Clive Stafford Smith
Legal Rights NGO
A 1984 graduate of Columbia Law School in New York, Stafford Smith founded the Louisiana Crisis Assistance Center in New Orleans where he specialized in low-income death penalty cases in Louisiana, Mississippi and other southern states. A dual U.S.-British citizen, Stafford Smith is the founder and now legal director of Reprieve, a non-governmental legal rights organization whose clients include more than 40 prisoners who have been in U.S. custody during the war on terror. He is the author of the 2007 book, "The Eight O'Clock Ferry to the Windward Side: Seeking Justice in Guantanamo Bay," a chronicle of his experiences representing detainees at the prison camp.
Clive Stafford Smith on...
Interview: October 24, 2007
I want to begin by getting your reaction to the seemingly benign terms that the US uses for some of its interrogation and detention policies: "rendition" and "enhanced interrogation techniques," for example.
To me, they're lies, damned lies, and semantics, and what we've dealt with for the last few years is a whole series of that where the Bush administration denies that they do something that they're blatantly doing. And the whole issue of torture was one, for example, that I never thought when I was in law school in New York that I would one day sit across the table from one of my clients and talk to him about how he had been tortured by the United States and at the behest of the United States. And it's just shocking, and it doesn't matter what word they use for it, "enhanced interrogation techniques" or whatever, it's the same thing.
You've done some research into the history of some of these "enhanced interrogation techniques." Tell me a bit about that.
When I was looking into what was happening to my clients, you know, there's the progeny of it, you want to go back into where all of this came from and why people came up with it, and there are some things that sound relatively benign until they happen to you, and one of them, for example, is being hanged up by the wrists with your feet just off the ground. And you know, until you try it, and I don't advise you to try it at home, but people think that's not such a big deal. Actually, that goes back to the Middle Ages. It was called strappado, by the Spanish Inquisition, and it basically dislocates your shoulders slowly and very painfully. If you do it with your hands behind your back and you're hung by your wrists there, so, you know, you're hanging up like this, then that's reverse strappado and I can assure you that's a lot worse. And you through these different things, there's falaka, that's when you beat people on the soles of the feet, again, I didn't realize how excruciatingly painful that was. Well that's a Saudi technique. There's a whole line of them also that come from what the Nazis used to do and, you know, that's just torture; there's no nice way of putting it.
And the United States has always considered these methods torture.
Not only have we as Americans considered these things torture, but we've also said how outrageous and wrong they are and for all the different reasons: That it's morally wrong, that it's stupid because you don't get information that's of any value, and so forth. And yet somehow -- and you can see ultimately, you can trace back why -- that somehow the Bush administration has allowed itself to be lured in to forgetting 500 years of history.
And temperature manipulation?
There are these various euphemisms. Temperature manipulation doesn't sound like a big deal, I mean maybe you're in England in winter, but my goodness, when you sit in a room and it's freezing cold and you've got no clothes on and they tip water over you, or alternatively then you're put to the other end and it's really boiling hot where you are, you know, those are different things that break down your resistance. There are many other aspects, you know, you might be deprived of sleep. That can go on for days and days and days. And, you know, another thing I learned, I didn't know this, is that if you keep a human being awake consecutively for nine days or ten days or roundabout that time, they'll just die. And all of this contributes to just breaking the human being down. My clients have told me actually fairly consistently that the physical torture is not nearly as bad as the psychological torture. And, you know, when you think about that of course it makes sense because the physical torture, horrible though it is, painful though it is, nevertheless, when you start breaking someone's mind and when they start to think they're going crazy, you know, that's the worst thing of all. And if I were to ask you, for example, you know, would you rather be blinded and lose your sight or lose your mind, then everyone would say, however awful it is to be blinded, they'd rather that than to be insane. And so the prisoners who go through this torture by music or the, you know, psychological torture with drugs have said, "Oh that, you know, that's even worse." There are many types of torture that are very culturally specific. So, for example, when they talk about manipulating or exploiting individual phobias, what that translates into plain English as is setting the dogs on prisoners because there's these studies been done to show that Muslims, in particular, are afraid of dogs. And there was a book -- and this is really perverse -- but it was a book written about Muslim culture that went through all the things about Muslims that are more sensitive to someone from that culture. And it was a book that was written sympathetically to try and educate us, but that book has now been twisted around by these torturers to use against Muslims for what they're most sensitive about. And sexual things are a huge one.
The anal cavity search, a regular part of the takeout, particularly for the CIA renditions, it happens once and then they arrive at the next destination and it happens again.
