Tom Wilner at Seton Hall

Transcript of Tom Wilner’s remarks at Guantanamo Teach-in Seton Hall, 7 am – 10 pm, Oct. 5, 2006

Webmaster’s note: You can view the video by clicking here and by, once the video begins, sliding the bar to approximately 1 hour and 12 minutes in (1:12:00). The video segment is about 14 minutes long. [Update: Video link no longer works. Transcript of Wilner’s remarks follow.]

I’m supposed to talk about religious insults, and I’ll try to tie into it, but let me first say that when I was first taken down to see the people at Guantanamo–in their orange jumpsuits and their chains, people who were called ‘the worst of the worst’ and who would chew through airline cables to bring planes down–I thought, you know, thank God we’ve got these guys and we’ve taken them down there. I was approached a few months later by a group of Kuwaiti families to try top find their kids. They hadn’t known they were at Guantanamo at the time and I took a trip to Kuwait with a colleague of mine and I started to learn some facts.

First fact I found out, I hadn’t known before is that a lot of these people were sold for bounties. You know, I hadn’t known that. I found out that they were sold for bounties for up to $25,000 for any Arab. As a matter of fact, I want to congratulate Seton Hall Law school for point out something else I learned at that time, that most of these people, only 5% of them were taken into custody by the United States. The rest were turned in by Pakistani and Northern Alliance tribes people for bounties. Amazing thing. I then filed, we filed a case on behalf of the Kuwaitis shortly after Joe had filed his and I found some other things out. Almost immediately I was called by Deep Throats within the government, somebody within the Army counter-intelligence, somebody actually with the National Security Council, and they told me some things. They told me that most of these guys weren’t captured anywhere near a battlefield, the people at Guantanamo. I had never realized this, but they had never received a hearing required by Army regulations. And actually, Don Guter, who has spoken or will speak, told me that the military has specific regulations. If you pick up somebody and you’re not sure who they are or what they are, you have a hearing. The military was going to have these hearings. The White House nixed them, they vetoed them. So people were swept to Guantanamo without these hearings. I started hearing from these Deep Throats that a lot of these people were innocent. I found out, and this was three years ago, a report had been written by an Arab specialist in the CIA, he went down to Guanatanamo, he sent em back to CIA headquarters in August of 2002 and he said most of the people shouldn’t be here, they’re wrong. I only learned recently, actually Jane Mayer, who spoke earlier on the panel of reporters, pointed out that that report was taken to now Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and Addington who was Dick Chenney’s chief of staff and said, look, we can’t do this, and they said bury that report. I mean that’s an amazing, amazing fact.

You know, these journalists have been great, uh, I want to say there’s another one, Roy Gutman who in July 2002 wrote a stunning article. He followed five of the Kuwaitis, through contacts in Pakistan and Afghanistan–he found out that they were invited to dinner at a Pakistani tribal leader’s house and they were sold into captivity. And it was clear to everyone there that none of them had anything to do with any fighting and wasn’t a terrorist. And they were taken to Guantanamo. I mean, that was out all these years ago.

In any event, my initial impression was clearly wrong. When we filed our case, as a lawyer, as a limited lawyer, my concern was and always has been really, due process. I mean, how can you take people and deprive them of their liberty without a fair hearing? And that’s something I believe in. You know, when we first got involved in the case, you got a remember, I wasn’t allowed to go down to Guantanamo until the beginning of 2005. All that time, when we were fighting for due process, I couldn’t imagine that America would be torturing people. I just thought it was something we as a people wouldn’t do. As a kid I would read comic strip character things, and you know, you would see the Nazis would torture people, the bad guys in Asia would torture people but we were the good guys. We didn’t do that. I couldn’t believe it and I really didn’t–AbuGhraib, pictures of that shocked me. Since I’ve gone down to Guantanamo and interviewed each of my people I realized each one of them was physically abused. Interestingly, what they will say is that they never had a fair hearing, that they’re down there, innocent people, without a chance to prove that they’re innocent. But each of them was physically abused.

And you know, why did that happen? I think it’s largely a matter of incompetence by this administration. You know, I remember George Will, when he was looking at Katrina he said, “You know we’re Republicans. We’re not supposed to be nice, we’re supposed to be competent. What’s happened?” Well, it’s clear to me–and I don’t want to make this so political–but it’s clear to me they’re not nice and they’re certainly not competent.

What happened here is that people were taken to Guantanamo. People in Washington were told–some of them were told, others ignored, the opposite–they’re bad guys down here. Yet no information was coming out of them. No information was coming out of them because they had nothing to really say. So the order from Washington down to Guantanamo was, turn up the heat, turn up the screws. And that’s what happened with people. They started, you know, doing what they did to Khantani, you know, putting them in these forced positions, these horrible things that we just find, I think, are despicable and totally ineffective.

