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Guantanamo Bay is hell on earth: an interview wit’ journalist Adam Hudson

August 17, 2013

by The People’s Minister of Information JR

Unjustified imprisonment and torturous living conditions have prisoners hunger striking all over the world. Many people who read the Bay View on the regular are aware of the California prison hunger strike, which has been going on for over a month now and started with over 30,000 prisoners statewide participating. But many know nothing about another prison hunger strike that is going on simultaneously on a U.S. military base in Cuba.

Adam Hudson
Adam Hudson
Adam Hudson is a Bay Area Stanford graduate turned journalist who was given an assignment by Truth-out.org to cover the military commissions of two people who the U.S. government has deemed terrorists. In this exclusive interview, we talk about the rarely discussed and unknown practices of government personnel at secret prisons and kangaroo-court military tribunals that determine the fate of people the U.S. government alleges are foreign “terrorists.”

This is a glimpse into where the U.S. prison system is headed, if it is not already here. Read the words of journalist Adam Hudson as he describes his experience descending into the horrors of Guantanamo Bay.

M.O.I. JR: Can you tell us a little bit about how you became a writer?

Adam Hudson: I always loved writing since I was a kid. I used to write short stories for fun. But, as I got older, I didn’t think of turning it into a career. Since high school, I wanted to be a lawyer. It’s the conventional path for young people who care about politics and social justice. So I thought I’d go to law school to pursue that.

But after I graduated from college, I realized being a lawyer is not something I wanted to do. I talked to many people who went to law school and a lot of them hated it. The high cost of law school, low job prospects for recent law grads and its corporatist environment just didn’t seem worth it to pursue a career that, deep down, I didn’t want to do. So I dropped that goal.

Meanwhile, in addition to doing odd jobs, I blogged and wrote a lot. I blogged on my own site and sent stuff to other outlets, like PolicyMic and Examiner.com. Most of the stuff I wrote about related to war, racism and human rights issues, but I also touched the Occupy movement and the economy.

I studied International Relations and Arabic at Stanford so I tend to focus on international issues like U.S. foreign policy and human rights. Then, last year, I got my first paid freelance writing gig with Turnstyle News.

Later that year, in fall of 2012, I got a paid internship at The Nation magazine in New York City. So I lived in Brooklyn for three months. Not only did I fact-check articles but I also wrote a few pieces for them. After that, I came back to the Bay Area and continued freelancing, reaching out to Truthout and AlterNet. Then I got the assignment to report from Guantanamo last June and came back to the Bay on the 22nd of that month.

So the way I became a writer is I just kept writing and sending my stuff out. Now, as a freelancer, I write for a number of outlets – Truthout, Turnstyle News, AlterNet, The Nation, PolicyMic, my blog.

M.O.I. JR: What gave you the idea to take an assignment at Guantanamo? What were you exactly looking for?

Adam Hudson: It’s something I’ve been passionate about for a while. As a journalist, I cover war and human rights issues, so it was right up my alley. But, as a human being, I’ve always been concerned about U.S. wars and international human rights abuses.

Adam Hudson 'Protest Torturers' anti-war crimes Noam Chomsky rally 100409 by Danny Colligan, web
As a Stanford student, Adam Hudson speaks at the “Protest Torturers” rally he organized, held Oct. 4, 2009. Noam Chomsky was the main speaker. – Photo: Danny Colligan
When I was an undergrad at Stanford, I organized against torture and U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. So when my editor at Truthout contacted me and asked if I wanted to go to Guantanamo, I instantly accepted the offer. Going to Guantanamo provided me an opportunity to witness, for myself, the dark realities of U.S. empire and have a better understanding of it. So when I speak about these issues, it’s not just coming from a theoretical perspective; it’s also coming from personal experience. That understanding helps to paint a better picture of what’s going on.

I was assigned to cover the military commissions. I covered two hearings. The first was of Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, the alleged mastermind of the USS Cole bombing off the coast of Yemen that killed 17 American sailors in 2000. The other was of the five alleged plotters of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, one of whom was Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the key mastermind. During my time there, I got to experience day-to-day life in Guantanamo – the base, not the prison. But most of my time was spent covering the commissions.

