Dispatch from Guantanamo: Military Commissions, in Fits and Starts

Camp Justice, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba

This assignment was supposed to fulfill a career-long dream. In the ten years I have been employed by Amnesty International USA in research, the opportunity to travel to Guantánamo Bay, Cuba to observe military commission proceedings against the detainees charged with leading involvement in the September 11th terrorist attacks was something I always wanted to experience firsthand.

I flew down to this US Naval station on the southeast edge of Cuba and I arrived Sunday evening just in time to gain my first experience of the ever-changing world of military commission justice when the press briefing rules were amended at the last minute to prevent observers from attending the opening press briefing by the defense and prosecution counsels.

As a human rights researcher, I somewhat knew what to expect. However as an attorney, this morning threw me a relative curveball, even from a military commission process which is now in its third incarnation with multiple legal challenges and stoppages in the past 12 years.  SEE THE REST OF THIS POST

Mad About the NDAA? Join the January 11 Protest in DC

close gitmo rallyLate last night, President Obama signed the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) into law with provisions that restrict the transfer of Guantanamo detainees and further impede closure of the prison. Furthermore, nothing was done to correct provisions in last year’s NDAA that further entrench indefinite military detention, unfair trials, and the U.S. government’s “global war” framework, in U.S. law.

The “global war” framework— which holds that the U.S. government is engaged in a global, pervasive, never-ending “war” with al-Qaeda and other vaguely defined groups and individuals—was first articulated by the Bush administration and has been embraced by the Obama administration.

Expressed in the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force and reaffirmed in the 2012 NDAA, this “global war” doctrine is used to justify everything from killings with drones to detention without charge at Guantanamo to renditions (still happening, according to a Washington Post report) to impunity for crimes under international law, including torture and enforced disappearances.


What’s Going On At Guantanamo This Week? Shhh…It’s A Secret

camp justice guantanamo

Camp justice?

It’s no secret that I’m at Guantánamo this week to observe pre-trial motion hearings in the military commission case against Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and the four other alleged co-conspirators in the 9/11 attacks.

What is secret? According to U.S. authorities, everything the five defendants know, say or write–including about their time in CIA custody. It’s all “presumptively classified” Top Secret/Special Compartmented Information (TS/SCI).  Everything. From torture to what they ate for breakfast.

According to a defense motion filed against “presumptive classification” (one of several motions to be addressed at Guantánamo this week), “If a prisoner says that he misses his family, this information is ‘born classified’ even though no original classification authority would or could ever classify it.”

As Amnesty International’s report, “Wrong Court, Wrong Place, Wrong
Punishment” explains:

The Elephant in the Courtroom

No matter how hard the Military Commissions try they can’t escape the elephant in the courtroom. The five defendants in the 9/11 case were tortured by the CIA and the government is tying itself in knots trying to work around this fact.

In his press conference on the eve of the arraignment the Chief Prosecutor, General Mark Martens, tried to address this issue:

“Some have said that any attempt to seek accountability within the Military Commissions system must inevitably be tainted by torture… we acknowledge your skepticism, but we also say that the law prohibits the use of any statement obtained as a result of torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, and we will implement the law.”

Of course the law also requires the state to investigate allegations of torture – yet in the case of the five defendants being arraigned this hasn’t happened. That might explain some of our skepticism.

Military Commissions: Still a Failure

Camp Justice, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba

Last week a court in Brooklyn convicted Al Qaeda operative Adis Medunjanin of plotting to bomb the New York subway.

Bosnian-born US citizen Medunjanin conspired with Najibullah Zazi and Zarein Ahmedzay to launch a major attack before the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks in 2009.

U.S. intelligence and law enforcement officials disrupted the plot before anyone could get hurt, and arrested those involved.

Make no mistake, this plot represented a serious threat to the United States. It was conceived in 2008 by the then head of Al Qaeda’s external operations, Rashid Rauf.


Coming Face to Face with Torture

Pawiak Prison Museum in Warsaw Poland

Pawiak Prison Museum in Warsaw, Poland.

Last week I had the opportunity to visit the Pawiak Prison Museum in Warsaw, Poland.

During the Nazi occupation of Poland in World War II Pawiak was the largest political prison in the country – approximately 100,000 prisoners passed through its cells.

37,000 of those men and women died in Pawiak – many under interrogation by the Gestapo. Another 60,000 were sent to German concentration camps. Very few survived the war.


3 Things You Can Do To Stop Indefinite Detention & Close Guantanamo


Congress is poised to force through a National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that would violate human rights and undermine the rule of law.

Provisions that were snuck into the bill with little notice from mainsteam media could spell indefinite detention without a hearing, keep Guantanamo open, and hinder fair trials. With your help, we can ensure that human rights violating provisions in the draft bill do not become law.

Here are three things you can do right now:


Stop the Ayotte Amendment and Support Fair Trials

Update: We did it — thanks to your calls, the Senate successfully defeated Senator Ayotte’s amendment to ban fair trials for terror suspects! But the fight isn’t over. Please continue to help fight against other legislation that would keep Guantanamo open.

Sentor Kelly Ayotte R-NH ©Alex Wong/Getty Images

A new and dangerous amendment has been put on the appropriations omnibus bill on the Senate floor today — and now’s the time to pick up the phone and urge your Senators to vote no. Senator Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) has introduced an amendment to H.R. 2112 that would bar all federal trials for foreign terrorist suspects and goes further than any previous attempt to undermine the fight against terrorism.


Doubling Down On Failure At Guantanamo

There are still 172 detainees held at the Guantánamo Bay detention centre © Amnesty International

Released just as President Obama seems to have washed his hands of closing Guantanamo, a new batch of leaked government documents provide fresh insight into just how inadequate, iniquitous and ultimately counterproductive, the US foray into indefinite detention has been.

The new document cache consists of Detainee Assessment Briefs (DABs) – essentially case summaries – produced by intelligence analysts at Guantanamo between 2002 and 2009 that were first leaked to Wikileaks and then by someone in the Wikileaks community to the press.

The picture of Guantanamo that emerges from these new documents is of an arbitrary review process, operating from a presumption of guilt not innocence, thrown together on the fly, and overseen by individuals with so little understanding of cultural nuance that they might as well have been drafted in from Mars.

The New York Times points out that the qualification “possibly” appears 387 times about intelligence used in the files, with the qualifiers “unknown” and “deceptive” appearing 188 times and 85 times respectively. Further proof that the intelligence business is anything but a precise science.