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American Gulag Pt. 2: Guantanamo Bay

Jumana Musa
Date Published: 
August 01, 2005

Much has been made in the past few weeks about Amnesty International’s (AI) use of the word “Gulag” in referring to the detention facilities at the US Naval Station in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba where approximately 520 detainees from 35 countries are being held indefinitely, the vast majority without charge. General Meyers called it irresponsible. Secretary Rumsfeld called it reprehensible. Vice President Cheney said he was offended and did not take the report seriously. President Bush said it was absurd.

Day after day, administration officials went on television to call AI out by name. What was noticeably absent in all of these charges, however, was any direct response to the numerous charges leveled by AI about the vast array of detention facilities operated by the US around the world where they are keeping detainees in the open-ended, self declared “war on terror.”

Both the administration and the right wing media have claimed that the charges made by AI are spurious, and that all allegations of abuse have been – in the President’s words –“fully investigated in a transparent way.” According to Vice President Cheney regarding allegations of torture and ill-treatment – ‘‘if you trace those back, in nearly every case, it turns out to come from somebody who has been inside and been released to their home country and now are peddling lies about how they were treated.” However, the facts tell a very different story.


Of the numerous investigations led by the US government into allegations of torture and ill treatment of detainees in US custody – they have not been comprehensive, fully transparent or truly independent. The Schlesinger report, put forth as an independent investigation, was conducted by a panel personally chosen by Donald Rumsfeld. Some members were quoted as saying that Rumsfeld was a good man and couldn’t be responsible for the practices that seemed to pervade US detention facilities around the world – and these comments were made before the panelists had looked at a single document.

The panelists concluded that Rumsfeld was not responsible – even though he personally approved interrogation techniques such as the use of dogs in interrogations, sleep deprivation and prolonged use of stress positions, all of which have been criticized by the US State Department country reports on human rights when used by other governments. In addition, Rumsfeld himself admitted in congressional testimony that he personally ordered that a detainee in custody not be registered. This kept the detainee off the books for over 8 months, effectively disappearing him into custody so that the Red Cross would not be able to visit him.

Similarly, the Church report was intended to be a holistic report that looked into all US detention and interrogation operations. However Vice Admiral Church admitted himself that he did not interview the top level administration officials, and he was not given the mandate to address issues of accountability or to draw any conclusions. In addition, his 378-page report was classified with only the 21 page executive summary made public. In that summary, Church touted the detention operation at Guantanamo as an example to be followed in the “war on terror,” even though there was an investigation ongoing into numerous allegations of torture and abuse detailed by FBI e-mails. There is also an internal CIA investigation that has never been made public, that has not been shared with the numerous people investigating these allegations, and that has even been kept from Congress. The evidence is clear – these investigations have been anything but comprehensive and transparent.

Peddling lies

In regards to the notion that most of the allegations come from former detainees peddling lies or “people who hate America,” the facts again don’t support the assertion. FBI e-mails uncovered by the ACLU’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit shows government officials repeatedly alerting their superiors of torture and ill-treatment in custody, and referring to an FBI Urgent Report in June 2004 which reported that “numerous physical abuse incidents of Iraqi civilian detainees … included strangulation, beatings, [and] placement of lit cigarettes in the detainees ear openings.”

We have also heard the coroner Lt. Col. Elizabeth Rouse, in testimony about her report of the death of a detainee in US custody in Afghanistan, describe the blunt force trauma to his legs by saying that the tissue in his legs “had basically been pulpified . . . I’ve seen similar injuries in an individual run over by a bus.” The Taguba report into allegations of abuse at Abu Ghraib found “sadistic, blatant and wanton criminal abuse.” Even Secretary Rumsfeld’s own Pentagon spokesperson, Larry Di Rita, said, “What we have learned through the course of all these investigations is that there were people who clearly violated anyone’s standard for humane treatment.”

It is important to remember that these examples are just the tip of the iceberg. There has been little to no oversight of the CIA, who has been responsible for so-called “ghost detainees” that have been disappeared into US custody without confirmation of there whereabouts, access to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), or sometimes even knowledge of their identities. The CIA is thought to be operating secret detention facilities around the world in places like Jordan, Thailand and Diego Garcia. The CIA has also been responsible for flying private jets around the world, transferring people into the custody of governments with a well known record of torture in a practice known as “extraordinary renditions.” People have been transferred into the custody of governments like Syria and Egypt, where they report prolonged isolation, beatings and use of electric shocks. And the list goes on.

Mass distraction

The repeated denial of any systemic policy or practice of torture and abuse of detainees in US custody, coupled with the narrow focus on AI’s use of terminology, is a clear attempt to distract from the issues at hand. Indeed, the administration found AI’s reporting quite credible when they cited it as a reason to invade Iraq, when AI criticized Fidel Castro, and when the State Department used AI findings in their annual country report.

It is easier to attack AI or Newsweek than it is to account for the administration’s repeated assertions that they do not have to operate within the bounds of the law. While leveling this campaign of mass distraction, the administration continues to hold thousands of detainees in facilities around the world, asserting their right to hold people indefinitely without charge – often incommunicado and in secret – justifying its actions by asserting the absolute power of the executive in a time of war. While the administration would prefer to debate the terminology, it is time for them to address the facts.

Jumana Musa is Amnesty International’s Advocacy Director for Human Rights and International Justice. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Amnesty International.