In these military commissions, the rights of the accused are undermined in a number of ways. Hearsay evidence is easier to allow than in civilian courts. Much of the government’s evidence is hearsay, even though hearsay is unreliable evidence.

The right to confront witnesses in court is curtailed. For the al-Nashiri case, the government is using the testimony of a Yemeni terrorist named Fahd al-Quso against him. Only problem is that al-Quso is dead – he was killed by a CIA drone strike in Yemen last year. But the U.S. government is using him as a witness – a dead witness – against al-Nashiri.

A lot of information is classified, much of it relating to torture. Defendants can be excluded from pretrial proceedings in which classified information is heard, even if it’s used against them. Lawyers are prohibited from discussing how their clients were treated under U.S. custody because that information is classified. But it’s pretty much an open secret that the people they represent were tortured by the United States government.

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was water-boarded 183 times in March 2003 – and the vast majority of his confessions were useless garbage. Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri was water-boarded and subjected to mock execution with a gun and power drill. In fact, the tape of al-Nashiri’s torture was among the interrogation tapes the CIA destroyed in 2005.

This is public knowledge, yet this information, deemed “sources and methods” – essentially how they were interrogated or tortured by the CIA – is classified and can’t be discussed during the proceedings. The only exception is if the defendant “provides” classified information they were exposed to, but there’s almost no way of lawyers knowing what they were “exposed” to because they can’t discuss classified information with their clients nor publicly.

Attorney-client meetings are spied on by the government. They’ll be put in rooms that are wired for surveillance and the smoke detectors have microphones in them for listening and recording. Overall, these military commissions are Kafkaesque kangaroo courts. They’re a mockery of true justice.

As a journalist, I cover war and human rights issues. As a human being, I’ve always been concerned about U.S. wars and international human rights abuses.

When I first read about military commissions in Guantanamo a few years ago, way before this trip, I remember being jaw-droppingly stunned by how unjust their process was. Witnessing them play out firsthand added another dimension to that.

M.O.I. JR: Was what you found different than what you expected?

Adam Hudson: Guantanamo is far worse than I thought. I knew it was bad but not this bad. To see it up front just hits you. It’s institutionalized inhumanity in every way. One thing people forget is that Guantanamo is a military base and the prison is one part.

Guantanamo prisoner chain link wall by CNN
A Guantanamo prisoner leans dejectedly on an interior chain link fence. – Photo: CNN
The entire base is 45 square miles, which is the size of a suburban city. Because it’s a U.S. military base, not a state, and separated from the rest of Cuba, it’s its own world. It has its own set of rules and culture. That’s what allows human rights abuses like indefinite detention, torture and military commissions to occur there nonchalantly and with impunity.

Amidst all this, it has the amenities of a suburban town: restaurants, bars, McDonald’s, Subway, supermarket, gift shop, movie theater, suburban-style houses, hotels. On the flip-side, the scenery is beautiful – the beaches, water, hills, the way the sun rises and sets over the water. But then juxtapose that gorgeous nature with the dirty realities of Guantanamo. It’s very surreal.

One thing that surprised me was the presence of foreign workers at Guantanamo, predominantly Afro-Caribbean and Filipino. They do menial labor on the base, such as sanitation, cutting the grass, fixing air conditioners, maintenance, serve food, and construction, which includes building and maintaining the prisons. They’re hired by U.S. contractors to do this work – like Bremcor.

Upon further research, I learned that they make very low wages, are trafficked from their home countries, and labor protections are virtually nonexistent for them. Originally, this work was largely done by local Cubans with some Afro-Caribbeans, Filipinos and other foreigners. But after the Cuban Revolution, U.S. troops were forbidden from entering the rest of the island, which meant local Cubans no longer worked on the U.S. base.

To make up for the labor loss, the United States brought a lot of Jamaicans and Filipinos to do the same work in Guantanamo. The growth of privatization in the Pentagon, particularly in the last decade, has increased the U.S. military’s reliance on foreign workers – known as “third-country nationals” in military terms.

It’s a sick conjunction of empire and corporate globalization. And it’s an injustice that is largely kept hidden from the American public. I wouldn’t have known about this, had I not traveled to Guantanamo. There’s little reporting on it. So I’m glad I went.

Guantanamo is far worse than I thought. I knew it was bad but not this bad. To see it up front just hits you. It’s institutionalized inhumanity in every way.

