Testimony of a Chaplain
Here are excerpts from James Yee's book For God and Country. Faith and Patriotism Under Fire. New York, Perseus Book Group, 2005.
Subsequent to the publication of his book, Mr. Yee has given many interviews, including to Democracy Now! and to The Talking Dog. He lectures on his experiences widely, and was part of the Conversation about Guantánamo organized in the Spring of 2006 by the UC Davis Center for the Study of Human Rights in the Americas
(Y8) Rhuhel [Ahmad] described to me in great detail what it had been like [at Camp X-Ray]. He said that after they arrived at the camp, the prisoners were brought to a large open area to be processed. The area was covered in gravel and had no shading from the sun. They were forced to kneel here for hours. Their hands and ankles were shackled and soldiers put painted goggles over their eyes and heavy, industrial earmuffs over their ears. I knew this technique—we called it sensory deprivation, and it was meant to confuse the subject. The sun was too hot to bear, and Rhuhel told me that he begged the guards for water. But every time he spoke, he would be kicked and told to shut up. After several hours in that position, his legs went numb. He’d try and stretch his legs but that always meant another kick in the ribs. When he was finally allowed to get up, he couldn’t walk. Other prisoners had passed out in the dust and flies were swarming around them, as if they were sickened animals (Yee 2005, 63).
(Y16) The worst punishment was something known as a forced cell extraction. The troopers called it IRFing, however, because it was carried out by a group of six to eight guards called the Initial Response Force […] Under the direction of a noncommissioned officer, they gathered quickly and put on riot protection gear—helmets with plastic face guards, heavy gloves like those a hockey goalie wears, shin guards, and a chest protector […] After they suited up, they formed a huddle and chanted in unison getting themselves pumped up. Then they rushed the block, one behind the other, where the offending detainee was […] The IRF team stopped at the detainee’s cell and lined up in single file outside it. The team leader in front drenched the prisoner with pepper spray and then opened the cell door. The others charged in and rushed the detainee with the shield as protection. The point was to get him to the ground as quickly as possible, with whatever means necessary—shields, boots, or fists. It didn’t take long: no detainee was a match for eight men in riot gear. Three of the guards used the full force of their shields and bodies to hold the prisoner down. One tied the detainee’s wrists behind his back and then his ankles, using strong plastic ties rather than the standard metal cuffs. The guards then dragged the detainee from his cell and down the corridor. As he lay in a bruised heap on the floor, the guards stopped to catch their breath and drink water that the other guards brought for them. They then continued to drag the man to solitary confinement. When it was over, there was a certain excitement in the air. The guards were pumped, as if the center had broken through the defense to score the winning goal. They high-fived each other and slammed their chests together, like professional basketball players. I found it an odd victory celebration for eight men who took down one prisoner. I felt uncomfortable for the rest of the day. I wasn’t accustomed to seeing such an open and violent display of strength versus weakness (Yee 2005, 70ff).
(Y17) I tried to avoid being on a block when an IRFing occurred. I didn’t condone the practice, especially for the seemingly harmless behaviors that brought it on: not responding when a guard spoke or having two Styrofoam cups rather than one. Cell and invasive body searches occurred daily and were a constant source of tension […] Being touched in sensitive and private areas was contrary to Islamic practice regarding modesty and it always infuriated the prisoners. I came to believe that the searches were done solely to rile the detainees […] it seemed like harassment for the sake of harassment, and the prisoners fought it. Those who did were IRFed […] I became especially leery of the 344th MP Company unit from Connecticut, under the command of Captain William Simpson. These guards seemed to go out of their way to provoke the prisoners, which often led to IRFings (Yee 2005, 72).
(Y19) Through his lawyer, he [= Australian detainee David Hicks] publicly alleged that he was tortured at Guantanamo, including having his head slammed into the pavement by soldiers while he was blindfolded (Yee 2005, 76).
(Y20) Detainees also complained that they were chained to the metal rings in the floors of the trailers where interrogations took place, often for several hours. A translator told me that detainees could be chained in a way that forced them to hunch over, not able to stand up and not able to sit comfortably (Yee 2005, 76).
