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2006-06-19

Did the Pentagon Lie About Why it Barred Journalists from Guantanamo Bay Soon After Prisoner Suicides?

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The U.S. has barred journalists from the military prison at Guantanamo Bay. We speak with Los Angeles Times reporter Carol Williams, one of three journalists forced off the island last week as well as British journalist and author David Rose, who had his military clearance to Guantanamo suddenly revoked. [includes rush transcript]

The U.S. has barred journalists from the military prison at Guantanamo Bay. Three visiting reporters were forced off the island Wednesday under orders from the office of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. A Pentagon spokesperson said the removals were ordered following complaints from other media outlets they were being denied equal access.

But questions are being raised over whether the Pentagon was motivated by a different reason. Last week’s Guantanamo suicides have only intensified international scrutiny of the US-run prison. The three banned reporters–from the Los Angeles Times, the Miami Herald and the Charlotte Observer–were the only journalists who were able to file reports on the suicides from Guantanamo.

  • Carol Williams, one of the three reporters forced out of Guantanamo. She is Caribbean Bureau Chief for the Los Angeles Times. She wrote an article in Sunday’s LA Times entitled "Kicked Out of Gitmo." She speaks to us from St. Kitts.
  • David Rose, journalist who writes for the Observer of London and Vanity Fair. He is the author of several books, including "Guantanamo: America’s War on Human Rights", which has just come out in paperback.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Our first guest is one of those three reporters. Carol Williams is the Caribbean Bureau Chief for the Los Angeles Times. She wrote a piece in Sunday’s L.A. Times entitled "Kicked Out of Gitmo." She speaks to us from St. Kitts. We’re also joined by David Rose, journalist who writes for the Observer of London and Vanity Fair. He’s the author of several books, including Guantanamo: America’s War on Human Rights, which has just come out on paperback. Last week he was on his way to Guantanamo to cover a military tribunal, when he suddenly had his clearance revoked. We welcome you both to Democracy Now!

Let us begin with Carol Williams. Carol, can you talk about what happened on Guantanamo? How long were you there? When were you told you had to leave? When were you flown out?

CAROL WILLIAMS: I was there for five days. And I was told actually before I even left Ft. Lauderdale on a charter flight to Guantanamo on the Saturday of the suicides that I shouldn’t go, because my travel clearance had been revoked by the Office of the Military Commissions, which runs the tribunals, and we were going down to cover a session of the tribunals. But because I had been to Guantanamo previously under authorization of different arms of the Pentagon, I called the admiral in charge of the detention facility and asked his staff if I couldn’t come down anyway, because even though there were no tribunals to cover that week, that there was a story that American readers needed to know about. And after some back-and-forth he agreed, and he invited myself and Carol Rosenberg from the Miami Herald to proceed with our trip.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, you went there, and how long were you there?

CAROL WILLIAMS: There, five days. On the Monday, two days after we arrived, I got a call from the same person from Rumsfeld’s office, who had said our travel clearance to cover the tribunals had been revoked, to say we had to leave, because it wasn’t fair to the other journalists that the Pentagon was preventing from coming down for us to be there to cover the story. So this went back and forth again for another couple of days. And then on Tuesday night, we were told that we had — by the admiral staff, that they had been given orders from the Secretary of Defense office to clear the island of media by the following morning. And they put us on a military plane bound for Miami and shipped us off.

AMY GOODMAN: So you were there at the time of the suicides?

CAROL WILLIAMS: No, we were there a few hours later. They occurred overnight, actually, I think shortly after midnight, early Saturday morning. And we were coincidentally flying into Guantanamo from Ft. Lauderdale. Myself and Carol Rosenberg live in Miami and cover our beats from there. So we were flying separately from the rest of the Office of Military Commission’s delegation that was supposed to leave, I believe, on Sunday on a military flight from Andrews Air Force Base, and because the British journalists who were coming to cover the tribunals and some of our other colleagues had been booked through the military to get down to Guantanamo, when they cancelled the tribunals, they cancelled the flight to bring the journalists and staff down. So they were kind of marooned.

