Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Guantánamo at Ten

This past Wednesday, 1/11/12, marks the ten-year anniversary of the first prisoners' arrival to Guantánamo Bay. The American facility at Guantánamo remains a shameful stain on our national honor. The facility itself isn't as important as what went on there – torture and abuse, and prisoners known to be innocent being held for years – and what's still going on there – the indefinite "detention" of individuals without charges.

Unsurprisingly, the ACLU has one of the best statements on this disgraceful milestone:

Ten years have passed since the first prisoner arrived in Guantánamo Bay, making it the longest-standing war prison in U.S. history. Almost 800 men have passed through Guantánamo’s cells. Today, 171 men remain. Fashioned as an “island outside the law” where terrorism suspects could be detained without process and interrogated without restraint, Guantánamo has been a catastrophic failure on every front. It is long past time for this shameful episode in American history to be brought to a close.

Guantánamo started with two false premises: that the men sent there were all terrorists picked up on the battlefield and that, as “unlawful enemy combatants,” they had no legal rights. In reality, a very small percentage of the prisoners were captured by U.S. forces; the vast majority were seized by Pakistani and Afghan militias, tribesmen, and officials, and sold to the United States for large bounties. On instructions from senior White House and Defense Department officials, the men received virtually no screening before being shipped thousands of miles to Guantánamo. The only “process” these prisoners received upon arrival in Guantánamo was coercive interrogation.

As documents secured by the ACLU demonstrate, Guantánamo became a perverse laboratory for brutal interrogation methods. Prisoners were subjected to beatings, sleep deprivation, stress positions, extreme temperatures and prolonged isolation. So inhumane was the interrogation regime that the FBI instructed agents not to participate. Within the Department of Defense, too, there were courageous objectors, but they were largely ignored.

Our nation continues to pay the price for those egregious errors. Torture is the principle reason for the astonishing fact that, more than ten years after 9/11, the alleged perpetrators of those attacks—though in U.S. custody for as many as nine years—have not been brought to justice. And it is the principle reason why federal courts were rejected in favor of military commissions with looser evidentiary standards. Even under this imbalanced system, only six Guantánamo prisoners have been convicted of crimes before a military commission. Only one prisoner has been tried in federal court, in a case that showed the strengths of our criminal justice system: after considering the evidence, the jury refused to rubber stamp the government’s case, convicting the defendant on the one charge it found justified, which still resulted in a life sentence. That case should have put to rest any unfounded fears that federal courts cannot conduct fair and safe trials for Guantánamo prisoners, just as they have in hundreds of other terrorism cases. Instead, fearmongerers spun the case as a defeat for national security. Bowing to pressure and unwilling to fight Congress’s subsequent attempts to ban the transfer of detainees to the United States for federal prosecution, the Obama administration restarted the discredited military commission trials.

The United States’ reputation as a defender of human rights has been profoundly diminished because of Guantánamo’s continued existence, damaging our ability to effect change on the world stage. Our allies have refused to share intelligence out of concern that it will be used in unfair military commissions, and will not extradite terrorism suspects if they will end up in military detention or face military trials. Perhaps most critically, military officials acknowledge that Guantánamo has been used for years as a recruiting tool by our enemies -- creating far more terrorists than it has ever held -- undermining rather than enhancing our security.

Each branch of government shares responsibility for the perpetuation of Guantánamo’s legacy...

Read the rest at the link. In his piece on this anniversary, Scott Horton makes many similar points, and adds:

The second underreported lesson of Gitmo relates to the poisonous effect of partisan politics. No one expected matters as deeply felt as 9/11 to remain entirely outside of partisan politics, but the idea of Gitmo was cast soon after the attack, amid a political campaign. Republicans made it an issue in the midterm elections of 2002, marketing it as a “robust” or “proactive” approach to defending the nation against terrorists. The message worked marvelously, scoring enormous gains for the G.O.P.

Unknown to most Americans, though, just before the fall vote, representatives of the CIA and FBI went to the White House to break the bad news: Gitmo had been filled not with dangerous Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders, but with a bunch of nobodies. Political considerations plainly dictated the response. The government would not review the prisoners’ cases or grant releases, we were told; instead, “the president has determined that they are all enemy combatants.” Not only did this approach deny facts later borne out in case reviews and habeas petitions, it aggressively demonized the Gitmo population in order to create a sort of political insurance policy.

