More confirmation of imperial perfidy is on tap today from the trove of classified files originally obtained by WikiLeaks on the U.S. concentration camp in Guantanamo Bay. Most of the information released so far was already known -- to the very, very few who cared to find out -- having emerged in dribs and drabs and fragments in various places over the years. But to see it gathered together, in raw form, in the words of the perpetrators and accomplices of this vast, still-ongoing crime, is a powerful, and sickening, experience.
Almost as sickening as the atrocities themselves, however, is the way the release has been played in the New York Times, whose coverage of the document dump will set the tone for the American media and political establishments. The Times' take is almost wholly devoted to showing how evil and dangerous a handful of the hundreds of Gitmo detainees were, and to justifying Barack Obama's betrayal of his promises to close the concentration camp. We are treated to lurid tales (many if not most of them extracted under torture, but who cares about that?) of monsters seething with irrepressible hatred of America, and so maniacally devoted to jihad that they inject themselves with libido-deadening drugs to ward off any sexual distractions from their murderous agenda.
There is almost no mention in the Times coverage of the many innocent people -- including children -- who spent years in the concentration camp, athough the main story about the documents does note, in an eyeblink, the case of one prisoner who was falsely imprisoned on the word of an Afghan official trying to hide his own complicity with insurgents. (Damn treacherous furriners!)
And the notorious case of Al Jazeera journalist Sami al-Hajj, held for six years in the concentration camp while interrogators pressed him for details not about terrorism but about the network, is also given one paragraph -- with a conclusion that implies our "serious" journalists at the Times still have their reservations about the grubby little Ay-rab: "While Mr. Hajj insisted he was just a journalist, his file says he helped Islamic extremist groups courier money and obtain Stinger missiles and cites the United Arab Emirates’ claim that he was a Qaeda member."
Yes, his file could say anything that his captors wanted it to say -- information they made up, information they tortured and terrorized out of other captives. But even though al-Hajj was finally released by the very people who first made those charges -- which they obviously could not make stick -- his fellow journalists at one of the world's leading newspapers still couch his case in iffy terms: "Well, he says he was just a journalist, but look here -- al Qaeda!! Ya just never know, do you?" That's real journalistic solidarity for you.
Now it's true that the Times also runs another prominent story that seems to take on the known fact that scores of the concentration camp's inmates were innocent people battered for years with "harsh interrogation techniques" to make them confess to crimes they never committed and implicate others. The story is headlined: "Judging Detainees’ Risk, Often With Flawed Evidence."
Flawed evidence! Now we'll some of the darker side. Perhaps we were too hasty to judge the main story, so .... er .... You will not be surprised at this point to find that the second story is not concerned with these scores of innocent, abused men (and children), but with ... evil Gitmo inmates who fooled their soft-hearted captors into releasing them.
Taken together, the Times' first "package" on the Gitmo documents is a breathtaking exercise in the Pravdazation of information in a putative democracy with a putative free press. The general thrust of the stories conforms almost entirely to the American elite's accepted myth about Gitmo -- and indeed, about all of the state's crimes against humanity: that well-intentioned, good-hearted people did the best they could in a volatile situation. Mistakes were made, sure, and of course there were a few bad eggs here and there at the lower levels, and yeah, some officials were more competent than others, and things are in a bit of a mess, but still. When we erred, it was usually because we were too soft for our own good. And in any case, the intentions of our leaders and their minions are always noble and pure: to protect the security of the American people, and advance democracy throughout the world.
This is the message that the New York Times wants you to take away from its first, scene-setting, tone-establishing package on the Gitmo files. (It also wants you to know that although the files were originally obtained by WikiLeaks, the Times got their copy "from a different source." They're not involved with those awful, icky, dangerous WikiLeakers, no sireebob! They are a serious, reputable organization.)
Here, perhaps, is the nut graph, the essence of the "insights" taken from the files by Messers Savage, Glaberman, Lehren and their editors:
The Guantánamo assessments seem unlikely to end the long-running debate about America’s most controversial prison. The documents can be mined for evidence supporting beliefs across the political spectrum about the relative perils posed by the detainees and whether the government’s system of holding most without trials is justified.
Nothing to see here in these files; nothing to end the "debate" over Gitmo. And what, according to the New York Times, are the parameters of this debate? The "relative peril" posed by the captives and whether holding any person for the rest of his life without trial is "justified." Think of that! Whether to hold a person -- any person -- in captivity, indefinitely, without trial, is now a matter of "debate" in the United States of America. Of course, the truth is that it is not a matter of debate at all; it is simply an accepted fact now, by our political and media elites, and by the general public.
