Saturday, June 04, 2005

Club Guantanamo

Not too long ago, this Administration excoriated Newsweek magazine for a brief blurb which mentioned an incident in which a Koran was flushed down a toilet at the US detention center in Guantanamo Bay. Because Newsweek had not adequately sourced the story, it was forced first to apologize and then to retract the story.

Last week, Amnesty International, a respected human rights watchdog, issued its annual report in which it listed the US as a serious violator of human rights and refered to the detention center in Guantanamo Bay as a gulag. Once again, the Administration pulled out all the stops: every attack dog from the President, Vice President, and Secretary of Defense to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff shrilly objected to the conclusions of this report. Unlike Newsweek, Amnesty International had the ovaries not to back down, and for good reason.

Last night, in what has been another example of a "Friday Dump" (releasing potentially embarrassing information at a time after the nightly newscasts are already in the can and when most people are not paying too close attention as they prepare for the weekend), the report of an investigation done by the military came out.

A military inquiry has found that guards or interrogators at the Guantánamo Bay detention center in Cuba kicked, stepped on and splashed urine on the Koran, in some cases intentionally but in others by accident, the Pentagon said on Friday.

The splashing of urine was among the cases described as inadvertent. It was said to have occurred when a guard urinated near an air vent and the wind blew his urine through the vent into a detainee's cell. The detainee was given a fresh uniform and a new Koran, and the guard was reprimanded and assigned to guard duty that kept him from contact with detainees for the remainder of his time at Guantánamo, according to the military inquiry.

The investigation into allegations that the Koran had been mishandled also found that in one instance detainees' Korans were wet because guards on the night shift had thrown water balloons on the cellblock.

These incidents are clearly outrageous, but the military would have us believe that they have been rare and the perpetrators punished. That stance seems to be at odds with a military linguist working at the base. In an interview for Mother Jones, Erik Saar offers this assessment:

In 1998, Erik Saar, a marketing major fresh out of college, signed up to become a military linguist. Four years later, having been trained in Arabic and intelligence work, he volunteered to work as a translator at the US detention camp in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where, over a period of six months, he translated for guards and interrogators. Proud to be working, as he saw it, to defend his country from terrorism, Saar quickly became alarmed and disgusted at the incompetent running of Guantanamo and the inhumane treatment of the detainees there, an evolution he traces in his recent book, Inside the Wire, co-written with Viveca Novak.

"Essentially, I feel as though the camp as a whole represents a moral and strategic failure in the war on terrorism. In the long run, it could be doing more harm than good, and possibly producing more terrorists...

"It's not humane and not effective. We have people there and we don't know what their affiliations with terrorism are. We ourselves cannot verify that they were enemy combatants picked up on the battlefield, as General Miller has repeatedly said to the media. A number of them were turned over to us by foreign governments, and the Northern Alliance, who were paid a bounty for them. There wasn't this extensive vetting process, as the Pentagon would lead you to believe. What extensive vetting process allows an 88-year-old to end up at Guantanamo Bay? And we are operating outside of the scope of the Geneva Conventions. Some of the things I saw were not only what I would consider unethical, but ineffective. We're not getting enough of a benefit for the price we're paying in terms of our reputation in the world. I don't know how, as country, we can say we're going to promote democracy and human dignity and justice throughout the Arab and Muslim world and at the same time defy some of those very same principles at Guantanamo Bay."

In the face of the Amnesty International report, at least some members of Congress were stunned enough to propose that further, more independent investigation was needed:

On May 27, Rep. Henry Waxman (CA), minority ranking member of the House Committee on Government Reform, was joined by senior congressional leaders to announce that they would introduce legislation to open the door for meaningful examination and change. The bill would establish a bi-partisan House select committee to investigate the genesis and extent of abuse of detainees held in U.S. custody in connection with the war in Iraq and the global war on terrorism.

In light of the June 3, 2005 'dump' from the Pentagon, such legislation seems to me to be a pretty good idea. Getting the majority party to go along with it also seems to be a long-shot, as does getting the cooperation of the Administration and the Pentagon. If Congress does not demand such an inquiry, then the world will see the Amnesty International report as unrebutted. And then?

"The Hague, bitches!"


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