EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: War on whistleblowers: Matthew Diaz Featured

Written by Indrani Balaratnam Thursday, 27 June 2013
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After the disclosure of the NSA spy programmes in recent weeks and the ongoing trial of Bradley Manning, the treatment of whistleblowers is in the public eye. As the manhunt for Edward Snowden continues, Indrani Balaratnam speaks to Matthew Diaz, a 2005 Guantanamo Bay whistleblower.

Matthew released the names of 551 detainees to the Centre of Constitutional Rights after realising he was “on the wrong side of things.” This interview provides insight on his experience of the consequences of revealing the secrets of the U.S. Government and the ongoing impact this has had on his life.


IB: Please take us to the start - pre-Guantanamo. What inspired you to join the army, and which year did you join?

MD: I quit school during the first semester of my junior year of high school (11th grade) in 1982. I worked as a full time as a dishwasher at a restaurant in San Bernardino, California.  The adults in my life kept encouraging me to get back into school or join the Army. “Get off the street!” was the message, and I guess the inspiration to join the Army in 1983 at the age of 17.


IB: Why did you volunteer for Guantanamo?

MD: The Navy's Judge Advocate General (JAG) leadership wanted Navy lawyers as much involved with the "Global War On Terrorism" (GWOT) as possible.  Since we weren't "warfighters," the Navy contributed lots of attorneys. They would frequently reach out to JAGs assigned all over the world to see who wanted to volunteer for 6 month tours of duty in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo. In late 2003-early 2004 there was one Guantanamo position that just opened. I chose Guantanamo, primarily because there was no incoming fire from the enemy. Also, it would take me through Jacksonville, Florida on the way there and on my way back, so I'd get to see my daughter as I passed through Jacksonville.

Another reason I volunteered for a "GWOT" job is that an "operational" tour looked good for promotion purposes. So, bottom line, I wasn't over-enthused to fill one of these newly-created positions in these new wars, but I went with the least-worst option.


IB: What year were you posted in Guantanamo? What did you expect the camp to be like?

MD: I arrived at Guantanamo on July 5, 2004. I left January 15, 2005. I wasn’t sure what to expect.  Prior to my arrival, I corresponded via email with the attorney who was in the position I’d be filling. She did not share specifics, but just wanted me to familiarise myself with the Geneva Conventions and the Department of Defense (DoD) regulations regarding military commissions.

When the Abu Ghraib abuses went public in April 2004, I was already aware I’d be heading to Guantanamo soon. I gathered the resources from the International & Operational Law classes I attended at graduate school at the Army's JAG School just two years prior. I also started paying closer attention to the litigation involving Guantanamo. The Supreme Court issued three decisions related to Guantanamo and habeas corpus on June 28, 2004, just one week before I landed on Guantanamo. The Rasul v. Bush decision was one of those decisions. I read all three decisions on the plane ride from Jacksonville, Florida to Guantanamo.

I knew what was expected of me. In the words of a colleague upon learning I was heading to Guantanamo, “do us right. No more Abu Ghraibs. We’re better than that.”


IB: What was your job in Guantanamo?

MD: I was the Deputy Staff Judge Advocate, which is the second senior most attorney on the Joint Task Force staff. My primary duties included liaising with military and civilian attorneys, as well as other non-attorney personnel, involved with the habeas litigation, the Combatant Status Review Tribunals, and the Military Commissions.


IB: CagePrisoners works with former Guantanamo detainees, a couple of whom you have mentioned remembering. Could you expand on this - who do you remember and are there any specific instances that come to mind?

MD: Moazzam Begg – I interacted with Moazzam on a few occasions. I was the staff member who retrieved two letters from him – one for his habeas attorney and one addressed to US and UK authorities. Both letters were delivered to his attorney and one of them went public. I also recall reviewing legal mail that was to be delivered to him. Not long after we (the SJA’s Office) were tasked with reviewing legal mail, we were also tasked with reviewing non-legal mail for habeas and commissions detainees (the detainees that were represented by lawyers). It was a heart-breaking endeavor. I recall being saddened after reading a letter from his wife and viewing the photos enclosed with the letter (I recall that maybe she had challenges with driving and had a fender bender _ I’m pretty sure that was in a letter addressed to him). By the way, his habeas attorney was the first attorney I reached out to on March 3, 2006, the day I was informed I was the subject of the FBI and NCIS investigation. It was emails between her and me that caused the FBI and NCIS to use National Security Letters and a Federal District Court search warrant to obtain my personal AOL emails.