There is no excuse for these anal cavity searches. You know, in prison, the issue there normally is that someone's smuggling drugs into the prison. Well there's none of that going on with these guys, I mean, drugs are an anathema to most of the prisoners and where are they going to get them from anyhow. This is not done for any good reason; it's done purely to humiliate the prisoners. And let's face it, the folk who are abusing them know what they're up to because those prisoners hate it passionately.
We now know from a lot of reporting that all of these interrogation methods that you've been talking about have been used on prisoners in US custody in many places, the secret prisons, the prisons in Afghanistan, but also at Guantanamo.
I should say we haven't touched on the worst things. The worst experience I think I've had so far was sitting across the table from Binyam Mohamed and talking about what happened to him in terms of -- three days I sat there and he poured out everything that had gone on to him and included, you know, taking a razor blade to his penis, for goodness sake, and there were worse things than that. And he told me some things that I'm allowed to say publicly and some things that he thought were just so far beyond the pale that he won't let me talk about them; I'm not going to. Those were horrendous.
And he's still in Guantanamo.
When I read these things that are stated by the Bush administration that Guantanamo is somehow some sort of Club Med in the Caribbean, I mean it's just ridiculous. In fact, it's got worse recently. I think there was an effort made to clear it up somewhat and I should qualify everything I say by this: I think there's a lot of decent, young American men and women in Guantanamo who've been given an indecent job. And I don't mean to be critical of them, but, you know some of us, any of us who are placed in a position like that and ordered to do things, you know, I'm much more sympathetic with the little people than the people in charge.
I've spent more than 20 years representing people facing capital punishment and other serious crimes around the deep South and I've been to almost every serious death row that there is in the deep South, and Guantanamo's worse than any of those prisons, far worse. And it's far worse for many reasons. It's not just the facilities and how the prisoners are locked up 23 hours a day. It's not just the fact that these prisoners have not been tried for any crime and yet they're not allowed to see their families or talk to their families on the phone. It's that there's this physical abuse of people that is just beyond the pale of humanity. And there are many examples I could give.
There are new terms that have come into our lexicon like ERFing, that means sending in the emergency reaction force to just beat these prisoners up. And you know, the worst injury that's happened to an American guard in Guantanamo was when he was pretending to be the prisoner in a cell extraction and the other guards didn't know he was not a real prisoner and they beat him so badly, his name's Baker, that he got brain damage. And this stuff happens in Guantanamo far too much.
But there are other things and little things that just show an attitude. When we talk about the hunger strikes of the prisoners, there are many interesting philosophical issues about whether you can and should force feed someone on hunger strike, but one thing is blatantly obvious: you shouldn't torture them. And yet, General Bantz Craddock went in the New York Times and said that they methods they were using to try to break the hunger strike were intentionally done to make it more painful. They were taking 110-centimeter tube and not just stuffing it up the nose twice a day, but pulling it out after each time that they force fed the prisoner to make it painful. Well that's despicable; that is un-American.
And there were other little things. I went in to see one of my clients on hunger strike one day and he had the tube up his nose -- his name was Shaker Amer -- and it gave you a really sore throat and I had sore throat lozenges on me as I always do, I've got some in my pocket right now, and I took these things and I gave one to Shaker, just to help alleviate his sore throat. And the next time I went to Guantanamo the contraband list of things that were illegal to take into your clients included sore throat lozenges. Now that sort of attitude, which I'm afraid is endemic in Guantanamo Bay, is a real problem and it's uncivilized.
General Miller, when he was there, and others have called Guantanamo, back in 2002-2003, a "battle lab" for interrogation.
One of the terrifying things about the people who have been in charge of Guantanamo Bay is what unmitigated amateurs they are. General Miller, for example, who made his name in connection with Abu Ghraib, but before that was in Guantanamo Bay, he's an artillery officer; he knows absolutely nothing about running a prison and absolutely nothing about interrogating prisoners to get intelligence that's of any validity. And while he may be the world's greatest soldier, and I don't mean to question his ability to act as a soldier, he doesn't know what he's doing when he's running a prison. And it's having people like this in charge of this process that has caused so many problems because they go in there, best of intentions probably, and then experiment on things that they have no earthly idea about and as a consequence, they have cost America very dearly.
Was General Miller getting orders from Washington?
