NBC's Miklaszewski provided McClellan's dubious defense of Guantánamo without challenge

››› ››› RAPHAEL SCHWEBER-KOREN

NBC News' Jim Miklaszewski uncritically reported White House press secretary Scott McClellan's response to a new United Nations report on the treatment of detainees at Guantánamo Bay, even though McClellan's claims had previously been undermined by both the International Committee of the Red Cross and internal U.S. government emails.

On the February 16 edition of NBC's Nightly News, NBC News chief Pentagon correspondent Jim Miklaszewski uncritically reported White House press secretary Scott McClellan's response to a new United Nations report on the treatment of detainees at the U.S. military's Guantánamo Bay prison facility, which alleges that "some interrogation techniques [practiced at the facility] are actions amounting to torture." Even though McClellan's assertion -- that the report is "a rehash of allegations from prisoners who are trained by Al Qaeda to make false claims about being tortured" -- has been undermined by a 2004 International Committee of the Red Cross report and internal U.S. government emails, Miklaszewski did not mention any of the substantial evidence that refutes McClellan's assertion. Miklaszewski also failed to challenge McClellan's claim that all of those held at Guantánamo "are dangerous terrorists" and "people that are determined to harm innocent civilians or harm innocent Americans," even though a recent National Journal report and a Seton Hall University School of Law study have concluded that the government has only scant or weak evidence against many of those held at the Guantánamo naval base, which is located at a U.S.-controlled port in Cuba.

Allegations that prisoners at Guantánamo have been tortured have not come just "from prisoners who are trained by Al Qaeda to make false claims about being tortured" as McClellan asserted, but have been documented in FBI emails, in which, as Media Matters for America has noted, FBI agents described graphic instances of abuse by interrogators at Guantánamo that the agents personally witnessed. In one emailPDF file, an FBI agent described the interrogation methods employed by Department of Defense officials as "torture techniques." T.J. Harrington, the FBI's deputy assistant director for counterterrorism, detailed in an emailPDF file several agents' accounts of abusive treatment, including one in which a female sergeant "grabbed [a] detainee's thumbs and bent them backwards and indicated that she also grabbed his genitals." The sergeant, according to Harrington, warned her subject that past interrogations had left other "detainees curling into a fetal position on the floor and crying in pain." Harrington also included an account of a detainee being "subjected to intense isolation for over three months ... in a cell that was always flooded with light," which led to him "evidencing behavior consistent with extreme psychological trauma (talking to non-existent people, reporting hearing voices, crouching in a corner of the cell covered with a sheet for hours on end)." A third FBI document described a detainee "chained hand and foot in a fetal position to the floor" and who was subjected to food deprivation and temperature extremes. "The detainee was almost unconscious on the floor, with a pile of hair next to him," the FBI agent wrote. "He had apparently been literally pulling his own hair out throughout the night."

A November 30, 2004, article in The New York Times reported: "The International Committee of the Red Cross [ICRC] has charged in confidential reports to the United States government that the American military has intentionally used psychological and sometimes physical coercion "tantamount to torture" on prisoners at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba," based on visits to the prison by ICRC staff and interviews with Guantánamo detainees. According to the Times article, the ICRC "has been conducting visits to Guantánamo since January 2002," and that "[i]ts officials are able to visit prisoners at Guantánamo under the kind of arrangement the committee has made with governments for decades. In exchange for exclusive access to the prison camp and meetings with detainees, the committee has agreed to keep its findings confidential."

McClellan's claims that "[w]e know that these are dangerous terrorists. They're being kept at Guantánamo Bay. They are people that are determined to harm innocent civilians or harm innocent Americans," are contradicted by a February 3 report in the National Journal that documented the apparent lack of evidence against many of the detainees:

Some of the men [Defense Secretary Donald] Rumsfeld described [in a June 27, 2005, statement] -- the terrorists, the trainers, the financiers, and the battlefield captures -- are indeed at Guantanamo. But National Journal's detailed review of government files on 132 prisoners who have asked the courts for help, and a thorough reading of heavily censored transcripts from the Combatant Status Review Tribunals conducted in Guantanamo for 314 prisoners, didn't turn up very many of them. Most of the "enemy combatants" held at Guantanamo -- for four years now -- are simply not the worst of the worst of the terrorist world.