(Y23) Murtaza [= a young Afghani prisoner] put his arms through the slot in the cage door where the prisoners were handed food, called the bean hole, and the guard bound his wrists. Then he reached down and slid the ankle cuffs through a slot at the ground level. Only after a detainee’s wrists and ankles were shackled would the cage door be opened. The guard then fastened Murtaza’s wrists and ankles to a leather belt around his waist (Yee 2005, 78).
(Y24) Many of my colleagues [Ahmad, Mohammad, Captain Hashim, Emad, Samir Hejab] were becoming very concerned with the frequent IRFings (Yee 2005, 83).
(Y26) Soon afterward, Gagow was on the same block when he became involved in an altercation with a detainee. He claimed that a detainee had verbally cursed him and he responded by spitting on the prisoner. The MPs on duty pulled Gagow away and reported the incident to the command. Major Numerick decided not to discipline Gagow, attributing the incident to a high level of stress. He was given two weeks off from duty (Yee 2005, 85).
(Y39) In one particularly disturbing incident, a guard had failed to lock the cell door of a detainee. As three guards searched the cell of a prisoner who was in the shower, the detainee burst out of his cage and attempted to lock the guards in that cell. The guards wrestled him to the ground and beat him. After his hands were cuffed behind his back, the guards should have taken the prisoner to solitary confinement, but one guard kept beating the prisoner’s head with a handheld radio. He beat him until his head was split open and there was blood on the ground, and other soldiers had to pull the guard off the detainee. Not only was this excessive force and a violation of the rules of engagement, it would typically be considered assault. By the time I arrived, he detainee had been taken to the hospital. His blood was fresh on the ground, and what appeared to be large pieces of flesh were soaking in it. The detainees who witnessed the episode appeared to be in a state of shock. Even many of the guards were shaken. I visited the detainee in the hospital the next day and he told me that the guard had purposefully left his cell door unlocked and had challenged him to come out. “If you’re a man,” the detainee reported him saying, “come out and show me” (Yee 2005, 109).
(Y40) IRFing should have been kept to the bare minimum and carried only when necessary, but there were weeks when it occurred every day (Yee 2005, 109).
(Y44) Once a female MP was being particularly rough with a prisoner she was escorting to the showers. He spat at her and the IRF team was summoned (Yee 2005, 111).
(Y54) [In an email written by FBI interrogators that worked at Guantanamo one agent wrote about] detainees being chained in a fetal position for several hours. Some were found to have urinated or defecated on themselves and one detainee was found curled in a ball, a pile of hair on the floor next to him, that he had pulled from his own head (Yee 2005, 113).
(Y59) The cuffs they use are heavier than you might imagine and as I walked, they tightened around my anklebones and cut deep into my skin—something the Guantanamo detainees often complained about (Yee 2005, 149).
(Y9) Before being allowed to enter a cell, they [= the prisoners at Camp X-Ray] were thoroughly searched by the guards, although he [= Rhuhel Ahmad] had already been searched countless times. He was ordered to remove his orange jumpsuit and spread his buttocks. Some guards forcefully stuck their hands into his rectum. He winced when he told me that. “I feel as if I have been raped, Chaplain,” he said to me with horror in his eyes (Yee 2005, 63).
(Y15) I witnessed my first IRFing a few weeks after I arrived at Gitmo. A detainee had refused to go to recreation after a guard had performed what was known as a “credit card wipe.” To search for contraband or weapons hidden on the prisoners’ bodies, the guards felt under the detainee’s genitals and pressed their fingers inside the buttock crack. This type of physical contact is not acceptable under Islamic law, and the detainee had pushed the guard away from him. But prisoners were not allowed to touch an MP, and immediately eight guards were summoned [to perform an IRFing] (Yee 2005, 70f).
(Y48) I frequently heard from detainees that prostitutes were used during interrogations. David Hicks, the Australian, told me that he was often offered sex with prostitutes if he agreed to talk (Yee 2005, 112).
