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Wednesday, April 27, 2011 

Guantanamo, new realities and crumbling empires.

The release of the Guantanamo files ought to serve as a timely reminder of just how out of control the United States government briefly was in the aftermath of the September the 11th attacks, something which has already sadly been cast to the back of our minds, even as the war in Afghanistan inexorably continues and US troops remain in Iraq. As brief as the talk of a Pax Americana was, no one ever managed to articulate the vision of how the Bush administration was operating better than Turd Blossom himself, Karl Rove, who told Ron Suskind of how

"We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality."

Rove wasn't exaggerating. The rendition program and Guantanamo are monumental examples of how a new reality was created, a reality in which a nation's historic values were temporarily turned on their head. In the environment 9/11 put in place, almost anything was permissible, whether it was indefinite detention without charge, the rejection of the Geneva conventions, the outsourcing of torture or the active promotion of cruel and unusual punishment, to the extent that government lawyers gave the go ahead for specific acts of "enhanced interrogation". Even in the new reality there had to be some euphemisms.

You have to understand this in order to be able to put the documents released by Wikileaks in their proper context. The files on the detainees now being put fully into the public domain were not written by dispassionate, independent observers who carefully considered the evidence for and against their role in terrorism; they were instead collated by the military themselves, by officers who were all too aware of the pressure on them to get "results", and who repeatedly decided that even the weakest intelligence or easily disproved details were the ocular proof of the threat these individuals would pose should they be released. Joint Task Force Guantanamo weren't the only ones doing the evaluating: also at the camp were the Criminal Investigation Task Force, which mainly drew on those who had formerly working in law enforcement and often reached quite different conclusions but who were almost always overruled by the military, and the Behavioural Science Consultation Team, which actively collaborated with the intelligence officials in suggesting new interrogation techniques.

In addition, the files also make clear just how reliant the camp authorities were on those who either chose to talk, a tiny overall number and whose credibility is incredibly dubious, and those who were tortured, whom predictably told their interrogators whatever they wanted to hear. For the most part their evidence has now been struck out as being worthless as a result, even as those at the highest levels of the Bush administration continue to claim that waterboarding produced intelligence that stopped attacks and saved lives. Abu Zubayadah, who the US now accepts was never a member of al-Qaida, was subjected to "simulated" drowning 83 times, and is referenced in the records of 104 other detainees, while Mohamed al-Qahtani's treatment was so severe that it was even recognised as torture by Bush appointee Susan Crawford. Mohammed Basardah meanwhile willingly provided information on an astonishing 131 of his fellow prisoners, which almost needless to say has since come to be acknowledged as unreliable.

Why then so much of the media relied on just these documents, carrying as much disinformation and baggage as they do, to claim once again that London was a veritable hub of takfirist activism without providing anything even approaching a disclaimer is astonishing. Abu Qatada and Abu Hamza are fingered as indoctrinating asylum seekers at an alarming rate, while the Telegraph, Wikileaks' new newspaper of choice after Julian Assange's fallout with the Guardian, even manages to find something to smear the BBC with. Also revived are the most imaginative and laughable of the plots supposedly aimed against the West: given much attention was the claim that al-Qaida had a nuclear weapon assembled and primed to detonate in Europe in the event of the death of Osama bin Laden. Not given quite the same prominence was that this was from the mind of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, one of the ghost detainees subject to repeated mistreatment, nor did the fact that he was sent back to Libya and subsequently died in prison there manage to put a dampener on such a sensational detail.

The very fact that the US has not complained anywhere near as much about the leaking of these documents ought to tip you off as to the nature of their providence, as should how Obama established a new, untainted review system after he became president, as a precursor to shutting Guantanamo down, a promise he's been unable to fulfil. We shouldn't have expected much in the week of a certain state ceremony, admittedly, and especially when Andrew Marr admitted he shouldn't have stopped the media from reporting on him shagging another journalist, yet these documents also showcase in an unrelenting light that other aspect of newly created realities: the imperial arrogance and incompetence of those given such bewildering powers to detain and capture with a view gaining intelligence.

Little attention has then been given to how these documents show that over 150 of those detained at Guantanamo were completely innocent of any offence, recognised as such even by the JTFG. They show just how wide the signs of being a member of al-Qaida were drawn by the JTFG, determined as they were to find anything which with to incriminate the poor souls who had found themselves in Cuba, stretching to having been detained with a $100 US bill in their possession, while those captured without any identification documentation were likewise found to be instantly suspicious. About the only other detail which did manage to get some attention was how those captured with a F91-W Casio watch were considered to be al-Qaida, as this mass manufactured cheap digital watch had been used in training camps as an IED detonator. Then there are just the simple outrages, like Sami al-Hajj, the al-Jazeera cameraman held at the prison for six years before finally being released. His file explains that one of the reasons for his transfer to Guantanamo, indeed, perhaps the key reason, was so that he could provide details on the station's training programme and news gathering operation. If that's not enough, then even more bewilderingly there's Haji Faiz Mohammed, the 70-year-old with senile dementia who was transferred to the prison as his file shamefacedly admits for no discernible reason whatsoever.

Whether or not these files would have eventually been declassified, they provide the kind of record of a superpower at the zenith of its overreach more normally associated with fallen dictatorships and autocracies. The difficulty as we have already seen is in getting people to care, or rather come to a view other than that Guantanamo was an acceptable construct at a time of asymmetric warfare. When Obama can't even convince a congress under Democratic control of that, blocking his attempt to transfer those remaining there to the mainland, it's not surprising that the files on a scandal have been met with an almost universal shrug. The Bush administration's new realities have been accepted with the minimum of protest, even as their attempt at constructing an empire continues to crumble.

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