On Monday, in an article entitled, “House Kills Plan to Close Guantánamo,” I described my despair at the House Armed Services Committee’s unanimous refusal to provide $350 million (out of a war budget of $726 billion) so that President Obama can close Guantánamo by moving prisoners to a facility in Illinois. As I explained in the article, I was not upset that the administration’s plan to replicate Guantánamo in Illinois was being turned down, because I have nothing but contempt for President Obama’s assertion that 48 of the remaining 181 prisoners can continue to be held indefinitely without charge or trial, and simply moving them from Guantánamo to the US mainland would only make matters worse. However, what distresses me about the Committee’s refusal to back the President’s plan is that its only purpose is to keep Guantánamo open forever. However, my criticism of lawmakers does not stop with this decision, which is likely to receive formal House approval this week, and approval in the Senate soon after. In its summary of the funding bill that contained the prohibition on buying a new prison on the US mainland, the House Armed Services Committee also laid down a set of demands regarding the release of prisoners, which encroaches further on the President’s ability to release anyone from Guantánamo than was achieved last year, when lawmakers first rose up in revolt, passing legislation preventing any prisoner from being brought to the US mainland except to face trials, and insisting that they be given two weeks’ notice before any prisoner -- even those cleared by the courts after successful habeas corpus petitions -- could be released. In this latest assault on the Executive and the judiciary, the House Armed Services Committee’s summary requires the President to submit “a comprehensive disposition plan and risk assessment” for any future release (or transfer) of a prisoner, and allows Congress “120 days to review the disposition plan before it could be carried out.” In addition, the two weeks’ notice demanded by Congress before any prisoner is released is to be extended to a 30-day review period. This has clearly been set up as a national security concern -- and is just as clearly influenced by the overreaction to the Christmas arrest of the would-be plane bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who had apparently trained in Yemen, with a handful of Saudis who had been released from Guantánamo by George W. Bush. Critics of Obama were silent regarding this particular fact, and were also silent when it was pointed out that the men in question had been released by President Bush as part of a diplomatic deal with the Saudi government, in spite of the recommendations of the intelligence services. However, having effortlessly transferred all the blame for Bush’s mistakes onto Obama’s shoulders, the Senate Armed Services Committee had no qualms about inserting into its summary of the bill a requirement for defense secretary Robert Gates to tell Congress that any release or transfer must meet “strict security criteria to thoroughly vet any foreign country to which a detainee may be transferred.” Perhaps this sounds reasonable. After all, when Obama came to power, he chose to work more closely with Congress, and not to insist that he could unilaterally do whatever he wanted because of the allegedly limitless powers available to the Commander-in-Chief in wartime, as President Bush had maintained. However, what it means in practice is that, if the administration wishes to release a prisoner who has been cleared by a US court, after winning his habeas corpus petition, that prisoner can actually be held “in the status of ‘Congressional prisoner,’ a status for which there is no Constitutional authority,” for a period of 30 days. The quote above is from Lt. Col. David Frakt, who wrote these words last October, with reference to the 15-day period which, at the time, Congress had granted itself to review the cases of prisoners before release -- even those cleared by a US court. At the time, Lt. Col. Frakt refused to mince his words about Congress’ unconstitutional activities. As the military defense attorney for the Afghan prisoner Mohammed Jawad, who won his habeas petition last July, but was not released for another 22 days because “[t]he Department of Justice said they needed a week to prepare the notice and then he couldn’t be released until 15 days after that,” he included the quote above in a more detailed criticism of Congress, in which he stated:
I consider this Congressional notification requirement to be blatantly unconstitutional as a violation of the separation of powers. In Jawad’s case, it meant that after the Executive Branch and the Judiciary had concluded there was no lawful basis for the military to detain Mohammed Jawad (after the Department of Justice ultimately conceded the habeas corpus petition), the military was required to continue to detain him at Guantánamo at the order of the legislature, Congress. As I explained in Federal District Court, this placed Jawad in the status of “Congressional prisoner,” a status for which there is no Constitutional authority.
