We chat with journalist and author Masha Gessen, whose newest book explores the complicated family history behind bombings at the 2013 Boston Marathon.
Guest Host: Jennifer Golbeck
Allegations that FBI tried to turn a member of the defense team into an informant and that the CIA cut the sound system in a courtroom are slowing progress in the Guantanamo Bay trials. We talk with two journalists covering the events in Guantanamo and hear about the fates of former detainees who returned home to Afghanistan.
- Carol Rosenberg Reporter, The Miami Herald
- Dawood Azami Senior Broadcast Journalist and Desk Editor, BBC World Service
MS. JEN GOLBECKFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. I'm Jen Golbeck from the University of Maryland sitting in for Kojo. Twelve years after the United States opened a military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, five men accused of plotting the 9/11 attacks are still awaiting trial, as is an alleged figure in the USS Cole bombing who was captured in 2002. Preliminary hearings in the 9/11 case were halted last month, after defense attorneys claimed the FBI attempted to infiltrate the defense team.
MS. JEN GOLBECKThe development follows news that the CIA used a secret kill switch to cut the sound system in the Guantanamo courtroom to prevent testimony about classified information. With the intelligence services reportedly intervening in the proceedings, the military judge is trying to regain control of his courtroom and the trials of six high-profile defendants. At the same time, 150 other prisoners are still waiting to hear the charges against them or to be released.
MS. JEN GOLBECKToday we'll get an update from a journalist who has attended the hearings at Guantanamo and one who's interviewed former detainees in Afghanistan. Joining me to discuss are Dawood Azami, a senior broadcast journalist at BBC World Service, from BBC Studios in London. Dawood, it's good to have you here.
MR. DAWOOD AZAMIThank you for having me.
GOLBECKAnd from the studio of WLRN in Miami, we have Carol Rosenberg, a reporter for The Miami Herald. Good to have you, Carol.
MS. CAROL ROSENBERGThank you.
GOLBECKCarol, you got back from Guantanamo a week after breaking the story that the FBI tried to infiltrate the defense team for an alleged 9/11 plotter. It follows last year's news that the CIA used a secret kill switch to silence the courtroom's sound system to mute a potential description of secret CIA prisons. What role are the FBI and CIA playing in the pretrial hearings at Guantanamo?
ROSENBERGWell, we don't know exactly what the FBI is up to in the September 11th case. We know that they're conducting some sort of a secret investigation involving the defense teams. And we know this because two agents showed up one Sunday after church at the home of a contract investigator assigned to one of the 9/11 teams. And we've been told what it's not about. It's not about the leak of a document by the alleged mastermind, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. But we don't know what they're looking in to.
ROSENBERGIn terms of the CIA, the CIA is a definite stakeholder at these trials, these death penalty trials for the six men, because the CIA held these men for three and four years in their secret prison network between, as you said, '02 and '06, before they got to Guantanamo for trial by order of President Bush. So the CIA's stake in this is that the public not know what they did to these men, where they did it, who did it. The details of the interrogation -- enhanced interrogation techniques that were used on them beyond what we know -- waterboarding, mock execution, sleep deprivation, moving them around the globe in secret flights in diapers.
ROSENBERGSo there's some stuff that we do know. But the CIA has been on the sidelines of this trial that has sealed off from the world the details of those prisons and the prison program that President Obama shut down. And I think you're point about this is, now the judge in the case, the military colonel, has ordered the prosecution to provide the defense in a secret format -- we won't see it, we won't know it -- the details of that program.
ROSENBERGHe says -- this judge says that in this USS Cole bombing case, which is really the precursor to the 9/11 attacks and, as it happens, 9/11 trial that will occur later, he's ordered the prosecution to get the details of that program to the defense lawyers for this man, Saudi man, Abd al-Rahim all-Nashiri, who's accused of being the Cole bomber. And the judge says that the defense are entitled to know it, in a classified fashion, as they prepare for this death penalty trial. The prosecution says, we don't think you got it right, judge. We don't think they're entitled to this information.
ROSENBERGAnd so there is kind of an appeal process going on with the CIA in the background. It's unknown if, even if the order stands, whether they'll fork it over or cause these trials to freeze in their unwillingness to let defense attorneys see what happened to these men where, how, with, by whom.
