Seven years ago, on January 11, 2002, when photos of the first orange-clad detainees to arrive at a hastily-erected prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba were made available to the world's press, defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld reacted to the widespread uproar that greeted the images of the kneeling, shackled men, wearing masks and blacked-out goggles and with earphones completing their sensory deprivation, by stating that it was "probably unfortunate" that the photos were released.
As so often with Rumsfeld's pronouncements, it was difficult to work out quite what he meant. He appeared to be conceding that newspapers like Britain's right-wing Daily Mail, which emblazoned its front page with the word "torture," had a valid point to make, but what he actually meant was that it was unfortunate that the photos had been released because they had led to criticism of the administration's anti-terror policies.
Rumsfeld proceeded to make it clear that he had no doubts about the significance of the prisoners transferred to Guantánamo, even though their treatment was unprecedented. They were, in essence, part of a novel experiment in detention and interrogation, which involved being held neither as prisoners of war nor as criminal suspects but as "enemy combatants" who could be imprisoned without charge or trial. In addition, they were deprived of the protections of the Geneva Conventions so that they could be coercively interrogated, and then, when they did not produce the intelligence that the administration thought they should have produced, they were -- as a highly critical Senate Armed Services Committee report concluded last month -- subjected to Chinese torture techniques, taught in U.S. military schools to train American personnel to resist interrogation if captured.
But none of this mattered to Donald Rumsfeld. "These people are committed terrorists," he declared on January 22, 2002, in the same press conference at which he spoke about the photos. "We are keeping them off the street and out of the airlines and out of nuclear power plants and out of ports across this country and across other countries." On a visit to Guantánamo five days later, he called the prisoners "among the most dangerous, best-trained, vicious killers on the face of the earth."
Seven years after Guantánamo opened, it should be abundantly clear that neither Rumsfeld nor Vice President Dick Cheney, President Bush or any of the other defenders of Guantánamo who indulged in similarly hysterical rhetoric, had any idea what they were talking about.
The administration did all in its power to prevent anyone outside the U.S. military and the intelligence services from examining the stories of the men (or even knowing who they were) to see if there was any truth to their assertions, but as details emerged in the long years that followed, it became clear that at least 86 percent of the prisoners were not captured on the battlefields of Afghanistan, as the government alleged, but were seized by the Americans' allies in Afghanistan -- and also in Pakistan -- at a time when bounty payments, averaging $5000 a head, were widespread.
Moreover, it also emerged that the military had been ordered not to hold battlefield tribunals (known as "competent tribunals") under Article 5 of the Third Geneva Convention, which had been held close to the time and place of capture in every military conflict since Vietnam, to separate soldiers from civilians caught up in the fog of war, and that senior figures in the military and the intelligence services, who oversaw the prisoner lists from a base in Kuwait, with input from the Pentagon, had ordered that every Arab who came into U.S. custody was to be sent to Guantánamo.
No wonder, then, that many of these men had no useful or "actionable" intelligence to offer to their interrogators at Guantánamo, and how distressing, therefore, to discover that torture techniques were introduced because, in a horrific resuscitation of the witch hunts of the 17th century, prisoners who claimed to have no knowledge of al-Qaeda or the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden were regarded not as innocent men captured by mistake, or foot soldiers recruited to help the Taliban fight an inter-Muslim civil war that began long before the 9/11 attacks and had nothing to do with bin Laden's small and secretive terror network, but as al-Qaeda operatives who had been trained to resist interrogation.
The fruits of this torture are plain to see, in the copious number of unsubstantiated -- and often contradictory or illogical -- allegations that litter the government's supposed evidence against the prisoners, but as recent reports by the Weekly Standard and the Brookings Institution have shown, those who take the government's claims at face value end up endorsing the kind of rhetoric spouted by Donald Rumsfeld when the prison opened, and ignoring other commentators whose opinions are considerably less shrill.
These include the intelligence officials who explained in August 2002 that the authorities had netted "no big fish" in Guantánamo, that the prisoners were not "the big-time guys" who might know enough about al-Qaeda to help counter-terrorism officials unravel its secrets, and that some of them "literally don't know the world is round," and Maj. Gen. Michael E. Dunlavey, the prison's operational commander in 2002, who traveled to Afghanistan to complain that too many "Mickey Mouse" prisoners were being sent to Guantánamo.
On Guantánamo's seventh anniversary, the challenge facing Barack Obama, as he prepares to fulfill his promise to close the prison, is to untangle this web of false confessions, separate innocent men and Taliban foot soldiers from genuine terrorists, scrap the reviled system of trials by Military Commission that was established by Dick Cheney and his legal counsel (and now chief of staff) David Addington, and transfer those suspected of genuine links to al-Qaeda to the U.S. mainland, to face trials in federal courts.
Anything less, and America's moral standing will remain tarnished. It is, moreover, a mission that must not be subjected to unnecessary delays. As has become apparent in the last few days, at least 30 prisoners -- mostly Yemenis, who now comprise 40 percent of the prison's population -- have recently embarked on hunger strikes at Guantánamo. They are, understandably, incensed that Salim Hamdan, a driver for Osama bin Laden, was repatriated in November, to serve out the last month of the meager sentence he received after a trial by Military Commission last summer, while they, who have never been charged with anything, remain imprisoned with no way of knowing if they will ever be released.
With the Associated Press announcing that Hamdan has now been released and is reunited with his family, it must surely be conceded that the hunger strikers have a valid point, and that seven years without justice is far too long.
Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America's Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press), and maintains a blog here.