M.O.I. JR: Can you give us some history about Guantanamo Bay and how the U.S. has a base and prison on an island where it considers the Cuban government hostile?

Adam Hudson: The United States has had Guantanamo Bay Naval Station for over 100 years, going back to the end of the 1898 Spanish-American War when the U.S. defeated Spain and took over Cuba, Guam, Puerto Rico and the Philippines. In 1901, the United States signed a treaty with Cuba called the Platt Amendment. This gave the U.S. military the “right to intervene for the preservation of Cuban independence” and said, “(T)he government of Cuba will sell or lease to the United States lands necessary for coaling and naval stations.”

Two years later, in 1903, Cuba leased lands for “coaling and naval stations,” which included one in Guantanamo Bay. And that’s when the base was built. In 1934, President Franklin Roosevelt signed a treaty with Cuba. That treaty basically said that as long as both governments do not agree to change the treaty’s terms and the U.S. does not leave Guantanamo, then the American base stays. That essentially makes the lease permanent.

After the 1959 Cuban revolution, the Cuban government wanted U.S. troops to leave the island. But the United States refused. So what it did is to forbid U.S. troops stationed in Guantanamo from entering the rest of the island. So when you go there, there’s a mishmash of artificial and natural borders isolating the base. The base is separated by disconnected Cuban roads that do not enter the area, barbed-wire fences, guard towers, and tall hills and mountains. They make it so anyone from Cuba cannot enter the base and anyone on the base cannot enter Cuba.

U.S. Navy sailor surveys Guantanamo Bay Naval Base by CNN
A U.S. Navy sailor surveys Guantanamo Bay Naval Base. – Photo: CNN
Every month, the United States pays the Cuban government around $4,000 as part of the lease agreement, which amounts to over $48,000 a year – very cheap for the U.S. As a form of protest against the base, the Cuban government has refused to cash a single check – except for one that was cashed by accident. So given America’s decades-long animosity toward Cuba, especially the embargo, it’s ironic that it keeps a military base there.

In addition to housing prisoners, Guantanamo is used as a base where the U.S. military, particularly the Coast Guard, carries out counter-narcotic operations throughout the Caribbean and Latin America.

M.O.I. JR: Can you give us some history on the torture that is taking place there?

Adam Hudson: When the War on Terror began, the Bush administration was looking for anyone linked to 9/11 and al-Qaeda. One way it did this was to give bounties to anyone in Afghanistan or Pakistan who could find an alleged al-Qaeda member. This basically led to informants snitching on whoever to get the bounty money and/or settle a score with someone. Based on that flimsy intelligence, the Northern Alliance or Pakistani authorities handed them to the United States.

Then the American government sent those people to Guantanamo. Guantanamo was chosen as a location to house suspected terrorists because, as a U.S. colony, it was a perfect legal black hole, which allowed the Bush administration to treat the detainees however they wanted with impunity. It’s kind of like how Russia, under the Tsar, would send dissidents or anyone they didn’t like to a penal colony in Siberia – out of sight, out of mind.

Initially, detainees in Guantanamo were sent to this place called Camp X-Ray, which was originally used to house migrants captured by the United States. Camp X-Ray was a temporary detention facility until the current prisons were built at Camp Delta, which were modeled off American prisons. It began with 20 prisoners in January 2002 and increased to 300 in April of that year when it closed. During that time, detainees stayed in literal cages and were brutally treated.

I didn’t visit the current prisons at Camp Delta, but I did see Camp X-Ray. They have this recent arbitrary rule that journalists who cover commissions can’t visit the prisons, except for Camp X-Ray. That place is covered in weeds, the wooden buildings are rotting, and it looks like a concentration camp going to waste.

Guantanamo was chosen as a location to house suspected terrorists because, as a U.S. colony, it was a perfect legal black hole, which allowed the Bush administration to treat the detainees however they wanted with impunity.

As the Center for Constitutional Rights pointed out in 2006, abuses at Guantanamo included sleep deprivation, solitary confinement, shackling, beatings, medical abuse, sexual harassment and rape, and religious and cultural abuses and humiliations, such as desecration of the Qur’an. The International Committee of the Red Cross discovered similar treatment, but their findings were kept confidential, until they were leaked to news outlets like the New York Times in November 2004. Many detainees were tortured in CIA black sites before they arrived in Guantanamo. Some of that torture included mock execution and water-boarding.

