That same March week I noticed a tiny, authorless Reuters piece way in the back pages of the Los Angeles Times news section headlined, "Guantanamo Commander Sent to Iraq." It began:
"The Army general in charge of the prisoner operation at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, has been reassigned to oversee prisoner detention operations in Iraq, U.S. military officials said Wednesday."
Actually, Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller's new position will be "deputy commander for detainee operations for the U.S.-led forces in Iraq." Though no reporter seems to have thought this news worthy of comment, it struck me that, as only "deputy commander," the general still has something to shoot for in Iraq and, perhaps more significantly, that we now have two small dots of global incarceration to connect; two places on earth where, in "unapproachable zones or distant islands under strict military control," beyond the reach of courts, beyond curious reporters or freelance Americans of whatever sort, shielded from rules, laws, international conventions, or oversight, the Pentagon and our intelligence services, at the behest only of the President, hold surprising numbers of people in detention without charges, without the need for either trial, judgment, or future release.
In Guantanamo, Cuba, and in occupied Iraq, in other words, we now have two black holes of injustice; and once you have two of anything that needs to be managed, you can always imagine one of them as more important than the other and you immediately have a career ladder. Let's assume, then, that Maj. Gen. Miller is on one and that this is a promotion, not a demotion. If so, the question for the future is: What will the next rung on that ladder be?
With remarkably little attention from our media, and deep in the shadows, the Bush administration is creating what Neal Katyal, "chief counsel to the military defense lawyers in the Guantanamo case pending at the U.S. Supreme Court," calls a "legal Frankenstein." Or maybe it's just a Frankenstein. In his piece in Slate (
Gitmo' Better Blues), he's referring only to the government's Guantanamo case at the Supreme Court, but it's a phrase that could be applied no less aptly to our larger Bermuda Triangle of injustice that, since the Afghan War of 2001, the Bush administration has been setting up around the world.
In a rare piece on the subject in a major newspaper, last December as Saddam entered our offshore prison world, James Risen and Thom Shanker of the New York Times wrote of "what has developed into a global detention system run by the Pentagon and the CIA
a secretive universe
made up of large and small facilities scattered throughout the world
Officials described the network of detention centers as a prison system with its own unique hierarchy, one in which the most important captives are kept at the greatest distance from the prying eyes of the public and the media. And it is a system in which the jailers have refined the arts of interrogation in order to drain the detainees of critical information."
Ah, those "arts of interrogation." You would want to keep them from "prying eyes," wouldn't you? And the Bush administration has done so with remarkable success. It seems that, for them, even Guantanamo is too exposed and so, oddly enough, that ultimate lockdown facility seems to hold no significant al-Qaeda or Taliban figures. They are held "elsewhere."
Around us, as Americans, the shadows have been deepening. They weren't first cast by this administration, but its powerful urge to scare us all into "preventive wars" and unparalleled global domination has caused them to deepen immeasurably. Every now and then, as with Richard Clarke's testimony or in Fallujah recently, something in those shadows is, unexpectedly, sometimes horrifyingly illuminated, whether we care to exercise our prying eyes or not. Under an assault of almost unbelievable brutality, lit up last week was the semi-secret world of private armies in Iraq -- those four dead and mutilated men, working for a firm called Blackwater USA, part of a $100 billion global-boom business for which our government is the largest customer.
Just for a second, that business sat in the spotlit glare and we learned that the second largest force in our Iraqi "coalition of the willing" was not the British military contingent of 8,000-plus in southern Iraq but the 15,000 well-armed, well-paid mercenaries who protect everyone from U.S. and British officials to private business contractors. Some of them learned their skills under the old South African Apartheid regime, some under the brutal Pinochet dictatorship in Chile; some are Gurkhas from Nepal (reminders of a British colonial past), some islanders from Fiji, and some like the four who were dismembered in Fallujah had backgrounds in the U.S. Special Forces. As a legion, they truly make up a "coalition of the billing."
They represent the gap between an undermanned American imperial force and complete desperation in that occupied land -- and in death they fall into a shadow body count unacknowledged by the Pentagon.
