Pfc. Brandon Neely was standing at attention inside Camp X-Ray along with three-dozen or so other active-duty soldiers attached to the 401st Military Police Company from Fort Hood, Texas, during the afternoon of January 11, 2002.
A busload of about 20 “enemy combatants” captured in Afghanistan and Pakistan were soon going to be arriving at the crudely constructed prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and Neely, then 21 years old, was waiting for his assignment.
His platoon sergeant called out his name.
“Pfc. Neely! Bravo Block, escort,” he said, which meant Neely escorted detainees as they were processed into the prison and then to their cells.
Outside the Law
A couple of weeks earlier, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld explained why the Bush administration settled on Guantanamo as a prison facility for “war on terror” detainees.
“I would characterize Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, as the least worst place we could have selected,” Rumsfeld said during a December 27, 2001 press briefing. “It has disadvantages, as you suggest. Its disadvantages, however, seem to be modest relative to the alternatives.”
Rumsfeld did not reveal to reporters that a young Justice Department attorney named John Yoo had just finished writing a legal memo that he sent to Pentagon General Counsel William “Jim” Haynes a day later that said Guantanamo was the perfect place location because it was outside the law and it was unlikely US courts would grant detainees habeas corpus rights. Yoo’s analysis was proved wrong nearly a decade later when the US Supreme Court issued two landmark rulings in Boumediene v. Bush andRasul V. Bush, granting Guantanamo detainees habeas corpus rights.
Bush administration officials had at one point considered detaining prisoners in Guam, but Justice Department lawyers determined that detainees would be able to challenge their detention in US courts because, as Joseph Hansen wrote in his fascinating book about the history of Guantanamo, Guam would not be immune from federal court oversight and could be accessed by lawyers and journalists.
Rumsfeld also did not disclose was that Guantanamo was the ideal long-term interrogation facility the US could use to torture detainees.
Indeed, around the same time Rumsfeld was discussing Guantanamo as a detention center Haynes and other agency officials contacted the Joint Personnel Recovery Agency (JPRA), which runs Survival Evasion Resistance Escape (SERE) schools for teaching US soldiers to resist interrogation and torture if captured by an outlaw regime. The officials wanted a list of interrogation techniques that could be used for detainee “exploitation,” according to a report released by the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Three former military officials have referred to Guantanamo as a “battle lab,” meaning the interrogation methods detainees were experimental in nature.
“Worst of the Worst”
Neely’s adrenaline was flowing. Army Col. Terry Carrico, the prison’s commander, and Marine Gen. Michael R. Lehnert, commander, Joint Task Force 160, whose mission was to build and operate the detention camps at Guantanamo, had just told Neely and the other military police (MP) that all of the detainees, who Bush administration officials had publicly characterized as the “worst of the worst,” were involved in the 9/11 attacks and were so dangerous and psychotic that one of them had attempted to gnaw through a hydraulic line on the C-141 en route to Guantanamo.
Neely said was nervous. He had never seen terrorists before.
“I really wanted to be in combat fighting in Afghanistan,” Neely said. “I wanted revenge for 9/11. When I found out I was going to Guantanamo to help run a detention facility I was kind of mad because I wanted to go to the front lines to fight not to babysit a bunch of detainees.”
He waited for the bus to arrive near the open-air cages that resembled dog kennels, where the detainees were held for about four months before being moved to Camp Delta, a newly constructed block of prison cells built by Halliburton subsidiary Kellogg Brown & Root, a corporation once headed by Dick Cheney.
“I remember it was a sunny day,” Neely said. “It was January, but it was a lot different than Texas.”
The bus rolled in to the side of Camp X-Ray and the doors opened. The MP canine unit was present and their dogs were snarling. The first detainee to exit, a man Neely recalls was in his 30s and overweight, was missing a leg. A Marine inside the bus threw the man’s prosthetic leg onto the gravel. The MPs nicknamed him “Stumpy.”
That was Neely’s first exposure to the “worst of the worst.”
“I was shocked,” Neely said. “I will never forget that.”
The one-legged detainee hopped toward the holding area flanked by a couple of MPs who were screaming at him to “walk faster,” Neely said. The detainee was wearing an orange jumpsuit; goggles, which were designed to disorient his senses during the flight to Guantanamo from Afghanistan; a surgical mask; earmuffs; and gloves that looked like oven mitts. His leg, at least the one he still had, was shackled. His hands were attached to a chain wrapped around his torso.
The second detainee off the bus was David Hicks, the Australian drifter who was captured by the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan and sold to US forces for about $1,500. [Hicks, who was released in 2007, gave his first interview to Truthout last year.]
