In June, when Lt. Col. Stephen Abraham, an Army reservist with 26 years’ experience in military intelligence, stepped forward to complain, in the case of a Kuwaiti detainee in Guantánamo, Fawzi al-Odah, that the entire process of confirming the detainees’ status as “enemy combatants” (in the Combatant Status Review Tribunals) was severely flawed, often relying on “generic” evidence and designed solely to rubber-stamp the detainees’ prior designation as “enemy combatants,” he was feted as a hero by lawyers representing the detainees, by human rights organizations, and, refreshingly, by numerous newspapers throughout the United States (“Heroism comes in many forms,” for example, was the headline of an article in the Salt Lake Tribune).
Since then, despite the fact that I pointed out a month ago that he was not the only insider to criticize the process, and that dissenting opinions had been filed by an unnamed Army major in one other case at Guantánamo, and by a detainee’s Personal Representative in at least two other cases, the administration has attempted to isolate him and demean his testimony, with the Department of Justice smearing his words as “innuendo,” and Navy Lt. Cmdr. Chito Peppler, a Pentagon spokesman, claiming that, as a database manager, he served only a “brief stint on active duty several years ago.”
Two weeks ago, Lt. Col. Abraham visited Capitol Hill to reiterate his testimony before the House Armed Services Committee. Although the story was not widely reported in the US media, the New York Times covered it, adding weight to Abraham’s statements by describing him as “the star witness.” Reporter William Glaberson, who called his testimony “[s]pirited and enthusiastic,” noted that, after explaining that “in his database work he saw thousands of documents that were used as evidence in more than 300 of the 558 hearings conducted in 2004 and 2005,” Abraham “said he had raised frequent concerns about the fairness of the process,” but noted that “a quick result was preferred over a probing inquiry.”
He also revisited the tribunal hearing in which he took part – that of Abdul Hamid al-Ghizzawi, a Libyan shopkeeper married to an Afghan woman – testifying that “the three panel members all agreed that the military did not have evidence against the detainee,” and explaining, “Not only I, but the other members of the panel said, ‘This is garbage.’” Although criticized by some Republican Representatives, and by representatives of the administration – including his former boss, Navy Rear Adm. James M. McGarrah, who claimed that “his view was of a very narrow piece of the process,” and that the administration “had dozens of people working on information collection” – Glaberson noted that some of the Democrats on the Congressional panel “called him a brave man and thanked him.”
In the last week, other voices have joined the growing chorus of disapproval. On Wednesday, lawyers from the Center for Constitutional Rights filed a petition on behalf of a Somali detainee, Mohammed Sulaymon Barre, in which they cited not only Stephen Abraham’s testimony, but also statements made by Navy Rear Adm. McGarrah. In an audacious move, the lawyers extracted two passages from a declaration made by McGarrah in May, in which he admitted that, in some cases, the military did not present all exculpatory evidence relating to the detainees. While the first of these statements – that “if certain information which suggested that the detainee should not be designated as an enemy combatant was duplicative,” then the “duplicative information” was sometimes not presented to the tribunals – strikes me as rather inconclusive, the second – that evidence which indicated that the detainee was not an “enemy combatant” may have been excluded “if it did not relate to a specific allegation being made against the detainee” – is far more troubling, as it indicates, explicitly, that specific, and original exculpatory evidence was deliberately excluded if it tended to distract from the administration’s single-minded pursuit of its preconceived agenda.
Although other critics of the Guantánamo regime have been in the news in the last week – in GQ, for example, Sean Flynn profiled military lawyers William Kuebler and Tom Fleener, who were devastatingly critical of the Military Commissions at Guantánamo – no other whistleblowers have yet stepped forward to declare, in public, their support for Lt. Col. Abraham’s criticisms of the CSRT process.
Recently, however, Lt. Col. Abraham has received correspondence from a former colleague in OARDEC (the Office for the Administrative Review of the Detention of Enemy Combatants), who provided independent confirmation of the criticisms of the CSRT process. The officer, who participated in tribunals both in Washington and Guantánamo, wrote, “Just wanted to say good luck and my recollections of the process are similar to yours.
The finding of enemy combatant was expected, the finding of not an enemy combatant was looked upon as a failure of the process.” Lt. Col. Abraham added that he met another “fellow OARDEC member,” who expressed support for his efforts, and explained that these comments “serve as independent verification of at least a portion of what I had said,” and that they “demonstrate or would tend to demonstrate that other people were and are troubled by the proceedings or a portion of them.” He added that they “respond to the claim that as the only dissenter my word should be given no regard.”
As an extra point of interest, the officer who wrote to Lt. Col. Abraham added that an “additional tidbit” that had not yet been reported was that, “after several detainees were found to be not an enemy combatant, DoD took away that option and we had to start using the term ‘no longer an enemy combatant’ for those held for no apparent reason,” an insight that vividly demonstrates the administration’s Orwellian approach to semantics. As Lt. Col. Abraham noted in a subsequent e-mail, “If the option of NOT an enemy combatant is removed, the CSRT process no longer was used to rubber-stamp prior determinations. Rather, by definition, from that point on, the status of all detainees was fixed and the only question would be whether they had somehow reformed themselves.”
While I wait for more whistleblowers to step forward, it’s worth reflecting on how much trust can be placed in an administration that, when challenged by its own employees in rigged tribunals that are manifestly unjust, reconfigures language so that no one captured in the “War on Terror” – regardless of how they came to be in US custody, or how flimsy the “evidence” against them – is ever innocent.
ANDY WORTHINGTON is a British historian, and the author of ‘The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison’ (to be published by Pluto Press in October 2007).
He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org