Matt Diaz: Guantanamo Whistle-blower

Written for WIN, Whistleblowers edition

On October 13, 2007, Matt Diaz left prison penniless with no source of income. His law license was suspended, preventing him from finding work in the only profession he knew, and he had a felony-level federal conviction. He lost his military pension ($40+ thousand per year) and was disbarred. His home was foreclosed, car repossessed, and credit went from okay to bad. All this from sending the names of 551 detaines in Guantánamo–an act Diaz does not reference as “whistle-blowing.” “My intention was that only the attorneys working on the habeas litigation would use the information to seek habeas relief for these unidentified, disappeared individuals. Such leaks, as you know, tend to get the widespread attention a whistleblower seeks. My leak was intended for just the attorneys to seek habeas relief in Federal District Court…It’s so hard trying to recover from the blow I took from this one humane, but criminal, act,” Diaz told me. The Catholic Worker Movement sustained him after he became homeless.

Early Life

The year was 1982 as Matt Diaz entered the 11th grade. Diaz was living in a hotel with a girlfriend more than ten years his senior, and working as a dishwasher in San Bernardino. Before Diaz got to this place in his life, he was in 9th grade and he was living with his father and step-mother in southern California’s middle-class Inland Empire. His parents had divorced when he was six years old. He had spent most of his child-hood volleying back-and-forth between his parents’ homes. His sister and two younger brothers were left alone to shop and cook their own meals. They also slept in the same single bed. Diaz describes living in Inland Empire “like paradise,” until the night when police knocked on his family’s door with a search warrant.

Diaz’s father, Robert was arrested as a homicide suspect. He was later convicted for the murder of several elderly patients at two small hospitals where Robert worked as a nurse. Prosecutors in Riverside County theorized that the patients were killed by large injections of the commonly used heart drug lidocaine. Robert, who was new to both hospitals, became the prime suspect. Robert had no criminal history and there were no witnesses who saw Robert inject patients with lidocaine, but Robert Diaz was the only nurse who was on duty when all of them died, and he sometimes carried preloaded syringes of lidocaine in his pocket. Two vials of the drug were found in the search of his home. (Robert said he had simply forgotten to empty his pockets before leaving work.) Prosecutors never offered a motive for the killings. Diaz was arrested in November 1981 and charged with the murders of 12 patients.

The imprisonment of Diaz’s father was the beginning of the bottom for Diaz, and his inspiration for studying law. He left California for Indiana, where his mother lived and returned back again to southern, California before his father’s trial. Robert Diaz’s legal defense was a debacle. Because he could not afford a private attorney, his case was handed over to a public defender’s office. Robert’s attorneys persuaded him to forgo a jury trial and take his case before a judge — a move that was almost unheard of in a capital murder case. Robert Diaz was convicted of all 12 murders. His public defender presented a bare bones case, and had only pointed out to the judge that Robert saved the taxpayers money by not having a jury trial. On April 11, 1984, the judge sentenced Robert Diaz to die in the gas chamber.

By the time Robert Diaz turned 17, he had dropped out of high school. He was later encouraged by his father to enlist in the Army. Robert Diaz began sending his son documents from his trial. Diaz collected the files in a big Tupperware bin. The more he read, the more convinced he became that his father was the innocent victim of an incompetent defense. Matt Diaz earned his college degree while serving as an artillery sergeant and then completed law school a semester early in?. In early 2004 he volunteered to go to Guantánamo and served six months as Deputy Staff Judge Advocate, which is the second senior most attorney on the Joint Task Force staff.

On the Wrong Side in Guantánamo

One of Diaz’s responsibilities in Guantánamo was to read abuse complaints that prisoners and others had registered at Guantánamo. Diaz states, “There was a lot of stuff in the past that should have been disclosed but was not.” Some of the legal uncertainty surrounding the Guantánamo prisoners was intended to be resolved by the military commissions that began their proceedings that summer. What Diaz saw of the initial hearings in late August did not reassure him. Diaz describes a former Army judge presiding over one tribunal as “bewildered” about how to proceed. “It was embarrassing,” Diaz recalls.

As the end of his tour approached, Diaz had gradually grown more frustrated. The prisoner-abuse files that he and others had compiled now filled two large binders. One statement, from a senior F.B.I. official, suggested that the military authorities had ignored complaints from bureau agents about harsh interrogation techniques. Another recounted a detainee’s claim that a guard had thrown him to the ground and rubbed his face violently in the dirt after the prisoner spat at him. Diaz found the report credible — the file included a photograph of the prisoner’s mangled face — and was surprised that it was not included among the allegations that the military made public.

