Conservative media dismiss Gitmo abuse as “stressful,” ignore gruesome first-hand accounts

In recent weeks, conservatives in the media have described allegations of detainee abuse at the Pentagon's detention facility in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, as merely “stressful,” “unpleasant,” and “nothing to be ashamed of,” among other harmless-sounding characterizations. But first-hand accounts by FBI agents and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) of severe prisoner abuse paint a much grimmer picture of detainee treatment at Guantánamo.

What conservatives say about Gitmo

Some conservative commentators cited passages from an article in the June 20 issue of Time magazine, which detailed the interrogation of the so-called “20th hijacker,” Al Qaeda operative Mohammed al-Qahtani:

  • National Review editor Rich Lowry insisted in his June 14 syndicated column that the “U.S. has nothing to be ashamed of” at Guantánamo. Lowry listed the interrogation methods reportedly used on al-Qahtani, according to Time: He was “deprived of sleep,” “forced to watch a puppet show satirizing his involvement with al Qaeda,” “made to stand for the national anthem,” “made briefly to stand naked and occasionally told to bark like a dog.” Lowry concluded, “This was as bad as it got at Gitmo.”
  • Radio talk show host Michael Smerconish stated: “I've read the Time magazine piece. Where is the abuse? We shaved the guy's beard. We played Christina Aguilera music and we pinned 9-11 victim photos to his lapel. That's abuse?” [MSNBC's Hardball With Chris Matthews, 6/15/05]
  • A Washington Times editorial also relied purely on the Time account to describe the treatment of Guantánamo detainees as merely “unpleasant”: “Time reports that interrogators did a number of unpleasant things to al Qahtani to get him to talk. These included shaving his beard, stripping him naked, ordering him to bark like a dog, depriving him of sleep -- to the music of Christina Aguilera, no less -- and violating his 'personal space' with a vulgar female interrogator.” [6/14/05]

Others offered more sweeping, non-specific judgments:

What the evidence shows about Gitmo

These claims ignore mounting evidence of severe mistreatment of detainees at Guantánamo. Those who purported to summarize the treatment of al-Qahtani that Time reported conveniently omitted the most gruesome treatment it described. For example: “The log notes he [al-Qahtani] is given 3 1/2 bags of IV fluid. He starts to moan and asks again to be allowed to relieve himself. Yes, but first he must answer questions.” Time also made clear that the record it obtained of Qahtani's treatment “is ... plainly incomplete: there are numerous gaps in the notes about what is said and what is happening in the interrogation booth.” One such gap involves the use of dogs: “The log reveals that a dog is present, but no details are given beyond a hazy reference to a disagreement between the military police and the dog handler.” It is clear, however, that al-Qahtani's treatment was sufficiently harsh to induce psychological effects: “The FBI letter said al-Qahtani had been 'subjected to intense isolation for over three months' and 'was evidencing behavior consistent with extreme psychological trauma (talking to non existent people, reporting hearing voices, crouching in a cell covered with a sheet for hours on end).' ”

More importantly, the Time article is only the latest piece of evidence of how Guantánamo detainees have been treated.

A series of FBI emails, which a court ordered the government to release in December 2004 in response to lawsuits filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups under the Freedom of Information Act, document the abuse. The documents are all available on the ACLU website. One FBI email described abuse in graphic terms:

On a couple of occassions [sic], I entered interview rooms to find a detainee chained hand and foot in a fetal position to the floor, with no chair, food, or water. Most times they had urinated or defacated [sic] on themselves and had been left there for 18, 24 hours or more. On one occassion [sic], the air conditioning had been turned down so far and the temperature was so cold in the room, that the barefooted detainee was shaking with cold. When I asked the [military police guards] what was going on, I was told that interrogators from the day prior had ordered this treatment, and the detainee was not to be moved. On another occassion [sic], the A/C had been turned off, making the temperature in the unventilated room probably well over 100 degrees. The detainee was almost unconscious on the floor with a pile of hair next to him. He had apparently been literally pulling his own hair out throughout the night.

Another FBI email specifically referred to the use of “torture techniques” by Department of Defense interrogators who allegedly impersonated “Supervisory Special Agents of the FBI” while questioning a detainee at Guantánamo. While the FBI redacted the description of the interrogator's actions, the author asserted that these tactics “produced no intelligence of a threat neutralization nature” and complained that if the detainee were “ever released or his story made public in any way ... the FBI will be left holding the bag before the public.”

A third FBI document, a letter written by deputy assistant FBI director for counterterrorism T.J. Harrington, urged the Pentagon to investigate several disturbing incidents that his agents had witnessed at Guantánamo, including the following:

The detainee was shackled and his hands were cuffed to his waist. [REDACTED] observed [REDACTED] apparently whispering in the detainee's ear and caressing and applying lotion to his arms (this was during Ramadan when physical contact with a woman would have been particularly offensive to a Moslem male.) On more than one occasion the detainee appeared to be grimacing in pain and [REDACTED] hands appeared to be making some contact with the detainee. Although [REDACTED] could not see her hands at all times. He saw them moving toward the detainee's lap. He also observed the detainee pulling away and against the restraints. Subsequently, the marine who previously taped the curtain and had been in the interrogation room with [REDACTED] during the interrogation re-entered the observation room. [REDACTED] asked what had happened to cause the detainee to grimace in pain. The marine said [REDACTED] had grabbed the detainee's thumbs and bent them backwards and indicated that she also grabbed his genitals. The marine also implied that her treatment of the detainee was less harsh than her treatment of others by indicating that he had seen her treatment of other detainees result in detainees curling into a fetal position on the floor and crying in pain.

The same letter contained a description of another detainee who had reportedly been “subjected to intense isolation for longer than three months ... in a cell that was always flooded with light.” The Time article has now revealed that the detainee whose name was redacted in this email was al-Qahtani:

In September or October of 2002, FBI agents observed that a canine was used in an aggressive manner to intimidate detainee [REDACTED} and, in November 2002, FBI agents observed Detainee [REDACTED] after he had been subjected to intense isolation for over three months. During that time period, [REDACTED] was totally isolated (with the exception of occasional interrogations) in a cell that was always flooded with light. By late November, the detainee was 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).

Finally, the letter describes an incident in which a detainee was “gagged with duct tape that covered much of his head.” This phrase is redacted in the version of the letter posted on the ACLU's website, but CNN quoted it in a December 8, 2004, article, and Newsweek paraphrased it a January 5 online report. CNN reported that "[a] contractor observing the detainee's interrogation told the FBI agent the detainee 'had been chanting the Koran and would not stop.' "

Spurred by the release of these documents, the U.S. Southern Command is conducting an investigation into abuse at Guantánamo, though lawmakers, human rights groups, and former President Jimmy Carter have called for an independent investigation.

The ICRC has also described prisoner abuse at Guantánamo. Contrary to the Journal's claim quoted above, “indefinite detention” alone was not the basis for the ICRC's use of the phrase “tantamount to torture.” The New York Times, which first obtained a memo that summarizes the confidential report of the ICRC, reported that the Red Cross delegation cited the use of “temperature extremes, persistent noise, and 'some beatings.' ”

Though their accounts have not been confirmed, numerous detainees have also complained of severe abuse at Guantánamo. For example, One detainee “alleges that U.S. military guards jumped on his head until he had a stroke that paralyzed his face, nearly drowned him in a toilet and later broke several of his fingers” [The Washington Post, 4/14/05]. Lawyers for this detainee have sued the Defense and Justice departments to force them to the release of a video recording of this treatment that they believe the government has. The detainee is one of six detainees who are suing these departments to obtain information on alleged torture.