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Closing Guantanamo

It is the most potent symbol of the abuses of the Bush era: Obama's swift decision to shut down Guan

Before the place closes, I might have a couple more opportunities to get down to Guantanamo Bay. Nothing very much has changed. Some of the ­soldiers have become disillusioned, knowing that their orders place them on the wrong side of history. They talk more, they try to make life a little easier on the prisoners. Their commanders have become more dogmatic, if that were possible, like terriers who refuse to give up a bone.

In a way, I am going to miss Guantanamo. It's an odd ­notion, but I've been there more than 20 times, more than six months in all. Sometimes, the true joy of tilting at windmills comes when there is an ogre in the White House. Now they are gone, George W Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, the entire Axis of Evil.

Only a few days ago, on 20 January, Americans welcomed in the new year with the inauguration of Barack Obama. The new president immediately demonstrated that he means business, taking a break between dances at his ten inaugural balls to start issuing executive orders. The first 24 hours saw four decrees: the closure of Guantanamo Bay (within a year), a review of US detention policies (including the closure of CIA "black sites"), a review of US "transfer" policies (the euphemism for extraordinary rendition), and an evaluation of what position the administration should take in the case of Ali al-Marri, the only person held in extrajudicial detention on US soil for more than seven years in the "war on terror". Obama did more for the rule of law in one day than George W Bush did in eight years.

However, while this may herald a new dawn, we are very far from the end of the day. If there is one lesson that must be learned from Bush's catalogue of mistakes it is that we should not go hanging up the "Mission Accomplished" banner in too much of a hurry. Bush made his infamous announcement on the USS Abraham Lincoln on 1 May 2003, only 41 days after the invasion of Iraq. Almost six years later, it is sobering to note that more than 96 per cent of the US and coalition casualties came after Bush claimed that it was all over.

The battle for human rights is no more easily won. It is folly to think that Obama can sign four orders and fix an entire era of human rights abuses. A president, no matter how well-intentioned, can only achieve his goals if he has the necessary information and political support. In terms of information, Obama's limited sources have to be a concern. With each policy review that he has ordered, he has named the players who will issue the report: the attorney general, the secretary of defence, the secretary of state, the secretary of homeland security, the director of national intelligence and the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff. For the most part, these are the very institutions that created the problem in the first place. Nowhere does this take into account those who have struggled for change. There are plenty of interest groups opposed to a close analysis of the recent past; others remain convinced that al-Qaeda presents a different paradigm to anything previously encountered, one where the rule of law must give way.

Closing Guantanamo Bay will be a challenge, not least in terms of determining what will be done with the 240 prisoners detained there. The first group is the easiest – the 140 or so prisoners who can just be repatriated. Ninety-seven are from Yemen, and they would be home already if only the Bush administration had talked to President Saleh.

The second group are refugees who need resettlement: there are around 60, most of whom were picked up in Pakistan for bounties. Here, Obama needs help from his allies to offer them sanctuary, and it is sad that the British Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, announced a few days ago that Britain felt it had done enough already. A country that played so integral a part in supporting the mess created by Bush might feel a greater obligation to clean it up.

Last, there is the group of prisoners who will be tried, perhaps 40 of them. President Obama has ordered that the Guantanamo military commissions be suspended. Now looms the struggle over the formulation of a process to replace them. Even liberals in the US are talking about a security court, a ­notion that would sound Orwellian were it not for the fact that Britain already has such a body - SIAC, the Special Immigration Appeals Commission, with all its secrecy and its special advocates, all beyond the public eye.

Obama has also ordered the closure of CIA prisons. This is an interesting comment on his predecessor's candour, since Bush assured us in September 2006 that there were no more prisoners in CIA detention. Indeed, there is no definition of what a CIA prison is: none has ever been designated as such. The overwhelming majority (more than 99 per cent) of the, roughly, 20,000 prisoners still held in US custody, beyond the rule of law, have never been in a "CIA prison". Guantanamo is not a CIA prison. Bagram air base is not a CIA prison, yet the US military continues to hold 680 prisoners without any due process.