Indeed, note this truly chilling phrase, in the second paragraph of the main story:
"What began as a jury-rigged experiment after the 2001 terrorist attacks now seems like an enduring American institution ... "
This is offered straight up, as a statement of fact, and not as, say, a prelude to moral outrage or deep shock. Certainly not on the part of the reporters, who maintain a completely ersatz "neutrality" as they "mine" the documents "for evidence supporting beliefs" in the elitist myth of America's bumbling, shambling goodness. But they don't even bother scrounging up someone -- someone "serious," of course, from a reputable human rights group, or maybe an Ivy League academic -- to offer even the mildest, blandest intimation that perhaps maybe it might not be the very best thing in the world for a center of torture, coercion, and lawless imprisonment to become "an enduring American institution."
There is apparently no room in this civilized "debate" for the expression of that idea, even in the severely attenuated form that any mildly dissenting thought is allowed expression in the pages of our leading news journal. Nor is there any room for the notion that it is a monstrous evil to kidnap people, buy them from bounty hunters, round them up in city streets all over the world, and dump them in a concentration camp where they can be tortured, abused, driven mad and abandoned without any legal recourse for years on end -- or years without end.
Such thoughts are now beyond the pale. The concentration camp is now "an enduring American institution." Our wise president is right to betray his sworn promises to end the system. We need to keep all these big bad men locked up. It's a mistake to be too soft. These are the "new insights" that the New York Times -- leader of, yes, the "liberal media" -- wants you to take away from the Gitmo files. It's all OK. It's all ... normal.
Which reminds me of something I wrote almost 10 years ago, in November 2001, in the very weeks that the concentration camp in Guantanamo Bay was bringing in its first hooded captives for "harsh interrogation":
It won't come with jackboots and book burnings, with mass rallies and fevered harangues. It won't come with "black helicopters" or tanks on the street. It won't come like a storm – but like a break in the weather, that sudden change of season you might feel when the wind shifts on an October evening: everything is the same, but everything has changed. Something has gone, departed from the world, and a new reality has taken its place.
As in Rome, all the old forms will still be there; legislatures, elections, campaigns – plenty of bread and circuses for the folks. But the "consent of the governed" will no longer apply; actual control of the state will have passed to a small group of nobles who rule largely for the benefit of their wealthy peers and corporate patrons.
To be sure, there will be factional conflicts among this elite, and a degree of free debate will be permitted, within limits; but no one outside the privileged circle will be allowed to govern or influence state policy. Dissidents will be marginalized – usually by "the people" themselves. Deprived of historical knowledge by an impoverished educational system designed to produce complacent consumers, not thoughtful citizens, and left ignorant of current events by a media devoted solely to profit, many will internalize the force-fed values of the ruling elite, and act accordingly. There will be little need for overt methods of control.
The rulers will often act in secret; for reasons of "national security," the people will not be permitted to know what goes on in their name. Actions once unthinkable will be accepted as routine: government by executive fiat, the murder of "enemies" selected by the leader, undeclared war, torture, mass detentions without charge, the looting of the national treasury, the creation of huge new "security structures" targeted at the populace. In time, all this will come to seem "normal," as the chill of autumn feels normal when summer is gone.
The new normality is here, and is being entrenched even further, every day, by the drone-wielding, war-surging, torturer-defending Continuer-in-Chief of this brutal imperial system. Obama is doubtless reading the package with a big smile on his face, as he watches the Times scurry to justify his wholesale adoption of the Bush-Cheney gulag mindset. And how many "progressives" will now seize on the Times' take to acquit their noble champion for betraying his promises on Gitmo? ("See, Obama was right: ya can't let those monsters loose after all!") Keeping Gitmo open -- indefinitely -- will now become the new "centrist" position. And those who felt a bit wiggly about their champion's failure in this regard can -- what else? -- move on, and fight wholeheartedly for his re-election.
The myth lives on ... even as the chill of autumn turns into a long, endless winter.
2. Another View
But while the sanitary engineers at the NY Times work hard to keep the American people as ignorant as possible about the goings-on at Gitmo, those unfortunate wretches living outside the Gates of Eden are being given a much more unvarnished look at the truth. The Guardian, which was also given access to the files, goes beyond the regurgitation of imperial spin to give us a portrait of the system, warts and all. Below are some of the "insights" gleaned by the Guardian from the save trove examined -- or not examined -- by the Times:
The US military dossiers, obtained by the New York Times and the Guardian, reveal how, alongside the so-called "worst of the worst", many prisoners were flown to the Guantánamo cages and held captive for years on the flimsiest grounds, or on the basis of lurid confessions extracted by maltreatment. The files depict a system often focused less on containing dangerous terrorists or enemy fighters, than on extracting intelligence.
