Rachel Maddow Oversells Former Gitmo Guard's Allegations of Abuse

Former Guantanamo prison guard Brandon Neely's account of his experiences is "remarkable," Rachel Maddow told viewers of her MSNBC cable show Tuesday night before introducing Neely.

"And tonight, for the first time, in any broadcast interview, he is here, exclusively, to describe what he witnessed and what he personally took part in," Maddow said.

But after listening to Neely's claims, and seeing how Maddow conducted the interview, I wondered if others watching felt the same letdown -- this is an example of all the sturm and drang over Gitmo?

Let's start with the first of two incidents of alleged abuse described by Neely, who enlisted in the Army in June 2000 and was assigned guard duty at Guantanamo in January 2002 as detainees first arrived. Neely now heads the Houston chapter of Iraq Veterans Against the War.

Neely, whose account can be found in greater detail at the Guantanamo Testimonials Project at the UC Davis Center for the Study of Human Rights in the Americas, told Maddow he was assigned custody of the second detainee -- or as Maddow stated in characteristically loaded language, "the very second prisoner to get dumped off the bus."

Maddow asked Neely about a "physical incident" involving the detainee, an "older man" believed to be in his 50s --

NEELY: What happened was, we took custody of the man, the detainee. We took him through the in-processing station. When he came out through the other side of the tent, me and my escort partner grabbed him and we could tell at the time he was literally shaking. You could see his hands shaking. He was very tense, he didn't want to walk, so we started screaming at him to walk.

We made it over to Alpha Block and we put him in his cage and he was just real nervous, real tense. We put him on his knees, my partner took off his leg irons, threw the leg irons outside and he was still shaking real bad. He still had his goggles on. My partner went in with a key to take the handcuffs off and he moved away. We started yelling at him, don't move, don't move, and the interpreter was yelling at him not to move. And my partner went in again to take the handcuffs off and when he did the detainee moved real straight, real fast to the left and I was on the left side. And just out of reaction, I slammed him to the ground and got on top of him and he was trying to get up and the whole time he was trying to get up I was holding him down by the head. And a couple of seconds later I was pulled out of the cage by other soldiers that had came to help. They went ahead and hogtied him, which he stayed there, I really couldn't tell you how long. But next day we arrived to the camp, I was walking by and I could see on the side of his face he was all scraped up and bruised. And I later learned from another detainee, the reason that he moved, that he jerked away from us, was when we placed him on his knees, he thought we were going to execute him.

MADDOW: Did you witness other incidents of detainees being beaten up or punched, any other sort of physical abuse of prisoners there?

"Other" incidents of detainees "beaten up or punched"?  How about starting with an example to begin with? I'm not sure if this "physical incident," as Maddow initially described it, qualifies. And is it just me or did Maddow seem deflated when she asked Neely for "other" examples?

Taking Neely at his word, and for the clarity of his memory seven years later, what appears to have happened is that he used force to restrain an uncooperative detainee who lunged toward him in a potentially hostile manner -- as the man's leg irons and handcuffs were being removed. 

Neely also told Maddow that the following day, he noticed the detainee's face was "all scraped up and bruised." What's left unclear is how this happened, though this viewer wondered if the implication was that other guards abused the detainee. According to Neely's "testimony" for the Guantanamo Testimonials Project, however, "I am sure the initial hit to the pavement caused some if not all those marks." 

The second incident is of a medic allegedly striking a detainee in the face for refusing to drink a nutritional supplement --

NEELY: And when the medic walked in, he looked up and he saw me and then he kind of motioned for me to move to my left a little bit. I didn't know what he was doing, so I went ahead and moved over. So they were holding him by the face and the medic opened up the Ensure (nutritional supplement) can and started pouring it in his mouth and he wasn't taking it, the whole Ensure, it was just running down his face. So the medic looked up and the medic struck him one time in the side of the face and they got out of the cage, put him back on the floor and they left. And I turned around and when I turned around the first thing I noticed was the guard tower was directedly behind me. So I automatically thought over time that, well, he had positioned me in front of that guard tower so they couldn't see what he was doing.

MADDOW: So it was the medic himself that punched the detainee in the face with you in the way so that it couldn't be seen from the guard tower.

NEELY: Correct.

There she goes again -- Neely, assuming his account is accurate, said the medic "struck (the detainee) one time in the side of the face." Maddow's interpretation? The medic "punched the detainee in the face." A distinction without a difference, some will say. Much like the difference between getting kicked by someone barefoot or wearing Army boots. 

Notice also how Maddow takes Neely's conjecture about the medic wanting Neely to move -- to shield the medic from guard tower scrutiny -- and tries to establish it as fact, with Neely going along: "Correct."

The main problem with Neely's claims is that they undercut his premise of a climate of fear and rampant abuse at Guantanamo, and Maddow seems oblivious to this.

For example, how did other guards respond to the "physical incident" involving Neely and the older detainee? By pulling Neely off the man within "a couple of seconds" and separating him from an uncooperative detainee. This hardly suggests that a guard "beating up" a detainee, if that's what occurred here, was considered acceptable conduct.

Along the same lines, why would the medic ask Neely to move so as to shield his actions from a guard tower -- again, assuming Neely's account is accurate -- unless the medic believed that striking a detainee in the face was also deemed unacceptable? 

If Neely's actions at Guantanamo were so flagrant, why is he working as a law enforcement officer in the Houston area, as reported Feb. 14 by the Associated Press? Maddow never asks, nor what Neely thinks would be appropriate punishment for himself and the medic.  

That same AP story quoted a spokeswoman for the Guantanamo detention center, Navy Cmdr. Pauline Storum, said she could not comment on "what one individual may recall" from seven years earlier.

"Thousands of service members have honorably carried out their duties here in what is an arduous and scrutinized environment," Storum said.

What comes across most clearly in Maddow's segment with Neely is that she is less interested in a handful of alleged bad apples among thousands of our soldiers who've served with honor at Guantanamo as she is in bringing down the tree.

Jack Coleman
Jack Coleman
Ex-liberal from People's Republic of Massachusetts