- James RisenPulitzer Prize-winning journalist with the New York Times and author of the 2006 book State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration. His latest article is titled “U.S. Inaction Seen After Taliban P.O.W.’s Died”
- Susannah SirkinDeputy Director of Physicians for Human Rights. She oversees their forensic programs and has worked closely on the case of the Afghan mass graves.
President Obama’s comments follow initial statements from other officials in his administration Friday who said the Department of Defense and the FBI had no jurisdiction over the mass killing by a U.S.-backed warlord, General Abdul Rashid Dostum. A Pentagon spokesman told the Associated Press, “There is no indication that U.S. military forces were there, or involved, or had any knowledge of this, so there was not a full investigation conducted because there was no evidence that there was anything from a DoD perspective to investigate.” The infamous Dasht-e-Leili massacre is back in the news in the wake of new evidence published in a New York Times report last Friday that shows the Bush administration blocked at least three federal investigations into the alleged war crimes. The article by journalist James Risen notes that, “American officials had been reluctant to pursue an investigation because the warlord, General Abdul Rashid Dostum, was on the payroll of the CIA and his militia worked closely with United States Special Forces in 2001.” Dostum served as a defense official in the Karzai government. Last year he was suspended for threatening a rival at gunpoint and lived in Turkey in exile. But ahead of the August 20th elections, Karzai has invited him back to the country and reinstated him as military chief of staff. Democracy Now! first covered the massacre six years ago when we aired the award-winning documentary by Jamie Doran titled, “Afghan Massacre: Convoy of Death.” [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: Seven-and-a-half years after the massacre of at least 2,000 suspected Taliban prisoners of war during the Bush administration-led invasion of Afghanistan, the incident and its apparent cover-up might finally be the subject of an investigation. Over the weekend, President Obama said, quote, “there are responsibilities that all nations have, even in war,” and he told CNN’s Anderson Cooper that he was not opposed to investigating the Dasht-e-Leili massacre of November 2001.
ANDERSON COOPER: It now seems clear that the Bush administration resisted efforts to pursue investigations of an Afghan warlord named General Dostum, who was on the CIA payroll. It’s now come out there were hundreds of Taliban prisoners under his care who got killed.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Right.
ANDERSON COOPER: Some were suffocated in a steel container. Others were shot, possibly buried in mass graves. Would you support — would you call for an investigation into possible war crimes in Afghanistan?
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: You know, the indications that this had not been properly investigated just recently was brought to my attention, so what I’ve asked my national security team to do is to collect the facts for me that are known, and we’ll probably make a decision in terms of how to approach it once we have all the facts gathered up.
ANDERSON COOPER: But you wouldn’t resist categorically an investigation.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I think that, you know, there are responsibilities that all nations have, even in war. And if it appears that our conduct in some way supported violations of the laws of war, then I think that we have to know about that.
AMY GOODMAN: President Obama’s comments follow initial statements from other officials in his administration Friday who said the Pentagon and the FBI had no jurisdiction over the mass killing by a US-backed warlord, General Abdul Rashid Dostum. A Pentagon spokesman told the Associated Press, quote, “There is no indication that US military forces were there, or involved, or had any knowledge of this, so there was not a full investigation conducted because there was no evidence that there was anything from a DoD perspective to investigate.”
The infamous Dasht-e-Leili massacre is back in the news in the wake of new evidence published in a New York Times report last Friday and Saturday that shows the Bush administration blocked at least three federal investigations into the alleged war crimes. The article is by journalist James Risen. He notes that, quote, “American officials had been reluctant to pursue an investigation because the warlord, General Abdul Rashid Dostum, was on the payroll of the CIA and his militia worked closely with United States Special Forces in 2001.”
Well, Dostum served as a defense official in the Karzai government. Last year he was suspended for threatening a rival at gunpoint and lived in Turkey in exile. But ahead of these August 20th elections that are coming up, Karzai has invited Dostum back to the country and reinstated him as military chief of staff.
This is a warning from General Dostum back in late 2001, when he was the US-backed commander of Northern Alliance forces and traveling around the country to get remaining Taliban to surrender. This excerpt is from the award-winning documentary from Jamie Doran’s Afghan Massacre: Convoy of Death, that had its US premiere on Democracy Now! six years ago.
