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Orwell at Guantanamo

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By Eugene Robinson
Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Here's what the Bush administration has done to the values, traditions and honor of the United States of America: An accused terrorist claims he confessed to heinous crimes so that agents of the U.S. government would stop torturing him, and no one is shocked or even surprised. There's reason to believe, in fact, that what the suspect says about torture is probably true.

There's also reason to doubt that the suspect -- Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, held in U.S. custody without charges for more than four years -- is the Zelig-like innocent bystander he claims to be. But we can't be sure, because George W. Bush disgraced himself and his country by ordering extrajudicial kidnappings of suspects in the war on terror, indefinite secret detention and interrogation by "alternative" methods that the civilized world calls torture.

On Friday, the Defense Department released a heavily redacted transcript of a March 14 hearing, held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to determine whether Nashiri should be classified as an "enemy combatant." I apologize for resorting to cliche, but the only way to describe this amazing, infuriating document is to call it Orwellian. Reading it gives you the chills.

None of the members of the military tribunal sitting in judgment is named. The officer serving as Nashiri's "personal representative" likewise is not named. Unclassified evidence is presented in summary -- an unnamed "recorder" reads a document quoting statements by witnesses that attest to Nashiri's involvement in the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, in which 224 people died, and the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole, which killed 17 U.S. sailors. The witnesses are not present, so, of course, there is no opportunity to challenge their statements.

Nashiri's representative, a lieutenant commander in the Navy, presents a stunning response: "The Detainee states that he was tortured into confession and once he made a confession his captors were happy and they stopped torturing him. Also, the Detainee states that he made up stories during the torture in order to get it to stop."

The response states that Nashiri confessed under torture not only to the East Africa and USS Cole bombings but also to the 2002 bombing of the French oil tanker Limburg, some bombings and rocket attacks in Saudi Arabia, a plan to bomb American ships in the Persian Gulf, and "a plan to hijack a plane and crash it into a ship." Oh, and he also told investigators that Osama bin Laden had acquired a nuclear bomb.

"I just said those things to make the people happy," Nashiri tells the tribunal. "They were very happy when I told them those things."

One gets the sense that he would have confessed to the murders of Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls if that would have made his interrogators happy.

Nashiri denies having anything to do with terrorism, although he acknowledges taking money from bin Laden. He paints himself -- unconvincingly, in my view -- as a simple merchant who makes poor choices in friends and has a habit of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The Navy captain serving as president of the tribunal gets around to asking Nashiri about the alleged torture. Who did it? They were Americans, Nashiri says. When did it happen? "From the time I was arrested five years ago, they have been torturing me."

Only George Orwell could have written what comes next in the transcript. The following is what we are allowed to know of Nashiri's response when asked how he was tortured:

"What else do I want to say? [REDACTED]. Many things happened. There were doing so many things. What else did they did? [REDACTED]. They do so many things. So so many things. What else did they did? [REDACTED]. After that another method of torture began. [REDACTED]. They used to ask me questions and the investigator after that used to laugh. And, I used to answer the answer that I knew. And, if I didn't reply what I heard, he used to [REDACTED]. So many things happened. I don't in summary, that's basically what happened."

I guess that's how the U.S. government extracts information from detainees: [REDACTED].

The Pentagon told reporters that Nashiri's claims were censored because of "national security concerns" about disclosing where detainees were held and how they were treated. But that would be unnecessary if Nashiri were lying, since no harm could come from disclosing a bunch of made-up stories. The censorship makes sense only if some or all of what Nashiri alleges is true.

But we're not permitted to know what he alleges.

Orwell had it figured out: "Ignorance is Strength."


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