What we do know is that, while in US custody, prisoners disappear. Reprieve, together with other human rights organisations, drafted a report called Off the Recordwhich featured 39 people who have vanished in US custody. Only two have surfaced; 37 remain ghosts. The story of Ibn Sheikh al-Libi is an example of how the osmotic pressure of politics can result in prisoners being shuffled quietly off to a terrible fate. Al-Libi was seized in November 2001 and soon rendered by the CIA to Egypt, where torture elicited the "fact" that al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein were in league over weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Bush cited this as a reason to invade Iraq; the then secretary of state Colin Powell repeated it in the UN. When 14 "high-value detainees" appeared in Guantanamo Bay in September 2006, Ibn al-Libi was not among them; what he might say to a lawyer was just too embarrassing for the administration. So he was rendered to disappear in Libya, where Reprieve has now tracked him down. His story must be told - both to expose the consequences of torture and how Libya is being used to spare Bush's blushes.

Notwithstanding such important individual stories, the directive to close CIA prisons is only of passing relevance. There is also the question of the proxy prisons. The outsourcing of torture and imprisonment was one of the greatest horrors of the Bush years, and there are proxy prisons that have never been part of the public debate, including a particularly unpleasant one in Uzbekistan. Other countries – most notably Jordan and Egypt – continue to serve secret American interests.

It would also be unwise to assume that Obama's policy review is going to eliminate the practice of rendition. This was not a Bush brainchild; as far back as Ronald Reagan, suspects had been "snatched" - the preferred term - from abroad. There was enthusiasm for rendition during the Clinton era. Richard Clarke, counter-terrorism tsar to both Democrats and Republicans, relates an infamous story in his book Against All Enemies:

The first time I had proposed a snatch, in 1993, the White House counsel, Lloyd Cutler, demanded a meeting with the president to explain how it violated international law. Clinton seemed to be siding with Cutler until Al Gore belatedly joined the meeting, having just flown overnight from South Africa. Clinton recapped the argument on both sides for Gore: Lloyd says this. Dick says that. Gore laughed and said, "That's a no-brainer. Of course it's a violation of international law, that's why it's a covert action. The guy is a terrorist. Go grab his ass."

The euphemisms - "rendition to justice" is a favourite one, when someone is "snatched" and brought to face trial in the US - cannot disguise the fact that there is no legal distinction that sets it apart from kidnapping.

President Obama has ordered an end to torture, requiring that all interrogations abide by the Army Field Manual. Yet the ink was barely dry on his directive before talk of adding more coercive techniques to the manual began to surface even from within the Obama administration itself, possibly as a sop to right-wing critics. Obama also said nothing about accountability. With a wink and a nod, before his inauguration, there were signs that he had already come under pressure from both sides of the aisle not to look too carefully at the criminal practices of the Bush administration. Nobody in Congress seems to have the stomach for a bloody inquest, and I believe the Senate leadership have indicated that inquiries are not on their list of priorities. Obama's reticence is understandable enough. He is embarking on a daunting mission, and he must seek allies where he can find them. Digging up the skeletons of the past might have suited the Democrats in the run-up to the election, but if they want Republican co-operation now, the prospect is less appealing.

The setting up of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, to ensure that the truth comes to light, both for the peace of mind of the victims and so that history can record the mistakes, would be one option open to the new president, and there is no legitimate argument against it. But such a commission will not easily be born. A systematic structure of secrecy - couched in national security terms - may be the most dangerous and long-lasting legacy of Bush and Tony Blair. I have a US security clearance, and while I obviously cannot reveal classified material, I can state without hesitation that the overwhelming majority of it would not remain hidden in a sane world.

Looking to the future, it is enormously exciting to have a US president who is so powerfully in favour of human rights. But it is unclear whether he could sustain his approach in the face of (for example) a further terror attack on US soil. Unfortunately we should not discount the possibility of such an attack. Al- Qaeda must realise that a decent president is a danger to their cause, just as Bush's policies provided the most effective recruiting sergeant to their banner that they could imagine.

