A banner day for the rule of law in America!

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled today that the Guantanamo detainees have the right to challenge their detention before a civilian U.S. Court!

This is such excellent news!
The New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights has done the majority of the heavy lift8ing on the legal work that has led up to this decision– as well as the representation of large numbers of Gitmo detainees.
They urgently need our financial support. Click here to donate whatever you can to them.
The NYT gives some of the reasoning from the SCOTUS’s 5-4 decision, which was written by Justice Anthony Kennedy:

Continue reading “A banner day for the rule of law in America!”

“Justice” and politics

I long ago concluded that “justice” is always, inescapably, a highly political matter. Including– perhaps especially– the workings of criminal courts, which for some reason so many western liberals seem to completely conflate with the idea of “justice” simpliciter.
A criminal court, remember, is always established, funded, and supported (or not) within a specific political context. I suppose that it is the de-contextualization of these aspects of a criminal court’s operations that allows so many people in the western rights movement to believe that the operation of such courts can ever be completely a-political.
Where a political system is well-constituted, and its leadership accountable, the courts can be reasonably– but never perfectly– fair. But today, on both sides of the US-Iraqi divide, we have highly politicized criminal-court proceedings carrying on, both of which are 100% products of the Bush administration’s divisive, “GWOT” approach to the world. Why should anyone be surprised that these court systems are lousy with politicization, corruption, and abuse?
In Iraq, the work of the US-created, and US-manipulated “Iraqi Special tribunal” grinds on. Now, 16 months after the horrendous travesty of the Saddam execution, we have former Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz, and others, being tried on charges of involvement in the execution of 43 merchants accused in 1992 of having hoarded foodstuffs in Baghdad. That was, let’s not forget, a time when western-imposed sanctions were starting to bite in Iraq. Actually, since politically-imposed starvation is now occurring on a wider and more visible basis once again in many developing countries, a number of those countries may soon resort to the death penalty for foodstuff speculators. I am not quite sure how such executions– inhumane though they, like all executions, including those regularly carried out in the USA, are– rise to the level of an atrocity, as such? Nor am I clear what kind of criminal responsibility Tariq Aziz bears for them…
(“Grotian Moment”, anyone?)
And 8,000 miles away from Baghdad, we have the outrageous, and equally politicized, proceedings of the Guantanamo Kangaroo Courts. Huge kudos to Air Force Col. Morris Davis, who yesterday told one of the hearings at the quite unconstitutionally constituted Kangaroo Court, under oath, that at an earlier stage, when he had been working as the Defense Department’s chief prosecutor for terrorism-related cases,

    top Pentagon officials, including Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon R. England, made it clear to him that charging some of the highest-profile detainees before elections this year could have “strategic political value.”

I am “shocked, shocked” (that is, not actually shocked at all) to discover that this court in Gitmo had been so heavily politicized.
Davis told the KC hearing– which was open to some reporters– that,

    Defense Department general counsel William J. Haynes II, who announced his retirement in February, once bristled at the suggestion that some defendants could be acquitted, an outcome that Davis said would give the process added legitimacy.
    “He said, ‘We can’t have acquittals,’ ” Davis said under questioning from Navy Lt. Cmdr. Brian Mizer, the military counsel who represents [five-year detainee Salim Ahmed] Hamdan. ” ‘We’ve been holding these guys for years. How can we explain acquittals? We have to have convictions.’

Davis also said that,

    Air Force Brig. Gen. Thomas W. Hartmann, the legal adviser to the top military official overseeing the commissions process, was improperly willing to use evidence derived from waterboarding, a form of simulated drowning. “To allow or direct a prosecutor to come into the courtroom and offer evidence they felt was torture, it puts a prosecutor in an ethical bind,” Davis testified. But he said Hartmann replied that “everything was fair game — let the judge sort it out.”

George W. Bush’s “Global War on Terror” has caused our country’s proclamations of support for its ideals to be ridiculed around the world. That is, in itself serious. But it has also significantly subverted the very national institutions that are intended to embody these ideals. Both these pieces of significant harm to our country will take some time to roll back and repair.
What can the post-Bush government in this country do about the scores of detainees who remain at Guantanamo, all of whom our government has subjected to significant mistreatment– or, in many cases, actual torture. Some of these individuals have been somewhat reliably accused of involvement in serious criminal acts; but against many of them the evidence is far more flimsy, if not completely fabricated, extracted under torture (and therefore unusable in any respectable court of law), or in some cases, quite non-existent.
But we were told when Gitmo opened that these were all “the worst of the worst.” That was a clear calumny.
But what to do about these individuals, some– but not all– of whom may be tempted to engage in violent acts after their release.
I believe that the US authorities, under any president and flavor of congressional leadership, is singularly unsuited to being able to sort out this issue. The U.N. should be invited to establish a commission of enquiry on the whole matter of the Bush administration’s illegal detentions policies around the world, with a view to finding a humane, rehabilitation-based future for these men and due accountability for those U.S. officials who have wilfully subjected them to such horrendous and in many cases long-sustained ill-treatment.
Supporting a solution like that would be the very best way for a new US leadership to reaffirm, and reinstate, our country’s values.