He added:
This provision, coupled with the refusal to authorize funds for detainees to be resettled in the United States -- even those determined to be innocent of any wrongdoing who should qualify for political asylum -- shows the extent of Congressional depravity on any issues related to detainees.
With the House Armed Services Committee now intent on doubling the amount of time that any prisoner -- even those cleared for release by a US court -- can be held as a result of this “Congressional depravity,” I wrote again to Lt. Col. Frakt to ask for his opinion about this latest development, and received a reply by email in which he told me that “the unanimous vote on this committee report and the minimal level of publicity that it has generated” reflect two current aspects of US thinking, both of which are, to be blunt, depressing. The first, as Lt. Col. Frakt explained, is “a reversion in the mood of the country to the post 9-11 terrorist hysteria resulting from the failed Christmas Day and Times Square bombing attempts, and the fearmongering of politicians and the press surrounding these incidents.” As he also explained, “With every seat in the House of Representatives up for election in November, the incumbent members of Congress are desperate not to give their opponents any potential ammunition to claim that they are soft on terrorists, or are ‘bringing terrorists to American soil.’” This is certainly true, and reflects badly on a political system in which mid-term elections ensure that, just a year after the Presidential Election, the lowest common denominator of political campaigning takes precedence over anything else, but Lt. Col. Frakt also pointed out that the second reason is President Obama’s own inability -- or refusal -- to make the reversal and thorough repudiation of Bush-era “national security” policies central to his administration’s aims. As he explained, “the difficulty the administration is having following through on the President's pledge to close Guantánamo, including opposition within his own party, reflects the President’s near-total lack of leadership on this issue since his inaugural pledge to shut Guantánamo.” He added:
Since his first week in office, he has made it clear, through his inaction, and other direct and indirect signals, that closing Guantánamo is not a priority of the Administration. Having finally won one significant legislative victory with the health care reform bill, he wants to keep the momentum going and try to tackle some other major initiatives such as an energy/environment bill, financial market reform, and immigration reform. All of these will take some bipartisan cooperation, and he probably rightfully fears that a divisive fight over Guantánamo will derail his domestic agenda. On the other hand, if he made it clear that he considered the closure of Guantánamo to be a national security imperative and part of his overall war strategy, it is hard to imagine Congress openly defying the Commander-in-Chief during wartime on a military matter.
Unfortunately, by refusing to demonstrate leadership on the issues, the President has indeed played into the hands of his opponents -- both in the Republican Party, and in his own party -- and, moreover, seems to have failed to gain any political advantage from doing so. The losers are not just the Democrats, who look set to suffer heavy losses in November, but also the prisoners at Guantánamo, who now seem more abandoned than at any time since the first few years of Guantánamo’s existence. Or, as Lt. Col. Frakt described it, “Sadly, the detainees at Guantánamo, both the guilty and the innocent, continue to be mere pawns in a drawn-out political chess game with no clear end in sight.” Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America's Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press), and the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo.” He maintains a blog here, where this article was originally published.
President Obama’s hopes of closing Guantánamo, which were already gravely wounded by his inability to meet his self-imposed deadline of a year for the prison’s closure, now appear to have been killed off by lawmakers in Congress. Although the House Armed Services Committee was happy to authorize, by 59 votes to 0, a budget of over $700 billion for war ($567 billion for “defense spending” and $159 billion for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq) for the fiscal year beginning in October, lawmakers unanimously saw through -- and turned down -- a fraction of this budget for what the administration had labeled a “transfer fund” -- money intended to close Guantánamo and buy a new prison in Illinois for prisoners designated for trials or for indefinite detention without charge or trial. The administration had attempted to hide its intentions behind this vague wording, because senior officials were acutely aware of ferocious opposition in Congress to the closure of Guantánamo. Fueled by opportunistic Republicans and backed by cowardly Democrats, Congress had only been prevented at the last minute from passing an insane law last year, which would have prevented the administration from bringing any prisoner to the US mainland for any reason (even to face a trial) and had only relented in October, allowing prisoners to be brought to the US mainland for trials, but not for any other purpose. Despite this, the House Armed Services Committee is now trying to withdraw from even this concession to the administration’s aims, including, in a summary of the bill, a prohibition on using even the tiniest fraction of the war budget (around $350 million) to buy a new detention facility. As Spencer Ackerman explained in the Washington Independent:
According to the bill summary, the bill now requires Defense Secretary Robert Gates to give Congress a report that “adequately justifies any proposal to build or modify such a facility” if it wants to move forward with any post-Guantánamo detention plan. “The Committee firmly believes that the construction or modification of any facility in the US to detain or imprison individuals currently being held at Guantánamo must be accompanied by a thorough and comprehensive plan that outlines the merits, costs, and risks associated with utilizing such a facility,” the summary text read. “No such plan has been presented to date. The bill prohibits the use of any funds for this purpose.”
