CNN's Blitzer failed to challenge Gonzales spin on Guantánamo

››› ››› RAPHAEL SCHWEBER-KOREN

In an interview with Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, CNN's Wolf Blitzer failed to challenge Gonzales's dubious claim that "if the need were not there for the United States of America to detain people that we catch on the battlefield, then we would not be having to operate" the military prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. Blitzer could have noted recent news reports pointing out that many -- if not a majority -- were not caught by American soldiers on the battlefield but turned over to the U.S. by third parties.

In an interview with Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales on the March 9 edition of CNN's The Situation Room, host Wolf Blitzer failed to challenge Gonzales's dubious claim that "if the need were not there for the United States of America to detain people that we catch on the battlefield, then we would not be having to operate" the military prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. Blitzer could have noted recent news reports, such as those by the National Journal and The New York Times, pointing out that many -- if not a majority, as the National Journal asserts -- were not caught by American soldiers on the battlefield but turned over to the U.S. by third parties.

Blitzer also allowed Gonzales to evade his question as to whether or not the treatment of one Guantánamo prisoner, Mohammed al-Qahtani -- as described in a February 27 New Yorker article -- constituted "torture." Rather than answer, Gonzales replied that there is "no way of knowing" the veracity of the report, even though the New Yorker's description of Qahtani's treatment is in line with the findings regarding his treatment contained in a June 2005 Army report by Lt. Gen. Mark Schmidt and Brig. Gen. John Furlow on detainee treatment at Guantánamo.

Blitzer asked Gonzales, "Should the Guantánamo base be shut down?" Gonzales replied: "[W]e operate Guantánamo because of necessity. And so, if the need were not there for the United States of America to detain people that we catch on the battlefield, then we would not be having to operate Guantánamo." Gonzales's rationale for the necessity of the Guantánamo prison echoes a similar assertion by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. On June 27, 2005, Rumsfeld said: "If you think of the people down there, these are people, all of whom were captured on a battlefield. They're terrorists, trainers, bomb makers, recruiters, financiers, [Osama bin Laden's] bodyguards, would-be suicide bombers, probably the 20th 9-11 hijacker."

But, as Media Matters previously noted, a February 3 National Journal report that documented the apparent lack of evidence against many of the detainees also reported, basing its account on military documents:

One thing about these detainees is very clear: Notwithstanding [Defense Secretary Donald H.] Rumsfeld's description, the majority of them were not caught by American soldiers on the battlefield. They came into American custody from third parties, mostly from Pakistan, some after targeted raids there, most after a dragnet for Arabs after 9/11."

According to the National Journal report, "most of the men at Guantánamo, or at least the 132 with court records and the 314 with redacted transcripts, came into American custody by way of third parties who had their own motivations for turning people in, including paybacks and payoffs":

Some of the men at Guantanamo came from targeted, U.S.-guided raids in Pakistani cities, and the cases against those men tend to be fairly strong. But the largest single group at Guantanamo Bay today consists of men caught in indiscriminate sweeps for Arabs in Pakistan. Once arrested, these men passed through several captors before being given to the U.S. military. Some of the men say they were arrested after asking for help getting to their embassies; a few say the Pakistanis asked them for bribes to avoid being turned over to America.

Others assert that they were sold for bounties, a charge substantiated in 2004 when Sami Yousafzai, a Newsweek reporter then stringing for ABC's "20/20," visited the Pakistani village where five Kuwaiti detainees were captured. The locals remembered the men. They had arrived with a larger group of a hundred refugees a few weeks after Qaeda fighters had passed through. The villagers said they had offered the group shelter and food, but somebody in the village sold out the guests. Pretty soon, bright lights came swooping down from the skies. "Helicopters ... were announcing through loud speakers: 'Where is Arab? Where is Arab?' And, 'Please, you get $1,000 for one Arab,' "one resident told Yousafzai.

"The one thing we were never clear of was where they came from," [former CIA officer Michael] Scheuer said of the Guantanamo detainees. "DOD picked them up somewhere." When National Journal told Scheuer that the largest group came from Pakistani custody, he chuckled. "Then they were probably people the Pakistanis thought were dangerous to Pakistan," he said. "We absolutely got the wrong people."

In addition, as Media Matters has noted, a March 6 New York Times article reported that recently released Pentagon documents regarding the detainees "underscore[] the considerable difficulties that both the military and the detainees appear to have had in wrestling with the often thin or conflicting evidence involved." The article reported that, although there are those imprisoned at Guantánamo "who brashly assert their determination to wage war against what they see as the infidel empire led by the United States," there are "many more, it seems, who sound like Abdur Sayed Rahman, a self-described Pakistani villager":

But there are many more, it seems, who sound like Abdur Sayed Rahman, a self-described Pakistani villager who says he was arrested at his modest home in January 2002, flown off to Afghanistan and later accused of being the deputy foreign minister of that country's deposed Taliban regime.

"I am only a chicken farmer in Pakistan," he protested to American military officers at Guantánamo. "My name is Abdur Sayed Rahman. Abdur Zahid Rahman was the deputy foreign minister of the Taliban."

Blitzer could have also challenged Gonzales's evasion of his question regarding torture at Guantánamo. Blitzer quoted from a February 27 New Yorker article by staff writer Jane Mayer that described the treatment of al-Qahtani. According to the article, Qahtani "had been subjected to a hundred and sixty days of isolation in a pen perpetually flooded with artificial light. He was interrogated on forty-eight of fifty-four days for eighteen to twenty hours at a stretch. He had been stripped naked, straddled by taunting female guards in an exercise called 'invasion of space by a female'; forced to wear women's underwear on his head and to put on a bra; threatened by guards, placed on a leash, and told that his mother was a whore. ... Qahtani's heart rate had dropped so precipitately [sic], to thirty-five beats a minute, that he required cardiac monitoring."