I think there's no doubt that the people in charge in Guantanamo were carrying out what the Pentagon was telling them, whether that was Donald Rumsfeld directly or whomever. And they were just under a lot of pressure to get valuable intelligence and they thought the way that you do it is you can't make an omelet without cracking a few eggs, so let's crack a few heads. They got information, sure enough. That information was, in my opinion, for the most part unmitigated drivel. And at the same time, even if you did get valid information, you wouldn't know what that was because you couldn't sort the wheat from the chaff. And, you know, I can't talk about classified evidence and I never will in public of course, but I've seen an awful lot of both the open evidence and the classified evidence. And the claims that we're getting very, very powerful intelligence from Guantanamo are totally false. And second, I mean, it stands to reason, you've had these guys locked up for six years, you're certainly not getting anything now, they don't know what's going on in the world; they don't know anything.
The techniques, the "enhanced interrogation techniques" authorized by the White House and by Donald Rumsfeld were certainly across the board and of course if you give an inch people take a mile and they do that thinking that they're doing what you, Donald Rumsfeld, would want. And as a consequence there was systematic brutality of prisoners, you know, in all these different prisons, not just Guantanamo Bay. And that -- you know, you can put the scales out there and you can think, "Well, what have we gained," well I think precious little, but what have we lost?
It was best put by a CIA agent who said that because of these awful things, the hypocrisy where we say we're standing up for justice and the rule of law and at the same time we're doing these terrible things, that we've actually created people around the world. For every prisoner in Guantanamo, the guy, the CIA agent said we've created ten people who want to do us harm and blow us up. And I think that's probably an underestimate, sadly.
But it's not just the interrogators who are encouraged to go beyond the pale by all of this, it's also the guards who are encouraged to treat prisoners badly as part of this whole process.
And they're being told from the beginning that the people that they were dealing with were "the worst of the worst" -- all of the phrases that came out of the mouths of high members of the administration.
One of the things that got me when I first went to see Moazzam Begg, who's just a very well spoken, polite guy, was he was telling me a story about the early days in Camp Echo where you had the cell divided in two. And the prisoner was on one side and 24 hours a day on the other side some poor guard had to sit there staring at the prisoner before they put cameras in these places.
And he told me about this one guard who came in who was sort of trembling like a leaf. And he finally engaged her in conversation. She had been told that he was some sort of Hannibal the Cannibal Lecter and he was a serial assassin and if she got too close to the fence he'd bite through and get her face. Anyway, when he quit laughing I think he gave her about three week's therapy to try to calm her down. She'd been filled with all this nonsense, and of course that makes the relationship between the prisoner and the guard very, very difficult because the guards are afraid, they treat the prisoners badly, the prisoners are treated badly, they then respond in kind. And it makes the whole place impossible and all of this was part of what can only be described as unmitigated propaganda that was provided to the guards about the prisoners.
The propaganda that the guards heard was the same stuff that was given to the world. And I've got a little file on my computer of all the silly things that, you know, President Bush, Vice President Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, all these senior people were telling to the world about how these are the worst of the worst prisoners in the world, the most dangerous terrorists anywhere, get close they all want to kill millions of Americans. And, you know, this turns out to be just totally false.
In terms of what the president said about the prisoners, certainly huge numbers of Americans accepted that as the truth. And let's face it, you know, when I first went to Guantanamo, to be candid, I thought I was going to meet a bunch of guys who were fighting on the battlefield in Afghanistan. I trusted that President Bush wouldn't just be lying to the nation. And it came as a great surprise to me how wrong this all was. And if there's one thing in a way that, I think, distills the damage that Guantanamo has done along with Abu Ghraib, it's this: That if one of my clients, alleged to be a terrorist, whether he is or not we don't know, we haven't had a trial, but if he stands up and says "I was tortured by American personnel," and at the other side President Bush stands up and says, "We don't torture, we never would, we never have," ninety-nine percent of the world will believe that supposed terrorist over the President of the United States, and that's shocking. What President Bush has done to the credibility of our institutions is very sad.
Moazzam Begg. Tell me about when you first met him in Guantanamo, the kinds of things he told you that happened to him.
I saw Moazzam Begg in Guantanamo. It was my first trip down there, which was November 2004, and I wasn't prepared for this anymore than I think he was. And I sit down with him across the table in Camp Echo and we just start talking about what had happened to him. And he went through a whole number of things, many of which he doesn't discuss in his book. His book underestimates what he went through and one of the reasons for that is that this torture process is so humiliating, he really doesn't want to relive that in public every day. And I won't go into everything he told me but I'll tell you this: I think the thing that he found most painful was what the Spanish Inquisition referred to as "second degree torture" rather than torture in the first degree, which is where either you see some torture that you're going to get later or where they torture someone else who you love to try and get you to talk.