(Y49) [S]ome of the translators who worked in the JIG [= Joint Interrogation Group] told stories about female interrogators who would take off their clothes during the sessions. One was particularly notorious and would pretend to masturbate in front of detainees. She was also known to touch them in a sexual way and make them rub her breasts and genitalia. Guards were apparently instructed to stand behind the prisoner and pull their cheeks and eyes back, trying to force them to watch. Detainees who resisted were kicked an beaten. A translator who worked interrogations who had witnessed this woman’s behavior told me that her supervisor had told her to tone down the tactics but had not disciplined her (Yee 2005, 112).
(Y2) This, I knew, was the now-abandoned Camp X-Ray, which opened on January 11, 2002 and held Guantanamo’s first prisoners before they were moved to Camp Delta in April, three months after the detention facility was established. We drove to an observation point overlooking the vacant camp. I couldn’t believe I was looking at a place where humans were once held—it looked like an outdoor cattle stable. There were hundreds of cages in several rows. The cages appeared to be no larger than four feet by six feet. The only protection from the blistering sun and heat was a flimsy tin roof that covered the cages. The ground was dirt, and dozens of enormous rodents crawled throughout the camp. Hamza explained that these were called banana rats and would attack if provoked. The prisoners were made to sleep on a thin mat on the dirty ground and a plastic bucket was placed in each cell for use as a toilet […] Nothing about the scene was anything I would expect from an American prison (Yee 2005, 50f).
(Y7) They [= the prisoners] would go at least three days—and often longer—without washing. The individual sinks in their cages offered a limited opportunity to wash, but 660 men sitting for days on end in the hot Caribbean sun without a shower could create an overwhelming body odor (Yee 2005, 60).
(Y10) Buckets were placed in the cages [at Camp X-ray] for use as a toilet. Seldom emptied, they’d produce a rancid odor and attract flies (Yee 2005, 63).
(Y18) There were two permanent residents of the hospital [at Camp Delta]: an Afghani in his mid-twenties who was called Hajji by the guards and detainees, and Abdul-Rahman, a young Palestinian. Both were there because they had become severely depressed by the conditions of their confinement and appeared to be dying. Hajji pulled the covers over his head and refused to speak to anyone. He was so despondent that that he appeared comatose. Abdul-Rahman refused to eat and had shrunk to less than eighty pounds. The doctors were force-feeding him through a tube into his nose. During one of my visits, I witnessed the nurses insert the feeding tube into his nose. One held his arms as another globbed petroleum jelly up his nostrils and then inserted the tube deep into his nose. His screams could be heard throughout the hospital. Both of these men had their arms and legs chained to the bed. This could have been to keep them from hurting themselves, but more likely it was to protect the hospital staff from the detainees. Although Hajji and Abdul-Rahman were never fully conscious for long, they were still treated as terrorists that would strike again if given the opportunity […] “Why am I here, Chaplain? This is no use,” he’d plead, appearing to be nothing more than two vacant eyes and skin and bones. “I’ve told them everything, and they keep asking the same questions. What more do they want?” (Yee 2005, 73f).
(Y27) After so many hours looking through the diamond pattern of the steel mesh walls, I developed double vision. It was something many detainees complained about as well, and I later saw a doctor for the condition. I’d close my eyes to rest them, but all I’d see was the texture of steel diamonds in an endless repeating pattern (Yee 2005, 88).
(Y1) Labeled “enemy combatants,’ the detainees were not guaranteed the rights typically enjoyed by prisoners of war. Nor did they have the right to be charged with a crime or to speak to an attorney. As far as the prisoners understood it, the length of their confinement was potentially unlimited. Because they were not charged with any crime, they had no way to know when or if they would be released. All information regarding life on the outside—news of their family, current events, or even what the world was saying about Guantanamo—was strictly kept from them. As far as they knew, they had been snatched and forgotten (Yee 2005, 47).
(Y32) [Prisoners] had no idea if they were ever going to be freed from prison […] The weight of indefinite detention was tangible inside the wire [= the detention facilities], and many prisoners were becoming desperate (Yee 2005, 99f).
(Y37) Many linguists who worked in interrogations were becoming increasingly vocal about the number of detainees considered innocent (Yee 2005, 107f).
