A message to all the torture apologists: Why Guantánamo Bay harmed the war on terror

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After September 11, an unprecedented assault on civil rights in America and its allied states has been justified with “national security concerns”: Torture, detention without trial, warrantless surveillance, wars of aggression. And to this day, the extrajudicial prison camp at Guantánamo Bay Naval Base, Cuba, remains open, with almost 150 men still being held there. In the past few years, with more and more details of the Bush administration’s harsh response to al-Qaeda’s terror emerging from declassified documents, and with a president who publically apologized for the use of controversial interrogation tactics and called them ‘torture’, some political commentators have turned into apologists for the Bush-era policies. Conservative pundit Bill O’Reilly, for example, said the Gitmo detention facility was “necessary for the security of this nation” after visiting it in 2006. George W. Bush’s Vice President Dick Cheney repeatedly defended the use of torture, saying the alternative would have been to allow terror attacks. And Jose Rodriguez, the CIA counterterrorism center’s chief from 2002 to 2005, stated that aggressive interrogation techniques led to the location of al-Qaeda boss Osama bin Laden in 2011 (we will come to that later).

In December 2002, the US Department of Defense authorized the use of controversial interrogation techniques like forced nudity, stress positions and 20-hour-interrogations at Guantánamo Bay. Similar methods were also used in secret detention facilities run by the CIA – so-called ‘black sites’- all over the world, for example in Afghanistan, Poland, Iraq and Kosovo. Many have said those methods are not torture. However, if you have a look at the US State Department’s annual human rights reports from the Bush II era, you will see that actually the Bush administration criticized the use of exactly these methods in other countries. In 2005, the Bush administration for example attacked Iran for using sleep deprivation and „prolonged solitary confinement with sensory deprivation, (…) long confinement in contorted positions” and “hanging detainees by the arms and legs”.

This is pretty hypocritical because a few months earlier, in December 2004, a CIA memorandum about the treatment of detainees at black sites stated that sleep deprivation, lasting up to 120 hours “or possibly beyond”, was a legitimate interrogation method. Stress positions were also authorized, the frequency and duration of their use being based “on the interrogator’s assessment”.

Well anyway, although this is a wonderful example of the Western world’s double standards, this is not my point. I just wanted to show you that if a nation that is enemies with the US would use a Guantánamo-like interrogation regime on its prisoners, the US would consider it torture.

Now if you still think those things are just ‘enhanced interrogation methods’, never mind. Terminology is not important. Let me quickly present my arguments that instead of being helpful in fighting Islamist terrorism, the existence of Guantánamo and the secret network of black sites harmed the ‘War on Terror’:

REASON 1: You got the wrong guys

Okay, let’s keep this short and simple. 86% of the people who were detained at Gitmo were there because their Afghan compatriots sold them to the American troops in exchange for thousands of US dollars. In a country that the UN rated third poorest in the world in 1996, the money offered by the US made many Afghans turn in innocent people they knew. The Bush and Obama administrations have released 628 men from Gitmo- would they have done that if these 628 persons were dangerous for the US? And in his book “Chain of Command”, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Seymour Hersh writes that in the fall of 2002, a CIA analyst who visited Guantánamo estimated that more than half of those kept in the camp were innocent.

And of the 148 men remaining in custody in Guantánamo as of November 2014, 79 have been cleared for release by the authorities.

REASON 2: Torturing people doesn’t work, even if they are guilty

Okay, so maybe you understood that the overwhelming majority of those interned at Guantánamo were completely innocent, they were just swept up by American forces in the fog of war because they somehow were at the wrong place at the wrong time. Can you imagine the truckloads of wrong information these guys could well have given their interrogators. I mean, if you were wrongfully jailed at Gitmo and subjected to interrogation methods that were developed to break you, would you insist on being innocent. Or would you simply start making up things if you couldn’t stand the torture no more. Wouldn’t you just say “Yes, I know where XY is”, just to make them stop. I am pretty sure this is what some of the innocent guys at Gitmo resorted to. And even though some of the information at Gitmo may have been useful, how the hell are the intelligence services supposed to be able to distinguish good from bad intelligence. Because probably among the hundreds of innocent people who pretended to have information to stop the torture, there might have been a bunch of guilty guys who said they were innocent, or maybe they said the truth interrogations, but again: how could you know what was true and what was made-up? A senior FBI counterterrorism who talked to Vanity Fair said: At least 30 percent of the F.B.I.’s time, maybe 50 percent, in counterterrorism has been spent chasing leads that were bullshit. (…) It has a chilling effect. You get burned out, you get jaded. And you think, Why am I chasing all this stuff that isn’t true? That leads to a greater problem—that you’ll miss the one that is true. The job is 24-7 anyway. It’s not like a bank job. But torture has made it harder“.

