Reporter Talks About the Charges About Prisoner Abuse at Guantanamo Bay
[Sorry, the video for this story has expired, but you can still read the transcript below. ]
TERENCE SMITH: In a confidential report detailed in today’s New York Times, the International Red Cross accused the U.S. Military of using psychological and sometimes physical coercion in Guantanamo, a charge flatly denied by spokesmen for the Bush administration.
We get more now from Neil Lewis, a Washington correspondent for the New York Times who broke the story in today’s paper. Neil, welcome.
The report that you wrote about, the International Red Cross report was prepared based on an inspection team that went to Guantanamo Bay, the prison there, in June. What did it spell out?
NEIL LEWIS: The Red Cross people who went for most of June, the traditional human rights, humanitarian workers, including some doctors, said they had found a regime that had become increasing coercive, oppressive to the detainees there and, as you said, a combination of mostly psychological but some physical practices practiced on them, used to break their will, it said, and make them more pliable for interrogation.
And, most importantly, they used the highly emotive and powerful word “torture” – that it was tantamount to torture all taken together what the U.S. was doing in Guantanamo.
TERENCE SMITH: What were some of the abuses cited?
NEIL LEWIS: Well, on the psychological side, which again was most of what the Red Cross team had asserted was part of the stuff that was tantamount to torture, long-term isolation, various psychological techniques to make detainees as dependent as possible on the interrogators, a system of punishments and rewards. On the physical side, it said some beatings.
It also described certain practices that military interrogators used regularly, it said, such as having inmates strip to their underwear, sat down in a chair, exposed to cold temperatures for a long time, loud music, lights, the kind of things to disorient people, all in the service of getting information out of them supposedly.
TERENCE SMITH: There was also in your article information about a controversial role of medical personnel at Guantanamo Bay. What was that?
NEIL LEWIS: That’s right, and it was two parts to that. The Red Cross in its report, its confidential report to the Bush administration, said this was a grave breach of medical ethics. On one part, it said that the medical personnel who treated the detainees contributed to the planning for their interrogation, talked to interrogators.
And the second one was that something existed at Guantanamo called the biscuit team, so-called after the acronym BSCT, a Behavioral Science Consultation Team — professional psychologists and psychological workers who consulted with the interrogators, helped them understand individual detainee’s special vulnerabilities and helped them get to them.
TERENCE SMITH: This was described in the report as a violation of medical ethics?
NEIL LEWIS: It was indeed.
TERENCE SMITH: In other words, they would meet with detainees, they would attempt to help them psychologically, and then share that information with the interrogators?
NEIL LEWIS: No, I don’t think they’d meet with the detainees. They would meet with the medical staff. They would meet with other people who knew about the detainees and make recommendations on how they could successfully be coerced into talking.
So… and the other part of the medical staff, the medical files were open. And this… this is an interesting issue because medical files between you, let’s say, and your doctor, you assume are confidential. I’m not sure we expect them to be confidential at Guantanamo, although some of the ethicists say it should be, but I mean, this is Guantanamo; it’s not Kaiser Permanente or some HMO.
But the effect, they say, is… the critics would say, is a problem because if detainees believe that when they talk to their doctors, it will go back to the interrogators and be used against them, they will in fact then distrust the doctors and not talk to them. And the report explicitly said that’s what has occurred.
TERENCE SMITH: Just to be clear, you did not see this report as such, but rather are reporting on a memorandum about the report, is that correct?
NEIL LEWIS: That’s right. What we had was a memorandum written by somebody who had the report, and described it in great detail– full quotes from it and its conclusions.
TERENCE SMITH: What is the International Red Cross doing about this? Normally they agree to keep such information confidential when they report it to a foreign government.
NEIL LEWIS: That’s right, and they still are, and we’re, I think, troubled by the disclosure of this. But today, Red Cross officials said they’re trying to quickly arrange a visit for the president of the Red Cross, quite an unusual thing, to come to Washington to press these complaints with senior Bush administration officials.
There are no dates yet, but Jakob Kellenberger, who’s the head of the ICRC, which is based in Geneva, is hoping to come here, probably before the end of the year to –
TERENCE SMITH: And that’s a departure from normal procedure?
NEIL LEWIS: It is indeed. It is indeed. Usually the reports will come… there is a United States delegation that exists in Washington, and they have, in fact, the report that was made by the ICRC this summer from this June visit. It was passed along to various agencies.
But I think what this suggests is that there was not great satisfaction inside the Red Cross about the response of the U.S. Administration.
TERENCE SMITH: Well, what has been the response today with the publication of your article? The spokesman for the Defense Department, the State Department, and even the White House has said it’s not true; no torture.
NEIL LEWIS: Yes, they have. They denied it flatly. They have not addressed specific details of any procedures– just said it’s not torture. Now, this goes back to at the end of the Afghanistan War, when most of these… most, not all, but most of these people were captured.
President Bush explicitly said they were not entitled to the protections of the Geneva Conventions, which is the basic law of international war, because they were unlawful enemy combatants.
Nonetheless, he said, they should be afforded a standard equivalent to that “within military necessity,” was the language.
So it left open the issue of whether they thought it was necessary to treat them more harshly for military necessity; they could do so.
TERENCE SMITH: Finally, is there any way to know how much, if any, useful intelligence has been derived from these, I guess now 550 people or so that are there?
NEIL LEWIS: Well, it’s a great debate because the intelligence goes into sort of a big international pot and forms a mosaic.
We have at the Times reported that it hasn’t been very valuable but the likes of some European intelligence officials, the Bush administration officials still insist it’s providing new and fresh intelligence all the time.
Now, intelligence professionals say it’s… some of these people have been there three years and they have little more to give.
TERENCE SMITH: Neil Lewis of the New York Times, thanks so much.
NEIL LEWIS: Thank you, Terry.