Wednesday, April 21, 2010

What they knew about their torture victims

Yesterday I read that Colonel Lawrence B. Wilkerson, who was Chief of Staff to U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, has provided a sworn statement to assist the International Human Rights Clinic at Willamette University College of Law in Oregon and the Federal Public Defender who are suing US officials for the wrongful detention and torture of Adel Hassan Hamad. Hamad was a humanitarian aid worker from Sudan working in Pakistan when he was kidnapped from his apartment, tortured, and shipped to Guantanamo where he was held for five years before being released. We have known for a long time that most of the detainees held at Guantanamo were innocent of terrorism, but I don't recall that anyone inside the Bush Administration has ever admitted that the Administration knew as early as August 2002 that this was the case. But Wilkerson says that
President Bush, Vice President Cheney and Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld “indefinitely detained the innocent for political reasons” and many in the administration knew it. The wrongfully held prisoners were not released because of political maneuverings aimed in part to cover up the mistakes of the administration.

Colonel Wilkerson, who served in the U.S. Army for over thirty years, signed a sworn declaration for an Oregon federal court case stating that he found out in August 2002 that the US knew that many of the prisoners at Guantanamo were not enemy combatants. Wilkerson also discussed this in a revealing and critical article on Guantanamo for the Washington Note.

How did Colonel Wilkerson first learn about the innocents in Guantanamo? In August 2002, Wilkerson, who had been working closely with Colin Powell for years, was appointed Chief of Staff to the Secretary of State. In that position, Wilkerson started attending daily classified briefings involving 50 or more senior State Department officials where Guantanamo was often discussed.

It soon became clear to him and other State Department personnel “that many of the prisoners detained at Guantanamo had been taken into custody without regard to whether they were truly enemy combatants, or in fact whether many of them were enemies at all.”

How was it possible that hundreds of Guantanamo prisoners were innocent? Wilkerson said it all started at the beginning, mostly because U.S. forces did not capture most of the people who were sent to Guantanamo. The people who ended up in Guantanamo, said Wilkerson, were mostly turned over to the US by Afghan warlords and others who received bounties of up to $5000 per head for each person they turned in. The majority of the 742 detainees “had never seen a U.S. soldier in the process of their initial detention.”

Military officers told Wilkerson that “many detainees were turned over for the wrong reasons, particularly for bounties and other incentives.” The U.S. knew “that the likelihood was high that some of the Guantanamo detainees had been turned in to U.S. forces in order to settle local scores, for tribal reasons, or just as a method of making money.”

As a consequence, said Wilkerson “there was no real method of knowing why the prisoner had been detained in the first place.”

Wilkerson wrote that the American people have no idea of the “utter incompetence of the battlefield vetting in Afghanistan during the initial stages…Simply stated, no meaningful attempt at discrimination was made in-country by competent officials, civilian or military, as to who we were transporting to Cuba for detention and interrogation.”

....In addition, the statement points out “a separate but related problem was that often absolutely no evidence relating to the detainee was turned over, so there was no real method of knowing why the prisoner had been detained in the first place.”

“The initial group of 742 detainees had not been detained under the processes I was used to as a military officer,” Wilkerson said. “It was becoming more and more clear that many of the men were innocent, or at a minimum their guilt was impossible to determine let alone prove in any court of law, civilian or military. If there was any evidence, the chain of protecting it had been completely ignored.”

Several in the U.S. leadership became aware of this early on and knew “of the reality that many of the detainees were innocent of any substantial wrongdoing, had little intelligence value, and should be immediately released,” wrote Wilkerson.

So why did the Bush Administration not release the men from prison once it was discovered that they were not guilty? Why continue to keep innocent men in prison?

“To have admitted this reality would have been a black mark on their leadership from virtually day one of the so-called War on Terror and these leaders already had black marks enough: the dead in a field in Pennsylvania, in the ashes of the Pentagon, and in the ruins of the World Trade Towers,” wrote Wilkerson.

“They were not about to admit to their further errors at Guantanamo Bay. Better to claim everyone there was a hardcore terrorist, was of enduring intelligence value, and would return to jihad if released,” according to Wilkerson. “I am very sorry to say that I believe there were uniformed military who aided and abetted these falsehoods, even at the highest levels of our armed forces.”
Speaking of Guantanamo and the US Government's disregard for detainees' legal rights, which disregard has everything to do with their atrocious and flagrant violation of detainees' human rights, today I happened to have read about artist Matt Cornell's performance piece featuring Yoo Toilet Paper, staged yesterday in the restrooms of UC-Berekeley's law school to protest the presence of John Yoo, author of the Bush Administraiton's infamous torture memos, on the School of Law's faculty.

The torture memos, in case you've forgotten, offered, in the words of the ACLU, "dozens of legal opinions meant to permit gross violations of domestic and international law." Each roll of Cornell's Yoo Toilet Paper contains text from the Convention Against Torture (which John Yoo disregarded in his memos). A short video of Matt Cornell and his fellow performers distributing the toilet paper can be seen here. One question did occur to me: why did Cornell put the text of a convention he would like to see honored on what people will be using to wipe their asses with? If it had been my piece, I would have put some of Yoo's text on the paper instead. But I suppose he was going for the ironic effect... something I'm not sure really works in this particular instance.


Josh said...

I think acting out "I wipe my ass on Yoo's opinions" is a more aggressive self-presentation than "You can wipe your ass on the Convention Against Torture just like Yoo." Or, in other words, illustrating what Yoo's done is a more sober and low-key approach than the alternative you suggest.

Timmi Duchamp said...

Ah. I get it. Thanks.

And yet... I now find myself wondering whether Cornell left participants in his performative piece a choice of which paper to use...

Matt Cornell said...

While I agree that Yoo's torture memos deserve our derision, there's nothing "sober" or "low key" about a toilet paper protest. I can't imagine either quality being a virtue when using such a tactic.

Yoo Toilet Paper simply confronts the audience with a tangible metaphor for Yoo's actions-- he treated the Convention Against Torture like toilet paper. By keeping him as a member of tenured faculty, Berkeley too, treats the Convention like toilet paper.

Judging from the comments thread of this Boalt blog, plenty of folks got the point and were agitated by the reminder.

Anonymous said...

If the toilet paper was Yoo's texts, it'd focus the reaction / commentary on the whole "respectful dialogue" side show the RW always raises, instead of the human rights and legal issues. Like flag burning - no one ends up talking about what you're protesting. (And don't get lawyers started down those 1st Am lines, you'll never see them again, my Gosh.)

Seems to me a nicely focused approach- encouraging Boalt students and staff to act out (and thus 'see') what their school has been doing all along, tacitly supporting Yoo's work.

Ever since they hired him as 'the answer' to the dire lack of faculty racial diversity back when the UC Regents had just ditched affirmative action. Not long after two of the handful of female profs had to sue to get tenure. Makes me so proud to be an alum...

-Carrie D.

Josh said...

Matt, you're right: apologies for my adjectives. I had no idea what Timmi was perplexed by and was trying (clumsily) to find a nice pedagogical way to contest whatever opinion was making her critical of your work.