Clive Stafford Smith is the director of Reprieve, the UK legal action charity that uses the law to enforce the human rights of prisoners, from death row to Guantanamo Bay. For more information, see www.reprieve.org.uk, or contact Reprieve, PO Box 52742, London EC4P 4WS. Tel: 020 7353 4640

Road to closure

2002, January First group of 20 prisoners arrive at Guantanamo, deemed not entitled to habeas corpus.
President Bush rules that their standing as "enemy combatants" disqualifies them from PoW status
February Detainees go on hunger strike to protest the ban on turbans
2004, March UK prisoners dubbed the "Tipton Three" are released without charge
June Supreme Court rules that prisoners can use federal courts to challenge their imprisonment
July In response, the Pentagon creates special military commissions to determine detainees "enemy combatant" status
2005, May Riots erupt around the world after allegations of abuse of the Koran at Guantanamo
2006, June US Supreme Court rules that military commissions used to try prisoners are illegal and that the Geneva Conventions apply to detainees
2008, June Supreme Court rules that prisoners are entitled to habeas corpus
July Reports that US military based an interrogation class on study of Chinese torture techniques
July Guantanamo war crimes trial begins against Osama Bin Laden's former driver
2009, January Barack Obama announces Guantanamo to close within a year and suspends all ongoing military tribunals

Kate Ferguson

Inside guantanamo/Bisher Al-Rawi

was arrested in November 2002 during a business trip to the Gambia, along with a colleague. He was first taken to Bagram air base, then on to Guantanamo.

We were flown to Guantanamo shackled, cuffed, blindfolded. We had protectors on our ears. It was extremely uncomfortable. If you wanted to use the toilet, someone had to pull your trousers down for you. It was extremely degrading.
When we got there we were put in solitary confinement. To be thrown into a dimly lit cell, just a small box, life is really very alien. You feel hopeless, like this is your grave. We stayed in solitary confinement for a month, then went out into the general population [of the camp]. You were still in individual cells but you could see people. Really, the day was full of nothingness. It revolved around when they brought us food and the nothingness in between. The leisure time was a big thing - to be let outside - but even when you were there you were just by yourself in a fenced area, 10ft by 15ft. There really was no information about what was going on - there was just interrogation.
Something happened which made me realise it was a game to people. Before my lawyer had visited, he sent me a letter explaining I was not to take part in the tribunal process, because it was illegal. Before I received the letter, they came to us. We were told a couple of weeks before that we'd have a tribunal. We had to prepare our own defence - but without access to pen and paper.
Then the day after my tribunal I received my lawyer's letter saying not to take part. The letter had been postmarked two months before. That's when I knew they were not trying to do the right thing, and then I lost faith.

Inside Guantanamo/Moazzam Begg

Moazzam Begg was detained by Pakistani police and CIA officers in January 2002 while he was living in Islamabad.

I was never arrested, I was kidnapped at gunpoint. Nobody ever questioned me until I was handed over into custody. It happened because the US offered bounties of thousands of pounds for each person. There was no justice system, absolutely none. They didn't even pretend there was. You were simply in custody and that's it.
I was held for three years - 11 months in Bagram and two years, one month in Guantanamo. Most of my time was in solitary confinement - it was monotonous and dreary, with nothing to look forward to. There was no window in my cell, and it was impossible to take more than three steps in any direction. They had recreation three times a day in a caged area that was about three times the size of my cell. By the end, they had increased each time to an hour.
We welcome news of the closure - it's seven years too late, but it's better late than never. But we're still concerned about the ghost prisons, where conditions are even worse than in Guantanamo. Obama has said that he's going to shut Guantanamo but he's also said that he's going to increase the numbers of troops in Afghanistan. So there are likely to be more people imprisoned there. I'm particularly concerned because I was held in Bagram myself for almost a year, and I saw some people killed there.