GOLBECKYou, too, can join the conversation. How closely are you following the proceedings at Guantanamo? Do the FBI and CIA have reason to be concerned about detainees' cases going to trial? You can join us by calling 1-800-433-8850, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or get in touch with us through Facebook or tweet us to @kojoshow. Dawood, you recently visited the Guantanamo Prison for the first time for a BBC documentary that you produced.
GOLBECKWhat were your impressions of the prison and what did you see?
AZAMIWell, before going to Guantanamo, I went to Afghanistan to interview around a dozen former detainees. So they told me a lot of stories about Guantanamo itself. And when I went to Guantanamo, I was thinking about the things they had told me in the interview. For example, mention some animals like iguanas, which is not found in Afghanistan, but is very common in Guantanamo, and wild bushes. And most of them were telling me that they didn't expect to come back alive to Afghanistan.
AZAMISo when I went to Guantanamo, the more shocking thing for me was the prisoners themselves, who didn't have any contact with outsiders. So we were taken to a detention facility. It was a one-sided glass. We could see them from a distance, but we couldn't see their faces clearly. But they didn't know that we were there. So there are around 150 prisoners still there and around 18 of them are Afghans. And most of the Guantanamo detainees were from Afghanistan. Their number was 220 out of nearly 800.
AZAMIMost of them have been released without charge. They went back to Afghanistan and they live in their villages with their own families or in other towns. But most of them told me that they don't have any jobs and the Americans wasted their time. They were tortured. They were treated badly. And many of them were complaining about body searches, strip searches, because it's -- it's an insult in Afghan culture. So when I was visiting Guantanamo, I was thinking about these stories that they had told me. So I was just looking for those clues, those places, those locations, those signs.
GOLBECKCarol, you spent a lot of time at Guantanamo. Describe the prison, the staff, the military base, and how you get back and forth when you cover the hearings there.
ROSENBERGTravel to Guantanamo comes by -- in custody generally of the military, meaning I frequently go to Washington and get on a flight with a military officer who brings me down there. But, you know, Guantanamo is more than a prison. And I think that that's been overlooked by some people. There's about 6,000 people living down there, including the 154 prisoners. And that -- those 6,000, 2,200 are assigned to the detention center, to the prison.
ROSENBERGSo you've got 154 prisoners with 2,200 -- 2,200 soldiers, a few sailors and some contractors maintaining this detention center which, while they call it a camp, is really a series of buildings, like Dawood said, where you can look through one-way glass that is in many instances air-conditioned. The detainees complain over air-conditioned because the military are running around in their uniforms and want it to be chilly.
ROSENBERGAnd they live in what would look to an American like a penitentiary building, you know, with single cell lockdown or communal lockups where people, depending on their status and their behavior and depending on if they were -- who held them previously, some are allowed to actually eat together, pray together, get phone calls home. And then other people are in what you would consider more like solitary confinement, maximum security lockdown, alone in their cell 20, 22 hours a day, depending on their behavior, only leaving maybe for recreation and shower.
ROSENBERGAnd so what you have on one end of the space is this prison compound, which is a big piece of the base. It has buildings and dining rooms and a movie theater to entertain the guards. And there's a gym and their own private post office. And this whole section of the base which is reserved for this kind of elite unit that comes and goes there and live in one-year rotations coming in to run the prison. And then the rest of the base looks like a small town in America with a McDonald's and a golf course and a public school for the kids of the sailors who are down there more permanently.
ROSENBERGIt has an airstrip and a port and, you know, Subway sandwiches and ball games and very much looks like a small American town that you can only reach in custody of the media -- excuse me, that you can only reach if you're in the media in custody of the military -- and has about 2,000 laborers, contract laborers there hired by the Pentagon. Foreigners, mostly Jamaicans and Filipinos who are doing the work. They're mowing the lawns and washing the dishes and running the dining rooms and the bars and the -- renting the bikes for entertainment, and running the movie theater.
ROSENBERGYou know, the foreigners are hired by the Pentagon to do the work that maintains this little American town. And I think it's a...
GOLBECKSo let's take a -- oh, I'm sorry.
GOLBECKI was going to say, let's take a call now from Joseph in Chevy Chase, Md. Joseph, you're on the air. Go ahead.
