Calling Colleen Graffy

Colleen Graffy - happy spinning Gitmo

I was once on the receiving end of Colleen Graffy’s attempts to spin conditions at Guantánamo. At the time, Graffy was the US’s Assistant Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy at the time – and she was on a PR offensive for the controversial prison camp. It was, she told a meeting I attended, a much nicer place to be than many British prisons.

It was a strangely undiplomatic line – strikingly cavalier about conditions at the base, while oddly rude about her British hosts. You can get a good idea of her position from this Guardian piece she wrote around the same time.

Graffy lives in London these days and landed at one of the capital’s airports five hours ago, after a long flight from California. Some journalist should call her up and get a comment on this story by Scott Horton, which alleges that three men who were said to have committed suicide at the base on June 9, 2006, were actually tortured to death.

I have no way of judging how robust Horton’s reporting is, but he certainly seems to have done his homework, with eye witness accounts from guards who were on duty that day and backing from this powerful analysis of the military’s cover story by Seton Hall University School of Law’s Center for Policy & Research.

Here’s an extract from Horton’s story – but please take the time to read the whole thing if you haven’t seen it already:

Military pathologists connected with the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology arranged immediate autopsies of the three dead prisoners, without securing the permission of the men’s families. The identities and findings of the pathologists remain shrouded in extraordinary secrecy, but the timing of the autopsies suggests that medical personnel stationed at Guantánamo may have undertaken the procedure without waiting for the arrival of an experienced medical examiner from the United States. Each of the heavily redacted autopsy reports states unequivocally that “the manner of death is suicide” and, more specifically, that the prisoner died of “hanging.” Each of the reports describes ligatures that were found wrapped around the prisoner’s neck, as well as circumferential dried abrasion furrows imprinted with the very fine weave pattern of the ligature fabric and forming an inverted “V” on the back of the head. This condition, the anonymous pathologists state, is consistent with that of a hanging victim.

The pathologists place the time of death “at least a couple of hours” before the bodies were discovered, which would be sometime before 10:30 p.m. on June 9. Additionally, the autopsy of Al-Salami states that his hyoid bone was broken, a phenomenon usually associated with manual strangulation, not hanging.

The report asserts that the hyoid was broken “during the removal of the neck organs.” An odd admission, given that these are the very body parts—the larynx, the hyoid bone, and the thyroid cartilage—that would have been essential to determining whether death occurred from hanging, from strangulation, or from choking. These parts remained missing when the men’s families finally received their bodies.

At the time, Graffy was heavily involved in the public affairs response to the alleged suicides. In an interview with the BBC, she acused the men of hanging themselves as “a tactic to further the jihadi cause.” Their suicide was “a good PR move to draw attention” by men who did not value their lives nor the lives of those around them.

Not so, says Horton. Two of the men (one just a boy really, Yasser Talal Al-Zahrani was just 17 years old when captured) were slated for release. The other could not be returned to Yemen, but analysts had apparently concluded that “there is no credible information to suggest [he] received terrorist related training or is a member of the Al Qaeda network.”

So, journos – now would be a good time to call Graffy for a quote. Has she read Horton’s story? Does she still believe the men committed suicide? And does she still maintain they killed themselves to get a juicy headline?

These are not simply gotcha questions. Maybe, she’s had a change of mind as the evidence about torture has continued to mount. It would be interesting to know…

Gitmo detainee gets permission to call relatives, calls Al Jazeera instead

Mohammed al Qurani, a young Chadian inmate of Guantanamo who’s been detained there for the last seven years, got permission to call a relative earlier this week – but used the chance instead to call Sami al-Hajj, an Al Jazeera cameraman who spent six years in Guantanamo before his release last year.  It’s the first known interview with a current Guantanamo inmate.  In his own words:

There has been no change in the administration of Guantanamo. The people managing the detainees there haven’t changed yet. These are the same people who were there during the Bush years and so they use the same methods.

From Al Jazeera’s coverage:

[Al Qurani said that] the alleged ill-treatment “started about 20 days” before Barack Obama became US president and “since then I’ve been subjected to it almost every day”.


 Describing a specific incident, which took place after change in the US administration, al-Qurani said he had refused to leave his cell because they were “not granting me my rights”, such as being able to walk around, interact with other inmates and have “normal food”. A group of six soldiers wearing protective gear and helmets entered his cell, accompanied by one soldier carrying a camera and one with tear gas, he said. “They had a thick rubber or plastic baton they beat me with. They emptied out about two canisters of tear gas on me,” he told Al Jazeera. “After I stopped talking, and tears were flowing from my eyes, I could hardly see or breathe.

“They then beat me again to the ground, one of them held my head and beat it against the ground. I started screaming to his senior ‘see what he’s doing, see what he’s doing’ [but] his senior started laughing and said ‘he’s doing his job’. He broke one of my front teeth. Of course they didn’t film the blood, they filmed my back so it doesn’t show.”

Obama has got to sort this out.  Announcing plans for closure on his second day in office is great, and it’s widely understood that it’ll take time to figure out where the detainees will go after its closure – but in the meantime, according to Reprieve, conditions in the camp are getting worse, with an increase in the number of reported incidents in Camp Five (one of the isolation camps).

What to do about Guantanamo

This short piece from the Economist – styled as an email to Barack Obama – is worth a read:

Your promise to close Guantánamo is popular. Including a clear announcement on this in your inaugural will make for great headlines. But if you have to give a firm date for closure, kick the can at least a year down the road. Remember: W. wanted to close the place too, but disposing of the 260-odd (in every sense) inmates still incarcerated there won’t be easy.

A few dozen are small fish—not to mention innocents—who we could easily send home. But there are some whose governments don’t want them, and others (eg, those Chinese Uighurs) whom their governments might torture or execute. International law says you can’t repatriate them. We’ll ask friendly countries to take a few, but you will end up having to let most go free in the United States. Some might well return to the battlefield after all we’ve done to them. But as General Barry McCaffrey has said (we’ll keep the quote handy), it’s going to be cheaper and cleaner to kill them in combat than sit on them for 15 years.

Then there are those 80 or so really hard men. President Bush wanted to try them, and could never get the law right. So now you have to deal with them. Khalid Sheikh Mohammad has “confessed” he was the brains behind 9/11. God knows what the Pakistanis or the Agency did to him in prison. But we can’t just let him go, and we can’t just let him rot, so you have to give him and his accomplices their day in court. The first big question for you is: what kind of court? You don’t like Bush’s military commissions. But if you set up special security courts with special, meaning laxer, standards of procedure and evidence, they will be called kangaroo courts too. And if you opt for regular criminal trials or courts-martial you run the risk that they will throw out evidence extracted by waterboard. Dare you let a 9/11 mastermind walk free?

Worse yet, there’s a group the Agency is sure are dedicated terrorists but on whom we have nothing that can stand up in any sort of court. The human-rights purists say you must bite the bullet and set these unconvictables free in America. But if you follow their advice it won’t just be Republicans who will say you are putting the republic in danger. You’d theoretically have a let-out if you could let these guys go and keep them under surveillance. But the Feds claim they can’t guarantee fail-safe, indefinite 24-hour monitoring of a group this size. Can we afford to take that risk?

Safer would be to move them to the mainland, where they would be held under some kind of preventive detention devised by your legal team. We can call this “temporary”, but our base will bleat that you have closed Guantánamo only by creating a new prison where America continues to detain people convicted of no crime. And they’ll have a point. Over to you.