Pentagon fears blowback from ‘humane’ Guantánamo video release

This image made on Thursday, Jan. 12, 2012 from undated video posted on the Internet on Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2012 by a YouTube user who identified themself as “semperfiLoneVoice” shows men in U.S. Marine combat gear, standing in a semi-circle over three bodies.
This image made on Thursday, Jan. 12, 2012 from undated video posted on the Internet on Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2012 by a YouTube user who identified themself as “semperfiLoneVoice” shows men in U.S. Marine combat gear, standing in a semi-circle over three bodies. ASSOCIATED PRESS

A Pentagon official is invoking the revulsion of Muslims worldwide over images of U.S. Marines urinating on corpses to predict the global backlash at seeing videos of Guantánamo troops hauling a captive to force-feedings.

The Justice Department included the declaration in a renewed bid to prevent the public from seeing 32 videos made by U.S. forces at the detention center in Cuba.

“While the videos at issue in this litigation do not in my opinion depict any improper treatment of the detainees, but rather the lawful, humane and appropriate interaction between guards and detainees,” wrote U.S. Navy Rear Adm. Sinclair Harris, “persons and entities hostile to the United States and its detention of enemy belligerents at Guantánamo Bay are likely to think otherwise.”

Harris is vice director of operations at the Department of Defense Joint Staff, and said he had watched some of the videos — which lawyers say portray troops forcing captive Abu Wa’el Dhiab to tube feedings. The admiral said he concluded the images could be used for propaganda purposes to stoke anti-American sentiment and put U.S. citizens at risk in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Dhiab, 43, was cleared for release from Guantánamo years ago but can’t be repatriated to his native Syria, a nation now wracked with Islamic State violence. Instead, Uruguay has offered him sanctuary in a deal that was sidelined first by the Pentagon then by that South American nation’s elections. He has been protesting by hunger striking.

Dhiab wants the videos released, according to one of his attorneys, Cori Crider, and so does a consortium of 16 media organizations, which petitioned a federal court in Washington, D.C.

On Oct. 3, Judge Gladys Kessler ordered the U.S. government to obscure the faces and identities in the videos of everyone but the captive, then make them public. Tuesday, U.S. government lawyers notified Kessler’s court that it would file an appeal.

Dhiab’s attorney argues that ugly optics are no excuse.

“I’ve seen the videos — and of course they’re upsetting,” Crider said Wednesday by email from Reprieve, a London-based law firm that represents Dhiab at no charge. “But that’s no reason to hide the truth from Americans.”

“By that logic, think of all the government scandals that never would have seen the light of day,” she added, citing the 2003 photos of guards abusing detainees at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and images of the 1968 My Lai massacre that “changed the conversation about Vietnam.”

Reprieve’s legal team discovered there were recordings during a forced-feeding challenge; the detention center says it has since discontinued taping the tube feedings for reasons of patient privacy.

Harris suggested the videos could lead to the “perceived mistreatment of individuals,” and serve as a recruiting tool for the Islamic State.

In his declaration he noted that South Florida journalist Steven Sotloff was forced by his captors to make an anti-Guantánamo statement before he was beheaded earlier this year. When Sotloff was killed, he was clad in an orange jumpsuit that has come to symbolize the prison in southeast Cuba.

Harris argued against release based on “prior experience from the release of certain provocative photographs and information.”

He noted that “in 2012 the release of a video depicting Marines urinating on the corpses of alleged Taliban members was used as a recruitment tool for the Taliban and led to an Afghan soldier attacking and killing French troops.”

It is not known when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit would take up the Justice Department appeal because Tuesday’s filing was not the appeal itself but notice to the court that the Obama administration was appealing Kessler’s release order.

Separately, the prison camps commander Navy Rear Adm. Kyle Cozad, argued that disclosure of the videos would tip captives to certain techniques used by its tackle-and-shackle squad of soldiers — something Judge Kessler ridiculed in her ruling as “implausible” because the captives experience what is portrayed in the videos.

Cozad, however, suggested in a heavily redacted 13-page sworn statement that if the videos are released he might restrict access to news media in the cellblocks, a popular distraction at the detention center that the admiral characterized as “important for intellectual stimulation and overall morale.”

He also listed a series of assaults that apparently occurred since he took over this summer, including a captive who resisted his force-feeding by biting a guard and another who hit a soldier in the face with a handcuffed fist.

He called the videos a useful tool for the prison, saying staff likened them to “an NFL team watching video of the previous week’s football game to determine what plays worked well, what they did wrong, and what they could do better during the next game.”

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