Obama Maintains Bush Policies on Gitmo Uighurs

by , July 22, 2009

Last Thursday, while most U.S. media outlets were focused relentlessly on the marathon endurance test that was Sonia Sotomayor’s Supreme Court confirmation hearing, the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s Subcommittee on International Organizations, Human Rights, and Oversight held a hearing to investigate why the Bush administration had allowed Chinese interrogators to visit Guantánamo to interrogate the prison’s 22 Uighur inmates in 2002.

Although 13 of the Uighurs are still held at Guantánamo (five were released in Albania in 2006, and four in Bermuda last month), all of the men – Muslims from China’s Xinjiang province who had fled persecution in China – were cleared of being "enemy combatants" by the Bush administration and by the U.S. courts. They were sold to the U.S. military by opportunistic Pakistani villagers, after fleeing from a run-down settlement in Afghanistan’s Tora Bora mountains, and should never have been held in the first place.

Thursday’s hearing involved some rather hard-hitting testimony about what those interrogations involved, about the complicity of the U.S. military and senior officials in Washington, D.C., and, most disturbingly, about the political motivations of the visit. It led to questions from the subcommittee about why members of Congress are prohibited from meeting prisoners at Guantánamo when Chinese intelligence agents were not, and to a demonstration of evasion on the part of the government’s spokesman that was so thorough that one of the committee members threatened to declare him "in contempt of Congress" and withdraw funding from his department.

The Associated Press reported that, in a written statement "that did not specifically mention the Uighurs" (.pdf), Jay Alan Liotta, the Defense Department’s principal director in the Office of Detainee Policy, claimed that the Defense Department "provides safe, humane, transparent, and legal custody for each detainee," and that, when foreign governments are allowed access to a prisoner, it is "long-standing department policy that visiting foreign officials must agree that they will abide by all DOD policies, rules, and procedures."

During questioning, however, Liotta "referred most lawmakers’ at-times incredulous queries to the Justice Department, or claimed the answer they sought was a national secret and could not be shared in a public hearing" (as ABC News described it). He also attempted to explain two contradictory points of view held by the Pentagon: on the one hand, he said that "[w]ithout question the single greatest reason to limit access to detainees is to provide for [the] personal safety" of those who visit them – U.S. politicians included – while on the other hand he stated that the Pentagon’s policy was also "built on a respect for the Geneva Conventions," which "requires the United States to shield detainees from ‘public curiosity.’"

This infuriated members of the subcommittee. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), a longtime supporter of the Guantánamo Uighurs, who criticized Newt Gingrich for promoting "fear-mongering" about them back in May, was, as ABC News explained, "visibly upset by the Obama administration’s apparent decision to continue the Bush administration’s policy of barring detainee visits by lawmakers." Rohrabacher stated, "I am being denied – all of us are being denied the same access that was denied during the last administration." After referring to George W. Bush as "a horrible man, a horrible president!" Rohrabacher added, "these very same restrictions on us are being reaffirmed in today’s testimony by this administration."

Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.) was even more annoyed. In what was described as "a series of rhetorical questions," he said, "You allowed intelligence agents of a foreign country to interrogate [Uighur detainees], but you are concerned about their safety and that’s why you don’t allow United States members of Congress [to visit]?" and added, "You are concerned about ‘public curiosity’ – apparently you’re implying we’d be seeing them out of some public curiosity?"

When Liotta diverted questions to the Justice Department, or claimed that he could not answer because of national security issues, Moran grew even more angry. "My frustration continues to mount," he said. "In order not to answer a question, you can suggest it be provided in classified form. That’s not acceptable. There is no classification of that answer. This is a manipulative, evasive tactic you are employing." As ABC News described it, Moran suggested that Liotta "could be held in contempt of Congress, threatened to cut funding for the Office of Detainee Policy unless he got satisfactory answers, and said he thought Liotta ought to be fired," and exclaimed, "To take up two hours of our time and not directly answer any of the relevant questions is an absolute insult to the United States Congress."

Although Rep. Bill Delahunt (D-Mass.), the chair of the subcommittee, had more sympathy for Liotta, explaining, "I understand that this is a difficult moment for you," and adding, "I have no doubt that you have received instructions. … You find yourself in a very awkward situation," this was electrifying theater of an important kind. However, it was not the only shock of the day. The Uighurs’ lawyers have long contended that their clients were pawns in a diplomatic game, and in his testimony, one of the attorneys, Jason Pinney, spelled out this betrayal in stark terms [.pdf].

"For the past four years, I have been part of a team at Bingham McCutchen that has represented – on a pro bono basis – as many as 11 of the 22 Uighur men at Guantánamo," Pinney said. "None of these men are enemy combatants, and there has never been any justification for holding them. Thirteen Uighurs are still imprisoned at Guantánamo today. They remain there because no country – including our own – has the courage to stand up to the Chinese and offer them refuge."

As I have explained in numerous articles in the last year, all of this is true – and is disturbing enough on its own terms, particularly regarding the ongoing opposition to resettling some of the men in the United States – but as Pinney continued, an even more disturbing truth became apparent:

"The problem, however, goes far beyond our failure to resettle these men. An objective look at the evidence reveals that out country imprisoned the Uighurs as part of quid pro quo with China. China is one of five countries on the United Nations Security Council. In 2002 and 2003, we needed China’s support to invade Iraq. In exchange for Chinese acquiescence in our war plans, we agreed, among other things, to label the Uighurs as terrorists and house them at Guantánamo.