Feroz Abbasi – As with Moazzam, I delivered legal mail to Feroz. I don’t recall many interactions with him other than delivery of his legal materials and setting up visits with his attorney (same attorney as Moazzam) and the visitor from UK government, possibly the FCO – a balding white guy).

Martin Mubanga – Delivery of legal mail mainly. He had a reputation among the staff there of being a dangerous martial arts expert.

Bisher al Rawi – I recall him having a good sense of humor. For instance, he would quip “but I have nothing for you” when I delivered mail to him. I’d usually leave the block in a better mood than when I entered. For if he could still crack a smile in those conditions, any difficulties in my day seemed minor in comparison. If I recall correctly, a Nation Magazine advert page discussing a performance about him in New York went through with his legal materials.


IB: Was there a specific moment where you realised that you disagreed with what you were seeing, or an accumulation of events? What led you to decide you would "break the rules"?

MD: If I had to pinpoint a moment that struck me, I’d have to say it was viewing the photo of a detainee that was contained in an investigation. His bloodied and bruised face and the expression of pain it evinced enraged me. I recall thinking that the expression on his face reminded me of a similar expression I’d once seen on my younger brother’s face. It touched me personally. This must have been in September or October 2004. That was one of many instances that led me to conclude that I was on the wrong side of things. So on December 21, 2004, when I read the letter from Barbara Olshansky, which laid out the history of attorneys’ attempts to gain access to detainees, I resolved that something had to be done. We were on a course that foretold of continued abuses against humanity and our legal system. There was no way my concerns would go up the chain. Everything was driven down from the top. It was December 21, 2004 when the proposed response to Olshansky’s letter was to deny her request for detainee identities. The rationale for denying her request had yet to be worked out, but the denial was certainly forthcoming. I was about to leave and there was no indication anyone cared about the law anymore. Everyone seemed to have forgotten our supposed values.


IB: Take us through what you did.

MD: I logged into the database that contained all the detainees’ information. It was on the Secret Internet Protocol Router Network (SIPRNet), which contained information classified up to the secret level, but not everything was classified. Had I wanted to retrieve damaging or embarrassing information, I certainly would have found it there. My search parameters were limited to current detainee names. There were 551 at the time. The screenshot contained only so many names per page. It would take 39 pages to print. I knew I couldn’t just carry it off Guantanamo (our baggage is thoroughly inspected, as are we, prior to boarding the aircraft). I decided I was going to mail it off the island, but 39 full-sized pages of material might draw attention.  I didn’t want to send a large envelope. I decided to send it inside a greeting card. Large, but not too large. I’d previously mailed greeting cards containing lots of photos and that’s how this package would be sent. The next holiday was Valentine’s Day, so that’s why it was sent in a Valentine’s Day card. To make it fit, I reduced the size of the pages before printing. There were no classification markings on the screen shot, nor on any of the pages printed out. Such markings would have stood out and might have given me pause to go through with this.  I hope someday the actual list will be declassified and made public.


IB: How did the consequences of those actions unfold?

MD: I sent the list on January 15, 2005. I had no idea an investigation into the leak had started sometime in February or March 2005. On March 3, 2006, I was detained, forced to provide writing samples for over an hour, forced to provide major case prints of my hands and fingers, and an interrogation was attempted. This happened to be the same day the DoD released thousands of pages of Combatant Status Review Tribunal records pursuant to Freedom of Information Act litigation. These documents allowed the public to see for the first time most of the names of those detained at Guantanamo. It’d be another month or two before a list with all of the names of every individual ever detained there was made public.

