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2014 VICE News Awards: Best Use of Deflective Phrasing — Guantanamo

The facility that rebranded suicide attempts as "self-injurious behavior," and called shackles "humane restraints," outdid itself with the new euphemism they unveiled this year.
December 22, 2014, 3:55pm
Image via VICE News

Check out more of the 2014 VICE News Awards here. 

Besides its reputation for abusing detainees, Guantanamo is also known for coming up with new ways to torture the English language.

Since the detention facility opened nearly 13 years ago, military officials have developed their own lexicon to describe virtually everything that takes place inside the wire on the naval base.

For example, if a Guantanamo detainee attempts suicide it's called "self-injurious behavior." Instead of shackles, military officials refer to the leg and wrist irons as "humane restraints." Force-feeding is replaced with the clinical "enteral feeding," which replaced "assisted feeding." Even the use of "detainee" — as opposed to "prisoner" — and "detention facility" instead of "prison" was carefully thought out.


But those euphemisms have nothing on the newest neologism to surface in 2014 from the prison Donald Rumsfeld once dubbed the "least worst place": "Long-Term Non-Religious Fasts." That's what Guantanamo personnel — and the White House and Departments of State and Defense — now call hunger strikes.

VICE News found those four words buried in a new edition of Guantanamo's "standard operating procedure" governing hunger strikes and force-feedings (a.k.a. long-term non-religious fasts and enteral feedings), which was drafted in the aftermath of a widespread protest that dominated much of 2013. The phrase "hunger strike" was completely scrubbed from the manual, titled, "Medical Management of Detainees With Weight Loss."

We asked Navy Capt. Tom Gresback, a Guantanamo spokesman, why the change was made and who was responsible. He wouldn't provide us with details.

"Non-religious fasting was used as it is the best descriptor of what is occurring in the camps," he said.

Nor would Gresback disclose how the Joint Task Force that operates the detention coins other phrases and words.

"Every case is just a bit different based on the discipline; detention, medical, legal," Gresback said. "There is no single source for the naming conventions."

Former Guantanamo guards have told VICE News that euphemisms are used to ensure the detainees are not viewed by the public or the media as human beings.

"It's a big fear the military has," said former Guantanamo guard Joseph Hickman. "They don't want anyone to start feeling sorry for detainees."


Hickman said the military relies heavily on the media to lap up and reprint deflective phrasing. The term "enemy combatant," for instance, originated with President George W. Bush, and has evolved under President Barack Obama, who changed it to "unprivileged enemy belligerent."

The list is endless.

Indeed, the courthouse where self-professed 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his co-conspirators are being prosecuted is called the "Expeditionary Legal Complex," which is actually just a trailer whose interior was reconfigured as a state-of-the-art courtroom.

The press kit Guantanamo public affairs officials distribute to reporters who visit Guantanamo contains a one-sheet with the title, "Detainee Programs," which includes the Orwellian "Intellectual Stimulation Program," a euphemism that means detainees are given books, magazines, puzzles, and newspapers.

Cori Crider, the legal director of the UK-based legal organization Reprieve, which represents more than a dozen Guantanamo prisoners, told VICE News that she believes the euphemisms are an attempt to "whitewash some of the more sordid things going on, although often the effect was just to make them more sinister and Orwellian."

Follow Jason Leopold on Twitter: @JasonLeopold