Jefferson & the Reign of Witches

Kudos to the Baltimore Sun for its July 4th editorial. Contrary to the keen imagination of another former “Jefferson Fellow” now at Oxford, I (Scott), as far as I know, had nothing to do with the Sun editorial. :-}
The Baltimore editorial begins with the reference to Thomas Jefferson’s First Inaugural. (Yes, this is the same Jefferson address I invoked here at jwn last November 2nd, in challenging Senator George Allen’s claim to being a “Jeffersonian”). In the Sun’s version,

In his first presidential inaugural address in 1801, he (Jefferson) ticked off a long list of essential principles of government, featuring highlights of the Bill of Rights, and called preservation of the government “in its whole constitutional vigor” the “anchor of our peace at home and safety abroad.” These principles “should be the creed of our political faith,” he said. “Should we wander from them in moments of error or of alarm, let us hasten to retrace our steps and to regain the road which alone leads to peace, liberty and safety.”

The editorial credits Jefferson for having been “prophetic” about how the US government has (yet again) committed “a long train of abuses” (as Jefferson once wrote about another George III) against our constitutional liberties, in “moments… of alarm.”
If I had written the editorial, I’d have pointedly noted how for Jefferson, “freedom of the press, and freedom of person under the protection of the habeas corpus, and trial by juries impartially selected” were among the principles that:

“form the bright constellation which has gone before us and guided our steps through an age of revolution and reformation. The wisdom of our sages and blood of our heroes have been devoted to their attainment. They should be the creed of our political faith.”

Through his long public life, Jefferson had extensive first hand experiences with the challenges of protecting such principles in perceived times of national emergency, including the treatment of prisoners of war. As I noted last November, Jefferson would have been particularly horrified by our present cavalier disregard of habeas corpus protections, given that he:

affirmed that habeas corpus applied to both citizen and alien alike, and.. argued against suspending it even in times of war or rebellion. In a 1788 letter to James Madison, Jefferson warned that the want of habeas corpus “will do evil…” and that suspensions thereof can become “habitual” and the “minds of the nation almost prepared to live under its constant suspension.”

In similar vein, the Sun editorial closes with an all too appropriate warning:

“Public outrage at the discovery of such clandestine abuses has typically resulted in the sort of corrective action Jefferson recommended. Such a process may be under way soon again as Congress and the courts begin to apply some restraints on an administration that as much as or more than any other has considered itself above the law. There’s little time to waste before Americans become so accustomed to their lost liberty that the loss becomes acceptable.

Harpers Magazine on July 4th featured a related, and also all-too-relevant Jefferson quotation about our present “Reign of Witches.” As Scott Horton notes, Jefferson was writing in 1798 to a friend on his hope that the Federalists had “overplayed their hand” with the Alien & Sedition Acts (an early version of today’s Patriot Act). Yet Jefferson nonetheless was concerned that he could be arrested if his letter was publicized, given how paranoid the country had become then (as now).

A little patience, and we shall see the reign of witches pass over, their spells dissolve, and the people, recovering their true sight, restore their government to its true principles. It is true that in the meantime we are suffering deeply in spirit, and incurring the horrors of a war and long oppressions of enormous public debt… And if we feel their power just sufficiently to hoop us together, it will be the happiest situation in which we can exist. If the game runs sometimes against us at home we must have patience till luck turns, and then we shall have an opportunity of winning back the principles we have lost, for this is a game where principles are at stake.

Helena here has repeatedly expressed her optimism that the tide in Washington has turned…; may the reign of the neocon warlocks soon pass over.

The terrible odyssey of Marwan Jabour

Human Rights Watch and the WaPo have both done ground-breaking work on the case of Marwan Jabour, a Palestinian whom the US accused of funding and helping Al-Qaeda operatives and who was held by the CIA and its Pakistani and other subordinate agencies in horrendously degrading conditions in secret, “black” prisons for two years.
The WaPo’s report, published in today’s paper by Dafna Linzer and Julie Tate, is here. The portal to the lengthy HRW report (which I haven’t had time to read in full) is here.
Back in September, when the Bushites transported 14 alleged “high-value detainees” from US-supervised black prisons in (most likely) Pakistan and Afghanistan to Guantanamo, they assured us publicly that the whole of the black prison program had then been shut down. Human Rights Watch is very dubious of this claim. The organization’s Joanne Mariner has written a letter to President Bush, in which she lists the names of 16 people whom HRW believes were held in CIA prisons and whose current whereabouts are unknown, and the names of another 22 people who may have been held in CIA prisons and whose current whereabouts are unknown.
What has happened to these “disappeared” individuals? And how, given the horrible record of these secret prisons, can we be assured there are not dozens of others like them whose names we do not know??
The HRW report on the odyssey of Marwan Jabour is lengthy and detailed, but it is well presented on their website through this portal. Jabour was arrested in Lahore, Pakistan, in May 2004. He was held under Pakistani and US custody in different secret prisons in Lahore and Islamabad in Pakistan, and in Afghanistan. During his captivity he was subjected to beatings, sleep deprivation, and many other forms of torture and degrading and inhumane treatment until he was transported from Afghnaistan to Jordan in July 2006.
Here’s how Linzer and Tate start their story in today’s WaPo:

    On his last day in CIA custody, Marwan Jabour, an accused al-Qaeda paymaster, was stripped naked, seated in a chair and videotaped by agency officers. Afterward, he was shackled and blindfolded, headphones were put over his ears, and he was given an injection that made him groggy. Jabour, 30, was laid down in the back of a van, driven to an airstrip and put on a plane with at least one other prisoner.
    His release from a secret facility in Afghanistan on June 30, 2006, was a surprise to Jabour — and came just after the Supreme Court rejected the Bush administration’s assertion that the Geneva Conventions do not apply to prisoners like him…

According to the HRW report, Jabour was transported by plane from Afghanistan to Jordan (amid some very fear-inducing circumstances), and later from there to Israel. After the Israelis examined his case– and gave him the first access he had ever had to a lawyer, since his detention in May 2004– they determined he was not a threat and transported him to Gaza, where he was freed and reunited with his parents.
Above, I note in particular the detail about Jabour having been– just before his transfer from Afghanistan to Jordan– stripped naked and videotaped. I am pretty sure the CIA people running that black prison would have done that with the aim of making him too embarrassed about the threat of the possible release of those tapes to be easily willing to speak out publicly about the treatment he had received during his two-plus years in CIA custody.
I therefore applaud his courage in breaking through that barrier of fear.
Jabour himself told HRW that when the time approached for his release from the CIA black prison in Afghanistan, the prison’s assistant director told him,

    there was no toilet in the plane so Jabour would have to wear diapers, and that they would make a video of his naked body to show that his body had not been harmed.

The next day he was wrapped up like a mummy and taken by car to an airstrip. The HRW report continues:

    Jabour was brought outside and put in a chair, and he heard three shots. “I was afraid,” he said. “I thought they were shooting people.” The team was very aggressive with him, increasing his fear.
    Suddenly they removed all of his wrappings and took off all his clothes. When his eyes opened, he saw a man pointing a video camera at him. Then the transfer team put a diaper on him, and put the same outfit back on, except this time they used plastic handcuffs.
    He could only feel the airplane; he could not see it, but it seemed to him to be a small civilian jet. The seats faced forward, as in a normal passenger aircraft. In the plane, during the flight, a doctor took his blood pressure. The flight lasted about three-and-a-half to four hours.

It is very likely, of course, that a plane traveling that distance would be equiped with some form of toilet facilities.
(I note that all the accounts of how prisoners were transported to Guantanamo over the years include accounts of how the circumstances of these transfers were nearly always made as physically humiliating and as fear-inducing as possible. This is straight out of the CIA’s classic torture handbooks.
As for Linzer and Tate, they also write this:

    U.S. intelligence and counterterrorism officials confirmed [Jabour’s] incarceration and that he was held in Pakistan and Afghanistan. They would not discuss conditions inside black sites or the treatment of any detainee.

And crucially, they note this:

    John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, plans to investigate the fate of the missing detainees as part of a larger examination into the CIA’s operation of secret prisons and its rendition program.

This is excellent news, and is the first step we need if we, the concerned and law-abiding US citizenry, are able to recapture our country as place that is ruled by law and in which black prisons, torture, and the unbridled militarism and sense of national “chosen-ness” that incubated those ills are to be made into a thing of the past.

Day of Shame: Five years of Guantanamo

Jan. 11 is the fifth anniversary of the arrival of the first group of prisoners at Guantanamo.
Some of those original 20 men are still there today, having been through almost unbelievable travails and abuses. None face the prospect of anything like a fair trial, and most are expected never to have any trial at all. Yet unlike prisoners-of-war who are held under the conditions defined in international law they cannot even expect to return to their homes at the end of any duly defined war. (And they are held in conditions far, far worse than the minimum standards established for POWs under international law.)
Now, there are some 395 men still in Gitmo. The vast majority of them have been there between two-and-a-half years and five years. Just 14 men were added to the rolls there last September, having been flown in from a secret CIA pirson or prisons elsewhere.
My column in Thursday’s CSM is on Guantanamo. You can find it here (or here.)
It concludes:

    Guantánamo is… a major moral challenge for the American people. We need to find a way to close this camp of shame and shine a light on the abuses committed there so that they’re never repeated.
    The detainees against whom there is solid evidence should be tried, and if found guilty , incarcerated. Let’s see and fully examine all the evidence. The rest should be released and given help for their rehabilitation after their years of dehumanizing detention.
    Will the new Congress take up this task? I certainly hope so.