Guantanamo Black prisoner escorted by guards by CNN
A Guantanamo prisoner is escorted by guards. – Photo: CNN
Despite the Supreme Court granting the right of habeas corpus to Guantanamo detainees in 2008, efforts to close the prison and President Obama’s ending of torture and promises to close Guantanamo, abuses still occur. The most publicized abuse is the practice of force-feeding prisoners on hunger strike, which violates medical ethics and amounts to torture.

But there’s more. According to Carlos Warner, a federal public defender who represents detainees in Guantanamo, detainees are subjected to genital searches. The official purpose is to search for and confiscate contraband. But he said the real purpose is to “stop the communication” between detainees and their lawyers in order to limit public knowledge about what’s going on there.

The central injustice at Guantanamo is indefinite detention. Of the 166 currently detained in Guantanamo, only 20 can be “realistically prosecuted,” according to chief prosecutor U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Mark Martins. So that means the vast majority are being held without any charge or trial. They’re being detained until the end of hostilities against al-Qaeda, the Taliban and associated forces, meaning the end of the war on terror. This could be decades from now or almost never.

So these men are prisoners of war in an endless war. Indefinite detention violates international human rights law. Yet the Obama administration continues this practice.

M.O.I. JR: Obama promised to close Guantanamo during his first term. Has there been any progress?

Adam Hudson: Not really. When it comes to Obama’s plan to “close Guantanamo,” we need to be clear about what his plan actually is – and it’s not to “close Guantanamo.” Obama’s plan amounts to transferring the practices of indefinite detention and military commissions – practices that made Guantanamo so odious in the first place – from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to a federal prison in Illinois. So his plan is purely cosmetic, not institutional.

His administration embraced indefinite detention and military commissions ever since Obama entered the White House in 2009 – well before the Tea Party took over Congress. He signed the Military Commissions Act of 2009, which was a rebranding of Bush’s 2006 MCA. There were a few small changes, but he kept the basic architecture in place.

The central injustice at Guantanamo is indefinite detention.

In May 2009, four months after entering office, the Obama administration announced its support for indefinite detention of people in Guantanamo. Then he signed the National Defense Authorization Act in 2012 and again in 2013, which allows for the indefinite detention of American citizens accused of ties to terrorism. His administration has rigorously fought judicial challenges to this power. So Obama never intended to “close” Guantanamo – he just wanted to move it.

Guantanamo prisoner threatened by dog
A Guantanamo prisoner is threatened by a guard and his dog.
Congress has been very obstructionist to Obama’s Guantanamo plans by blocking funds to transfer prisoners. But if Obama were serious about releasing prisoners, he could do that unilaterally. There’s nothing stopping him, except for political calculations. Although he is trying to send back two prisoners to Algeria.

But most of the prisoners in Guantanamo are from Yemen. Given the political instability there, U.S. drone strikes, and the reluctance of both the U.S. and Yemeni governments to repatriate these men because they’re probably too “dangerous,” the chances of those prisoners being transferred are slim.

The U.S. government is weary of releasing many prisoners because of the risk that they’ll commit acts of terrorism in the future. Not only would it obviously harm U.S. national security but it would look bad politically. The Republicans can cynically exploit it to make Obama look soft on terrorism so his administration is weary of that – hence why they’ve embraced killing rather than capturing “suspected terrorists.” It makes their political job easier.

So that could prevent many prisoners from being transferred back to their home countries, even though the U.S. has no charges against them. And remember, only a small minority can be prosecuted for anything. The rest are being held indefinitely.

Obama also could simply declare an end to the war on terror. That would basically end the prisoner-of-endless-war status that most of these detainees find themselves in and prompt them to be returned home if they can’t be charged with anything. But the Obama administration has kept basic infrastructure of the war on terror in place, particularly with its expansion of assassination operations and other forms of asymmetric warfare, such as drone strikes.

Also, even if the prison closes, the entire Guantanamo base will still be there. That 110-year-old American naval base is not going anywhere.

