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Guantánamo Exclusive: Former Chief Prosecutor, Ex-Prisoner Call on Obama to Close Prison

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On the 10th anniversary of when the United States began detaining terror suspects at its Guantánamo Bay military base in Cuba, we speak with a former prisoner and the ex-chief U.S. prosecutor, who both call for the Obama administration to close the base. “People are locked up in isolation camps… People lost their hands, lost their eyes, lost their limbs,” says Omar Deghayes, who was arrested in Pakistan as a terror suspect and held in U.S. custody from May 2002 until December 2007, most of that time at Guantánamo. “Some people were subjected to sleep deprivation. They weren’t allowed to sleep… And they had to live under those conditions for six years … without being convicted of any crime, which is the most unacceptable thing.” Asked if prisoners were tortured at Guantánamo, Air Force Colonel Morris Davis, the former chief prosecutor at the military prison, answers, “I don’t think there’s any doubt.” Davis resigned his position in 2007 in protest of what he called political interference in the military commissions of Guantánamo prisoners. “In many of the cases, we had evidence independent of that [torture] that was sufficient to establish guilt. But to use torture to gain intelligence and then also to turn around and use that as evidence in an American court is just not consistent with American principles,” Davis says. [includes rush transcript]

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StoryJan 10, 2012NDAA: Obama Signs Law Restricting Transfer of Guantánamo Prisoners and Expands Indefinite Detention
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We continue on this 10th anniversary of the opening of Guantánamo, which falls right around the same date that President Obama vowed to close the prison three years ago. Shortly after taking office in January 2009, President Obama signed an executive order calling for Guantánamo’s closure within a year.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: In order to effect the appropriate disposition of individuals currently detained by the Department of Defense at Guantánamo and promptly to close the detention facility at Guantánamo, consistent with the national security and foreign policy interests of the United States and the interest of justice, I hereby order.

AMY GOODMAN: Since making that pledge, Obama has faced bipartisan opposition in Congress, with lawmakers blocking funds, preventing the transfer of Guantánamo prisoners to U.S. soil. The latest Pentagon spending bill, signed into law by President Obama, mandates indefinite imprisonment for al-Qaeda prisoners. On Monday, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said President Obama is still determined to close Guantánamo.

PRESS SECRETARY JAY CARNEY: The commitment the President has to closing Guantánamo Bay is as firm today as it was during the campaign. We’re all aware of the obstacles to getting that done as quickly as the President wanted to get it done, what they were, and the fact that they continue to persist. But the President’s commitment hasn’t changed at all. And it’s the right thing to do for our national security interests.

AMY GOODMAN: That was White House Secretary Jay Carney.

For more on this 10th anniversary of Guantánamo, we’re joined by several guests. In a moment, we’ll go to London to speak with a former Guantánamo prisoner, but first to Air Force Colonel Morris Davis, the former chief prosecutor at Guantánamo. He resigned his position in 2007 in protest of what he called political interference in the military commissions of Guantánamo prisoners, joining us from Washington, D.C.

Morris Davis, thank you for joining us. You are now opposed to the military commissions. You were the former chief prosecutor at Guantánamo. Why have you changed your stance?

COL. MORRIS DAVIS: Well, it’s been more than a decade now since President Bush first authorized military commissions. And in that decade, we’ve completed a grand total of six trials, which is not exactly a ringing endorsement for the military commissions process. You know, as you know, the case went to the Supreme Court, that said the initial military commissions President Bush created were fatally defective. Congress passed a statute in 2006 that President Obama said was deficient. Another statute in 2009. So we keep telling the world over and over, “This time we’ve got it right.” And I think after a decade of failure, it’s just time to give up on this process.

AMY GOODMAN: You heard Jay Carney talking about national security issues. How would you define national security? What do you think needs to happen at Guantánamo?

COL. MORRIS DAVIS: I think we need to close Guantánamo. It’s become such a negative symbol, like Abu Ghraib. Just the term itself, “Guantánamo,” around the world conveys a message about the United States and what we represent. It was interesting yesterday hearing the State Department spokesman—or spokeswoman talking about the case of Amir Hekmati, the American citizen convicted in Iranian court, which is indeed unfortunate. But she criticized their process, saying that here’s a guy that was detained under suspicious circumstances, had a trial in secret, using a confession that was coerced. And I’m sitting there looking at this, going, “It sounds an awful lot like what we do at Guantánamo.” So we lose our moral standing and our ability to really complain when others do pretty much what we’ve done at Guantánamo. So it’s not in our interest to maintain that kind of image around the world.