GEN. ABDUL RASHID DOSTUM: [translated] If you upset me, I’m telling you, no one except God up there and me down here will care about you. You will lose your honor. This is very serious.
AMY GOODMAN: General Dostum.
GEN. ABDUL RASHID DOSTUM: [translated] Your village might be looted. Your family will be in danger. They’ll be killed, they’ll be raped. There will be no safety for them. I’m telling you straight, you must be honest with me. I’m being honest with you here.
AMY GOODMAN: Filmmaker Jamie Doran also interviewed then-Pentagon adviser Richard Perle about the administration’s decision to ally with a warlord like Dostum.
RICHARD PERLE: You have to balance out competing interests. Obviously, we would much rather be allied with Mother Teresa. That wasn’t possible in those circumstances. It does lead to a responsibility on our part for trying to help reshape Afghanistan along more humane and democratic lines. And I think that’s exactly what we should be doing.
AMY GOODMAN: I’m joined right now by two guests. Susannah Sirkin is in the studio with us here in the firehouse, the deputy director of Physicians for Human Rights, the group that discovered the mass graves in 2002 and that’s been calling for a full investigation for years.
And we’re joined from Washington, DC, by the Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times reporter James Risen. His latest article on how the Bush administration impeded investigations into the massacre and the mass graves is called “U.S. Inaction Seen After Taliban P.O.W.’s Died.” Risen is also the author of the 2006 book The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration.
We welcome you both to Democracy Now! James Risen, let’s begin with you. This piece that appeared first online in the Times on Friday and in the paper on Saturday, what is the latest that you have found?
JAMES RISEN: Well, basically, what I tried to look at was, I tried not to get caught up in something that I think in the past has slowed down some of the efforts by journalists to look into this. I think in the past one of the mistakes some journalists made was to try and prove a direct involvement by the US personnel in the massacre itself. I frankly don’t believe that any US military personnel were involved in the massacre. And, you know, US Special Forces troops who were traveling with Dostum have long maintained that they knew nothing about this. And, you know, so I tried not to go down that road.
What I wanted to find out was what happened after the massacre in Washington and look at the role of senior US policymakers as the reports came in of this massacre. What did they do or not do about the responsibility of the United States to look into what had happened and what a US-backed warlord had done? So I tried to look at it from a Washington perspective, which in the past had not really been done by other journalists.
And so, that’s what I found, was that whether or not US personnel were involved or had foreknowledge, you know, knowledge ahead of time or knowledge contemporaneously with the massacre, what I did find was, after the fact, a series of reports came in from different organizations to the Bush administration, basically warning them, you have to look into this in one way or the other, that the evidence was overwhelming that something had happened and that it was the responsibility of the Bush administration to look into this or at least to push for an international investigation, because Dostum had been on the CIA payroll, was part of a US-backed alliance that was taking over Afghanistan. And what I found was, time after time, in different agencies and as far — and in the White House, Bush administration officials repeatedly ignored evidence or just decided or discouraged efforts to open investigations into the massacre.
AMY GOODMAN: You talk about the three different times and the different US agencies — the FBI, the Pentagon, the State Department — how did each block the investigation?
JAMES RISEN: Well, what happened very quickly after the incident, this — and anybody who’s been to Afghanistan knows that nothing stays secret there for very long, and the word of this massacre, mass killing, you know, the suffocation deaths of so many prisoners of war, began — the word of that began to circulate in northern Afghanistan very quickly. And the first warning that I think any senior officials began to hear from was the International Committee for the Red Cross warned a senior coalition military commander very quickly that this is the responsibility of the US-led coalition to look into, and you have a responsibility to do that. That military commander gave no response whatsoever to the ICRC official who told him about it.