JOSEPHThank you for taking my call. I just wanted to make a comment that when people take an oath of office in the United States, they swear to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States of America. And they don't swear to (unintelligible) or a particular (unintelligible) Our national security is predicated on our observing the limitations and the rights that are inherent in our Constitution.
JOSEPHSo that when the CIA engages in eavesdropping of the legislative branch, when the NSA engages in unconstitutional domestic surveillance of American citizens, and when the CIA and FBI have to undermine judicial processes of Guantanamo, they are ultimately doing more damage to our national security than -- as horrible as they are -- particular (word?) explosions.
GOLBECKJoseph, you're cutting in and out on us here. But I think we got the gist of your call, which is that the actions of the CIA and the FBI, you know, may themselves be a threat to our national security because they're undermining the way that we're perceived in the world. And, Dawood, this is something that you addressed in your documentary for the BBC.
AZAMIYes. A lot of former detainees were telling me about the way they were arrested, the way they were treated by Americans both in Afghanistan and in Guantanamo. Remember one thing, when these people were arrested, they were kept in Bagram, which is the largest U.S. military base in Afghanistan, for three or four, up to six and seven months. And then after that they were taken to Guantanamo. And some of the youngest of Guantanamo detainees, who were teenagers at the time, were also from Afghanistan, and some of the oldest, too.
AZAMII interviewed an old guy who lived in a suburb near Kabul who was in his late 70s. And he couldn't even walk. He needed wheelchair access. So he was also taken at the time when his son was already in Guantanamo. And the father and son met in the jail. The son was telling me that when he was told by another inmate that, your father has arrived here, so he was in shock. He couldn't believe that his father at that age has also been taken to Guantanamo.
AZAMIAnd he telling me that, when I met my father I told him that, father don't worry. Nobody has his father with him in Guantanamo. I'm the lucky person here to have my father with me here.
GOLBECKAnd let me pause you right there because we have a clip actually set up of another person in Afghanistan that you spoke with. I'd like to play that clip and then let you continue with this point. But I think it would be good for our audience to hear that. So let's hear the clip right here.
AZAMIHaji Ralib (sp?) was a district police commander when the American forces raided his office to arrest him. The League to U.S. Military's Classified Document has this assessment of Haji Ralib.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMANDetainee assessment, January 14, 2005. Detainee is not assessed as being a member of al-Qaida or the Taliban. Detainee is the former security commander for Shinwar district in the Nangarhar Province, Afghanistan and was arrested at his compound on the 26th of February, 2003 following the discovery by U.S. Special Forces of a suspected improvised explosive device production facility.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMANThe detainee was arrested with three letters that associated him with senior Taliban officials to include Mullah Omar, the Taliban supreme leader. The detainee denies any knowledge of the letter. According to the interpreter support at the Bagram control point, there are questions about authenticity of a letter written on the letterhead from Mullah Omar. Detainee is cooperative during interrogation but his veracity may be questioned.
AZAMIHaji Ralib was detained in Guantanamo for four years.
MR. HAJI RALIB(Through translator) I was inside my office when foreign forces came and raided the place. They ran here and there, smashed communication equipments and weapons. They tore down my police uniform. They took me first to (word?) Air Base and kept me there in an underground bunker for seven days. Heavily built Americans would come to beat me daily. They frequently tied me and drowned my head in a bucket full of water. They asked me to say, I'm al-Qaida. I'm member of (word?) .
MR. HAJI RALIB(Through translator) I have links with the Taliban. I told them, it wasn't true. I asked, bring evidence if you have it. They then took me to Bagram jail and kept us there for five months in cages. There wasn't even water for washing, for prayers or taking a bath. They used to take us once a week in a group of ten. We were all naked and tied together for a shower.
AZAMIHaji Ralib showed me the letter given to him by U.S. officials at Guantanamo in 2007. Marked unclassified, it stated that he would be transferred to Afghanistan and that it would occur as soon as possible. Again, he was never charged.
GOLBECKSo Dawood, this clip echoes a lot of the other examples that you were giving -- that you had given us and also underscores how these kinds of stories can really damage the U.S.'s international reputation. Can you tell us a little more about Haji Ralib and what he's doing now that he's back in Afghanistan?
AZAMIWell, he's unemployed. He cannot even live in his own village because the Taliban attacked him many times. They killed several members of his family. And remember the U.S. arrested him for having links to the Taliban. And he was against the Taliban. He was working for the Afghan government as a local police commander in a district in eastern Afghanistan.