Okay, but what about using those methods on people we know to be badass terrorists?

Ha! Doesn’t work either. Abu Zubaydah and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, we know this for sure, have really worked for al-Qeada and really had information that was important for the US. They were both subjected to the controversial interrogation methods I call torture: Zubaydah, according to a declassified CIA document, was to be kept awake for 11 consecutive days, and placed in a small box with a harmless insect to use his fear of insects. He was stripped naked and subjected to waterboarding, a technique that gives the victim the impression it is going to drown, 83 times. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded 183 times, forced to stand on the tips of his toes for two hours and doused with cold water.

But it didn’t work. According to a former CIA agent interviewed by Vanity Fair, “90 percent of it [the information Khalid Sheikh Mohammed gave] was total fucking bullshit.” Ali Soufan, a FBI agent who was present when the CIA used its harsh methods on Abu Zubaydah, said: “I was in the middle of this, and it’s not true that these [aggressive] techniques were effective”. In 2008, FBI director Robert Mueller, asked whether “enhanced interrogation techniques” had helped prevent any terror attacks in the United States, answered: “I don’t believe that has been the case”. Another FBI expert, Jack Cloonan, said: “The proponents of torture say, ‘Look at the body of information that has been obtained by these methods’. (…) But if K.S.M. and Abu Zubaydah did give up stuff, we would have heard the details (…) What we got was pabulum.” 

And while some Bush administration officials continue to argue that the use of waterboarding and other tough interrogation methods was crucial in the hunt for Osama bin Laden, al-Qaeda’s number 1 for a long time, there is no proof that this is the case. In fact, congressional aides familiar with a Senate Intelligence Committee report on the use of torture post-9/11 say the report concludes that “enhanced interrogation techniques” were not effective and did not lead to the location of bin Laden.

REASON 3: IT’S FREE PROPAGANDA FOR AL-QAEDA

This is such an old story: if a government overreacts to a terrorist threat, it actually helps to radicalize more people. In the 1970s, the “Red Army Fraction” (RAF) group terrorized West Germany by murdering what they saw as Germany’s capitalist elite. The state’s reaction was hysterical. Road barriers set up by police became a daily experience for many Germans. The press freedom was restricted.

And those RAF terrorists in prison were placed in solitary confinement out of the authorities’ idea that they might give orders from their cells to the activists outside. The RAF used this to create the myth of “isolation torture”, exaggerating the severity of the detention conditions. “Anti-torture committees” consisting of young, left-wing students naïve enough to believe the extremist’s propaganda became the major recruiting tool for the next generation of RAF terrorists.

The prison at Guantánamo Bay undermines our national security, and our nation will be more secure the day when that prison is finally and responsibly closed”. John Brennan, now director of the CIA

And today? Al-Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula started publishing an English-language propaganda magazine called Inspire in 2010. Its first issues included an essay by Osama bin-Laden himself condemning the crimes at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo . . . which shook the conscience of humanity” Bla bla bla

I mean, come on. Is it that hard to imagine? In a world of social media, of tweets and posts, is it difficult to believe that the iconic photos of Muslims being humiliated in orange jumpsuits at Guantanamo, the images of nude detainees with plastic bags on their heads from Abu Ghraib prison and the reports of US drone strikes killing Afghan children shock and enrage people in the Arab world. I find it easy to imagine.

We have made an invaluable present to al-Qaeda and all radical Islamists: a perfect propaganda tool. Before 9/11, they claimed that the U.S. were constantly humiliating, torturing and killing Muslims. After 9/11, the Bush administration did everything it could to make that claim true. Al-Qaeda accuses the Western world of having a double standard when it comes to human right, that the U.S.A and its allies are often betraying their own ideals and values. And post-9/11, our actions (Gitmo, Patriot Act, Iraq war) have perfectly backed up that claim. The Western response to 9/11, the ignorance towards the Arab culture, the indifference towards civilian damage in Afghanistan and Iraq, the intolerant attitude towards Muslims that many Westerners clearly have- all this has been a wonderful recruitment tool for Islamist terrorist. We have lost the battle for hearts and minds of the world’s Muslims not because al-Qaeda was better but because we never even bothered to try. One day, we will pay the price of our ignorance towards the public opinion in the Arab world and it’s going to be paid in human lives – namely those of the victims of Islamist terror.

Image source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/ari/8401434232/ Photo by Steve Rodes, uploaded on Flickr, used under https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/# Creative Commons license

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