When the UN Human Rights Commission last Thursday released its report on the conditions at the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, alleging that “torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment” was taking place and that the camp should be shut down, the news was met with a chorus of yawns.
Yes, the committee’s recommendation was reported. But in the third or fourth paragraph of every story appeared White House spokesman Scott McClellan, saying that what the five-person, 18-month-long study had produced was just one big “rehash,” nothing that we haven’t heard over and over again for years from the lawyers representing various detainees. Besides, McClellan added, we all know “that al Qaeda terrorists are trained in trying to disseminate false allegations.”
In short, don’t worry about it.
McClellan is actually right about this being old news, though it doesn’t make it any less shocking. We have heard these accounts for the past year — the cruel force-feeding of hunger-striking detainees through nasal tubes, the extreme temperature changes, the strobe lights, the sleep deprivation and the degradation of religious objects.
The report was easy for the administration to dismiss because it was just as second-hand as past accounts of what goes on in the prison. The UN commission never set foot inside Gitmo. (It refused to visit when it was told that its investigators would not be allowed to interview detainees.) Plus, the UN Human Rights Commission is a body with a bit of a credibility problem, what with Libya, of all countries, chairing it just a few years ago (something most news articles were sure to remember to mention).
But you don’t have to rely on the UN to know that we aren’t getting the full story of what is happening at Guantanamo Bay. Two new reports that both involved extensive data analysis give us an interesting picture of the 500 detainees now behind the barbed wire. Alas, a Lexis-Nexis search reveals that neither report managed to produce even a single article in any national newspaper.
First there’s Corine Hegland’s study in National Journal that ran earlier this month. She looked at the court documents of all 132 detainees who have filed habeas corpus petitions and at the censored transcripts of the 314 prisoners who have gone before the tribunal set up to determine whether the prisoner is an “enemy combatant.” What she discovered undermines our sense of who the detainees are. For one thing, most were captured in Pakistan — not Taliban fighters captured on the battlefield in Afghanistan. Out of the 132 men, 75 are not even accused of acts against the United States. Hegland writes, “Typically, documents describe these men as ‘associated’ with the Taliban or with al Qaeda — sometimes directly so, and sometimes through only weak or distant connections.” She figures that as many as 80 percent never really had anything to do with terrorism of any sort.
Another study (468K PDF) published earlier this month by a professor at Seton Hall and an attorney for two of the detainees came up with similar findings. Looking at the Department of Defense’s own analysis of the detainees, prepared for the “enemy combatant” tribunals, they discovered that “Eight percent are detained because they are deemed ‘fighters for;’ 30 percent considered ‘members of;’ a large majority — 60 percent — are detained merely because they are ‘associated with’ a group or groups the government asserts are terrorist organizations. For 2 percent of the prisoners their nexus to any terrorist group is unidentified.”
The Seton Hall study also provides some insight into how most of these prisoners were captured — they were turned over to the military in exchange for cash. Look at this flier, dropped in Afghanistan at the time of the sweeps, and included in the study: “Get wealth and power beyond your dreams … You can receive millions of dollars helping the anti-Taliban forces catch al Qaeda and Taliban murderers. This is enough money to take care of your family, your tribe, your village for the rest of your life. Pay for livestock and doctors and school books.”