Among inmates who proved harmless were an 89-year-old Afghan villager, suffering from senile dementia, and a 14-year-old boy who had been an innocent kidnap victim. The old man was transported to Cuba to interrogate him about "suspicious phone numbers" found in his compound. The 14-year-old was shipped out merely because of "his possible knowledge of Taliban...local leaders"
The documents also reveal ... Almost 100 of the inmates who passed through Guantánamo are listed by their captors as having had depressive or psychotic illnesses. Many went on hunger strike or attempted suicide.
A number of British nationals and residents were held for years even though US authorities knew they were not Taliban or al-Qaida members. One Briton, Jamal al-Harith, was rendered to Guantánamo simply because he had been held in a Taliban prison and was thought to have knowledge of their interrogation techniques. The US military tried to hang on to another Briton, Binyam Mohamed, even after charges had been dropped and evidence emerged he had been tortured.
US authorities relied heavily on information obtained from a small number of detainees under torture. They continued to maintain this testimony was reliable even after admitting that the prisoners who provided it had been mistreated.
...The files also detail how many innocents or marginal figures swept up by the Guantánamo dragnet because US forces thought they might be of some intelligence value. One man was transferred to the facility "because he was a mullah, who led prayers at Manu mosque in Kandahar province, Afghanistan … which placed him in a position to have special knowledge of the Taliban". US authorities eventually released him after more than a year's captivity, deciding he had no intelligence value. Another prisoner was shipped to the base "because of his general knowledge of activities in the areas of Khowst and Kabul based as a result of his frequent travels through the region as a taxi driver".
There is much more in the larger package offered by the Guardian. The paper also offers some telling comments by Julian Glover:
Let them read the documents. Let them try to tell us after that (as some still do, even now) that the Afghan war was fought well, and fought morally; that Guantánamo was a limited and necessary evil; that there was nothing that amounted to torture; that the prisoners stolen from across the world were almost all fanatics; and that it was necessary for democratic states to excuse themselves from the rule of law in order to save it.
"If you could only know what we can know, you would understand that what we are doing is right," our leaders used to assure us. Well now we really do know – we have the documents, we have the transcripts of interviews with former prisoners, we have everything it takes to understand the nasty story of Guantánamo, exposed today in 759 leaked documents containing the words of the people who ran the place. And it is obvious that we should have seen through the evasions from the start.
The leaked files ... reveal horror that lies only partly in the physical things that were done to inmates – the desperate brutality of heated isolation cells, restraining straps and forced interrogation. Such things are already grimly familiar and have been widely condemned, and perhaps for the 172 inmates who remain in Camp Delta despite President Obama's promise to close it, they continue in some lesser form. Worse things have been done in war, not least by us British, as emerging evidence from the campaign against the Mau Mau in Kenya should remind us.
But what is given new prominence by these latest Guantánamo files is the cold, incompetent stupidity of the system: a system that tangled up the old and the young, the sick and the innocent. A system in which to say you were not a terrorist might be taken as evidence of your cunning. A system designed less to hand out justice than to process and supply information from inmates, as if they were not humans but items of digital data in some demented storage machine programmed always to reject the answer "No, I was not involved". The clinical idiocy of this dreadful place is the most chilling thing of all, since it strips away even the cynical but persuasive defence: it was harsh but it worked and it kept the world safe.
It didn't work, much of the time. These files show that some of the information collected was garbage and that many of those held knew nothing that could be of use to the people demanding answers from them. Far from securing the fight against terror, the people running the camp faced an absurdist battle to educate a 14-year-old peasant boy kidnapped by an Afghan tribe and treat the dementia, depression and osteoarthritis of an 89-year-old man caught up in a raid on his son's house.
Other cases are just as pathetic. Jamal al-Harith, born Ronald Fiddler in Manchester in 1966, was imprisoned by the Taliban as a possible spy, after being found wandering through Afghanistan as a Muslim convert. In a movement of Kafkaesque horror the Americans held him in Camp X-Ray simply because he had been a prisoner of its enemy. "He was expected to have knowledge of Taliban treatment of prisoners and interrogation tactics," the files record ....
The final indictment of Guantánamo is not just that it broke the rule of law temporarily, but that by doing so it made the breach permanent. Justified as a way of gathering information from the guilty, it forced the innocent to invent falsehoods as well. The security forces and politicians who permitted the camp often accuse its critics of being simplistic and squeamish. They say that the things that happened inside it were much less nasty than the things the people it contains did to others. In some cases that's right. But the Guantánamo system piled lie upon lie through the momentum of its own existence, until no one could know which those cases were, or what was true.
At times, I have feared that obsessing over the injustices of Guantánamo Bay has become a surrogate for a wider hatred of America. Read the files, and you'll realise that obsession is the only possible humane response.
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- Published: 25 April 2011