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An ex-CIA agent looks back at 22 years of torture at Guantánamo Bay

Originally published: ScheerPost on January 10, 2024 by John Kiriakou (more by ScheerPost) (Posted Jan 12, 2024)

January 11 marks the 22nd anniversary of the founding of the prison component of the U.S. military base at Guantánamo Cuba. The U.S. military has been at Guantánamo for decades, of course, but the idea to use the isolated base as a prison where men–and in some cases boys–who had never been formally accused of a crime could be held forever, came from the office of Vice President Dick Cheney in 2002. In the intervening years, presidents and members of Congress of both parties have ignored civil rights, civil liberties and human rights to keep this abomination open. It’s up to the rest of us to demand its destruction.

I never gave Guantánamo two minutes of thought until March 2002. At the time, I was the chief of CIA counterterrorism operations in Pakistan. Along with our Pakistani military and intelligence partners, we had conducted dozens of successful raids on al-Qaeda safehouses around Pakistan, capturing fighters who had fled the U.S. bombing of Tora Bora several months earlier. The standard operating procedure was to interview the people we caught and then send them to the Rawalpindi Jail outside Islamabad until we could figure out what to do with them. My Pakistani counterpart called me one day near the end of the month to say that Rawalpindi Jail was full and that we needed to do something with the prisoners, who were from dozens of countries. None was Pakistani.

I placed a secure call to the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center to ask what to do. The response was quick: Put the prisoners on a C12 transport plane and send them to Guantánamo. “Cuba?” I asked incredulously. “Yes,” the CIA officer said. “We decided to send everybody to Guantánamo for a few weeks until we can figure out which federal district court to try them in.” The September 11 attacks were still an open criminal investigation, and the conventional wisdom was that everybody involved, even peripherally, would be tried in the Southern District of New York, the federal District of Massachusetts and the Eastern District of Virginia. The idea was that they would be sent to these three courts to face trial.

But that was a lie, of course. The Bush Administration, in the form of Dick Cheney and his national security staff, who were in charge of counterterrorism policy during the George W. Bush Administration, never had any intention of letting anybody go on trial. It would have been expensive and time-consuming, and it may have afforded the accused a soapbox. That was something that was utterly unacceptable to the Vice President. And as a result, Guantánamo became synonymous with torture, death, and everything that the idea of American freedoms and the rule of law was supposed to stand against.

I am compelled to say, too, that I feel a personal connection to Guantánamo—and not in a good way. I was responsible for the capture of Abu Zubaydah in Faisalabad, Pakistan in late March, 2002. The CIA believed at the time that Abu Zubaydah was the third-ranking official in al-Qaeda. That turned out to be untrue. He was certainly a bad man. He acted as something of a logistician for al-Qaeda, founding the group’s two training camps in southern Afghanistan, as well as al-Qaeda’s “House of Martyrs” safehouse in Peshawar, Pakistan. But much of the intelligence the CIA had on Abu Zubaydah was simply faulty. He had nothing whatsoever to do with the September 11 attacks, for example. He had never joined al-Qaeda; nor had he ever pledged fealty to Osama bin Laden.

But the truth never stopped, or even slowed, the CIA’s plan to torture Abu Zubaydah, first at a series of secret prisons around the world, and then at Guantánamo. He was the CIA’s guinea pig, the first so-called “high value target” to be captured and tortured. The CIA would practice its torture techniques, euphemistically called “enhanced interrogation techniques,” on Abu Zubaydah before using them on others, including all subsequent high value targets held at Guantánamo.

Most Americans had no idea what was happening in these secret locations and at Guantánamo until the release of the very heavily-redacted Executive Summary of the Senate Torture Report. The 5,000+ page Torture Report itself will never be released. The CIA has ensured that. In fact, it approved of the dissemination of only a dozen or so copies to the White House, and to the Senate and House Intelligence Committees. We have no idea what has happened to these copies, although there have been press reports to indicate that the CIA retrieved them and may have destroyed them.

In 2014, the Agency finally agreed to allow the release of the report’s Executive Summary, a 500-page synopsis of the longer document. But it, too, was so heavily redacted that in many places it was impossible to understand. With that said, many of the summary’s footnotes told a story that the reader might otherwise miss. The footnotes, for example, told us that Abu Zubaydah underwent forced enemas with hummus, rather than with water. The purpose was certainly not hydration, as physicians later testified. The purpose was humiliation. And later in the report, the authors noted that the CIA had issued a policy saying that Abu Zubaydah would never be released from Guantánamo. Never. It didn’t matter that he hadn’t been the Number 3 in al-Qaeda. It didn’t matter that he never had anything to do with September 11. The CIA said—and we know this from the Torture Report’s footnotes—that Abu Zubaydah would never be released under any circumstances. And once he died, he would be cremated and his ashes thrown into the Caribbean. We can deduce from this policy that the same could likely be said of the remaining three dozen or so “forever prisoners” still held at Guantánamo.