I know that much of the US media Thursday will be busy dissecting Bush’s speech. I am really, really glad I decided to focus on Gunatanamo.
Does anyone want to see my collection of Guantanamo-related URLs on Delicious? It’s here.

Not at Gitmo (yet)

I was supposed to be in Guantanamo today. Actually, the beginning of the story was that I was supposed to be there last Wednesday, October 11. As I’d noted here back on September 29, Mr. Cully Stimson, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Detainee Affairs, had invited me on a Pentagon-organized tour of the detention camp there, and I had agreed to go…
The October 11 trip got postponed a week agobecause of his office’s difficulties getting hold of a Pentagon Gulfstream in which to take the group. I reorganized my schedule. This Monday, his people called to say they couldn’t get hold of the Gulfstream this Wednesday, either. I called him yesterday to see what was going on. He explained that, since it is congressional recess time, members of the US Congress have been going on a lot of trips using the Pentagon’s executive jets, so our group had once again been bumped. I will be busy for the next couple of Wednesdays– I’m going to Amman for the UNU seminar on “Nonviolence”. So we left it that if there’s a trip on Novermber 8, then he will try to get me on it.
So I’d been doing all this research about Guantanamo, as my preparation for going there! I’ve read not only Joseph Margulies’s book, but also the very informative books by (freed British detainee) Moazzam Begg, Erik Saar, and David Rose. Still to read: Steven Miles’s “Oath Betrayed” and James Yee’s “For God and Country.”
I’ve done a bunch of research on the web. In case you want to do some, too, I’m happy to share with you the portal to around 40 web documents, nearly all of them very interesting, that I created with “del.icio.us” last week.
But the most interesting and inspiring thing I did was to interview a number of the US-based lawyers who have been giving up significant amounts of their time and resources to work pro-bono on Guantanamo-related cases. For example, when I was in DC a couple of weeks ago I interviewed Muneer Ahmad, who’s an Assistant Professor at American University’s Washington College of Law. He’s one of two attorneys representing Omar Khadr, a young Canadian man whose militantly fundamentalist Muslim parents raised him to follow exactly in their footsteps…
In July 2002, Khadr was 15 years old and fighting with an Al-Qaeda unit in southeastern Afghanistan when he was injured severely in a fierce battle against US Special Forces, and was taken prisoner by them. An American medic reportedly saved Khadr’s life on the battelfield. The Special Forces then took him to Bagram “with a bullet-split chest and serious shrapnel wounds to the head and eye.”
Jeff Tietz of Rolling Stone wrote recently, that after Khadr arrived in Bagram,

Continue reading “Not at Gitmo (yet)”

The new global Star Chamber?

