Forced-feeding at Guantanamo: A moment of truth?
By Scott Roehm, Senior Counsel

Over the last year, the military has fought hard to shield from public view ongoing hunger strike management practices at Guantanamo Bay.

In November 2013, a lawsuit challenging forced-feeding at Guantanamo pried loose that hunger strike management protocols had been revised, but the military refused to disclose the new policies or to explain the changes.  Two weeks later, on orders from SOUTHCOM Commander Marine Gen. John F. Kelly, Guantanamo staff stopped providing the public with the most basic information about hunger strikes, including how many detainees were participating.

More recently, again as a result of litigation, it came to light that Joint Task Force Guantanamo (JTF-GTMO) had been videotaping both forced-feedings and the forced cell extractions (FCEs) routinely used to transport detainees to the feeding chair.  Mr. Abu Wa’el Dhiab, the plaintiff in the case, wants the tapes of his forced-feedings and FCEs released to the public.  So do a collection of 16 major media associations that intervened in the case.  Over the defense department’s strong objections, the Judge agreed, ordering release after the tapes have been redacted to mask the identities of Guantanamo staff.  But justice department lawyers successfully convinced the Judge temporarily to stay her ruling while the department decides whether to appeal.  That decision is due by December 2.

Last week, the current JTF-GTMO commander put a stop to the videotaping.

Since last December, The Constitution Project and a coalition of civil liberties, human rights, and religious organizations have written to Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel three times to express serious concerns about hunger strike management at Guantanamo and the cloak of secrecy draped over it.  In their one response, defense department officials claimed that the military’s policy on the treatment of hunger strikers is “both appropriate and ethical” and is “focused solely on protecting the life and health of detainees….”  “[W]e are committed,” they said, “to ensuring the most humane and safe care and custody of detainees, in accordance with all applicable law and policy.”

Military officials have continued to press those assertions defending against Mr. Dhiab’s lawsuit. Guantanamo’s Senior Medical Officer (SMO) declared, “JTF-GTMO conducts enteral feeding of detainees in the kindest, safest, and most humane way possible.”  “I have personally observed enteral feeding of many detainees,” the SMO said, “and I have never observed a detainee experience a painful reaction during the placement of the nasogastric tube.”  “The current procedures are not painful,” he continued, “and I cannot think of any adjustments to the current policies that would make them less painful.”

Justice Department lawyers took the argument a step further:  “this is a very common and safe procedure that children’s hospitals allow parents to do at home on infant children….” (Emphasis mine).  Finally, they claimed that Mr. Dhiab’s “own medical records confirm regularly that he tolerates the procedure well, without complaints, and on the rare occasions when any issues are raised, the medical staff is responsive to those concerns.”

As to FCEs, the lawyers argued, “that process is used only as a last resort after all other alternatives have failed.  The guard staff uses the minimal amount of force necessary.”  It is “a very controlled and measured process.”

The military is so confident in the righteousness of its hunger strike management practices that it is actively considering disciplinary action against a navy nurse who refused to participate, notwithstanding that the nurse’s objection is fully consistent with longstanding ethical rules of the medical profession both inside and outside the United States.

If the military is right and forced-feeding at Guantanamo really is a painless, safe, ethical and humane medical procedure that detainees undergo without complication or complaint, accompanied by the responsible use of minimal force only when absolutely necessary, wouldn’t meaningful transparency prove it?  What warrants the secrecy?

The military claims it’s necessary to protect both U.S. service members’ safety and detainees’ welfare.  It’s hard to see how an informed public jeopardizes either of those interests, and in fact why detainees wouldn’t better be served by a knowledgeable public empowered to act as an effective watchdog.  With respect specifically to the military’s safety concerns, if the videotapes in Mr. Dhiab’s case show what officials have described, that sort of footage doesn’t seem likely to inflame anti-American sentiment, and the tapes will be edited to obscure staff identities before the public sees them.  Speculative fears that detainees might be told of details from the videotapes – such as the layout of the room where detainees are force-fed and how many staff are involved – and then use that information in ways that risk operational security are especially unpersuasive.  Detainees already experience first-hand what’s on the tapes; what is there to learn?  And even if one swallows hard and accepts both that detainees could glean something new from the tapes and use that information in ways that put staff at risk, detainees would first need to learn it.  JTF-GTMO doesn’t exactly permit a free flow of information into Guantanamo.

Perhaps most confounding, what justifies a decision to stop videotaping forced-feedings altogether?  Even if the public isn’t allowed to see them, shouldn’t such tapes at least be available to Members of Congress in the exercise of their oversight responsibilities?

There is, of course, another possible but very different explanation for all of this secrecy. Detainees and others have charged that, in fact, hunger strike management at Guantanamo is painful, dangerous, unethical and inhumane.  If that is the case, the public has every right to know.  The videotapes in Mr. Dhaib’s case offer a unique opportunity to peel back the curtain.  If the government truly has nothing to hide, it won’t appeal the order to release them.

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