AMY GOODMAN: What is your assessment of the bill that President Obama has just signed off on?

COL. MORRIS DAVIS: Well, I think it was a complete act of cowardice on his part. As I’ve stated before, I think on Inauguration Day, somewhere between the Capitol and the White House, a pair of testicles fell off the President, because he said all the right things, he made all the right promises, and there’s been a complete lack of leadership from the White House to deliver. You know, he threatened to veto the bill, which proved to be a hollow threat. And on New Year’s Eve, he signed it into law, which is not a dramatic departure from what the policy has been for the last few years, but now it’s law, where Guantánamo appears to be made permanent, to where the military—and it’s not a role that the military wants—has become the bureau of prisons for terrorism suspects. So it’s—you know, in this season of campaign in 2012, nobody is going to get elected or re-elected saying, “I stood up for the rights of detainees at Guantánamo.” And so, on the far right, you’ve got—it seems that no one can be too dumb or too hateful in campaigning on the right.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re speaking with Air Force Colonel Morris Davis, former chief prosecutor at Guantánamo. We’re going to break, then we’ll be back, and we’ll be also joined by two guests from London: a former Guantánamo prisoner, Omar Deghayes, a Libyan citizen who has residency in Britain, was held in U.S. custody after being arrested in Pakistan; and we’ll be speaking with the former head of the Center for Constitutional Rights, Michael Ratner. CCR has just filed a lawsuit seeking to force the U.S. government to make the public—make public the videotapes of harsh interrogations carried out on a Saudi citizen. This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. We’ll be back in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: We continue with Air Force Colonel Morris Davis, former chief prosecutor at Guantánamo, resigned in 2007 in protest of what he called political interference in the military commissions of Guantánamo prisoners, joining us from D.C.

Joining us from London is former Guantánamo prisoner Omar Deghayes, a Libyan citizen who has residency status in Britain, was held in U.S. custody after he was arrested in Pakistan from May 2002 to December 2007, spent most of that time at Guantánamo after being held first in Pakistan and at Bagram.

We’re also joined in London by Michael Ratner, president of the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights. He was at a press conference with Omar Deghayes today in London at the Frontline Club.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! from London. Morris Davis, of course, in Washington, D.C. Michael Ratner, can you talk about the lawsuit Center for Constitutional Rights has just filed?

MICHAEL RATNER: I can’t, really, Amy. That was filed while I’ve been in London, so I can’t really talk about that. We know about the videotapes of torture. We’re obviously trying to get a hold of those. The government claims to have destroyed them. But we are trying to get them in a lawsuit, as you said. I’m here with Omar. And, of course, I’m here for the 10th anniversary of Guantánamo.

And I want to make a couple of points that I don’t think have been brought out. One of them is, of course, when Obama definitively signed an order to close Guantánamo in a year, what now appears in retrospect are two issues. One is that he immediately backtracked on that order, and secondly, that he never intended to shut down Guantánamos around the world. He really intended to get rid of the symbol by moving the people out of Guantánamo, maybe to the United States. But as indicated by the current order and the NDAA that was signed, the authority to pick up and detain people like Omar or others around the world is still an authority he has and that he exercises. So when we say “close Guantánamo,” it’s not just closing the physical place of 171 people. As uncivilized and as outrageous as that place is, it’s really ending the power, the uncivilized power, of this government, this United States government, to go around the world plucking people up all over the world.

AMY GOODMAN: Omar Deghayes, can you talk about what happened to you? Begin in Pakistan in 2002.

OMAR DEGHAYES: I can describe how we were surrounded and then chained, and with the family—I was in Pakistan with my wife and a child, a baby child of six months old—and how we were chained and then covered, our heads were covered, and without any accusation of anything, the only reason being an Arab being in Pakistan. The government in Pakistan was selling Arabs. All the Arabs who were in Pakistan were—there was a payment made for every person who was handed to the Americans. And so, some of the government in Pakistan resorted to getting money from the United States by selling Arabs who lived in Pakistan for a certain time. So we were chained, and then head covered, and then sent to Bagram base—we were tortured in Bagram—and then from Bagram to Guantánamo.

And what I can describe is the conditions for many, many people who are still there in Guantánamo and in Bagram and in other secret prisons, where people are subjected to all sorts of humiliation and mistreatment. People are locked up in isolation camps. They are put through such mistreatment that many people have, we heard, died. And people lost their hands, lost their eyes, lost their limbs. Some people were subjected to sleep deprivation. They weren’t allowed to sleep. They were kept into cells where lights are open 24 hours every day and night, and they had to live under those conditions for six years. People were, where we were, subjected to beatings, fear every day, daily fear, and all sorts of mistreatment, without being convicted of any crime, which is—which is the most unacceptable thing. If you think about it, 10 years, a decade, and there are many people still in prison, and they haven’t been convicted of anything, and they’re subjected to all sorts of unlawfulness. The guards could do anything they wanted, in simple terms.