After a few hours with the FBI and Naval Criminal Investigative Service agents, I was released to my commanding officer. He seized my passport and government-issued credit card. From that day forward, I was assigned to do non-legal work on the regional commanding admiral’s legal staff.  I wasn’t charged until the end of July 2006. The Article 32 hearing (kind of like a preliminary hearing/grand jury proceeding) was scheduled for October 2006. I was not granted clearance to review the evidence against me until October 2006. We had to ask for a delay of the hearing until December 2006. Because the government didn’t produce the witnesses we requested to examine under oath, I decided to waive the hearing, as it was clear it was going to be a typical kangaroo proceeding these hearings tend to be. The witness was Paul Rester, the Director of the Joint Intelligence Group at Guantanamo. He’s the witness who claimed the list of names I released revealed “sources and methods” – it did not. His frequent interviews with the press revealed more sources and methods than this list of names ever could. I was arraigned in January 2007 and the trial was in May 2007.

 There were many challenges along the way. I retained a civilian defense attorney to work alongside my military defense attorneys. He was a retired military attorney, a former military judge. The problem was he was a solo practitioner and was over-loaded with clients. He ended up taking on representation of one of the marines charged with the murders in Haditha, Iraq. That case left him little time to work on my case. He only traveled once to Norfolk, from his office in Alabama, in December 2006 – the day I waived my Article 32 hearing. He couldn’t appear at my arraignment in January 2007. By March 2007 he asked to withdraw from my case since he was too busy with the Haditha case. He referred me to a friend of his, also a retired military judge. Just two months after this second civilian defense attorney took over, I went to trial.

 Another great challenge was that I was stationed and living in Jacksonville, Florida at the time. The trial took place in Norfolk, Virginia. My military defense attorneys were in Norfolk. My first civilian defense attorney was in Alabama and the second one, who only had two months to prepare for trial, was in Dallas, Texas. This made meeting to discuss strategy extremely difficult. We communicated primarily via email. Such method of communication would prove detrimental to my case. After the FBI used National Security Letters and the NCIS agent lied to a Federal District Court Judge about the need to access my private AOL emails, the junior prosecutor in my case took it upon himself to read the emails between me and my counsel – emails that were clearly marked “privileged” or “attorney work-product.” Soon after the government read these emails, they filed a motion to prevent me from raising all of the defenses my attorneys and I discussed over emails. The judge granted their request and I was not allowed to explain my true intent in sending the list of names to Centre of Constitutional Rights – that had to wait until after I was convicted, in my sentencing statement.


IB: You were sent to prison for your actions: what was the treatment like in prison? Were the other prisoners and guards aware of your actions?

MD: Though nothing on the scale of Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib. Bagram, or even Quantico for Bradley Manning, some of the guards tried their best to make it seem like it was. I concluded that the guards at the two facilities I was confined at (Norfolk, Virginia and Charleston, South Carolina) fell into three categories. Some were outright sadistic and would fit in well at US torture facilities. Some were just incompetent and that incompetence made life miserable. Some were decent human beings and went out of their way to make conditions of confinement as comfortable as possible for the prisoners under their charge. Most, if not all, of the guards knew what brought me there. The sadistic ones ensured I endured the most degrading strip searches before and after each visit by family/friends. The sadistic and incompetent ones caused me to miss phone or library privileges (being able to use the pay phones to call family or go check out a book from the library). My legal advice had been sought from many of the guards. I hungered for such challenges, and welcomed the opportunity to get time in the library. I wouldn’t give legal advice, always in fear that conversations were being monitored, but I pointed them to the resources they should consult.

As far as the other prisoners, most were cool. It was typical of any military command I’d experienced over the past two decades. There were a few who made nasty comments as I walked by their table in the chow hall – things like “terrorist lover” or “I hope they execute your dad while you’re here” (Diaz’s father was facing capital murder charges). Nothing to make much of a fuss about; certainly not worth a confrontation and risk loss of good time (we earned 5 days per month of good time, so my 6 month sentence was actually 5 months).

A couple of interesting stories: I was a prosecutor in my last job in the Navy – that was the job I was doing when the FBI and NCIS investigators detained me. Before that job, I was a defense attorney. There was one person at the Charleston brig that I prosecuted. He put the word out that I was a prosecutor and that caused a lot of hate and hateful comments from other prisoners. One of my defense clients, who was sentenced to 8 years confinement, was still at the Charleston brig. He was so shocked to see his own defense attorney standing behind him in a line to retrieve a postal package. He had earned a certificate to become a barber and ended up being my barber over the next few months. I also helped him draft some correspondence in connection with his upcoming parole hearing.


