at Guantánamo violated the Geneva Conventions protections for prisoners of war, including against indefinite detention without trial or charges and the use of a whole variety of physical and psychological techniques (generally considered torture by the world community) to get information, to punish, or simply to silence. All these constitute serious crimes against humanity.

BAsics cover 600

BAsics from the talks and writings of Bob Avakian   

American Lives Are Not More Important Than Other People’s Lives.

—Bob Avakian, BAsics 5:7

The Criminals:

President George W. Bush and his administration (especially Dick Cheney, vice president, Alberto Gonzalez, White House counsel and then attorney general, and Donald Rumsfeld, secretary of defense), which played a major role in illegally establishing the prison at the Guantánamo Naval Base and in the several-year process of broadening the chief executive powers, and especially redefining prisoners taken in the “war on terror” as “unlawful enemy combatants” (not “prisoners of war”) and removing legal rights and protections against abuse and torture of those prisoners.

John Choon Yoo, deputy assistant U.S. attorney general, and John Scott Bybee, then assistant attorney general, both of whom authored the torture memos and provided legal opinions that facilitated attempts to legitimize the “war on terror” and violations of the Geneva Conventions including indefinite detention without habeas corpus, enhanced interrogation techniques, and systematic torture.

President Barack Obama and his administration (especially John Brennan, director of the CIA, and Eric Holder, attorney general). Obama called Guantánamo a “sad chapter in American history” and repeatedly promised to close it down within a year of taking office. But he backed off in the face of congressional opposition and his commitment to maintaining legitimacy in the “war on terror.” In fact, Obama actually continued many of the same policies and practices, and declined to prosecute those in the U.S. government responsible for the war crimes and crimes against humanity widely and even openly practiced during the previous decade.

Multiple circuit and district court judges, as well as Supreme Court justices, who worked to justify restricting fundamental civil and human rights in order to advance the “war on terror.”

Rear Admiral Harry Harris and leading officials of the NCIS, Defense Department, and Justice Department who abetted and participated in the elaborate cover-up of crimes against humanity that resulted in the homicides of prisoners detained at Guantánamo.

Congress, which authorized the sweeping powers Bush invoked to create Guantánamo, refused to act against the illegal indefinite detention and torture there, and since then has consistently refused to close down this torture chamber.

The Alibi: 

Protecting the American people was the key justification for the U.S. “war on terror” and the use of new “gloves off” policies, laws, and practices including illegal and indefinite detention, rendition, and torture.

The Bush administration also claimed that since those it was sweeping up were “unlawful enemy combatants,” not “prisoners of war,” and because Guantánamo was not part of the U.S., U.S. law did not apply. For these reasons, “rendering” people to Guantánamo and other countries for interrogation, indefinitely detaining them without charge or trial, ignoring the Geneva Conventions, and redefining what constituted torture and introducing “enhanced interrogation techniques,” meant that all could be considered appropriate actions.

Alberto Gonzalez, White House counsel, declared in 2004, “The president has given no order or directive that would immunize from prosecution anyone engaged in conduct that constitutes torture. All interrogation techniques actually authorized have been carefully vetted, are lawful, and do not constitute torture.”

The Actual Motive:

The attacks of September 11, 2001 by reactionary Islamic fundamentalists were a serious jolt to the U.S. imperialist rulers, because their “homeland” had come under attack and because it demonstrated that the Islamic fundamentalists and jihadists represented a serious challenge to U.S. domination of the Middle East and Central Asia regions. With the eyes of the world watching, the U.S. imperialist rulers felt the need to respond with a massive show of force and ruthless, no-holds-barred determination—to fill the enemy with terror, and demonstrate “shock and awe” that would command respect and fear of the the U.S.’s determination and enormous power. They needed to punish the jihadists and totally crush, militarily and politically, this bold challenge to their leadership in the current world order.

They also aimed to broadly terrorize people in the regions the Islamic jihadists operated in and divide them from the jihadists. So they proceeded to round up anyone even remotely suspected of supporting the jihadists—as well as masses of people randomly. They threw them into prison indefinitely, torturing and interrogating them, to demonstrate to the world (and to the American people as well) how barbaric they could get against ANYONE who opposed them.