Soon after that, the prisoners — some of the survivors of the mass killing were taken to Guantanamo in — very soon after the massacre, probably got there — they were among the first prisoners, I believe, taken to Guantanamo after the prison there opened in January 2002. FBI officials who were at Guantanamo in 2002 began to interrogate prisoners there. And many of them, as many as ten, I was told, told the FBI that they had survived this mass killing, and they provided very consistent descriptions of the incident. And a senior FBI official who was at Guantanamo told me that he had passed — he, you know, passed on the reports from these interrogations to FBI headquarters and urged an investigation and was told not — to drop the matter, because it was not part of the FBI’s mission at Guantanamo.
Separately, the State Department, eventually, Secretary Powell, Colin Powell, asked the war crimes ambassador to — Pierre Prosper, to begin to investigate. He tried to investigate this, went to Afghanistan and interviewed General Dostum, the warlord, and was — then very quickly found that the Afghan government under Hamid Karzai had no interest in investigating this. He also found, by the way, that the international community, the UN, in particular, was very reluctant to investigate this. And then, when he came back to Washington, he found that there was this similar reluctance at the White House. And he talked to Zalmay Khalilzad, who was then the White House coordinator for Afghanistan who raised concerns about whether it would be good to investigate something like this, particularly when the Karzai government was not interested in doing it.
And then I found at the Pentagon, the Pentagon asked the Special Forces teams in an informal inquiry whether they had any knowledge of this, and they said no. But then a series of meetings happened between Physicians for Human Rights and Pentagon officials in 2002, in which the Physicians for Human Rights, which had found this mass grave, Dasht-e-Leili, I think in January 2002, were repeatedly told that there was no reason for the Pentagon to investigate. By the summer or late summer of 2002, I think after Newsweek broke a very important story on this in a cover story in August, that got some renewed attention, but the Pentagon continued to deny requests from Physicians for Human Rights to provide security at the — to go back to the gravesite and do a full examination of the mass grave that they had found. And also efforts by the group to ask for a more thorough investigation by the Pentagon were rejected. I was also told that by early 2003, Paul Wolfowitz told a colleague at the Pentagon that they were — the Pentagon was never going to investigate Dostum. So there were a whole series of efforts around the Bush administration where this issue came up, and in each case it was either ignored or rejected.
AMY GOODMAN: And so, the significance of President Obama saying on CNN Sunday night that he is calling for an investigation and also Hamid Karzai running for reelection now in the next month, reappointing Dostum chief military adviser?
JAMES RISEN: Yes, that really makes this, I think, very relevant today. President Karzai has — you know, in order to win reelection — he’s a very good retail politician — General Dostum is an important figure in the Uzbek, the ethnic Uzbek community of northern Afghanistan. He’s basically the godfather, political godfather, of the Uzbeks in Afghanistan. And in order to win that group, Karzai has tried to make peace with Dostum, who had been —-
You know, everyone knows that Dostum kind of moves, switches sides, you know, over the course of his career many times. And last year he kind of -— people’s patience in Afghanistan with him ended when he had this very bizarre and brutal incident where he tortured a political opponent, and there was a standoff between the Afghan police and Dostum at his compound in Kabul, and he finally kind of left the country under a cloud to Turkey, where he has — the Turks have kind of been his sponsors.
But now Karzai is desperate for — to, you know, craft a winning political coalition, and he’s cut a deal with Dostum to bring him back and reinstate him in exchange for Dostum’s endorsement of Karzai in the presidential campaign.
AMY GOODMAN: We are talking to James Risen.
JAMES RISEN: And President Obama — one of — yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: Go ahead.
JAMES RISEN: Yeah, I was just going to add, the problem — yeah, I’m sorry, I was just going to add that the problem for the Obama administration is that politically it’s a very sensitive time for them, because they’re adding troops in Afghanistan at the same time there’s a presidential election. They don’t want to be seen as, you know, meddling in the election, but they also don’t want to be sending in US troops to support a government that includes war criminals. So it’s a very difficult situation for them.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to go to break. When we come back, we’re going to play an excerpt of Jamie Doran’s documentary [Afghan Massacre: Convoy of Death] and then come back to our conversation with James Risen and Susannah Sirkin of Physicians for Human Rights. James Risen is author of the book State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration. His piece this weekend is called “U.S. Inaction Seen After Taliban P.O.W.’s Died.” This is Democracy Now! Back in a minute.
AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to an excerpt of the documentary Afghan Massacre: Convoy of Death by the award-wining Irish filmmaker Jamie Doran, who traveled to the site of the massacres and the mass graves in 2002 in Afghanistan. The film was researched by award-winning Afghan journalist Najibullah Quraishi, who almost was beaten to death to get video evidence of the complicity of US Special Forces in the massacre. The witnesses who testified in the film are unidentified, have their faces obscured. But two of them are now dead.
The clip begins with General Abdul Ramatullah of the Northern Alliance explaining what happened to the Taliban members captured at Kunduz in November of 2001.
GEN. ABDUL RAMATULLAH: [translated] When the prisoners were captured in the northern Afghan city of Kunduz, they came here to Kalai Zeini. About 7,000 of them came here, and we took control of them.
JAMIE DORAN: So what happened to the missing thousands? It’s known that some hundreds were sold to the security services of their respective countries by the warlords, an Afghan tradition — Uzbeks to the feared SNB and Chechens to the KGB in Russia. Their fate can only be guessed at.
The first few thousand to arrive at Kalai Zeini were the lucky ones. After final checks to ensure they had no weapons, they were allowed to continue their journey by truck to Sheberghan prison, some 120 kilometers to the west. The jail, built to accommodate just 600 at most, was bursting at the seams.
Tell me about physically moving the prisoners from here to Sheberghan. That must have been very difficult.
GEN. ABDUL RAMATULLAH: [translated] We used trucks to transport them. They were surrounded by soldiers. There weren’t any buses, so we used lorries for their transportation.
JAMIE DORAN: At this point, our researcher interrupts.
RESEARCHER: [translated] What about the containers?
GEN. ABDUL RAMATULLAH: [translated] Containers? Oh, no. It’s not good to mention them.
RESEARCHER: [translated] It’s between you and me.
GEN. ABDUL RAMATULLAH: [translated] We put some of the prisoners in containers, but we had already made some holes for ventilation. We transported them by container to ensure we didn’t lose any of them.
JAMIE DORAN: In a coordinated operation, truck drivers from all over the region had their vehicles commandeered by armed soldiers. Containers were loaded onto the back of the flatbeds and the drivers compelled to take their vehicles to Kalai Zeini.
TRUCK DRIVER: [translated] We were coming in from Mazar when they seized our trucks for free and took us to Kalai Zeini, where there were already a lot of trucks. At about 2:00 a.m., they loaded our trucks with the prisoners. We were to the north of Kalai Zeini where we loaded the trucks.
JAMIE DORAN: Originally loaded onto trucks at Kunduz, many of these men were crammed two to three hundred at a time into the backs of sealed containers. After around twenty minutes, the prisoners began crying out for air.
EYEWITNESS: [translated] The weather was very hot. They put too many people inside the containers. Many died because there was no air.
INTERVIEWER: [translated] How many containers were at Kalai Zeini when you left?
EYEWITNESS: [translated] There were about twenty-five containers. The condition of them was very bad, because the prisoners couldn’t breathe, so they shot into the containers, and some of them were killed.
TRUCK DRIVER: [translated] They told us to stop the trucks, and we came down. After that, they shot into the containers. Blood came pouring out of the containers. They were screaming inside.
JAMIE DORAN: One Afghan soldier admits that he personally murdered prisoners.
AFGHAN SOLDIER: [translated] I hit the containers with bullets to make holes for ventilation, and some of them were killed.
JAMIE DORAN: You specifically shot holes into the containers. Who gave you those orders?
AFGHAN SOLDIER: [translated] My commanders ordered me to hit the containers to make holes for ventilation, and because of that, some prisoners died.
JAMIE DORAN: But this was no humanitarian gesture. Rather than shooting into the roofs of the containers, the soldiers fired at random, killing those nearest the walls. A local taxi driver had called in at a petrol station on the road to Sheberghan.
TAXI DRIVER: [translated] I smelled something strange and asked the attendant where the smell was coming from. He said, “Look behind you.” There were three trucks with containers fixed on them. Blood was running from the containers. My hair stood on end. It was horrific.
