January 15, 2008

Gitmo's Not Going Anywhere

Along with the prevailing myth that General David Petraeus actually calls the shots in Iraq and that all military decisions should be left to the "commanders on the ground," claims of strategic and tactical necessity have been used repeatedly to justify the twin abominations that are the Guantanamo Bay internment camp and the use of torture by American personnel. While the U.S. military has continued to pursue the ill-defined and poorly run missions in both Iraq and Afghanistan with dedication - and largely left criticism of Bush Administration "policy" for retired officers - it is telling that the positions of the armed forces with regard to torture and indefinite imprisonment are notably less doctrinaire.

As Amnesty International marked the sixth anniversary of the Guantanamo prison camp - and let's pause for a moment and reflect that the United States has been running what is essentially a gulag for SIX YEARS - with protests and their Tear It Down and Unsubscribe Me campaigns, military men have been speaking out. In December, retired Marine General Joseph P. Hoar and retired General David M. Maddox wrote an op-ed piece in Stars and Stripes calling on the presidential candidates to make respect for human rights and the Geneva Conventions a cornerstone of any new administration, and even quoted General Petraeus in doing so:

General David Petraeus, responding to a survey that revealed a troubling level of acceptance of abuse against noncombatants by U.S. soldiers in Iraq, underscored this in an open letter to the troops in May. “Our values and the laws governing warfare teach us to respect human dignity, maintain our integrity, and do what is right. Adherence to our values distinguishes us from our enemy,” Petraeus wrote. And while “some may argue that we would be more effective if we sanctioned torture or other expedient methods to obtain information from the enemy, they would be wrong.”

We agree. Whoever the next occupant of the Oval Office is, he or she will be the person to whom the men and women of our armed forces will look, not only for their orders but for the guidance and standards that inform those orders. Our troops need clear and consistent standards, and the military provides those to them. But if the commander in chief muddies that message by saying that he or she would be willing to authorize torture in exceptional circumstances, we cannot expect our troops on the battlefield, who face death every day, to eschew it.

Our country cannot hope to lead the world if it forsakes the most fundamental rules and standards it insists other countries uphold. And no candidate can effectively lead this country without a deep understanding of and respect for the values on which it was founded. We owe a duty to those serving our country in uniform to do what we can to secure that leadership.

On Friday, in what may be an effort to reduce the amount of blame shouldered by low-ranking military personnel, the Army dismissed the conviction of the only officer court-martialed in the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal, reinforcing the widely-held belief that pursuit and prosecution of top-level civilian and military leaders involved in the degradation, terrorization, torture, beating and murder of captives at the notorious Iraqi jail was wholly insufficient. But while this this might at first seem to run counter to the central thesis of the generals' letter in Stars and Stripes, the very man whose conviction was dismissed had some interesting things to say:
The revelation that the Army threw out the conviction of the only officer court-martialed in the Abu Ghraib scandal renewed outrage from human rights advocates who complained that not enough military and civilian leaders were held accountable for the abuse of Iraqi prisoners.

Those critics found an unlikely ally in the officer himself, Lieutenant Colonel Steven L. Jordan, whose conviction on a minor charge of disobeying an order was dismissed this week, leaving him with only an administrative reprimand.

Jordan told the Associated Press on Thursday he believes many officers and enlisted soldiers did not face adequate scrutiny in the investigation that led to convictions against 11 soldiers, none with a rank higher than staff sergeant.

He said the probe was "not complete" and that a link between abusive interrogations at Abu Ghraib and in military prisons at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and in Afghanistan was not adequately established.

If rough interrogation techniques were taught to the soldiers who abused prisoners at Abu Ghraib, Jordan said, "the question at that point is, who's responsible for that? Is it Donald Rumsfeld? (Lieutenant) General (Ricardo) Sanchez? ... I don't know."
Meanwhile, the Central Intelligence Agency (C.I.A.), in what was either an episode of monumental incompetence or a savvy act of damage control and an effort to avoid another scapegoating by the White House, confirmed that tapes of two interrogation sessions that included the torture of "high value" prisoners had been destroyed. The resultant publicity has yet to die down, and Congressman John Conyers today requested a special prosecutor be appointed to investigate the matter. If this is indeed a planned maneuver rather than a blunder, it would seem to indicate that the C.I.A. would like to be out from under the tenuous legal doctrines of the Bush White House.

Likewise, even at the highest levels of the U.S. military command structure, sentiment runs strongly against the camp at Guantanamo Bay, because it so clearly sets a standard that other countries will feel free to follow in mistreating their own captives, some of whom may one day be American soldiers. Monday, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen himself added his voice to those calling for the prison's closure:

I'd like to see it shut down... More than anything else it's been the image — how Gitmo has become around the world, in terms of representing the United States... I believe that from the standpoint of how it reflects on us that it's been pretty damaging.

Six years after it opened, Guantanamo Bay - the greatest stain on the national reputation of the United States for equal justice since Manzanar - appears to face a growing movement aimed at shutting it down. After all, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has said he wants to shutter the facility, echoing even President Bush's own expressed desire. It is only a matter of time.

Or not.

Because while the Guantanamo Bay prison continues to operate in the face of universal opprobrium - both genuine and merely voiced - the most important fact is that it CONTINUES TO OPERATE. The people with the power to bring to a close this shameful chapter in our country's history simply aren't doing anything about it. Instead they appear to be waiting for closure to somehow occur spontaneously, as if the soldiers charged with operating the camp will somehow, on their own, make it all go away.

Rather than taking action, claims that "complex legal issues" stand in the way are being made, and 300 men sit in prison with their only hope a sham legal system that would barely be recognized as legitimate by the Generals who run Myanmar. Unable to unscrew the royal disaster that is America's signature facility for the denial of due process and its global symbol of hyposcisy on human rights, our "leaders" instead talk about their "wish" that Guantanamo Bay disappear.

Admiral Mullen himself noted "I'm not aware that there is any immediate consideration to closing Guantanamo Bay," and you can rest assured that there aren't any. President Bush and Secretary Gates can play the wounded ingenues for all they're worth, but the fact of the matter is that the Guantanamo Bay camp continues to hold men unjustly, without even attempting to meet the burden of proof that they deserve to be imprisoned.

Whatever medieval theocrats like Mike Huckabee might say to the contrary, we do not treat these prisoners "too nice" - just ask yourself which you'd rather have: legal representation and the opportunity to win your release from captivity, or 3 squares a day - and George W. Bush shows every inclination, as with all of the other messes he has created, of leaving this steaming pile of tragedy, disgrace and degradation for the next president. That's not really a surprise anymore, but it doesn't make it any less wrong.

A slideshow of worldwide Amnesty International protests against Guantanamo Bay on January 11, 2008 can be found here.

Below is a video from Amnesty International's Unsubscribe Me campaign called "Waiting for the Guards." In it, a performance artist is placed in a stress position, one of the torture techniques used by American personnel in the "War on Terror."

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