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Jeremy Scahill: “Little Known Military Thug Squad Still Brutalizing Prisoners at Gitmo Under Obama”

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Jeremy Scahill reports the Obama administration is continuing to use a notorious military police unit at Guantanamo that regularly brutalizes unarmed prisoners, including gang-beating them, breaking their bones, gouging their eyes and dousing them with chemicals. This force, officially known as the Immediate Reaction Force, has been labeled the “Extreme Repression Force” by Guantanamo prisoners, and human rights lawyers call their actions illegal. [includes rush transcript]

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

AMY GOODMAN: A coalition of advocacy groups have launched a campaign to disbar twelve former Bush administration attorneys connected to the administration’s torture program. The coalition, called the Velvet Revolution, filed legal ethics complaints with state bar associations Monday, saying the twelve attorneys violated the rules of professional responsibility by approving interrogation methods, including waterboarding, that constituted torture.

While there’s been a lot of focus on torture under the Bush administration, what about under President Obama? In a new article, investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill writes the Obama administration is continuing to use a notorious military police unit at Guantanamo that regularly brutalizes unarmed prisoners, including gang-beating them, breaking their bones, gouging their eyes, dousing them with chemicals.

This force, officially known as the Immediate Reaction Force, has been labeled the “Extreme Repression Force” by Guantanamo prisoners, and human rights lawyers call their actions illegal, Jeremy writes.

Jeremy Scahill is an award-winning investigative journalist, author of the bestselling book Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army. His writing and reporting is available at

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Jeremy.


AMY GOODMAN: Well, describe what you call as this “little known military thug squad.”

JEREMY SCAHILL: When the Bush administration established the US prison camp at Guantanamo, of course, we know well that they set up a system where detainees were going to be systematically tortured. And, of course, Nancy Pelosi and other Democrats were briefed on this program, despite what they’re saying right now.

And while much of the focus has been on the tactical use of torture at Guantanamo, almost no attention had been paid to a parallel force that was torturing prisoners in a variety of ways, including waterboarding them, and that is this riot squad of sorts that you referred to called the Immediate Reaction Force. The prisoners and their lawyers at Guantanamo call it the “Extreme Repression Force.”

And basically what this is is a thug squad that is used to mercilessly punish prisoners who show the slightest bit of resistance or who do things that technically they’re not supposed to do, infractions like having two Styrofoam cups in their cell instead of one.

Guards will call in this goon squad. They come in with their Darth Vader outfits, and they literally gang-beat prisoners. There are five men, generally, that are sent in. Each of them is assigned to one body part of the prisoner: the head, the left arm, the right arm, the left leg, the right leg. They go in, and they hogtie the prisoner, sometimes leaving them hogtied for hours on end. They douse them with chemical agents. They have put their heads in toilets and flushed the toilets repeatedly. They have urinated on the heads of prisoners. They’ve squeezed their testicles in the course of restraining them. They’ve taken the feces from one prisoner and smeared it in the face of another prisoner.

And while Barack Obama, almost immediately upon taking office, issued an executive order saying he was going to close down Guantanamo within a year and that he was going to respect the Geneva Convention while his administration reviewed Guantanamo, this force has continued to operate and torture prisoners under the Obama administration.

In fact, in February of this year, about a month after Obama was inaugurated, there were sixteen prisoners on a hunger strike at Guantanamo. The Immediate Response — or Immediate Reaction Force was used to go in and violently shove massive tubes down their noses into their stomachs. And what the IRF teams, as they’re called — when they beat someone, it’s called IRF-ing, or to be IRF-ed up by these teams. They would use no anesthetics or any painkillers, shove this massive tube by force down their nose into their stomach and then yank it out. Some prisoners have described this as torture, torture, torture. And many have passed out from the sheer pain of this operation.

This force has received almost no scrutiny in the US Congress or the US media and operates at this moment.

AMY GOODMAN: How do you know about this?

JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, I discovered these teams, because I’ve been covering the investigation being done by Judge Baltasar Garzon in Spain into the Bush torture system. What’s interesting is that the most aggressive investigation at this point into the Bush war crimes is being done an ocean away in Madrid.

And I came across a story of a prisoner named Omar Deghayes, and he is one of the four people that is cited directly in the Spanish investigation as having been tortured by the United States. He’s originally Libyan, is a British resident and is one of the subjects of Baltasar Garzon’s investigation. Omar Deghayes was repeatedly IRF-ed, was repeatedly abused by one of these squads. And so, when I came across this reference to this team that he was referring to in his testimony, I started to look into it and realized that there has been a multi-year pattern of abuse on the part of this team.

And yet, the only time when it’s really made any kind of a flash in the corporate media was when a US soldier, a young guy named Sean Baker, who was a Gulf War vet, was participating in a training exercise in Guantanamo in January of 2003, where he was ordered, he says, by his superiors to dress up in an orange jumpsuit and play the part of a restive or combative detainee at Guantanamo. He was told that the team that was going to come in to handle him knew that he was a US soldier, knew that it was a training drill, and he was given a word, a codeword, “red,” that when he said it, the beating was supposed to stop, or the subduing of him was supposed to stop. When he was in the cell, the team comes in. He describes them just mercilessly beating him, and he’s yelling out “Red!” and they continue to beat him, even after he then said, “I’m a US soldier! I’m a US soldier!” He describes how one of his fellow soldiers continued to beat him.