Moazzam, he'd been seized in Pakistan with his wife and family. He didn't know what had happened to his wife, and he was so worried about that -- and he was absolutely convinced that his wife was next door, he was being told she was and being tortured. And that was the thing that he found most painful. And, you know, that was one of the first of many revelations to me. I'd never really thought about that sort of torture.
Once your notes were cleared by the Pentagon, you wrote a memo.
The process is this: that I sit there and I write notes in Guantanamo Bay. I can't take my notes away. I have to seal them in an envelope, give them to the folk there and they mail them to this place near Washington and then I have to get them unclassified.
So I sat down and wrote up this 30 page memo about what Moazzam had been through and it included the torture he had suffered. It included evidence about two homicides committed by American personnel in Bagram Air Force Base. And I submit that to get it unclassified. Every single word was classified -- censored -- and it was the basis for the censorship that I found so bizarre. I was told that it was censored because this was evidence of the methods and means of interrogation of people in United States custody. And, you know, translated into English, what we're talking about here is that they do the crime, US personnel do the crime, I do the time if I reveal that to the American people or to the appropriate authorities, that we have to keep this secret because this is the means of our interrogation. It's crazy.
So, you had also talked about in your notes, you had talked about Moazzam's mental condition, his psychological condition as it appeared to you?
I had a whole section that I wrote up about what he was suffering, clearly PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder. Moazzam suffered from a number of issues and I wanted to bring those to the attention of the British government because that was his home government and I was very concerned about him. I was told about his mental health, that that's classified as well and I could never quite work that one out. I mean, they indicated to me that this was all to do with his privacy and therefore I couldn't take it out, but come on. I'm his lawyer, he's given me permission. And yet, that wasn't permitted. It was all covering everything up. It's something we should have learned about in Watergate, that you don't do that sort of thing.
So you wrote a letter to then-Prime Minister Blair?
Well, I was sitting there incredibly frustrated that I couldn't talk about torture and mental health problems and I thought, "How on Earth can I bring this to the attention to the people who need to know?" So I wrote this letter to Prime Minister Blair, I wrote a letter to John McCain. And I said, you know, in re, "Mistreatment of British nationals in American custody and British complicity in this." And I wrote, "Dear Prime Minister," and wrote the whole thing and at the end I wrote, "anything that's been taken out of this letter has been censored by the United States because they don't want you and the British people to know about it. Yours sincerely, Clive."
Every single thing was censored, except for the intro that said it was all about abusing prisoners and except for the sentence at the end that said, "Anything taken out was through the censors." So of course we published that in the British papers just to embarrass these folk. We published this sort of blacked-out letter that showed that no one could know the truth about anything, and I think that contributed to embarrassing these people into letting some of the truth come out.
I think a huge part of this in Moazzam's case and various other prisoners' cases was that they were released very quickly before all of this stuff came out in the hopes that somehow releasing them would prevent real embarrassment.
As a lawyer, is that frustrating to you that it's public relations more than any legal avenues that have helped your clients most?
I think it's very sad that the legal system hasn't helped our clients that much. And it's pretty stark when you look at the number of prisoners who have been released from Guantanamo, about 440 as of the date we're talking. The number released through judicial opinion is zero, whereas the number released through public pressure of one sort or another is 100 percent. So, you know, what that teaches you is A, the judicial system is just not working properly at the moment and that's largely because of the obfuscation of the Bush administration. But at the same time there's a very positive note and that is the court of public opinion is working quite effectively, and in part that is our job as lawyers is to bring power to someone who is in a powerless situation. And it should be through the courts, but if it can't be it has to be through other means, legitimate means, of course.
Once Moazzam was released -- and I'm not asking for information that's private -- how well did he work through the trauma?
When Moazzam got out, in some ways it was easier for him than others. I think he had been through a lot of terrible things, and I don't mean to down play for one second the impact on him, but Moazzam's a very smart guy and he was able to work through it in part as a sort of, I don't know, as a catharsis in writing the book he wrote. And that was really good for him to work through it that way. And he came through it very positively, that when you talk to him he doesn't hate Americans, thank goodness, and he doesn't even hate the people who may have mistreated him in Guantanamo, and that's wonderful. It's been much harder for other people. For some of the folk who don't have the benefits that Moazzam had, it's been very much harder. They've been trapped in their past history and they're not for the most part sort of angry, but they just haven't been able to get the psychological help that they need.
Begin to fit back in.
Yes. I mean, I think of some of even the people in Britain who have come back here who didn't have the benefit of being able to work through things that Moazzam has worked through, who just sort of go into their little flats in London or wherever it might be and just sit there. They don't know what to do. They really have been traumatized, and that's what torture does to you.