JAMIE DORAN: But for those prisoners crammed inside the containers, a quick death would have come as a blessing. Some of them remained for days in the desert before reaching Sheberghan. Accounts from survivors talk of licking the sweat off each other’s bodies and even biting their fellow captives in a desperate effort to gain fluid in any form. The Pentagon has stated frequently that it knew nothing of the container convoy.
WITNESS: [translated] The Americans were in charge.
INTERVIEWER: [translated] Where were they? On the walls or near the gates of the fort?
WITNESS: [translated] They were standing at the front gates, where the prisoners were.
TRUCK DRIVER: [translated] When we got to Sheberghan prison, there were some Americans and some Afghan soldiers. They wanted to unload the trucks, and they were taking charge of the area.
INTERVIEWER: [translated] How many American soldiers were there?
TRUCK DRIVER: [translated] About 150 to 160. We didn’t count the number.
INTERVIEWER: [translated] What were the Americans doing in the prison?
TRUCK DRIVER: [translated] They were there to make sure the prison was secure. There were so many Americans, and they were all armed and wearing their uniforms.
JAMIE DORAN: As the containers were opened, the full extent of the carnage became apparent. One soldier, who has since fled from Afghanistan, describes the scene in an interview with a Pakistani newspaper.
AFGHAN SOLDIER: [translated] I shall never forget the sensation as long as I live. It was the most revolting and most powerful stench you could ever imagine: a mixture of feces, urine, blood, vomit and rotting flesh. It was a smell to make you forget all other smells you ever experienced in your life.
JAMIE DORAN: For ten days, the Red Cross tried to get access but were refused. They were told that they couldn’t enter because American soldiers were working inside. And this picture taken at Sheberghan on December 1st, 2001, during the period when the containers were arriving at the prison, confirms their presence. Witnesses speak of US soldiers searching the dead for identification before insisting that the Afghans remove the bodies from the prison. The Pentagon, however, will not comment.
ROBERT FOX: It was particularly important to find any identification on these bodies, because they were desperate for intelligence on al-Qaeda. They had underestimated the strength of al-Qaeda and its spread. They knew very little about it. So, human sensibilities did go out of the window.
JAMIE DORAN: The healthy captives were led into the prison and the dead packed into single containers. But many of the prisoners had not died. Some were so badly wounded they were thrown back into the containers with the dead. Others were simply unconscious following the journey to Sheberghan.
Using a small tourist camera to avoid detection, we traveled to the deserts of Dasht-e-Leili, just ten minutes from the prison, with two drivers who agreed to show us where they were ordered to take the containers.
TRUCK DRIVER: [translated] Some of the Taliban were injured, and others were so weak they were unconscious. We brought them to this place, which is called Dasht-e-Leili, and they were shot there, there and over there.
TRUCK DRIVER: [translated] They took my truck and loaded a container onto it, and I carried prisoners from Kalai Zeini to Sheberghan, and after that, to Dasht-e-Leili, where there were shot by the soldiers. I made four trips backwards and forwards with the prisoners.
JAMIE DORAN: The mounds of sand show clearly where many of the bodies lie. Human bones and a few pieces of clothing with Pakistani labels are all that remain of those buried near the top of the piles.
INTERVIEWER: [translated] How many people were you carrying?
TRUCK DRIVER: [translated] About 140 to 150 each time.
INTERVIEWER: [translated] Did you bring them here?
TRUCK DRIVER: [translated] Yes.
INTERVIEWER: [translated] What was done with these people?
TRUCK DRIVER: [translated] They were brought here and shot.
INTERVIEWER: [translated] They were alive?
TRUCK DRIVER: [translated] Some of them were alive. Some of these were injured, and the rest were unconscious.
INTERVIEWER: [translated] When you brought the prisoners here, were there any American soldiers with you?
TRUCK DRIVER: [translated] Yes, they were with us.
INTERVIEWER: [translated] Here, at this spot?
TRUCK DRIVER: [translated] Yes, here.
INTERVIEWER: [translated] How many American soldiers were with you?
TRUCK DRIVER: [translated] Lots of them. Maybe thirty to forty. They came with us the first two times, but I didn’t see them on the last two trips.