Yesterday, President Bush signed the Military Commissions Act of 2006. It was a defining moment, marking the first time that a duly enacted statute in this country has stripped the essential, age-old provisions of habeas corpus away from a whole class of people held prisoner by the US government.
Habeas protections have been suspended here twice before. But on both those occasions, the suspension was done only by executive order– by President Lincoln during the Civil War of the 19th century and by President Franklin D. Roosevelt during World War 2; and on both those previous occasions, the suspension was lifted with the end of hostilities. By contrast, the present stripping of habeas from a whole class of persons has been written into US law and has no predictable termination point. Some critics have claimed that this makes the new Military Commissions something like the infamous Star Chamber of Britain during the 15th-17th centuries. However, at least the Star Chamber coexisted with habeas, which had been enshrined in British common law since the 13th century, or perhaps earlier.
So maybe the new Military Commissions are even worse than the Star Chamber?
The persons from whom the MCA has stripped habeas protection are those determined by a body formed by the US military that is called a “Combatant Status Review Tribunal” to fall into a category called “unlawful enemy combatants”. The CSRT process had been devised as a way for the US military to claim that it minimally met the requirements of Article 5 of the 3rd Geneva Convention, the convention concerning treatment of prisoners of wa. (Protections for POWs are significantly different from– and superior to– those afforded to common criminals.) Article 5 states that if any doubt should arise as to whether a detained person is a POW or not, “such persons shall enjoy the protection of the present Convention until such time as their status has been determined by a competent tribunal.
In July 2004, after the Supreme Court ruled that British citizen Shafiq Rasul and a number of other men held prisoner in Guantanamo did indeed have the right to an Article 5 hearing, the administration established the CSRTs for the Guantanamo prisoners. The nearly 700 prisoners then held at Gitmo then had hearings before these (notably unfair) bodies, which judged that the vast majority of them were not POWs but were “unlawful enemy combatants”. (I’ve relied for a lot of the info in this post on Joseph Margulies’s excellent book Guantanamo and the Abuse of Presidential Power. It is a great guide through the Kafka-esque maze of regulations that have affected the Gitmo detainees.)
Note that the Gitmo detainees have all along been consigned to a limbo-like universe that “falls between the cracks” of normal and predictable legal regimes. They were brought to Gitmo– most of them between December 2001 and fall 2004, though 14 of them just this past September– precisely because the Bush administration judged that the Guantanamo Naval Base was neither US sovereign territory nor territory that was under US military occupation as per international law. If the former were true, then the detainees would have all the protections that US law affords– as happened, for example, to Ramzi Yousef, who was snatched by the Clinton administration from, I believe, someplace in Pakistan, and brought to New York where he was put on trial. And if the latter were true, then the US military could only capture and hold prisoners in line with the strictures of Geneva Conventions numbers 3 and 4. And indeed, regarding all US military operations inside Iraq, the administration does say it considers itself subject to these Geneva Conventions. Hence the anomaly that Saddam Hussein has been treated considerably better in every way, including in his access to legal counsel and other legal protections, than the 700 or so people who have spent many years at Guantanamo and have never had any credible evidence brought against them.
However, in its judgment on Rasul, the Supreme Court said that at least the detainees deserved a “POW status review” hearing, as per Article 5. And at that point, the administration created (or resurrected) this “unlawful enemy combatant” designation which put the detainees into the Kafka-esque situation that they were neither POWs, and subject to protections as such, nor civilians, and subject to that set of protections.
More legal limbo.
POWs have to be lodged in decent conditions in a group setting; they are not required to submit to any interrogations or to provide any information beyond “name, rank, and serial number”; and they are all assured release and repatriation to their home country at the end of the war– except for those among them regarding whom the detaining authority has specific information that they have committed war crimes, in which case those individuals can be tried. Civilian prisoners, on the other hand, get access “with due speed” to the normal US courts and the protections afforded therein.
The CSRTs’ designation of most Gitmo detainees as “unlawful enemy combatants” denied the detainees both these avenues for potential relief. And given that many Bush administration spokesmen have talked a lot about the “generation-long” extent of the “Global War on Terror”, the detainees have faced the prospect that they might remain in their present legal limbo– and subject, I should add, to conditions of life that are often extremely appalling, including prolonged isolation, very tight controls, very intrusive and unpredictable “interrogations”, etc etc– for the rest of their lives.
This, while the vast majority of the detainees have never been credibly charged (let alone convicted) in any public forum with any specific crime. Indeed, ever since the administration first tried, back in 2002, to set up “Military Commissions” (i.e., military courts) inside Guantanamo to try prisoners there, it has only ever brought any specific charges of wrongdoing against ten of the hundreds of people detained there. Meanwhile, over the years since 2004, it has quietly released around 300 of the men whom it once held there, giving the lie to the hype voiced by Donald Rumsfeld and others at the time the Guantanamo camp was opened, that the people transported there were all “the worst of the worst.”
Shafiq Rasul and many others of those released over the past couple of years have credibly claimed they were unconnected to any violent activities or organizations when they were in Afghanistan or neighboring areas of Pakistan in late 2001, and that they had been captured there by bounty hunters eager to cash in on the $5,000 bounties offered by US agents for any “foreigners” discovered in those regions and turned over to them.
After the Supreme Court’s mid-2004 decision in Rasul, Margulies and other lawyers continued to challenge the denial of habeas rights to detainees, focusing on the case of Salim Ahmed Hamdan, a Yemeni citizen who was one of those arraigned before a Military Commission. In July 2004, Hamdan specifically filed a petition with the US courts for a writ of habeas corpus, arguing that he was being held in Guantanamo without due process. His case wound its way up through the courts and was heard by the Supreme Court during its 2005-2006 term. In a decision issued June 29, 2006, the Supremes judged by a majority of 5-3 (with the Chief Justice, John Roberts, having recused himself) that the Military Commissions as then established at Guantanamo “violate both the [U.S.] Uniform Code of Military Justice and the four Geneva Conventions.”
In a concurring opinion, Justice Steven Breyer (joined by three other justices) noted that,

    Congress has denied the President the legislative authority to create military commissions of the kind at issue here. Nothing prevents the President from returning to Congress to seek the authority he believes necessary…