Our imperial mini-gulag is part of the same shadow world, the same "privatizing" urge which is taking everything from jobs to corporate profits offshore and beyond reach, beyond view. The military and "justice" have both in the last few years been shipped "offshore." The military (and the CIA) are, in the pungent phrase of Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, "outsourcing their detention centers." As with so much that's imperial, this is an offshore development that, if left unchallenged, will sooner or later come home to roost as in a small way it already has thanks to cases like that of Jose Padilla, an example of a no-call prisoner in U.S. jails, and to the Patriot Act. (This, by the way, is not simply a phenomenon of the United States, though we've led the way. In Le Monde Diplomatique this month (Terror Tactics), Ignacio Ramonet points to the Patriot Act-like new laws and regulations spreading across Europe under the rubric of "security" and asks whether the democracies are, in fact, "committing suicide."
Below, I offer a little rundown on our growing American black hole of injustice, connecting as many dots as I can. But, of course, what can one man, with no resources but a search engine and the Internet, know. Not much, I'm afraid. How many dots can he see and connect? Not many. This is a subject that should be pursued by teams of journalists. But with a few honorable exceptions -- still the single best and most revealing piece on the subject being a report Dana Priest and Barton Gellman did for the Washington Post back in December 2002, U.S. Decries Abuse but Defends Interrogations -- American coverage has been little short of woeful.
If you want proof of that, just check out a recent New York Times report on Guantanamo by Neil A. Lewis, headlined bluntly, Guantanamo Detainees Deliver Intelligence Gains. And who sez so? The "sources" of this definitive headline turn out to be unnamed "military officials" from an "arranged tour" of the prison complex and two named figures: Maj. Gen. Miller (you remember him) and Steve Rodriguez, "a veteran intelligence officer who oversees the interrogation teams." Of course, they deny all the lurid charges of mistreatment from released prisoners that recently appeared in the British press and claim that, even after up to two years of incarceration and isolation, prisoners at Guantanamo continue to provide "a stream of intelligence."
On the face of it, this is an absurd claim and nothing in the piece justifies the headline. Though the piece itself has various caveats ("There is no way so far to verify the situation of the detainees as described by the American officials, nor the charges of mistreatment."), I think the headline alone might put it among my nominees for this year's Judith Miller Single-Sourced Government Informant Award in the Journalism Hall of Shame.
Common sense would call on any reasonable person to question, rather than highlight, the claim that (even if the Guantanamo detainees are exactly who the Americans claim they are) a population of al Qaeda and Taliban foot soldiers held in utter isolation for long periods would be offering a "stream" of useful intelligence at this point or even, for that matter, reliable information. Compare Lewis's column to a recent one by Isabel Hilton in the British Guardian who writes in part (Maybe none of them are terrorists):
"It may not be pretty, the US administration argues, but this is war: the interrogation may lack the usual safeguards, but it has provided a rich harvest of invaluable information. Perhaps. But that is not the view of several experienced FBI officers who have taken part in interrogations and who, concluding swiftly that Guantánamo was a waste of time, left to pursue the fight against terrorists in the real world."
Or simply compare it to this little letter, entitled "Disgrace at Guantanamo," by famed historian (and former Kennedy administration stalwart) Arthur Schlesinger Jr. on page 85 of the April 8 issue of the New York Review of Books:
"To the Editors:
"The situation of the detainees at Guantanamo is a national disgrace. The detainees have been imprisoned for two years. They are ignorant of the specific charges against them and denied access to legal counsel and to their families. Although the five British prisoners have been released, a senior defense official' tells The New York Times that other detainees will be held for many years, perhaps indefinitely. Some among them have attempted suicide.
"It is difficult to find serious security reasons for the presidential suspension of due process. It appears to be, once again, the politics of fear and the imperial presidency redux. We have been through paranoid phases before, succumbing to panic and forgetting our constitutional guarantees. It all began in 1798 with the Alien and Sedition Acts. The Federalists would have been better advised to call these obnoxious statutes the Patriot Acts, but the conservatives of 1798 were innocent of the fine art of public relations.
"Recovering from our periodic attacks of panic, we have always hated ourselves in the morning. A generation from now the case of the Guantanamo detainees will be regarded as a national shame."