AMY GOODMAN: I’m wondering if Morris Davis can come into this discussion, Air Force colonel, quit as chief prosecutor at Guantánamo. Talk about what these commissions were that you presided over before you quit, as you listen to Omar Deghayes describe the conditions there.

COL. MORRIS DAVIS: Well, military commissions were—Guantánamo was selected because there were people in the Bush administration thought it was beyond the reach of the law. And then military commissions, they looked back at 1942 and the trial of the eight Nazi saboteurs who, from the time they were captured through the Supreme Court to the time they were executed and buried, took 43 days by a military commission conducted in secret, and they thought that was the model. It certainly hadn’t worked out that way. And unfortunately, we sit here more than a decade later. I mean, we used to be the land of the free and the home of the brave; we’ve become the constrained and the cowardly for the past decade. And I would like to see us reverse that and get back to the principles that this country was founded on, which our strength being the law and not running from the law.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn to former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and former President George W. Bush. In these clips from January 2002, one year into President Bush’s presidency, both defended the conditions of prisoners at Guantánamo.

DEFENSE SECRETARY DONALD RUMSFELD: That if someone looked down from Mars on the United States for the last three days, they would conclude that America is what’s wrong with the world. America is not what’s wrong with the world. And what’s taking place down there is responsible. It’s humane. It’s legal. It’s proper. It’s consistent with the Geneva Conventions. And after a period, that will sink in. Let there be no doubt.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: We are adhering to the Geneva—the spirit of the Geneva Convention. When you say, “You’re holding the prisoners in the manner you are,” we’re giving them medical care, they’re being well treated. There is no allegation—well, there may be an allegation. There’s no—there’s no evidence that we’re treating them outside the spirit of the Geneva Convention. And for those who say we are, they just don’t know what they’re talking about.

AMY GOODMAN: Air Force Colonel Morris Davis, former chief prosecutor at Guantánamo, your response?

COL. MORRIS DAVIS: Well, I’ll give you an example. Susan Crawford, who has worked for Dick Cheney at the Defense Department, was appointed the—to be in charge of the military commissions during the Bush administration. In January 2009, in an interview with Bob Woodward published in the Washington Post a week before President Bush left office, she said the case of Mohammed al-Qahtani she did not refer to trial because, in her words, quote, “We tortured al-Qahtani.” So, this notion that everything was fit and humane, I think, is clearly refuted by, you know, a Republican appointee, Susan Crawford, who said we tortured Qahtani at Guantánamo.

AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, that’s exactly what the lawsuit filed by the Center for Constitutional Rights is all about, is making public the videotapes of the interrogation carried out on Qahtani, on this Saudi citizen, saying the videotapes have been seen by his attorneys but can’t be shown to the public because they’re classified. He remains at Guantánamo. I wanted Omar Deghayes to weigh in, as you listen to former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, former President Bush, on the conditions that you faced at Guantánamo.

OMAR DEGHAYES: Now, definitely, it’s incredible to hear them speak like that, and especially that now we have the testimony of many people who were working in Guantánamo, from the FBI, from the CIA, even from guards who used to do those wrong acts. They came to London, and they spoke publicly in universities and in open conferences about the awfulness and the things that went on inside Guantánamo, and they regretted it, and they apologized to us from doing so. So, to hear this, to hear somebody in that position in the United States to openly, categorically say things like that is—I think it’s a big lie, and he should be embarrassed from saying something like this, especially that the same people that they employ in Guantánamo from the FBI and the CIA and others have reported already in their books, some in their books and some openly in different meetings, they spoke about the mistreatment that went on in Guantánamo.

And they describe—I know, myself, of many people who have lost limbs—and say, “We know people who have died,” a couple of people who have died in Guantánamo. We know people who sexually—everybody was sexually abused and the torture that went on and the stress position that went on. This was the norm in Guantánamo. Not only that, they had all sorts of—all sorts of experiments going on, where they would abuse religion, and they would use anything that was held sacred to the Guantánamo prisoners. They tried to exploit it, and they tried to cause as much hurt and imbalance to people, because I think that they thought that by causing these awful acts, they could extract more information from people who were kept in Guantánamo.

