Investigative Reporter Andy Worthington on Guantanamo

Excerpt from The Rule of Law Oral History Project interview with Andy Worthington

Conducted by Anne McClintock

Worthington: For the first time [after the release of the documents relating to Guantánamo in spring 2006] we knew who the prisoners were—their names, their nationalities, eventually their dates of birth, their places of birth, and the allegations against them, and the transcripts of the tribunals, and the review boards in which they’d taken part or not taken part. If they didn’t take part, it was just allegations. If they did take part, then that was the most direct opportunity to hear people. Some of those people really came to life through that. I could hear them. These are translations, often—

Q: So their voices, as people, were coming through.

Worthington: —but even so, I would get them as people. Yes. They really came through. Some of them were just amazing. Some of those people really came to life. But yes, that’s the background. Where were we? You were asking me about how I’d approached the stories.

Q: Well, no, you’re really answering it. Well, one was how—were there any specific challenges for you in turning these fragments, these echoes, into—?

Worthington: Well, to establish a context. I spent a long time studying—this was the great thing about the internet because all the newspaper stories could be found online. A decade before, I would have had to have been up in some library—

Q: Through the microfiche.

Worthington: So it was extraordinary. So I was able to establish that a whole bunch of prisoners, for example, were part of the Qala-i-Jangi [Janghi] massacre in November 2001. It was a fortress in northern Afghanistan. Several hundred prisoners had been rounded up and taken there. Some of them had fought back against their captors and there had then been a massacre. Eighty-six of these men had survived in a basement, and they’d been bombed, they’d been electrocuted, they’d been flooded, and eighty-six of them came out alive.

Q: And John Walker Lindh was part of that.

Worthington: John Walker Lindh was one—the American Taliban as he will be forever known. The American scapegoat.

That was just one example. I then realized that there was another very large group of men. I would say somewhere between 200 and 250 had been caught in a week-long period in December 2001 crossing from Afghanistan into Pakistan, who were all, as a result, alleged members of Al Qaeda and the Taliban, fleeing from Tora Bora, which clearly wasn’t necessarily true because there was a huge exodus of people [including numerous civilians]. Other people I discovered were captured in various contexts in Afghanistan. Another group of people were captured in other contexts in Pakistan, around 100 or 120 in various house raids in Pakistan—

Q: Including Moazzam Begg?

Worthington: Including Moazzam. Those house raids had taken place mostly in January to July 2002. Then there was a separate group of prisoners who had been caught in all kinds of different locations around the world. All of those people had passed through various secret prisons run by the CIA [Central Intelligence Agency], or on behalf of the United States government in other countries, where torture was rife, and had ended up in Guantánamo.

Q: Could you say something about the bounties?

Worthington: Well what emerged, primarily, on the bounties was that certainly a lot of the prisoners had spoken about how they saw money being exchanged. There was also some research—I can’t actually remember who undertook the research into the PSYOPS [Psychological Operations] leaflets. The psychological operations branch of the military had been regularly dropping leaflets across Afghanistan and then Pakistan. Most of those were aimed at getting people to turn in bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri, or Mullah Omar, and offering $25 million for that. But they were leaflets that offered villagers money for life if they turned in Al Qaeda or Taliban suspects. It seems pretty accepted—I think—that the average amount of money that was being paid out was $5,000.

Q: That’s right. Five to ten sometimes. Which is an enormous amount of money.

Worthington: Well, it’s equivalent to about $125,000 in Pakistan and [half] a million in Afghanistan.

Q: So there was basically a large case of people being paid to kidnap, or hand over, or name somebody, and they would end up in Guantánamo, or Bagram, or Kandahar, or an Egyptian—

Worthington: Yes. Well, certainly people were being rounded up on that basis in Afghanistan and Pakistan. A lot of the people who were—roughly a quarter to a third of the people who were caught fleeing from Afghanistan to Pakistan—well, who knows? The U.S. military decided that they were all fleeing from Tora Bora and then set about trying to prove that. They were turned in for bounties. The Pakistani villagers that caught a lot of these people got the bounty anyway. But the context in which they were captured would lead to the presumption by the U.S. military that these people had come from a military zone. But the fact is that that wasn’t true either. But in those cases it wasn’t that arbitrarily somebody was sold for a bounty. There was a context in which you could infer that quite easily.

