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Chaos Reigned in Guantanamo’s Early Days, Documents Show


Guards search detainees at the Guantanamo Bay Detention Facility. (Zuma Press)

Statements declassified just before the July 4 holiday from the former commanders of the Guantanamo Bay detention facility paint an alarming picture of the camp’s early years, as interrogators’ and guards’ competence and discipline were frequently in doubt, befitting one commander’s assessment that the facility’s command was “an ad hoc organization that started from a cold start.”

Released late on July 2 as part of a lawsuit brought by the ACLU for Defense Department documents related to the Bush administration’s interrogation and detention policies, the assessments from two former commanders, Majs. Gen. Michael Dunlavey and Geoffrey Miller, have received little notice because of the holiday weekend. Dunlavey and Miller made their statements in 2005 to an Air Force lieutenant general named Randall Schmidt, who co-authored an inquiry into detainee abuse allegations at Guantanamo the same year.


Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

“The documents are a reminder that the abuse that took place at Guantanamo Bay was not the result of rogue soldiers and rogue interrogators,” said Jameel Jaffer, head of national security for the ACLU, “but policies made by the most senior officials [in the Bush administration], both military and civilian.” In particular, the statements of the two generals — both of whom are now retired from the U.S. Army — shed additional light on how Guantanamo Bay was far from the professional and efficient intelligence-processing apparatus portrayed by the Bush administration. The ACLU obtained their statements as part of a series of Freedom of Information Act suits brought in 2003 and 2004, and it asked the Obama administration earlier this year to “reprocess” these and other documents withheld by the Bush administration; less complete versions of the generals’ statements have been previously obtained and released by the ACLU, although they have garnered little press attention.

Dunlavey, an experienced military interrogator, told Schmidt that when he took over the facility in February 2002, the military linguists interacting with the detainees were “worthless,” barely able to “order coffee” in detainees’ native languages. He said there were “60 outstanding Inspector General complaints” stemming from actions occurring in January 2002, the single month of the facility’s operation before Dunlavey took over. Interrogators and guards were not capable of even determining which detainees possessed influence over their fellow inmates.

That same month, then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told reporters in Washington, “Let there be no doubt the treatment of the detainees in Guantanamo Bay is proper, it’s humane, it’s appropriate and it is fully consistent with international conventions.” Although Rumsfeld in 2002 referred to the Guantanamo detainees as the “worst of the worst” terrorists in U.S. custody, Dunlavey told Schmidt, “There was simply no process in place to assess who the real leaders were” in the facility’s early days.

While Dunlavey derided the Army Field Manual on Interrogations as ineffective against hardened terrorists, he told investigators that “physical torture” was a dubious method of gathering intelligence. “Rapport, relationship dependency, the Koran and the prayer beads give intelligence,” he said. But the hostility guards encountered at the detention facility — in which detainees hurled urine and semen at their guards and interrogators — created the motive for retribution. “Someone being out of line is very possible,” the general told Schmidt.

“I employed what worked and did not work,” Dunlavey self-assessed. His successor, Miller — a key figure in spreading techniques used at Guantanamo to Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison after a trip to Iraq in summer 2003 — stated, “We had incidences of good faith mistakes,” but not widespread abuse.

Despite his stated opposition to torture, during a key moment for the development of abusive techniques at the facility, Dunlavey told Schmidt that the FBI’s rapport-building approach was insufficient in the spring of 2002 for eliciting information from a detainee identified only as Detainee 063, who has since been identified as Mohammed al-Qatani, once suspected of being a member of the 9/11 plot. In October 2002, Dunlavey passed a memorandum up through his chain of command, ultimately reaching Rumsfeld the next month, requesting authorization for harsh interrogation techniques, primarily for use on al-Qatani. “We had to up the [ante] on what is going to work on this guy,” Dunlavey said.

A memo uncovered by the Senate Armed Services Committee in 2008 indicated that between November 23, 2002 and January 16, 2003, al-Qatani was subject to such interrogation techniques as “stripping, forced grooming, invasion of space by a female interrogator, treating [Qatani] like an animal, using a military working dog, and forcing him to pray to an idol shrine.” Dunlavey, who was not at Guantanamo for most of the interrogation of al-Qatani, stated, “Was Detainee 063 tortured? No.”

The general defended his command to investigators, emphasizing that detainees would subject guards to humiliations like throwing buckets of urine at them, and a guard who hosed down a detainee in response would be subject to potential disciplinary action. Dunlavey said he removed a guard who “got into it” and “physically mishandled a detainee,” punching the detainee and shackling him to a bolt in the floor, and Dunlavey also removed an FBI agent who “lunged” at a detainee who threatened the agent’s family. But when asked about allegations that military interrogators impersonated FBI agents — a claim investigated in 2004 and 2005 — Dunlavey replied, “not on a normal course of business” and indicated that confusing detainees about which interrogators were part of which agency “was part of the deception technique” for eliciting information.

