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2011-04-26

Guardian Newspaper Editor Defends Publishing WikiLeaks’ Secret Guantánamo Files

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More than 750 "secret" Guantánamo prisoner "assessment" files released by the whistleblowing website WikiLeaks cover almost every prisoner since the U.S. military base was opened in Cuba in 2002 and reveal the United States believed many of those held at Guantánamo were innocent or low-level operatives. Today The Guardian published a new series of reports based on the files that show how a single star informer at Bagram base won his freedom by incriminating at least 123 other prisoners. We’re joined from London by The Guardian investigations executive editor, David Leigh. [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

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

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to the hundreds of Guantánamo prisoner "assessment" files used by the U.S. military, recently released by the whistleblowing website WikiLeaks. The 759 Guantánamo files, classified as, quote, "secret," cover almost every prisoner since the camp was opened in 2002. They reveal the U.S. believed many of those held at Guantánamo were innocent or low-level operatives.

On Sunday, the New York Times and The Guardian U.K. began publishing in-depth reports on the files. On Monday, the White House condemned the reports.

PRESS SECRETARY JAY CARNEY: The release of classified information, we condemn in the strongest possible terms, and we think it’s unfortunate that the New York Times and others, news organizations, have made the decision to publish numerous documents obtained illegally concerning the detention facility at Guantánamo Bay.

AMY GOODMAN: That was White House Press Secretary Jay Carney.

While many of the Guantánamo files are still being analyzed today, The Guardian published a new exposé, reporting the documents show how a single star informer at the base at Bagram won his freedom by incriminating at least 123 other prisoners there.

For more, we’re joined from London by Democracy Now! video stream, The Guardian’s investigations executive editor, David Leigh, who has written extensively on the WikiLeaks Guantánamo files.

Thanks so much for being with us. First, respond to the White House’s condemnation of this release of documents, David.

DAVID LEIGH: Well, the White House has condemned every single release of documents that came out through WikiLeaks, and their condemnation here is just the same. They’ve not actually done anything about it, and I think you have to look at this as a formulaic kind of condemnation. They’re never going to say, “We approve of the illegal release of documents and the illegal release of classified information.” So, I wouldn’t take it too seriously. After all, I know that the New York Times consulted the White House before publishing these files and said, “We’ve got them. We’re going to publish them,” and they had a conversation about that.

AMY GOODMAN: David, I just want to ask, do you have the sound up on your computer? I think that’s what we’re hearing. When you’re speaking, is it coming back at you? But — so, if everyone in the room could turn down their — the show today, because we want to be able to hear you as clearly as possible. So, talk about this — one of the revelations, this star witness, if you will, at Bagram. What did he do? Who was he?

DAVID LEIGH: It’s one of the most startling things that we actually found, going through the files, because, of course, much of the material about Guantánamo and torture has been made public before, but this was brand new. This man’s name is Mohammed Basardah. He’s a Yemeni who was captured on the borders with Pakistan and Afghanistan, where he was apparently trying to flee after the U.S. invasion and the fighting in the Tora Bora Mountains. Since he’s been in there, in Guantánamo, he’s won his freedom by apparently denouncing or implicating at least 123 of his co-prisoners. That’s an extraordinary number, and of course it does raise the question whether he has not been exaggerating.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the other most surprising revelations, what you learned from these documents, David Leigh.

DAVID LEIGH: The most saddening thing was the descriptions of completely innocent old men and young boys who were shipped off to Guantánamo for no very good reason, except they were rounded up in a dragnet. There’s an 89-year-old Afghan villager, who was picked up merely because there was a list of suspicious phone numbers in a satellite phone found near his compound, shipped off to Guantánamo, where they discover he’s not only very, very old and doesn’t know anything, but he’s also suffering from dementia and probably can’t even remember what day of the week it is.

Similarly, a 14-year-old boy, turned out, when he arrived there, to in fact have been kidnapped by pro-Taliban tribesmen and left holding a rifle while they fled around him. Even the Guantánamo commander at the time, Major General Geoffrey Miller, who’s a fairly controversial and rigorous figure, shall we say, who later went to the Abu Ghraib prison, even he wrote a memo and signed it, saying, “We don’t know why this boy is here. He really has to be got out of here and sent back to a normal environment, because he just — it’s completely wrong that he should be in Guantánamo.” You see innocent people being rounded up, shipped off, stuck there, sometimes for years.

