The Guantanamo Problem

We are not so innocent

On Wednesday 1 August 1945 British soldiers marched into the small spa town of Bad Nenndorf in Lower Saxony. They knocked on doors and informed the residents that they had 90 minutes to pack their belongings and leave. Overnight more than 1,000 citizens were displaced as British Soldiers claimed a third of the town.

The townspeople hoped this would be a temporary arrangement but when barbed wire fences were installed all hopes were dashed.

Bad Nenndorf was to become one of the most notorious interrogation camps of the Second World War – it’s story remains as testament to a hidden history of Britain’s involvement in WWII.

Bad Nenndorf was chosen because it’s spa houses, previously the main attraction for tourists from across Germany, could quickly and easily be made into cells with the simple addition of steel doors. The new interrogation centre was designated No. 74 and managed by the Combined Services Interrogation Centre (CSDIC).

No. 74 would go on to detain former SS members, civilian Nazi Party officials, diplomats, scientists, journalists, industrialists, ‘communists’, eastern Europeans and any other persons deemed of questionable loyalty by the British forces.

The regime at Bad Nenndorf was intended to physically and mentally weaken prisoners with an array of intimidation and humiliation techniques. Frostbite, starvation, isolation, brutal beatings and hours of forced standing and other stress positions were all common practice.

Bad Nenndorf Detainees

After a few weeks, No. 74's management ran into a problem. What was to be done with prisoners no they no longer needed?

Detainees knew too much. They had seen a side of the British army that would shatter the British publics good will towards the war should they catch wind of it. To say nothing of the damage it would cause to Britain’s international image.

Colonel Stephens, who oversaw operations at No. 74 knew this well. He was sure that releasing the prisoners would quickly lead to the closure of Bad Nenndorf.

And so a work around was devised. Unwanted prisoners were to be dropped at internment camps with the hope that they would be held indefinitely. The plan had the backing of senior British officials who agreed that those who had survived No.74 were ‘in possession of knowledge which is harmful to the Allies and constitute a dangerous security threat to the Occupying Forces’.

But by the end of 1946 the Control Commission’s lawyers had decreed the practice of indefinite detainment was unlawful. Another workaround would need to be formulated. Instead of indefinite detainment, a series of military courts were instated behind closed doors. These courts frequently recommended that ‘a severe sentence should be imposed’ on ex-inmates – essentially equating to indefinite detainment.

Unfortunately for CSDIC, this solution shot down too. This time by the Commission’s Political Branch who complained that the system would conflict with British systems of Justice given that these sentences would be imposed on people ‘whose only crime is that they have had the misfortune to acquire a too detailed knowledge of our methods of interrogation’.

Finally it was decided that inmates that were no longer required would have their silence guaranteed in one of the most simplistic and effective methods possible. There was no need for a secret court system or expensive detainment. The British Government would simply threaten that should ex-detainees utter a word of what went on behind the barbed walls of No. 74 they would be rearrested, along with their wife or husband and children. And that next time would be far worse.

History repeats itself

The events at Bad Nenndorf may sound familiar. Illegally held detainees, appalling conditions, large-scale illegal activity by a leading world power. Is that not what we are seeing in Guantanamo today? It’s a well-worn cliché but it seems that history repeats itself.

Perhaps the main difference between Guantanamo and Bad Nenndorf is that unlike the events at No.74 which took years to become public knowledge, we already know how US prisoners are being treated and we know exactly how many are being falsely detained.  Yet for the most part the international community it turning a blind eye.

I think there are several reasons for this. Modern news moves at an alarmingly fast pace. What was headline news today is likely to be pushed back several pages tomorrow and pushed straight out of the back page the next. In such a climate major world events go unreported.

Yes it’s appalling that many at Guantanamo are being illegally detained. Yes it’s horrific that over 50% of inmates are on hunger strike and are brutally force fed with painful nasal tubes. Yes, it’s likely that these detainees are being routinely humiliated and dehumanised. Yes we wish that it were different. But the US is a big, powerful country, and there are things going on in Egypt and Syria and we’re all being spied on by our governments so where, in this litany of woe, can we find time and column-space to discuss Guantanamo?

Unlike the Bad Nenndorf, this issue is able to hide in plain site.  But while the history of Guantanamo is still being written, we know the content of much of the early pages.

We’ll leave them with fly’s walking on their eyeballs

“Unless we all start to believe in conspiracy theories and that the officials are lying, that I am lying, that behind this there is some kind of secret state which is in league with some dark forces in the United States… there simply is no truth in the claims that the United Kingdom has been involved in rendition, full stop.” 