Guantanamo: Offshore life
It says a lot about the world into which this administration has plunged us that Guantanamo is the most "visible" part of our shadow archipelago of penal colonies. If the New York Times has been less than satisfactory on Guantanamo, we fortunately still have some good "reporting" to draw on when it comes to the almost 600 prisoners, all except two evidently being held at the moment without charges -- and with the promise that, even if someday they were acquitted by the stacked military tribunals being set up by the Pentagon, they could still be kept in Cuba as long as the "war on terrorism" continues. The Supreme Court is to review the Guantanamo situation this spring. In the meantime, the first two prisoners to be charged -- and assumedly these are among our government's stronger cases -- are being brought up not on acts of their own but only on the intent to conspire to aid al-Qaeda.
Of this situation Neal Katyal writes:
"The chief criticism of the [Guantanamo military] tribunals has always been that the president cannot have the unilateral power to define offenses, pick prosecutors, select judges, authorize charges, select defendants, and then strip the civilian courts of all powers to review tribunal decisions. This principle goes all the way back to the Declaration of Independence, which listed, among the founders' complaints against King George, that he has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil Power'; depriv[ed] us, in many Cases, of the benefits of trial by jury'; made Judges dependent on his Will alone'; and transport[ed] us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended Offences.'
The conspiracy charges are the most dramatic step yet in the slide down a dangerous anticonstitutional spiral."
Perhaps Schlesinger should have written not of the imperial presidency, but of King George, redux.
In a few cases, military defense lawyers have been assigned to Guantanamo prisoners. These officers have not only already taken the case against the tribunals to the Supreme Court (where Katyal will be their chief counsel), but several of them, horrified at what they have seen, have taken their cases to the world, unexpectedly denouncing the whole procedure in public. This is remarkable in itself and it opens a small window for the rest of us into the realities of Guantanamo, a vision quite different from the sort of official propaganda that Lewis was repeating. It also reminds us that there are straight-down-the-line military men, assumedly at all levels, who are quite capable of being genuinely horrified by what the Bush administration has wrought upon our country and our traditions.
Here's what Isabel Hilton has written about one of these military attorneys, Lt. Commander Charles Smith of the Navy:
"Smith, a military defence attorney for more than seven years, went to Guantánamo expecting his client to be a hardened terrorist. Instead, he met a Yemeni migrant who had got a job driving agricultural workers on Osama bin Laden's farm near Kandahar and had ended up as one of several drivers who chauffeured the man himself. Appalled by September 11 and by Bin Laden's reaction to it, he left his job as soon as he safely could, then, as war was imminent, took his wife to safety in Pakistan. He had returned to Afghanistan to try to sell his car and pack up when he was detained and handed over to US forces.
"It makes sense to Smith that his client should have been detained as a potentially valuable intelligence source and a useful witness. But, he says: Would you charge Al Capone's chauffeur with Al Capone's crimes? I had to ask myself, after I'd met him, is this really the best they've got? Are there no real terrorists in Guantánamo Bay?'"
Smith is, Hilton comments, deeply determined to fight the Guantanamo system because, as he says, "I agree with the president
Al-Quaida can't alter America. Only we can alter America. I have met the enemy, and he is us."
Or check out Major Michael Mori, appointed by the Pentagon to defend an Australian detainee, David Hicks, who has responded to the President's promise of "full and fair" trials for Guantanmo detainees this way (US major attacks Guantanamo justice):
"'The system is not set up to provide even the appearance of a fair trial
If there's credible evidence, take him to an established justice system,' [Major Mori] said at a press conference in London given by lawyers acting for the prisoners. If it's not credible, that doesn't justify changing the rules
"'The appointing authority, who approves the charges, is the same person who gets to rule on defence motions
When you use an unfair system, all you do is risk convicting the innocent and providing somebody who is truly guilty with a valid complaint to attack his conviction. It doesn't help anyone.'"
These military lawyers may not exactly be the American equivalents of Israeli refusniks, but they undoubtedly haven't done their careers -- should there be a second Bush term -- any favors. In our moment, clear-eyed honesty of this sort can be a heroic trait.