Something I've learned about, that again I wish I'd never had cause to, is torture victim syndrome and what it does to people when they are tortured. And certainly you have the flashbacks and the nightmares and all of that, but it also breaks down your most fundamental trust in the people around you. One shocking thing I find, it's difficult for us as lawyers to establish trust with the clients because of what they've been through, but it's actually quite difficult for the prisoner's mother to reestablish trust with the client. Because, you know, you and I travel through life happily knowing that no one's going to grab us off the street and torture us and that's one of the fundamental certainties that we're used to. When that breaks down, when someone does grab you off the street and tortures you, that just rocks the entire foundation of your world and it makes it very difficult to trust anything that's happening after that.
Can you talk about Ahmed Errachidi, who he was and when you first met him, what you learned about his case?
One of the things I love about Ahmed Errachidi is it's such a monstrous mistake that his was. In Guantanamo Bay, the Department of Defense really though that Ahmed Errachidi was Mr. Big, that he was the general of al-Qaeda, the leader of the al-Qaeda military wing in Guantanamo Bay. And he had insisted to them for ages, "No, no, no, you know, this is all a big mistake." When I finally got in to see him, which was four years into his incarceration almost, he had said that at the time that the military said he was training people in Khalden training camp in Afghanistan he was actually in London cooking eggs at the Westbury Hotel, and we were able to establish very quickly that that was the absolute truth. And Ahmed put it best, he said, "I am the cook who became the general. The crack of an egg has become the explosion of a bomb," in the minds of some of these intelligence folk.
So we proved that. And one of the other things that of course we were able to show is there was this intelligence officer who said, "Oh, you know, he's faking this mental illness, he's faking this stutter, he's faking all of these things," but we've got his mental health records from when he was put in a mental hospital here in London. And he was interrogated in Guantanamo when he was psychotic.
They kept on interrogating him when he was psychotic and, you know, it almost makes you laugh if it wasn't true that he's asked, "Are you a foot soldier of Bin Laden," and he says, "No, I am the general." And then he goes on to say that there's a very large snowball that's about to envelope the earth and all the guards should warn their families so they can all get at peace with God. It's crazy stuff. And I'm glad to say that this is one of the very few instances where the military has effectively admitted they were wrong, I mean, they'll never really come out and admit it, but they sent him home. And I got to visit him with his family in Tangier. And, you know, he is a cook. He's not a general at all.
You wrote that his confession was emblematic.
The way it works is this: The US is dropping all these leaflets and we've got plenty of copies of them around Pakistan and Afghanistan offering five thousand dollars as a bounty for turning people in. Five thousand dollars to folk there is an enormous amount of money; it translates to about a quarter of a million dollars say in America. So the question is, would you snitch on the person around you for a quarter of a million dollars simply to say, "Oh, this person I saw him at the Khalden training camp." Well, of course, many people would do that. Then, we take Ahmed Errachidi and we apply "enhanced interrogation techniques" on him. How long does it take for him to say, "Okay, I was at the Khalden training camp"?
Whereupon, you know, we're not torturing him because we're trying to torture an innocent person; we think he's guilty and when he says he's guilty we say, "Wow, well that's great. We've proved it." That gets you a one-way ticket to Guantanamo Bay where you don't get a trial and you don't get real lawyers for years. And so you then say, "Well, you know, I'm innocent. I didn't do that." And they say, "Ah yeah, well you confessed to it and we'll give you a CSRT," a combatant status review tribunal, translates into English as a kangaroo court. And they'll rubber stamp the fact you're an enemy combatant and that's that. So there's this circularity when we abandon public justice, when we abandon an open society in favor of a secret society. And goodness knows we make enough mistakes in our open society in our legal system. We don't need to make it all secret.
What about Shaker Amer?
Shaker Amer's another person that the military thinks is Mr. Big and he's not. The reason they think he's Mr. Big is because he's very, very eloquent. So many of my clients in Guantanamo are thought to be particularly bad guys, because of course I've ended up representing a lot of the people with connections to Britain who speak English very well. And inevitably then they become the interlocutors between the American soldiers and the prisoners, because all these other guys speak Arabic. So, then there's the assumption that they are the leaders as opposed to merely the ones who speak English. And Shaker is a very, very eloquent man. He's accused of various things that are self-evidently false but because he became a leader in Guantanamo, the military there are afraid of him, basically. They don't want him having influence on other prisoners when he's asserting these radical ideas, such as the fact that the prisoners should be treated fairly and get fair trials.