But in some ways that’s almost just the start of the confusion. Essentially, what the U.S. then had was a load of people about whom [they] knew nothing, apart from the fact that it presumed that they had been involved in a military context or had been told that by the people who had sold them. That’s pretty much all they had. And notice in that, that I don’t mention the word “terrorism,” because the word “terrorism” barely figures in this. The root problem with the war on terror— there are two main problems with it. One is that the United States government decided it was going to hold prisoners without any rights whatsoever as human beings. In the second case, it decided that there was essentially no distinction between terrorists and people engaged in a military conflict halfway around the world.

Q: Well, I think the word “terrorist,” especially in latter-day reporting by journalists, TV pundits, and so on—the word “terrorist” has come to have what I’ve noticed is a strange function. People will say, “The ‘terrorists’ at Guantánamo,” as if to be called a terrorist is already to impose guilt.

Worthington: Yes, yes.

Q: The question, then, is not the guilt, because the guilt is assumed in the word “terrorism.” You are assumed to be guilty already. The crime is already implicit in the very name that these prisoners are labeled with. Then the question, in many of these people’s minds, is simply what punishment is commensurate with that crime. The guilt is assumed. It’s what I call the logic of the witch.

Worthington: Absolutely.

Q: It’s a latter-day version of what happened to witches.

Worthington: It is, exactly.

Q: But I wanted to follow up a question, then. It seems to me that one of the questions is—it seems a very simple question, but it’s a very, in my view, terrible question—is if, as you and then following you other people have demonstrated, that so many of the prisoners were humanitarian aid workers and religious workers and Taliban foot soldiers, and these people caught up fleeing, and so on. You used a wonderful phrase once—guilt by nationality; that they were assumed to be guilty because they were either in the wrong place or guilt by place, or guilt by nationality or identity. But then it seems to me that—one of the most chilling aspects of Guantánamo is that from the very earliest days, as early as 2002, [Lawrence B. Wilkerson, Colin Powell’s Chief of Staff], in an extraordinary admission, acknowledged that the Bush administration and certainly the people at Guantánamo—I think [General Geoffrey D.] Miller said, “You’re sending me ‘Mickey Mouse’ prisoners.” [Wilkerson] said they knew these people were ordinary people—

Worthington: Well, some people did. The problem is, who knew and who didn’t? Miller never said that. Miller just did what he was told. It was [General Michael E.] Dunlavey, who was the commander at the time—

Q: Dunlavey. You’re exactly right.

Worthington: —who said, “Stop sending me so many Mickey Mouse detainees.” The problem is—let’s go right to the very top, almost—well, depending. I think the very top is Dick [Richard B.] Cheney rather than George W. Bush. But George had to sign everything. Dick Cheney has persistently maintained that everybody who is held at Guantánamo is dangerous people.

Q: “The worst of the worst.”

Worthington: He’s done that ever since the population at Guantánamo was at its height. At any one time I think Guantánamo held about 660 prisoners. So you could follow a trail of him always saying the same thing. It doesn’t matter how many people are released; they’re all “the worst of the worst.” Does he believe that? I don’t know what he believes. The problem is that I don’t know how much is cynicism and how much is a genuine belief. Because people who don’t want to hear the truth just shut their ears to it when they’re in positions of power, and may not know. Maybe a better example is the judges of the D.C. Circuit Court [U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit]. So Judge A. Raymond Randolph[interviewed here], Judge Laurence [H.] Silberman, Judge Janice Rogers Brown, the three most prominent, very, very conservative judges, who apparently believe that the existential threat posed by the people at Guantánamo is such that the normal rules of law don’t apply, and that it is their job to prevent these dangerous liberals in the District Court [U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia]—even though many of them are not dangerous liberals at all; right wing judges appointed by George W. Bush, for example—that they must stop anyone from being released from Guantánamo through habeas corpus. I think they believe that.

So they bought the lie—there are terrorists at Guantánamo.