(Y3) In one [Camp Delta] cage we passed by, a man was squatting down and appeared to be sitting in the corner of his cell. We made brief eye contact and I began to extend the Arabic greeting until I realized—with great horror—that he was using the toilet. Each cage had an eastern-style squat toilet installed at ground level into the steel cage floor, but there was no way to have privacy while using it. I was incredibly embarrassed. It was against Islamic tradition for Muslim men to see each other in such positions, and I felt terrible (Yee 2005, 52f).
(Y4) many of the detainees were lying on their beds. Others were sitting on the steel floor or pacing the short distance of their cage. Their movements were languid, listless, and sullen (Yee 2005, 53).
(Y12) Using the toilet was clearly an exceptionally uncomfortable practice for many detainees. I’d often see them hang their thin sheets along the wall of their cage before using the toilet, but this wasn’t allowed. The guards made them take the sheet down and then punished them for hanging it (Yee 2005, 66).
(Y6) They [= the prisoners] were allowed out of their cages for fifteen minutes every three days, and only if they cooperated.
(Y14) [L]evel 5 detainees were a separate category. These were the guys considered to have the highest intelligence value. They were caged together on certain blocks and they spent most of their time in interrogations (Yee 2005, 69f).
(Y20) Shaker, the English-speaking Arab detainee, would often collect the complaints of several detainees on his block and present them to me all at once […] His chief complaint was that he and many of the detainees were being interrogated relentlessly even though they had no information to offer. He said that after several months of being asked the same questions, many believed their only choice was to just stop talking during interrogations (Yee 2005, 76).
(Y22) That’s not to say that JDOG (= The Joint Detention Operations Group] did not soften up prisoners before interrogations. Just after the prisoners fell asleep at night, MPs would be ordered to wake a certain one. They would thoroughly search his cell, shackle him, and move him to another cell. As soon as he was settled, another MP would come, search his cell, and then move him to yet another cell. This was repeated throughout the night. I heard some refer to these missions as Operation Sandman. The purpose, presumably, was to keep the prisoner awake all night. Then first thing in the morning, as these detainees would later complain to me, they would be interrogated for several hours (Yee 2005, 77f).
(Y28) A few weeks later, I had to deal with the first serious suicide attempt by a detainee. His name was Mashaal, and he was a Saudi who looked to be about twenty-three. He was found by a guard on January 19 , hanging from a sheet he had tied to a small air vent in the ceiling of his MSU cell. When the guards arrived to cut the noose, they believed he had been without oxygen for five minutes. Surprisingly, he survived. His condition was considered so severe, however, that he was taken to the main hospital on the naval base rather than the detainee hospital in Camp Delta […] The last time I saw Mashaal, he was sitting in a wheelchair, though he could only sit up with help. The nurses told me that the doctors thought he had permanent brain damage, and his mental capacity reduced to that of a ten-year old (Yee 2005, 91; 104).
(Y31) “Sometimes the interrogators give ice cream to the boy they are interrogating,” one MP told me […] “But I’ve seen times when they think they’re going to get the ice cream and they don’t,” he added. “It really screws with the boys’ heads.” (Yee 2005, 95).
(Y33) Depression was common. I heard during one of my visits to the hospital that at least one-third of all prisoners were being given anti-depressants, and the command was particularly concerned about detainee suicide […] The command hung a large erasable board in the Detainee Operations Center. It listed the ISN numbers of the prisoners considered at greatest risk of committing suicide. There were always between ten and twenty names posted on the board (Yee 2005, 100).
(Y34) Many prisoners were despondent and some had even gone mute. One day as I walked through the blocks delivering prayer beads, I passed a young man sitting motionless and staring into the distance. “As-salaam alaikum,” I said. He didn’t respond. “Good morning, brother,” I tried again. “How are you today?” The detainee in the adjacent cell intervened. It’s no use, Chaplain,” he said. He’s gone mute. I’ve tried, and others on the block have tried, but he won’t say anything.” (Yee 2005, 100).
(Y35) The most traumatized detainees were kept in Delta Block. It was equipped like the others but its occupants seemed to constitute a psychiatric ward rather than a prison block. The prisoners here were truly mentally disturbed. At any time, at least twenty prisoners were being kept in Delta Block (Yee 2005, 101).