So he was locked up in solitary isolation about September the 24th, 2005 and has been held since that time in virtual isolation. And it's had a huge impact on him. The last time I saw him, he was floridly psychotic. And when you lock anyone up under those circumstances, there's a thing called SHU psychosis, secure housing unit psychosis, which doesn't happen to everyone but it happens to a substantial number of people, and in my opinion has happened to Shaker. And it's going to happen to more prisoners.
What is it?
It means that you just lose touch with reality, and in Shaker's case, it then becomes an "us and them" situation where, again, you lose total trust of people around you and it's sort of a battleground. And so things go from bad to worse and the whole relationship between the prisoner and the guard is broken down, and it's a cycle of unpleasantness.
Is he still on hunger strike?
To the best of my information today, Shaker has been on hunger strike for almost 300 days, if you can imagine that.
During the hunger strike, you were there and you describe how Camp Echo had been transformed.
There've been several chapters in the whole hunger strike process and at one point Camp Echo was transformed into this sort of geriatric camp where between each cell there were these sort of concrete walkways so that prisoners could get around with their sort of, the walker sort of things. And I was there and going to see Shaker one time, and you see all these guys sort of staggering about to go to their rec, which is in this tiny little cage where they can't do any rec because they've got walkers anyhow. It was just like being in some geriatric hospital.
What kind of shape are the hunger strikers whom are your clients in?
I just got back from Guantanamo very recently, where I had seen one of the long-term hunger strikers and that's Sami Al Haj, and Sami is an Al Jazeera journalist, and indeed we got unclassified the latest allegation against him, which is that he received terrorist training in the form of "the detainee was trained in the use of cameras by Al Jazeera." And this is this guy who everyone thinks is such a threat. Sami was very, very patient and waited until the fifth anniversary of his detention without trial before he finally said, "I've had enough," and went on hunger strike simply asking for a fair trial; that's all he wants. You know, don't just believe me when I say he's no more terrorist than my granny, give him a trial. Let's see if it's true or not.
And, you know, as we talk today, it's the 289th day of his hunger strike. And to put that in perspective, when the IRA, the Irish Republican Army, went on hunger strike against the British in that very famous case back in the 1980s, the longest was 70 days, and now we're talking about, you know, three or four times that long, and it's going to get worse. And Sami was really losing it. They force feed him, so he's not going to starve to death, but the psychological impact of all of this and of having that tube stuffed up your nose twice a day has had a terrible impact on him and he's become obsessed with his death, and I'm very afraid of that.
Are they still fed in the chair?
Like a padded cell on wheels. The prisoners are put in what they refer to as the "torture chair," which, you know, you can get a picture off the Internet and it says "like a padded cell on wheels" on it. And so they're strapped into this thing and their heads strapped as well so that they can force the tube up the prisoner's nose twice a day and force-feed him. And, you know, I've seen the tube up the prisoner's nose once or twice and it's really horrific. I've tried doing it to myself just to see, and it's horribly painful.
Do we know how many people are on hunger strike now?
I can't tell you, they won't un-classify that information.
One of the things that the military fears is information coming out of Guantanamo Bay and actually recently, the rules limiting the information that I can tell you have got stricter and stricter. There was a time when I was able to un-classify information about the hunger strike. Why on Earth shouldn't you be able to? This is a nonviolent, peaceful protest in the same tradition of Ghandi for goodness sake or the suffragettes. Why that should be classified is absolutely beyond me, but actually I can't tell you today all the information about it because that's no longer allowed out through the classification process, not all of it.
You've mentioned some of what happened to Binyam Mohamed. As a result of what happened to him during the time he was in Morocco, did Binyam start telling them what they wanted to hear?
Binyam started telling people false information, exactly what they wanted, long before he got to Morocco. He was abused in Pakistan before that. The abuse was ratcheted up in Morocco. There's still debate over whether torture goes on and whether we render people to torture. Look, Binyam was in a CIA plane, we know the plane, we know the people in it, we know that it was one of the CIA flights, and they took him to Morocco, he's not Moroccan, he'd never been to Morocco, he wasn't going there for a Club Med vacation. So, what was he going there for? We know what he was going there for. He was going there to be tortured, and that's what happened to him for 18 months.
The whole focus of Binyam's interrogation was to make him into a witness against various people, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Abu Zubaydah, Sheikh Libi, Jose Padilla as well. And, you know, at some point quite early on, he asked them when they were taking a razor blade to his penis, for goodness sake, you know, "Why are you doing this? I'll say anything you want me to say." And the response was, "We're just training you so in the future you do exactly what you're told to do by the United States." And this was this whole process; it was a Pavlovian conditioning process of an unspeakable nature.
