The Talking Dog

September 17, 2007, TD Blog Interview with Andy Worthington

Andy Worthington is a London based historian, who has written three books on civil rights issues, including most recently, "The Guantanamo Files:the Stories of the 774 Detainees in America's Illegal Prison", scheduled for release in October, which is the most detailed and specific account to date of the capture and provenance of the over 700 men and boys that the United States has held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba pursuant to the so-called "war on terror". On September 6, 2007, I had the privilege of interviewing Mr. Worthington by telephone; what follows are my interview notes, corrected as appropriate by Mr. Worthington.

The Talking Dog: Where were you on 11 September 2001? Where were you on 7 July 2005?

Andy Worthington: On 11 September, I was in my home in south London, at my computer. My wife was not working that day, and ran to get me and told me to come to the television, and I watched at the time that the second plane hit the World Trade Center. On 7 July, I was also in London, though not in the center of the city. I heard about the events from news reports.

The Talking Dog: You have, of course, compiled the most detailed provenance of the Guantanamo prisoners that I am aware has ever been assembled. I'm wondering if, at this point, you can tell us some overall statistics, i.e., as far as you know, how many men have we held at Guantanamo, how many have we released, how many men have engaged in no acts against the United States or its allies, and how many men, at least based on accepting the government's actual stated evidence (assuming it’s true), could properly be called "terrorists"?

Andy Worthington: The total number of those officially held at Guantanamo is 778. The subtitle of my book began as “759 Detainees”, and then the 14 “high-value” detainees --including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Abu Zubaydah -- arrived at Guantanamo in September 2006, and then another alleged terrorist arrived from Kenya in March 2007, making 774 detainees in total. After I completed the manuscript, I made a conscious decision not to try to constantly update it, which is why the book does not include the four new detainees who were transferred after the manuscript was completed. That That four more men have been transferred to Guantanamo amidst the current climate of controversy is somewhat shocking. Not only is the United States not closing Guantanamo, it is adding more detainees!

The total released is 430; that is to say, released or, in rather fewer cases, transferred to continuing custody in their home countries.

The figures that the Denbeauxs came up with in the Seton Hall studies are interesting as a starting point. Their report showed that 86% of detainees were not captured by the United States, 55% committed no hostile acts, and only 8% had any affiliation whatsoever with Al Qaeda. Their analysis reflected a review of the 550 or so detainees in custody at the time they obtained their data. By that time, 200 detainees -- mainly Afghans and Pakistanis, but also a small spread of detainees from dozens of other countries -- had already been released, so overall, we're looking at even higher percentages of those who committed no hostile acts and a lower percentage of likely terrorists. This is not just because of the additional 200 freed detainees, but also because the government’s own allegations are not necessarily credible.

The overall story that I tell in the book is based on trying to judge between the allegations of the government and (to the extent available) the detainees' own stories, and to assess the overall context for bases of reliability. The reason for the difficulty is the unique circumstance of Guantanamo. In an ordinary legal process, we can accept the results, even recognizing that errors will be made, because the process is regarded as fair and transparent. In the case of Guantanamo, all we have are allegations and counter-allegations, which makes things much harder, particularly where the government's allegations are often so vague as to be barely recognizable.

That said, the 8% figure of detainees with any association with Al Qaeda found by the Denbeauxs is certainly in the right sort of range. My research indicates that it is perhaps more like 3 or 4% -- a couple of dozen detainees at most -- not counting the so-called 14 "high value" detainees.

What I discovered was that substantial numbers of the men held were humanitarian aid workers, teachers of the Koran, or economic migrants -- and so many of the men released have fallen into this category, particularly those from the Gulf countries and north Africa. The Afghans -- and there were nearly 220 Afghans at one point -- are another, separate issue, that I will address later on. But while some Arabs were indeed fighting with the Taliban (possibly as many as hundreds were), they were not, in most cases, associated with Al Qaeda. They were mostly following fatwas to help the Taliban establish a “pure Islamic state’ by defeating the Northern Alliance (who are also Muslims) in a civil war that began long before 9/11, and most of these men arrived in Afghanistan long before 11 September, and were not fighting the United States or its allies. They were following a historical tradition of aiding the Mujahadeen, who were, of course, first organized by none other than the CIA. So there were certainly large numbers of foot soldiers, though they had no knowledge whatsoever of terrorism, or the broader issues or intelligence that they have been accused of having.

