Guantanamo Bay, One Piece Of Torturous Puzzle?

Several Guantanamo Bay detainees are on a months-long hunger strike. But the U.S. may have bigger problems when it comes to detainee treatment. A bipartisan study says it's undeniable that the U.S. tortured people after 9/11. Host Michel Martin speaks with former Congressman Asa Hutchinson, a Republican, and one of the co-chairs of the study.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Coming up, leading Republicans have been making news lately talking about outreach to African-Americans, Latinos, and LGBT voters, but what about women? They've also been trending Democrat for decades. We're going to speak with a diverse group of women writers and commentators about this. That's later in the program.

But first we want to talk about an issue that has bedeviled the Obama administration and the previous. It's the treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. You may or may not know this, but it has been months since a large group of prisoners at the Guantanamo Bay prison camp began a hunger strike. This issue got renewed attention this week when the New York Times ran an op-ed from a prisoner who's been participating.

He writes, quote: I will not eat until they restore my dignity. But a new study from the bipartisan think tank the Constitution Project shows that Guantanamo is just one piece of a bigger puzzle. Their main finding is that since September 11, 2001, it is indisputable that the United States engaged in the practice of torture. We wanted to talk more about this and we're speaking with someone who finds himself at the apex of a number of important issues in public policy lately.

He's the co-chair of this study. He's the former Republican congressman Asa Hutchinson. He's also been in the news for his work on a school safety group sponsored by the NRA. So we hope we'll talk with him about that briefly as well. Thank you so much for joining us. Welcome.

ASA HUTCHINSON: Delighted to be with you, Michel.

MARTIN: Your study begins with a very bold - some might say damning - statement that it is indisputable that the United States engaged in torture. I know it's a complicated question. I know that you spent, what, two years working on this study, but if you could just give us the main points of how you arrived at that finding - and do you agree with it?

HUTCHINSON: I do agree with it and it's one of the most difficult studies I've engaged in, because of the topic of it and because of the fact that no one wants to point a finger at the United States of America and say that we made an error. And the fact is, though, that whenever you look at the conclusion that our personnel did engage in torture, that is not a passive conclusion.

It's not a subjective conclusion. This is based upon really the findings of court cases that have determined this conduct is torture. It's based upon our own State Department that has criticized other nations for engaging the same conduct and calling it torture in other nations. And it's based upon, you know, the standards that we have set, both the United States, by law, and in the international community.

MARTIN: Does the feeding tube issue constitute torture in your view? That's the issue that's before the public now, this question of force feeding prisoners who have been engaging in a hunger strike to protest their conditions and also in some cases to protest the fact that they're still there when they believe that it should have been proven by now that they don't belong there.

HUTCHINSON: Well, Dr. Thompson was part of the taskforce, an extraordinary medical expert. And this is - one of the findings relates to this. And I believe the language of the report is that was - it is certainly degrading. It is very harmful conduct, the way that we are treating in the forced feeding venue, and it is contrary to how our bureau of prisons handles those who are on hunger strike.

It is different than the international standards. And so it's very problematic and it's certainly subject to criticism under the report.

MARTIN: The report makes the case that a variety of factors caused prisoners to be treated the way they have been treated at Guantanamo, but I'd like to ask you what's your understanding of the primary reason for this? Is it that people are just not well versed on better methods of extracting information from people? Is it that some of these people really do not know anything and therefore would never be able to provide useful information? Was it vengeance?

HUTCHINSON: Well, no - clearly, and that's very important to emphasize, because I was present in the post-9/11 environment and the whole motivation of our leaders, the motivation of our men and women in uniform and the CIA, was to prevent another attack. That is the entire motivation. And so we, as someone said, took the gloves off. And that word went down the chain. And whenever the leaders say take the gloves off, it is applied in many different ways.

And then you've got the lawyers who says, well, these methods of interrogation - they called them enhanced interrogation - is acceptable and - but the way that it was applied was maybe different than how it was represented. And in the application of it, it clearly constituted torture. So the motivation was obviously to extract information.

But what you're neglecting in the course of that is that we have tried and true means of extracting information and that is through usual interrogation methods that have proven successful. Secondly, people say, well, we did get information but you also got false information. So you can have the efficacy debate. For me personally, I come back to the fact that that's against the character of our nation and what we stand for.

MARTIN: Well, speaking of the other question that the report says is against the character of our nation, the detainee who wrote the New York Times op-ed that I think many people will have read by now, if they're not familiar with any other aspect of this debate, he's been held for 11 years. He's 35 years old now. So he's been locked up since his mid-20s. He says that there's just - he went to Afghanistan looking for work.