Clive Stafford Smith is legal director of the charity Reprieve and has spent more than 20 years representing prisoners on Death Row in the United States. More recently he has represented many of the prisoners in Guantanamo Bay.

This article first appeared in the 02 February 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Interview: Alistair Darling

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The age of lies: how politicians hide behind statistics

Perhaps it is time to combine our Trump-era, heightened sensitivity to untruths with a new broadcasting technique or two.

The small slabs of crude election soundbites, with extra ornamentation in the form of half-true and meaningless headline statistics, clunk across the airwaves, and we grimace. The dead prose reaches us umpteen times a day – “an economy that works for all”, “the many and not the few”, “work is the way out of poverty”, “more being spent on our schools than ever before”, “the NHS is treating more patients than ever ­before”, “fastest growth rate in Europe”, “the national interest”, “the most ­important election in my lifetime” – and yes, let’s hear it for “strong and stable leadership”.

On 30 April, Andrew Marr tried a little witty and civilised pre-emptive mocking to stop Theresa May using soundbites in his interview with her, but it did not work because it could not work. Embarrassment about clichés and almost idiotic numbers is not what democratic politicians worry about at election time. Many of us may pine for the old American game-show device – where, for failing to amuse and divert the audience, contestants are removed from the fray by a man hammering a gong – but that is not on offer and, in election mode, the politicians will do as they have long learned to do. They will listen to the Lynton Crosbys and Seumas Milnes of this world and plough on – and on.

The soundbites are largely vacuous and we are more noisily sardonic about them than three decades ago (hooray for media literacy) but they aren’t worse than normal. There is no point expecting the debate to run on the lines of Gladstone’s Midlothian campaign 140 years ago, when he charged around Britain giving five-hour speeches – richly informed by Liberal philosophy – which did the trick for him and his party.

The clichés are, naturally, often interchangeable. Everybody running for high political office could quite contentedly utter any or all of the above phrases, though I concede it doesn’t require an inspired analyst of modern British politics to know what Theresa May is trying to do with her leadership riff – nor Jeremy Corbyn with his “rule for the many and not the few”, a phrase that has been used religiously since the adoption of universal suffrage. Only Jacob Rees-Mogg would put it to one side.

I spent almost 30 years at the BBC – working with a cadre of (mostly) hugely talented and impartial presenters and editors trying to find ways of injecting a bit more surprise or rigour into political interviews. (Surprise and rigour are often not the same thing.) I recall David Dimbleby reducing Alastair Campbell to semi-public fury in 1997 by excavating Tony Blair’s early political career and finding, neither surprisingly nor, in my view, particularly reprehensibly, that he had said Michael Foot-like things in a Michael Foot-like era. Oddly, nobody had thought to do this after he had been elected leader three years earlier, so Dimbleby’s approach to Blair had an element of ­surprise. And then there was John Humphrys’s relentless needling of Gordon Brown for his comic refusal after the 2008 financial crash to use the word “cuts” to describe what might have to happen to reduce the budget deficit, or even to agree with his own chancellor, Alistair Darling, that the global economic outlook was very bad. Brown had an on-air mega-curdle.

We know the score – the politicians find the rhetorical and statistical position that provides the best short-term defensive crouch, while the interviewer at least wants to make sure that the audience knows the question posed is relevant, fair and, if need be, that it has been dodged. Time presses on both participants – but the impact of the compression is unequal. The interviewee usually has the upper hand. In her early period Margaret Thatcher, who was a good deal more nervous than her subsequent reputation for clarity and authority would suggest, might well have been the all-time queen of interview delay tactics. However, most interviewees know that once they have found an answer to a question the first thing to do is to pad it out in case the next question is a little more difficult.

I am not outraged by any of this; nor do I believe these encounters should be dismissed as sterile, or that we should be contemptuous of the skills involved on either side of the exchange. The sort of one-sided triumph enjoyed by LBC’s Nick Ferrari with Diane Abbott is rare, and her numerical amnesia over policing made a whole argument go kerplunk – but even in more orthodox interviews you can often detect at the very least a broad weakness in a broad argument.