This is a depressing example of how even a morally and ethically flawed attempt to close Guantánamo is unacceptable to both Republican and Democrat lawmakers, who have retreated to a position that the Bush administration, at its most extreme, would have been proud of. For those of us who don’t mind prisoners being brought to the US mainland to face trials (35 in total, according to Obama’s Guantánamo Task Force), but who are implacably opposed to the administration’s contention that it can hold some prisoners indefinitely (48 of the remaining 181 prisoners), it is by no means a tragedy that the plan to replicate some of Guantánamo’s most unpalatable innovations on American soil has been prevented. In my more optimistic moments, it strikes me that, with the option of transferring prisoners to the US mainland denied, the administration will -- if it remains committed to the closure of Guantánamo -- have to rethink its plans, and that one way of doing this would be to give up on its intention to hold 48 men indefinitely, which, to put it bluntly, is unconstitutional. In truth, the claim that 48 men should be held indefinitely has always been something of a deception, because these men have outstanding habeas corpus petitions in the District Court in Washington D.C., where judges, rather than an unaccountable Task Force, are making their own decisions about whether they are, as President Obama explained in a major national security speech last May, a special category of prisoner who “cannot be prosecuted yet who pose a clear danger to the American people.” So far, the judges have ruled that just 14 men can continue to be held indefinitely, although it’s noticeable that, in denying their habeas petitions, they have generally not concluded that they “pose a clear danger to the American people,” but have, instead, found that they were minor players in the Taliban, or in al-Qaeda forces supporting the Taliban. However, according to the detention policies they are required to follow, the judges are not allowed to distinguish between the terrorists of al-Qaeda and the foot soldiers of the Taliban when it comes to consigning men, on an apparently sound legal basis, to endless incarceration. This problem relates to the Authorization for Use of Military Force, passed by Congress the week after the 9/11 attacks, which authorizes the President “to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001” (or those who harbored them). Combined with a Supreme Court ruling (in Hamdi v. Rumsfeld, in 2004) that “Congress has clearly and unmistakably authorized detention” of individuals covered by the AUMF, this is the rationale used by the administration to justify the prisoners’ detention, and, although different judges have expressed different opinions about who these individuals are, they have broadly agreed that, to qualify as an “enemy combatant” -- or, in Obama’s new world, an “alien unprivileged enemy belligerent” -- the government is required to prove, by a preponderance of the evidence, that these individuals supported al-Qaeda and/or the Taliban. This lack of distinction between al-Qaeda and the Taliban is clearly ridiculous, as was noted last year by two judges, Judge James Robertson and Judge Thomas Hogan, who made a point of stating, when refusing to grant the habeas petitions of two Yemenis, Adham Mohammed Ali Awad and Musa’ab al-Madhwani, that they did not regard either man as an ongoing threat. Regarding Ali Awad, Judge Robertson noted, “It seems ludicrous to believe that he poses a security threat now,” and in al-Madhwani’s case, Judge Hogan stated that he “did not think Madhwani was dangerous,” noted that he has been a “model prisoner” since his arrival at Guantánamo in October 2002, and added, “There is nothing in the record now that he poses any greater threat than those detainees who have already been released.” Moreover, this inability to make a distinction between al-Qaeda and the Taliban -- or al-Qaeda forces supporting the Taliban in military operations in Afghanistan, rather than in activities related to terrorism -- is one that I have been railing against for some time now, for the simple reason that the former should be put forward for trials, whereas the latter -- if they should continue to be held at all -- should be held as prisoners of war according to the Geneva Conventions. I don’t see this happening anytime soon, of course, because no one even wants to talk about it, but when the House Armed Services Committee moves so decisively to prevent the closure of Guantánamo -- and every sign is that the House will approve their amendment this week, and the Senate Armed Services Committee will follow suit at the end of the month -- the closure of Guantánamo now requires a new kind of thinking. To my mind, this should involve, first of all, more respect for the District Court’s habeas rulings than has been shown to date. Over the last 20 months, judges have granted the habeas petitions of 35 prisoners, and along the way have done more to demolish claims that Guantánamo holds “the worst of the worst” than any other forum, exposing how much of the government’s supposed evidence consists of unreliable statements made by the prisoners themselves or by their fellow prisoners, and also exposing how torture, coercion and the bribery of prisoners with better living conditions have played a major role in making these statements unreliable. Despite this, the administration has failed to take advantage of these rulings in its dealings with Congress, and has preferred to either appeal them, or to release those who have won their petitions with extreme reluctance. In addition, rethinking the closure of Guantánamo should involve highlighting the fact that 96 of the 181 men still held have been cleared for release, reviving plans for returning dozens of cleared men to Yemen (which were shelved in the most cowardly manner after it was revealed that the would-be Christmas Day plane bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, had trained in Yemen), and -- although I expect hell to freeze over before this comes to pass -- renewing calls for cleared prisoners who cannot be repatriated because they face the risk of torture to be allowed to settle in the US, as was planned last year by White House Counsel Greg Craig, supported by Robert Gates and Hillary Clinton, until Obama got cold feet. This could best be achieved by allowing US citizens access to the stories of cleared prisoners released in other countries who are living peaceful lives, and, if it’s of any use, I’m happy to help on this front, as I’ve spent much of the last three months traveling around the UK with a former prisoner, Omar Deghayes, showing “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (a film I co-directed, in which Omar plays a major part), and can guarantee that giving people the opportunity to meet Omar (after they have seen his pained and eloquent testimony about his ordeal) is a perfect way to demonstrate that colossal mistakes were made -- and continue to be made -- at Guantánamo, that many innocent men were seized, and that many of these innocent men are still held. And finally, to return to the confusion between al-Qaeda and the Taliban that is at the heart of Guantánamo’s detention problem, rethinking the closure of Guantánamo should involve a recognition that the failure to distinguish between al-Qaeda terrorists and Taliban foot soldiers is unfairly consigning men to indefinite detention as terrorists when they should be held as prisoners of war. In addition, it should also provide an opportunity to reflect on the more fundamental question of whether, over eight years after most of the men who are still held at Guantánamo were first seized, the Authorization for Use of Military Force is a valid reason for detention at all, when the Geneva Conventions and the criminal justice system should suffice. Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America's Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press), and the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo.” He maintains a blog here, where this article was first published.
On February 24, as I reported in an article entitled, “The Black Hole of Guantánamo,” Judge Henry H. Kennedy Jr. granted the habeas corpus petition of Uthman Abdul Rahim Mohammed Uthman, a Yemeni who was seized crossing the border from Afghanistan to Pakistan in December 2001. In the absence of the judge’s unclassified opinion explaining why he had ordered his release, I provided only a brief explanation of what was publicly known of his story, stating:
As I explained in my book The Guantánamo Files, Uthman, who was 22 years old at the time of his capture, “said that he had traveled between Kabul and Khost teaching the Koran from March to December 2001.” Although he “admitted that he had stayed at a Taliban house in Quetta, Pakistan, which was the normal entry point for volunteers who had come to fight with the Taliban,” he stated that this was “only because he had been told that it was the only way for him to enter Afghanistan.”
