Returning from Guantánamo Bay, O'Reilly continued to downplay torture allegations

››› ››› JULIE MILLICAN

After a visit to the U.S. detention facility in Guantánamo Bay, Bill O'Reilly minimized the seriousness and credibility of allegations that abuses have taken place at the facility.

Returning from a visit to Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, in time for the June 12 editions of Fox News' The O'Reilly Factor and his nationally syndicated radio show, host Bill O'Reilly dedicated much of both programs to downplaying alleged abuses at the Pentagon's detention facility there, also known as Gitmo.

O'Reilly stated that "Guantánamo Bay is being run correctly" and "is necessary for the security of this nation," adding that based on his recent trip, "[t]here's absolutely no evidence that I've seen that says any abuse is taking place at Guantánamo Bay." He repeatedly rejected reported FBI observations of alleged detainee abuse, at one point stating that the FBI observations "don't mean anything" because "[t]he FBI agents have never been on" The O'Reilly Factor to discuss their allegations. Additionally, while purporting to "[i]nterrogat[e] the interrogators," O'Reilly never asked the Guantánamo interrogators about alleged abuses, instead preferring questions about whether the interrogators have ever "gotten a big score out of any of these guys" and "how that score translated into the safety for the country." O'Reilly also suggested that the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) could have been partially responsible for the recent suicides of three Guantánamo detainees, stating that their desire to have "as much privacy for the prisoners as possible ... may have allowed the suicides."

Torture allegations

Throughout both programs, O'Reilly continued to downplay allegations of torture techniques being used during interrogations at the prison. In advance of his trip to Guantánamo, O'Reilly declared on the June 6 O'Reilly Factor that, according to "the far-left press," "[d]egrading treatment" could consist of "mocking the guy's turban" and "torture" could be merely "call[ing] a guy a name."

Upon returning from his trip, O'Reilly repeatedly claimed on the June 12 O'Reilly Factor that although torture allegations exist, "there is no proof of" torture "on the record." O'Reilly did acknowledge that Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld personally authorized, in O'Reilly's words, "coerced interrogation" techniques that resulted in Saudi prisoner Mohamed al-Qahtani's being "treated harshly." However, O'Reilly continued to deny that torture techniques could have been used in Guantánamo, stating that based on his experience at Guantánamo, "[t]here's absolutely no evidence" that such abuse has taken place.

As Media Matters for America has noted, in December 2002, Rumsfeld approved the use of "counter-resistance techniques" by interrogators at Guantánamo Bay, including "use of stress positions (like standing) for a maximum of four hours," "using detainees' individual phobias (such as fear of dogs) to induce stress," and the use of an "isolation facility for up to 30 days." The United Nations and several human-rights groups have stated that such techniques violated Geneva Convention protections against torture and have also noted that the United States had previously declared such techniques to be tantamount to torture. Further, as an April 15 Boston Globe article noted, al-Qahtani, whose interrogation was monitored closely by Rumsfeld, "was subjected to sleep deprivation, stripped naked, forced to wear women's underwear on his head, denied bathroom access until he urinated on himself, threatened with snarling dogs, and forced to perform tricks on a dog leash, among other things."

O'Reilly repeatedly rejected reported FBI observations of alleged detainee abuse because "[t]he FBI agents have never been on the program" to discuss their allegations. O'Reilly claimed: "They won't step up. And until they do, they don't mean anything." Later, O'Reilly asserted that the observations made by "the supposed FBI guys," "never were proven on any level by anybody."

O'Reilly's claim that the FBI's allegations "never were proven" is misleading, at best. As Media Matters has noted, numerous FBI emails released to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) graphically detail many cases of abuse -- including interrogation methods described as "torture techniques" by an FBI agent in one email. Another email by deputy assistant FBI director for counterterrorism T.J. Harrington detailed several agents' accounts of abusive treatment, including one in which a female sergeant "grabbed the detainee's thumbs and bent them backwards and indicated that she also grabbed his genitals." According to Harrington's email, a Marine told the agent who witnessed the incident that past interrogations by the female sergeant had left other "detainees curling into a fetal position on the floor and crying in pain."