To my ear Corbyn sounds perpetually unsteady on defence policy (see his Marr interview in the first week of the campaign) and public finances, and neither May nor David Cameron before her manages much fluency on the impact of cuts on the working poor once they have uttered that threadbare soundbite about work being the route out of poverty. Would that it were so simple.

Our willingness to dismiss as boring these interviews, the staple of daily current affairs programmes, is overdone. And we have been a little graceless about the extent to which senior UK politicians do – or did – engage in at least some forms of public debate. Anyone who follows the US media will know how rare it has always been for senior members of the administration and White House staff to expose themselves to the sort of scrutiny still supplied by the Sunday political shows, Radio 4 current affairs programmes, Newsnight or Channel 4 News.

For decades, senior politicians in the UK turned up in the studios – often with scarcely concealed irritation – but they went through with it. In part because it was expected and in part out of self-interest. Good interview performances could lead to rapid promotion. Iain Duncan Smith was (you may be surprised by this) particularly effective in his early years at advocating his causes, and his party’s, in front of a microphone. But the studios did for him when he became Tory leader. As it turned out, his failings were more obvious when confronted by a skilled interviewer than in the House of Commons. His nervous coughing finally caught up with him one morning on the Today programme, and that was that.

Duncan Smith and Abbott are far from alone in seeing their currency plummet as a result of losing the plot in an interview. Harriet Harman, normally a highly fluent and agile politician, was sacked as social security secretary in 1998 after a grim outing, at least for her, with John Humphrys – caused not by his abrasiveness nor by any Abbott-like forgetfulness, but by her almost tangible unhappiness with a New Labour policy she was defending.

Even now, on BBC Question Time, some heavyweights will turn up only to be mauled by the voters on topics a long way away from the heart of their portfolio. Yes, they get copious notes from party researchers and have endless rehearsals to minimise the chance of saying anything too intellectually lively: but they should nevertheless get credit for risking it in the first place.

However, outside election time this tradition of broadcasting interrogation and debate, not much more than 50 years old, is under stealthy attack. The presenting team on Today is seriously good, but it is hard not to notice that the heavy hitters turn up less often for their ten minutes of duelling; similarly with Newsnight and Channel 4 News.

The Prime Minister’s Olympian approach to this sort of public engagement aggravates what was already a problem. The broadcasters may be losing ground. In this election there will be no head-to-head leaders’ debates featuring Labour and the Conservatives, and there is no great uproar about it. As it happens, I don’t believe that their absence is a disaster – not least because the format of individual leaders confronting an engaged Question Time audience one at a time (a “tradition” that began in 1997) provides far more substance and revelation than the 2010 or 2015 leaders’ debates did.

In the meantime, what can be done to the interview to improve the quality of public debate? Forcing out the clichés is not a realistic goal. Yet perhaps it is time to combine our Trump-era, heightened sensitivity to untruths with a new broadcasting technique or two. The BBC Trust (which I was part of for two years until it ceased to exist in April) commissioned its final independent editorial report on the BBC’s use of statistics from a panel of experts chaired by the former UK chief statistician Jil Matheson.

It is a superb piece of work. Above all it pleads with the BBC to do more to put statistics in context. The work was largely complete before the EU referendum so it did not pass judgement about either the veracity of the Brexiteers’ “extra £350m for the NHS” claim or the BBC’s coverage of that claim. I listened and watched a lot and, contrary to the views of many leading members of the Remain campaign, the BBC seemed to me to have consistently signalled to the audience the risible nature of the figure, if not as rudely as many would have liked.

Yet there is a different perspective on that cause célèbre. Only very rarely did the BBC on air (or anyone else, for that matter) compare the sums involved with total UK public expenditure: a net annual payment to the EU of about £8.5bn, compared to public expenditure of about £785bn. This £8.5bn is not a trivial sum – and it is likely to sound gargantuan to an unskilled worker on low wages in Hartlepool – but it hardly threatens the nation’s existence. We will have to think about that number all over again when the EU divorce bill gets paid.

