Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Prison Unending: A Decade of Guantanamo

Today marks the tenth year since the first arrival of prisoners at the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba - I won’t consecrate that with the usually positive word “anniversary”. Nor will I sanitize the status of the people there by calling them “detainees”, for they are prisoners and always have been. The whole sorry decade-long episode has been a fiasco of injustice and incompetence, as has been amply documented elsewhere, and I would still like to see President Obama keep his 2008 campaign pledge to shut the camp down. 
That word “detainee” was specifically applied, in Orwellian fashion, to undermine the legitimacy of claims that the men held there were prisoners of war: I know because I served at Guantanamo Bay as an enlisted Army Reserve intelligence analyst, and that’s what my unit was told soon after we landed. It was part of a conscious decision to treat these people outside the bounds of the Geneva Convention, a mistake that we have paid for dearly in degradation of our national character and our moral standing around the world. I arrived six months after the camp opened with the second rotation of reservists to serve there. For seven months I was separated from my then-wife, pursuit of my doctorate on hold while I did intelligence analysis to assist with the interrogation of prisoners captured in the immediate wake of September 11th. This was the fall and winter of 2002: up to that point, the public, including me, was behind the war in Afghanistan and the hunt for Osama bin Ladin and the rest of Al Qaida, and few people were aware of the scheme already underway to sell a war in Iraq despite its obvious irrationality and against the objections of much of the nation and the world.  
I have one story that perfectly captures the drum-beat backwards thinking in the run-up to the March 2003 invasion of Iraq. On September 26th 2002, I got back to my quarters after a long day and turned on the evening news, where I saw Donald Rumsfeld saying that  “high-ranking detainees” had revealed links between Saddam and al Qaida, specifically regarding chemical weapons; he was referring to an interview that Condoleeza Rice had given the day before in which she said the same thing. Bush himself would also make the case to the press that day in the strongest terms, saying that “the Iraqi regime could launch a biological or chemical attack in as little as 45 minutes after the order were given.” I thought this was odd, because if such information had come out of Gitmo, I was in a position that I would probably have known it. The next morning I went to work as usual and was immediately ordered by my commanding officer to begin research for another round of interrogations for the relevant prisoners - and I was specifically told to look for the links between al Qaida and the Iraqi regime. It was a long day, and a team of us found very little - only hearsay and circumstantial evidence. Trained in the scientific method, I knew that this was no road to impartiality, and one of the Reservists on my team who was a lawyer said that there was no way any of it would pass muster in a court of law. Our team reported as much, but to no avail: Wolfowitz’s and Feith’s Office of Special Plans had already been stood up to supply officials with the intelligence they wanted to see. They really did cherry-pick the evidence to justify prior conclusions, and I witnessed it first-hand. 

When I was at Gitmo one lesson kept repeating itself: positive approaches to interrogation won the most information from prisoners. The best way to make a prisoner sing was for an interrogator to build respect and rapport - a hot meal from the naval base’s McDonald’s worked better than screaming or intimidation to collect intelligence. While I was there, strict limits existed on how the prisoners were to be treated, because the early camp commanders knew that Gitmo was under a fish-eye lens in the international media. In those early days I heard of a guard doing rounds who was spit on by a prisoner and who took a hose and sprayed down everyone in the cell block. He was, however, immediately punished and forced to apologize to the prisoners. I personally saw no torture there, and the one time I did encounter a report of abusive treatment at one of our overseas bases I reported it up my chain of command. General Jeffery Miller, who would loosen interrogation standards at Gitmo and then export them to Abu Graib, with predictable and disastrous results, became camp commander about a month before I was deployed to Iraq. Far from home and family and facing deployment to a war, I don’t know if I would have had the strength to oppose the implementation of the serious abuse or torture that reportedly occurred at Gitmo after I left. Since then I’ve opposed other, albeit lesser, outrages that I’ve encountered in government, so I’d like to think I would have then, but I’m not sure and I am glad that I didn’t have to find out. 
Unlike some Leftists, I am not a pacifist, for I believe that people and countries have the right of self-defense. While war is never to be joined lightly or gleefully, I thought that after September 11th it was necessary and right to overthrow the hideous Taliban regime in Afghanistan, install a secular government, and build a prosperous and stable country there, as we had with Europe following WWII. I had joined the Army Reserves in the mid-nineties under Clinton, when the world was still criticizing the United States for waiting too long and doing too little in Rwanda, and clamoring for action to prevent another genocide in the Balkans. Our other main international obligation was to defend South Korea in the case of an invasion from the still-totalitarian North. I had just spent a year in South Korea teaching and had visited the Demilitarized Zone, where I got a glimpse of that sad Stalinist regime. I decided that joining the Army Reserves would be a good thing to do, for several reasons: I was a political scientist-in-training and I wanted to see what made the military mind tick, and there was a small amount of money for Reservists to pay down student loans - not a lot, but a few thousand dollars. I also had less self-interested motivations: the National Guard and Reserves are the country’s “well regulated militia” (as opposed to the crazy gun-nut survivalist kind) and I saw serving in them as a form of public service, and furthermore I was indeed willing to wear a uniform and to risk myself to help prevent things like mass rape in Kosovo or a North Korean artillery bombardment of Seoul. 
Thus after the Cold War it seemed that America was putting its more imperialist impulses behind it and that the world in fact wanted us to take the lead in keeping the peace in hot spots. That may have been a little naive, bit only a little, I think: no one could have predicted how imperialist, insane, and immoral Bush and the neoconservatives would push our foreign policy after September 11th, and to my knowledge no one in fact did predict the depths of their hubris, depravity, and foolishness. America was shocked and wounded after September 11th, but the militarist and authoritarian response that was thrust upon us, and that still continues, inflicted permanent damage to our society’s moral and political fabric, and much death and destruction on other societies too. This corrosive response is represented by the indefinite detention of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, where there are men who have been determined by the government to not be guilty, but who will not be released back to their families and homes until the war on terror is over, whenever that may be. 
After Guantanamo Bay and Iraq I sometimes feel defensive about my military service, although I’ve never actually been criticized for it. I know many on the Left oppose militarism and imperialism and would wonder why someone like me who is otherwise so left-wing would have anything to do with the Army.  It doesn’t seem to me that the state is going to wither away any time soon, which means that we are going to have armies, spy agencies, police forces, and the like for the foreseeable future. Of course, checking and limiting power is necessary, and it would be great if someday there are no more armies and no more wars - and we all should work diligently towards such real peace. But until then, I contend that you might as well have liberals and progressives and even radicals in positions of grave public responsibility, so that the apparatus of the state is in fact run more responsibly. It won’t be run perfectly, of course, but the Left’s post-Vietnam aversion to militarism and authoritarianism is a real check on abuse of police and military powers. The disastrous Iraq invasion went ahead in part because there was a lack of Lefties in the key military, government, and judicial decision-making positions to block and to slow things down. Indeed it is easy to argue that it is not just better when liberals, progressives, and radicals serve in government, but that it is an obligation for them to do so. It would, in fact, be best if we made public service a noble, dignified thing again so that we can attract the best minds and most upstanding moral characters to it. 
The citizenry need to be more active, and we need better people in public service, for good government really does come, in the last analysis, from people. To quote Jefferson, “Where then is our republicanism to be found? Not in our constitution certainly, but merely in the spirit of our people. That would oblige even a despot to govern us republicanly.” Constitutional checks and balances on power are important, but they have failed us for years now as we have embarked on wasteful and destructive wars of choice and imprisoned people extrajudicially for a decade.

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