Grand Forks lawyer dismisses claims of torture at Gitmo

GRAND FORKS -- Enemy combatants held at the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, were not subjected to torture or other maltreatment, according to a Grand Forks attorney who played key roles there.

Ward Johnson, who spent more than three decades in the North Dakota National Guard, was at Guantanamo in 2005 and 2006 to ensure detainees' due process rights as required by international law.

GRAND FORKS -- Enemy combatants held at the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, were not subjected to torture or other maltreatment, according to a Grand Forks attorney who played key roles there.

Ward Johnson, 53, who spent more than three decades in the North Dakota National Guard, was at Guantanamo in 2005 and 2006 to ensure detainees' due process rights as required by international law.

"I looked for evidence of torture, evidence of maltreatment and shoddy intelligence work," Johnson said. "I never found any torture, never found any evidence of maltreatment. If it had happened, I firmly believe I would have found out about it."

After his first stint at the prison, he spent a year at the Pentagon as an operations officer, supervising preparation of detention cases against 9/11 conspirators and people behind the Bali nightclub, U.S.S. Cole and East Africa terrorist attacks. He then returned to "Gitmo" for another year.

President Barack Obama, who as a candidate in 2008 vowed to close the prison, reaffirmed that objective Thursday. He directed that some prisoners be transferred to other countries.


Terror suspects have been held there since 2002. Congressional and other opposition sidelined the initial effort to close the prison. Members of Congress have been especially opposed to transferring detainees to the U.S. mainland for continued detention or trial.

Johnson agrees. "Once they set foot on American soil, they become political targets of opportunity," he said. "Our current justice system isn't intended to function as an operation of tactical warfare."

It is a declared terrorist goal, he added, "to overwhelm our justice system."

He also dismisses claims that the continued detention of prisoners at Guantanamo "is a rally flag for creating new terrorists."

"It's a bunch of hooey," he said. "These people have hated America for years. The World Trade Center towers came down before 'Gitmo' was created. What radicalized them?"

Gitmo a gulag?

Amnesty International has criticized the U.S. handling of suspected terrorists and others sent to the detention facility, calling it "the gulag of our times" in a 2005 report. Prisoners held there have complained of abuse and torture.

Johnson said Amnesty International and other groups alleging torture "don't know what they're talking about."


Greg Gordon, who teaches law at the University of North Dakota and directs the Center for Human Rights and Genocide Studies there, takes a different view. He said he is convinced that some detainees were mistreated.

"Over the years, we have seen enough credible evidence from multiple sources to conclude that detainees were tortured at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility," Gordon said in an email interview.

"In certain cases, that evidence is not just anecdotal," he said. "It is backed by medical findings, such as broken bones and other physiological damage. This evidence provides plausible indications that prisoners were subjected to severe mistreatment, including beatings and sexual assaults."

Gordon said evidence also suggests "that torture consisted of mock executions, simulated drowning by 'water boarding,' and psychologically tormenting prisoners through sleep deprivation, false information and various forms of humiliation and degradation."

In a 2009 interview with The Washington Post's Bob Woodward, Susan J. Crawford -- who had been appointed by President George W. Bush to review Defense Department practices at Guantanamo and oversee military trials -- said that Mohammed al-Qahtani was tortured while held there as a prisoner.

Johnson said he's aware of Crawford's statement but believes she was attempting to "appease" critics without angering superiors by admitting to "treatment tantamount to torture" in that case.

"She equivocated because she could not say that there was actual torture but wanted to mollify" critics, Johnson said, "and appear to be above it all."

The detainees who claim they were tortured or otherwise maltreated "have an agenda when they come out, spewing propaganda," he said.


Johnson said he had full clearance, "and nobody could tell me 'no' or keep me out" when investigating cases. "I saw what happened" as detainees were guarded and questioned, he said.

"It's been much maligned, but the Guantanamo operation was exemplary. It should be held out as an example of how to run a detention operation.

"I knew the doctors, the nurses, the guards, the psychiatrists. The guards are monitored, and the monitors are monitored. Everything is recorded. Without any mental reservation, I can say they treat these detainees with respect and professionalism."

Desert Storm vet

Johnson enlisted in the North Dakota National Guard in 1978 while in high school in Bismarck. He continued in the guard as he earned several degrees at UND, including his law degree in 1988. With two friends, he opened a law office in Grand Forks.

In 1990, having received a commission as an officer through ROTC at UND, he was activated and sent to Saudi Arabia for Operation Desert Storm. He retired from the Guard in 2010 with the rank of colonel.

A grandson of the late Don Short, a Republican who represented North Dakota's western district when the state had two members in the U.S. House, Johnson ran unsuccessfully for office himself several times. He lost a race for the Public Service Commission in 1994, and Heidi Heitkamp -- now a U.S. senator -- defeated him for state attorney general in 1996.

"Because of my grandfather, in my youth I thought I might have a political career," he said. "I don't have that inclination anymore."


In his downtown Grand Forks law office, he keeps a bust of Abraham Lincoln and other symbolic pieces from his grandfather's office.

'Mistakes made'

"There were mistakes made at Guantanamo," he said. "Most of the detainees have many names, and they're not married to one spelling. It makes it difficult sometimes to know we had the right guy. When we found out we didn't have the right guy, we sent him home."

There were nearly 800 detainees at Guantanamo when he was there. Now there are fewer than 200. Many of those are on a hunger strike.

"In the fog of war, you cast a wide net," Johnson said. "You detain those whose stories you don't believe. You can detain enemy combatants indefinitely, just for being there, until the cessation of hostilities. They are legally detained under the rules of war."

When he left in 2008, "we were still extracting actionable intelligence," he said. "Not 'extracting,' but more synthesizing all the intelligence that had been obtained by review boards, from the battlefield to detention centers overseas and finally Guantanamo.

"Guantanamo was a good idea, part of the waging of the war on terror. Its effectiveness was compromised by politics ... because of the polarization of our political climate."

But he would not close the prison. "What do you do with these people?" he asked. "Where do you send them? We sent someone back to Yemen over my objection. He's now head of Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula."


Some of those still at Guantanamo are "the worst of the worst. If we release them, they will go right back into the fight."

Johnson said he and others at Guantanamo "dug deep" to determine who the detainees were.

"I sat with detainees and said, 'Talk to me. Give me a reason to send you home.' Some were poor dirt farmers. Yes, they picked up an AK-47 at some point, and they shot at coalition forces," but they were not part of a larger cause.

"There were people who broke my heart," Johnson said. "There were young people who as children were trained to be sociopaths -- and I saw the monsters who trained them."

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