Doing the Right Thing

With that spring’s Abu Ghraib scandal still fresh, Diaz was assigned to begin compiling a spreadsheet for internal use on the abuse allegations registered at Guantánamo. On Dec. 21, the Pentagon copied him on a letter from Barbara Olshansky at the Center for Constitutional Rights. Nearly six months after the Supreme Court decision in Rasul, she was still asking the government for the names and nationalities of the detainees so that lawyers could file habeas petitions on their behalf. In a draft response, the administration wrote that the detainees had other ways to obtain representation.

Diaz was appalled, “I knew that if I didn’t do anything, nobody else was going to.” Working late one night, he logged onto a secure internal database to see what lists he could find. He could bring up the names 100 at a time, which made it easy. The lists he printed out were not marked “Secret.” He would later testify that he did know the list was classified.

After carefully trimming down the pages down to the size of large index cards, on January 14, 2005, the last night of his tour, Diaz went back to the office one last time. He slipped the stack of paper inside a Valentine’s Day card he had bought at the base exchange, and mailed the names and Internment Serial Numbers (ISN) of 551 detainees to the New York offices of the Center for Constitutional Rights, a non-profit legal advocacy organization.

No one at the center had any ideas who would send such information. Some seasoned lawyers at the center had theorized a government trap. A few of the younger lawyers were even more suspicious. The center’s president, Michael Ratner suggested giving the papers to the press. After some consultation with other lawyers, Olshansky called the chambers of the federal district judge who was hearing her Guantanamo suit. She was instructed to turn the material over to the Justice Department. Matthew Diaz was arrested and charged with five felony counts, including the disclosure of classified information that could aid America’s foreign enemies. Diaz became the only United States serviceman to be convicted and imprisoned for an act of insubordination directed at the Bush administration’s detention policies. He was sentenced to six months in prison.

Life After Being Disbarred

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Diaz received little publicity after serving time in prison. He has found residency in New York City, and since losing his appeal in 2010, has been involved in numerous publicized interviews. Such news outlets include The BBC, The New York Times, Cage Prisoners, and NPR. His most recent interview comes from Witness to Guantánamo where he states:

“There was like a different regimen of treatment for the represented detainees than the ones that were unrepresented. So it was very beneficial to have representation for the overall treatment. So not only for humanitarian purposes, but for due process. Because all the legal processes down there were self-contained within the executive branch–within DOD–the commissions or the CSRTs. Habeas was the only external, outside of the executive branch, in the judiciary. And it was the only real legal process I saw that was available.”

Guantánamo Today

Nearly two and a half years after Diaz left Guantánamo in 2007, the names of detainees were released under the Freedom of Information Act. A total of 779 detainees have been brought to Guantánamo. 176 men have been released in the six years that Diaz has left prison–meanwhile 164 men remain, 84 of which are cleared for release. 13 prisoners in Guantánamo have been on a hunger strike for more than 9 months – all of them are being forced-fed as the 12th anniversary of the prison approaches on January 11th, 2014.

The hunger strike peaked in June with more than 100 detainees participating, the largest and longest hunger strike the prison has seen. Diaz told me his views on the current protest inside Guantánamo, “I think there aren’t many options for those men but to try to die. It’s so sad that these men feel such desperation, but who can blame one for prefering death over life in such miserable conditions? To be detained indefinitely, no end in sight to the abusive, degrading treatment would drive most anyone to lose hope. I guess if more citizens did more of what Medea Benjamin does on the regular, maybe those decision makers would make the tough decisions that this issue requires.”

The strike began in late winter after guards mishandled qurans and misplaced letters and legal documents. Hunger striking detainees are forced to go through a genital pat down in order to speak to their attorneys on the phone–a directive guards use to intimidate detainees. They are also confined to solitary confinement and endure torturous forced-feedings twice a day, a procedure that has been defined as unethical by numerous medical institutions. Initially, the government denied allegations of any such protest. Six months has passed since President Obama made a second promise to close Guantánamo in a National Defense Speech. Only two detainees have been released since the speech was made in May, 2013. In October the Department of Defense announced that the Periodic Review Board (PRB) process is underway. The PRB process was established to review whether continued detention of certain detainees held at Guantanamo Bay remains necessary to protect against a continuing significant threat to U.S. national security. No date for the PRB has been announced.

Without a doubt, had Diaz not covertly released the names of detainees, the government may have kept the names undisclosed indefinitely. Without the names and ISNs of detainees, pro bono attorneys could not reach out to defend clients, we would not know their whereabouts and possible deaths. The motion to transfer all of the detainees and to close Guantánamo has been gruelingly languid. Diaz’s voice believing he was on the “other side” of the law while being inside Guantánamo is an essential piece in the ongoing campaign to shut down Guantánamo. Matt Diaz currently works at a non-profit and still hopes that one day the government will permit him to practice law again.

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