On Thursday, U.S. District Court Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly struck another decisive blow to the credibility of the Bush administration’s detention policies at Guantánamo (and the continuation of those same policies by Obama’s Justice Department), granting the habeas corpus petition of the Kuwaiti prisoner Fouad al-Rabia, a 50-year old aeronautical engineer and a father of four, who had been accused of fundraising for Osama bin Laden and running a supply depot for al-Qaeda in Afghanistan’s Tora Bora mountains. Announcing her ruling, Judge Kollar-Kotelly ordered the U.S. government "to take all necessary and appropriate diplomatic steps" to arrange his release "forthwith."
Why the courts are more qualified than the government to appraise the Guantánamo cases
The ruling brings to 30 the number of habeas petitions granted in the wake of the Supreme Court’s ruling, in June 2008, that the Guantánamo prisoners have constitutionally guaranteed habeas rights. Just seven petitions have been refused (a success rate for the prisoners of 81 percent), and as the government dithers about what to do with the remaining 225 prisoners, these statistics confirm yet again — as I have been arguing since President Obama took office — that the courts and the prisoners’ lawyers, with their long history of dealing with the cases, are better qualified than the government to understand the extent to which those held at Guantánamo were, for the most part, subjected to extremely dubious post-capture intelligence-gathering, based primarily on the "confessions" of other prisoners, or of the prisoners themselves, in situations where coercion or bribery were prevalent.
Just two days ago, the New York Times revealed that the government’s interagency Guantánamo Task Force, established on Obama’s second day in office to work out whether to charge or release the prisoners, was struggling with the kind of decisions that the courts are already making, and which they will continue to make, as ordered by the Supreme Court. The Times explained that "About 80 detainees have been approved for resettlement in other countries," and that "About 40 other detainees, including the Sept. 11 defendants, have been referred for prosecution in either a military or civilian criminal court," but that "The cases of more than 100 of the remaining detainees are undergoing a second review by the prosecution teams, who so far have been unable to reach a consensus about whether these prisoners should be transferred to other countries or prosecuted."
The story of Fouad al-Rabia, which I explain below, ought to demonstrate to the government that much of its caution is misplaced, and that the same applies to its optimism. Al-Rabia was very probably one of the 40 or so prisoners scheduled to face a trial, and, in addition, the allegations against him were regarded as more serious by the government than those against many — if not the majority — of the 110 or so prisoners who are facing a second government review.
The supposed case against Fouad al-Rabia
In the fantasy world of the "War on Terror," anyone who met Osama bin Laden was a terrorist fundraiser, and anyone who passed through the Tora Bora mountains to escape the war in Afghanistan in December 2001 was a member of al-Qaeda and/or the Taliban, who had been involved in the inconclusive "final showdown" between al-Qaeda and the U.S.
There were reasons to doubt both allegations, because thousands of people had met bin Laden innocently (briefly introduced to him at religious gatherings or business meetings), and also because thousands of people — civilians as well as soldiers — had fled Afghanistan for Pakistan via the city of Jalalabad at the time of "the battle of Tora Bora."
In addition, because Osama bin Laden (as well as other senior al-Qaeda figures, and a number of senior Taliban officials who had supported him) had safely escaped from Tora Bora, it was also worth considering that the majority of those who were captured were either civilians, caught up in the chaos, or simple foot soldiers who had been too slow or insignificant to have had an opportunity to escape. Most of the "martyrs" — those who stayed to fight to the death — had achieved their aim, as their corpses littered the mountains after the battle reached its anti-climactic end in mid-December.
For Fouad al-Rabia, sold to U.S. forces by Afghan soldiers who had, in turn, bought him off members of the U.S.-backed Northern Alliance (the Taliban’s opponents), his long years at Guantánamo, and the relentless interrogations to which he was subjected, led inexorably to both sets of allegations being leveled against him.