The Talking Dog: In the course of your research, can you tell me which former detainees you have met, which families of detainees, which attorneys, and others, and can you tell me who made particular impressions on you? Other than such meetings and interviews, can you briefly describe your methodology?

Andy Worthington: This was largely an internet-based project. The United States government had not even released the names and nationalities of the detainees until the Spring of 2006, when the Associated Press took the government to court and won and the government was ordered to release various data including 8,000 pages of transcripts of the Combatant Status Review Tribunals, which were convened, two and a half years after Guantanamo opened, to assess whether the detainees had been correctly designated as “enemy combatants”, and their successors, the annual Administrative Review Boards, which were convened to assess whether the detainees still constituted a threat to the US, or if they had ongoing “intelligence value”. With the release of these documents, the jigsaw pieces were then in place to go through as I did, in an effort to figure out who was captured when and under what circumstances. That is the major part of the methodology, and it was quite a task; so much so that nobody else seems to have attempted it.

I also spoke to a number of lawyers to find out additional stories, and these included many helpful individuals, including Marc Falkoff, Candace Gorman, Clive Stafford-Smith, Zachary Katznelson and Anant Raut and many others.

I also investigated as many interviews with released detainees as I could locate. I then googled variations on people's names and events and tried to piece together the sequence of events that followed the US-led invasion in October 2001. Many of the 200 detainees who were released before the tribunal process began, for example, returned to their towns and villages without their stories being reported at all, although I managed to piece together what information I could from news reports. Of the 90-odd Afghans released between 2002 and 2004, no one knows who or where many of them are, even if the United States military was coherent enough to know who it was holding!

In the early days, numerous reporters were in Kabul to greet the various waves of released Afghan detainees, but as time went on they lost interest, and there has been so little interest in the last few years that it’s not even possible to know exactly which Afghans have been released in the last eighteen months. The administration never releases the names of those it releases, and often it’s only those with lawyers (who have to be informed by the government) whose stories get reported.

The Talking Dog: Have American (or British) government or military officials been willing to talk to you? If so, can you briefly tell us who, and what they told you?

Andy Worthington: I did not even try for the obligatory "no comment". I did call the Pentagon's Freedom of Information office to try to fill in a few gaps with the ISN numbers (detainees are, to this day, identified by numbers -- Internment Serial Numbers -- rather than by name). For example, in the numbering system, there is an almost unbroken chain of numbers up to ISN 372, from the first, crucial few months of the transfer process when almost everyone who came to be in US custody was sent to Guantanamo, but there are a few numbers missing, including, most noticeably, ISN "1". ISN "2" was the Australian David Hicks, and I am convinced that ISN "1" was John Walker Lindh, as he was the prime prisoner, until they realized that he was a U.S. citizen and, under the scheme they set up, they couldn't send him to Guantanamo. The Pentagon insisted that any missing numbers reflected detainees that simply never existed, or that the number was never assigned to an individual, but I’m not convinced by that explanation.

The Talking Dog: Can you briefly describe the basic history of how we acquired so many guests from Afghanistan, and how that correlates with the escape of Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri and most of Al Qaeda's leadership? As far as you know, why isn't this more widely known?

Andy Worthington: My impression is that when the Bush administration decided to topple the Taliban and then topple or preferably kill the Al Qaeda leadership, by making alliances with warlords and sending in a few hundred special forces operatives -- that the intent was simply not to deal with prisoners at all, but simply to kill the Al Qaeda and Taliban leadership. No one expected to encounter significant numbers of prisoners, or the sequence of events as they happened, such as the fall of previously Taliban controlled cities in the north of Afghanistan, which fell like dominos in November 2001. After this collapse, there ended up being a large number of rump Taliban fighters and assorted others like shopkeepers and farmers, and the first large group converged on the city of Kunduz, where a peaceful surrender was negotiated, and where the first large group of prisoners had to be dealt with. Initially, they were dealt with by the Afghan warlord General Dostum, who famously was a military leader aligned with the Russians in the 1980s! After the prisoners began to accumulate, it dawned on the American military that some of the prisoners might have useful intelligence. First, these prisoners were kept in prisons established at US bases in Kandahar and Bagram, and then later they were sent to Guantanamo.

