Some Truths About Guantánamo Bay

Guest Blogger: Lawrence Wilkerson

There are several dimensions to the debate over the U.S. prison facilities at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba that the media have largely missed and, thus, of which the American people are almost completely unaware.  For that matter, few within the government who were not directly involved are aware either.

The first of these is the utter incompetence of the battlefield vetting in Afghanistan during the early stages of the U.S. operations there.  Simply stated, no meaningful attempt at discrimination was made in-country by competent officials, civilian or military, as to who we were transporting to Cuba for detention and interrogation.  This was a factor of having too few troops in the combat zone, of the troops and civilians who were there having too few people trained and skilled in such vetting, and of the incredible pressure coming down from Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld and others to “just get the bastards to the interrogators”.   It did not help that poor U.S. policies such as bounty-hunting, a weak understanding of cultural tendencies, and an utter disregard for the fundamentals of jurisprudence prevailed as well (no blame in the latter realm should accrue to combat soldiers as this it not their bailiwick anyway).

The second dimension that is largely unreported is that several in the U.S. leadership became aware of this lack of proper vetting very early on and, thus, of the reality that many of the detainees were innocent of any substantial wrongdoing, had little intelligence value, and should be immediately released.  But to have admitted this reality would have been a black mark on their leadership from virtually day one of the so-called Global War on Terror and these leaders already had black marks enough: the dead in a field in Pennsylvania, in the ashes of the Pentagon, and in the ruins of the World Trade Towers. They were not about to admit to their further errors at Guantánamo Bay.  Better to claim that everyone there was a hardcore terrorist, was of enduring intelligence value, and would return to jihad if released.  I am very sorry to say that I believe there were uniformed military who aided and abetted these falsehoods, even at the highest levels of our armed forces.

The third basically unknown dimension is how hard Secretary of State Colin Powell and his deputy Richard Armitage labored to ameliorate the GITMO situation from almost day one.  For example, Ambassador Pierre Prosper, the U.S. envoy for war crimes issues, was under a barrage of questions and directions almost daily from Powell or Deputy Secretary Armitage to repatriate every detainee who could be repatriated.  This was quite a few of them, including Uighurs from China and, incredulously, citizens of the United Kingdom (“incredulously” because few doubted the capacity of the UK to detain and manage terrorists).  Standing resolutely in Ambassador Prosper’s path was Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld who would have none of it.  Rumsfeld was staunchly backed by the Vice President of the United States, Richard Cheney.  Moreover, the fact that among the detainees was a 13 year-old boy and a man over 90, did not seem to faze either man, initially at least.


Published in: on March 16, 2009 at 3:46 pm Comments Off on Some Truths About Guantánamo Bay

Secret Courts Multiply in the U.S.

Mohamed v. Jeppesen Dataplan, Inc

Oral arguments available here (audio .wma).

Mohamed, and 4 other plaintiffs, are suing an airline for transporting him around the world, against his will, for the purpose of subjecting him to the torture of foreign governments. Apparently he has some pretty damning quotes which (if believed) make it as clear as day that the executives in the airline company knew what was going on and made the calculated choice to participate nonetheless. If that’s true, and barring any defenses they might raise, it sounds like they are pretty clearly liable to Mohamed for damages.

But then the government ‘intervened’ (unilaterally requested that it be made a defendant) and argued that, under the ill-defined ‘state secrets privilege,’ the case could not go forward because it would necessarily require testimony on a subject of state secrecy.

Published in: on February 16, 2009 at 11:52 pm Comments Off on Secret Courts Multiply in the U.S.

Replacing Guantanamo: Where Do We Go From Here?

Much of what Barack Obama intends to accomplish as president will have to abide by the rhythm of politics. Drafting new policies, gaining public and congressional support, and shepherding bills through the legislative process are the cost of doing business in Washington. However, there is one messy issue in particular that has the potential to be a political and symbolic trap for the Obama administration. That is the question of what to do with Guantanamo Bay.

A prominent symbol of the Bush Administration’s war on terror, with all the moral ambiguities and international condemnation that entails, closure of Guantanamo Bay has long been a cause célèbre. Almost universally condemned by the political left and world opinion, it is viewed as the kind of thing that only could have happened on Bush’s watch. So naturally there is much hope that our next president, who never missed a chance during the campaign to stress that he was not George W. Bush, will promptly get rid of it. Unfortunately, the fact that this is obviously a good idea does not mean it won’t be messy and difficult.

It’s not that Guantanamo’s closure itself is controversial. Anxiety over the consequences of the United States having a very public prison camp that doesn’t bother with things like due process is no longer limited to Amnesty International and the ACLU. It is increasingly becoming conventional bipartisan wisdom to opine that Guantanamo’s time has come. The costs to America’s image of having its own personal zone where the Geneva Conventions and habeas corpus don’t apply now outweigh the benefits. Even Secretary of Defense Gates and Secretary of State Rice have gone on record agreeing that it needs to be closed down.


Published in: on November 28, 2008 at 11:41 am Comments Off on Replacing Guantanamo: Where Do We Go From Here?

Habeas Corpus is Not a Luxury

From the beginning, the Global War on Terror has raised serious questions about habeas corpus and due process in the context of crimes of terrorism. But even as a very public and high profile debate took place on this issue, it was notable for its theoretical nature. There was no poster child for defending habeas corpus rights. As arguments were exchanged, few high profile journalists or pundits made reference to any specific cases or individuals who had found themselves caught in the path of these new policies.

It is not hard to think of why this might be. Terrorists are today’s Bad Guys, not sympathetic figures. Additionally the very nature of these policies makes it difficult to find stories in the first place. It is hard to bring stories to light when the individual, his alleged crimes, place of incarceration, and ability to seek relief are all controlled and squelched by the government.

However, 7 years into the debate, stories are beginning to drift to the surface about what it is like to be on the receiving end when the world’s most powerful government no longer concerns itself with charges, trials, or due process.


Published in: on October 8, 2008 at 10:58 am Comments Off on Habeas Corpus is Not a Luxury