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Gitmo briefing slides: Prisoners ‘use’ media, lawyers to discredit US

Lawyers say documents show Guantánamo is ‘trapped in a time warp’ where inmates are detained without charge

Guantánamo Bay military personnel have been instructed to inform visitors to the prison facility that the vast majority of detainees held there more than a decade without facing charges use their lawyers and the media to “discredit the U.S. government,” according to PowerPoint slides obtained by Al Jazeera.

The slides also advise military personnel to cast the ongoing hunger strikes waged by the prisoners not as a form of protest against their indefinite detention and treatment, but as one of six “offensive tactics” used by detainees to attack the U.S. government.

The presentation accuses the detainees of engaging in “Information Operations” that include using “media, lawyers and int’l organizations to spread a false message of: mental anguish, inhumane detention conditions, medical mistreatment, abuse,” according to a briefing slide titled “Adversary within the camps.”

More than half of the 149 prisoners at Guantánamo have been cleared for release or transfer by the Bush and Obama administrations, and in the years since 9/11, news reports have shown that some of the men sent to Guantánamo had been sold to the U.S. for bounties, and had never set foot on a battlefield. Last year, scores of detainees launched a hunger strike to protest against their continued detention without trial or charge in a move that attracted worldwide headlines.

The 23 slides were turned over to Al Jazeera in response to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed against United States Southern Command, which has oversight of the joint task force that operates the prison. Navy Cmdr. John Filostrat, a Guantánamo spokesman, said the slide presentation is used to brief "visitors from intergovernmental agencies, military and other official guests."

The slides, which appear to date back to 2012, were used by military investigators to help write a report about the circumstances behind the September 2012 death of a severely mentally ill Yemeni detainee named Adnan Latif.

The report, known as an AR 15-6, or Commander’s Inquiry, concluded that Latif committed suicide by overdosing on powerful antipsychotic medications he was prescribed. However, the report also found that Guantánamo guards contributed to his death by failing to follow numerous protocols set forth in the facility's standard operating procedures.

‘[Detainees use] media, lawyers and int’l organizations to spread a false message of: mental anguish, inhumane detention conditions, medical mistreatment, abuse.’

PowerPoint slide

Guantánamo military instructions

Military officials who brief journalists in response to questions about allegations of abuse — leveled by prisoners through their lawyers — often accuse the detainees of using their attorneys to disseminate false information in an effort to cast the U.S. in a negative light. The briefing slides show that this response is actually an official talking point.

For example, in the high-profile case of Abu Wa'el Dhiab — a Syrian national who is a hunger striker and has challenged the legality of his force-feeding — the Pentagon and Guantánamo officials have told reporters the prisoner is lying about abuse in order to attract media attention.

Army Lt. Col. Todd Breasseale, a Defense Department spokesman for detainee policy and the rule of law, said, “While the detainees and the many teams of counsel who represent them routinely engage in information operation campaigns, the U.S. Department of Defense has no official position on what any given hunger strike might mean or how it should or might be interpreted.”

Breasseale declined to discuss the briefing slide that states detainees use their lawyers and the media to discredit the U.S. government, saying that is a question for Guantánamo officials to answer, and does not represent official Department of Defense policy.

But the slides are unambiguous in advising base officials to cast the actions of detainees as aimed at being misleading and attacking the U.S. government.

Force-feeding chair
A U.S. naval medic explains the force-feeding chair procedures.
Mladen Antonov / AFP / Getty Images

The first slide, titled “Key Points to Remember,” lists other “offensive tactics” used by prisoners — besides hunger strikes — to “discredit the U.S. government,” including “Self-harm acts” and “Meal/medical/recreation refusals.”

David Remes, a long-time Guantánamo attorney who had represented Latif and is currently counsel to more than a dozen other prisoners, said the slides show that Guantánamo appears to be caught in a “time warp.”

The human rights lawyer pointed to a slide that characterized all the detained prisoners as “terrorist trainers, terrorist financiers, bomb makers, Bin Laden bodyguards” and “recruiters and facilitators.” This despite the fact that more than half have been cleared for release.

The slides “reflect a mindset of a military that feels itself under siege,” Remes said. “That might have been understandable in the months following 9/11, but 13 years later it’s ridiculous. So many of [Guantánamo’s] problems stem from the fact that it’s trapped in this time warp.”

Wells Dixon, an attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights, which represents numerous Guantánamo prisoners, was troubled by the slides’ characterization of the role of lawyers.

“It’s clear to me, having done this for many years, that Joint Task Force-Guantanamo and the Department of Defense have still not accepted the presence of lawyers at Guantánamo as legitimate,” Dixon said. “They still have not accepted the fact that the Supreme Court said at least three times that we have a right to be there and rep these individuals. The military is still fighting that.”

Dixon said that, contrary to assertions in the briefing slides, “detainees don’t need to lie or fabricate when it comes to their mental anguish.

“The U.S. government discredits itself by continuing to hold these men indefinitely.”

It’s clear to me, having done this for many years, that Joint Task Force–Guantanamo and the Department of Defense have still not accepted the presence of lawyers at Guantánamo as legitimate.

Wells Dixon

Center for Constitutional Rights

Another briefing slide states there is a “significant difference” between “Detention vs. Incarceration” and Guantánamo military personnel are “trained to understand the difference.” 

Dixon noted that the slides appear to show the military and the White House working at “cross purposes.” President Barack Obama campaigned in 2008 on a promise of closing the base and has repeated that intention several times since then.

“The Defense Department is still talking about these guys as the worst of the worst while the president is trying to close Guantánamo,” he said.

The slides also boast about the prison’s “transparent” operations and define transparency in three bullet points: weekly media visits, congressional visits and visits by the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Last December, however, Guantánamo officials implemented a media blackout and have since deprived journalists of information about the number of prisoners who engage in hunger strikes and are force-fed.

Guantánamo spokesman Filostrat told Al Jazeera at the time that the prisoners had been too successful at generating media attention during the height of the mass hunger strike in 2013.

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