The second group after Kunduz accumulated after the disastrous Tora Bora campaign, the campaign during which Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri and numerous other senior Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders made their escape to Pakistan. Basically, the American forces bombed the Al Qaeda and Taliban positions in the mountains, but failed to guard the Pakistani border, and the Pakistanis had to negotiate with the semi-autonomous border tribes to gain access to the border on their side. It was only after almost everyone of significance had escaped that the United States forces and their allies managed to sweep up every Arab in sight, most of whom were fleeing the devastation of the war unleashed, whether combatants or not. The largest group of detainees in Guantanamo -- several hundred men in total -- were captured at this time.

Quite a few others were captured in Pakistan -- at least 120, actually. Of course, at this time, the Americans were offering "a lifetime's worth" of money as bounties. Needless to say, there were numerous random arrests of any Arab men in Pakistan at this time.

As to why more people don't know these facts, I don't really know why this isn't more widely known. In large part, the history of that time was not revisited as everyone moved on to Iraq and it became ancient history. It was quite strange piecing together the story into a coherent sequence of events from various news accounts, which made clear what was going on at that time, knowing that few others seemed to be interested, even though, as I pointed out before, the scope of the internet is such that it’s possible to gain access to a vast number of documents without leaving your home or office.

The Talking Dog: From the stories of the men you encountered in compiling The Guantanamo Files, can you give me one or two of the most compelling examples in terms of the capture and holding of innocent people, examples of abuse you are aware of, and perhaps any other stories that strike you as worthy of note?

Andy Worthington: There are many, many more stories than just the few examples I can provide now, but I’ll try to pick out a few. Some are quite telling. One story that always struck me, and that concerned the sheer number of those captured who were simply humanitarian workers, is that of three Saudi school teachers, who tried to help out Afghan refugees on the border with Iran. They gave out money in refugee camps in Afghanistan, but then they were not allowed back into Iran (which was common practice by Iran, a Shiite nation, particularly with respect to Sunnis). These men stewed in Afghanistan, and kept trying, for a month, to get back into Iran. When it became apparent that they were not going to be let back in, they tried to get into Pakistan, where the police asked for bribes, and when they refused to pay (they contended they were law abiding people and didn't need to and shouldn't pay such bribes) they were promptly arrested and sold to the Americans, based on utterly baseless made-up allegations.

It is telling that one of them --Wasim al-Omar -- commented on how he felt about being sold, and said that it is a hard truth when human beings are bought and sold, which takes us back to the days when human beings had no value, and indeed, had no human rights at all.

To give you another example, which deals with the treatment of the detainees, there are countless examples of people being treated with appalling brutality, but one that stands out in particular is the story of Mohammed al Qatani, an alleged “20th hijacker” for 9/11, who was tortured on the close advice of Donald Rumsfeld in late 2002. This treatment was so brutal that it prompted the FBI to complain, and it illustrates the divide between the various groups of interrogators who were working at Guantanamo: on the one hand, those from the CIA and the Department of Defense, who implemented the “enhanced interrogation techniques” favored by the White House and the Pentagon, and, on the other hand, those from agencies such as the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) and the FBI, who were resolutely "old school" -- they believed interrogations were based on building relationships, and were carried out by skilled people. No matter how despicable or guilty the suspect was or was believed to be, trust building techniques were required to obtain proper intelligence.

Unfortunately, Vice President Dick Cheney, his chief counsel David Addington, John Yoo, Donald Rumsfeld and others were driving the “War on Terror” policy and were responsible for implementing these policies of brutal interrogation, and they have not yet been held accountable. There was a good Washington Post series on Cheney a few months back, which highlighted the role played by the Vice President and Addington, although neither of them agreed to speak about it. To his credit, John Yoo at least spoke out and tried to defend the government’s position. You’ll notice that I haven’t mentioned Alberto Gonzales, the outgoing Attorney General. For all of the damage Gonzales caused, putting his name to the January 2002 memo that dismissed the Geneva Conventions as “quaint”, all the evidence suggests that he was little more than a patsy, and that the memo, like the infamous “Torture Memo” of August 2002 (which attempted to redefine torture, claiming that the only actions that counted as torture were those that resulted in serious organ failure or death) was actually the work of Addington, Yoo and Cheney.