Iraq: Refilling the dictator's prisons
As a start, just consider that new title of Maj. Gen. Miller: "deputy commander for detainee operations for the U.S.-led forces in Iraq." Who could have imagined even a few years back that such a position would ever exist? But, of course, it makes sense at every level. Vast numbers of Iraqis have been arrested and detained by the occupation authorities: 8,000 according to Thanassis Cambanis of the Boston Globe, 10,000 according to Nir Rosen of the Asia Times, 12,000 according to John Burns of the New York Times; 13,000 according to Isabel Hilton of the Guardian.
The truth is that in the chaos that is Iraq nobody -- undoubtedly including the U.S. military -- knows the real numbers. These figures may differ simply because the reporters are referring to different slices of the incarceration pie. I don't know. But even as approximations, these are relatively staggering numbers in a country of only twenty-five million people. Most of them were evidently swept up in raids, or taken in thanks to local informants who (as with the infamous Phoenix Program in Vietnam so many decades ago) may have scores of their own to settle. For but one small but gripping example of an arrest of this sort and the kind of toll it's taken both on a family and on Iraqi attitudes toward their country's occupiers, read the latest post by Riverbend, the Baghdad blogger, Tales from Abu Ghraib. The Americans on these sweeps ordinarily arrive at best with a translator, and without much of an idea whose door they may be kicking down or who exactly they're gathering up.
Many of the top Baath Party figures captured or arrested, including possibly Saddam himself, are evidently still being held at the heavily fortified American base at Baghdad International Airport. Lesser figures by the thousands have been dumped into Baghdad's Abu Ghraid prison, a Saddam regime hellhole, six of whose American guards have now been charged with abusing inmates; in addition, many more are evidently at Camp Bucca in southern Iraq; and in various smaller "regional centers." According to the Boston Globe's Cambanis:
"US officials insist they treat the prisoners fairly, but the widely circulated stories about seemingly arbitrary arrests fuel the sense of injustice here; even as the coalition builds democratic institutions for Iraq, including a new court system, a parallel legal system for detainees persists with few apparent rights for the accused."
Prisoners can be held for months without being charged and then suddenly be dumped out on the street without explanation. Cambanis describes one such release of several hundred prisoners:
"On Tuesday morning, they were handed $10 and herded out of the prison gates to a fleet of waiting buses. They come from all over the country, and were offered a free trip as far south as Hillah or as far north as Tikrit. For now, they do not get a letter explaining why they were held and are not aware that military lawyers regularly examined their case files while they were detained; the military rules require this review, as well as a face-to-face explanation to the detainee of the charges and rights, within 72 hours of being held."
Here is freelance journalist Nir Rosen's account of our incarceration policies in Iraq at work ('It's not all bad news,' Chaos in liberated Iraq):
"Meanwhile over ten thousand Iraqi men are being held prisoner, and most of them are innocent. Iraqi security guards as well as American soldiers hate the explosive-sniffing dog in front of the Sheraton and Palestine hotels, because they, like the rest of us who live in the area, are subject to its olfactory whims as it imagines every day that it smells a bomb and they must close off the street for several hours. Two of my friends were arrested for not having a bomb last week, when the dog decided their bag smelled funny. They were jailed for four days though they were not carrying a bomb. Unlike the murderous accuracy of the Israeli security forces, who at least speak Arabic, the American security forces are a blunt instrument. They arrest hundreds at once, hoping somebody will know something
"Some prisoners are termed security detainees' and held for six months pending a review to determine whether they are still a security risk'. Most are innocent. Many were arrested simply because a neighbor did not like them, or because they were male. A lieutenant colonel involved in this told me that there is no judicial process for the thousands of detainees. If the military were to try them, that would entail a court martial, which would imply that the United States is occupying Iraq, and lawyers working for the administration are still debating whether it is an occupation or a liberation."
Into the shadows: the franchises
Now, let's plunge deeper into the shadows and consider places where the word "Orwellian" comes naturally to mind. The "war on terror" began in Afghanistan as a proxy war -- we hired the Northern Alliance on the theory that the enemy of our enemy's friend was our friend. They were to be our proxy force in destroying the Taliban. We then supported them massively from the air, via our Special Forces, and with bundled American bills in suitcases. The "war" ended quickly with thousands of foot soldiers of the Taliban and of al-Qaeda as well as whomever else happened to be on hand swept up and shuttled into a grim penal no-man's land, where, for instance, painkillers were withheld from the wounded to ensure that they would talk. At the same time, most of the leadership of both groups escaped.