But we argued with the Defense Department that our colleagues should be allowed to proceed, when they were making the argument that, you know, it wasn’t right for us to be there, because our competitors and fellow journalists weren’t there. We proposed a number of junctures that they let those people come down and that all media should be there. And we would have been happy to pool the information, if that was the only way we could stay and to get around this perception that it was somehow unfair that any eyes of the world were on Guantanamo that week.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s interesting to note the link between the two of you, the two of our guests. David Rose, you write, "Three U.S. reporters at the base were ordered to leave. According to a Pentagon spokesman quoted by the U.S. media, the reason was that two barred British reporters — us — had threatened to sue if the Americans were allowed to stay. This was, of course, untrue," you write. So in other words, you say the Pentagon is falsely blaming you for the reason why Carol Williams was forced to leave Guantanamo?

DAVID ROSE: Absolutely. The full story of my experience is quite kafkaesque. It’s an overused epithet, but I think it’s applicable in this instance. I was in the air when news of the suicides broke, on my way from London. I arrived in Washington on Saturday evening and discovered that the flight from Andrews to Gitmo had been cancelled, as had the military commission.

So the first thing I did the next morning was call the Pentagon, the Office of Military Commissions, and I spoke to Jeffrey D. Gordon, the Naval Lieutenant Commander who is in charge of granting media access to the military commissions. I said, "Look, I’ve come a long way. With the suicides, there’s clearly a very good reason for going to Guantanamo, and I had already made arrangements with the Guantanamo Public Affairs people, that as well as covering the military commissions, I would tour the base, as I have done before, and interview other officials about the general regime at Guantanamo."

So, at this point, he couldn’t have been more helpful. He said, "Look, I can’t give you a new clearance, because you had clearance for the military commission," although, as he accepted, I did also have clearance for a more general tour of the base. He said, "Talk to the folks at Gitmo. Talk to the people at South Com, and you can probably get a new clearance."

So within an hour or so, I was talking to Naval Lieutenant Commander Robert Durand, who’s in charge of the Gitmo Public Affairs Office, and he said, "Look, I’m sure it will be fine. I’ll talk to the admiral. He’s a very open sort of guy. You can get new clearance." And indeed, I have an email from him, which was copied to me, where he explains to one of his colleagues that I’m going to get new clearance, he’s going to talk to the admiral, and he asks his colleague to assist me with getting transportation.

Well, as it turned out, it was very difficult to get a flight. The small little scheduled flights that fly out of Ft. Lauderdale and Kingston, Jamaica were full. But with another British colleague, David Jones, that I’d emailed, we managed to find a firm that was willing to fly us on a personal charter from Kingston, Jamaica.

Anyhow, things went on during the afternoon, and finally at 7:00 in the evening or so, I got a call from Guantanamo saying, "Great news! Your clearances have come through. We’ll fax them to your hotel." So by 19:53 that evening — that’s the time on the fax — I had a new clearance to enter Guantanamo Bay to report on the aftermath of the suicides and to interview officials there.

On the strength of that, I got up early the next morning with David Jones. We went from Dulles Airport down to Miami. We checked in once more with Guantanamo. We spoke to officials there. They said, "You’re good to go. We’ll meet your plane when you arrive at 6:30 p.m. has arrived. We’ll have a full program for you. You can stay the rest of the week." So we thought, "Fine, this is just great." So we ponied up the $4,000 for the private plane and flew on to Kingston, Jamaica.

Well, we were just checking in for the private flight at Kingston that afternoon when the manager, looking very flustered, came and said, "Look, I’m really sorry, guys. You can’t go." I said, "What do you mean? We have clearances." He said, "Well, they’ve just been revoked." I said, "What do you mean they’ve been revoked? We got them last night. Look. Here’s the fax. 19:53." He said, "I’ve just had a call from Jeffrey D. Gordon, the same official in the Pentagon in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. Your clearances have been revoked. You can’t travel."