AMY GOODMAN: One of the prisoners discussed in the documents released by WikiLeaks was Sami al-Hajj, who was working as an Al Jazeera cameraman when he was arrested in late 2001 and sent to Guantánamo, held for more than six years. It was a case we covered extensively. Now, we talked about this yesterday, as well, with Andy Worthington, but today we have a clip of Sami al-Hajj himself, now out, working with Al Jazeera, and he’s speaking with Al Jazeera’s Nick Clark about his experience at Guantánamo.

SAMI AL-HAJJ: [translated] Through the interrogations, I realized that the charge brought against me was filming or recording an interview with Osama bin Laden. This is what I understood from the interrogator. I replied to them that I did not carry out this mission, as I was covering Kandahar, and if I had done such an interview, it is part of my job: journalism.

NICK CLARK: And so, and what happened after that? So, all the time that you were there, you weren’t ever given any further instruction as to why you were being held?

SAMI AL-HAJJ: [translated] At that point, when they realized that I am a journalist, and they verified my passport on me and other journalistic ID, they told me that “You are the man wrongly detained.” However, I saw many things which should not be seen. That’s why I was kept there for a longer time. After that, most of the interrogations were centered on Al Jazeera channel, who is running the affairs and how is Al Jazeera linked to al-Qaeda and how al-Qaeda tapes reach Al Jazeera, etc. Most of the interrogations and investigations wished me to say that there is a link between Al Jazeera and al-Qaeda.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, this is a remarkable story, David Leigh, where a lot of what these documents are saying about Sami al-Hajj, the Al Jazeera cameraman, is he was being held to question him about the Al Jazeera leadership and satellites and telecommunications and the filming of Osama bin Laden and other issues?

DAVID LEIGH: We all know that the United States and the Bush administration were pretty obsessed with Al Jazeera, and they were pretty furious at the kind of coverage that Al Jazeera was giving, which they couldn’t control. This is the first time we’ve seen hard documentation that they were basically abducting an Al Jazeera employee, merely in order to pump him for intelligence about what Al Jazeera was up to and how they got an interview with Osama bin Laden. I think anybody in a media organization across the world is going to be horrified at the thought that the U.S. military could abduct their employees just to do this kind of thing.

AMY GOODMAN: At this point, it would be very interesting if news organizations around the world raised a protest, considering it’s in the documents that shows. I mean, it’s as clear as if a Guardian reporter or an NBC reporter was being held, and documents came out years later that showed that the government themself was saying that they were trying to get information about their employer.

DAVID LEIGH: I’m afraid one of the things that comes out of this, this cascade of WikiLeaks leaks over the last 12 months, has been the attitude of the U.S. government toward journalists, media employees, who they don’t much care about because they’re foreigners. The very first disclosure, more than a year ago, was of how two Reuters employees, local employees in Iraq, a cameraman and a driver, had been shot down and killed from the air by an Apache helicopter gunship, merely because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. So, I think this contempt for the lives of journalists is something that, unfortunately, the U.S. government seems to be starting to share with other repressive regimes around the world.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you about another remarkable revelation about the — what was happening at Guantánamo, the U.S. inviting in at least 10 foreign intelligence agencies to interrogate prisoners and to share information on those that they regarded, quote, as “terrorists.” So, you’re talking about China, Tunisia, Morocco, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, Jordan, Algerians, Yemenis, Kuwaitis. They invited China and Russia in to interrogate these prisoners they were holding?

DAVID LEIGH: Well, you’re seeing the other side of rendition now. In rendition, they were sending — shipping prisoners off to foreign agencies, such as Morocco, Egypt and so on, where they are most likely being tortured. Now we see the other side of the picture, where they’re inviting in intelligence agencies from all over the world, from very dubious regimes — you know, Algeria, Morocco, Russia even, China, and certainly the Saudis, who they’re very close to, and the Yemenis — and saying, “Come on over. Have joint interrogations with us. You can help us, because you understand these people. You can tell us whether they’re under false names. You can threaten their families mostly probably.” You can see the picture of something very ugly going on here. I suppose that the military authorities at Guantánamo would say this was a pretty sensible thing to do, because these people had a sort of cultural insight into their locals that we don’t have. But all the same, there were — these are not nice regimes that the United States is cooperating with.

AMY GOODMAN: David Leigh, I want to thank you for being with us. People can go — and you can explain The Guardian website, how you have made it interactive, how people can go and find out and read these documents.

DAVID LEIGH: Yes, you can not only read the whole documents, but you can also — if you go to The Guardian’s website, you can actually see pictures of all the individuals, where we’ve got pictures in. You can just click on them, and that will come, the full dossier about them. So, we think it’s a good tool for people to understand more about of the realities of Guantánamo, as distinct from the spin.

AMY GOODMAN: Thank you so much, David Leigh, investigations editor at The Guardian.

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