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"People just hate us now because of this" - Reprieve's Clive Stafford Smith on Shaker Aamer's imprisonment at Gitmo

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Clive Stafford Smith: Speaking as an American for a moment, one of the things that upsets me about this is around the world we’re destroying our own reputation no end bad. You know, we have a reputation, or we had a reputation around the world for standing up for human rights and being a leading beacon and all of that. And I’m afraid Guantanamo Bay in particular has just caused so many problems. I travel all over. I go to Pakistan, the Middle East and so forth, and I’m afraid people just hate us now because of this. Because they think we’re just hypocritical. And that’s not good for us. It’s not good for anyone.

Podcast here, transcript below the fold.

From the program notes: "Clive Stafford Smith, the founder and Director of Reprieve, discusses Shaker Aamer’s continued detention in Guantanamo despite being cleared for release by the Bush and Obama administrations; Aamer’s physical and psychological damage from severe torture and confinement; why the UK doesn’t want him back; and how Guantanamo has damaged the US’s reputation worldwide."

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Scott Horton Interviews Clive Stafford Smith
The Scott Horton Show
April 9, 2014

TRANSCRIPT

Scott Horton: All right, y'all, welcome back to the show. I'm Scott Horton. This is my show, The Scott Horton Show. And my website is scotthorton.org and you can find all my interview archives there, more than 3,000 of them now, going back to 2003, scotthorton.org. Also you can join up the chat room during the show if you want, scotthorton.org/chat.

And our next guest on the show today is Clive Stafford Smith. He is the head of Reprieve, and they are lawyers who represent the otherwise helpless. Welcome to the show, Clive, how are you doing?

Clive Stafford Smith: I’m doing just fine, Scott.

Scott Horton: Well, good. Thank you for joining us on the show today. I really appreciate it and I really appreciate this piece in The Guardian today, as horrible as it was. It’s entitled, “When will we put a stop to Shaker Aamer’s horrific Guantanamo ordeal?” We in this case being the people of Great Britain, I suppose.

Clive Stafford Smith: And the people of America. I’m afraid I’m a dual national, English and America, so I get to apologize for all of our wrongs.

Scott Horton: Okay, well, yeah, I guess I’ll take as much responsibility as I have to too. I mean, that’s why you’re on, right? So, tell us the story. Who is Shaker Aamer – well, first of all, how do I say his name right, and then please tell us all about him.

Clive Stafford Smith: All right, you’re not too far off. It’s “Shack-er Ah-mer.” He’s a British resident. He’s the last British resident in Guantanamo Bay. He’s been cleared for release since 2007. There’s no question about that. He’s not guilty of anything. He’s never been charged with anything. Unfortunately, he’s just suffered an immense amount of abuse over the years, partly because he won’t put up with their petty rules down there, so he just doesn’t comply, and so he gets beaten up all the time, and that’s on top of the really, really bad torture that he suffered when he was first in U.S. custody.

She diagnoses him with post traumatic stress disorder for the abuse he suffered, obviously with depression – I mean this chap was first sent to Guantanamo on Valentine’s Day 2002, which was the day his youngest son was born. He’s never met his youngest son, who’s now 12. And she also diagnoses Shaker with SHU, which is secure housing unit psychosis, because he really loses his mind down there.

So we just had a doctor down there for the first time ever, an independent doctor. We got a psychiatrist in to see him for five days, and she’s just come out with her report, which I have in front of me. It’s pretty devastating. She diagnoses him with post traumatic stress disorder for the abuse he suffered, obviously with depression – I mean this chap was first sent to Guantanamo on Valentine’s Day 2002, which was the day his youngest son was born. He’s never met his youngest son, who’s now 12. And she also diagnoses Shaker with SHU, which is secure housing unit psychosis, because he really loses his mind down there. I’ve seen that when I’ve been to visit him. So, you know, this is a guy who’s falling apart. In his own words to me, he’s an old car that just about falling apart, and there isn’t a garage that can put him back together now.