The Talking Dog: I must confess that although I try to be well-informed on these matters, there was a wealth of new information I was not aware of in your book. What do you consider to be the most significant not-widely-known revelation in your book?

Andy Worthington: My genuine hope is that the whole book will function as a significant revelation in its own right. What is new in terms of information -- besides elucidating the specific stories of how so many innocent men were swept up in all of this -- is information I uncovered concerning the ghost prisoners, that, as far as I know, has not been reported anywhere else. This whole area of the ghost prisoners will likely be the next big story coming out of all of this.

The Talking Dog: You, of course, are in Britain; can you tell me why, in your view, the British media and the British public seem more interested in Guantanamo issues than does the American office, and do you feel this will change once
the remaining UK residents are returned home, as new PM Brown has requested?

Andy Worthington: Historically, the British were very interested in Guantanamo from the inception of the so-called "war on terror", because nine British nationals were held at Guantanamo (they were all brought home in 2004 and 2005). Tony Blair's attitude was that he wanted these people returned so that public opinion would get "off his case". Arguably, Guantanamo is actually less significant here now, since their release, and might be less still if the British resident non-nationals are returned.

In the United States, there has been a very long, slow process of awakening. Unfortunately, it has been painfully long and slow, but there are encouraging signs -- throughout much of the media, for example, in “close Guantanamo” editorials that appear in the most unlikely places -- that the tide is turning. I certainly hope so, and I hope that my book will provide a convenient “one-stop shop” for those wondering what has been done in their name.

Additionally, in the UK, the issue of Guantanamo became tied directly into the motives of "the US-led coalition" of which Britain is an integral part, which, of course, includes the invasion of Iraq, which made many people very suspicious of anything connected to it. At this point, the new administration led by Gordon Brown has asked for five remaining UK residents to be returned, although interestingly, not a sixth, the Algerian national Ahmed Belbacha, who fled to Britain in 1999 after being threatened by militants while he was working for a state-owned oil company. Like many other detainees, Mr. Belbacha was captured in Pakistan while on holiday, but although all the allegations against him have been proven ludicrous and he was cleared for release earlier this year the British government refused to accept him back, because he was not technically a British resident at the time of his capture. He had applied for asylum before he took his ill-fated holiday in 2001, and had actually been in Guantanamo for a year when his application was turned down, but he was granted leave to remain instead. So, on a technicality, the British have refused to accept him back, and the Americans therefore want to send him back to Algeria, even though he doesn't want to be returned to Algeria for fear of torture or worse. So while the Brown administration looks like it is "more caring" than Blair's, as it has requested the five residents returned, it is remarkably callous regarding Mr. Belbacha's fate, on that technicality. I certainly hope that the five are returned, but this all does smack of Brown's announcement being a PR stunt to a certain extent. I understand that negotiations for the return of the men have not yet begun in earnest, and the Bush administration also makes things much harder for everyone by continuing to assert that these men are the world's most hardened terrorists, even as it prepares to release them!

When the full story of Guantanamo comes out (and I hope that my book is at least an important staging post in this story), it will be shown just how shameful and how badly the whole thing has been dealt with overall; not merely the abuses and injustices (and the unforgiveable torture), but how absolutely stupid so much of this has been.

To further illustrate this, and to discuss one group of detainees that I’ve barely touched upon, I’d like to mention the stories of the Afghans, so many of whom were simply betrayed by rivals or hostile neighbors, and nearly all of whom were handed over for bounties, with the Americans completely oblivious of who they were. Many of them were actually on the Americans' side, working with US special forces, or working for the new government of Hamid Karzai, and were handed over by rivals who had got the Americans to trust them, secure in the knowledge that they would not investigate the backgrounds of the stories they were told, and that the different groups of Americans in Afghanistan were not talking to each other. And I’m not talking about isolated incidents here -- there are dozens of pro-US Afghans who were ensnared by lies and sent to Guantanamo, and many, many more who were picked up in raids based on spurious “intelligence”.

The Talking Dog: What do you see, from your research and trends thus far, as an "end game" or "exit strategy" from Guantanamo? Do you have any optimism for a political settlement or a legal resolution... or public opinion to change... or something else? Do you anticipate any of the likely candidates to be the next American president (i.e., the Democrats) to continue Guantanamo, Bagram, etc. in their current form?