That young man, Sean Baker, has permanent brain damage, suffers from multiple seizures, and had actually sued Rumsfeld and other officials because of his treatment. So you had a flash, a moment in time in 2005, where this case came to public light, because of this lawsuit brought by a US soldier. As Scott Horton, a military and constitutional law expert I talked to, said, you know, this is one US soldier who received this kind of treatment; imagine what happens to these detainees.

And let’s be clear here, you read the New York Times today, and you realize that despite Obama’s rhetoric about how he’s going to reform the military tribunal system, we understand that it’s all cosmetic changes. The fact is, torture continues at Guantanamo. The place has not shut down. Interestingly, Ari Fleischer, the former propaganda chief for the Bush administration, said the other day, quite clearly, that he doesn’t believe Obama, in any universe, is going to be able to shut down Guantanamo in a year.

So, Amy, as far as I can tell from this in-depth investigation, we see the status quo alive and well, and it’s very, very damaging to the US Constitution, international law and the lives of these prisoners who remain in legal limbo.

AMY GOODMAN: Jeremy, this force, known as the Immediate Reaction Force, or Emergency Reaction Force, IRF or ERF, are they being filmed when they go into these cells?

JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, according to — I’ve been reading the now-declassified Standard Operating Procedures for Guantanamo that were written by Major General Geoffrey Miller, the man was — who is believed to have started all of this, in terms of the tactical level at Guantanamo, and then Gitmo-ized Abu Ghraib and other US prisons. After he left Guantanamo, he went elsewhere and brought these torture tactics with him.

In the Standard Operating Procedures that General Miller issued in 2003, he said that all of the IRF teams, when they would go in to restrain a prisoner, that they had to videotape the operation and that all of the members on a team, immediately following an incident where they had to restrain a prisoner, had to give sworn statements. Well, the fact is that we know that at least 500 hours of video were filmed. The ACLU tried a few years ago to get those videos, and they failed to do so. The government resisted it.

But Brandon Neely, who is an Army specialist that was on one of the first IRF teams — and I talk about his story in here — says that his experience with IRF teams is that either the video camera wouldn’t have any tape in it, wouldn’t be turned on, or it would be pointed in a direction that was nowhere near what was actually happening.

And I went through hundreds of pages of incident reports, where these military police officers, as part of the IRF teams, gave their sworn statements. They were so robotic in their uniformity. They all had the exact same phrases to describe operations that went off without a hitch, detainees were never hurt, procedures were followed. Case closed. End of the day, a few handwritten sentences, almost uniformly identical in each instance.

So, Michael Ratner of the Center for Constitutional Rights asks a very simple question: “Where are the tapes?” Presumably, if the Standard Operating Procedures were followed, we could see Omar Deghayes having his head repeatedly put in a toilet and flushed. We could see a prisoner, under the Obama administration, having his head urinated on after he was doused with chemicals by these forces. We could see the breaking of noses and other body parts on the part of prisoners. But in order to do that, we would have to have an administration that was going to come completely clean with the crimes of the past and make these videos available, along with the thousands of photos that show the systematic abuse of US prisoners.

But what we see at every turn is the Obama administration, backed up by the Wall Street Journal editorial board, backed up by the neoconservatives, backed up by the hawkish Republicans, on one side, and then the ACLU, the Center for Constitutional Rights, and social justice and antiwar activists and human rights advocates, on the other side. This is a sad reality in America today, where you have a president that campaigned on a change that we can believe in continuing the most repressive policies of the Bush administration.

AMY GOODMAN: And medical personnel there?

JEREMY SCAHILL: Medical personnel not only were there during the operations of these IRF teams, particularly when they were force-feeding detainees by shoving these massive tubes down their noses, but in the case of Omar Deghayes, this prisoner that I’ve been referring to, he actually says that the medical personnel participated directly in his torture, would join in the torture with these IRF teams.

You, probably, Amy, on this show, have covered this issue of medical and psychological and psychiatric professionals participating in the US torture structure. Their role as part of these teams of repression should be thoroughly investigated, because this is an utter scandal and should be a scandal for every medical professional in this country.

AMY GOODMAN: Why do you say Nancy Pelosi knew about the torture?

JEREMY SCAHILL: Right. I mean, the fact is that Nancy Pelosi was fumbling in her press conference through a statement that someone else clearly wrote for her. This is not some secret that Nancy Pelosi was briefed on this. In fact, the Washington Post reported on this in 2007, that she had been briefed and that other Democrats that were senior figures in the Democratic leadership, particularly on the Intelligence Committee, had received briefings about the tactics that were being used at Guantanamo.

I think what’s going to be important is that we know that some of the members of Congress, Democrat and Republican, who were briefed actually pushed for stronger tactics to be used during these briefings. I think one of the reasons why the Democrats are — the Democratic leadership is not pushing for a special independent prosecutor in this case is because if you actually examine the record, you will find that the Democrats funded these programs, supported these programs, and refused to speak up when it actually mattered. That’s the pattern we saw through the eight years of the Bush administration. Now that the Democrats are in power, you see Obama — the right wing tries to say flip-flopping — you see Obama upholding the consistent one-party system in this country when it comes to foreign policy.

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