Scott Horton: So let’s go back to the beginning. If you could, please tell us, how was it that he came to be held in Guantanamo in the first place. Because, I mean I don’t know what people assume, but I’ll assume that people assume the worst, that, come on, man, how did he end up in the hands of Donald Rumsfeld if he really wasn’t doing anything at all?

Clive Stafford Smith: You know, years ago, when Donald Rumsfeld promised that Guantanamo was full of the worst of the worst prisoners in the world, I believed him. I thought, you know, you make a few mistakes, as they always do, but surely when he says all of those people were captured on the battlefield of Afghanistan, you know, he can’t be all wrong.

Well, you know it’s just not true. I was wrong then, and Donald Rumsfeld was doubly wrong. We have so far proven of the 779 prisoners that were held in Guantanamo, that over 90% were not fighting on any battlefield.

When the war began, the U.S. was offering $5,000 for any, you know, bad dude in a beard who was in Afghanistan or Pakistan. And $5,000 there would translate to about a quarter of a million dollars for us. So unfortunately just a huge number of people got turned in just because people could make a lot of money out of them. That’s what happened to Shaker.

And the way it happened, I mean Shaker’s a good example. He was in Afghanistan with a friend of his with his family and with his friend’s family and they were working on trying to set up a school which included girls and boys, which was a bit rare back in the day with the Taliban back then. But when the war began, everyone wanted to get out, and Shaker did too with his family. And he was one of many, many people who was turned in for a bounty. The U.S. was offering $5,000 for any, you know, bad dude in a beard who was in Afghanistan or Pakistan. And $5,000 there would translate to about a quarter of a million dollars for us. So unfortunately just a huge number of people got turned in just because people could make a lot of money out of them. That’s what happened to Shaker.

Scott Horton: And now, it’s confusing to me. I mean I know that there’s all kinds of ridiculous, you know, rules and loopholes and whatever, but I think you say in the article that aside from the fact that he’s never been charged with anything, he’s actually been cleared. And I think that there have been all different kind of panels. Can you tell us does that mean that he’s gotten a writ of habeas corpus and a federal judge said he c So they’ve been briefing against him and trying to get him shipped anywhere but Britain, because as long as he’s not in London he can’t be a witness against them. ould go? And then regardless of that, can you explain why it is that they haven’t let him go? Because I thought the big holdup was if you were from Yemen then they can’t let you go because the risk that you might make Obama look bad politically is for recidivism, that kind of thing. But if this guy’s going home to England, then what’s the problem?

Clive Stafford Smith: Well, Scott, you’re quite right. And I mean when you say what’s the problem, I have a hard time explaining that to Shaker.

This is what the deal is. We didn’t have to go to federal court to get a habeas release because he was cleared by the Bush administration in 2007 and he was cleared again by the Obama administration in 2009. And when I say cleared, Obama took all six of the top U.S. security services, you know, the CIA, the FBI, the NSA and so forth, and all of them had to agree that he was no threat to anyone. And so they did. So he’s been cleared all that time and yet the message has been politically, “Oh, gosh, we can’t send these people back to Yemen or whatever.” You know, that’s just total nonsense. That’s not what’s going on.

The reason Shaker’s still there is because he’s a witness in a criminal investigation in Britain against the British security services, MI6, and MI6 was complicit in his torture. The Metropolitan police in London have been to Guantanamo, have interviewed Shaker over three days, and he’s a major witness against them. And so MI6 is desperate that he shouldn’t come back to Britain. It’s the criminal thing that they’re really worried about, because the intelligence agents don’t want to end up in prison.

What’s going on is there are certain things that are really embarrassing. The reason Shaker’s still there is because he’s a witness in a criminal investigation in Britain against the British security services, MI6, and MI6 was complicit in his torture. The British police, the Metropolitan police in London, have been to Guantanamo, have interviewed Shaker over three days, and he’s a major witness against them. And so MI6 is desperate that he shouldn’t come back to Britain. So they’ve been briefing against him and trying to get him shipped anywhere but Britain, because as long as he’s not in London he can’t be a witness against them.