Q: Certainly most Americans have bought that lie. But if you start reading between the lines of people who are doing interrogations, people in the camps, you begin to get a sense that they know they’re not getting information. One of the early questions I wanted to ask you is that it seems to me—and I’d like to hear what you think about it—that it seems to me that in trying to understand why torture these people—this question of why were they tortured in the beginning and why have they continued to be tortured for so long and up to this day—it seems that, in the beginning, it wasn’t really to extract information to prevent another 9/11. But in the case of [Ibn al-Shaykh] al-Libi, I wonder if you could perhaps talk about that case, which it seems to me is one of those small events that had epochal effects, which Colin [L.] Powell took to Congress, and took to the Security Council, and with it took the U.S. to war. Could you tell me—I’ve been trying to find out a little bit more about al-Libi’s case. Could you talk about that case?

Worthington: Well, yes. Al-Libi was the “emir” of the Al Khaldan training camp, which is an independent training camp. He was captured in December 2001. He was interrogated briefly by the FBI [Federal Bureau of Investigation] and was then taken off them, bundled onto a plane, apparently put in a very small box, and was told, “While you’re in the air, we’re going to find your mother and fuck her,” which is what I think one of the CIA guys said to him. He was then sent to Egypt. He was then tortured. I believe he was waterboarded and, as a result, said that two Al Qaeda operatives had been meeting with Saddam Hussein to obtain chemical and biological weapons. He recanted that claim, but apparently nobody told Colin Powell.

Q: And I have read—I don’t remember where—but I’ve read that some of the CIA, maybe in Jane Mayer’s The Dark Side

Worthington: It might well have been.

Q: It might have been in the The Guantánamo Effect, but some of the CIA were very uneasy about it, and they had said to Powell, “This is dubious. This is dodgy information that you’re getting.” But aside from that, Powell then took it, nonetheless.

Worthington: Yes.

Q: And he has subsequently said that this was the most embarrassing decision.

Worthington: Yes. My feeling is that if he didn’t know, he ought to have known that he shouldn’t have been saying that. But the same thing happened in the UK. The BBC [British Broadcasting Corporation] almost got shut down because a journalist rightly accused the British government of sexing up the intelligence dossier about Iraq, which is exactly what happened. But, apparently, he wasn’t allowed to say that because apparently that wasn’t true. And they didn’t. But they did. Nobody had a reason to invade Iraq, so they had to invent it.

Q: They had to invent one. Well, then, that really is my question. In some sense, wasn’t the early torture less anything to do with stopping another 9/11 than literally inventing an enemy, inventing an enemy that would provide a [unclear], for which it did not invent a rationale for going to war in Iraq?

Worthington: What Larry [Lawrence B.] Wilkerson told me when I interviewed him was that he said that in 2009 he had heard in that period—so in 2009, maybe from 2008—in his discussions with people, that it was as early as December 2001 that they knew there wasn’t a second attack that was going to come. So, to that extent, the intelligence was shifting towards justifying the invasion of Iraq.

Now that’s huge.

Q: That’s huge.

Worthington: See, what some people do is they then follow that up and say that the whole of Guantánamo is some kind of illusion. I don’t think that’s the case. Now, again, at what level are people scared, and at what level are they pretending to be scared, and it’s all cynical. I mean deeply, deeply cynical.

Now I would say, actually, through analyzing the files that were released by WikiLeaks, which are very detailed intelligence assessments of the prisoners in Guantánamo, attempting to rate their dangerousness, the risks they pose, attempting to rate the value of their intelligence, and also noting their behavior in Guantánamo, that this wasn’t purely cynical; that they were engaged in an effort to establish that the people that they held were of some significance; that clearly what they did as part of that process was that, from the beginning, they realized that they did have Mickey Mouse detainees, and if they could, within that process, establish that somebody didn’t really know anything, and didn’t really pose a threat, then they would release them.

I don’t think all of that was cynical. I think that that was believed. I would be surprised if we were able to sit down with some of the senior officials in the Bush administration and say, “But surely you must have realized that almost none of these people had anything on anything,” but they would just not believe that. And they wouldn’t be saying that cynically. They would be thinking, “What would be the dumbest approach to the terrorists in Guantánamo, in the United States, in what passes for some of the discourse?” It would be, “Well, these are bad guys.” Otherwise, what the hell were they doing, these ferocious, dangerous, ideologically warped Muslims, walking around Afghanistan with guns? What were they doing if that wasn’t what we said it was?

I think there are various things going on. I actually think that the line that involved torturing people to obtain false intelligence to justify an illegal war—I have mentioned a few times, it seems to me, that that would be treason in some way; that that is committing a huge crime as somebody in a very high position in the United States government. I think that is the case. But then, you know, authorizing, arranging for people to be tortured, when that is a crime in the United States, is also a crime.