Blitzer then asked Gonzales if this constituted "torture," to which the attorney general responded: "Wolf, I have no way of knowing whether any of that information that you've just read is, in fact, true, or how much of it is true. It's easy to make allegations about mistreatment in places like Guantánamo." Blitzer failed to challenge Gonzales despite the fact that a June 2005 Army report by Lt. Gen. Mark Schmidt and Brig. Gen. John Furlow on detainee treatment at Guantánamo reported many of these events. While the Schmidt-Furlow report is itself classified, there is an unclassified executive summary. Below are some examples in which the report documented the treatment the New Yorker described for "the subject of the first Special Interrogation Plan," who, a July 14, 2005, Washington Post article confirmed, is al-Qahtani:

Finding #15: From 23 Nov 02 to 16 Jan 03, the subject of the first Special Interrogation Plan was interrogated for 18-20 hours per day for 48 of the 54 days, with the opportunity for a minimum of four hours rest per day.

[...]

Finding #16a: That the subject of the first Special Interrogation Plan was separated from the general population from 8 Aug 02 to 15 Jan 03.

[...]

Discussion [for finding #16a]: The subject of the first Special Interrogation Plan was never isolated from human contact. The subject of the first Special Interrogation Plan was however placed in an "isolation facility" where he was separated from the general detainee population from 8 Aug 02 to 15 Jan 03. The subject of the first Special Interrogation Plan routinely had contact with interrogators and MPs while in the "isolation facility."

[...]

Finding #16b: On 06 Dec 02, the subject of the first Special Interrogation Plan was forced to wear a woman's bra and had a thong placed on his head during the course of the interrogation.

Finding #16c: On 17 Dec 02, the subject of the first Special Interrogation Plan was told that his mother and sister were whores.

[...]

Finding #16e: On 20 Dec 02, an interrogator tied a leash to the subject of the first Special Interrogation Plan's chains, led him around the room, and forced him to perform a series of dog tricks.

[...]

Finding #16g: On several occasions in Dec 02, the subject of the first Special Interrogation Plan was subject to strip searches. These searches, conducted by the prison guards during interrogation, were done as a control measure on direction of the interrogators.

Finding #16h: On one occasion in Dec 02, the subject of the first Special Interrogation Plan was forced to stand naked for five minutes with females present. This incident occurred during the course of a strip search.

[...]

Discussion: ... Particularly troubling is the combined impact of the 160 days of segregation from other detainees, 48 of 54 consecutive days of 18 to 20-hour interrogations, and the creative application of authorized interrogation techniques. Requiring the subject of the first Special Interrogation Plan to be led around by a leash tied to his chains, placing a thong on his head, wearing a bra, insulting his mother and sister, being forced to stand naked in front of a female interrogator for five minutes, and using strip searches as an interrogation technique the AR 15-6 found to be abusive and degrading, particularly when done in the context of the 48 days of intense and long interrogations.

From the March 9 edition of CNN's The Situation Room:

BLITZER: Let's talk a little bit about torture. It's a sensitive subject, one that I know you've studied thoroughly. The allegations are significant. I want to read to you from an article that appeared in The New Yorker magazine, the February 27th issue, referring to one Mohammed al-Qahtani, a detainee at the U.S. naval base at Guantánamo Bay, someone who is suspected of having been -- played a role in terrorism against the United States. "[Mohammed] al-Qahtani had been subjected to a hundred and sixty days of isolation in a pen perpetually flooded with artificial light. He was interrogated on forty-eight of fifty-four days for eighteen to twenty hours at a stretch. He had been stripped naked, straddled by taunting female guards in an exercise called 'invasion of space by a female'; forced to wear women's underwear on his head and to put on a bra; threatened by dogs, placed on a leash, and told that his mother was a whore." Eventually, he needed cardiac treatment because his health had deteriorated so significantly. Is that torture?

GONZALES: Wolf, I have no way of knowing whether any of that information that you've just read is, in fact, true, or how much of it is true. It's easy to make allegations about mistreatment in places like Guantánamo. What I can say is that we have worked very hard throughout the administration to ensure that everyone understands what the legal requirements are. And to the extent that people aren't meeting those requirements, there are investigations, and people are held accountable.

BLITZER: Should the Guantánamo base be shut down, as the United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan says? He says, "I think sooner or later there will be a need to close Guantanamo, and I think it will be up to the government to decide, hopefully, to do it as soon as possible." What do you think?

GONZALES: Well, we operate Guantánamo because of necessity, and so, if the need were not there for the United States of America to detain people that we catch on the battlefield, then we would not be having to operate Guantánamo. We are continually reassessing all of our activities in the war on terror, including operational facilities like Guantánamo, to ensure that they remain effective as a tool in the war against terror, and that they remain lawful. So this is something we are constantly reevaluating in terms of -- what is the appropriate way ahead to ensure the national security interest of our country, and to ensure that we're fighting this war against a deadly enemy in a lawful manner.

BLITZER: You were the White House counsel, now you're the attorney general. You know all the laws that have been enacted, the guidelines. Are you comfortable in saying that you would hope that American detainees held by a foreign government would be treated as foreign detainees are being treated by the U.S. government?

Posted In
Justice & Civil Liberties, Detention
Network/Outlet
CNN
Person
Wolf Blitzer
Show/Publication
The Situation Room
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