By Andy Worthington, September 6, 2016
Exactly ten years ago, on September 6, 2006, President Bush announced that secret CIA prisons, whose existence he had always denied, had in fact existed, but had now been closed down, and the prisoners held moved to Guantánamo.
14 men in total were transferred to Guantánamo. Three were named by President Bush — Abu Zubaydah, described as "a senior terrorist leader and a trusted associate of Osama bin Laden," and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM) and Ramzi Bin Al Shibh, allegedly involved in the 9/11 attacks. Biographies of the 14 were made available, and can be found here. They include three other men allegedly involved in the 9/11 attacks — Walid bin Attash, Ammar al-Baluchi and Mustafa al-Hawsawi — plus Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, allegedly involved in the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000, Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, a Tanzanian allegedly involved in the U.S. Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, Majid Khan, a Pakistani alleged to be an al-Qaeda plotter in the U.S., the Indonesian Hambali and two Malaysians, Zubair and Lillie, the Libyan Abu Faraj al-Libi, and a Somali, Gouled Hassan Dourad.
After the men’s arrival, they were not heard from until spring 2007, when Combatant Status Review Tribunals (CSRTs) were held, which were required to make them eligible for military commission trials. As I explained in my book The Guantánamo Files in 2007, KSM and Walid bin Attash confessed to involvement with terrorism, although others were far less willing to make any kind of confession. Ammar al-Baluchi, for example, a nephew of KSM, and another of the alleged 9/11 co-conspirators, denied advance knowledge of the 9/11 attacks, or of al-Qaeda.
As I described it:
Ammar al-Baluchi was .... adamant that he had no involvement with terrorism, and was dismissive of ... allegations that he worked on a bomb plot with [Walid] bin Attash. Although he admitted transferring money on behalf of some of the 9/11 hijackers, he insisted that he had no knowledge of either 9/11 or al-Qaeda, and was a legitimate businessman, who regularly transferred money for Arabs, without knowing what it would be used for. His story was backed up by his uncle, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who stated, "Any dealings he had with al-Qaeda were through me. I used him for business dealings. He had no knowledge of any al-Qaeda links. Ammar is being linked to al-Qaeda because of me."
As I also explained, "Only two prisoners – Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri – broached the subject of torture," although their statements were significant:
Zubaydah … said that he was tortured by CIA to admit that he worked with Osama bin Laden, but insisted, "I’m not his partner and I'm not a member of al-Qaeda." He also said that his interrogators promised to return his diary to him – [which] contained ... evidence of his split personality – and explained that their refusal to do so affected him emotionally and triggered seizures. Speaking of his status as a "high-value" prisoner, he said that his only role was to operate a guest house used by those who were training at Khaldan, and [speaking] of his relationship with bin Laden, [he said], "Bin Laden wanted al-Qaeda to have control of Khaldan, but we refused since we had different ideas." He explained that he opposed attacks on civilian targets, which brought him into conflict with bin Laden, and although he admitted that he had been an enemy of the U.S. since childhood, because of its support for Israel, pointed out that his enmity was towards the government and the military, and not the American people.
In his tribunal, al-Nashiri said that he made up stories that tied him to the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000 and confessed to involvement in several other terror plots – including the bombing of a French oil tanker in 2002, plans to bomb American ships in the Gulf, a plan to hijack a plane and crash it into a ship, and claims that bin Laden had a nuclear bomb – in order to get his captors to stop torturing him. "From the time I was arrested five years ago," he said, "they have been torturing me. It happened during interviews. One time they tortured me one way, and another time they tortured me in a different way. I just said those things to make the people happy. They were very happy when I told them those things."
In February 2008, the alleged 9/11 co-conspirators were put forward for a trial by military commission, as I explained in an article at the time, Six in Guantánamo Charged with 9/11 Murders: Why Now? And What About the Torture? (the sixth man was Mohammed al-Qahtani, specifically tortured in Guantánamo, against whom the charges were eventually dropped).
