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Sunday, October 17, 2021

Who is in Guantanamo?


Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, the author of The Guantánamo Files, and the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo. In an interview with TSI, Worthington talks about his life and work.
SAURABH KUMAR SHAHI | New Delhi, October 30, 2011 19:48
Tags : journalist | historian | guantanamo | detention camp | pentagon | taliban | afghans | terrorists | prisons | amnesty international | gulag |


How did it all begin: your journey as a journalist and historian?

AW: I was always interested in history, and in writing. I studied English Language and Literature at New College, Oxford, in the 1980s. But my journey really began when I published two books on modern British social history dealing with protest movements, dissent, state oppression and civil liberties in 2004 and 2005.  After that, I moved into the field of human rights.

How did you get interested and involved in the Guantanamo detention camp?

AW: I had been interested in it ever since the prison opened on January 11, 2002. Later, when the world first saw the shackled prisoners in their orange jumpsuits, with their eyes and ears covered, closed, subjected to sensory detention, I thought that something had gone terribly wrong in the United States in its response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, as these men were obviously not being held either as prisoners of war or criminal suspects. 

Of course, it took many years for the truth of what was happening at Guantanamo to emerge. In fact, much of it came out only in the spring of 2006, as I began researching the story full-time for my book The Guantanamo Files, when the Pentagon was obliged, through a lawsuit, to release the names and nationalities of all the prisoners, and 8,000 pages of documents about them. 

These included the allegations against them and transcripts of the tribunals convened to assess whether they had been correctly designated on capture as “enemy combatants” who could continue to be held indefinitely. The tribunals were a sham, as they were designed to rubber-stamp the prisoners’ designation as “enemy combatants.” The prisoners were not allowed lawyers, or to see or hear the classified evidence against them, preventing them from challenging the allegations effectively. But their voices were allowed to be heard, and they were invaluable as I set about analysing and transcribing the documents, creating a chronology, and establishing who the prisoners were.

You started with the question: “Who is in Guantanamo?” After you completed the book, do you feel you can give a three-sentence answer to this question?

AW:  I can, but in three paragraphs at least. There were three types of prisoners at Guantanamo ­– those who were completely innocent, and were swept up through poor intelligence, through a deliberate lack of adequate screening on capture. Also because America’s Afghan and Pakistani allies, who seized around 90 per cent of the prisoners, were being paid substantial amounts of money for handing over al-Qaeda and Taliban suspects, or those who could be dressed up as al-Qaeda or Taliban suspects. 

The largest group consisted of foot soldiers for the Taliban – either Afghans, who were often unwilling conscripts, or Arab recruits, usually recruited to help the Taliban fight the Northern Alliance in what was portrayed as a struggle to establish a pure Islamic state. One of the greatest institutional crimes of the “War on Terror” was to claim that soldiers were not soldiers, but were “enemy combatants,” who were essentially interchangeable with terrorists, and could be held without rights.

The third group, consisting of a few dozen prisoners, are genuine terror suspects – those involved with the 9/11 attacks or other acts of international terrorism. And in the case of these prisoners, my belief is that they should have been tried in federal court, rather than being subjected to extraordinary rendition and torture, and a government and lawmakers who wanted – and still want – to try them in specially convened military courts that do not have internationally recognised legitimacy.

Do you think that the American media is partly responsible for the manifestation of a system like Guantanamo?

AW:  Not the initial manifestation, but certainly its continued existence. The media should have asked more questions in the first few years of Guantanamo’s existence. When the submerged truth about the systematic violence and abuse in the “War on Terror” became apparent in April 2004, with the release of the torture photos from Abu Ghraib, the media should have made sure that Guantánamo, and the abuses of the “war,” remained under permanent scrutiny. But they did not. In addition, since President Obama came to power and found himself unable to close Guantanamo, the mainstream media has not focused sufficiently on this failure.


Can you describe who these people are – these prisoners that Donald Rumsfeld said were “the worst of the worst”? Who are they and how did they get to Guantanamo? After meeting some of the former prisoners up close, did you find them to be the “beasts” media has portrayed them to be?

I hope to have partly answered this question above, about who the prisoners are. As for meeting former prisoners, I have met several, and they have been people caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, and fascinating individuals who have managed to survive what happened to them and to emerge without malice.

Would you agree with the conclusion of the film The Road to Guantanamo? That  the majority of people in Guantanamo were simply in the wrong place at the  wrong time?

AW: Not entirely. Certainly, there were many innocent people swept up through American incompetence and arrogance, and through offering bounty payments to their allies. But again, as I mentioned above, many of the prisoners were, or are, soldiers. So the problem really is that America decided to equate soldiers with terror suspects and to hold all of them as “the worst of the worst,” when that simply was not appropriate.

If the soldiers were held as prisoners of war, according to the Geneva Conventions, they would now be asking when the “war” in which they are held will actually end. Also, if the terror suspects had been treated as criminals and not subjected to torture (as with many of the soldiers that the Bush administration decided were terrorists), they would probably, by now, have been successfully tried, and, if guilty, convicted.

Would you agree with Amnesty International’s definition that we are looking at the Gulag of the 21st century?

AW:  Essentially, yes. America has reassured brutal governments and dictatorships around the world that arbitrary detention and torture are acceptable, when they are not. And it remains a major problem that the Obama Administration has chosen to “look forward rather than back,” and has not held senior officials and lawyers in the Bush administration accountable for their crimes. However much Guantanamo is improved and made more humane, it remains an abomination. It has a legacy of torture and the permanent injustice of holding men neither as prisoners of war nor as criminal suspects. Therefore, despite the best efforts of the Supreme Court (which gave the prisoners habeas corpus rights in 2004 and again in 2008, after Congress had tried to remove them), the improvement essentially is meaningless. This is because right-wing appeals court judges have effectively gutted habeas of all meaning, thereby ensuring that Guantanamo effectively remains  a place where arbitrary detention still  prevails.

Another book on Guantanamo, Joseph Margulies’ Guantanamo and the Abuse of Presidential Power, makes the claim that the actual aim of the whole “war on terror” is to make the executive branch more powerful and to give the president unprecedented powers. Would you agree with this?

AW: Partly. Dick Cheney, in particular, was a great believer in the President’s right to do as he saw fit without any interference, and establishing a permanent “war” was a good way of ensuring that the President would endlessly be able to claim that he needed to be free to act without undue scrutiny in the interests of “national security.”

   The main problem is that the fear stoked by the ‘War on Terror” also infected Congress, and parts of the judiciary. It has also enabled the injustices of the “War on Terror” to continue without the President’s powers being the only problem.  What we need is an end to the “War on Terror,” and a return to the values that existed before 9/11 – respect for the Geneva Conventions, terrorism as a crime, and an abhorrence of torture and arbitrary detention.

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017