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Emails Show That Even Military Commanders Have to 'Vent on Occasion' at Guantanamo

Military commanders reacted to an infamous detainee hunger strike and subsequent raid at Guantanamo with disdain and resentment, emails obtained by VICE News show.
General John Kelly. (Photo by Peter Foley/EPA)

Brigadier General Robert Arthur said he needed to "vent."

"When the Islamic zealots decide the 100 year war against infidels (US) is over, then we can discuss release options," Arthur wrote in an April 23, 2013 email to Brigadier General James Lettko, the deputy commander of Joint Task Force-Guantanamo (JTF-GTMO).

Arthur, the deputy director of operations for United States Southern Command (SOUTHCOM), which has oversight of JTF-GTMO, the military unit that operates Guantanamo, was referring to the detainees held captive at the detention facility, and whether they could be released and under what circumstances.


"Sorry, I have to vent on occasion," Arthur explained to Lettko.

The deputy commander responded, "I understand."

The email exchange occurred during one of the most fraught periods in the history of the prison. What prompted Arthur's blunt remark was a violent and chaotic raid at Guantanamo's communal camp that had taken place 10 days earlier. At 5:10am on April 13, guards donned riot gear and entered the communal camp where a majority of the 166 detainees who had been on a months-long hunger strike — military officials believed it was aimed at pressuring the Obama administration into releasing the men — were housed.

The hunger strike attracted global attention to the captives' plight, and the raid was aimed at breaking their protest.

This mass hunger strike, along with the brutal force-feeding to which some detainees were subjected, was not only condemned by the United Nations, professional medical organizations, and human rights groups, it was also the catalyst behind President Barack Obama's new effort to shutter Guantanamo and transfer cleared detainees after years of inaction.

Related: Evil Sponge Bob and Satan: Inside a Guantanamo Bay Prison Riot

Although Guantanamo's official tagline is "Safe, Legal, Humane, Transparent," in reality Guantanamo is a black hole of secrecy. It is virtually impossible for the media to obtain any information about the operations of the detention facility that extend beyond the military's official talking points.


Over the past three years, Guantanamo, which this month celebrated its 14th anniversary, has become even more secretive. In December 2013, the military implemented a new policy in which it stopped providing the media with a daily tally of detainees who were on hunger strike and those that were force-fed, because the captives attracted too much media attention. Last month, Guantanamo officials announced they were limiting media access to the detention facility.

General John Kelly, who until last week was the commander of SOUTHCOM and is retiring at the end of the month, is the military official who handed down the directives. Kelly has been at the center of controversy recently after a report published last month by Reuters claimed that Kelly and his command has been thwarting the Obama administration's efforts to transfer detainees to other countries and close Guantanamo, which Kelly reportedly opposes, by creating obstacles for visiting delegations.

'This situation is not like any other in the free world, and it's taking considerable efforts to ensure we balance compliance, discipline, and safety with humane care.'

Kelly has vehemently denied the allegations. But dozens of pages of emails VICE News obtained from SOUTHCOM in response to a 3-year-old Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request lend some weight to the charges leveled against the general. The emails pertain to the raid and its aftermath, and provide a rare look at secret detainee operations in the weeks leading up to Obama's announcement of a new plan to shutter Guantanamo. The communications shed light on Kelly's and his command's frustration and disdain for the detainees, their lawyers, the media, and the politics surrounding Guantanamo's closure.


"At this juncture there should be no doubt in anyone's mind – at GITMO, Miami [SOUTHCOM headquarters], DC, and especially the minds of our guard force and the detainees — that we are in charge," Kelly wrote in an April 20, 2013 email sent to Rear Admiral John W. "Boomer" Smith, the commander of JTF-GTMO, and other top military officials. Kelly noted that "we are the good guys."

"None of us should any longer think we must defend the legal actions we take as we conduct detainee ops [operations]. None of us should in any way shape or feel compelled to justify the legal, moral, and ethical action we take in securing and caring for the detainees. Explanations? Yes. But no tit-for-tat, defense or attempt to somehow justify what we do right — because it is right and we do not have to defend or justify it…. Regardless of the charges and accusations the defense teams or media make against the policy, commissions or whatever, it's not our concern. The POTUS [President of the United States] has tasked us to guard them and that's what we'll do."

