For over eight months, more than ten prisoners at Guantanamo Bay have been on hunger strike. The hunger strike steadily grew to include over 100 prisoners until July, when the number involved in the strike started to drop. It may have been a result of forced feeding with a tube which the facility was using on a record number of prisoners.
On December 5, Miami Herald journalist Carol Rosenberg, who had been painstakingly tracking the number of people on hunger strike (as well as which prisoners were being force-fed), reported the United States military would no longer be releasing data for media.
It was apparently the decision of US Southern Command commander, Marine Gen. John F. Kelly.
Navy Commander John Filostrat, who leads the public relations team at Guantanamo and became the chief spokesperson in October, stated the military will “no longer publicly issue the number of detainees who choose not to eat as a matter of protest.”
Rosenberg further reported that Filostrat “described the daily disclosure as a disruption of prison-camp operations and as a new public-relations strategy by the Joint Task Force, or JTF, of 2,100 troops and contractors assigned to the prison-camp complex now housing 164 detainees.”
Filostrat told media, “JTF-Guantánamo allows detainees to peacefully protest but will not further their protests by reporting the numbers to the public. The release of this information serves no operational purpose and detracts from the more important issues, which are the welfare of detainees and the safety and security of our troops.”
But, “welfare of detainees” and “safety and security of our troops” are meaningless buzz phrases. Truth is, regardless of the fact that less than fifty prisoners have been designated for trial or military commission in the history of the prison—meaning the others have been cleared for release and/or are being held indefinitely without charge—the leadership of the facility considers all involved in protests to be engaged in activity that has a nexus with al Qaeda and its affiliates.
According to a “Task Force on Detainee Treatment” report from The Constitution Project, when Rear Admiral David Woods was JTF-GTMO commander, he characterized hunger strikes in January 2012 as a “a tool used by [detainees] to stay in the fight.” A Pentagon official, who accompanied the Task Force staff, added, hunger strikes are in “the Manchester Manual,” an alleged Al Qaeda training document. This is “why they do it.”
The Task Force asked Woods to clarify how prison authorities would distinguish “between detainees who engage in hunger strikes to protest their indefinite detention and detainees who have been found to have links to Al Qaeda and the Manchester Manual.” The answer he gave was, “We consider anyone undertaking hunger strikes to be continuing the fight against the US government.”
The Task Force’s report further indicated that what Wood was saying echoed a “2007 press document issued by JTF-GTMO that discusses the Manchester Manual. The document from JTF suggested that, “[a]lthough not all detainees held in detention centers here are directly associated with al Qaeda, the manual is believed to be intended as a guide for all extremist Islamic fighters engaged in paramilitary training.” And, a JTF source additionally stated whether detainees were “directly affiliated with al Qaeda or not” was “irrelevant.”
“What is relevant is that they have paramilitary combat skills and the willingness to apply those skills when they are so inclined to use them,” the JTF source concluded. (Those “paramilitary combat skills” apparently include starving themselves to get the world’s attention so the US government will uphold human rights and release them from indefinite detention.)
The culture inside JTF-GTMO leads commanders to believe that all public information about prisoners resisting the US military can be used by the “enemy”—al Qaeda and its affiliates—as propaganda.
Of course, the key question would be, why now?
The Pentagon has hired a “closer,” who is working on implementing President Barack Obama’s directive to close the prison facility. Transfers of detainees to countries has resumed (although some of the repatriations are apparently being done forcibly).
This could have happened months ago before it effectively pushed Obama to make remarks on renewing his administration’s efforts to transfer prisoners cleared for release and shut down Guantanamo.
The increased secrecy may be intended to insulate the military so it is much harder for human rights groups and prisoners to work in tandem to shut down the facility in the next months. Perhaps, this is being done so the Pentagon can work at the pace it desires without interference from people who use data on hunger strikes to draw inferences about what is happening in the prison.
Also, the use of forced feedings has invited worldwide condemnation. Another task force convened by the Institute on Medicine as a Profession (IMAP) and the Open Society Foundations put together a report that concluded forced feedings had not been used to save prisoners’ lives as the military has claimed but to break political protests.
This task force declared, “The policy of force-feeding deviates from standard, accepted medical and ethical treatment of hunger strikers and, depending on the individual circumstances, amounts to either torture or inhuman and degrading treatment.” It also called particular attention to the use of a restraint chair, which the facility has used in a punitive manner.
The World Medical Association’s position is the following:
Forcible feeding is never ethically acceptable. Even if intended to benefit, feeding accompanied by threats, coercion, force or use of physical restraints is a form of inhuman and degrading treatment. Equally unacceptable is the forced feeding of some detainees in order to intimidate or coerce other hunger strikers to stop fasting.
Secrecy, however, would make it much easier to get away with continuing to engage in the unethical and inhumane forced feeding of prisoners, who dare to challenge the conditions of their confinement by going on hunger strike.
Regardless of the justification, JTF-GTMO’s motto is “safe,” “humane,” “legal” and “transparent.” However, there is one major caveat to all of those buzz words adopted by the public relations staff of Guantanamo.
The Public Affairs Media Relations Department sees it as their job to “provide the tools” civilian media “need in order to tell their story – which is our story,” according to Mass Communications Specialist 1st Class Erica Gardner. She adds, “The media can make or break our existence here.”
The story the military wants told does not include righteous prisoners rising up to defeat their captors by convincing people around the world that the military officers involved in security at the prison are all involved in one massive ongoing human rights atrocity. That is why the Miami Herald can no longer keep the public updated with daily figures on hunger striking prisoners at Guantanamo.