In November 2008, al-Rabia was put forward for a trial by Military Commission (the "terror trials" introduced by Dick Cheney in November 2001, and revived by Congress in 2006, after the Supreme Court ruled them illegal) and was charged with conspiracy and providing material support for terrorism. The government alleged that he had worked as a fundraiser for Osama bin Laden in Kuwait and had traveled to Afghanistan on several occasions between June and December 2001 "for the purpose of meeting with bin Laden," and also alleged that he had been "in charge of an al-Qaeda supply depot at Tora Bora," where he "distributed supplies to al-Qaeda fighters."
As I explained at the time (in a version of the story that I described in greater detail in my book The Guantánamo Files):
The problem with this story is that al-Rabia has not denied meeting bin Laden or being present at Tora Bora, but has, over the years, provided detailed explanations of how both events were entirely innocent. As a good Muslim, he took time out every year to visit those less fortunate than himself and provide humanitarian aid. In 2001, his attention was drawn to Afghanistan, and when he visited in June he met various Taliban officials and was also introduced to Osama bin Laden, who, he said, explained that his mission was to force U.S. troops to leave the Arabian Peninsula. He said that he was shocked that, when he pointed out that this might allow Saddam Hussein to invade Kuwait again, "Bin Laden said no problem. Let Saddam come in and then something would happen and control would come back."
Al-Rabia said that he then returned to Kuwait and gained approval for a humanitarian mission from the Kuwaiti Joint Relief Council, but explained that his return to Afghanistan coincided with the start of the U.S.-led invasion in October 2001. Trapped, like many others, he traveled from city to city in search of an escape route, and eventually … ended up in Jalalabad and joined the exodus into the mountains. Because of his age and experience, he said he was compelled by a senior figure in al-Qaeda to look after the "issue counter," where supplies — food and blankets, rather than weapons — were being handed out.
Overweight and suffering from a variety of ailments, al-Rabia said that he was finally allowed to leave the mountains, traveling with a Palestinian, Mahrar al-Quwari, who is also held at Guantánamo [but was approved for release by a military review board under the Bush administration]. He added, however, that, after staying with an Afghan family for a week, they were betrayed to the Northern Alliance. The U.S. allies then sold them to other Afghans, who imprisoned them in Kabul before turning them over to U.S. forces.
As I also explained, it struck me as highly unlikely that al-Rabia would have been shepherded off the mountains and ultimately betrayed, had he really been associated with al-Qaeda, but in court his lawyers provided an explanation of his experiences in Tora Bora that was even more damning for the government. As Carol Rosenberg described it in the Miami Herald, his lawyers argued at a four-day hearing last month that "the U.S. military had worn Rabia down through relentless and abusive interrogation to the point where he falsely confessed that he ran a supply depot in the Battle of Tora Bora in Afghanistan in December 2001."
Rosenberg also explained that one of his lawyers, David Cynamon, argued that U.S. interrogators had "learned of Rabia’s Arabic honorific, Abu Abdullah al-Kuwaiti, and confused him with another Kuwaiti who had the same nickname." Cynamon explained that a man with that particular nickname (literally, the Kuwaiti who is the father of Abdullah) "did handle logistics and supplies" at Tora Bora, but was killed by U.S. bombing. Speaking to the Miami Herald on Thursday, Cynamon added, "The government’s so-called case against Mr. al Rabia was based almost entirely on false ‘confessions’ wrung out of him by months of clearly improper and abusive interrogation techniques taken right from the playbook of the North Koreans and Chinese Communists. Our government should be ashamed of itself — first for using such tactics, then for defending them in court. This is why the writ of habeas corpus matters."
Following Judge Kollar-Kotelly’s ruling, the Justice Department provided no comment, and did not indicate whether it will appeal the decision, but I sincerely hope that the government follows the judge’s advice and repatriates al-Rabia — and another Kuwaiti, Khalid al-Mutairi, whose habeas petition was granted in July — as swiftly as possible, as he has clearly suffered more than enough.