Kelly asked Smith and the Gitmo team not to share anything he wrote with anyone "outside of the SOUTHCOM chain."

* * *

The 2013 hunger strike was sparked after the detainees' Qurans were searched for contraband by non-Muslim guards, according to accounts detainees gave to their attorneys.

But in an email to policy officials at the Pentagon, Kelly said the assertion was "entirely fabricated and total nonsense."


The hunger strike "is entirely about the disappointment the detainees have over the failure of the USG [US government] to close the facility and to transfer some detainees home and the hopelessness of this fact," Kelly wrote to James N. Miller, the undersecretary of defense for policy, two weeks before the raid took place. "The secondary issue is the Quran…. In the normal course of events my SOP [standard operating procedure] has only translators (who are moslem) [sic] touching the book…. That said, I reserve the right to break from this practice as required because it is in my SOP which I own. Bottom line, Jim, their stated rationale is that this is about closing and transfer with handling of their holy book a distant second."

During the height of their hunger strike, the detainees covered and/or broke the surveillance cameras in their cells, which prompted Kelly to initiate plans and rehearsals for the April 13, 2013 raid to "re-establish compliance." Before guards entered the communal camp, a linguist read a prepared statement to the detainees in Arabic and Pashtu instructing them to go to their assigned cells and uncover their cameras. They were given five minutes to comply.

After the raid took place, the military issued a press release about it. But it did not contain much detail about what transpired. However, a document included in the email cache titled, "JTF GTMO Camp VI — Summary of the Procedure to Improve Safety and Security of GTMO Detainees," provides the first detailed look into the chaotic incident.


The report said a handful of detainees appeared to be prepared for "physical confrontation with guards" and were shot with non-lethal rounds when guards mounted the raid at Camp 6, stripped the detainees of privileges for refusing to eat, and forced them into solitary confinement.

"A total of 4x non lethal rounds were fired while dispersing detainees within the inner recreation yard…. One detainee received 16 puncture wounds to the left side of his body as a result of a non lethal [redacted] round and he is in stable condition," the report said.

"A total of six detainees required medical attention, five have been returned to their cells, and one remains in the detainee hospital under observation (stable — no concerns). Two detainees inflicted self-wounds to their heads, one requiring 3x sutures (from banging their heads on the cell door); two detainees received a bruise/swelling/abrasion on their right elbow forearm (1x cause unknown, 1x believed to be from a non-lethal round); and one detainee received abrasions to the chest/thigh and back caused by a non-lethal [redacted] round during the recreation area dispersal engagement," the report said.

All of the detainees yelled for about 20 minutes when guards moved in. One detainee was forcibly removed from his cell for obstructing guards' view of the cell. The report said two guards also suffered injuries during the melee when detainees struck them on the head with metal poles. Other detainees attempted to stab the guard force with broomstick and mop handles and "splashed" them with feces and urine. Guards then swept the detainees' cells and seized everything, including their Qurans and legal papers.


Kelly, in an email, asked whether guards found any drugs on the detainees, in their cells, or in the communal area. (One detainee had died in 2011 after reportedly overdosing on anti-psychotic medication military officials said he had been hoarding). They hadn't found any, but the guards did find quite a bit of contraband, including "a large assortment of improvised clubs, staffs, and striking implements — over 100; 9 knives/cutting devices; 16 electronic devices 1xiPod, 12xMP3 players, 1x thumb drive, 1 laptop battery, 1x laptop disk drive."

Although the report does not identify the detainees who were shot, Ramzi Kassem, a law professor at the City University of New York who, with colleagues and students in his Immigrant & Non-Citizen Rights Clinic represents prisoners, told VICE News he believes it was likely his client, Moath al-Alwi, a longtime hunger striker, who sustained the 16 non-lethal gunshot wounds.

"This is nothing less than the Guantanamo prison administration itself confirming what Moath has said all along," Kassem said. "To this day, Moath asks why he was shot and if anyone was held accountable. The incident mirrors other 'War on Terror' abuses: there are victims, there is wrongdoing, but somehow there are no culprits."

A petition that Kassem's CUNY legal clinic filed last February with the Inter American Commission on Human Rights stated al-Alwi was shot during the raid by a US Army guard "without reason" and he was struck with rubber-coated steel bullets "multiple times at close range, striking his chest, left thigh, left elbow, and shoulder."