JAMIE DORAN: If American soldiers were involved in covering up their role at Sheberghan prison, it would border on war crimes. If they stood by as the summary execution of prisoners took place, when they could have intervened, this would be positively criminal. But could the United States argue they were not in a responsible position?
ROBERT FOX: They would not have taken orders from Afghans. They would have been in charge of security there; therefore, it is an American command, therefore it is ultimately an American responsibility for whatever went on under the eyes of those American soldiers.
ANDREW McENTEE: It’s quite clear that because you have film evidence of a mass grave, people confessing, that the relevant authorities, be they American, Afghani or international, must carry out an investigation. You have identified the site of a mass grave. You’ve identified bodies in those graves. And it’s quite clear again that pathologists, forensic pathologists, exhuming the bodies, could identify the cause of death and I think, very importantly, could identify who these people are, because their families have the right to know. They have been disappeared involuntarily after being murdered.
AMY GOODMAN: That was international lawyer Andrew McEntee from the documentary Afghan Massacre: Convoy of Death.
This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, the War and Peace Report. When we come back, we return to New York Times reporter James Risen and Susannah Sirkin with Physicians for Human Rights. Stay with us.
Our guests: in Washington, DC, James Risen, author of State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration, his latest article, this weekend in The New York Times, “U.S. Inaction Seen After Taliban P.O.W.’s Died”; and with us here in New York, Susannah Sirkin, deputy director of Physicians for Human Rights, which has been calling attention to this massacre of hundreds, perhaps 2,000, suspected Taliban prisoners for a number of years now.
At the top of the show, we played President Obama speaking to Anderson Cooper on CNN on Sunday in Africa, saying he will call for an investigation. And yet, I’m looking at a piece two days before by AP on Friday saying Obama administration said they had no grounds to investigate the 2001 deaths of Taliban prisoners of war who human rights groups allege were killed by US-backed forces. This is two days later, and he’s completely doing a 180-degree turn. What’s happening here?
Well, the initial response that we saw came from a Pentagon spokesperson and essentially tracks what we’ve been hearing from the US government since Physicians for Human Rights discovered this prison and its conditions and then reported on the site and have repeatedly going back to investigate and then calling for an international investigation.
It’s really welcome news to hear what the President said over the weekend. And I believe that, really, this is the first time the President has had a chance, with his advisers, to look seriously at the history of this and what needs to be done now. So, I would say that what we’ve just heard from the President is really what the position is. And it’s enormously welcome news for Physicians for Human Rights and for many others who have been working on this case for almost eight years.
Susannah Sirkin, when did you discover the mass grave?
We had a team with a physician and a human rights investigator that went to northern Afghanistan, shortly after that surrender and the end of that initial and very serious conflict in the north in 2001, to look at possible human rights violations. And our investigators discovered the horrific conditions at the Sheberghan prison, reported on them. There were prisoners there who were literally dying, before their eyes, of starvation, terrible unsanitary conditions, cold — they had almost no clothing, etc. It was appalling. And while they were there, they heard reports that there had been these enormous numbers of bodies dumped into a mass grave. And they actually saw surface remains and reported that to Physicians for Human Rights headquarters.
Immediately, we worked with the United Nations to get a forensic team back there. And within a month, Physicians for Human Rights with the UN High Commission for Human Rights had investigators on the ground. And within the next few months, we conducted an initial assessment and exposed thirteen remains, autopsied three, and reported that the manner of death of those three was homicide, and the cause of death was consistent with suffocation, which matched the eyewitness testimonies that had been reported in the area and that you saw in Jamie Doran’s film.
The massacre site was intact until 2006?
As far as we know. Physicians for Human Rights has repeatedly called for protection of that site. There has never been any kind of protection, even though President Karzai and others have promised that they would investigate the site and protect it.
What we now know is, first of all, in 2008, one of our forensic scientists was able to go up to the area and noticed that there were very large holes in the area. This was reported by McClatchy in December 2008.