While Dunlavey said he had not heard of some of the more egregious abuses that Schmidt’s report ultimately documented about abuses of detainees at Guantanamo — such as hiding detainees from the Red Cross, dietary deprivation or women interrogators smearing fake menstrual blood on detainees or performing lap dances on them — he conceded other abuses occurred. Shackling detainees to the floor by their wrists or ankles or in a fetal position was “not a normal procedure,” but occurred “if the detainee had done an offensive action.” Interrogators removed articles of clothing in front of detainees “to be comfortable”; Dunlavey did not mention if any female interrogators had removed clothing, which is considered a technique of sexual humiliation, though Miller conceded that a woman interrogator did indeed disrobe, and faced disciplinary action for doing so, even though he “retained” the interrogator. An interrogator Dunlavey described as “our best” was ultimately prosecuted for charges that are unspecified in Dunlavey’s statement and may or may not be related to Guantanamo Bay.

The basic competence of many at the facility during its early years was in question, according to Dunlavey’s statement. A reservist lieutenant colonel was removed from Guantanamo for being a “closet alcoholic.” Not many others were well-trained to elicit intelligence from the detainees, which Dunlavey described as the facility’s core mission, as instructed to him by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. “Virtually no one had a degree of expertise to deal with these people,” he stated. Underscoring the gap in expertise, Dunlavey’s successor, Maj. Gen Geoffrey Miller, said that about “roughly 50 percent” of Guantanamo personnel were contractors, not U.S. troops.

Miller — who told Schmidt “I am not an expert on detention or interrogation” — relieved Dunlavey in November 2002 and said that the command he inherited was a shambles, calling the interrogation standard operating procedures “the most dysfunctional I’ve ever seen.” Yet Miller himself had an “informal” direct line to the office of the secretary of defense “almost every day,” while circumventing his superior officer. He described himself as taking an “aggressive” approach to professionalizing the facility, particularly regarding the restraint of interrogators and guards. “The detainees are ruthless, murderous people,” Miller told investigators. “We had to teach interrogators and MPs [military police] not to hate. I spent a lot of time with the chain of command and how to control them professionally.”

Yet violations of protocol would occur, including violence and sexual humiliation being visited on detainees. “It was a handful of occurrences,” Miller said. “The occurrences did not rise to torture, maltreatment, or inhumane treatment.”

Miller has been singled out as a key player in the spread of abusive techniques in and beyond Guantanamo. He has been criticized for telling Congress in 2004 that “No methods contrary to the Geneva Convention were presented at any time by the assistance team that I took to [Iraq],” even though a Senate panel inquiry found that after Miller discussed interrogation operations with Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, then the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, Sanchez authorized the use of “military working dogs, stress positions, sleep management, loud music and light control” in interrogations.

Yet Miller told investigators that using torture-resistance techniques employed by the Survival Evasion Resistance Escape program for U.S. troops as part of Guantanamo operations made him uncomfortable. “To be frank with you, SERE training was recommended to me,” he told investigators, though he did not specify the individuals who championed the program. Techniques used by SERE were imported to Guantanamo under Dunlavey but continued under Miller, according to the Senate Armed Services Committee’s 2008 report. “There were techniques beyond what I felt comfortable with,” Miller said. “They talked about stress positions… I did not accept some of the techniques they wanted to use.” Yet he called the “special IP” — a palette of abusive interrogation procedures approved by Rumsfeld for use on detainees like al-Qatani — an “invaluable tool.”

Miller described but did not elaborate on conflicts between his command and the FBI and Red Cross. The FBI follows “public law,” he told investigators, and is geared to solicit information for prosecutions, while his command focused on intelligence gathering. While Miller mentioned “significant friction” between the “law enforcement perspective” of the FBI, he did not mention to Schmidt that the FBI withdrew its personnel from Guantanamo after determining that it could not lawfully participate in the al-Qatani interrogations. As well, Miller briefly described “unnecessary friction” with the Red Cross but did not explain to Schmidt.

During a separate 2005 interview for Schmidt’s investigation, investigators read Miller his rights and asked him to respond to several abuse allegations, including excerpts of a published interrogation log for al-Qatani. Miller stated he was unfamiliar with all of them.

In addition to the Dunlavey and Miller transcripts, the ACLU also received two previously-classified sections of a report compiled in 2005 by Vice Adm. Albert T. Church into Defense Department interrogation operations. The sections received detail the interrogations of both al-Qatani and another suspected al-Qaeda detainee, Mohamedou Ould Slahi, both of which employed the “special IP” techniques. (One previously-undisclosed detail: Slahi claims he was kept awake for 70 days, far longer than the Yet much of the sections remain blacked out, including eight full pages out of the approximately 25 released. “We’re very concerned about the extent to which the Obama administration is redacting information, not just with these documents but with others,” Jaffer said, referring to a CIA inspector-general report on interrogations that the ACLU has been attempting to acquire for years. “We’ve already challenged redactions that the CIA has made. Now we’re considering challenging [the Defense Department] as well.”

Obama’s decision to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility by January 2010 has met with political turbulence. Rather than announce a plan to close the facility or choose a specific location in the continental U.S. for the disposition of the approximately 230 detainees at the facility, the Obama administration has issued no more than an intent for the facility’s closure, allowing opposition to the policy to coalesce. Members of Congress have complained that the administration has barely kept them informed about the plan, and in May, 90 Senators voted to strip funding for closing the facility from this year’s supplemental war funding. Republican members of Congress have sensed the issue’s vulnerabilty for Obama — 65 percent of respondents told Gallup they oppose closing the facility in May, up from 45 percent in January– and have released caustic ads on the internet about Guantanamo intimating Obama to be weak on terrorism.

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