The late California Senator Dianne Feinstein (D), who commissioned the Torture Report, was no peacenik. Indeed, as a longtime member, and eventual chairman, of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, she was one of the CIA’s leading proponents in the Senate. Before the Torture Report was published, I accused her in the media of being the CIA’s leading Democratic cheerleader on Capitol Hill, rather than its leading overseer. But Feinstein eventually saw through the CIA’s patriotic smokescreen. She eventually saw what was really happening at Guantánamo.

It was thanks to Feinstein that the American people finally learned of the crimes against humanity that have taken place at Guantánamo over the years.

  • The International Committee of the Red Cross issued a report in 2004, saying that the U.S. military was using “humiliating acts, solitary confinement, temperature extremes, and the use of forced positions” against prisoners and that “the construction of such a system, whose stated purpose is the production of intelligence, cannot be considered other than an intentional system of cruel, unusual, and degrading treatment and a form of torture.”
  • An FBI agent told the New York Times in 2004, “On a couple of occasions, I entered interview rooms to find a detainee chained hand and foot in a fetal position to the floor, with no chair, food, or water. Most times, they had urinated or defecated on themselves and had been left there for 18, 24 hours or more.
  • Red Cross inspectors over the years have documented incidents of serious human rights abuses committed by military, and presumably CIA, personnel, including flushing the Quran down the toilet; sleep deprivation; beatings; confinement in dangerously cold cells; torture with broken glass, barbed wire, and burning cigarettes; sexual assault; forced injections; and forced enemas. Multiple prisoners have reported that guards have raped them and fondled their genitals. Two—Abu Zubaydah and Omar Deghayes—lost eyes at the hands of their jailers.
  • A report published in 2013 by the Institute of Medicine as a Profession found that health professionals working at Guantánamo “designed and participated in cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment and torture of detainees.” That torture reportedly came at the specific insistence of the CIA.
  • Suicide—at least, that’s what U.S. authorities call is—also has been a problem at Guantánamo. It is unclear exactly how many suicides have taken place in the camp. Six were reported between 2002 and May 2011. Twenty three were attempted just in August 2003. On June 10, 2006, there were three suicides, although a report by the Center for Policy and Research found many inconsistencies in the government’s account and said that the finding of suicide by hanging was not supported by the facts. The Center concluded that camp officials had either been grossly negligent in the deaths or were participating in a coverup. Joseph Hickman, a former Guantánamo guard and whistleblower, alleged that the three prisoners had been murdered by their CIA interrogators.

So why doesn’t a president just close this abomination? It’s not that simple. Barack Obama said during the 2008 presidential campaign that he would do just that. It wasn’t to be. The Senate passed an amendment in 2009 by a vote of 90-6 to block funds needed for the transfer or release of prisoners held at Guantánamo. In 2011, Obama said that the Guantánamo prisoners would be transferred to a maximum-security penitentiary in Illinois called USP Thomson. But several Yemeni prisoners objected, saying that they did not want to experience the harsh Illinois winters. It didn’t matter, though. Senator Dick Durbin, the Senate Majority Whip, said that he would block the transfer of any Guantánamo prisoners to his home state. The subsequent National Defense Authorization Act of 2012 indefinitely banned the transfer of any Guantánamo prisoners to facilities on U.S. soil.

Donald Trump was a different story altogether. During the 2016 campaign he vowed to keep the prison open indefinitely and to hold new prisoners from the Islamic State terrorist group there.  He signed an executive order on January 30, 2018 to do just that.

Joe Biden said on February 11, 2021 that he would close Guantánamo by the end of his term, adding that he wanted the remaining 38 prisoners to be transferred to various federal penitentiaries or, alternatively, to the maximum-security military prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. I wouldn’t hold my breath. Congress isn’t even pretending to entertain the idea.

There are several marches and demonstrations around the country on January 11 calling on the government to close Guantánamo. You can find a march near you with this link. It’s far, far past time for the government to do the right thing. Guantánamo has been universally condemned by every human rights, civil liberties, and civil rights group in the world that has expressed an opinion, as well as by the United Nations, and most countries in the world. Nothing good has ever come out of it. And, frankly, it has been a hideous stain on the reputation of the United States. Everybody knows the right thing to do. So let’s do it.

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