What we now know from satellite imagery that appears in James Risen’s New York Times piece, and that has been provided by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, is that in 2006 there are photos with not much area destroyed, but maybe one large hole. And then a few months later, we see pictures of images that are very consistent with large earthmoving equipment. Within a month of that picture, we see a very large hole right at the area where what appears to be a backhoe and a dump truck on the site. So it looks as though, actually, within a month of Physicians for Human Rights filing a Freedom of Information Act request to get what the US government knew, all branches knew, about the Dasht-e-Leili massacre, the site has been dramatically damaged.
James Risen, can you talk about Dell Spry, the FBI agent in Guantánamo, and what he learned?
Yeah, he was the — he had been — was a longtime FBI agent who had been assigned on a temporary basis to go to Guantánamo in 2002 on a couple short, temporary-duty rotations. And while he was there, he was the senior FBI representative on the island.
And he told me that during those times that he kept getting these — the agents who worked for him were interrogating and questioning detainees and that he kept getting this pattern of reports from the detainees all talking about surviving this massacre. And he said that they would volunteer this information to the FBI agents. And that, so he felt — he really didn’t think — at first he didn’t believe the stories, because he thought that — he’d been told that al-Qaeda tried to, you know, fabricate stories of torture and abuse as part of their training. And so, he didn’t believe it, although when he began to hear all of these, he thought it would be important for the US to at least investigate the allegations so that they could be debunked. Or else, if they didn’t try to investigate it, then this story would still — it would hang out there, and the US would pay the price in its reputation eventually.
What he said was that he passed — he wrote up what the FBI call 302 reports, which are, you know, reports of an interview with someone, and that he got word back from FBI headquarters to drop the issue. And he was told that it was not his mission at Guantánamo to investigate a potential — you know, a massacre in Afghanistan. And instead, he should be focused on his role as looking for, you know, evidence to be used in trials of detainees and also for evidence — intelligence on possible future attacks against the US.
What he told me was he understood it wasn’t part of his mission, but thought that, still, it was something that should be looked into, and he was disappointed that the FBI didn’t want to look into it. They told him that this was something for the Pentagon to look into. But as I said, it turns out that the Pentagon never really did look into it.
The significance of this, Susannah Sirkin, and what Physicians for Human Rights is calling for now?
Well, we’re now calling for, first of all, protection of the site and protection of any witnesses in Afghanistan and elsewhere who may have information. And we’re calling for — and I’m beginning to get to response to this request — a thorough, transparent investigation by the US government into who was on the ground, who was there at the site, who was there at the time that the prisoners were loaded up, and who was there and knew something and watched and perhaps, maybe, had any engagement in the suffocation and killing by gunshot of these apparently more than a thousand prisoners who had surrendered, and what the US did in response to legitimate requests that they investigate everything to do with this massacre.
Also, the witnesses killed — can you talk briefly about this, that Jamie Doran documented, talking to witnesses that were then killed, some of them tortured, for revealing this?
Yes, Physicians for Human Rights and the United Nations heard these reports and actually documented, through other witnesses, that several individuals were executed, disappeared and tortured, people who knew about the incident or who were present.
What is extremely disturbing is that we’ve now seen through the FOIA response that the US government and, apparently, intelligence agency — it’s a three-letter word that’s redacted of an intelligence branch of the US government in the FOIA — they knew and reported that eyewitnesses to this massacre had been killed and tortured.
So there are clearly risks, as we speak, and that’s why Physicians for Human Rights is calling for an immediate protection and securing of the site, as well as protection of the witnesses, by President Karzai and anyone else who is in a position to provide that protection.
James Risen, one more time, the ICRC, the International Committee of the Red Cross, turning to a US general, demanding an investigation of this right at the time or soon after this happened and being turned down? You mentioned this earlier.
Yes. Yeah. I mean, what — I don’t — I was not given the identity of the military commander that they talked to. It was described as a military commander in the US-led coalition, not necessarily an American. But it was, I think, fairly soon after the incident, and the way it was described to me was they got zero response from the military commander.
If I could just add one other point.
We have ten seconds.
I just want to — oh, I was just going to say something. I think it’s still — it’s very unclear what US personnel knew at the time. And I think the investigation should focus rather on what happened afterwards in the Bush administration.
James Risen of the New York Times, Susannah Sirkin of Physicians for Human Rights, thank you so much.