Well, I called J.D. Gordon, and here’s the really interesting part. I said, "Why can’t we go?" He said, "Because the two Carols, from the Miami Herald and the L.A. Times, have just been ordered to leave. I can’t let you come when they’ve been ordered to leave, or the whole of the American media will be down on my neck like a ton of bricks. I can’t order Americans out and let British reporters in." I said, "You’re telling me they’ve already been ordered to leave and we can’t come?" He said, "That’s the position."

Well, this is very interesting, what Carol has just said, because it’s clear that she wasn’t even told to leave until the following evening. So while they’re using — when speaking to us, the O.S.D., the Office of the Secretary of Defense, is using the American reporters as a reason for not letting us in; when expelling the Americans, they’re using us, the Brits, as a reason for them having to leave. In fact, both these statements are untrue. They hadn’t told the Americans to leave. There was no reason at all not to let us go and use the clearance that we had obtained. Equally, we were not threatening to sue or making any other kind of complaint. We were just very angry that we had been told we had clearance to go, and suddenly it had been revoked, and no reason was being given.

What made it even worse was that we had further phone and email contact over the next few days, which ended up by Jeffrey D. Gordon claiming absolutely falsely that I had obtained a clearance from a junior enlisted clerk, whereas in fact, as the email I have from the head of Gitmo Public Affairs shows very clearly, it had come from the base admiral. And then, when I pointed this out to him, he accused me of dubious professional conduct, at best, which is really quite extraordinary.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to David Rose, British journalist who writes for the Observer of London and Vanity Fair. He’s speaking to us from Oxford in England. And Carol Williams is on the line with us from St. Kitts. She’s the Caribbean Bureau Chief for the Los Angeles Times. We’ll come back to both of them in a minute.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking about reporters being banned from or not allowed into Guantanamo, kicked off of the prison camp last week. Carol Williams is with us, Caribbean Bureau Chief for the L/A. Times. She was flown out last week. She’s now in St. Kitts. David Rose is a British journalist, writes for the Observer of London and Vanity Fair and has written the book, Guantanamo: The War on Human Rights. He was expecting to come in to Guantanamo but was barred from entering.

David Rose, today the British Parliament is holding a hearing on British complicity in the rendition of Binyam Mohammed, the British resident who was arrested in Pakistan. Can you talk about this case, why you were going to Guantanamo?

DAVID ROSE: Yes, absolutely. Binyam Mohammed’s case is one of the most shocking and the most copiously documented cases we have of extraordinary rendition. He was arrested in Pakistan in, I believe, April of 2002, and he was taken to Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan and then a place which is known as the "dark prison," a C.I.A. facility in Afghanistan.

By the time he left that place, after what he says was extremely abusive coercive treatment, he had made a confession, which was so extraordinary it barely bears consideration. He apparently, as a new Muslim convert, who had in fact gone to Pakistan because he had a drug problem, is supposed to have had in a public restaurant in Pakistan in the early part of 2002, months after 9/11, a dinner party with the entire al-Qaeda leadership, including, for example, Khaled Shaikh Mohammed, then the world’s most-wanted man, the architect of 9/11; Ramzi bin al-Shibh, the former flatmate of Mohamed Atta; and Jose Padilla, the American citizen who, of course, was shortly to be arrested himself.

Now, the allegation is that at this dinner party Khaled Shaikh Mohammed cooked up a plan, whereby Binyam Mohammed would fly to Central Asia, somehow obtain some uranium, smuggle it into the United States — not an easy thing to do, you might think — and then he and Padilla would build a dirty bomb together and set it off somewhere in New York.

Well, having made this confession, he was then shipped to Morocco by the C.I.A., where he was held for about a year in a place which is clearly a center for torture, where really unspeakable things were done to him. The worst thing that was done was that on a number of occasions he was cut on his body and also on his genitals with a scalpel. He was also severely beaten. He endured sexual assaults. And I should say that I’ve interviewed two other prisoners in recent weeks, who were also in the same place, who described these things happening, not to themselves, but witnessing it happening to other prisoners.