As pre-trial hearings took place, KSM demonstrated an ability to undermine the proceedings, and to slyly speak about the torture to which he and the others had been subjected, as I explained here, and also here and here. Also in 2008, al-Nashiri was charged, although when President Obama took office the commission process was frozen while the new administration worked out how to proceed.
In April 2009, while this was happening, there was another damaging development for the U.S., when a harrowing report about the experiences of the HVDs, compiled by the International Committee of the Red Cross in February 2007 and submitted to the government after ICRC representatives had been allowed to interview the men, was leaked to the New York Review Of Books.
Nevertheless, the men themselves remained silenced. As I explained in an article yesterday about Abu Zubaydah:
Since arriving at Guantánamo … as with all the HVDs, every word he has uttered to his lawyers has remained classified, in contrast to all the other men held. For non-HVDs, although every word uttered between the prisoners and their attorneys is presumptively classified, the attorneys submit notes of their meetings to a Pentagon censorship team — the privilege review team — which then decides whether the notes should be unclassified. Over the years, a significant amount of information has been unclassified by the privilege review team, but the HVDs are an exception, as the Pentagon continues to try to silence them.
Outrageously, this enforced silence has been maintained ever since, as the U.S. military and the Obama administration continue to try to hide evidence of the men’s torture. One way forward would have been to try the men in federal court, and to make whatever case was possible without reference to the use of torture, but although Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani was moved to the U.S. mainland for a trial in May 2009, and was successfully prosecuted and sentenced, lawmakers soon acted to ban any further transfers, and although Attorney General Eric Holder announced in November 2009 that the 9/11 trial would take place in federal court in New York, the administration also ill-advisedly revived the military commissions, and when cynical opposition was mounted to the 9/11 trial plan, President Obama shamefully bowed to the pressure and dropped the proposal for a trial in New York, returning the military commissions to centerstage as the only viable option for prosecuting Guantánamo and former "black site" prisoners..
Since then, the six men charged in the military commissions — the 9/11 five, and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri — have been stuck in a horrible, dark, farcical limbo, as their lawyers seek to expose evidence of torture, while the government’s lawyers continue to do all they can to prevent that happening, even though, in December 2014, the 500-page executive summary of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report into the CIA torture program was published, which revealed shocking new information about the program, including "rectal feeding," which was as horrible as it sounds.
As the Committee explained, the CIA’s torture program was, amongst other findings, "not an effective means of acquiring intelligence or gaining cooperation from detainees." In addition, the agency’s justification for torture techniques "rested on inaccurate claims of their effectiveness," and "[t]he interrogations of CIA detainees were brutal and far worse than the CIA represented to policymakers and others."
As for the rest of the 14, although one of them, Majid Khan, agreed to a plea deal in February 2012, but the details of that deal have never been fleshed out, and in the meantime the other six men remained largely hidden — even, in most cases, forgotten — until the last few months, when they were given Periodic Review Boards, a parole-like process designed to allow men who were not already approved for release or facing trials to make a case for why they should be released.
See Somali High-Value Detainee, Held in CIA Torture Prisons, Seeks Release from Guantánamo via Review Board, Two Malaysian High-Value Detainees Seek Release from Guantánamo Via Periodic Review Boards, Guantánamo High-Value Detainee Abu Faraj Al-Libi Seeks Release Via Periodic Review Board, High-Value Detainee Hambali Seeks Release from Guantánamo Via Periodic Review Board and Torture Victim Abu Zubaydah, Seen For the First Time in 14 Years, Seeks Release from Guantánamo — although bear in mind that it is unlikely that any of them will be approved for release, even though, overall, the PRBs have, since January 2014, approved 33 men out of 52 for release.
Ten years on, then, as we look at the cases of the "high-value detainees," it is only appropriate to conclude that justice remains as elusive for them as it did when they were hidden from the world before their arrival at Guantánamo — in the CIA "black sites" that should never have existed.