And to keep people after 10 years, I think they should even question the usefulness of keeping people. What kind of information would they expect to extract from people who they couldn’t find any evidence against, nor could they convict them of any crime? I think the only reason that they keep many people still in Guantánamo and many other secret prisons is politically motivated rather than legally—legally sound motives. And it’s very clearly very sad—a very sad situation where you have politicians turning into judges and convicting people and having results as such. It’s just very sad when politicians do a judge’s work without having the due process and without having the proper training. And these are the results of such politically motivated actions.

AMY GOODMAN: Omar Deghayes, you were part of one of the most publicized hunger strikes at Guantánamo. But you eventually got out at the end of 2007, most of your time spent at Guantánamo. How did you get out?

OMAR DEGHAYES: That’s why I’m trying to say it’s—most people who got out from Guantánamo, the majority of—all of them, more than 90 percent, the people who left Guantánamo, was not a decision made by a court. It was more by—through political process and through different dealings between governments or between campaigning. I think the more people campaigned about a certain person, the more an embarrassment that person has become to the government, that then he would be released. So, because of that, I think many people who are still in Guantánamo are not—in Guantánamo, nor are they a threat to any or dangerous to anyone’s security. The only reason they’re kept there is because not enough campaigning has been done on their behalf. There are Yemenis who probably their parents wouldn’t be able to have access to media, international media, or they didn’t have a proper process of campaigning, and so on.

So I think that mostly people who are left at Guantánamo because of political reasons more than anything that they have committed or not. Some even, like Shaker Aamer, probably is because of what they have done inside Guantánamo, rather than what they have done before Guantánamo, meaning that because in Guantánamo they became obviously angry because of the mistreatment, the sexual abuse, and so on, and their reaction to that, how much they became popular because they’ve been helping, translating to other detainees. And because of that, they’re kept in Guantánamo, not because they have any evidence against them before Guantánamo. So it’s sad that somebody was to be isolated and locked up for 10 years. I mean, Shaker Aamer, for example, hasn’t seen his son since he was born. He hasn’t even met him. Now his son is 10 years old, and they never met. And there are many, many other cases, other than Shaker Aamer’s, who are similar to that. I think it’s wrong politically, it’s wrong legally, and it’s also grossly immoral.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask you, you were accused of being a member of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, a group that would go on to help to overthrow Gaddafi and back the U.S.-supported National Transitional Council. Is this right?

OMAR DEGHAYES: Uh-huh. Yeah, I was accused of that, even though they had no evidence of being a member. And even so, even if I was a member of an organization which was politically motivated to fight against a dictator like Gaddafi, who everyone now in the world have supported the actions to get rid of, I don’t see why that is to do anything with being in Guantánamo or being harmful to any United States government. I think it is—

AMY GOODMAN: And let me—

OMAR DEGHAYES: I think that—yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask you about your eye, if you don’t mind.


AMY GOODMAN: One of your eyes is semi-closed. Why is that?

OMAR DEGHAYES: Yeah. This—this was inside Guantánamo, that this is what happened, is that we were, because of—it’s a long story. But the end of it is that five, six guards came into my cell and other people’s cell, and they tried to stop us from campaigning, like what’s happening now, hunger strike, and from campaigning inside prison against certain embarrassing policies, like sexual abuse policies that were committed by General Miller at the time. And we—and they tried to stop us from doing anything like that. And what they did is to threaten us and frighten us. After beating me in the cell, they dragged me outside the cell, and then one of the guards, while another officer was standing, observing what was happening, he was trying to gouge my eyes out. And because one of my eyes, the right eye, had been less—I had a problem with it before, so both of my—I lost sight in both of my eyes. And then, slowly, slowly, I regained my sight in one of the eyes. The other eye has completely gotten worse than it has been. And they went to do the same thing to the next cell and the next cell and next cell, so to make an example of us, so to frighten everyone else from campaigning or from objecting to any policies. So that was the reason for that.

AMY GOODMAN: Morris Davis, you ultimately quit as your—your position as chief military prosecutor at Guantánamo. What are your thoughts as you listen to Omar Deghayes, one of the men who was held there while you were there? And did you know each other at Guantánamo, while he was imprisoned and you were chief military prosecutor?

COL. MORRIS DAVIS: No, we never met, and his case was not one of the ones that was on our list of cases that we intended to prosecute. I think, you know, listening, it’s just—reinforces that this has been an unfortunate and regrettable decade in our country’s history, where we turned our back on what made us a great country, which was our respect for the law. And people have pandered to fear, for whatever political purposes, to get elected, to enhance executive power, whatever their motivation was. But we’ve had a decade of fear, where we’ve become constrained and cowardly. I’d like to see us be the land of the free and the home of the brave again and get back to American values and put this chapter behind us.