The abuse of Fouad al-Rabia in Guantánamo
The judge’s full opinion has not yet been made available, but Carol Rosenberg explained that the government’s case had relied on the fact that "military-intelligence agents had accurately concluded that Rabia was at Tora Bora," and that it had also attempted to make inferences about the supposed threat he posed by noting that, as a younger man, he had "obtained a master’s degree from the Daytona Beach campus of Embry Riddle Aeronautical University." To me, it sounds innocuous enough that an aeronautical engineer should have studied in the States, but in Guantánamo, anyone who had spent time in the U.S. was regarded as a potential member of a sleeper cell, and, as a result, al-Rabia was subjected to brutal treatment.
Three British men released in March 2004 — the so-called "Tipton Three," whose story was dramatized in the film "The Road To Guantánamo" — explained that al-Rabia, like dozens of other prisoners, was subjected to prolonged sleep deprivation, in the program known euphemistically as "the frequent flier program." This involved moving prisoners from cell to cell every few hours, over a period of days, weeks or even months, supposedly to wear down their resistance (although in reality, as a recognizable form of torture, it was more likely to cause severe mental anguish and allied physical side-effects). The men reported that al-Rabia was moved every two hours, leaving him "suffering from serious depression, losing weight in a substantial way, and very stressed because of the constant moves, deprived of sleep and seriously worried about the consequences for his children."
Al-Rabia was also subjected to the malign policy whereby medical staff at Guantánamo were co-opted as part of the interrogation process. His lawyers explained that, although he suffered from serious stomach pains, he was told that he "couldn’t receive medication unless he cooperated" with the interrogators. It is not known if this contributed to the false confessions identified in court, but despite the litany of cruelty and incompetence outlined above, the most startling fact concerning al-Rabia’s long detention and his final exoneration is that those overseeing Guantánamo were told in the summer of 2002, by a senior CIA intelligence analyst, who, almost uniquely, was also an Arabic expert, that al-Rabia had been wrongly detained.
What the CIA knew, and how it was ignored by David Addington
In The Dark Side, Jane Mayer explained how the analyst had conducted interviews with a random sample of the prisoners, and how his conclusion — that one-third of the men held at the time "had no connection to terrorism whatsoever" — was brushed off by David Addington, Cheney’s Legal Counsel, when John Bellinger, the Legal Advisor to the National Security Council, and General John Gordon, the NSC’s senior terrorism expert, learned of the agent’s report and tried to reveal the information to President Bush, to ask him to urgently review the cases of the men held at Guantánamo. According to two sources who told Mayer about the meeting, Addington dismissed their concerns by declaring, imperiously, "No, there will be no review. The President has determined that they are ALL enemy combatants. We are not going to revisit it!"
This, as Mayer noted, was the crux of the government’s position, as articulated by those who were dictating the policy from the Office of the Vice President. Mayer wrote, "The President had made a group-status identification, as far as he was concerned. To Addington, it was a matter of presidential power, not a question of individual guilt or innocence."
One of the men who particularly suffered because of Addington and Cheney’s counter-productive arrogance was Fouad al-Rabia, who is the man described by the CIA analyst in an interview with Mayer as follows:
One man was a rich Kuwaiti businessman who took a trip to a different part of the world every year to do charity work. In 2001, the country he chose was Afghanistan. "He wasn’t a jihadi, but I told him he should have been arrested for stupidity," the CIA officer recalled. The man was furious with the United States for rounding him up. He mentioned that every year up until then, he had bought himself a new Cadillac, but when he was released, he said, he would never buy another American car. He was switching to Mercedes.
This is another small piece of evidence to add to the burgeoning file of complaints against Dick Cheney and David Addington (the one that begins with torture and calls for prosecution, but also includes a whole section on arrogance and incompetence), but it amazes me that no one in the Justice Department, under President Obama, investigated the CIA analyst’s report, and, instead, stuck to the allegations put forward by military prosecutors in the Bush administration’s Military Commission system (overseen by the Convening Authority Susan Crawford, a protégée of Dick Cheney and a close friend of David Addington), and advanced mindlessly towards another humiliation in court.