To try to avoid worsening the image of the U.S., this required new laws and new definitions of prisoners of war and of torture, and the establishment of the prison on Guantánamo to detain, interrogate, and punish prisoners captured in the now newly named “war on terror.” These crimes against humanity were also a way to “change the rules”—to redefine how the U.S. is to be looked at both internationally and domestically, hoping to train sections of the people to embrace brutal bellicosity and arbitrary dispensing of law and justice as the “new normal.”

BAsics cover 600

BAsics from the talks and writings of Bob Avakian   

If you can conceive of a world without America—without everything America stands for and everything it does in the world—then you’ve already taken great strides and begun to get at least a glimpse of a whole new world. If you can envision a world without any imperialism, exploitation, oppression—and the whole philosophy that rationalizes it—a world without division into classes or even different nations, and all the narrow-minded, selfish, outmoded ideas that uphold this; if you can envision all this, then you have the basis for proletarian internationalism. And once you have raised your sights to all this, how could you not feel compelled to take an active part in the world historic struggle to realize it; why would you want to lower your sights to anything less?

—Bob Avakian, BAsics 1:31

Sources

American Crime: Case #59: The U.S. Invasion, Occupation, Domination, and Plunder of Cuba: 1898 to 1959,” Revolution newspaper, October 2, 2017

Guantánamo Bay detention camp, Wikipedia

Interview with Larry Siems, Editor of Guantánamo Diary,” transcript of the Michael Slate Show February 13, 2015, published in Revolution newspaper, February 23, 2015

Bush on a Mission to Legalize Torture,” Revolution newspaper, September 24, 2006

“The Guantánamo ‘Suicides’: A Camp Delta sergeant blows the whistle”; Scott Horton in Harper’s Magazine, March 2010

“Uncovering the Cover-Ups: Death in Camp Delta”; Mark Denbeaux et al.; Seton Hall University School of Law: Center for Policy and Research, May 2014 (available online)

 “Exposed at Abu Ghraib: Torture of U.S. Rule”; Revolutionary Worker #1240, May 16, 2004

The Brutal Logic Behind the Torture Madness”; Revolution newspaper, June 12, 2005

Murder at Camp Delta: A Staff Sergeant’s Pursuit of the Truth About Guantánamo Bay; Joseph Hickman, 2016

“Report Gives New Detail on Approval of Brutal Techniques”; Brian Knowlton; New York Times, April 21, 2009 (referring to the Senate Armed Services Committee Report released 2009)

“U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command” report leaked to New York Times as reported by Tim Golden, May 20, 2005, and May 22, 2005

_______________

FOOTNOTES:

1. Report of the Senate Intelligence Committee: Committee Study of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Detention and Interrogation Program. [back]

2. Majid Khan had gained political asylum status in the United States in 1998 and lived with his family in Baltimore, Maryland, where he had attended high school and worked for his father. At the hearing, Khan was sentenced to 26 years, and reportedly may be released sometime next year according to a pre-trial agreement. See “In first, Guantanamo detainee details CIA torture in court,” Al Jazeera. [back]

3. Khan's statement is available via the Center for Constitutional Rights. [back]

4. See “U.S. Imperialists Suffer Humiliating Defeat in Afghanistan as Oppressive Taliban Regime Returns to Power” at revcom.us. [back]

5. Lawyers for Guantánamo detainees argue that the conclusion of the war invalidated the U.S.’s detention authority and so all the remaining prisoners must be released, as reported in “Biden Ended the War, but Guantanamo Bay Is Still Open,” at The Daily Beast. [back]

6. The right of the U.S. to lease part of Cuba to set up the Guantanamo Naval Base had been forced onto Cuba after Spain was defeated in the Spanish-American War of 1898. But the treaty agreement stipulated that the leased land was to be used “...as coaling or naval stations only, and for no other purpose...” (emphasis added). So using the base to operate a prison for terror suspects and others was illegal in the first place. [back]

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