Afghanistan then became the initial ground zero of our new offshore penal landscape and Bagram Air Base evidently the center of that. Though Guantanamo would become the half-hidden "face" of the new system, Bagram was at the heart of what Priest and Gellman dubbed in that December 2002 Washington Post piece, "a brass-knuckled quest for information, often in concert with allies of dubious human rights reputation, in which the traditional lines between right and wrong, legal and inhumane, are evolving and blurred." They added that "while the U.S. government publicly denounces the use of torture, each of the current national security officials interviewed for this article defended the use of violence against captives as just and necessary." And so it proved. Torture became part of the "package." ("Package" turns out as well to be a new term of the trade: "The take-down teams often package' prisoners for transport, fitting them with hoods and gags, and binding them to stretchers with duct tape.")
In her recent piece, Isabel Hilton claims that there are still an estimated 6,000 prisoners detained without charge, no less a trial, in Afghanistan "of whose fate almost nothing is known." And, of course, such systems have a way of refusing to be contained within bounds or borders. So, though Guantanamo was built for the supposed "hardest of hard cases," the more important captured al-Qaeda (and allied) figures never made it there at all. They passed instead from Afghanistan, or wherever captured, onto American aircraft carriers or, evidently in some cases, onto the "British" Indian Ocean Island of Diego Garcia.
Priest and Gellman mentioned the island in their 2002 report. In December 2003, Mark Seddon wrote a piece for the British Independent entitled, Is there another Guantanamo Bay on British soil? There he recorded reports that, on part of the 17 square-mile island, a "permanent floating aircraft carrier" whose native inhabitants the British had shuttled elsewhere years before, an American support area dubbed "Camp Justice" -- I still want to know who makes up names like this -- held terrorist suspects and possibly members of the Iraqi leadership beyond the reach of anyone at all. (For an aerial view of Camp Justice, thanks to Globalsecurity.org, click here and scroll down.)
But -- and here's where "franchising" comes in -- even that kind of control and isolation evidently wasn't enough for those running our shadow penal colonies. According to Priest and Gellman, "In addition to Bagram and Diego Garcia, the CIA has other secret detention centers overseas, and often uses the facilities of foreign intelligence services." It seems that the CIA is running a complete "outsourcing" program that goes under the strange rubric of "extraordinary rendition" (which I've written about before). It basically means that we - the CIA in particular - transfer potentially resistant prisoners from whom we want information to the agents of countries where there are no qualms whatsoever about using far more brutal methods of interrogation. It's essentially outsourced or franchised torture.
Thanks to a piece in New York's Village Voice by Kareem Fahim (The Invisible Men), I now know that the term - and the methodology - has a prehistory. It sprang to life in the first Bush administration, was used during the Clinton era ("We'd arrest them," [said one former CIA official about terrorism suspects captured by the agency in the 1990s],"and send them to Jordan or Egypt, and they'd disappear." But "extraordinary rendition" (as opposed to simple "rendition") seems to have come into its own in the post-September 11 atmosphere. We know something about this largely because of the case, now being publicly investigated in Canada, of Maher Arar, a Canadian citizen of Syrian birth whom the CIA handed over to the Syrians for torture. (He seems to have been innocent of anything whatsoever.)
In the scattered reports I've come across on this matter, among the countries to which terrorist suspects have been extraordinarily rendered, according to Priest and Gellman (and seconded by others) are: Jordan, Egypt and Morocco. Seden of the Independent adds Yemen. From Arar's case, we know that Syria too should be included. Risen and Shankar of the New York Times claim that two top al-Qaida operatives were held "in a secure location in Thailand" before being "moved to another country."
That's all we know, but assumedly it's only the tip of the iceberg. So little serious reporting has been done on this that the full contours of our mini-gulag, our offshore system of "justice," can't yet be guessed at.