AMY GOODMAN: Even in 2005, when you were chief military prosecutor, you said you would use no confession that was gained through torture?

COL. MORRIS DAVIS: Right, similar to what the State Department said yesterday about the American who was convicted in the Iranian court, that his confession was coerced and shouldn’t have been used. That was the same philosophy I was using at Guantánamo, that any evidence obtained by what we, you know, the American government, called “enhanced interrogation,” what most people call “torture,” has no place in an American court of law. And I think in many of the cases, we had evidence independent of that that was sufficient to establish guilt. But to use torture to gain intelligence and then also to turn around and use that as evidence in an American court is just not consistent with American principles.

AMY GOODMAN: And would you say categorically torture—that prisoners were tortured at Guantánamo?

COL. MORRIS DAVIS: I don’t think there’s any doubt. I mean, I will—yes, I would say that there was torture. Susan Crawford, again, a Dick Cheney protégée, said there was torture. John McCain has said waterboarding was torture, and we’ve admitted we’ve waterboarded. There have been at least five judges in federal court and military courts that have said detainees were tortured. And again, it’s regrettable, the Obama administration’s utter lack of leadership. You know, we’re a party to the Convention Against Torture that says there’s no justification whatsoever for torture. There’s a duty to investigate, to prosecute and to provide an avenue for civil remedies. And the Obama administration has completely ignored their responsibility.

AMY GOODMAN: Colonel, very quickly—

COL. MORRIS DAVIS: You know, if we’re not going to live up to our—

AMY GOODMAN: Very quickly, you were chief prosecutor under President Bush. You went on to work for the Congressional Research Service. You worked under President Obama. And you’ve been fired from there in the last few years for speaking out, or I should say, writing out. Explain, very quickly.

COL. MORRIS DAVIS: Yeah, I—as I said, I was very optimistic when President Obama took office that he was going to follow through on what he promised. You know, I believed in hope and change. When he began to backpedal, I wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal that accused—that said it was a double standard, what we were doing. And I got my termination notice the next day. So, it was disappointing I spent 25 years defending the Constitution, and then to be told that it didn’t apply to me. You know, we have free speech for everyone that has nothing to say. But if you have an opinion, then it’s speak at your own peril. And so, I was fired for expressing an opinion.

AMY GOODMAN: Morris Davis, I want to thank you for being with, retired Air Force colonel, resigned as former chief military prosecutor at Guantánamo in 2007.

Back in London, I wanted to find out, Omar Deghayes, and then I’ll turn to Michael Ratner, about the prisoner support group you have formed in London and what is happening today in London, the press conference you have just held. You are there with other prisoners, an organization called Cageprisoners, other prisoners like Moazzam Begg, who we’ve interviewed on Democracy Now! — people can see the interviews at—as well as others who are there.

OMAR DEGHAYES: Yeah, this is a program, this Guantánamo Cageprisoners. I’ve done those programs to bring more attention to what the—it’s been a decade of people being locked up without any charges. And it’s—we fear that people have forgotten about those people locked up. So we’ve done a press conference, and there’s—tomorrow there’s an evening where they’re going to show a film about the people who died inside Guantánamo. And we have a couple of people who were locked up in Guantánamo to speak. And we’re trying to bring as much attention to the plight of people who are still left in Guantánamo. So this is what’s happening in London.

AMY GOODMAN: You have sued—

OMAR DEGHAYES: And the program, Michael Ratner will be able also to speak more on.

AMY GOODMAN: Omar, you have sued the British government and the British intelligence services, along with other former Guantánamo prisoners. Also at the event today, Sami Hajj, who is the former journalist for Al Jazeera, who was detained at Guantánamo for many years, interrogated repeatedly, questioned about the higher-ups at Al Jazeera. But although you’re suing the British—

OMAR DEGHAYES: He’s also present today in the press conference here in London. And the case that we—

AMY GOODMAN: Although you’re suing the British government, I wanted to ask, Omar, if you have a message for President Obama.

OMAR DEGHAYES: I just hope that, as he has promised—when he came to the presidency, he promised to close Guantánamo. Clearly, he said, in clear terms, that within one year, that Guantánamo would be closed. And I wish that he will be able to still do the pledge that he promised to the people that brought him to power. He has—his policies towards the Middle East recently have been a lot better than his policies towards Guantánamo. So we hope that he will be able to implement his promises and bring justice to the people who deserve justice.

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