In the past few years there has been a welcome growth online of fact-checking websites that get to grips with some of the half-sense or nonsense uttered – sometimes deliberately – in public debate. Among the broadcasters, Channel 4 News got in first with “FactCheck” and deserves great credit for having done so. The BBC has Reality Check; there are also the non-aligned Full Fact and others. And the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) sits as a mega-authority when it pronounces on individual economic statistics. (It was a particularly dispiriting episode when the IFS took a pounding during the EU campaign.)

The good newspapers and the broadcasters have correspondents who can – and do – understand the context in which statistical argument takes place. They know the difference between a big number and a not-so-big number, the difference between an aggregate spending figure and spending per head of population, the difference in importance between a one-month figure and a trend – and a trend that does not change much over time.

This is all good, and better than it used to be. But perhaps more of this rigour can be woven into what is still the dominant form of political accountability in broadcasting: the interview.

So let us try a thought experiment. Imagine (though we don’t really have to imagine) that the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, comes into a studio to say, surprise, surprise, that more is being spent in real terms on the NHS than ever before. Imagine that he is told there will be no questions on anything else until he can answer, let’s say, two obvious supplementary questions: in the course of the past 60 years how often has his assertion not been true? (Answer, says the IFS: four times, one of which was 2011/12.) And what has been the growth in per capita NHS spend, in real terms, since 2009/10, compared to the previous 15 years or so? (Answer: 0.6 per cent, as opposed to 5.4 per cent.) Answering these would show that his boast is one that almost all of his predecessors could have made, and also that the Conservative-led coalition was less generous to the health service than the preceding Labour government. It would be absolutely fair for Jeremy Hunt to respond vigorously about the need to cut the deficit or even to make points about who was in government when the crash happened – but he could not be allowed to get away with statistical near-rubbish.

Similarly, the mantra on English education (“Our schools are getting more money than ever before”) is a waste of air. It’s not that the cuts are “vicious” – just that the assertion when put in context is gibberish. The economy is growing and the school population is growing, fast. So if we were not spending more in total, and in real terms, then the cuts would be vicious. And yet, per head, there will be less in real terms for pupils. Period.

The front-line interviewers I know best are very skilled journalists and they often do try to get a jab in when the numerical nonsense gets going – but they have to move on, whether to other urgent matters or to seek a news headline from the interview, and there is not enough jeopardy for the press officer or spin doctor who wrote the politician’s brief to desist from writing the same stuff next time around.

There may be other ways of levelling up matters. The interview could proceed as normal; but at the end of it up could pop, say, Tim Harford (of the brilliant statistics programme More or Less on Radio 4) to put in the necessary corrections. It would have to be done within a few minutes or else the impact would dissipate. From time to time, Harford or his equivalent does appear after a political interviewee has spouted statistically illiterate twaddle – but not often enough, and usually this happens long after the attempted mugging of intelligent debate. Too little, too late.

It would be obligatory to ensure that this type of treatment, particularly at election time, was meted out to all the parties – but outside the election it is the government of the day and its news departments that are going to have to face most of the music. Fair enough.

My suggestion is not put forward because I am advocating a particular party’s reading of the state of the nation (or nations). There is no monopoly on vice. We should not forget Labour’s “triple counting” of health service spending after 1997 even if Blair/Brown subsequently, in benign economic circumstances, did indeed put their foot on the health-spending accelerator.

Rather, when the election dust settles and the media seminar post-mortems crank up yet again – about the level of turnout, political ennui, the particular disengagement of the young, the coverage of the leaders, the role of opinion polls and other staples – we need to keep working on how to improve the quality of public debate. It is not all awful, and a stylised contempt for what is good is itself corrupting of democracy. But the numbers nonsense needs fixing. 

Mark Damazer is Master of St Peter’s College, Oxford, and was the controller of BBC Radio 4 from 2004 to 2010

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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