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Guantanamo Bay Prisoners Allege Abuse, Desecration of Quran

May 26, 2005 at 12:00 AM EST
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MARGARET WARNER: New documents surface in the swirl of allegations of abuse at Guantanamo. They were reported in today’s edition of the New York Times and other papers. Neil Lewis wrote the Times story. And he joins us now.

Neil, thanks for being with us. Let’s start with the 300 pages of declassified FBI reports. Where did they come from?

NEIL LEWIS: These 300 pages are on top of 30,000 earlier pages released about events at Guantanamo and they’re part of a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups to determine if there was coercive behavior or torture at Guantanamo. And they asked for these; the government declined and it’s a lawsuit in court under the Freedom of Information Act. These documents have been coming out regularly.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Now, let’s take first of all the politically sensitive issue of Quran abuse. What do these documents tell us and what don’t they tell us?

NEIL LEWIS: Well, they tell us that the issue of detainees complaining about the Quran being mishandled, handled roughly and disrespectfully were common, frequent, and the new document say that they told this to FBI agents. Now at Guantanamo, which is essentially an interrogation center as well as a detention center, there are different agencies that are questioning detainees all the time. And these detainees and these reports had talked about the Quran being mishandled and in one case and only one case one detainee said the Quran was flushed down the toilet.

MARGARET WARNER: But the big difference between these documents and the Newsweek report, I mean there is a big difference.

NEIL LEWIS: Yes, there is. Yes, there is. The disclosure of these documents does not provide any new support to Newsweek. Newsweek had reported that official investigation and military investigators had indeed concluded that a Quran had been flushed down the toilet.

As you saw in the summary, News Summary before this, the Pentagon and Gen. Hood, who is the commander at Guantanamo, said there’s no evidence that that ever happened.

MARGARET WARNER: So, I know you were able to at least listen to Gen. Hood. How much further did he go in addressing the charges, including the ones laid out in these documents at least by detainees, and either putting them to rest or substantiating them than the Pentagon has before?

NEIL LEWIS: I think they have. I think they said this is their complete and final answer on it, that there were some mishandling incidents of the Quran in early days at Guantanamo, then procedures were put in place. It’s pretty much a flat denial.

And one of the interesting things that came out is a discussion of the culture at Guantanamo, how detainees were quick to pick up rumors — that’s the Pentagon’s explanation — because the one detainee who did assert to an FBI agent that a Quran had been flushed down the toilet was questioned again about it two weeks ago and said he had never witnessed this. In fact, the new batch of FBI documents has lots of instances where agents are reporting allegations by detainees and when they press them, they say they heard this, but did not witness it.

MARGARET WARNER: And when you say that Gen. Hood was saying that most of these took place very early on, is that the explanation for when he said we did confirm five, but none of those people had violated the standard operating procedure, because in fact there wasn’t one in those early days?

NEIL LEWIS: That’s exactly right. That in January 2003, the commander, Gen. Hood’s predecessor, put into effect a set of rules about handling the Quran. Now, this came up frequently because guards searched the cells. And all of the inmates are given copies of the Quran; they’re given little surgical masks so they can use it as a sling to suspend it so it doesn’t fall on the floor.

The guards go in, they had discovered, interrogators tell me, that detainees were using the Quran to pass messages amongst each other. So in the end they ended up with a procedure where the detainee or someone else would rifle through the pages in front of the guard.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Now let’s turn to other allegations that were in these documents you wrote about today that are of other kinds of alleged abuse.

NEIL LEWIS: Yes. In fact, the issue of Quran mishandling, though, it may be emotional for religious people because the book is a sacred book to Muslims, it’s really somewhat of a sidelight and a detour as to a larger body of allegations about abuse of prisoners themselves, not a book, but prisoners themselves.

And these, unlike the documents about the Quran, which were recounting of interviews with detainees, these other allegations have a much more substantive corroboration to it, particularly earlier FBI documents weren’t FBI agents saying someone told me this; FBI agents witnessed what they asserted was abusive and possibly illegal behavior in the interrogation of detainees, and all of that is the subject of another report, which has been completed but has not yet been disclosed.

MARGARET WARNER: Right. And I want to get to that report in a minute, but just a little bit more about these kinds of allegations. So what you’re saying is, unlike the Quran where really they’re just recounting what detainees said and maybe repeated, that in this case FBI agents themselves witnessed interrogations that they considered, what, abusive, what kind of things?

NEIL LEWIS: Abusive and possibly illegal. The earlier memos were written by FBI agents who witnessed interrogations at Guantanamo, they were written to their superiors at the bureau headquarters in Washington; they were never meant to be made public. So that automatically means they carry some credibility.

And the essence of it was that detainees were being shortchanged to the floor — chained, I’m sorry, to the floor, had their clothes taken away, bright lights shining on them, loud music, all kinds of things to disorient them, and one very grisly case was about a detainee who was left all night, an agent said, chained to the floor, and soiled himself, couldn’t go to the bathroom otherwise, and pulled his hair out as a result.

MARGARET WARNER: So, now tell me then about – so there’s a separate investigation into that by this Air Force Gen. Schmitt. You said in your story today it’s been completed but not released. Why not?

NEIL LEWIS: That’s a good question. I don’t know the answer, but it was due to be completed at the end of March, and a Pentagon official say it was, so now it’s in process and it’s a rather intriguing thing of whether they’re negotiating whether some things could be included or not, but we’ll see.

The original investigation was a one-star general, and they realized that the charges could be laid against the commander of Guantanamo who’s a two-star general. So they brought in Gen. Schmitt, a three-star general, to investigate in case he had to make any accusations or charges against the former commander at Guantanamo.

MARGARET WARNER: And finally, briefly, there’ve been renewed calls for an independent investigation. Do the people in the administration you talked to think that these internal investigations will suffice?

NEIL LEWIS: I certainly think they hope it will suffice. I don’t know whether, we’ll see whether it will in the end. But, as you say, there are growing calls for a congressional investigation, bipartisan calls, and also from some of the lawyers who represent the detainees.

One of the things that has changed, we have lawyers going down there now because of the Supreme Court decision, talking to detainees and giving them access to both the U.S. courts and to the world media.

MARGARET WARNER: Neil Lewis of the New York Times, thanks so much.

NEIL LEWIS: Thank you, Margaret.