Judge Kennedy’s opinion was released a month ago (PDF), but was then abruptly withdrawn, and, perhaps with unnecessary delicacy, I held off from analyzing it, waiting for it to be reissued, as I was uncertain how much would be redacted. When the revised opinion was finally released on April 21 (PDF), I realized that the name of a criminal investigator with the Naval Criminal Investigative Service had been removed, as had other named operatives, but that other key elements had not; specifically, the names of two other prisoners who alleged that Uthman “acted as a bodyguard for Osama bin Laden.” These two men are Sharqwi Abdu Ali al-Hajj and Sanad Yislam Ali al-Kazimi, and in the most important part of the opinion, Judge Kennedy stated:
The Court will not rely on the statements of Hajj or Kazimi because there is unrebutted evidence in the record that, at the time of the interrogations at which they made the statements, both men had recently been tortured.
The torture of Sharqwi Abdu Ali al-Hajj This, alarmingly, was something of an understatement. Al-Hajj (also identified as Abdu Ali Sharqawi, but more commonly known as Riyadh the Facilitator) was seized in a house raid in Pakistan in February 2002 and was then rendered to Jordan, one of at least 15 prisoners whose torture was outsourced to the Jordanian authorities between 2001 and 2004, where he was held for nearly two years before being transferred to the CIA’s “Dark Prison” near Kabul, and then, via Bagram, to Guantánamo. As Judge Kennedy explained, he told his lawyer, Kristin B. Wilhelm, that, “while held in Jordan, he ‘was regularly beaten and threatened with electrocution and molestation,’ and he eventually ‘manufactured facts’ and confessed to his interrogators’ allegation ‘in order to make the torture stop.’” In the “Dark Prison,” he added, he was “kept in complete darkness and was subject to continuous loud music.” Al-Hajj’s descriptions of the “Dark Prison” correspond with those of numerous other prisoners, including the British resident Binyam Mohamed, whose descriptions were included in my article, “Hit Me Baby One More Time: A History of Music Torture in the ‘War on Terror.’” However, what is missing from the analysis of his time in Jordan is a more sustained narrative of torture, false confessions and his torturers’ regular contact with the CIA, which emerged in a letter given to Joanne Mariner of Human Rights Watch during a visit to Jordan in 2008, which had been written by al-Hajj during his detention, around October 2002. In this note, which was smuggled out of the prison, he explained that he “was held as a secret prisoner by the Jordanian intelligence service: unregistered, cut off from all communication and hidden during visits by representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross,” and gave the following “short summary of my sufferings,” as reported by Mariner:
“They beat me up in a way that does not know mercy,” Sharqawi wrote, referring to his Jordanian captors, “and they're still beating me. They threatened me with electricity, with snakes and dogs ... [They said] we'll make you see death.” Sharqawi described his interrogations, explaining that the Jordanians were feeding his responses back to the CIA. “Every time that the interrogator asks me about a certain piece of information, and I talk,” Sharqawi said, “he asks me if I told this to the Americans. And if I say no he jumps for joy, and he leaves me and goes to report it to his superiors, and they rejoice.”
In Human Rights Watch's report on the CIA's Jordanian “War on Terror” prison, “Double Jeopardy,” the extent to which he was interrogated about other men -- using photos that, in Afghanistan and Guantánamo, were apparently described as “the family album” -- was revealed in the following passage, which not only explains the pressures that led to him providing a false allegation against Uthman Abdul Rahim Mohammed Uthman in Bagram, but also indicates how hundreds -- or thousands -- of other false allegations may have been extracted:
I was being interrogated all the time, in the evening and in the day. I was shown thousands of photos, and I really mean thousands, I am not exaggerating ... And in between all this you have the torture, the abuse, the cursing, humiliation. They had threatened me with being sexually abused and electrocuted. I was told that if I wanted to leave with permanent disability both mental and physical, that that could be arranged. They said they had all the facilities of Jordan to achieve that. I was told that I had to talk, I had to tell them everything.
