January 11th was the 20th anniversary of the arrival of the first inmates at Guantanamo Bay, a custom-built extraterritorial US torture prison illegally constructed on annexed Cuban land.
By Kit Klarenberg, an investigative journalist exploring the role of intelligence services in shaping politics and perceptions. Follow him on Twitter @KitKlarenberg
Since then, 800 individuals have passed through its doors, suffering unimaginable ill-treatment – today, 39 remain detained, in effective legal limbo, with no clarity as to when or even whether they will ever be released, despite in most cases having been charged with no crime, and there being little or no indication of actual wrongdoing on their part.
To mark the occasion, the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs has published an extensive report, ‘Legacy of the “Dark Side”’, which tracks the devastating impact of systematic abuses carried out by the Central Intelligence Agency and US military the world over.
It amply demonstrates that while Guantanamo’s existence is a palpable totem of the enormous, criminal lengths gone to by Washington to prosecute its global ‘War on Terror’, it remains just one – and these felonious acts not only remain unpunished, but their overall legacy haunts Washington and the world to this day.
For example, the institute records how the fallout from 9/11 has had “extensive” implications for the US justice system. Those attacks ushered in an era of unprecedented domestic warrantless surveillance, granting authorities power to obtain and monitor citizens’ most sensitive data with appalling ease. All the while spurring evermore militarized approaches to policing, and religious, racial, and ethnic profiling of predominantly ethnic minorities. They also ushered in abusive investigations, prosecutions, and detention conditions for Muslim Americans.
It cites a forgotten 2014 Human Rights Watch investigation, which identified a pattern of sting operations against Muslim communities that “facilitated or invented targets” a willingness to act, imposed unnecessarily restrictive detention conditions – including prolonged solitary confinement and curtailed pretrial communications that possibly impeded suspects’ ability to assist in their own defense – and resulted in excessive prison sentences.”
Another “dramatic” and long-lasting ramification of the War on Terror is an ever-increasing US reliance on drone strikes and secret special forces operations to wage its battles against insurgents in far-flung theaters, including Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen, both within and outside designated war zones. Between 2018 and 2020 alone, Washington’s counterterrorism operations affected 85 separate countries across Africa and Asia.
While officials have consistently insisted that the overwhelming majority of “lethal targeting operations” are lawful and conducted with “the utmost care and precision,” the institute notes that no data has been released that would allow independent, impartial observers to verify such claims. This can only be considered a staggering failure given that Barack Obama carried out 563 such strikes during his two terms in office. “Turns out I’m really good at killing people,” he reportedly told aides in 2011, while assessing his achievements.
In any event, these assertions have been strongly challenged by rights groups. In 2014, Reprieve calculated that, in attempting to slay 41 specific, named individuals, Washington had consequently murdered 1,147 people – a rate of 28 deaths for every person targeted. In one case, it reportedly took seven drone strikes for the US to finally hit its target, and, in the process, some 164 people died, including 11 children.
Whatever the truth of the matter, no one has ever been held accountable for civilian deaths caused by the drone program. Indeed, the total impunity with which US military and intelligence officials at every level perpetrated abuses is succinctly and shockingly spelled out in the institute’s report.
For example, it notes that Barrack Obama’s administration limited its probe of torture to just 100 cases associated with the CIA, and even then only instances in which interrogators exceeded legal authorizations – despite those authorizations in themselves being unlawful. Ultimately, not a single Agency operative was reprimanded, let alone prosecuted.
Obama’s Justice Department even declined to bring charges against officials for their deliberate destruction of 92 videotapes containing direct evidence of torture, or those implicated in the deaths of detainees. The fate of Gul Rahman at the ‘Salt Pit’ black site in Kabul in 2002 is well-known, but the report also highlights the case of Iraqi prisoner Manadel al-Jamadi, who died at the CIA’s hand in 2003 at the notorious Abu Ghraib jail due to unrelenting “blunt force trauma.”
Five of his ribs broken, he was suspended from a barred window by his wrists, naked from the waist down, with a sandbag on his head. After 30 minutes, al-Jamadi slumped and stopped responding, whereupon his corpse was packed in ice, wrapped in plastic, and an intravenous drip stuck into his arm in order to pretend he was on life support as his captors wheeled him away. US Army officers subsequently posed smilingly for photos with his dead body, shooting thumbs up.
The institute calculates that the War on Terror has cost the US public almost $6 trillion, or $8 trillion counting estimated future care for veterans thereof through 2050. The cost of the conflict’s detention component is hard to quantify, given so much information on unlawful detention and interrogation practices remains classified, although taxpayers could be bankrolling Guantanamo to the tune of $540 million annually, several million per prisoner.
The estimate includes the cost of nearly 2,000 guards, healthcare for aging detainees “whose medical needs are complicated by the abuse they suffered in CIA black sites or in Guantanamo itself,” and associated military commissions. The true costs are nonetheless likely far higher, as the projection does not include secret expenses, such as the CIA’s presence at the base.
As the institute disturbingly notes, US popular culture has “often glossed over the cruelty and failures” of the War on Terror. For example, the 2012 blockbuster movie ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ actively glamorized the CIA’s torture program, and falsely claimed it had been fundamental to tracking down Osama Bin Laden, and his subsequent assassination by Navy SEALs in 2011. That film’s production coincidentally received an unprecedented level of support from none other than the CIA itself, and the Pentagon.
Such state-sponsored propaganda efforts have no doubt gone a long way to suppressing serious discussion of the War on Terror, and helping the entire ugly episode fade from public memory. As such, this report is a timely reminder that citizens the world over still endure the catastrophic legacy of that international criminal conspiracy, its egregious effects still resonate viscerally in 2022 for an innumerable number of people, well over a decade after planes struck the World Trade Center that fateful September morning.