AZAMISo this is what I don't understand. If they kept most of these prisoners in Bagram military base for up to six or seven months, so they could have easily found the evidence. They could have assessed information on intelligence they had got against these people. But despite that they were taken to Guantanamo, and this is the question that they asked the head of the task force surrounding the Guantanamo detention facility joint task force in Guantanamo. So he gave me a very diplomatic answer
AZAMIBut you are right, most of the prisoners who were from Afghanistan are telling me more or less the same stories. And none of them was charged. All of them were released without charge. And Taliban are using these stories as part of their propaganda. They have written songs about their experiences and hardship of Guantanamo. And this way they're trying to win the hearts and minds and Americans are losing hearts and minds.
AZAMIAnd we should keep in mind that the detainees in Guantanamo were from around 48 different countries. So these people are going back to their countries and telling the stories of Guantanamo and the way they were treated in Guantanamo. And then the caller was right in a way to say that this is putting American lives in danger in a number of countries. Because one of the detainees -- it was actually the same detainee Haji Ralib who told me that once told the American guards in Guantanamo that in history, there were two prisons, famous prisons. One was built by Hitler and the other one is this American prison.
AZAMISo that's how they see Americans. And another one told me that I thought of Americans as peace-loving and protectors of human rights. And the way they treated me is the same that the Russians were treating the Afghans in the 1980s when they were invading Afghanistan and when they were occupying Afghanistan.
AZAMISo a lot of people are telling the stories and they're telling other people about their experiences in Guantanamo. And I've seen a lot of people who don't like America now the way they used to in the past.
GOLBECKAnd let me pick up on that. We got a call from Bob from Wheaton who couldn't stay on the line. He wants to remind everyone that Obama promised to close Guantanamo five years ago. Carol, are we moving any closer to the day when that's possible? And what would have to happen for it to actually close?
ROSENBERGWell, the first thing that would have to happen is congress would have to do a 180 and allow the transfer of some of the detainees who can't be sent to other countries allow them to be transferred to U.S. soil for trial or detention or some other sort of framework. Remember that when the president said he was going to close Guantanamo, we didn't really know what he meant.
ROSENBERGHe did speak to the idea that -- Dawood did that it was a bad symbol abroad of American -- Guantanamo is a symbol abroad and some people say it's actually a recruiting symbol for our enemies for al-Qaida, if not really the Taliban. But what we now know is that the plan was never to exactly close it but more to move it, to take people and bring them to the states and give them different kinds of trials.
ROSENBERGBut what you're looking at right now is that tension that exists today. You know, it doesn't -- years after the 9/11 attacks, we have a national security prison and a national security court. People in America don't really remember that Guantanamo's there, but abroad it's still very well known that there are 154 men down there, if not the numbers, the fact of them. And that, you know, they've been on a hunger strike for more than a year.
ROSENBERGAnd while the military and the CIA continue to kind of cover up the parts they're uncomfortable about the public knowing, the rest of the world is aware that it's not closed. It continues. And it's unclear but, you know, there is a certain stigma for having spent time there.
ROSENBERGIt may be a badge of honor in some circles but the fact that these men can't find jobs now, perhaps couldn't have found jobs before the American invasion, speaks to our inability to help them get on with their lives after they leave Guantanamo, which is a big piece of the idea of closing it down. Rehabilitation centers and resettlement to get out those among the 154 who are there, about 77 of them who are already cleared for release if we can find a place to safely send them.
ROSENBERGBut no, it's not being closed any time soon. The first step would have to be congress. And then the next step would have to be really, the world community would have to help the president out of this bind by saying, one by one we will take these men and find suitable solutions for helping them get on with their lives so that they don't come back with the anger or frustration or hatred they had for us already before they ever got there, and become the next chapter of the post-Guantanamo story.
GOLBECKWell, there's a lot left to see what happens in Guantanamo. I'd like to thank both of you for joining us to give us these updates. Dawood Azami is a senior broadcast journalist for the BBC World Service. Thanks very much for joining us.
GOLBECKAnd Carol Rosenberg is a reporter for The Miami Herald covering the Guantanamo trials. Thank you, Carol.
GOLBECKI'm Jen Golbeck and we'll continue our conversation after this short break. You're listening to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show."
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