Now, to try and neutralize that, finally, just a couple of weeks ago, we withdrew the criminal complaint against them just because poor old Shaker’s so sick and tired of this. He’d just rather that no one was punished than that he should spend another 10 years in Guantanamo.

Scott Horton: Well, it’s just amazing. I mean, it sounds like a perfectly plausible explanation for why the politics of it. This guy would be a plaintiff in civil court in the UK were he to come home, but if it’s that obvious, then how can they get away with it? There’s got to be a higher court somewhere that will challenge the lower court, right?

Clive Stafford Smith: Look, he’s already been a plaintiff in a civil court and he’s already won that case in Britain, and the British government has had to commit to paying a large amount of money in compensation, not that Shaker cares about that. It’s the criminal thing that they’re really worried about, because, you know, the intelligence agents don’t want to end up in prison, and that’s what’s been the big holdup.

I hope to goodness now that they’ll back off and we’ll get him back to London because he’s got a wife, he’s got four kids who he hasn’t seen for 12 years. You know, his oldest daughter is now 16 or 17 and he hasn’t seen her since she was 5.

Scott Horton: It seems like, I don’t know, I’m trying to think if it was a British Guantanamo prison what the American position would be, and I guess it would be that the CIA could never be held criminally accountable in a zillion years anyway so you might as well let him come home, right?

Clive Stafford Smith: Well, it’s true. I mean, that’s certainly true. But I mean the flip side you have to think about is, you know, how can we possibly allow someone who’s been tortured, who’s suffering some serious physical and mental health problems, how can we allow him to stay one extra day in that awful place?

You know, I just saw the movie The Railway Man – I don’t know if it’s made it to America yet, but Colin Firth plays this film about a British soldier who was held by the Japanese and tortured and all the rest of it, and, you know, he’s released obviously at the end of the war. But you know, what would happen if in 1945 the Japanese surrendered but they decided they just weren’t going to let the guy go for a few years? You know, the world would just carry on, wouldn’t it? It’s horrifying that someone can be cleared for release and just still keep undergoing all this torture.

Scott Horton: Well, that’s a perfect analogy for this show, because I have a great uncle who was in exactly those circumstances, held by the Japanese in the second world war, and he miraculously did survive it because they let him go at the end. If they had just held him and held him – I mean, you know, that’s my own family that you’re talking about actually there. So, yeah, I mean, it really is incredible. I guess maybe you do have to put the shoe on the other foot to get people to really realize, you know, just how unfair this all is, but, you know, I mean unless you’re a Hindu anyway, you only got one shot at living. It seems pretty unfair to just lock somebody up in a dungeon without charges. You know, after the Renaissance and the Enlightenment and everything, we ought to be a little bit past this in the West. I don’t know. Maybe not while we’re conquering the East.

Clive Stafford Smith: You know, I’ve got to say that for me, speaking as an American for a moment, the thing, one of the things that upsets me about this is around the world we’re destroying our own reputation no end bad. You know, we have a reputation, or we had a reputation around the world for standing up for human rights and being, you know, a leading beacon and all of that. And I’m afraid Guantanamo Bay in particular has just caused so many problems. I travel all over. I go to Pakistan, the Middle East and so forth, and I’m afraid people just hate us now because of this. Because they think we’re just hypocritical. And that’s not good for us. It’s not good for anyone.

Scott Horton: Yeah, well, I mean, you know even I think it’s true that even when the American government is doing horrible things and the American people are backing it, usually it’s under the illusion that, you know, we’re fighting for Western ideals, Declaration of Independence type ideals. And then what’s happened in this case, especially with the politics of the way the Abu Ghraib story broke and was covered and Fox News influence and all that back then is that it was defended, and at least a substantial part of the population maybe split it 50-50 decided that now actually we defend torture. And in fact we value torture. And it’s the kind of thing that does, it has come to define us in a way, if you believe in that whole, you know, kind of collective spirit or whatever, what makes America America anymore, it’s as much torture and detention without trial as it is baseball games at this point.

