Former Guantanamo Guard Tells All
by: Scott Horton, Harper’s Magazine
Army Private Brandon Neely served as a prison guard at Guantánamo in the first years the facility was in operation. With the Bush Administration, and thus the threat of retaliation against him, now gone, Neely decided to step forward and tell his story. “The stuff I did and the stuff I saw was just wrong,” he told the Associated Press. Neely describes the arrival of detainees in full sensory-deprivation garb, he details their sexual abuse by medical personnel, torture by other medical personnel, brutal beatings out of frustration, fear, and retribution, the first hunger strike and its causes, torturous shackling, positional torture, interference with religious practices and beliefs, verbal abuse, restriction of recreation, the behavior of mentally ill detainees, an isolation regime that was put in place for child-detainees, and his conversations with prisoners David Hicks and Rhuhel Ahmed. It makes for fascinating reading.
Neely’s comprehensive account runs to roughly 15,000 words. It was compiled by law students at the University of California at Davis and can be accessed here. Three things struck me in reading through the account.
First, Neely and other guards had been trained to the U.S. military’s traditional application of the Geneva Convention rules. They were put under great pressure to get rough with the prisoners and to violate the standards they learned. This placed the prison guards under unjustifiable mental stress and anxiety, and, as any person familiar with the vast psychological literature in the area (think of the Stanford Prison Experiment, for instance) would have anticipated produced abuses. Neely discusses at some length the notion of IRF (initial reaction force), a technique devised to brutalize or physically beat a detainee under the pretense that he required being physically subdued. The IRF approach was devised to use a perceived legal loophole in the prohibition on torture. Neely’s testimony makes clear that IRF was understood by everyone, including the prison guards who applied it, as a subterfuge for beating and mistreating prisoners-and that it had nothing to do with the need to preserve discipline and order in the prison.
Second, there is a good deal of discussion of displays of contempt for Islam by the camp authorities, and also specific documentation of mistreatment of the Qu’ran. Remember that the Neocon-laden Pentagon Public Affairs office launched a war against Newsweek based on a very brief piece that appeared in the magazine’s Periscope section concerning the mistreatment of a Qu’ran by a prison guard. Not only was the Newsweek report accurate in its essence, it actually understated the gravity and scope of the problem. Moreover, it is clear that the Pentagon Public Affairs office was fully aware, even as it went on the attack against Newsweek, that its claims were false and the weekly’s reporting was accurate.
Third, the Nelly account shows that health professionals are right in the thick of the torture and abuse of the prisoners-suggesting a systematic collapse of professional ethics driven by the Pentagon itself. He describes body searches undertaken for no legitimate security purpose, simply to sexually invade and humiliate the prisoners. This was a standardized Bush Administration tactic-the importance of which became apparent to me when I participated in some Capitol Hill negotiations with White House representatives relating to legislation creating criminal law accountability for contractors. The Bush White House vehemently objected to provisions of the law dealing with rape by instrumentality. When House negotiators pressed to know why, they were met first with silence and then an embarrassed acknowledgement that a key part of the Bush program included invasion of the bodies of prisoners in a way that might be deemed rape by instrumentality under existing federal and state criminal statutes. While these techniques have long been known, the role of health care professionals in implementing them is shocking.