Thomas Sutcliffe: The detainees' innocence is not the point

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The Independent Online

One of the first thing most people will notice on reading the transcripts of testimony by Guantanamo detainees - released after a Freedom of Information case in the States - is that virtually everyone is innocent. There are a handful of detainees who concede that they fought alongside the Taliban, it's true ... but in most cases even they argue that they were pressed men.

As for the rest, they were everything but active combatants: martyrs to back trouble, victims of malicious rumour, solicitous brothers, taxi-drivers, market gardeners and apple sellers - all of them ending up in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Many of these stories are believable and some of them are blackly absurd. More than one detainee, for example, has been incriminated because they were found to be wearing a watch which is apparently favoured by al-Qa'ida as a bomb component. You can still buy a Casio F-91 W watch on Amazon for $19 - though for its Product Feature list unhelpfully doesn't point out that customers in some countries may find it entitles them to a free one-way transatlantic flight.

But I do wonder whether the United States military - even at its most feverish and paranoid - could really have delivered such an impressive consistency of error when it came to rounding up its enemies. The law of averages alone would suggest that, at a time when Afghanistan was awash with jihadis and unrepentant Taliban fighters, just a few of them might have been caught up in the net and might now be taking the obvious course of action, which would be to deny everything.

I found myself prey to a similar thought while watching Michael Winterbottom's film about the Tipton Three, The Road To Guantanamo, which is due to be screened by Channel 4 this coming Thursday. Part documentary and part reconstruction, Winterbottom's film is at pains to present all three men as nothing more than very unlucky British tourists. They joke about the local food, go sightseeing, banter with each other and, eventually, find themselves trapped in a war zone. What they never do in the re-enactments is talk about religion or politics or - in the documentary sections - explain exactly how they planned to "help" in Afghanistan.

The Road to Guantanamo deserves the epithet "brave" in a way some recent Hollywood films do not. You wouldn't catch George Clooney filming on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. But brushing the issues of intention aside as it did showed a loss of nerve. It implicitly reinforces the view that the only argument against Guantanamo is that innocent people may be held there. But the truth is that Guantanamo would be wrong even for the guilty - or the culpably foolish, or those who backed the wrong horse and now regret it. It isn't, as Tony Blair put it with shameful prevarication, an "anomaly". It's wrong on every level - and the possibility that some of those incarcerated are - in Dubya's folksy phrase - "bad people" doesn't change that.

It must now be clear, even to the most stubborn hawks, that it's also tactically wrong. Section 5 of the Patriot Act, that hastily-drafted compendium of constitutional infringements, is subtitled "Removing Obstacles To Investigating Terrorism". Guantanamo - a rallying flag for America's enemies, an embarrassment to its allies and a continuing nightmare for its detainees - is a big obstacle. Innocent or guilty, those inside the wire are less of a threat to America now than those outside it, guarding them.

Dubya plays softball

It's not hard to imagine the conversation that must have preceded George Bush's session in the cricket nets on his recent trip to Pakistan. The Secret Service officer on duty will have asked to inspect the projectile that was to be hurled at the Pres and immediately (and correctly in my view) identified it as a lethal weapon rather than a piece of sporting equipment. It is very hard and viciously welted, and the only rational thing to do when one approaches at high speed is to get out of its way.

I imagine the Secret Service then argued for one of those plastic whiffle balls that never reach more than five miles an hour, however hard you throw them. But the press secretary realised that this would make the President look like a first-grader, and insisted on a tennis ball. This option was not, of course, completely risk-free, but sometimes a Commander-in-Chief has to take his turn on the front line - even if he can ensure that the incoming is relatively harmless.

* The story of a 12-year old Detroit schoolboy who stuck his used bubble-gum to an £850,000 painting by Helen Frankenthaler reminded me of my most scalding moment in an art gallery - which occurred in the Picasso museum in Antibes, visited during a teenage camping trip with friends to the south of France. Two of the party wanted to be there - two others thought modern art was a poor substitute for the nude beaches of St Tropez, and it was one of the latter who expressed his discontent by ejecting a wad of gum and drop-kicking it across a gallery. To his horror, he watched it trace a graceful arc and lodge - about nine feet up - on a large unframed canvas. The seconds during which the rest of us waited to see, 1) whether he could reach it and, 2) whether it would bring an unimaginably expensive flake of paint with it lasted far longer than the holiday itself.