Many of them are not accused of hostilities against the United States or its allies. Most, when captured, were innocent of any terrorist activity, were Taliban foot soldiers at worst, and were often far less than that. And some, perhaps many, are guilty only of being foreigners in Afghanistan or Pakistan at the wrong time. And much of the evidence -- even the classified evidence -- gathered by the Defense Department against these men is flimsy, second-, third-, fourth- or 12th-hand. It's based largely on admissions by the detainees themselves or on coerced, or worse, interrogations of their fellow inmates, some of whom have been proved to be liars.

[...]

Even as the CIA was deciding that most of the prisoners at Guantanamo didn't have much to say, Pentagon officials were getting frustrated with how little the detainees were saying. So they ramped up the pressure and gave interrogators more license.

The questions to the detainees about 9/11 and Al Qaeda and about each other were so constant, so repetitive, so oppressive that some prisoners, out of exasperation or fatigue or fear, just gave in and said, sure, I'm a terrorist. False confessions and false accusations are rampant, according to the lawyers and the Defense Department records.

One man slammed his hands on the table during an especially long interrogation and yelled, "Fine, you got me; I'm a terrorist." The interrogators knew it was a sarcastic statement. But the government, sometime later, used it as evidence against him: "Detainee admitted he is a terrorist" reads his tribunal evidence. The interrogators were so outraged that they sought out the detainee's personal representative to explain it to him that the statement was not a confession.

The National Journal reported that, according to Michael Scheuer, former head of the CIA's "bin Laden unit," "[b]y the fall of 2002, it was common knowledge around CIA circles that fewer than 10 percent of Guantanamo's prisoners were high-value terrorist operatives."

In addition, a February 8 review of government documents by the Seton Hall law school found, among other things, that "[f]ifty-five percent (55%) of the detainees are not determined to have committed any hostile acts against the United States or its coalition allies" and that "[o]nly 5% of the detainees were captured by United States forces. 86% of the detainees were arrested by either Pakistan or the Northern Alliance and turned over to United States custody. This 86% of the detainees captured by Pakistan or the Northern Alliance were handed over to the United States at a time in which the United States offered large bounties for [the] capture of suspected enemies."

From the February 16 edition of NBC Nightly News:

MIKLASZEWSKI: Four years after the detention camp at Guantánamo Bay first opened, there's increasing international pressure now to shut it down. Today at the United Nations, Secretary General Kofi Annan told the U.S., all Guantánamo prisoners must be granted a fair trial or released.

ANNAN [clip]: And I think it would be up to the government to decide hopefully to do it as soon as is possible.

MIKLASZEWSKI: In Brussels today, the European parliament passed a resolution also urging the U.S. to close Guantánamo, calling it symbolic of all that's wrong in the U.S. "war on terror." The fresh demands followed today's release of a UN report which claims violent force-feeding of prisoners on hunger strike, and some interrogation techniques are actions amounting to torture. But UN investigators never visited Guantánamo because they were denied permission to question the detainees themselves. And today, the White House shot back, calling the UN report a rehash of allegations from prisoners who are trained by Al Qaeda to make false claims about being tortured.

McCLELLAN [clip]: We know that these are dangerous terrorists. They're being kept at Guantánamo Bay. They are people that are determined to harm innocent civilians or harm innocent Americans.

MIKLASZEWSKI: Now, military tribunals may soon begin for only a small handful of prisoners at Guantánamo Bay, but some Pentagon officials already say that it's likely many may never have a day in court.

Posted In
Justice & Civil Liberties, Detention, Interrogation
Network/Outlet
NBC
Show/Publication
NBC Nightly News
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