The greatest moral stain: Why a U.S. military jury is seeking clemency for a Guantanamo detainee

Torture is one of the greatest moral stains on America's reputation in its history — and it happened on our watch

By Heather Digby Parton


Published November 3, 2021 11:11AM (EDT)

Donald Trump | Guard tower outside the fencing of Camp 5 at the US Military's Prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Donald Trump | Guard tower outside the fencing of Camp 5 at the US Military's Prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

With all of the hoopla this past week over the off-year elections, President Biden's foreign trip, and the ongoing drama on Capitol Hill, there was very little discussion of the latest chapter in one of the most important and horrific stories of our time.

The New York Times reported on an unprecedented sentencing hearing of a detainee held at Guantanamo Bay. It was the first time a prisoner detailed in public the torture he underwent at the hands of the U.S. government. There are no adequate words to describe the grotesque war crimes committed against this man. Times' reporter Carol Rosenberg, who has covered the Guantanamo legal proceedings for many years now, vividly detailed the story of 41-year-old Majid Khan, a Pakistani citizen who graduated from a Baltimore high school and, as a lost young man, took a trip back to his home country in 2002 after his mother died. There he was seduced into joining a terrorist organization. As he put it, "I went willingly to Al Qaeda. I was stupid, so incredibly stupid. But they promised to relieve my pain and purify my sins. They promised to redeem me, and I believed them."

RELATED: "Moment of reckoning" as two architects of CIA torture program testify at Guantánamo Bay

Khan was captured by American forces in 2003 and has been held in legal limbo ever since, despite the fact that he cooperated from the beginning. But according to his testimony, the more he cooperated, the more he was tortured. As with so many other victims of the brutal U.S. torture regime, Khan was compelled to make up tales in order to get the torture to stop. When his tales didn't pan out, he was tortured some more.

The maze of national security restrictions put on Guantanamo prisoners attempting to defend themselves (an almost 20-year long process) has generally made it impossible for them to speak out about what happened to them. But apparently, (it isn't clear from the reporting) Khan's lawyers found a way for him to publicly detail the torture he endured without specifically accusing any individuals. So last week, in open court, he took the stand and expressed remorse for his actions and forgave his tormentors. In front of his horrified father and sister, both of whom are American citizens, he laid out for the record what happened to him.

Kahn described in detail the primitive conditions in which he was held: naked, with his hands chained above his head or shackled to the wall crouching "like a dog," beaten and sleep-deprived to the point of hallucination. He was waterboarded repeatedly and nearly drowned. And then there was the sexual and "medical" sadism, as Rosenberg reports:

[A]fter he refused to eat, his captors "infused" a purée of his lunch through his anus. The C.I.A. called it rectal refeeding. Mr. Khan called it rape.

The C.I.A. pumped water up the rectum of prisoners who would not follow a command to drink. Mr. Khan said this was done to him with "green garden hoses."

"They connected one end to the faucet, put the other in my rectum and they turned on the water," he said, adding that he lost control of his bowels after those episodes and, to this day, has hemorrhoids.

He spoke about failed and sadistic responses to his hunger strikes and other acts of rebellion. Medics would roughly insert a feeding tube up his nose and down his throat. He would try to bite it off and, in at least one instance, he said, a C.I.A. officer used a plunger to force food inside his stomach, a technique that caused stomach cramps and diarrhea.

When CIA officers transferred Khan from one black site to another, they would insert an enema and then duct tape a diaper on him so he wouldn't have to be taken to the bathroom. 

RELATED: Half of Americans are cool with CIA torture techniques

Kahn was eventually charged with four terrorism charges and pled guilty to delivering $50,000 from Pakistan to an Al Qaeda affiliate in early 2003 that was traced to the bombing of a Marriott hotel in Jakarta, Indonesia. At the time of the bombing, Kahn was already in custody. He also worked with Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the 9/11 mastermind, in some failed plots during his brief period with al Qaeda.

At his trial, the lead prosecutor conceded that Kahn got "extremely rough" treatment but told the jury he was lucky to be alive when the victims of al Qaeda are not. Kahn's lawyer said "Majid was raped at the hands of the U.S. government. He told them everything from the beginning."

The jury of eight military officers was required to hand down a sentence of 25 to 40 years. They gave him 26 years beginning from his guilty plea in 2012. But in an unexpected twist, obviously moved by the testimony, seven of the eight jurors wrote a letter to the overseer of military commissions asking him to grant Kahn clemency. They did not know of a secret deal that was struck earlier this year with the Pentagon in which the sentence could actually end early next year and no later than February 2025 because Khan turned government cooperator upon pleading guilty.

Some of the details of these monstrous tactics were known already due to the "executive summary" of the classified Senate Torture Report that the Obama administration ensured would be withheld from the public. You may recall that the Senate Intelligence Committee and the CIA were at each other's throats over that project with the CIA issuing criminal referrals against Senate staffers and the committee accusing the CIA of penetrating its computers. (As it turned out, the Inspector General found that the CIA was wrong on both of those issues and then CIA Director, John Brennan, was forced to apologize.) The Senate passed the McCain-Feinstein Anti-Torture Amendment, banning "enhanced interrogation techniques" the Bush administration's Soviet-style euphemism for torture. But no one has ever been held accountable.

In 2018, Gina Haspel, who was involved in the CIA's infamous destruction of CIA tapes that documented the practice and was personally involved in the torture of one terrorist suspect, became the head of the CIA under Donald Trump, the man who won the presidency in 2016 by declaring:

Would I approve waterboarding? You bet your ass I would — in a heartbeat, And I would approve more than that. Don't kid yourself, folks. It works, okay? It works. Only a stupid person would say it doesn't work.

Torture doesn't work. And the use of it, as well as the cover-up by two administrations and the crude endorsement by a man who would be president, is one of the greatest moral stains on America's reputation in its long history of moral stains. And this one happened on our watch.   

By Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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