Further, As The Washington Post reported May 16, a subsequent investigation into the FBI agents' observations did not appear to dispute whether the interrogation techniques were used, just whether such techniques amounted to torture. From the Post:

An investigation by two generals into FBI allegations of abuse at the facility found that all the tactics taken together could be considered abusive and degrading but concluded that each tactic was individually "authorized" under the Army field manual's guidelines for the "pride and ego down" and "futility" approaches. Pentagon and U.S. Southern Command officials have told Congress and reporters that the approaches were consistent with the field manual.

Although the Post reported that Gen. Bantz J. Craddock, the head of the U.S. Southern Command, stated that the Qahtani interrogation "did not violate any U.S. law or policy," the Post also reported that other military officials disagreed with Craddock's claim that the techniques do not violate military law. According to the Post, "[t]he top lawyers for the Army, Navy and Marine Corps have told Congress that a number of aggressive techniques used by military interrogators on a detainee at the Guantánamo Bay prison were not consistent with the guidelines in the Army field manual on interrogations." Specifically referring to techniques used on al-Qahtani, the lawyers reportedly informed Congress that such techniques, in their view, were not consistent with Army policy and could violate Geneva Convention provisions on torture. Craddock -- head of the U.S. Southern Command, which investigated the FBI's allegations -- was a senior military assistant to Rumsfeld prior to being assigned to head the Southern Command.

Guantánamo prisoners' due-process entitlements

During the "Talking Points Memo" segment opening the program, O'Reilly asserted: "The Guantánamo controversy is easy to define. The Bush administration sees the 460 detainees as prisoners of war. The liberal press and some human-rights groups believe they are criminals entitled to due process." But, the Bush administration does not see "the 460 detainees as prisoners of war" and "[t]he liberal press and some human-rights groups" are hardly the only ones advocating that the Guantánamo detainees be charged with a crime and brought to trial. As noted by Human Rights Watch counterterrorism counsel Katherine Newell-Bierman, the Bush administration has classified most of those being held at Guantánamo as "enemy combatants," not "prisoners of war." As the Associated Press reported, according to the Bush administration, "[t]hat classification ... deprives the detainees of Geneva Convention prisoner-of-war protections and allows them to be held indefinitely without charges."

Additionally, contrary to O'Reilly's suggestion, several Republicans also object to the Bush administration's policy of indefinite detention without due-process rights. Most recently, Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA) criticized the status quo at Guantánamo during the June 11 edition of CNN's Late Edition. Specter argued that since "a great many" of the Guantánamo detainees were "rounded up" based on "the flimsiest sort of hearsay," the lack of due process was a "grave problem." Specter said, "[w]here we have evidence they ought to be tried, and if convicted they ought to be sentenced."

In December 2003, Sens. John McCain (R-AZ), Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Maria Cantwell (D-WA) sent a letter to Rumsfeld seeking information on Guantánamo detainees being held without charges. The letter requested that "in the very near term," the government "either ... formally treat and process the detainees as war criminals or to return them to their countries for appropriate judicial action" According to a June 14, 2005, Inter Press Service (IPS) report, in advance of Senate Judiciary Committee hearings into U.S. detention policies, McCain reiterated his concerns, stating: "I think the key to this is to move the judicial process forward so that these individuals will be brought to trial for any crime that they are accused of, rather than residing in (the) Guantanamo facility in perpetuity."

The same IPS report noted another Republican Senator voicing a similar sentiment. According to IPS, Chuck Hagel of Nebraska "also addressed the broader controversy of how the U.S. can indefinitely hold detainees essentially incommunicado and without charges or trial. 'This can't be a situation where we hold them forever and ever and ever until they die of old age,' he said."

"Interrogating the interrogators"

O'Reilly previewed his trip to Guantánamo as a chance for him to "[i]nterrogat[e] the interrogators." However, during his interview with two unidentified Guantánamo military interrogators, O'Reilly completely ignored allegations of abuse in his questioning, preferring to ask the interrogators such questions as whether bribing prisoners with "ice cream and pizza" is useful for gleaning information. Additionally, O'Reilly lobbed similar softballs during his June 13 interview with Col. Michael Bumgarner, commander of Guantánamo's Camp Delta, though the two did briefly discuss allegations involving the use of torture during interrogations:

  • "Is there a time when it's better to interrogate -- when they're tired, when they're distracted? Something like that?"
  • "So you catch them in a lie. They go, 'So I lied. So what?' Then what do you say?"
  • "So what is it, a macho thing if you catch them in a little lie?"
  • "Do they raise their voice to you? ... Say hateful things to you?"
  • "Why do they want to kill you? ... Just because you don't believe in Allah?"
  • "Have you gotten a big score out of any of these guys? ... Can you tell me how that score translated into the safety for the country?"
  • "So this story about these guys being just innocent bellboys is just a bunch of garbage?"
  • "Were you surprised these guys tried to kill your guys? ... You're nice to them. Why would they want to kill you? ... So they would kill you in a heartbeat?" (June 13 Bumgarner interview)

International Committee of the Red Cross

O'Reilly suggested that the ICRC could be responsible for the recent suicides at Guantánamo -- which occurred"[j]ust hours after" O'Reilly "left the prison." In his "Talking Points Memo," O'Reilly noted that "some of the detainees had covered the small windows that allowed guards to observe them," stating that the military allegedly informed him that the window coverings were present because the ICRC "wants as much privacy for the prisoners as possible." O'Reilly declared: "That privacy may have allowed the suicides."

Additionally, in his continual attempts to show that "Guantánamo Bay is being run correctly and that it is necessary for the security of this nation," O'Reilly claimed to have contacted the ICRC to see if the organization had "any complaints" about the treatment of Guantánamo detainees. According to O'Reilly, the "International Red Cross, left-leaning organization, human-rights organization" said "no." In fact, the ICRC has reportedly documented instances of alleged abuse. As The New York Times reported on November 30, 2004, confidential ICRC reports to the U.S. government apparently noted that a Red Cross inspection team in Guantánamo witnessed physical abuse "tantamount to torture," including temperature extremes, persistent noise, and "some beatings." The ICRC responded to the Times report, and while stating that "the organization was disturbed to see their reports made public," the ICRC did not dispute its contents. Instead, the statement reiterated the organization's policy of handling "concerns that arise during visits with prisoners" by "always discuss[ing] [the concerns] directly and confidentially with the detaining authorities only." Typically, the ICRC keeps its visits and opinions, with few exceptions, confidential.

Potentially innocent detainees

On the June 12 edition of his nationally syndicated radio show, O'Reilly asserted that the claim that some innocent people are being held at Guantánamo "is another left-wing lie." He has repeatedly made similar assertions on previous shows. The following day on the O'Reilly Factor, O'Reilly interviewed Bumgarner and suggested that stories "about all these poor bakers and barbers who they rounded up and threw in" Guantánamo "for no reason" were baseless. However, during an interview with a Guantánamo interrogator that aired on O'Reilly's television and radio programs that day, O'Reilly asked about assertions that some innocents may be or have been held at Guantánamo Bay, specifically referring to a "barber" who "made a wrong turn at Kandahar," Afghanistan. The interrogator responded that while a "very, very high" percentage of Guantánamo detainees are being held legitimately, "[t]hat might be true for just a few of them" who are not. Further, contrary to O'Reilly's apparent suggestion that all detainees held at Guantánamo Bay are guilty, the military has not made such determinations, as no trials have been conducted by the United States to determine the guilt or innocence of the Guantánamo detainees. Only 10 out of 460 detainees have even been charged with a crime. Also, the U.S. government has declared at least 38 different Guantánamo detainees to be innocent of terrorist connections, and in some cases, has still held the individuals as prisoners even after they were cleared.

On November 13, 2001, President Bush issued a military order establishing military commissions for the purpose of trying non-U.S. citizens detained during the course of the war on terror. According to Human Rights Watch, "normal rules of procedure in a court martial do not apply in the military commissions" because hearsay evidence is permissible; verdicts, with the exception of death penalties, are not required to be unanimous; and cases cannot be appealed to civilian courts.

But no trials have been conducted by such commissions, and no one has been tried in civilian court. The military commissions have been used for preliminary proceedings in at least 10 different instances, but stays have been issued in all, postponing proceedings indefinitely. Civilian courts have put trials on hold for at least three different defendants, and on June 10, Appointing Authority for Military Commissions John D. Altenburg Jr. issued a stay "until further notice" for "[a]ll sessions in all cases currently referred to trial by Military Commissions." The Supreme Court is currently reviewing the legality of military commissions in the case Hamdan v. Rumsfeld.