Clive Stafford Smith: Well, I hope it’s not. I hope that’s changing. But you can see with the latest kerfuffle in the Senate where the CIA’s, you know, trying to cover up what Senator Feinstein wants to uncover, which is this big report on CIA involvement in torture and rendition. You know, we need that stuff out in the public view, because you can’t learn the lessons of the last 12 years if you don’t know what’s happened, and we need to make sure that we set rules in place that this never happens again. Because I tell you this torture business hasn’t done us any good. I’ve seen – I can’t talk about a lot of it because it’s classified. Now I won’t violate that rule, but so much of the material that you see that’s been abused out of these guys is just absolutely nonsense and you can never figure out what’s wheat and what’s chaff once you start abusing people.

Scott Horton: Yeah, well, that’s a real important point. Well, so and let me ask you then. You have so much experience with this, do you think that as this program was implemented, particularly I guess by the CIA and at Guantanamo, I know it all just kind of went haywire all over the place in Afghanistan and Iraq, but at the highest, most controlled level of the torture program, were they really trying to get the best information they could and they were just really lousy guys doing a really lousy job, or was it really the case that they were just trying to beat the name Saddam out of all of these guys so they could find an excuse to –

Clive Stafford Smith: The problem with this, you had these armchair people, you know, people like Rumsfeld, frankly, and Wolfowitz, who had no real experience in down and dirty, who were sanctioning these abusive techniques because they honestly thought that it was going to get them information. And you know that just shows they haven’t read any history. But they were – you know, it’s far more dangerous when people are true believers than when they’re corrupt, and these people were true believers. They still are true believers in this whole process. And the case of Binyam Mohamed, one of my clients, is the best example of all of this. Everybody who was detained, and Binyam was detained in Pakistan, everybody who was detained in that part of the world was interrogated about nuclear weapons, because everyone was paranoid that some lunatic was going to set off a nuclear bomb somewhere. And, you know, that’s reasonable. It’s totally understandable that people would worry about that. What’s not reasonable is that they tortured people to get information.

Well, he said, “What you do is you take uranium 239 and 235, you put it in a bucket and you swing it around your head for 45 minutes and that acts as a centrifuge and divides up the uranium into the weapons-grade uranium and the other. Then when you’ve got it all, you mustn’t have all your uranium in one bucket. Then you’ve got your weapons-grade uranium and you’ve then got a nuclear bomb.” Well, this was a spoof written by someone in 1975 in Florida. John Ashcroft, then attorney general of the United States, broke off his visit to Moscow to boast that they had just solved a nuclear threat when they got this out of Binyam Mohamed.

Now when Binyam was arrested, he was from Britain and he knew his rights, so when they started interrogating him, he said he wasn’t going to talk to them. So they start applying the third degree. Finally, under torture, he admits that he does indeed know how to make a nuclear bomb, and they get all excited and they really start abusing him then. And he tells them about a video he saw one time, and this is true, right? This is all corroborated now. Well, he said, “What you do is you take uranium 239 and 235, you put it in a bucket and you swing it around your head for 45 minutes and that acts as a centrifuge and divides up the uranium into the weapons-grade uranium and the other. Then when you’ve got it all, you mustn’t have all your uranium in one bucket. Then you’ve got your weapons-grade uranium and you’ve then got a nuclear bomb.” Well, this was a spoof written by someone in 1975 in Florida. I tracked the woman down, and she was horrified that Binyam had been tortured to admit that he had read this. But what’s slightly more horrifying is John Ashcroft, then attorney general of the United States, broke off his visit to Moscow to boast that they had just solved a nuclear threat when they got this out of Binyam Mohamed. They then sent Binyam to Morocco to get more information out of him, where they took a razor blade to his genitals and also did other horrible things. And of course it was all total, total nonsense, and yet they panicked the American people by pretending that this was something true. And what worries me is I think people like Ashcroft really believed it. And it’s far, far more dangerous that people look you in the eye and say they believe that stuff than when they’re really corrupt, because, you know, frankly, they were just idiotic.