It was that invitation, to seek specific legislation from Congress for the establishment of Military Commissions, that the Bush administration then proceeded to take up, with gusto. As we know, they won the legislation last month, and yesterday it went into law. The timing of all this has been notable. We are of course in the midst of the kind of election campaign in which charges that legislators are “soft on terrorism” could be expected to be particularly potent. Also, in early September, as I’d noted here, the Bushites “strengthened” the pool of potential military commission defendants at Guantanamo by adding to it the 14 “high value detainees” who had previously been held in a series of “black sites” around the world. (That group included Khaled Sheikh Muhammad and others.)
The excellent and well-linked Jurist/ Paper Chase blog had a good post on the MCA yesterday. It notes that a legal challenge to the new law has already been filed— on behalf of a group of 25 detainees held at the US-run detention center in Bagram, Afghanistan. That latter link, from the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York, which has filed this petition, tells us that:

    There are an estimated 500 men detained in U.S. custody at Bagram. Though some have been held for years, none of these men has ever received a hearing of any sort. Bagram has been the site of notorious examples of abuse – including abuses that led to the December 2002 deaths of two Afghan detainees.

I guess we all need to become much more aware that the situation of the people held in Bagram and other US-run detention camps in Afghanistan might be just as bad as the situation of those held in the better-known camp in Guantanamo. The MCA covers them as well— indeed, it covers anybody at all, anywhere around the world, whom the President or the Secretary of Defense chooses to put into the category of “unlawful enemy combatant.”
Of course, if we were talking about a person physically located in a national jurisdiction that would challenge the US administration’s claim to jurisdiction of this nature, then Washington probably would not press the issue. But the US-installed and highly US-dependent government of Afghanistan? Don’t hold your breath…
More on all this legal business to follow…

Garrison Keillor takes on Gitmo

Garrison Keillor comes as close to being the bard of the American heartland as anyone I can think of. He does a weekly hour-long radio show, the whimsically named “Prairie Home Companion”, that is mainly good-natured entertainment that features live performers before a live audience in his home city of Minneapolis/St. Paul… But it also sometimes has a political edge to it.
Today, Keillor has a hard-hitting column in the International Herald Tribune. (Hat-tip to Jane C. there.) Commenting on the significance of the US Senate’s action last week that stripped the age-old right of habeas corpus away from non-citizens detained by the US overseas, Keillor writes:

    None of the men and women who voted for this bill has any right to speak in public about the rule of law anymore, or to take a high moral view of the Third Reich, or to wax poetic about the American Idea.
    Mark their names: Alexander, Allard, Allen, Bennett, Bond, Brownback, Bunning, Burns, Burr, Carper, Chambliss, Coburn, Cochran, Coleman, Collins, Cornyn, Craig, Crapo, DeMint, DeWine, Dole, Domenici, Ensign, Enzi, Frist, Graham, Grassley, Gregg, Hagel, Hatch, Hutchison, Imhofe, Isakson, Johnson, Kyl, Landrieu, Lautenberg, Lieberman, Lott, Lugar, Martinez, McCain, McConnell, Menendez, Murkowski, Nelson of Florida, Nelson of Nebraska, Pryor, Roberts, Rockefeller, Salazar, Santorum, Sessions, Shelby, Smith, Specter, Stabenow, Stevens, Sununu, Talent, Thomas, Thune, Vitter, Voinovich, Warner.
    …Three Republican senators made a show of opposing the bill and after they’d collected all the praise they could get, they quickly folded. Why be a hero when you can be fairly sure that the Supreme Court will dispose of this piece of garbage.
    If, however, the Court does not, then our country has taken a step toward totalitarianism. If the government can round up someone and never be required to explain why, then it’s no longer the United States of America as you and I always understood it.
    Our enemies have succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. They have made us become like them.

Keillor then recounts a visit he recently made to the President’s “home” church in Dallas, Texas… and the inability of the very comfortable Methodists gathered there to even appreciate the irony with which he was commenting on how comfortable their lives all seemed.
He concluded thus:

    The Methodists of Dallas can be fairly sure that none of them will be snatched off the streets, flown to Guantánamo, stripped naked, forced to stand for 48 hours in a freezing room with deafening noise, so why should they worry? It’s only the Jews who are in danger, and the homosexuals and gypsies. The Christians are doing just fine.
    If you can’t trust a Methodist with absolute power to arrest people and not have to say why, then whom can you trust?

I should note that some of my very best friends are in one way or another Methodists. Also, Keillor’s reference there to the Jews and the homosexuals and the gypsies is a Nazi-era reference. It would have been kind of nice if he’d put “the Muslims” into that list, since all the detainees in Gitmo are in fact, as far as I know, Muslims. But I guess he was writing in a figurative way there, and it is certainly very evocative and hard-hitting. I think he made the point.

