New Allegations of Abuse at Guantanamo Bay Military Prison
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TERENCE SMITH: The new FBI memos released by the American Civil Liberties Union show that FBI Agents have lodged repeated reports about the physical and mental mistreatment of prisoners held in Iraq and Cuba. The abuses reportedly took place during the last two years and as recently as this past June. For more on the story, we’re joined by Neil Lewis of the New York Times.
NEIL LEWIS: Thank you.
TERENCE SMITH: These FBI memos were from agents who were sent down to supervise or observe in any event the interrogations carried out by military interrogators?
NEIL LEWIS: Well, in some cases, the FBI was tasked themselves with doing this. The FBI, for its own interests, had agents both at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and in Iraq, observing and sometimes participating in interrogations.
TERENCE SMITH: And to whom did they send these memos back reporting on what they saw and heard?
NEIL LEWIS: All of these memorandums were sent to their superiors in Washington to inform them of what they had either witnessed directly or understood was going on.
TERENCE SMITH: And one, in fact, went to the director of the FBI?
NEIL LEWIS: One, indeed, about apparent abuses in Iraq. That went to the director of the FBI, Robert Mueller.
TERENCE SMITH: Right. So at least the director of the FBI and perhaps other senior officials in Washington had direct reporting on what was going on?
NEIL LEWIS: Surely so.
TERENCE SMITH: All right. Give us a little sense of what abuses, if that’s the right word, are described in these memorandums.
NEIL LEWIS: Sure. I think that’s an indisputably fair word. The memorandums can be divided into two sections. One is about things that were observed in Iraq. Let me start with that. Agents there said that they had understood that detainees were beaten, strangled — choked, I guess would be a better word — and had lighted cigarettes placed in their ears by interrogators. In Guantanamo, the abuses recorded by agents who witnessed them accord very neatly with earlier reports but provide fuller detail.
And particularly a practice that we had known about in Guantanamo, there are more details here about shackling inmates chained in uncomfortable positions. Some of these memos describe inmates chained in the fetal position for as long as 24 hours, forced to defecate and urinate on themselves, and, in one case, a particularly horrific account, one agent says that he saw a pile of hair next to one of the detainees, and the MP said, you know, he had apparently pulled his hair out during the night.
TERENCE SMITH: What does this add… since we’ve had reports in the past, obviously, about abusive treatment of detainees, what do these memos add to our knowledge of this?
NEIL LEWIS: You’re quite right. We have had some sense of all this from various ways, other reports. They provide great detail and because they are written under the auspices of the FBI, They’re a very powerful corroboration of what went on.
And in the larger sense, I would say, in addition to the details in the memos, they do tell us that I think we can be fairly confident now that what was occurring in at least Guantanamo was systematic, intentional, done with the consent of the senior authorities, that there was a real intent to have a system of prolonged psychological and physical coercion in the interrogation process– which is different, I might add, very importantly, from the story that the military had put out early on and held to fairly consistently that it was a more or less gentle interrogation process, building rapport with the detainees.
TERENCE SMITH: Does anything in the memos or in the reporting that you’ve done around your conversations with military interrogators and sources give you any sense of the motivation of the interrogators? Did they believe they were about serious business here through which they could achieve significant intelligence?
NEIL LEWIS: I think so. And I think it’s important. I mean, these are not people that were, I don’t think, engaging in sadistic impulses. They believed it was an appropriate and proper mission; that it was awful work but it had a great purpose.
I think it’s important to note that. Last month, after we reported in the Times that the International Committee of the Red Cross said that what was occurring at Guantanamo was tantamount to torture, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of staff responded, I thought, very tellingly in a speech he gave the next day, where he said, “let’s not forget these are people without any moral values down there.”
Privately, when people talk to me about this, who were involved and generally approve of it in the government, one refrain is always, “Let’s not forget the emotion and anger we felt in the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11.” In other words, they’re doing good work and important work that has to be done. So I think that’s the pervasive belief of the people who are involved with this. It’s obviously not the view of outsiders, and it’s not the view of many FBI people who thought it wasn’t even effective in getting information.
TERENCE SMITH: It’s not reflected in what the White House had to say today. They said, “We’re going to look into it.”
NEIL LEWIS: Yes. They have shied away from any suggestion that President Bush has had any direct role in approving these harsh techniques.
TERENCE SMITH: Right. Is there anything in the memos or around them that reveals what the FBI agents who observed all this, what they thought of what they were seeing?
NEIL LEWIS: Yes. It’s very fascinating. There are a whole bunch of themes. Some of the agents were appalled and expressed that. Some were professionally offended, saying it’s not producing anything and it’s just a wrong way to go about it. Some were very bureaucratic in the classic old-time FBI way, “protect the Bureau.”
Some of the things that caused the greatest friction were the reports that the agents sent back that some of these military interrogators are posing as FBI agents when they’re employing these coercive tactics and we’re going to get stuck holding the bag if this ever gets out. So that was a source of great offense.
TERENCE SMITH: The interrogators, the military interrogators would identify themselves as FBI investigators?
NEIL LEWIS: Apparently so; this was a subject of great concern and colloquy between the military and FBI; it was never fully resolved, it appears.
TERENCE SMITH: Finally and briefly, where does this go from here? We’ve had these investigations. There are more, apparently. They’re under way. What does it lead to?
NEIL LEWIS: It’s hard to say. There are certainly many calls in Congress, as there usually are, for some probe of this. There are a whole bunch of legal proceedings against detainees, some of which are suspended now. And I suppose we’ll just have to see. I don’t know.
TERENCE SMITH: We’ll have to wait and see. Neil Lewis, thanks for bringing us up to date.
NEIL LEWIS: Thank you, Terry.