You started asking questions about his being questioned about those top figures in al-Qaeda.
The biggest thing to me about Binyam Mohamed's torture, there are very few cases of this we can prove to date but Binyam's one of them, is that when you torture people, you get two types of information. One is that I torture you and I make you confess that you're a terrorist and then I prosecute you based on that, you suffer from it. That's bad, if you're innocent. The second type's far worse, and this is the Binyam Mohamed type, which is where I torture someone into making up a story or repeating a story that has enormous political consequences.
And in Binyam's case it was the dirty bomb plot, that supposedly there was this ticking time bomb that was going to go off in New York. And John Ashcroft stopped in the middle of a visit to Moscow to hold a press conference to say we've just solved this dirty bomb plot. Terrified the entire United States population. And that was a big part of what they were getting out of Binyam was to get him to tell the story and to implicate other big members of al-Qaeda in the story, that I think any sensible person today would recognize was just nonsense. In fact, various top administration officials have agreed at this point that this was all a bit of a fantasy, and it was a fantasy. It was a fantasy of the people doing the torture.
There are several reasons that one might doubt Binyam's initial confession. One was that he confessed initially to having dinner with Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Ramzi Binalshibh, Abu Zubaydah, Sheik al Libi, Jose Padilla. First, one might doubt that because he didn't speak Arabic, and he would have had a hard time. Second, this was all meant to take place 1,000 miles from Afghanistan in Pakistan, slightly unlikely. But perhaps the most improbable aspect was that two of the people I mentioned were already in US custody at the time he was meant to be having dinner with them. So there's this whole series of things that just go to show what monumental nonsense it was. When you're doing this torture you then try to refine it. You figure out, "Oh, that can't be true and we better not say it happened on April 5th because then people will think it's a joke," so they start changing it around. And then years and years later, in Binyam's case four years later, when they've tried to refine it they want to put you on trial based on what they've finally figured out after four years. It doesn't make it any more true.
He's at Guantanamo now?
Binyam's still in Guantanamo.
Binyam is a very complicated person because he's been through some horrible torture and he looked at me one time and said, "You know, I'm sorry, I can't put any emotion into this because I'm dead in the head and I just can't talk about it in any other way." On the other hand, there's a resilience to human nature, which I think is quite intriguing sometimes and he's maintained a sense of humor and, you know, it's actually quite fun talking to him. He doesn't really trust me; he thinks I'm probably with the CIA, but I can understand that. I don't blame him about that. We still talk about very human things. And he gives me some ideas. When he told me the torture by music was just so awful, that that was really worse than having a razor blade taken to his penis and he was telling me that it was an Eminem song, White City [America], that was used over and over again, 24 hours a day for 20 days. It occurred to me that, of course, we should get Eminem to sue for copyright, because it's quite hard to enforce human rights in courts sometimes, but money, that's a different thing.
The torture by music was at the "Dark Prison"?
The torture by music happened in many places. To Binyam it happened in Morocco; it happened in the "Dark Prison" when the American personnel were in charge of it, but it's happened at different places as well. It's happened in Guantanamo.
Bisher al-Rawi, you've said that he handled the initial part of his imprisonment at Guantanamo better than most.
When I first met Bisher, I did think he was holding it together better than some. There did come a point in Bisher's experience that he started getting angry. And it was just, I think, there comes a point when a prisoner's -- the uncertainty drags on and on and you begin to think, "Will I ever get out of there?" It's a goldfish bowl, and you hear rumors and this that and the other, people make promises, constantly lied to as part of the interrogation process, that people just get so frustrated. And even Bisher, who was one of the calmest persons -- people I knew there, got very angry.
He was classified non-compliant?
Non-compliant indeed, where he gets the orange uniform and gets treated far worse. And of course that just exacerbates the problem and makes people more frustrated. And there is this cycle that goes on in Guantanamo.
Bisher went on hunger strike at one point, and he wrote me a letter that was a very moving letter, actually, about what he was going through, and he began to think that he was going to die in Guantanamo. And you know, I never thought Bisher was one of the people who might commit suicide, but you get really worried about that. And we started getting paranoid in that way. And what can you do, you know, you get to see him once every six or eight weeks for a little while, and I got very worried. And we couldn't get independent doctors in to see him. So it became a lot more urgent to get him out of there.
And in this cycle that you're talking about?