Since being shot, al-Alwi "has been placed in solitary confinement and has escalated his hunger strike in protest," the petition states.

* * *

Kelly also sought to keep a close hold on information about the raid, even from his superiors at the Pentagon and the White House. When Arthur, the deputy director of operations for SOUTHCOM, informed him in an email that the deputy director of operations at the National Military Command Center (NMCC) in the Pentagon, which monitors worldwide events, was told about the raid, Kelly was irritated.

"Unfortunately, they [NMCC] will notify the world and when the world wakes up we will be inundated with requests from everyone in the world trying to be the first one to tell their boss," Kelly responded to Arthur. "At this juncture, please await my word before we provide any more updates."

Kelly also became incensed when he discovered that details about the raid were shared with William Lietzau, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for rule of law and detainee policy.

"Ok, damn it, who is talking to Bill Letzau [sic] or anyone else?????? DC is all agitated. I knew this would happen," the general wrote. (Lietzau, who resigned from his position five months after the raid, was identified in the Reuters report as another official who was accused of obstructing Obama's efforts to close Guantanamo. He denied the charge.)

The raid and the ongoing hunger strike at Guantanamo heightened tensions and distrust between Kelly and officials at the Pentagon, the White House, and the media, according to the emails.


In the April 23, 2013 email Lettko sent to Arthur about meting out to discipline to the detainees, he noted the challenges military officials faced in operating Guantanamo and how unique the operations are.

"It is important to keep in mind that this is a detention operation not a corrections environment," Lettko wrote. "Additionally, most of the detainees here have been here for over 10 years on indefinite detention. This situation is not like any other in the free world and its taking considerable efforts to ensure we balance compliance, discipline, safety with humane care."

Arthur quipped, "Hmmm, detention vs correction… the lawyers play-ground." It was then that Arthur referred to the detainees as "Islamic zealots" and said they would be released from Guantanamo when they declared an end to their war against the "infidels."

He added, apparently referring to the detainees' behavior during their hunger strike, "Detainee compliance is not an option, and there has to be accountability."

Neither Kelly, Arthur, Smith, nor any other named officials in the emails responded to VICE News' requests for comment.

Cori Crider, an attorney with the international legal organization Reprieve, whose clients included a handful of the hunger striking detainees — including one who wrote a widely read New York Times op-ed during the height of the hunger strike exposing the brutality of force-feeding, and who was just released from Guantanamo — reviewed the emails for VICE News. Crider, whose firm has sued the government in an effort to force the release of force-feeding video tapes, said the communications "expose Gitmo authorities in total disarray as they scramble to respond to the mass hunger strike."


"No competent jailor should be giving one of its charges 16 puncture wounds by shooting him at close range," she said. "It all just goes to show how intent the authorities were on breaking the mass hunger strike. More troublingly, the chest-beating of some Defense Department brass would have set the tone — for the young MPs' orders to haul prisoners to force-feeding, or for the medical teams carrying out the force-feeding itself. Looking at these emails, it's no wonder the whole riot-squad-to-force-feeding routine was so punitive. It also explains why the tapes I've watched of the feedings are so disturbing — the culture of pointless force and 'total control' was set right at the top."

The raid on Camp 6 didn't end the hunger strike. The number of detainees who engaged in hunger strikes and those who were force-fed continued to increase. But it succeeded in grabbing the White House's attention.

In a major counterterrorism speech on May 23, 2013, Obama announced that he was going to shut Guantanamo and relocate detainees to the US. He also referenced the mass hunger strike.

Related: Read more at 'Primary Sources,' the VICE News FOIA blog

"Look at the current situation, where we are force-feeding detainees who are being held on a hunger strike," he said. "Is this who we are? Is that something our Founders foresaw? Is that the America we want to leave our children?"

Since the 2013 hunger strike, Obama has released 73 detainees and has vowed to make good on his promise of closing Guantanamo before he leaves office.

Earlier this month, Kelly told reporters that the remaining Guantanamo detainees "are all bad boys."

This story has been updated to include the identity of the detainee who sustained the 16 non-lethal gunshot wounds and comments from the detainee's attorney, Ramzi Kassem. 

Follow Jason Leopold on Twitter: @JasonLeopold