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Talking Torture

Sacramento News and Review
Kel Munger
November 21, 2009

Almerindo Ojeda is a quiet, thoughtful man. He takes his time answering questions, but he’s also quick to offer a smile. A tiny hint of his native Peru remains in his speech. Ojeda is a professor of linguistics at UC Davis and director of the university’s Center for the Study of Human Rightsn the Americas. Among the center’s areas of study is the Guantánamo Testimonials Project, which collects the testimonies of people who were at the detention center, whether as inmates, guards or interrogators.

Ojeda spoke recently about the project with SN&R at a Davis coffee shop, surrounded by the low hum of laptop computers and the vibrating stress of studying students.

What was the impetus for starting the Guantánamo Testimonials Project?

I am from Peru and lived through the Shining Path insurgency in the 1980s and 1990s. It was a very violent insurgency that triggered a very violent government response. The conservative estimates put the number of deaths at 35,000, but there are sources, responsible sources, that say that up to 70,000 people died.

I came here, to the United States, in 1978, so I lived through it from the outside, as an observer, but with close emotional ties to the country. And then, as we began what they have called this “war on terror,” I began to see some similarities.

I began to hear, in polite company, people addressing the efficacy of torture. Now, that’s not a question we should even be asking—“Does it work?”

Of course, we’re a university. We document and research, that’s what we do. And there were other places, groups that were documenting the situation. The Center for Constitutional Rights in New York was recording testimony of people directly involved, and in the U.K., Cageprisoners was also documenting and gathering testimony of those abused in the entire war on terror, not just those in Guantánamo.

Since we had an opening [to document the situation] through the Latin American studies program, we decided to focus on Guantánamo. There were some who questioned who had the authority there—was it Cuba or the U.S.?—but all U.S. laws, consumer regulations, endangered-species laws, apply there—the naval station, you know, is government property. The Supreme Court decided it was U.S. territory.

And regardless of who was in charge, there was no question about the location; geographically, it’s part of the Americas.

What sort of things is the project doing?

A lot of the work is the type of work that journalists do, or should do. We’re interviewing former detainees—recently, we interviewed some former detainees in the Sudan via a video conference, using a former UC Davis student from the Sudan as a translator.

The question is: Why aren’t we hearing these stories? Unfortunately, what we’re seeing is a situation similar to that which occurred in Germany in the 1930s, where people say, “Oh, if we only knew what was going on, we’d have done something to stop it.” But they didn’t want to know what was happening.

There’s nothing worse than willful ignorance. If you want to remain ignorant of what is going on, what has happened at Guantánamo, it’s quite possible. But it shouldn’t be.

What makes us—U.S. citizens—want to avoid dealing with Guantánamo?

I think we’re afraid to enforce our own Constitution. If we were following our own Constitution—forget about the Geneva Conventions—if we were just following our own Constitution, even in a war situation, there would have been very few detainees. It would have been a much smaller population.

Intelligence gathering currently works on a “mosaic” theory. The idea is that there are little tiles of information that make no sense until the next tile or series of tiles shows up, and then gradually, as more and more tiles are gathered and put into place, the picture becomes clear. So these human beings are perceived as “tiles,” and the intelligence gatherers want to hang on to them for a long time after they’re done with them, just in case the next “tile” comes up.

They also use a metaphor of “mining” for intelligence; data mining or information mining. It is profoundly immoral to “mine,” as they say, a human being for intelligence as if they were a deep, dark hole in the ground.

Another reason is embarrassment. One of the early commanders of Guantánamo told the officers in Afghanistan to stop sending him such “Mickey Mouse” guys. They really did round up everybody in sight and they didn’t do any assessment on site, where there was context available to understand the role of each person.

Many of these people were in Afghanistan to learn about an Islamist state. Some were fighters, they went to fight, but the majority went to live the Islamic dream. They just happened to get caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. Now, on the battlefield, where the context is right there, these guys should have had Chapter 5 [of the Uniform Code of Military Justice] hearings to determine who could be charged and who could be released.

But the intelligence people weren’t concerned with actual guilt or innocence. For example, there is the case of the Algerians arrested and tried in, oh, I can’t remember, one of the countries in the Balkans. I’ll look it up for you. They were exonerated and released by the government of the country in which they were arrested. There were six Algerians. And we grabbed them off the street after they’d been exonerated by the courts. Now, all but one of them has since been released.

Now, this is not a military problem. The military officers involved have been doing their best. In fact, the military lawyers have been exemplary, especially Stephen Abraham and [Lt. Col. Colby Vokey].

The problem exists farther up the chain of command. For instance, rather than training new guards on the Geneva Conventions, the last thing they did before shipping out to Guantánamo was to visit ground zero in New York. Now, what’s that going to do? And how is that relevant?

This needs to be brought to light. If we don’t clean our own house, there are other countries who are willing to do it for us. They will issue warrants. Spain, Italy—in Milan, we just walked in and kidnapped this guy off a street. The Italians are not too happy about that.

And yesterday, I read about a Palestinian detained in Israel. He was being detained in the dark with loud music. They’re learning those techniques from us.

I’d really suggest reading the statements of some of these guys: Clive Stafford Smith, Brandon Neely, Terry Holdbrooks. [All are available online at the Guantánamo Testimonials Project.]

The CIA interrogation tapes, some were erased, and some, they say, were taped over. Now, if you’re interrogating a high-value person, you don’t tape over the interview. You go buy another tape. So obviously, there’s an attempt to cover up.

What are the goals of the project?

Most immediately, the goal is to try and educate people so we can make it as hard as possible to say, “I just didn’t know.” We want to remove that excuse. The general view, among the public, is that Guantánamo needs to be closed—but because of the bad press, not because it was wrong to operate it this way.

The torture conducted there was completely amateurish. It’s something that professional interrogators haven’t done for decades.

In the long term, I want to keep the record. First, because it’s a record of history. Then, it’s also a moral tale about what can happen when the executive goes rogue, a cautionary tale about what can happen. Eventually, we hope that knowledge will free us of torture and crimes against humanity.

Finally, there’s a more intellectual enterprise, which is the work of exploring the depths of human depravity and the heights of human empathy and compassion. From the perspective of psychology and philosophy, it’s something we need to look at.

The project has been going for four years now. People are getting fatigued with Guantánamo, even though we’ve only begun to examine it. There are still 200 people there.

Another long-term goal is to move in the direction of reconciliation. That’s a little premature, since we haven’t had a full accounting, but reconciliation would certainly do us some good in the world.

And reconciliation is possible. Brandon Neely, who was a guard there, had a phone conversation with a prisoner who had been released—he was very emotional about it—and he made an apology. So reconciliation is possible. Even in the most incredible circumstances, and still we are able to recognize a human being there and respond with empathy.

As far as the U.S. government’s response, we’re supporting Sen. Patrick Leahy’s plan, which does not include an investigation. If you look at what happens around the world, a truth commission builds a body of information.

Now, one glimmer of hope was in [U.S. Attorney General] Eric Holder’s confirmation hearing, when he said he thought waterboarding was a crime. Then we learn two guys were waterboarded more than 100 times each, so how is the new attorney general going to treat these crimes?

Both investigation and a truth commission should happen, but as a matter of strategy, a truth commission should happen first. See, the goal of a trial is not to arrive at the truth of the matter, but to assign responsibility. So there may be truths that do not come out at trial. The truth commission approach leads to an opportunity for everyone to tell their truths.

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