Further, the military has released some detainees after it determined them to be innocent and is currently detaining others at Guantánamo who the military admits are innocent. On May 5, five Chinese Muslims were released from Guantánamo Bay after being cleared of terrorism suspicions more than a year earlier. As ABC News reported on May 23:

Many of Guantánamo's prisoners proclaim they're innocent. What's different about these men, Muslims from China's Uighur minority, is that even American authorities said they were innocent, referring to them as "no longer enemy combatants" or "NLEC." Nevertheless, they remained imprisoned more than a year after their names were cleared -- after the U.S. government determined they did nothing wrong and posed no terrorist threat to America or Americans.

ABC reported that the reason the men were detained after a determination of innocence is that "no country -- including the United States -- would accept them." Sending the men back to China was deemed unacceptable for fear that they would be vulnerable to persecution by the Chinese government. Eventually, Albania agreed to admit the former detainees.

In addition, the Washington Post reported on May 20, that at least four other men still remain at Guantánamo Bay after being designated NLECs. The Post notes that at least 38 former Guantánamo detainees were eventually cleared of ties to terrorism and were reclassified as NLECs. With the exception of the remaining four, all have been released.

Finally, as Media Matters has repeatedly noted, many news reports have indicated that several detainees at Guantánamo Bay are reportedly being held without evidence of having committed hostile acts against the United States, or of having ties to Al Qaeda.

From the June 12 broadcast of Fox News' The O'Reilly Factor:

O'REILLY: Hi, I'm Bill O'Reilly. Thanks for watching us tonight. Inside Guantánamo Bay, that's the subject of this evening's "Talking Points Memo" and most of the Factor.

Just hours after I left the prison at Gitmo last Friday, three detainees committed suicide, the first fatalities at the camp since it was set up shortly after 9-11.

The Joint Army/Navy Task Force granted the Factor almost total access to the prison. And ironically, I asked the colonel in charge of the cells why some of the detainees had covered the small windows that allowed guards to observe them.

The colonel replied that the International Red Cross wants as much privacy for the prisoners as possible. That privacy may have allowed the suicides.

The Guantánamo controversy is easy to define. The Bush administration sees the 460 detainees as prisoners of war. The liberal press and some human rights groups believe they are criminals entitled to due process.

The Joint Task Force in Gitmo, more than 1,000 military people, do not make policy. They institute it. So the bulk of my reporting tonight is not about the political controversy. It's about the prison itself.

Although some have called Gitmo a place where torture is practiced, there is no proof of that on the record. It is true that Mohamed al-Qahtani, thought to be directly involved with the 9-11 attack, was treated harshly. Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld ordered that Qahtani could be subjected to coerced interrogation, including loud noise, the presence of a dog, and sleep deprivation.

But outside of that, the detainees at Gitmo have been treated humanely, the military says. They have access to the International Red Cross and civilian lawyers.

[...]

O'REILLY: That prisoner screaming in Arabic. Obviously, the military showed us what they wanted us to see. But again, there's absolutely no evidence that I've seen that says any abuse is taking place at Guantánamo Bay.

Nevertheless, the left continues to call for the prison to be closed. People like Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi are adamant about it.

But where do we send these people? They'd be executed inside civilian prisons. And why shift them to a military prison inside the USA? There's no reason to do that.

[...]

So "Talking Points" is convinced Guantánamo Bay is being run correctly and that it is necessary for the security of this nation. And that's the "Memo."

[...]

O'REILLY: You've got 30 seconds.

NEWELL-BIERMAN: You've got FBI agents who witnessed detainees shackled in the fetal position for 18 to 24 hours, urinating and defecating on themselves. They were so crazed they had yanked out piles of their own hair. Let's talk about allegations which were substantiated.

O'REILLY: They have -- those are allegations, and that is all they are.

NEWELL-BIERMAN: Let's talk about -- those are allegations made by FBI agents. You don't trust your government to do that? I think there's a lot of controversy, and there needs to be a good investigation.

O'REILLY: I never, look -- the FBI agents have never been on this program. We've never seen them, counselor. They won't step up. And until they do, they don't mean anything. But I appreciate your point of view.