Jack Straw, Foreign Secretary 13 Dec 2005

It’s no secret that Guantanamo is the direct result of the attacks of 9/11. Understandably the American people wanted justice and they would stop at nothing to get it. It very quickly became clear to the rest of the world what this would mean.

Two days after the 9/11 attacks, during a meeting with Bush’s advisors, Head of Counter Terrorism, Cofer Black, who was to become one of the masterminds of the American response to 9/11, declared that the country’s enemies must be left with ‘flies walking across their eyeballs’.

The CIA swiftly instigated their rendition program. This involved detaining terrorists and ‘rendering’ them in secret US bases throughout the world. In some cases detainees were taken to countries with known records of torture, in these instances the process was known as extraordinary rendition.

The US had been exercising extraordinary rendition since Clinton’s administration but post 9/11, extraordinary rendition was t ratcheted up to previously unheard levels. Hundreds of al-Qaida suspects would be hunted down and abducted from their homes in over 80 countries across the world. They would be kept in hidden prisons for as long as it took to extract every piece of information possible by any means necessary. The US was to play in the shadows of international law, it would adopt loop-holes in the humane treatment of detainees as statute and it would expect the full support of it’s UN allies in doing so.

At the end of September 2001 the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 1373. Under this agreement all member states were required to assist the US and each other in eliminating terrorism. Resolution 1373 calls for restrained and following due processes of law but Dick Cheney had already declared that the US would be working through the “dark side” and that “it’s going to be vital for us to use any means at our disposal, basically, to achieve our objective.”

In further meetings with members of NATO Article Five was instigated, under which, an attack on one member-state is an attack on all member-states. The US now had all the backing and support that it needed to find and torture anyone they suspected to be involved in the attack on 9/11.

The extraordinary Rendition program began in earnest and what follows reads more like an extract of a John Le Carre novel than true events. On the 18th of December 2001 two men were abducted from Stockholm by 8 men dressed in black wearing black masks with small eyeholes. The detainees were stripped and searched, administered sedatives in the form of anal suppositories and put in nappies, overalls, leg irons and handcuffs. Finally hoods were put over their heads, they were loaded onto a US Gulfstream V jet and taken to the Middle East for interrogation. Similar events would occur in Afghanistan, Iraq, Kenya, Pakistan, Indonesia, Gambia, Thailand, Bosnia, Albania, Croatia and wherever else the US suspected there were al-Qaida bases of operations.

Initially suspects interrogated by local authorities in hidden locations across Europe, South East Asia, Africa and the Middle East but Washington was keen to carry out interrogations themselves. They decided that Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, would be the ideal location for a US interrogation camp. The bay had been under US control since 1903, it was close to US soil, but crucially in a country where the US legal system held no sway.

While the UK and other US allies were aware of the methods being used by US interrogators it was the position of allied governments to turn a blind eye. When UK soldiers reported that a British citizen involved in the rendition program was coming under undue physical abuse and showed signs of internal bleeding, a memo was swiftly issued by the British government to explain their position:

“You have commented on their treatment. It appears from your description that they may not be being treated in accordance with the appropriate standards. Given that they are not within our custody or control, the law does not require you to intervene to prevent this. That said, HMG;s stated commitment to human rights makes it important that the Americans understand that we cannot be party to such ill treatment nor can we be seen to condone it. In no case should they be coerced during or in conjunction with an Secret Intelligence Service interview of them. If circumstances allow, you should consider drawing this to the attention of a suitably senior US official locally. It is important that you do not engage in any activity yourself that involved inhumane or degrading treatment of prisoners.”

This was to be the UK’s stance throughout the rendition program.  The announcement could be summed up much more succinctly as “We are complicit, but we are not to get involved in torture, nor are we technically required to intervene.”

Despite this stance, British interrogators were trained in the use of stress positions, sleep depravation and the hooding of detainees – all of which are considered tortuous methods of information extraction in international law.

Rapper Mos Def undergoing to force-feeding process undertaken at Guantanamo Bay.

Rapper Mos Def undergoing to force-feeding process undertaken at Guantanamo Bay.

The first prisoners to be flown into Guantanamo landed wearing the now infamous orange jumpsuits, handcuffs and shackles as well as blacked-out goggles, earmuffs and gloves to maintain sensory depravation during transport.