(Y36) Inside their cages, the detainees [of the Delta Block] exhibited a wide range of strange behaviors. Many of them acted like children. I’d stop to talk to them, and they would respond to me in a childlike voice, talking complete nonsense. Many of them would loudly sing childish songs, repeating the song over and over. Some would stand on top of their steel bed frames and act out childishly, reminding me of the King of the Mountain game I played with my brothers when we were young […] despite having regressed into the mind of a child, the detainees on Delta block were still considered hardened terrorists (Yee 2005, 102).
(Y56) After a few days of this, they [= the detainees] organized a mass suicide. As it began, the soldiers were caught off guard by how well it had been planned. Once every fifteen minutes, a prisoner tried to hang himself by tying his sheet around his neck and fastening it through the mesh of the cage wall […] The protest lasted for several days as twenty-three prisoners tried to hang themselves (Yee 2005, 115f).
See also Y17, Y18,
(Y11) When he [= a man who looked incredibly young] saw me passing he called out in perfect English. I stopped outside his cage and he told me his name was Omar Khadr, and he was from Canada. Even though I tried not to ask too many personal questions, I couldn’t help myself. “How old are you, Omar?” I asked. “I’m fifteen,” he said (Yee 2005, 65).
(Y29) I met the juvenile enemy combatants (JECs) soon after they were brought to Guantanamo. Ismail and Naqibullah arrived at the end of March , and Asadullah came a few months later. They were all from Afghanistan. Nobody knew exactly how old the boys were but I believed that Ismail was fourteen, and the other two were twelve or thirteen […] I developed a religious study curriculum for the boys […] A few weeks into our instruction, when I arrived at my standard time at the gate, I was stopped by an MP. “Can’t come in today, “ he said. “The interrogators are here.” “I can come back later this afternoon,” I offered. “I don’t think so,” he said. “We never know how long they’re going to be. Could be all day.” When I returned the next week, the same thing happened. The interrogators were there and I was told to leave. This happened on numerous occasions. (Yee 2005, 93ff).
(Y30) I was a little concerned by how often I was told that the boys were being interrogated, but that was not a matter for me to decide. When the interrogators were there as I led my instruction, sometimes ninety or more minutes passed and I’d leave without seeing the boy they were with. When one did return from interrogations while I was there, he would be utterly withdrawn. The guards told me that typically the boys being interrogated would be uncommunicative for the rest of the day. I wondered if special guidelines were implemented regarding interrogating juveniles (Yee 2005, 94f).
(Y38) Amnesty International called for the juveniles’ immediate release, saying that the United States was violating the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child (Yee 2005, 108).
See also Y31.
(Y5) The ICRC [= International Committee of the Red Cross] doctors came often to Guantanamo to interview detainees and check the conditions in the prison. We didn’t talk much about their work at the camp, but they made it clear that conditions fell far short of the humane standards generally accepted in detention facilities, especially with respect to religion (Yee 2005, 54).
(Y13) Rhuhel, the detainee from Tipton, told me that while he was at Camp X-Ray the guards had thrown some detainees’ Qur’ans into the toilet buckets (Yee 2005, 69).
(Y24) I noticed that detainees were often taken to interrogation right before prayer time (Yee 2005, 78).
(Y25) On Christmas Eve, I stayed late on the blocks and I heard yelling from a nearby corridor. I entered to find Specialist Gagow, an Arab translator who was Christian, shouting “Merry Christmas!” to the detainees. Many prisoners were becoming riled by it. One detainee saw me approach the block entrance and asked me to come to him. “Is he trying to make a point that we are locked here because we are not Christian?” (Yee 2005, 85).
(Y41) [The guards] would do everything they could to disrupt the prisoners in prayer. In every block, the prayer was led by the detainee in the northeastern most cage, considered the closest to Mecca. As they led the prayer, the MPs would gather around their cage and mock them. They would rattle the cage doors and gather stones from the gravel roads surrounding the blocks and throw them against the cages as the prisoners prayed. They’d stomp their feet and yell across the blocks to one another. They would also mock the call to prayer and play loud rock and roll music over the PA system (Yee 2005, 110).
