The Bleak Legacy of Donald Rumsfeld: Guantánamo, Torture and Two Failed and Astonishingly Destructive Wars

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Former US defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who has died at the age of 88, and a grimly iconic photo of prisoner abuse in Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

If there was any justice in this world, Donald Rumsfeld, the former US defense secretary from 2001 to 2006 under George W. Bush, who has died at the age of 88, would have been held accountable for his crimes against humanity at Guantánamo, in Afghanistan and in Iraq; instead, he apparently passed away peacefully surrounded by his family in Taos, New Mexico.

In response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Rumsfeld directed the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001, when the Geneva Conventions regarding the treatment of prisoners in wartime were shamefully jettisoned, and he was also responsible for the establishment of the prison at Guantánamo Bay, which opened on January 11, 2002.

At Kandahar and Bagram -- and at numerous other prisons across Afghanistan -- all those who came into US custody were regarded as "enemy combatants," who could be held without any rights whatsoever. The torture and abuse of prisoners was widespread, and numerous prisoners were killed in US custody, as I reported in When Torture Kills: Ten Murders In US Prisons In Afghanistan, an article I published 12 years ago today.

In addition, the military under Rumsfeld were told not to hold competent tribunals under Article 5 of the Geneva Conventions, which were designed to assess, close to the time and place of capture, whether those detained had been civilians caught by mistake. Competent tribunals had been held in previous US wars, and in the First Iraq War of 1991, to provide just one example, the military held 1,196 of these tribunals, and in 886 cases (74%) concluded that the men in question had been seized by mistake, and sent them home.

In Afghanistan, however, an interrogator at the time noted that every Arab who came into US custody had to be sent to Guantánamo, and that most Afghan prisoners were also sent to Guantánamo too, until the interrogators worked out a way to keep men who were evidently innocent and seized by mistake off the record books so that they could be freed. The result, as Gregg Miller explained for the Los Angeles Times in December 2002, was that "Maj. Gen. Michael E. Dunlavey, the operational commander at Guantánamo Bay until October [2002], traveled to Afghanistan in the spring [of 2002] to complain that too many "Mickey Mouse" detainees were being sent to the already crowded facility."

In a press conference shortly after Guantánamo opened, Rumsfeld coyly described it as the "least worst place" for a prison, evading his responsibility for establishing a prison in a location that was specifically chosen to be beyond the reach of the US courts. In December 2002, ignoring the complaints about "Mickey Mouse" prisoners, he specifically approved the use of torture techniques at Guantánamo, which included forced standing, in painful short-shackled stress positions, for a period of four hours, adding a hand-written note that read, "However, I stand for 8-10 hours a day. Why is standing limited to 4 hours?"

Rumsfeld's approval of torture techniques justified a program that was applied to a significant proportion of the prison's population (at least a hundred men), and also fed into the specific torture of a prisoner mistakenly regarded as being of particular significance -- Mohammed al-Qahtani, who was reportedly intended to be the 20th hijacker on 9/11, and who was subjected to seven weeks of sleep deprivation and horribly abusive interrogations from November 2002 (two weeks before Rumsfeld's approval) until January 2003.

In August 2003, Rumsfeld followed up by approving a specific torture program for another prisoner regarded as particularly significant -- Mohamedou Ould Slahi, wrongly suspected of having aided the 9/11 hijackers, who, after weeks of brutal interrogations, ended up being taken out in a boat, violently beaten and threatened with death. Slahi's extraordinary account of his experiences, Guantánamo Diary, was written while he was still held at the prison, and was published in 2015, although Slahi himself had to wait nearly two more years for his eventual release.

Rumsfeld is also notorious for his extreme reluctance to acknowledge that, amongst the 779 prisoners held by the US military at Guantánamo, some were children or juveniles -- those under the age of 18 when their alleged crimes took place -- who, according to the Optional Protocol to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict, which came into force on February 12, 2002, a month after Guantánamo opened, and was subsequently ratified by the US, "require special protection" -- to be rehabilitated rather than punished, and, if imprisoned, to be held separately from adult prisoners.

"This constant refrain of 'the juveniles,' as though there's a hundred children in there -- these are not children," Rumsfeld said at a press conference in May 2003, after the story first broke that juveniles were being held at Guantánamo. In the end, three Afghan boys were held separately prior to their release, but as I have established over the years, at least another 20 prisoners were also juveniles when they were seized -- including the Canadian citizen Omar Khadr -- and yet none of them received treatment that was any different from the abuse that was endemic in the prison.


In terms of the sheer loss of life, however, nothing can compare to Rumsfeld's responsibility for the Iraq War, in which at least 200,000 civilians died. Rumsfeld, Vice President Dick Cheney and Rumsfeld's deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, had been pushing for regime change in Iraq since the end of the First Iraq War in 1991, and their aims were promoted via the Project for the New American Century (PNAC), a neocon think-tank established in 1997, in which they, and other subsequent members of the administration of George W. Bush, were all members.

On the day of the 9/11 attacks, both Rumsfeld and Cheney sought to use the attacks to invade not just Afghanistan, but Iraq as well, and while I hold Dick Cheney responsible for using the lie, tortured out of CIA "black site" prisoner Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, that Saddam Hussein had been providing training to al-Qaeda in the use of chemical and biological weapons, which was subsequently used to justify the illegal invasion of Iraq in March 2003, Rumsfeld was in charge of the military occupation, and its disastrously simplistic notion that the US would be welcomed as conquering heroes for overthrowing Saddam Hussein.

Rumsfeld was also in charge of the US military's treatment of prisoners in Iraq, including the torture and abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib that surfaced via photos in April 2004. He later claimed that the Abu Ghraib scandal was his darkest hour as defense secretary, but that is obviously nonsensical, as the torture of prisoners was specifically encouraged by Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller, the commander of Guantánamo from November 2002, when the widespread program of torture and abuse mentioned above was implemented, leading to Miller's visit to Abu Ghraib in August 2003 to provide advice about how to secure "more productive" interrogations of prisoners. He subsequently produced a report in which he recommended "GTMO-izing" their approach, and using prison guards to "soften up" prisoners for interrogation.

Rumsfeld was also in charge of Camp Bucca, where many Abu Ghraib prisoners were sent after the scandal was exposed. However, torture, abuse and unexplained prisoner deaths were widespread at Camp Bucca, and it played a crucial role in the development of Daesh (Islamic State), which subsequently emerged as a brutal successor to al-Qaeda, and one which, it seems pretty clear, might not have taken off at all had it not been for the US war on Muslims in Afghanistan and Iraq.

As I mark Donald Rumsfeld's death today, I certainly don't mean to have focused attention on his mistakes, and his crimes, to the exclusion of all the other senior officials in the Bush administration, and their lawyers, who still deserve to be held accountable -- a list that includes George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, their lawyers Alberto Gonzales and David Addington, Rumsfeld's lawyer William J. Haynes III, and many, many others.

However, to the best of my knowledge, Rumsfeld is the first who we can no longer even dream will one day be called upon to try and justify his actions in a court empowered to punish those responsible for crimes against humanity; those crimes that the US government and its representatives have inflicted on Afghanistan, Iraq, in Guantánamo and in numerous other prisons since the "war on terror" began nearly 20 years ago.

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This page contains a single entry published on July 1, 2021 10:41 PM.

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