Guantanamo now acts as a leading US interrogation Centre. Detainee’s range from suspected al-Qaida members to people who simply hold information of interest to the US government. Leaked US Department of Defence documents have told of people such as Said Abassi Rochan, a twenty-nine-year-old Afghan taxi driver who was taken to Guantanamo because of his knowledge of his local area. His tale would go on to become the focus for the fantastic documentary Taxi to the Dark Side. Similar stories include an Al-Jazeera cameraman who was detained because of his understanding of Al-Jazeera’s training programme for journalists and even a British citizen who was held because had had the misfortune to be held by Taliban forces and was considered to have useful information about their treatment of prisoners and their interrogation tactics.

Each individual’s case follows a pattern of at best mistreatment and at worst humiliation, torture and even death at the hands of US interrogators and their allies. Methods of torture include the infamous waterboarding technique seen in the recent film Zero Dark Thirty and in the shocking footage of the late Christopher Hitchens subjecting himself to the method. When George Bush was asked years later whether he had authorised waterboarding at Guantanamo, George Bush responded with ‘Damn right!’ – it’s no secret that support for such strategies went right to the top of the US government.

Desperate times, desperate measures

classified memo released in 2011 suggests that military officials were aware two years ago that two thirds of inmates were, at best, “low level” threats and that nearly 20% were believed to be completely innocent. And yet these prisoners continue to be held. The US military says 37 prisoners are currently on hunger strike – 33 of which are being routinely force-fed.

Yasiin Bey, actor and rapper formerly known as Mos Def, volunteered himself to be subjected to the process to drum up awareness of the practice. It makes for difficult viewing.

Detainees entered their hunger strike as a way to express their legitimate grievances with their treatment and conditions at Guantanamo. Including indefinite detention, solitary confinement and torture. Human Rights Lawyer, Carlos Warner, says that the hunger-strike is yet to result in the improvement of conditions in the bay or the complete closure of the compound promised by Obama in 2008.

“Even looking at the military’s numbers, to think that even 37 or 40 men haven’t eaten for 200 days it’s just pretty incredible to think about it,” the public defender, who works with several Guantanamo inmates, added.

Force feeding violates longstanding medical ethics. Not only is it humiliating but it dehumanises the individuals involved, taking a toll on the psychological wellbeing of both victim and practitioner.

Being a doctor should be an honour and a privilege. Doctors should save lives for a living, their function is to ease pain and suffering. It is a gross violation of their purpose to put such authorities in the position of force-feeding detainees. It would do the medical profession a great service if these doctors were to put down their nasogastric tubes.

The World Medical Association states that force-feeding is “never medically acceptable” and the American Medical Association argues it “violates core ethical values of the medical profession”. Even a federal judge has called the procedure “painful, humiliating, and degrading”.

I suspect the doctors of Guantanamo believe they are doing what is right for their country but doctors should be concerned first and foremost with individual comfort and wellbeing and not international affairs.

It hardly needs saying that treating detainees in the manner they are in Guantanamo violates the values and principles of justice and fairness that the UK and US claim to hold dear. Neither country can claim to be the voice of reason in Egypt or Syria when they are illegally detaining prisoners (or spying on their own people for that matter).


A Voice for Change

It is an unfortunate truth that hypocrisy is part of the human condition. People are able to hold contradictory beliefs side-by-side – there are creationist Darwinian scientists, there are people who are pro-fracking with a ‘not in my backyard’ attitude. However, a political State should have enough checks and balances to iron out such obvious hypocrisies as torture and illegal detainment. States are the result of collaboration. It would be hoped that together we could make a fair and just society.

If every American citizen wrote to their senate telling them their vote depends on the closure of Guantanamo, things would change. If countries such as the UK put their foot down and held the US accountable for their atrocities (and their own), we could make a difference. It is fear of rocking the boat, of upsetting our relative comfort in the world that stops us.  And perhaps it is a refusal to believe that sometimes, we are the bad guys too.

I would like to think that people learn from their past, that errors like the treatment of detainees at No.74 would not be repeated. And yet it has been. And it is being.

If we can’t trust our governments to act with fairness and candour – we can do it ourselves. I believe that global civil society and solidarity is the answer to our problems.

I know my views expose me to claims of idealism but I am happy to stand under that banner. Idealism means hope. And if we don’t have hope, if we don’t try to make a change, we are left with despair. Despair at our place in the world, despair at our powerlessness, our helplessness and our hopelessness.


This article could not have been written without the documentary Taxi to the Dark Side directed by Alex Gibney and the fantastic book Cruel Britannia by  Ian Cobain.