Having spent a year in Morocco, he was finally taken to Guantanamo Bay, and he faces trial by military commission for this plan to let off a dirty bomb with Jose Padilla, who he says he has never met. And it was for his military commission hearing, the preliminary hearing, motions hearing in that case that I was planning to go to Guantanamo.

Now, the interesting thing, of course, is that Padilla himself was facing charges as a so-called enemy combatant, despite the fact he was a U.S. citizen and he was being held in a military prison, I think it was in North Carolina. And eventually, the authorities realized they just couldn’t make this stick. He’s now back in federal custody, and he’s facing much less serious charges.

But the crucial thing is, why did they send Binyam Mohammed to Morocco when he had already made this confession? Now, we don’t have proof of this, but certainly we speculate that the reason was that in Morocco, they hoped they would so crush his resistance that he would in fact become the prosecutor’s witness, the prosecution witness against Padilla. They could then try Padilla on the dirty bomb charge. And he would perhaps have some lesser punishment as a witness.

Now, he wouldn’t do that, and that’s why he is now facing this dirty bomb charge in Guantanamo, where, of course, the rules of evidence and due process are far laxer than they are in any federal court, although the case against Padilla has been dropped now. Almost as we speak, a hearing is about to take place in the House of Commons in London, in which evidence will be called that suggests that the British Intelligence and Security Service, MI5, played a substantial part in his treatment in Morocco, in that the interrogators in Morocco who were torturing him so vilely, were feeding him questions that can only have been obtained by the security service in London.

AMY GOODMAN: And this is the tribunal you thought you were going down to cover? And this is what the British Parliament’s dealing with today?

DAVID ROSE: It’s not actually the Parliament. It’s an M.P. in the Parliament who has convened a kind of special hearing to call evidence on this. It’s taking place in the precincts of the Parliament, but it’s not the Parliament itself.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s not just journalists who have been barred from Guantanamo. Lawyers have been, too, and apparently witnesses. Attorneys representing detainees were prevented from meeting with their clients at Guantanamo, and on Sunday the Boston Globe revealed the U.S. government failed to provide Guantanamo detainees access to key witnesses for their tribunals, even though some of those witnesses were readily available.

In nearly every single case, out of a total of 64 witnesses, 34 detainees were told their witnesses couldn’t be located. But in the case of one detainee alone, the Boston Globe was able to locate three witnesses in a span of just three days. In another case, the State Department said it could not locate Afghanistan’s Minister of Energy, even though the minister meets frequently with U.S. diplomats. Your response?

DAVID ROSE: Well, these military commissions are a mockery of any kind of normal court process. They’ve changed the rules repeatedly since they first announced they were setting them up, but they’re essentially there, I think, to provide a kind of spurious justification for the whole Guantanamo experiment, for this wholesale erosion, both of the principles of the U.S. Constitution, the law of war and international law in general. They have to get somebody convicted in these commissions or else the whole experiment is going to look like such a catastrophic disaster.

If every single one of those detainees eventually ends up going home, as I strongly suspect they will, without anybody having been convicted for any kind of crime, the political damage and embarrassment, not only within the U.S. in the implications for the administration which is responsible for this, but the damage to the United States’ image abroad is almost incalculable. A senior Pentagon intelligence official told me a long time ago, when I was preparing my book, that he imagined that for every Guantanamo detainee, you would create at least ten terrorists. I think possibly that figure should be multiplied by another ten, or even a hundred. The way these things are going, you know, there could not be a better recruiting sergeant for international terrorism than Guantanamo Bay.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re also joined by Carol Williams. And Carol, the beginning of your piece, "Kicked out of Gitmo: A Times Reporter’s Struggle to Get the Truth about America’s Island Prison Just Got Tougher," you write, "In the best of times, covering Guantanamo means wrangling with a kafkaesque bureaucracy with logistics so nonsensical that they turn two hours of reporting into an 18-hour day with hostile escorts, who seem to think you’re in league with al-Qaeda." Do you think you were thrown off the island because of the suicides and the kind of coverage that you and your colleagues were doing there?