But what we do know is that it's a borderless system and, given time and the normalization of these procedures, given career ladders and those who will, sooner or later, return home, we in the "homeland" are not likely to prove immune. Already, for instance, the Bush administration has nominated former General Counsel for the Pentagon William Haynes to be a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit (this administration's favorite appeals court). As Ted Kennedy writes in the Washington Post (For Rights, a Wrong Choice), in his capacity as Pentagon counsel,
"[Haynes] has developed and defended three of the administration's most controversial policies: the refusal to treat any of the hundreds of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay as prisoners of war under the Geneva Conventions of 1949; the department's military tribunal plan for trying suspected war criminals; and even the incarceration of U.S. citizens without counsel or judicial review
. With Haynes playing a key role, the administration arrogantly refuses to follow the plain language of the Geneva Conventions, which guarantee basic legal protections to soldiers of all nations. It categorically denies that any of the more than 600 detainees at Guantanamo -- even those who served in the army of the former Afghan government -- qualify as prisoners of war. It flatly refuses to convene the special tribunals required by the Geneva Conventions to resolve doubts about the status of particular prisoners, even though we have routinely done so in such cases in the past
Nominations do not get much worse than this."
This is how shadows from an offshore, extra-legal penal system begin to fall on the United States itself.
Live body count
As far as I can tell, there's no one out there toting up residents in our mini-gulag. So let me try to put a number on the bodies in this new system. Certainly, it doesn't compare to the population of our home-grown prison system which, as James Carroll of the Boston Globe in a column on the return of "frontier justice" to America reminded us,
"recently went over 2 million for the first time, putting the United States ahead of Russia as the world capital of incarceration. Add to that number those on parole or probation and the total under correctional' control grows to 7 million. Thirty years ago, one in 1,000 Americans was locked up; today, almost five are."
Then again, those in our system, with rare exceptions like Jose Padilla, are considered to be common criminals whereas every live body in our offshore penal system is, at least in theory, an actual enemy of our country and so, in one fashion or another, a political or military captive. Our prison complex in Guantanamo is now said to hold just under 600 prisoners; in Iraq somewhere between 8,000 and 13,000 people are incarcerated by us; and in Afghanistan, let's accept that Hilton figure of 6,000. It's the only one available as far as I know (and Hilton is a smart and reliable journalist with knowledge of the region). That leaves us with a minimum of 14,600 and a maximum of 19,600 prisoners before we add in any on Diego Garcia, on aircraft carriers, in places still unknown, or, having been extraordinarily rendered, in the jails of unknown brutal allies in the "war against terror." Who knows, of course, what this figure really is. All one could say at this moment is that it is on the rise, has had an impressive growth rate since 2001, and most important of all, is still in its infancy.
During the Cold War, there was much talk about plunging into the "war in the shadows." This was the intelligence war (as well as the various secret wars that accompanied it in the Third World) where We were prepared to meet a communist Them on their own terms. This was also the world John le Carré once so brilliantly caught in novels like Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy in which our intelligence agents and theirs, though at war, came to have so much more in common with each other than with either of the aboveground societies they represented.
Now, we've once again plunged into that deadening, dark world to meet another Them on terms They will supposedly understand. Though not our only, or even the most important threat facing us -- as Luke Mitchell recently made clear in A Run on Terror, a fine piece in Harper's Magazine -- terror is, of course, all too real. Ask the inhabitants of Madrid or Istanbul. Ask us New Yorkers. But its enemy is the light, not the shadows. Its perpetrators of horrors should be brought to trial in the bright light of day according to legal systems we have pride in. They should be brought to account publicly for acts of horror in a place where they can be seen, not tortured privately until they fess up truth, or lies, for a chosen few.
Guantanamo, the prison camps of Iraq, the holding areas of Bagram Air Base and Diego Garcia, the grim torture cells of Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Thailand and other compliant lands -- to make these the destination of choice for American justice is already to acknowledge Osama Bin Laden's triumph. Such a world mocks what should mean most to us. It indicates what, in a crunch, we value most. It threatens to become the starting point for a new (classified) constitution, a new no-calls legal system.
Additional dispatches from Tom Engelhardt can be read throughout the week at TomDispatch.com, a web log of The Nation Institute.