(Y42) Female guards were often used to provoke the detainees. Knowing that physical contact between unrelated men and women is not allowed under Islamic law, the female MPs would be exceptionally inappropriate in how they patted down the prisoners and how they touched them on the way to showers or recreation. Detainees often resisted and then they were IRFed (Yee 2005, 110).
(Y43) Muslims believe that the Qur’an contains the actual words of God and therefore is to be treated with the utmost respect […] Guards understood this but didn’t respect it. They claimed detainees might be hiding a weapon inside their Qur’ans in plain view of the prisoners MPs would violently shake the Qur’an, looking for something to drop out. They’d break the binding and drop the Qur’an on the floor […] The detainees would become outraged when the guards touched their holy books, and this behavior often led to some of the worst clashes on the blocks (Yee 2005, 111).
(Y45) After he [= the detainee] was taken to MSU [= Maximum Security Unit], she [= the female guard] was assigned to clear out his cell and take away all of his personal items. With the other detainees watching, she took the prisoner’s Qur’an and threw it forcefully down into the bag at her feet. She knew what she was doing. The detainees who saw this became enraged and a massive riot ensued, in which she was drenched with water. She later told Eke that she had deliberately provoked it. “You should have seen how nuts it got,” she told him (Yee 2005, 111).
(Y46) On two separate occasions, word got around that some guards had written English profanities in the detainees’ Qur’ans (Yee 2005, 111).
(Y47) Some of the worst complaints I received about this issue dealt with what was happening inside the interrogation rooms. Prisoners told me that interrogators would begin the interrogation session by playing a compact disc or cassette of the Qur’an being recited. Muslims remain respectfully quiet when the Qur’an is read but the interrogators would shout over it or play other loud music at the same time (Yee 2005, 112).
(Y51) Another detainee told me that some prisoners were forced to sit in the center of a satanic circle drawn on the floor of an interrogation room. Lit candles outlined the circle and the prisoners were ordered to bow down and prostrate in the middle. Interrogators shouted at the detainees, “Satan is your God, not Allah! Repeat that after me!” (Yee 2005, 113).
(Y55) The worst incident I was aware of [with respect to the cycle of riots and IRFings] happened in late July, in response to news that an interrogator had thrown a detainee’s Qur’an on the floor, stepped on it, and kicked it across the room […] Before I made any attempts to look into it, I was quietly approached by Staff Sergeant Mustapha Abdeddine, a translator with the intelligence group. He came to tell me that the incident was true and that it bothered him to see the Qur’an abused (Yee 2005, 115).
(Y57) [One evening, before I had arrived at Guantanamo, Sergeant Zuhair Khatib, an air force translator,] watched as the guards shook the detainees’ Qur’ans and threw them on dirty ground […] After Khatib left, the guards continued to throw Qur’ans on the ground (Yee 2005, 117).
(Y58) I implemented a policy whereby a surgical mask was tied high on the cage wall of each cell to act as a kind of hammock into which the Qur’an could be placed safely, and in as clean a spot as possible […] It was meant to ensure that MPs were not tempted to “accidentally” drop the Qur’an during cell inspections—a practice that had become customary [… this policy] helped ease tensions, but only temporarily. Many MPs and especially the 344th MP Company from Connecticut, continued to go out of their way to abuse the Qur’ans. During the daily cell inspections, they would search the surgical masks that held the Qur’ans, causing the books to fall out of the mask and onto the bed or floor. When I heard this was happening, I addressed the issue with the block guards. They told me that they had been briefed that the Qur’ans were off-limits but the holders were not (Yee 2005, 120f).
See also Y3, Y12, Y15.
(Y50) An Australian named Mamdouh Habib complained to me about some particularly disturbing interrogation tactics. He told me that interrogators would drape an Israeli flag around detainees during interrogation sessions (Yee 2005, 112f).
(Y52) [In an email written by FBI interrogators that worked at Guantanamo] one agent wrote about witnessing a detainee wrapped in the Israeli flag (Yee 2005, 113).