What Bisher told me, and this is actually symptomatic of what's referred to as "secure housing unit psychosis," is that when you're in this solitary isolation, and when you're being treated badly, and let's face it, people get treated badly in Guantanamo, that it becomes a war zone in the minds of the prisoners. And it's a psychotic thought process. It's crazy; it's not rational. So everything becomes a battle, and Bisher expressed this to me. He said, "I'm not taking this anymore. I'm not doing what I'm told anymore. I'm going to, you know, just do the opposite." And I would say to him, "Look, Bisher, really, please don't do that. It's you that's going to suffer." But he had gotten to this mindset, which was just not rational, and it was a mental illness, clear and simple. And yet, of course, the guards wouldn't see it that way. They would see it as non-compliant and they would then send in the ERF team and beat him up and things would go from bad to worse.
One of your colleagues in the United States wrote and published in British newspapers that he feared that Bisher was surely slipping into madness that would be permanent.
We worried very much about Bisher losing his mental health balance forever. And you know, one of the frustrations, of course, from our side as the lawyers for the prisoners was getting people to take this seriously and take it urgently. It's one thing to view Guantanamo Bay as an anathema to human rights as a big issue, but those are individual human beings down there and some of those individual human beings are getting scarred forever. And the dramatic change that I saw in Bisher gave me real cause for concern that he was going to lose it permanently. Look, my dad suffered from bipolar disorder; I know what it is to have a mind that's broken, and I didn't want to see that happen to Bisher, and I wanted the British government to take that very seriously.
When you go down there today, when you look in their eyes, what do you see?
Every different person in Guantanamo is a very discrete individual human being, and things are different for each person, and I would be loath to generalize about every prisoner, but to give you snapshots of some, I see people like Sami al-Haj, al-Jazeera journalist, a very calm person, who's really slipping into insanity, where he's obsessed with his own death. I see someone like Mohammed al-Gharani who was 14 at the time he was seized by the United States. He's so young that he's so easily provoked and so the guards then provoke him more and he provokes them more. I see other prisoners like Shaker Amer, who's, frankly, psychotic. And then I see some people who try to hold it together, who have remained very calm, but even those are getting very frustrated now that we're moving into the seventh year; we're coming up to it.
So what should be done?
Well, there's no doubt that Guantanamo should be closed for everybody's sake. I mean, it's a nightmare for the prisoners; it always been. But it's a nightmare for the President of the United States today, I think, too. It has done untold damage to our international reputation, and it's done no good. It's provided no benefits to the United States whatsoever, so we should close it tomorrow, there's no doubt about it. We face some problems. It's easy to say what we should do with the people who need to be put on trial. They should be put on trial in the United States, where they should have been in the first place, or in an international court if you'd rather.
And it's easy to say that we should release the vast majority of the others, and yet there's about 50 or so people who are refugees, who were minding their own business for the most part, in Pakistan for the most part, who were refugees from these awful countries, like Libya or Algeria, Tunisia, Uzbekistan, China, where they were going to be victimized purely for their political or religious beliefs. We now want to send them back to these places so that they can be tortured and abused, and somehow we then complain that we've got them into this bad position. The United States has an enormous amount of power, and we need to exert that power to close Guantanamo fairly, which involves taking those prisoners and finding them asylum in other countries, whether that be Britain which has agreed to take five, or other European countries wherever it might be.
The administration is stuck, in part, because they will never admit that they made a mistake. They've made multiple mistakes. I mean just take the case of Bisher Al-Rawi, the idea that Donald Rumsfeld could stand up and say we captured all these people on the battlefield, Bisher Al-Rawi was grabbed in the Gambia, it's further away from Kabul than we are in London right here. So we made so many mistakes, and we've told so many whopping fibs, and the administration is not willing to admit that, but even so, we've got to work together. And the administration has painted us into this corner, they've painted my clients into this corner, they've painted the American people into this corner. But we've got to work together to get out of it and that involves being sensible and trying to find rational ways to close this place down as quickly as possible.
You talked much earlier about how Guantanamo's Camp 6 compares to other prisons and specifically death rows where you've been.
When people talk about these wonderful technological prisons, they fail to remember sometimes that these prisoners have, none of them been charged with a crime, none of them been convicted of a crime, for the most part aren't guilty of a crime, and yet they're being held in these maximum security prisons, which, if I made you do it for a week, it would drive you crazy. And we pretend like this is civilized, and it is utterly uncivilized. And yet sometimes because we gloss over it with all these nice words, this immoral process has become so mundane and so accepted and it's just awful. We have to keep reminding ourselves that -- you know, pinch yourself and say, no, these people have never been tried of anything. We can't do this.