Scott Horton: Well, yeah, and, you know, in that case, that was the one where poor Binyam, they tortured him into this nuclear scare, he included Jose Padilla in on it, and this was the excuse, for here was American citizen arrested on American soil by civilian FBI police, not the military, but then was turned over to the military and the CIA to be tortured for two years before Bush finally indicted him, and –

Clive Stafford Smith: Well, that’s right because by the time –

Scott Horton: – charges had nothing to do with the dirty bomb at all, by the way, when they finally took him to court.

They’re just not willing to admit they made a mistake, so what they did to Jose Padilla just like other people is they make something else up against them. And, you know, they’re going to do them one way or the other because the last thing these guys will do is admit that they made a whopping mistake.

Clive Stafford Smith: No, and they wouldn’t, because by then it was ludicrous. But they’re just not willing to admit they made a mistake, so what they did to Jose Padilla just like other people is they make something else up against them. And, you know, they’re going to do them one way or the other because the last thing these guys will do is admit that they made a whopping mistake. And that’s very sad, because there’s a lot of people spending time in prison just because they’re victims of that sort of thing.

Scott Horton: Right. Well, you know, I’m not sure – I’m kind of stuck on the American identity and how it gets all wrapped up in torture for some reason today, Clive, and I think what got us started was when I read about, I think you call it second-degree torture in the article here.

Clive Stafford Smith: Yes.

Scott Horton: What hurt your client the most here were the threats against his family, and that was what really got me thinking about, you know, for all the slogans that people chant in defense of their government’s policies, they don’t really know this. They would have to close their ears and scream to not hear the truth, to not know that this is the reality of what we’re talking about here is the threat to Shaker Aamer’s children. Can you tell us about that?

“One interrogator talked about what he’d do to my 5-year-old daughter in details that destroyed me,” said Shaker. You know, it was actually the Spanish Inquisition that figured out that second-degree torture was more effective than actually torturing someone.

Clive Stafford Smith: Let me just read it to you. “One interrogant” – this was Shaker talking to the psychiatrist, and, you know, this was true. We’ve alleged this and the government never even pretended to deny it, but “one interrogator talked about what he’d do to my 5-year-old daughter in details that destroyed me,” said Shaker. “The interrogator said, “They’re going to screw her. She’ll be screaming, ‘Daddy, Daddy.’” You know, and then Shaker goes on to talk about how he was completely destroyed by this, completely disorganized. You know, it was actually the Spanish Inquisition that figured out that second-degree torture was more effective than actually torturing someone.

So, you know, if I actually apply the thumbscrews to you, Scott, it’s painful, it’s horrible, but you know it’s pain and you know it’s going to end. But when I start telling you what I’m going to do to your daughter or your whomever, you know,[unclear] even start doing it in front of you, because Shaker was told that his daughter and his wife and his other kids had been detained as well and they were being held along with him. He wasn’t allowed to see them. And so he thought they really were going to be tortured. You know, that is exponentially worse – and I have a 5-year-old myself and the idea of someone taking my little 5-year-old child and torturing him is just beyond any possible aspect of civilization.