"What’s more, we agreed to provide the Chinese with special and unprecedented access to the Uighur men. In September of 2002, we allowed a delegation from the Communist Chinese government to travel to Guantánamo and interrogate the Uighurs imprisoned there. The interrogations lasted for days. Our clients were forced into cells, alone, with the Chinese. No representative from the United States was present during these interrogations. In the history of our republic, I cannot think of another example where a Communist country was invited in to interrogate, unsupervised, prisoners in a United States detention facility."

In a timeline of events, Jason Pinney spelled out more clearly how the Uighurs were used. On Dec. 6, 2001, for example, the State Department refused to designate the East Turkestan Independence Movement (the Uighur separatist movement, to which the Uighurs in Guantánamo were falsely alleged to belong) as a terrorist group. However, on Aug. 26, 2002, as Pinney described it, "U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage [met] with senior Chinese officials in Beijing to discuss the invasion of Iraq and immediately announce[d] that [ETIM would] be placed on the State Department’s list of terrorist organizations." The month after, the Chinese interrogators arrived at Guantánamo.

Jason Pinney also highlighted the double standards in the position taken by the Bush administration and maintained by the Obama administration in the instructions given to Jay Alan Liotta:

"Despite our best efforts, no one has been permitted to meet with our clients. The United Nations has been barred from meeting with the Uighurs. So have several human rights groups. The press has been denied permission to speak with the men, or to publish their pictures. Even the members of this subcommittee have been denied access to the Uighurs, despite the blessing of counsel. The answer has always been the same. No contact has been allowed. The exception to this rule? The Communist Chinese government."

In a separate article, I reproduce in full the testimony of three of the Uighur prisoners, describing their interrogations by the Chinese agents, but what is particularly disturbing about their testimony – beyond the threats made by the agents – is the extent to which the U.S. military helped out, "softening the men up" by routinely waking them up at 15-minute intervals the night before (as a Justice Department report explained last year), short-shackling them in painfully cold rooms in between interrogations, holding them in isolation for between five and 20 days after the interrogations, and physically forcing them to have their photos taken after they refused to cooperate. As Ablikim Turahun, one of the four men released in Bermuda last month, explained:

"They attempted to take my picture; however, I did not agree to this. They called for American soldiers and ordered them to hold me, so that my picture could be taken. The soldiers grabbed me, pulling my beard, pressing on my throat, twisting my hands behind my back, and as a result my picture was taken by force."

Most disturbing of all, however, was the betrayal of the Uighurs’ personal details. Abu Bakker Qassim, one of the five Uighurs released in Albania in May 2006, explained, "When we were first interrogated at the Kandahar prison, we told the Americans that we would tell them everything if they would keep our materials confidential. They promised not to give our materials to the Chinese, or to hand us over to [the] Chinese." At Guantánamo, however, "When some Uighur detainees refused to give their names, the Chinese interrogators said that the Americans they trusted had already provided them with their photos, full names, and addresses."

Qassim explained that the danger was that "the Chinese could now randomly oppress our family members," but when he "asked the interrogators why they released all of our materials to the Chinese even though they promised to keep our information confidential," they "did not feel a bit ashamed about it. They apologized by saying that someone in Washington gave our materials to the Chinese."

As a result of the hearing, the subcommittee pledged to continue its attempts to hold the Bush administration accountable for its actions. "I want to know who was to blame for that decision," Dana Rohrabacher said of the Chinese interrogations, and Bill Delahunt made clear [.pdf] that it was the subcommittee’s "intention to provide a venue, whether here in Washington or elsewhere, for these men – who have fled Chinese persecution – to come forward and testify so that our colleagues and the American people can have an opportunity to hear them – firsthand – and make their own judgment."

Delahunt remained appalled that the committee’s request to visit the Uighurs had been denied by the Bush administration and that "we never received a satisfactory explanation for why our visit was refused," and his response to the only explanation he did receive, via a Fox News broadcast in which the DOD stated, "no congressman can interrogate or question detainees because it is not part of their oversight responsibilities," was an unwavering assertion of congressional powers:

"Let me first address the issue of oversight responsibility. I want to be very clear – there was no congressional oversight during the Bush-Cheney administration. It simply did not exist. As former Sen. Chuck Hagel said, the Bush-Cheney administration treated Congress ‘like a constitutional nuisance.’ I reject any suggestion that the executive can define what constitutes the congressional oversight. It is not the prerogative of the executive to determine the role of the first branch of government. I am confident this position is shared by most, if not all, members of Congress."

Delahunt also quoted George Washington’s hope that America "might become a safe and agreeable asylum to the virtuous and persecuted part of mankind, to whatever nation they might belong," and maintained that the U.S. still had an obligation to "parole and resettle at least some of the Uighurs at Guantánamo into the United States." He announced his intention to send a letter to this effect to President Obama and Defense Secretary Robert Gates in the near future, and, in conclusion, I can only hope that it meets with success.

Accepting some or all of the Uighurs into the United States would not only help to encourage other countries to accept cleared Guantánamo prisoners, it would also send a clear signal that Obama regrets sending Jay Alan Liotta to the House hearing to provide "an absolute insult to the United States Congress," and is, moreover, determined to establish without a doubt that he repudiates the terrible effects of the Bush administration’s almost indiscriminate detention policies in the "War on Terror."

Note: For further testimony – from Bruce Fein, principal, the Litchfield Group, and from Tom Parker, policy director, Counter-Terrorism and Human Rights, Amnesty International USA – click here.

Read more by Andy Worthington