CAROL WILLIAMS: I think it’s all mounted to create the situation where the Pentagon just doesn’t want any coverage of Guantanamo. What David was saying about the specific case of Binyam Mohammed, he was in the tribunal in April, and it became apparent that the case against him, you know, is weak at best. He was able to make a mockery of the proceedings. The presiding officer ended up having to suspend the session because of the challenges that were brought by his attorneys. The few windows we’ve had into the judicial process have been a public relations disaster for the Pentagon, and I think their move to bar all coverage is a consequence of that. Now they’re finding it impossible to manage the message in the way that they had expected to.

AMY GOODMAN: Carol Williams, can you talk about what it is like? You’ve been to Guantanamo how many times now?

CAROL WILLIAMS: Six, I think.

AMY GOODMAN: And how you gather information? For example, how you found out about a mass hanging?

CAROL WILLIAMS: As I said in the Sunday opinion piece, much of what we get is by accident or from people who don’t know that they’re supposed to be spinning the story, as opposed to telling it or answering questions directly. The mass suicide, that I was told about inadvertently, occurred in late 2003, and I found that out because I was being taken on a tour of the detention facilities. I was in the prison annex of the U.S. naval hospital, and the naval hospital commander, who was showing me, you know, the 48-bed facility and all the state-of-the-art equipment was giving me statistics. And I asked him, just, you know, apropos of nothing, "Have you ever been at or near capacity?" And he said, innocently, "Just after the mass hanging incident," and nobody from the U.S. media or any media had ever heard about any mass hanging incident.

The Pentagon was, you know, asked to provide details about this, and two-and-a-half weeks later at 10:00 on a Friday night, they emailed the three of us who had been at Guantanamo when this disclosure was made to say that, yeah, 23 of the detainees had hung themselves together with torn-up bed sheets during a particular week in what was clearly a coordinated effort to make a statement, even back then — this was almost three years ago — that, you know, they were despairing of their conditions and clearly wanted to make a statement.

AMY GOODMAN: Carol Williams, there’s a piece in the London Times, "Guantanamo Deaths Not Suicides, Say Families." I wanted to ask you about it. It’s by Simon Freeman. It says, "Fresh post-mortems were being prepared today on the repatriated bodies of three Guantanamo detainees found dead in their cells last week, amid claims from grieving relatives that the men were killed. The distraught families of the three men have demanded independent autopsies on their remains in their native countries, claiming that the devout Muslims would not have violated the Islamic faith by committing suicide. Coffins containing the men’s corpses were flown back to their homes at the weekend. Ali Abdullah Ahmed, 28, went to his native Yemen while Manei Shaman Turki al-Habadi, 30, and Yasser Talal al-Zahrani, 21, were returned to Saudi Arabia." Your response?

CAROL WILLIAMS: Well, there have been reports of numerous suicide attempts at Guantanamo. The military contends that these are acts of asymmetrical warfare. That the holy warriors are trying to disgrace the U.S. by taking their own lives and embarrassing the detention facility administrators, but the attorneys, who are the only people who meet and speak with the detainees, contend almost unanimously that there is a level of despair among the prisoners that is insurmountable, that after more than four years that most of them have been there without charges, without access to anybody in the outside world, without communications from their families. They have no idea how long they’re going to be there, if they’ll ever be released. They’re told by the guards that they’re going to be there until the war on terror is over. There’s very little hope of escaping what are pretty harsh conditions. And I think it’s not mutually exclusive that the prisoners either kill themselves out of despair or as a statement against their detention, but clearly, there’s some of both.

AMY GOODMAN: Carol Williams, we had a debate on Friday on Democracy Now! with the president of the American Psychological Association and a dissident psychologist, as well as a brigadier general, who is a psychiatrist. The A.M.A., the American Medical Association, the American Psychiatric Association have come out against participation of psychiatrists and doctors at Guantanamo. The A.P.A. has yet to do that, the American Psychological Association. The head of the A.P.A., Dr. Koocher, said that the psychologists are there to minister to the mental health needs of the prisoners. What is your sense of that? Is that possible at this point?

