Gitmo: Then and Now

Ten years ago last week, the Pentagon ordered the Navy to refurbish an abandoned complex of chain link pens that housed Haitian refugees in the early 1990s and to have the camp ready to receive captives from the “War on Terror” in four days.

The first twenty of those detainees landed at Guantánamo five days later, on January 11, 2002. At a press briefing in Washington that afternoon, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Richard B. Myers described the group as “very very dangerous people.” “He  famously added, "I mean, these are people that would gnaw through hydraulic lines in the back of a C-17 to bring it down.”

Though it would be a month before President Bush formally declared that al Qaeda and Taliban detainees would be denied Geneva Convention protections, Guantánamo was set up to ignore those protections from day one. An FBI agent assigned to the base in those early days reported “the entire camp was bathed with light.” A soldier told her “they were keeping the lights on both as a security measure and as a sleep deprivation technique.” Another arriving FBI agent was shown a film of detainee in-processing; that agent later described for the Justice Department’s Inspector General scenes of detainees “hooded and kneeling in what was referred to as the ‘pumpkin patch’” while “various military personnel were yelling and screaming at the detainees.”

As the Inspector General recorded:

 [Redacted] advised that “pumpkin patch” refers to the manner in which the detainees are placed on the tarmac when they arrive and are removed from the aircraft. [Redacted] recalled that while one soldier was yelling at a detainee in the pumpkin patch the detainee just passed out. [Redacted] characterized the video as “hard core.” Also, [Redacted] thought at the time that it was bizarre the military was showing them this video.

The treatment had an impact: the FBI supervisor who was at the camp when the first plane landed reported that agents who tried to question Guantánamo’s early arrivals told him “many of the detainees came into the interviews shaking or visibly upset.” “Some detainees clearly felt that they were going to be harshly treated or killed as part of being questioned,” he said.

Recollections like these pepper the record of the abuse and torture that followed, in Guantánamo, in Afghanistan and Iraq, in secret CIA prisons, and in the dungeons of notoriously rights-abusing countries at the U.S.’s request. For 18 months I sifted through some 140,000 documents that the American Civil Liberties Union has excavated through FOIA litigation, trying to reconstruct narratives for thetorturereport.org, and every day I stumbled across scenes like these. Stacks of formerly classified documents about a torture program may seem like cold and impersonal things, but what they contain couldn’t be more intimate or harrowingly human.

Despite this record, ten years after Guantánamo opened we still hear little about the human cost of our post-9/11 indefinite detention and torture programs. The voices of the detainees remain buried in the documents—audio and videotapes are either still secret or have been destroyed—and even the 608 former Gitmo detainees who have been released seldom appear in the American media. But when they do, as when Lakhdar Boumediene and Murat Kurnaz published op-eds in The New York Times this past Sunday, we are shamed by the ordeals they describe. These innocent men, two of the earliest arrivals at Guantánamo, were among those General Myers wanted us to believe were capable of bringing down airplanes with their teeth.

This Wednesday, to mark this unsettling anniversary and in conjunction with the publication of the book version of The Torture Report, PEN American Center and OR Books will host “Recovering Ourselves: What Needs to Be Done to Repair the Damage of America’s Post-9/11 Torture Program” at the new Rose Auditorium of the Cooper Union in New York (tickets available here). The evening will try to assess the real damage of the torture program, asking who have we harmed and how, what has been lost, and how much can be repaired or recovered. Jameel Jaffer, Deputy Legal Director of the ACLU, will moderate the discussion, and my co-panelists will include Lisa Magarrell, director the the International Center for Transitional Justice Program Office; Dr. Jack Saul, psychology professor at Columbia University and director of the International Trauma Studies Program; and Joshua E. S. Phillips, author of None of Us Were Like This Before.

In preparation for this event, I flew to Fort Lauderdale last week to interview Estela Lebron. Estela is the mother of Jose Padilla, who was born in Brooklyn but was denied every due process protection guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution when he was held for three and one-half years as an “enemy combatant” in the navy brig in Charleston, South Carolina. He was finally transferred out of military custody just days before the Supreme Court was to consider his habeas corpus petition. “‘Jose is a Taliban, he’s a dirty bomber, he’s al Qaeda’—they gave him so many names,” she told me during my visit. “They presented him to the nation as a monster.”

“Who’s going to say that my son is going to be the same again, after being treated like that all those years?” she asked. “He’s been tortured by his own people on his own soil. They’re never going to return all that suffering to us, they’re not going to make things happy again. In my heart, I’m hurt. It hurt me to see my son in there, it hurt me everything they did to him.”

As we’ll hear Wednesday evening, the human cost of the post-9/11 torture program extends well beyond those we subjected to abuse—to their families, and to the American servicemen and women who were either forced to carry out the abuse, as Joshua Phillips chronicles so powerfully in None of Us Were Like This Before, or to risk their careers to try to stop the human rights violations they were witnessing. The failure to recognize and address that damage carries profound moral costs, for ourselves and for our institutions.

When President Obama signed the National Defense Authorization Act last month, he professed “serious reservations with certain provisions that regulate the detention, interrogation, and prosecution of suspected terrorists,” and pledged, “my Administration will not authorize the indefinite military detention without trial of American citizens.” But the law’s worst feature is one that the President supported: it reasserts that our country has the right to establish and run Guantánamos indefinitely. Only by turning a deaf ear to the experiences of men like Lakhdar Boumediene and Mohammed Jawad and Binyam Mohamed, and like hundreds of others whose stories fill the documentary record, could we think this is a wise and worthy policy. Only by turning a blind eye to our own human flaws and failings could we still believe that somehow, using the same tools that inflicted such horrors and harms, this time we will get it right.

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