Now, I’m supposed to talk about insults to religion. And it’s a more subtle point. I think the whole subject of religion has pervaded the detentions. And insults to religion have pervaded it, in part, this started out as a matter of anger and sort of natural human instinct. We had captured people who were Muslims and looked like the people who, who had hit the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. And the reaction was, you know, they’re in custody, they must be bad, these are bad guys and they abused them. They abused the religion. There’s no doubt about it. And that’s troubling and it shows a lack of management control in the Army. As I said, each place that my guys were taken to in Bagram, every other place, they were abused and they were religiously abused, not allowed to pray, the Koran desecrated.

I think, almost more troubling, there came a time, religious insults were used purposely as a technique to try to extract information. There was a big report about the abuse of the Koran in Newsweek, and I always find that extraordinary. There’s no doubt that the Newsweek report of abuses of the Koran were correct. Newsweek had to withdraw the article, not because the substance of it was incorrect. The only thing that was incorrect, the government had, Newsweek said the abuses were confirmed in a government report. Well, the government hadn’t confirmed them yet. So Newsweek retracted but the substance of the report that the Koran was abused was absolutely true and every detainee will tell you that, that their Koran was taken, it was thrown on the floor, it was stepped on. That has stopped since publicity on it, but it clearly went on.

The stories I heard of sexual humiliation of Muslim men with really, you know, terrible, the interrogators, ah, would, women interrogators would do all sorts of things. Well, first of all, you know, all of them told stories about being stripped naked and being paraded before female guards. This was mostly before Guantanamo but when they were in US custody. And at Guantanamo female interrogators would flirt with them, brush up against them. We’ve all heard the terrible stories which are absolutely true of female interrogators wiping fake menstrual blood on these people…clearly to insult the religion to try to extract…The extraordinary thing is, too, you know, most of these people that they’re doing this to had no information to give.

I mean, I just want to put something in perspective. There was a Peter Jennings report–that very few people watched–in June of 2004 when he interviewed–actually he was a former Lt. Col. From counterintelligence who said, look, at most a dozen or two dozen people down there have any intelligence value. Peter Jennings interviewed the guy, Estevan Roderiguez, who was head of intelligence down there. And Rodriguez said, nah, that’s not true. There are many more. There are probably 40 people that have intelligence value. And Peter Jennings said, 40 out of 500? And yet it was that other 460 who are having this done to them. They have no intelligence to give. It’s absurd.

There are more subtle forms, too. When General Miller came down, you know, people were punished if they didn’t cooperate by taking away their comfort items, you know, their blankets. But it would be their prayer rugs, their long pants, so they couldn’t kneel and pray. Religious insults to them. There was also something I was involved in that people might have heard, a purposeful attempt by the guards or interrogators, once the lawyers were down there to destroy the lawyer-client relationship. I went down, about the third or fourth trip, and one of my clients said to me, he said, can I ask you what religion you are? And I said, I’m Jewish. He said, you know, my interrogator, a woman, code name Megan, said to me, you know, don’t trust your lawyer. You know, he’s a Jew. To which this guy replied, he said, he laughed at her and he said, you know, there are good people and bad people in every religion. And, you know, they did that. Last time I went down another guy, very elegant person, said to me, do you mind if I ask you what religion you are, and I said, I’m Jewish. And he said, well, you know, they told me that you’re a Jew, that your law firm is a Jewish law firm–which, by the way, would surprise Shearman & Sterling greatly–that you represent the government of Israel, and that you’re anti-Arab. I said, you know, I, this is not true. He said, I know it’s not true, but they do this. But can you imagine people doing that in America? I mean, it’s shocking to me. It really is shocking.

I really don’t have that much more to say about this, except I am said, in the Guantanamo Bar, to be the “angry guy.” And I guess that’s true. When I hear debates about theories and philosophies and how this happened, it sort of disgusts me. We’re beyond that. You know, I’ve written this in briefs and I’ve said it before, that our country is different from other countries. We’re not bound together by being the same race or the same religion. What binds us together is our principles. We’re the first nation to be found on principles of freedom, human dignity, fairness and the rule of law. We should know that our country, founded on those principles, is running a concentration camp. Now, some people would say, you know, that’s outrageous. But let me tell ya, Guantanamo’s not a prison. People down there haven’t been convicted. They haven’t been charged and they haven’t even had a fair hearing. That’s a concentration camp.

Also, just last week, Congress, the congress of the United States of America, passed a law which allows the president to designate torture techniques to use against people at the same time that the generals have said that these should be banned because they’re ineffective. At the same time that the FBI has said they should be banned because they’re ineffective. The president–the law gives him the authority to torture. It also, revokes the writ of habeas corpus, which I’ve always said is the essence of the rule of law, something invented by the English courts to enforce the rights under the Magna Carta, that no man may be deprived–no man or woman now–that no man or woman may be deprived of their liberty except within accordance of the law, that has independent judicial review. The congress of the United States, founded under the rule of law, has abolished that.

You know, the New York Times has said this is the modern Alien and Sedition Act. It is. It is. And I think everyone out here, for the first time shouldn’t just listen in legal debates, they should stand up and scream. They should be outraged and they should scream to their representatives that this is outrageous! This is not what America stands for. Thanks.

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