And he says there's never been any credible evidence that he belonged there. Your report says that, quote, Although never stated explicitly, senior officials thought it better to detain any number of innocent people than to run the risk of setting free anyone who might be a threat. And the report says that this turns the traditional notion of justice on its head, at least justice as it's understood by the people of the United States. So what should happen now?

HUTCHINSON: We've got a problem. I mean, here you've got someone who's been there 11 years. Charges have not been filed. They have - we're having a hard time finding another nation to accept these individuals. So what do you do with them? And, you know, generally whenever you have a conclusion of combat under the usual rules of war, you return them, you release them.

But we have different rules on the war on terrorism. But it's fundamental that you don't detain people indefinitely and forever without giving them an opportunity to confront charges against them. Part of our report - I actually did interviews myself. And I met with two former detainees of Guantanamo that really have a very similar story to the gentleman who wrote the op-ed.

And they wanted a day in court. They wanted to be able to confront charges against them. Ultimately they were released after a couple years without any charges being filed. And they actually understood that in a war environment you do arrest people. You seize people that you're not sure of their level of culpability, but the system usually works its way out so that eventually someone will make a decision there's nothing here, there's no evidence, let's let him go. And that decision-making process in some instances broke down.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with Asa Hutchinson. He is a former congressman from Arkansas. He's the co-chair of a recent study detailing conditions at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. So what should happen now, Congressman? And I'm wondering how you want the American people to receive this information. There have been people for years saying that this institution is a blight upon our good name as a people.

There are other people who feel that it was just a necessary, if flawed, response to some terrible circumstances. What should we feel about this? As well as what should we do.

HUTCHINSON: Well, first you have some very bad people there and - in Guantanamo Bay, and they need to be tried. They need to be brought before a military commission. They need to be addressed. And if they have - are convicted, they need to stay incarcerated for - forever. But there's others that there's not sufficient evidence to charge or there is simply no place to return them. We have to work harder, this administration needs to work harder, to find places to return them, to their home country or to someone that will accept them.

That's an important criteria to reduce the population in Guantanamo Bay. Secondly, you've got to bring them before an Article III court or you've got to bring them before a military commission. That needs to be done and that's the findings of the taskforce. And so that's the process that needs to - we need to go through.

MARTIN: Forgive me for asking it this way, but I don't know how else to ask it. There have been times when our national leaders have apologized to citizens of this country, citizens of other countries, for wrongs that have been done in the name of the American people. Is this an occasion that calls for that?

HUTCHINSON: Well, I think the most important thing is that we're honest with ourselves and that we learn from any mistakes that have been made and that's the purpose of this report. It's not an apology. It is a statement of what we believe are incontrovertible facts and that it's important that we as a nation understand those facts, so that's the purpose of it.

As to how our policymakers act upon that is a different issue, and certainly, though, I hope we learn from this. You look back on World War II. Whenever we incarcerated Japanese-Americans, at the time, it seemed the right and good thing to do, but in hindsight it doesn't look very pretty and I think we need to learn from any mistakes that we've made.

MARTIN: But in the time that we have left, I mentioned that you find yourself at the apex of another very important story, coincidentally, I would imagine, because you've been working on this matter, the Guantanamo matter, for two years now. Right? And...

HUTCHINSON: Correct.

MARTIN: You also are the director of the National School Shield Taskforce, which was a group put together by the NRA in response to the terrible shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. That study caused a lot of controversy because it calls for armed guards in schools. This recommends a number of things, like allowing non-law enforcement officials to enter schools armed. This would be up to local restrictions, presumably. But can I talk to you about that? I mean many people just find...

HUTCHINSON: Sure.

MARTIN: ...the notion - if you don't mind my saying - ridiculous, particularly to a person, the people who had the major educational associations, the people who represent the teachers, find this ridiculous.

HUTCHINSON: Well, I hope they'll read the report. And let me make a couple of points. I mean, first of all, I don't believe teachers should be armed. Teachers should teach and others should protect. But yes - there should be someone in every school that has a capability of taking down an armed assailant that's going to hurt the students. We have school resource officers now, but some schools cannot afford that and so we're recommending a very extensive 40 to 50 hours of training, very similar to what a law enforcement person would receive, except it's for the delicate school environment, and so that there can be some protection there.

And I would encourage people, one, to read the report, and secondly, this is all about what the local school district decides. Nothing's a mandate. We're providing them more in additional tools that they can use to protect children, but it's up to every school district and leadership as to what they're going to do. These are our recommendations.

MARTIN: We are speaking with former Arkansas Congressman Asa Hutchinson. He is a Republican. He co-chaired a new study by the nonpartisan group the Constitution Project that examined the treatment of detainees worldwide. He also directed the National School Shield Taskforce that was funded by the NRA. We're asking him about the study that that group put out as well. I'd like to ask you to please stay with us as we take a short break. You're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

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