IB: What has your experience been since coming from prison? What challenges have you faced in your lifestyle, career moves, etc?

MD: I left prison penniless and with no source of income on October 13, 2007. My law license was suspended, preventing me from finding work in the only profession I knew, and I had a felony-level federal conviction. I lost my military pension ($40+ thousand per year) and was disbarred. Needless to say, not many employers were eager to hire me, particularly employers in the mostly-conservative-leaning south of the country. I was able to land a temp job as a substitute teacher via a temp agency. I was able to find fairly regular work substitute teaching at various schools in the city of Jacksonville, Florida. I ended up working quite regularly with severely autistic children at one particular elementary school. Around May 2008, my house was about to be foreclosed on and my car was about to be repossessed. I needed to find a school district that was located in a city with a good public transportation system and where there was a more progressive way of thinking. I found that in the New York City Teaching Fellows. Or so I thought. After being accepted into the program and completing the seven weeks of training in the summer of 2008, I was informed that I was being dropped from the program. My criminal conviction had yet to register on my background-check because the case was still in the appellate process and therefore not final. The reason I was dropped from the program was because I disclosed the court-martial conviction and the fact that my law license was suspended. On the verge of homelessness once again, I reached out to an attorney who learned of my case through the New York Times piece by Tim Golden. He put me in touch with my current employer and I’ve been a public defender ever since. Mind you, not as an attorney, but as an advocate for the community.


IB: Did you anticipate those consequences before you acted? Have you ever regretted what you did?

MD: I struggled with whether I should go through with my decision for a couple of weeks. It kept me awake at night. I didn’t think things would unfold the way they did. I think Barbara and I both set each other up for unintended negative consequences. I wish there was a better way to address the matter. The alternatives would have led nowhere in the environment at the time. Bush was just beginning his second term in office and everyone succumbed to his administration’s agenda. The Administration resisted powerful senators and the Supreme Court when it came to due process and humane treatment of those we detained. My concerns would have never left the island. I’d have been fast-tracked off the island and the unidentified, unrepresented, disappeared would have remained unidentified, unrepresented and disappeared. It was a unique situation.

I regret the impact my actions have had on my family. I regret the fact that my actions may have cast suspicion of future JAGs in such positions. I regret that in order to be accepted into the community of lawyers again I have to accept the fact that trying to alleviate torture and trying to abide by the law in this very narrow instance is frowned upon if it discloses actions your criminal client wants to keep hidden.


IB: What advice would you give to other potential Guantanamo whistleblowers?

MD: Think it through as thoroughly as you can. If discovered, rest assured your government will come down on you as hard as they can. You may get many slaps on the back that you did a good deed, but those slaps on the back rarely lead to a recovery from the blow you’ll take from your government. The “looking forward, not backward” meme is inapplicable to your actions. Your government will have you forever looking back at this one deed at this one moment of your life, all the other good deeds you’ve done in your life matter no more.


IB: What do you anticipate to be the response to Edward Snowden? Do you have any advice you would want to give to him about what he can expect?

MD: Snowden only needs to look at Assange, Manning, Kiriakou, Drake, et. al to see that the US Government will pursue him no matter who’s in office and no matter where he goes. He should never let his guard down. He’s well aware that his government has perfected the method of violating other countries’ sovereignty if it suits their needs. He should expect his government to continue to demonize him and that his fellow citizens, for the most part, will remain willfully ignorant about these issues. Hang in there.


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  • In 2008 Diaz received the Ridenhour Prize for truth-telling. It is awarded to those "who persevere in acts of truth-telling that protect the public interest, promote social justice or illuminate a more just vision of society." The awards are presented by The Nation Institute and The Fertel Foundation in recognition of Ron Ridenhour, the Vietnam War veteran who exposed the massacre at My Lai
  • Diaz was one of the four individuals profiled in the award-winning documentary The Guantanamo trap alongside former Guantanamo captive Murat Kurnaz





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