Hicks was Neely’s prisoner. At five-foot three inches tall, he hardly looked like the mercenary about which Neely was warned.
“We yelled at him, told him to get on his knees and shut up,” Neely said after Hicks exited the bus. “He was a little guy. He didn’t look like a killer.”
Neely did not know it then, nor did the public, but a vast majority of the prisoners who populated Guantanamo during the prison’s first year in operation were innocent bystanders sold to US forces for hefty bounty payments or were captured and sent to Guantanamo because they wore the same style Casio watch that members of al-Qaeda wore.
Geneva Conventions Did Not Apply
Later in the afternoon of January 11, 2002, Neely was involved in the first violent incident that took place at Guantanamo. It’s an event that he said still haunts him to this day, but it pales in comparison to the brutal torture methods sanctioned by former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld that would become standard operating procedure at the prison facility later that year.
Neely and another MP were escorting a detainee to his cell. When they arrived, Neely put the detainee, who was still wearing goggles, on his knees and the other MP began to unlock his handcuffs. The detainee, who was in his fifties, flinched. Neely reacted quickly.
“I slammed his face down into the concrete,” Neely said. “He tried to get up and I slammed him down again. I didn’t know what he was trying to do.”
The Immediate Reaction Force Team (IRF), military guards who are trained to use overwhelming force to respond to “disciplinary infractions,” were called in and subdued the detainee. When Neely saw the prisoner again the next day, the side of his face was torn up and scabbed.
Weeks later, Neely learned that the detainee flinched because he thought he was going to be executed when he was told to get down on his knees.
The violence escalated as the weeks passed. There wasn’t a formal standard operating procedure (SOP) that advised guards how to treat detainees, Neely said.
“We were told there was no SOP and the book would be written as we went along,” he said. “If detainees refused medication the IRF team came in and forced them to take medication. I sat there and watched a medic punch a detainee in the face one time as the detainee was chained to the back of his cage in a Jesus Christ pose because the detainee didn’t want to drink his Ensure.”
A day before he left for Guantanamo, Neely said his unit was told “by the company commander, the colonel and platoon sergeant that these people were not Prisoners of War. They were detainees and the Geneva Conventions would not be in effect.”
George W. Bush formally rescinded Geneva Conventions protections for “war on terror” detainees on February 7, 2002. A bipartisan congressional report released three years ago traced the torture of detainees at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib to that document.
The Pentagon did not respond to Neely’s specific allegations. In the past, Defense Department spokespeople said detainees were treated humanely and all incidents of abuse were investigated.
Neely left Guantanamo in June 2002 with an achievement medal for “exceptional meritorious service” and returned to Fort Hood. By that time, the conversations he had with some of the British detainees about pop culture, such as hip-hop music, led him to doubt the government’s claims that all of the detainees imprisoned at Guantanamo were terrorists.
“I had a feeling I was being lied to,” Neely said. “Some of these guys grew up the same way I did. They listened to the same music. That’s when I started to question it. It was years later when I realized a lot of these guys weren’t guilty of anything at all.”
The government did lie to Neely and did so again in 2003 when he was sent to Iraq to fight a war predicated on ridding the country of its nonexistent weapons of mass destruction. He returned to the US a year later and fell into a deep depression, his mind ravaged by post-traumatic stress disorder.
“I returned to a wife and three beautiful children I did not even know and who didn’t even know the man I came home as,” Neely said, who was only 23 years old when his tour of duty in Iraq ended.
Neely left the military in 2005. He declined a call to return to active duty in 2007 and received an honorable discharge. He became active in the antiwar movement. Part of his healing process involved making a personal apology to two of the British detainees he had stood guard over during the six months he spent at Guantanamo. He found them via Facebook. Although Neely’s in a better place mentally, he said he’s still not whole.
“There has not been a day that goes by that I have not re-lived what I did or saw in Guantanamo,” he said.
Neely, who works in law enforcement in Houston, Texas, said until the prison is closed he will continue to speak critically about the detention facility and talk about the abuses that took place there. He is one of just a handful of former guards who has come forward over the past decade to talk about Guantanamo..
Another former guard who told his story was barred from re-enlisting in the U.S. Army Reserves after being accused by the military of leaking classified information to this reporter during an interview in which he spoke candidly about his experiences working as a guard at Guantanamo Bay a decade ago.
For Neely, speaking out about the prison has also come at a cost.
He said he has been regularly harassed at work, relegated to the night shift and has been accused of being a terrorist sympathizer.
Still, he said he “decided that I needed to tell my story about Guantanamo.”
“How can I as a father tell my children to tell the truth and stand up for what they believe in if I am not willing to do the same?”
This is an edited version of a story originally published in 2012, on the 10th anniversary of Guantanamo.
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