The torture of Sanad al-Kazimi The story of Sanad al-Kazimi’s false confession is just as distressing. Seized in the United Arab Emirates in January 2003, he was subsequently handed over to US forces, who rendered him to an unidentified secret CIA prison, and then to the “Dark Prison” and Bagram, and, as Judge Kennedy explained, he told his lawyer, Martha Rayner, that, “while [he] was detained outside the United States, his interrogators beat him; held him naked and shackled in a cold dark cell; dropped him into cold water while his hands and legs were bound; and sexually abused him. Kazimi told Rayner that eventually “[h]e made up his mind to say ‘Yes’ to anything the interrogators said to avoid further torture.” After this he was relocated to the “Dark Prison,” where, he said, “he was always in darkness and … was hooded, given injections, beaten, hit with electric cables, suspended from above, made to be naked, and subjected to continuous loud music. Kazimi reportedly tried to kill himself on three occasions. He told Rayner that he realized ‘he could mitigate the torture by telling the interrogators what they wanted to hear.’” At Bagram, he continued, “he was isolated, shackled, ‘psychologically tortured and traumatized by guards’ desecration of the Koran’ and interrogated ‘day and night, and very frequently.’ [He] told Rayner that he ‘tried very hard’ to tell his interrogators in Bagram the same information he had told his previous interrogators ‘so they would not hurt him.’” This is damning enough, but back in August 2007, Jane Mayer of the New Yorker spoke to Ramzi Kassem, another of al-Kazimi’s lawyers, who, as I explained in an article at the time, added further details, telling her that:
[Al-Kazimi] was “suspended by his arms for long periods, causing his legs to swell painfully … It’s so traumatic, he can barely speak of it. He breaks down in tears.” He also said that al-Kazimi “claimed that, while hanging, he was beaten with electric cables,” and explained that he also told him that, while in the “Dark Prison,” he “attempted suicide three times, by ramming his head into the walls”: “He did it until he lost consciousness. Then they stitched him back up. So he did it again. The next time he woke up, he was chained, and they’d given him tranquillizers. He asked to go to the bathroom, and then he did it again.” On this last occasion, Kassem added, he “was given more tranquillizers, and chained in a more confining manner.”
The story of Uthman Abdul Rahim Mohammed Uthman These accounts, sadly, fit a pattern of torture and false confessions that only becomes clearer as time passes and more evidence is revealed, and they also confirm that the two men described above were amongst the 94 prisoners -- many still unaccounted for -- who were held in secret CIA prisons and subjected to particularly brutal treatment (PDF). Compared to them, Uthman’s own story is easily overshadowed. This is perhaps understandable, as nothing in the government’s supposed evidence thoroughly refutes his own assertions that he was in Afghanistan as a missionary, because the entire case against him is based on allegations made by other prisoners (in addition to al-Hajj and al-Kazimi), or attempts to infer guilt by association on the part of the government that make him something of a cipher in his own case. Throughout the rest of the judge’s opinion, further attempts by the government to prove that Uthman was a bodyguard for bin Laden, that he trained in an al-Qaeda camp and was present at the battle of Tora Bora (where al-Qaeda and the Taliban fought the US military and its Afghan proxies in November and December 2001) are bedeviled with identifications based on a photograph and a variety of kunyas (nicknames) that Judge Kennedy found unconvincing. The only allegations given any substantial weight are claims that an individual who “supported jihad” financed his trip, that he followed a route that was typically used by al-Qaeda recruits, and that he was seen in two guesthouses in Afghanistan that were reportedly associated with al-Qaeda. Other prisoners drift in and out of this narrative -- Abdul Hakim Bukhari, a Saudi (released from Guantánamo in September 2007) who arrived in Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks for jihad but was imprisoned as a spy, who unconvincingly alleged that Uthman “was a member of the Osama bin Laden … security detail” before 9/11, when Bukhari wasn’t in the country and could have had no such knowledge; and Richard Belmar, a British citizen (released in January 2005), who was seized in Pakistan in February 2002, and who, “when shown a picture of Uthman,” stated that he “‘may have been a lower amir,’ or leader, ‘in the Kandahar guest house,’” even though, as seems apparent, Belmar was not in Kandahar at the same time as Uthman. The judge refused to disregard this statement entirely, but, to be honest, it is difficult to see why not, as its basis in reality appears to be as flimsy as everything else