NEWELL-BIERMAN: How you can ask them to in this kind of circumstance?

O'REILLY: All right, I appreciate your point of view.

NEWELL-BIERMAN: Bill, here let's talk about this.

[...]

KIRSTEN POWERS [Fox News analyst]: Well, that's strange, because they did a report that made allegations about what they called was torture, basically.

O'REILLY: Not anymore.

POWERS: So I'm not sure why they're not saying that.

O'REILLY: Not anymore.

POWERS: And they had, they had -- and actually, I think it had been leaked to The New York Times. I don't know if they actually released the report.

O'REILLY: Oh, what a shock.

POWERS: But, yeah.

O"REILLY: Here's -- let me tell you what happened. These allegations -- and the captain referred to them in a segment before you guys -- these allegations never were proven, on any level, by anybody. So they basically drifted away. All of -- the imam that came back, the supposed FBI guys. Never could they document it.

So right now we have is, I think, a stable situation. Do you disagree?

POWERS: I think that there is a perception problem with Guantánamo and that they need to -- I agree with what the human-rights lawyer was saying, that there needs to be some sort of movement in terms of whether -- how these people are tried. Now, there's the problem of, are they tried by military commissions? Can they be.

O'REILLY: But that isn't a problem.

POWERS: Well, can they be?

O'REILLY: Of course they're going to be tried.

[...]

MICHELLE MALKIN [right-wing pundit]: Human rights, chicken civ, little civ --

O'REILLY: In the last two years, I think that --

MALKIN: Yeah.

O'REILLY: In the last two years, I think you're right. Before that, there were some guys who were roughed up, not to the extent of Abu Ghraib or anything like that, but they were.

But here's what tipped me over, Kirsten, on my, on my point of view. The International Red Cross has actually a little station on Guantánamo Bay, where they are most of the time, OK? So they can visit any detainee at any time at this prison. We called them today and said, 'Do you have any complaints, one complaint?" International Red Cross, left-leaning organization, human-rights organization. "No."

From the June 12 edition of Westwood One's The Radio Factor:

CALLER: I understand. If you're, if you're claiming they're enemy combatants, still sooner or later you're gonna have to show that you are correct in your assertation [sic] that they are indeed enemy combatants and not people that happened to be in the area at the time. Everybody over there carries weapons. Everybody carries weapons over there.

O'REILLY: All right, but look.

CALLER: But if they're carrying a weapon, does that make an enemy combatant?

O'REILLY: Is there any urgency on it? Um, they -- look, it takes a, it takes a lot of doing to get to Guantánamo Bay, a lot of doing. You gotta go through three uh, interrogations at the point of capture. Cause they're just not sending barbers over, which is another left-wing lie. Um, but anyway, military tribunals -- the way to go here. That's the way to go here.

[...]

O'REILLY: I had a human rights guy tell me on the Factor that a lot of these guys are barbers and they just made a wrong turn at Kandahar and they shouldn't be here at all.

INTERROGATOR: That might be true for just a few of them. Um, but the fact of the matter is uh, that's their story. And nine times out of 10, we have a tremendous amount of information, sometimes given to us by other detainees, that they weren't barbers. So --

O'REILLY: Is it 90 percent of the time?

INTERROGATORS: Um, I can't place a, an exact percentage on it, but it's very high, very high.

O'REILLY: So this story about these guys being just innocent bellboys is just a bunch of garbage?

Interrogator: Yes, sir.

From the June 13 edition of The O'Reilly Factor:

O'REILLY: They, they, they, they have a little Guantánamo Bay cell.

BUMGARNER: Absolutely. No doubt about it.

O'REILLY: But what about all these poor bakers and barbers who they rounded up and threw in here for no reason?

BUMGARNER: I'm looking for them, sir.

[laughter]

BUMGARNER: I'm looking for them. They're out there somewhere, I reckon.

O'REILLY: Because that's what the Human Rights Watch tells me.

BUMGARNER: Oh, I know, I know they tell you that. I wish -- you know, sir, again, those that come here see it, walk it --

O'REILLY: Yeah.

BUMGARNER: -- leave with a different opinion. These folks are not what folks paint in the media out there. Not at all. These are not good guys. I stake my reputation and my, my, my life as a career military policeman on this. No if, ands, or buts.

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