Q: Absolutely. It’s a crime within the U.S., and international law.

Worthington: Well, the United States doesn’t care about international law, but domestically, it is.

Q: Are there also, in Guantánamo, different levels for reasons for the abuse—that there might have been reasons to torture people to get information and so on? But then once people have been there for years, it seems as if torture takes on another dynamic; that there are ways in which torture may be used, or abuse may be used, in order for the guards to impose their will, to keep order. I think, certainly in Abu Ghraib, and I’d like us to talk maybe more, broaden us, to talk about more than Guantánamo.

Worthington: What happened in Guantánamo is that they introduced the torture techniques. There’s an array of torture techniques—prolonged isolation, the frequent flier program, a horrible sleep deprivation program, whereby people were moved from cell to cell every few hours so they couldn’t sleep for days, weeks, even months, I believe. Short-shackling in painful positions; nudity; extreme use of heat and cold; the use of loud music and noise; preying on phobias. The paper trail is there for how, in the summer of 2002, in the autumn of 2002, interrogators sought to use these techniques on a handful—we know that Mohammed al-Qahtani—but there were a few other—

Q: Abu Zubaydah?

Worthington: Well, no. Abu Zubaydah wasn’t in Guantánamo at the time. So it was in Guantánamo. There were a handful of people that they wanted to use this on, and al-Qahtani is the one we specifically know about. Rumsfeld kind of signed off on most of that. So what the CIA had, which was a variation on that, was then replicated at Guantánamo.

Now according to all the reports, the one I’ve drawn on for years is that somebody who was there told the New York Times, off the record in 2004, that it was one in six of the prisoners that this was applied to. Recently I came across somebody suggesting that it was much more than that.

So, you know, it was pretty standard operating procedure for about two years, at Guantánamo, was to put people through hell and then interrogate them.

Q: To soften them up.

Worthington: Yes, essentially—part of the softening up. “People aren’t going to talk to us unless we abuse them, unless we torture them”—exactly the opposite of what experts in interrogation would tell you. Exactly the opposite. Where the FBI guys who are on the record say, “If I could get the president of the United States and the head of the CIA and all these people to stand up one day and say, ‘We absolutely adhere to what we have been told by skilled interrogators in the FBI, that is how we’re going to behave,’ we’d be in a much better place.” Because everything that Dan Coleman and Jack Cloonan have said about, “What you think they’re doing, abusing people like this, is going to get them to talk to you? Are you insane?” It’s about rapport-building. It’s about you being clever and finding a way.

Q: Isn’t that, in a sense, a strange question? Why, then, did they do that?

Worthington: Well, I think they did that because of vengeance.

Q: I agree with you. I think so. I mean, that’s what I have felt—

Worthington: —and that’s what’s still being sold in the United States is a spirit of vengeance.

Q: I agree with you. Yes.

Worthington: And if you want a longer history of that, then it’s something tapping into a homicidal streak in the American psyche. It’s a very uncomfortable thing, but it’s all connected. When these things happen, we’re looking for that point at which within the internment of Japanese Americans, and America will say, “Oh, my god, what did we do?” It may not happen this time. We may be headed for permanent barbarism. The justification is, “How dare they do that to us? We’re the best.” It is.

Q: Thank you for saying that. I think that’s really how I’ve come to see it. In fact, I don’t know if you’ve read Fear Up Harsh, by Tony Lagouranis, who was an interrogator, torturer, and he’s got an extraordinary paragraph—I’ll send it to you; I wrote a piece about it—in which he said when we started out torturing it was intelligence gathering. We realized we were getting nothing, and he said that the terrible, the scary thing, was that it started to change into something else, and we began to torture simply to show our power and to say to them, “You must look into the face of American power. You did this to us,” knowing that these people were not terrorists, knowing that they were not responsible.

Worthington: Well, that’s why you don’t cross the line. That’s why you put up those barriers, to prevent you from becoming barbaric. We worked hard to achieve that, because that’s exactly what he discovered; that once you open up those gates—

Q: —you go into a dark labyrinth.

Worthington: Then you’re torturing people for fun. I’m sorry. You are.

Q: For vengeance. Yes. And to impose your will. Right. Right.

Worthington: And how pointless is that?