thrown at Uthman by the government in the hope that some of it would stick, and, moreover, Belmar stated on his release that, on one occasion in Bagram, “a handgun was forced into his mouth,” and he explained, “It tasted cold, bitter. I thought, ‘Yeah, this is getting serious, there’s a good chance they will pull the trigger.’” Elsewhere, the government resorted to trying out guilt by association, claiming that, because Uthman was seized in the vicinity of Tora Bora with approximately 30 other men, “a few of whom he knew from Yemen,” who “were admitted -- or at least, alleged, al-Qaeda members, some of whom were likely coming from Tora Bora,” the Court should draw an inference that Uthman’s missionary story was a lie. The truth, to be honest, is difficult to establish, as Judge Kennedy recognized. The group of approximately 30 men with whom Uthman was seized have long been referred to by the government as the “Dirty Thirty,” and portrayed, as in Uthman’s case, as bodyguards for bin Laden. Until this case came to court, it had been presumed that the bodyguard allegations came solely from Mohamed al-Qahtani, the supposed 20th hijacker for the 9/11 attacks, whose torture at Guantánamo is well-known (and was admitted by Pentagon official Susan Crawford in January 2009), but al-Qahtani is mysteriously absent from Uthman’s case, as are alleged al-Qaeda member Ibrahim al-Qosi (currently facing a trial by Military Commission) and convicted al-Qaeda member Ali Hamza al-Bahlul, who were also captured at this time. It may dismay the government to have to concede that it is all but impossible to establish that everyone seized at this time was part of al-Qaeda, and that some of the men may have been missionaries or humanitarian aid workers, attempting to flee the chaos of post-invasion Afghanistan as part of general Arab exodus, but it is not beyond the bounds of reason that this is the case, as Judge Kennedy accepted in his conclusion, when he stated:
In sum, the Court gives credence to evidence that Uthman (1) studied at a school at which other men were recruited to fight for al-Qaeda; (2) received money for his trip to Afghanistan from an individual who supported jihad; (3) traveled to Afghanistan along a route also taken by al-Qaeda recruits; (4) was seen at two al-Qaeda guesthouses in Afghanistan; and (5) was with al-Qaeda members in the vicinity of Tora Bora after the battle that occurred there. Even taken together, these facts do not convince the Court by a preponderance of the evidence that Uthman received and executed orders from al-Qaeda. Although this information is consistent with the proposition that Uthman was a part of al-Qaeda, it is not proof of that allegation. As explained, the record does not contain reliable evidence that Uthman was a bodyguard for Osama bin Laden or fought for al-Qaeda. Certainly, none of the facts respondents have demonstrated are true are direct evidence of fighting or otherwise “receiv[ing] and execut[ing] orders” … and they do not, even together, paint an incriminating enough picture to demonstrate that the inferences respondents ask the Court to make are more likely accurate than not. Associations with al-Qaeda members, or institutions to which al-Qaeda members have connections, are not alone enough to demonstrate that, more likely than not, Uthman was part of al-Qaeda.
In granting Uthman’ habeas petition, Judge Kennedy added that, “at first blush,” some of the government’s evidence was “quite incriminating of Uthman and supportive of the position that he is lawfully detained,” but that, on close examination, there was “reason not credit some of it at all and reason to conclude that what remains is not nearly as probative of respondent’s position as they assert.” An alarming conclusion This is indeed the case, but what is missing from Judge Kennedy’s conclusion, but is glaringly obvious from his opinion as a whole, is that the shadows which never quite coalesce around the barely fleshed-out figure of Uthman Abdul Rahim Mohammed Uthman are populated not by reliable witnesses, but by a procession of torture victims or other prisoners worn out by endless interrogation, who, when shown photographs, invented stories to get the torture to stop, or to get the interrogators off their back. As a demonstration of how to produce false confessions to incriminate insignificant prisoners at Guantánamo, it would be harder to find a document that more perfectly expresses the brutal pointlessness of the “War on Terror” than this opinion, and when the bigger picture is examined -- Sharqwi Abdu Ali al-Hajj ‘s statement that, in Jordan, “I was shown thousands of photos, and I really mean thousands” -- the scale of this shocking witch-hunt is explicitly revealed. Beyond Guantánamo, where habeas judges are not empowered to tread, who knows how many other men were seized because of false confessions made through the use of torture? Note: This article is part of a project entitled, “Guantánamo Habeas Week.”