“Modern” means of coercion at Gitmo

I’ve been continuing my pre-Gitmo research. Thanks to all who have sent in suggestions for directions I can go with that. I just discovered tonight that I should be able to get some relevant books out of a nearby library, which is good.
Today, the WaPo had an excellent op-ed by Joseph Margulies, a law prof at Northwestern who was the lead counsel in Rasul, a key habeas-related case at Guantanamo. In the piece, Margulies recalls how, back during the Korean War, the North Koreans succeeded in getting 36 US airmen to falsely confess to a plot to bomb civilian targets…
How did they do this? Margulies writes:

    The senior officer among them was Col. Frank Schwable, the highest-ranking Marine captured in the conflict. “I want to emphasize,” Schwable said later, “that I did not undergo physical torture. Perhaps I would have been more fortunate if I had, because people nowadays seem to understand that better. Mine was the more subtle kind of torment.”
    The airmen were subjected to something new: touchless torture. They were kept isolated from all human contact, apart from their interrogators. One prisoner spent 10 months in solitary confinement, another 13. Schwable did not learn of the armistice until after he confessed.
    They were made to stand or sit in awkward and painful positions for hours at a time. One prisoner had to sit at attention on the edge of a stool for 15 hours per day for 33 days. Another time he had to stand for 30 consecutive hours, until he collapsed. Schwable was required to sit at attention every day for almost 10 weeks.
    They were demeaned, taunted and treated like animals. Schwable said the guards “growled” or “barked” at him, slopped food at him, and made him defecate in public. “Every effort was made to degrade and humiliate me,” he said.
    And of course they were interrogated. Grueling interrogations that lasted hours and hours, repeating the same material they had gone over the day before, and the day before that, until the past became a confusing whirl of fact and fantasy suggested to them by their relentless interlocutors. At last, exhausted and demoralized, their resistance overcome, they confessed. They all confessed in the end. And they all lied…

Compare this with this account, which comes from a recent article by Jeff Tietz in Rolling Stone in which Tietz describes at some length the treatment received by Omar Khadr, a young Arab-Canadian who was just 15 when he was captured by US forces after taking part in a firefight in Afghanistan:

    Before boarding a C-130 transport to Guantanamo, Omar was dressed in an orange jumpsuit and hog-chained: shackled hand and foot, a waist chain cinching his hands to his stomach, another chain connecting the shackles on his hands to those on his feet. At both wrist and ankle, the shackles bit…
    Just before he got on the plane, Omar was forced into sensory-deprivation gear that the military uses to disorient prisoners prior to interrogation. The guards pulled black thermal mittens onto Omar’s hands and taped them hard at the wrists. They pulled opaque goggles over his eyes and placed soundproof earphones over his ears. They put a deodorizing mask over his mouth and nose. They bolted him, fully trussed, to a backless bench. Whichever limbs hadn’t already lost sensation from the cuffs lost sensation from the high-altitude cold during the flight, which took fifteen hours…
    At Guantanamo, Omar was led, his senses still blocked, onto a bus that took the prisoners to a ferry dock. Some of the buses didn’t have seats, and the prisoners usually sat cross-legged on the floor. Guards often lifted the prisoners’ earphones, told them not to move, and when they moved — helplessly, with the motion of the bus, like bowling pins — started kicking them. The repeated blows often left detainees unable to walk for weeks…
    A few months after Omar Khadr arrived at Guantanamo Bay, he was awakened by a guard around midnight. “Get up,” the guard said. “You have a reservation.” “Reservation” is the commonly used term at Gitmo for interrogation.
    In the interrogation room, Omar’s interviewer grew displeased with his level of cooperation. He summoned several MPs, who chained Omar tightly to an eye bolt in the center of the floor. Omar’s hands and feet were shackled together; the eye bolt held him at the point where his hands and feet met. Fetally positioned, he was left alone for half an hour.
    Upon their return, the MPs uncuffed Omar’s arms, pulled them behind his back and recuffed them to his legs, straining them badly at their sockets. At the junction of his arms and legs he was again bolted to the floor and left alone. The degree of pain a human body experiences in this particular “stress position” can quickly lead to delirium, and ultimately to unconsciousness. Before that happened, the MPs returned, forced Omar onto his knees, and cuffed his wrists and ankles together behind his back. This made his body into a kind of bow, his torso convex and rigid, right at the limit of its flexibility. The force of his cuffed wrists straining upward against his cuffed ankles drove his kneecaps into the concrete floor. The guards left.
    An hour or two later they came back, checked the tautness of his chains and pushed him over on his stomach. Transfixed in his bonds, Omar toppled like a figurine. Again they left. Many hours had passed since Omar had been taken from his cell. He urinated on himself and on the floor. The MPs returned, mocked him for a while and then poured pine-oil solvent all over his body. Without altering his chains, they began dragging him by his feet through the mixture of urine and pine oil. Because his body had been so tightened, the new motion racked it. The MPs swung him around and around, the piss and solvent washing up into his face. The idea was to use him as a human mop. When the MPs felt they’d successfully pretended to soak up the liquid with his body, they uncuffed him and carried him back to his cell. He was not allowed a change of clothes for two days…

How come these accounts sound so gruesomely similar? A good part of the answer is given us in Margulies’s article. He recalls how, after the 36 downed US airmen were finally returned home and started talking about their treatment in North Korea,

    One institution, however, was not repelled but intrigued. The experience led the CIA to accelerate its research into the theory and science of coercive interrogation.
    Between 1950 and 1962, the CIA poured millions of dollars into studies that tested different interrogation techniques, hoping to learn from and refine the lessons of Korea. The research culminated in the top-secret KUBARK manual, a 1963 primer on how to conduct coercive counterintelligence interrogations. The manual was finally disclosed in 1997 and is now available online.