CAROL WILLIAMS: Well, they do have a psych ward that they’ve added to the prison hospital annex in the last year, I believe, and there are, I believe, eight resident patients there. We’ve never been able to speak with the psychologists or get any sense from the professionals what their state of mind is. There was one young detainee who had attempted to kill himself, hung himself, and he was in a coma for months, and I believe he has been repatriated to his home country. The psychological state in Guantanamo has to be dire. I mean, you can’t lock up people in cages out in the desert-like barren wasteland of Guantanamo Bay for years without human contact and not have psychological consequences.

AMY GOODMAN: David Rose, your response to that? The role of these psychologists?

DAVID ROSE: Well, the American Academy of Psychology — Psychiatry and the Law, quite some time ago, suggested that its members should not take part. I do think that the state of the mental health of many detainees is very poor. I interviewed some of the British detainees when they first came back to Britain one year and two years ago, and I spoke to them again when I got back from my unfortunate trip last week, and I was very struck by how different they were, how much more articulate, how much stronger they sounded. They were really different kinds of people. I hadn’t spoken to them for a good many months, and they were clearly getting themselves back to how they had been.

But I do think there is another issue about this question of the suicides, if they were suicides. And I have to accept that that is the likeliest explanation. I mean, the fact is, three people kill themselves on a single prison corridor, where the doors of the cells are basically open gates so you can see right in, where the light is kept on all night, and according to Guantanamo’s own kind of troop regulations, a soldier or a military police officer is supposed to walk past the door of each cell every 30 seconds.

Now, Tariq Dergoul, one of these British detainees that I interviewed, said that quite often, they wouldn’t do that. They just got bored and they would sit in their room at the end of the cell block, playing cards and smoking cigarettes and not doing anything. And there would be occasions when he would need something like, say, toilet paper, and he would have to holler for an hour or more before anybody would come.

You have to think that, you know, to kill themselves in this way, the way that the military says that they did, by using bed sheets or clothing through the mesh of their cells, fashioning nooses and then basically hanging to asphyxiate themselves — you know, to make the noose is going to take you a minute. To die in that way, according to David Nichol, a consultant neurologist I interviewed for my article, is going to take you at least four to five minutes, maybe longer.

This is a case of criminal negligence, and it is rightly being investigated by the Navy’s criminal investigation service, but this is the real reason why they didn’t want media at Guantanamo last week. They’re very happy to say, "We’re transparent," when they want to put on their highly chaperoned tours, and as Carol says, if you ask a blizzard of questions, sometimes somebody will let slip something and you actually find something out, but to have reporters there asking hard, tough questions when very, very difficult events are taking place — they just didn’t want us near.

AMY GOODMAN: David Rose, I want to thank you very much for being with us, attempted to get into Guantanamo last week, was turned back. His book is called Guantanamo: The War on Human Rights. And Carol Williams, I’d like to ask you to stay with us for just one more minute on a wholly different issue. You’re speaking to us from St. Kitts, where the International Whaling Commission is meeting. The commission has backed a resolution calling for the eventual return of commercial whaling for the first time in 20 years. This is Mike Townsley of Greenpeace.

MIKE TOWNSLEY: We are breathing a huge sigh of relief this year, but next year we’re going to face the same ridiculous situation. More countries brought in or bought in by Japan and really, the conservation governments have got to do more.

AMY GOODMAN: Carol Williams, you’re in St. Kitts covering the story. Can you talk about the significance of this Whaling Commission vote?

CAROL WILLIAMS: Well, it doesn’t have any immediate influence on the whaling ban. It will take a 75% vote by the 70-member International Whaling Commission to overturn that ban, but it’s a symbolic victory for Japan, in that they have spent the last decade lobbying small Caribbean, African and Pacific countries to their side, with very substantial aid to their fisheries program or financial aid, and these little countries that have no whaling program — some of them are landlocked — are coming to Japan’s side and voting to undermine the conservation role and responsibilities of the I.W.C.

AMY GOODMAN: Carol, thank you very much for being with us, Caribbean Bureau Chief of the Los Angeles Times in St. Kitts.

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