Andy Worthington: To some degree, this mess will simply be dumped on the next President, whoever that is. This is actually a very difficult question to answer. The Supreme Court, reversing itself for the first time in decades, has agreed to take the Al-Odah and Boumediene cases, and it will likely end up ruling against the government. In the meantime, ahead of this, the government has been trying to empty the place. The United States has, as a result, been sending men to countries where they will likely be tortured -- Tunisia, for example -- and they will keep trying to do so based on worthless "diplomatic assurance" letters and similarly meaningless "agreements". It’s really difficult to fathom how they’re going to empty Guantanamo given the status of some of these individuals -- for example, many economic migrants or refugees. What do you do with a Sudanese who has been in Pakistan for 20 years? Must they go back to a country they have fled, because Pakistan won't reach an agreement to take them? Or, is it not a better answer that, as the United States has created this mess, the United States has a moral, if not a legal duty, to offer them asylum inside the United States?

And then, of course, we get to the 80 or so "hard core" terrorists (the government asserts this number), the worst of the worst of the worst, etc. What is to be done? Supposedly a tent city for military trials is being built at Guantanamo, and six simultaneous trials are anticipated starting in the Spring. But there is presently no functioning military commission system! The military has ruled against itself on this! And further, how does one create a second-tier legal system that conveniently excludes allegations of torture?

As the Padilla case has shown us, for these men, juries might still convict even in an apparently proper looking trial... but at some point, the issue of torture must rear its ugly head. It is absolutely crucial that it be addressed, and the new administration that takes over in 2009 needs to end this, for the sake of every level -- moral, political, legal... these practices must just end.

The Talking Dog: Is there anything else I should have asked you but didn't, or anything else on these subjects that my readers, your readers and the world public need to know?

Andy Worthington: I'm sure I've mentioned this before, but the United States needs to return to the rule of law. The world needs to know that the abandonment of American and international law by the Bush administration has been an absolute disaster, and that, under the guise of protecting American security, the President has granted himself dictatorial powers, which were crafted by Cheney and Addington, who continue to believe that the Executive should be beyond the accountability of anyone -- any other branch, the legislature, the courts, or even the electorate. Cheney and Addington have believed this a long time -- Cheney since his days in the Nixon administration, and Addington from at least the time of Ronald Reagan, when he worked with Cheney to protect Reagan from scrutiny during the Iran-Contra scandal. Your Founding Fathers tried to limit the Executive branch's power very carefully. It is time to reassert those limits.

The Talking Dog: I join all my readers in thanking Andy Worthington for that fascinating interview, and commend anyone interested in this subject to take a look at The Guantanamo Files.

Readers interested in legal issues and related matters associated with the "war on terror" may also find talking dog blog interviews with attorneys Gaillard Hunt, Robert Rachlin, Tina Foster, Brent Mickum, Marc Falkoff H. Candace Gorman, Eric Freedman, Michael Ratner, Thomas Wilner, Jonathan Hafetz, Joshua Denbeaux, Rick Wilson,
Neal Katyal, Joshua Colangelo Bryan, Baher Azmy, and Joshua Dratel (representing Guantanamo detainees and others held in "the war on terror"), with attorneys Donna Newman and Andrew Patel (representing "unlawful combatant" Jose Padilila), with Dr. David Nicholl, who spearheaded an effort among international physicians protesting force-feeding of detainees at Guantanamo Bay, with physician and bioethicist Dr. Steven Miles on medical complicity in torture, with law professor and former Clinton Administration Ambassador-at-large for war crimes matters David Scheffer, with former Guantanamo detainees Moazzam Begg and Shafiq Rasul , with former Guantanamo Bay Chaplain James Yee, with former Guantanamo Army Arabic linguist Erik Saar, with law professor and former Army J.A.G. officer Jeffrey Addicott, with law professor and Coast Guard officer Glenn Sulmasy, with author and geographer Trevor Paglen and with author and journalist Stephen Grey on the subject of the CIA's extraordinary rendition program, with journalist and author David Rose on Guantanamo and with journalist Michael Otterman on the subject of American torture, and related issues to be of interest.


Wow, I rarey read interviews but this one was real good

Posted by Congstar at October 6, 2007 9:31 AM