Plus, Guantanamo is not the only place where people are being indefinitely held without charge. The United States is indefinitely detaining people in Bagram, a U.S. air base outside of Kabul in Afghanistan. Unlike Guantanamo, habeas corpus doesn’t apply to the prisoners in Bagram. So they can’t challenge their detention in a U.S. court, even though some lawyers are fighting this.

In addition, the United States is overseeing a secret prison in Somalia where, according to Jeremy Scahill’s reporting, people are interrogated in a dungeon-like facility infested with bed bugs.

So, to sum up, there’s little sign that there will be any meaningful change in Guantanamo. There are some changes here and there but, overall, nothing fundamental. The Obama administration has entrenched the institutional framework that perpetuates Guantanamo’s injustices. Unless there’s a significant political challenge to this nonsense, very little will change because, by now, indefinite detention and military commissions are the bipartisan consensus.

M.O.I. JR: Rapper Yasiin Bey recently volunteered to be force-fed in the way that Guantanamo force feeds some of its prisoners. It’s on YouTube. Can you describe the process?

Adam Hudson: Basically, force-feeding involves a prisoner being strapped to a chair by soldiers. Then military doctors shove a tube up the person’s nose, which goes down their throat and into their stomach. Many doctors and human rights advocates have said that force-feeding violates medical ethics and amounts to torture. It’s an inhumane practice, plain and simple. Dozens of prisoners are hunger-striking in order to peacefully protest their mistreatment and the fact that the vast majority have been imprisoned for over a decade with no charge or trial.

I recently talked to a friend of mine who’s in medical school about the force-feeding in Guantanamo. When I gave him the military’s justification for force-feeding – to “preserve” the lives of prisoners – he said that that’s not enough and goes against what he’s being taught in medical school.

If a patient is mentally aware and competent and makes a decision to go on hunger strike, it’s the ethical responsibility of a doctor to respect that patient’s autonomy. The doctor can reason with the patient but, at the end of the day, patient autonomy has to be respected. Force-feeding can be done in an extreme circumstance, such as if a patient is dying, they’re not mentally aware, and there’s no other way to save their life. Which makes sense but that scenario doesn’t apply to Guantanamo. This is a hunger strike we’re dealing with.

Guantanamo hunger striker on gurney, guards
Guards move a Guantanamo hunger striker who collapsed.
Three doctors recently wrote in the New England Journal of Medicine: “Hunger strikers are not attempting to commit suicide. Rather, they are willing to risk death if their demands are not met. Their goal is not to die but to have perceived injustices addressed. The motivation resembles that of a person who finds kidney dialysis intolerable and discontinues it, knowing that he will die. Refusal of treatment with the awareness that death will soon follow is not suicide, according to both the U.S. Supreme Court and international medical ethics.” They called Guantanamo a “medical ethics-free zone.”

This goes back to what I said about Guantanamo earlier. It’s its own world with its own culture and own set of rules, much of which undermine basic standards of human rights. The force-feeding is a symptom of that.

M.O.I. JR: Ultimately what do you hope comes out of your writings on this topic?

Adam Hudson: Hopefully, people come away with a better understanding of Guantanamo and the ugly realities of this “war on terror” and are inspired to demand real change on these matters. I don’t think for one second that things will fundamentally change in Guantanamo just because my writings were published.

The beast is mighty and it’ll take much more than what I write to fight against it. But I hope that my writings – and the work of other honest, truth-telling journalists – help shift the public conversation and provide people with the right information to combat these injustices. And also add to the public record.

M.O.I. JR: Where can people keep up with you online?

Adam Hudson: They can go to my website, which has all of my writings: http://adamhudson.org/. My Guantanamo reporting for Truthout is posted here: http://truth-out.org/news/item/16793. There, you’ll also find the writings of human rights attorney Marjorie Cohn, who wrote legal analyses based on my reporting.

The People’s Minister of Information JR is associate editor of the Bay View, author of “Block Reportin’” and filmmaker of “Operation Small Axe” and “Block Reportin’ 101,” available, along with many more interviews, atwww.blockreportradio.com. He also hosts two weekly shows on KPFA 94.1 FM and kpfa.org: The Morning Mix every Wednesday, 8-9 a.m., and The Block Report every other Friday night-Saturday morning, midnight-2 a.m. He can be reached at blockreportradio@gmail.com.

 

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