Scott Horton: Well, and the thing is, I’m trying to imagine possible objections like, “Well, come on, it’s just not believable that the American military, CIA or anyone else would really torture somebody’s 5-year-old daughter,” except that the guy that they were telling that to was chained to the wall and they’d been torturing him – think of how believable it was to him. And you think about how mad that would make you, how angry or how whatever that would make you for someone to tell you that, that that’s what they’re going to do to your family, but now we’re talking about you’re locked up, chained to the wall in a gulag in Communist Cuba and the CIA’s been torturing you and they’re threatening that while you are here, the definition of helpless, this is what we’re going to do to your family. That is straight out of the Nazi SS. That is straight out of what Americans tell themselves they’re good because those are the kinds of people we kill are people who do things like that to somebody else.

Shaker had lived in America. He was a big fan of America. When he was sold to the Americans for a bounty, he was actually relieved. He thought, “Wow, you know, thank God my trauma’s over. The Americans will treat me properly.” But they didn’t. And, you know, it took some time to convince him that we were going to torture him.

Clive Stafford Smith: You know, it is worrying. I mean, I know that the comparisons to the Nazis are rather inflammatory, but there is an aspect to that that’s really, sad to say, rather true. You know, Shaker had lived in America. He was a big fan of America. When he was sold to the Americans for a bounty, he was actually relieved. He thought, “Wow, you know, thank God my trauma’s over. The Americans will treat me properly.” But they didn’t. And, you know, it took some time to convince him that we were going to torture him.

But when you think about it, we have used forms of torture that are just horrendous. And we pretend it’s not torture. Take waterboarding. You know, we all now know that waterboarding was used against a number of people. The truth is not fully out about how many people yet, but a number of people. But of course Rumsfeld and them lied about it, and they said that this wasn’t torture. They said it was enhanced interrogation techniques, as if that's somehow okay.

When the Gestapo used it, they called it "Verschärfte Vernehmung", which translates as enhanced interrogation techniques, because they too were trying to cover up the fact that they were torturing people. And it really is a sad moment in our history that Rumsfeld and them borrowed from the same lexicon as the Germans in World War II to try to pretend that what they were doing wasn’t torture.

I have a little side thing where I’ve been looking back historically at what different techniques that our leaders have used were called by different people. So, take waterboarding. That was called by the Spanish Inquisition "tortura del agua," which obviously means water torture. When the Nazis used it, the Gestapo used it, they called it"Verschärfte Vernehmung", which translates as enhanced interrogation techniques, because they too were trying to cover up the fact that they were torturing people. And it really is a sad moment in our history that Rumsfeld and them borrowed from the same lexicon as the Germans in World War II to try to pretend that what they were doing wasn’t torture. And it’s also sad that they really thought that this was going to achieve anything useful as opposed to just reduce us all to a terribly low level.

Scott Horton: To finish up here, can you tell us really quick about Reprieve and how people can support you in the great work that you’re doing here, so we can end on a happy note.

Clive Stafford Smith: We’re a charity and we represent people who most need help, and I guess the people in secret prisons around the world are that, and you know the main office is in London but we just actually started a U.S. branch which is at www.reprieve.org. The British one is .org.uk. And we’d love your support and we’d also love all the help from people who would like to help with the work, because it’s so important.

Scott Horton: Yeah, well, I sure appreciate that the work gets done and this is a lesson I learned real young, way before I was able to do anything – I don’t know if this counts for much but it occurred to me that if the people don’t do the work, the work just doesn’t get done. We need Clive Stafford Smith, we need the CCR and the ACLU and these people who get up in the morning and do this work, or it just doesn’t happen. So, you know, for God’s sake, everybody, help support Reprieve so that they can sue on behalf of the helpless. You know, that’s the best that they can do, that’s their role, and they need your support. Thank you very much for your time. I really appreciate it.

Clive Stafford Smith: It’s my pleasure. Thanks. Bye-bye.

Scott Horton: Great to talk to you again. That’s Clive Stafford Smith, everybody, from Reprieve. Again, that’s reprieve.org or reprieve.org.uk. I didn’t know you could do that. Dot org dot UK.

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Submitted by lambert on

I wish it weren't so, because it's all awful, but it's great to get it on the record.

First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, then you win. -- Mahatma Gandhi