The Bush Administration’s shameful response continues to distort the domestic political dialogue about Guantánamo, which amounts to an extended effort to avoid accountability for a series of stupid political mistakes. In the end, it has been effective domestic politics. But it has cost America enormously on the global stage, diminishing the country’s influence and degrading its moral image to an unprecedented degree. This, more than any other reason, is why Obama’s pledge to close Gitmo was fundamentally wise, and why Obama should be reminded of that pledge and pressed to bring it to fruition.

Lakhdar Boumediene was an innocent man held prisoner for seven and half years at Guantánamo without charges, and only released in 2009. He explains some of his ordeal in a New York Times op-ed, My Guantánamo Nightmare:

Some American politicians say that people at Guantánamo are terrorists, but I have never been a terrorist. Had I been brought before a court when I was seized, my children’s lives would not have been torn apart, and my family would not have been thrown into poverty. It was only after the United States Supreme Court ordered the government to defend its actions before a federal judge that I was finally able to clear my name and be with them again...

The fact that the United States had made a mistake was clear from the beginning. Bosnia’s highest court investigated the American claim, found that there was no evidence against me and ordered my release. But instead, the moment I was released American agents seized me and the five others. We were tied up like animals and flown to Guantánamo, the American naval base in Cuba. I arrived on Jan. 20, 2002.

I still had faith in American justice. I believed my captors would quickly realize their mistake and let me go. But when I would not give the interrogators the answers they wanted — how could I, when I had done nothing wrong? — they became more and more brutal. I was kept awake for many days straight. I was forced to remain in painful positions for hours at a time. These are things I do not want to write about; I want only to forget...

I will never forget sitting with the four other men in a squalid room at Guantánamo, listening over a fuzzy speaker as Judge Leon read his decision in a Washington courtroom. He implored the government not to appeal his ruling, because “seven years of waiting for our legal system to give them an answer to a question so important is, in my judgment, more than plenty.” I was freed, at last, on May 15, 2009...

I’m told that my Supreme Court case is now read in law schools. Perhaps one day that will give me satisfaction, but so long as Guantánamo stays open and innocent men remain there, my thoughts will be with those left behind in that place of suffering and injustice.

The ACLU has an audio podcast with Boumediene, as well as a video series , Voices From Guantánamo. Digby passes along Boumediene's appearance on Up (along with a reminder about a similar, disturbing case):

Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

Boumediene's words, "I still had faith in American justice," strike deeply, and remind me of the words of an abused Iraqi prisoner quoted in a previous post": "When you came to our country, we hoped law would return. We still have that hope."

If you would like take action, you can sign the ACLU petition to President Obama. You can also check your congressperson and senators' stances on the issue, and voice your opinion to them (including thanking them, if appropriate).

America's history has never been pure, nor has any nation's. But as E.J. Dionne put it in an Independence Day column back in 2006:

...The true genius of America has always been its capacity for self-correction. I'd assert that this is a better argument for patriotism than any effort to pretend that the Almighty has marked us as the world's first flawless nation.

One need only point to the uses that Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. made of the core ideas of the Declaration of Independence against slavery and racial injustice to show how the intellectual and moral traditions of the United States operate in favor of continuous reform.

There is, moreover, a distinguished national tradition in which dissident voices identify with the revolutionary aspirations of the republic's founders.

MLK Day is a good time to remember these things. Due process is one of the cornerstones of the civilization, not to be abandoned lightly, and not to be violated without consequences. Of all the human or civil rights, it perhaps the most basic and essential. It's heartening that other nations take American war crimes seriously (and perpetrators are scared to travel abroad), but it's shameful that America doesn't want to account for its sins itself. America's best tradition has been its commitment to improvement and better honoring its stated ideals. In this case, the necessary "improvement" is a reclaiming of principles we once held dear but our elected leaders have since abandoned.

(The ACLU has an excellent infographic on Guantánamo. Follow the link to see the whole thing.)

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