That would be here. Or here.
(KUBARK, according to the National Security Archive web-page at that first link, is the CIA’s cryptonym for itself. Go figure.)
Anyway, at some later point, the basic principles in KUBARK turned up again, in the “SERE” program that the army Special Forces etc started to use. One interesting aspect of the SERE program was that it was purportedly a defensive program– i.e., it was to train these people to be able to resist various forms of coercive interrogation if they were ever captured. But in a period in which many human-rights organizations had mounted large and fairly successful campaigns against the KUBARK program– especially, in the various forms in which it was taught to repressive Latin American militaries at the School of the Americas and elsewhere– having the SERE program out there kept alive a lot of so-called specialized “know-how” in the US military about coercive interrogations. (This is parallel to what goes in in the field of, for example, bioweapons… where everyone who’s doing the research for it claims very loudly that “It’s only for defensive purposes!” — but guess what, they still end up with all those handy toxins on the shelf in case they need them.)
Anyway, despite the plethora of footnotes at the bottom of that KUBARK manual, the whole business is not so terribly arcane, “modern”, and special as you might think. In fact, it includes many techniques of coercion known throughout history, including many used by the various European colonial powers around the world throughout the past 400 years.
Back in 1992, I organized a conference of Middle Eastern human rights activists in Spain at which the main focus was on trying to build a trans-national network against torture. We had a small number of people from other regions there, too, including a great psychiatrist from the Copenhagen-based International Rehabilitation Center for Torture Victims. He quoted the organization’s founder, Dr. Inge Genefke, who has famously said:

    “The aim of torture is to destroy a person as a human being, to destroy their identity and soul. It is more evil than murder… Today we know that survivors of torture can be helped to regain their health and strength, and in helping them we take the weapon from their torturers. They sought the destruction of other human beings. We have proved that they have not succeeded.”

Genefke’s colleague who came to our conference went a bit further than that, too. He said that the aim of the torturer is to destroy the victim as an independent personality, and that it is the independent personality that is the basic building block of democracy. Quite true.

So really, who IS going to Gitmo?

I guess I never answered the question in the title of my last post. So the answer is: me, I’m going to Gitmo October 11.
Last week, I was contacted by the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Detainee Affairs, Mr. Cully Stimson, who said he was organizing two one-day trips to Guantanamo in October, and invited me to make my choice between them. After hearing a little more about the trips, I decided to go. As Mr. Stimson described the trips to me, I’ll be able to see a number of facilities and workspaces around the detention camp(s), and talk to a number of officials there. I asked if I could talk to some detainees, but he said that the delegates from the ICRC are the only outsiders who are allowed to meet with them. I am very sorry about that. But still, I think it’s worth going so I can learn more about the system, the situation, and some of the people there.
I respect Mr. Stimson’s decision to invite me. He made clear when we talked that he had been reading what I’ve been writing about the detention operation, so I guess he knows more or less where I’m coming from. I think it is a strength of people in a democratic culture to be able to reach out and maintain respectful relations and communications with people with whom one might expect to disagree. So the fact that he’d invited me even though he could reasonably expect me to be a tough questioner is another reason I decided to go. I am going to go in a spirit of listening and learning as much as I can. I told him, of course, that I would be writing as much as I could about the whole experience, and he said he expected that.
Of course, I shall be writing as fully about what I am not allowed to see and do at Gitmo as about what I am allowed to see and do.
The preceding post here about the newly legislated ground-rules for the new Military Commissions is very relevant to what is going to be going on in Gitmo in October. I don’t expect that the new Military Commissions will be up and running by October 11, but no doubt some preparations will already have started to be made there for them.
Meantime, I need to learn as much as I can about the whole set-up at Gitmo before I go, so I’ll know what questions to ask when I get there. I have started collecting various resource materials… AP has a done some very solid work on getting basic details about the detainees out into the public domain through FOIA requests, and I found I could access some of this material through this portal (scroll down right sidebar.) I’ve been checking out as much as I can of the sgreat reporting by the Miami Herald‘s Carol Rosenberg and the websites of the big human rights organizations, and I’ve been talking to a few people… If JWN readers have other great ideas how I can prepare for the trip, let me know.