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Prisoners in War

I am staying home this morning because, in addition to the twitch, I’m also in the waning days of a cold that burdened my sinuses so much my cheeks hurt. It might have contributed to the twitch, in fact, but it might not have. Last night I stayed home, too, and (still catching up on magazines) read Eliza Griswold’s report, “American Gulag,” from September’s Harper’s. Griswold followed Tina Foster of the Center for Constitutional Rights, which is providing lawyers for prisoners in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, as she went to Bahrain, Yemen, and Afghanistan to speak with prisoners released from there.

Numbers are not exact because the U.S. government stonewalls those who ask, but here is the population of prisoners held in American custody today: 450 in seven prisons in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba (with an eighth being built); 13,000 in Iraq; 500 in Afghanistan; and maybe 100 in CIA “black sites” — 14 of whom, according to the President, were recently transferred to Guantanamo. (The President also claimed that the CIA holds no more prisoners; if that is the case, I do not know what accounts for the 86 others other than the fact that no one but the CIA really knew how many prisoners the CIA held.)

U.S. claims that the men held in War on Terror prisons are “enemy combatants,” not subject to treaty-defined treatment as prisoners of war and likewise not due habeas corpus nor due process of law, as lawyers have learned, is often expressed in a tautology. “These prisoners are here,” says our government, “because they are enemy combatants; if they were not combatants, they would not be here.” The tautology presumes guilt, of course, and it bears reminding that it is claims such as this that habeas corpus and due process are meant to challenge. Hamdan v. Rumsfeld was an important step in breaking through the circularity, but lawyers are still frustrated. Griswold reports that when they interview prisoners, they must submit their notes to the Pentagon, then apply to have their notes declassified. Notes are not always declassified.

What lawyers have learned—what Griswold reports from her interviews—is disturbing. The practice of imprisonment and the practice of torture in the War on Terror is one and the same. Many prisoners, contrary to U.S. claims, were not captured in battle. For example, Abdullah al Noaimi, of Bahrain and a former student at Old Dominion University, was sold into U.S. custody by Pakistan; he had been abducted by Pashtun tribesmen. After several months in Pakistani detention, he was transferred to American custody. It was bitter. “When I was told I was going to be taken to the Americans, I was relieved,” he said. “Please, take me to an American prison.” He had believed that American justice would discover his innocence and set him free. Instead, his first night in American custody, he was tied together with 30 other men, shoved to the ground, stripped, and humiliated—he refused to tell Griswold what was done to him. He was transferred to Guantanamo. He remained four years before he was presented with a form that forced him to admit his guilt and promise never to associate with Al Qaeda again.

Griswold’s essay is rife with the stories of men who have disappeared, whose testimonies are unknown because all that is known of them is what their families have been able to discover second- or third-hand. Abdulsalam al Hila, a Yemeni businessman who was abducted by the CIA in Cairo and is still held in Guantanamo; Karam Khamis Said Khamsan, a Yemeni man held for two years in Guantanamo and then, after being cleared by his review tribunal, turned over to the Yemeni government, which still imprisons him, who explained, “Every day for three months the soldiers at Kandahar used their fingers in my anus, and also some kind of tool I could feel”; Haji Mohammad of Afghanistan and his twelve-year-old son Taj, both of whom were taken from their home at night and taken to Bagram prison in Afghanistan where for seven months they were tortured through sensory deprivation and beatings. Haji Mohammed was then, suddenly, inexplicably set free. “The Americans said they were sorry, and they gave me two dollars to get home.” They also handed him a piece of paper which read, “This individual has been determined to pose no threat to the United States Armed Forces or its interests in Afghanistan. This has no bearing on future misconduct.” Why it took seven months of torture to decide this I do not understand.

That stories, such as those told by Griswold, of innocent men stolen from their families and homes, or even of the likes of Abu Zubaydah, exist makes the President’s current campaign to pass his bill to allow torture that much more despicable.1 America’s current government does not believe law is the best basis for moral authority, and for that reason, its actions are indiscriminate in its efforts to undermine law. The President wants torture to be codified, or as he puts it, “clarified,” and it’s a rotten prospect. His problem is that the current language of the law forbids cruel, inhumane, degrading treatment. But no one needs to be told that simulated drowning is not cruel; likewise, no one needs to have explained that sleep deprivation is inhumane; likewise, no one needs to be told that having instruments shoved up your anus is not degrading. The law is clear enough. That said, there is one thing the President has claimed in his campaign with which I agree: “The practical matter is, if our professionals don’t have clear standards in the law, the program is not going to go forward.” Indeed, he’s right. If “our professonals” are given clear direction that torture is an offense against the American people because it transgresses the foundation of our law that men and women are innocent until proven guilty; if “our professionals” are made to understand that torture is prosecutable and punishable by law, then they won’t do it.

1 Appended, 9.19: Add to the list Maher Arar, a Syrian-born Canadian citizen who was delivered to the CIA via bad information from the Mounties, “extraordinarily renditioned” to Syria, tortured, then returned to Canada. Yglesias has more to say.

 

Comments

Nothing like torture to make everybody in the room go quiet, eh?

I have a post in the works that is too big for this space. I was writing it as I read your piece, so you’ll get a link. Links are better than comments, right?

Links are like heroin.

To wit, and for your records, JRB, two links from this morning which include their own links: Ezra Klein and Jon Mandle.

it’s not torture, it’s time…

now, if you posted video of joe beam speaking sweet, solomon, love-nothings to an audience full of people… i might actually comment.

but until then, i will abscond myself in my room with this tale of passionate adolescent escapes into vineyards for games of tongue-twister and other things that JB says more frankly than i do… and try to forget that there are one or two rape scenes in the book, as the watchmen castigate the girl for profligacy (much in the way that roving bands of youth have treated women throughout the centuries)

Time is torture.

Et tu, Brute, with the Christian sex?

if those who approve the crimes and create the environment where such crimes as these are perpetrated are prosecuted, then the lowlies who execute them will know that we are getting somewhere… but as long as it’s the rogue, half-demented, chemically-unstable, below-normal iq, not properly trained soldiers that are punished, such crimes will continue.

i wonder how certain men can sleep at night.

yeah, i get it… i can’t handle the truth

i followed link late last night… expounding the beauty of certain person assuming a name

and stumbled upon a violent and tortuous reading of the song of songs

Point taken. I was thinking, though, not about soldiers of the Lynndie England sort, but of the CIA, which the Admin has been fighting tooth and nail to keep out of the bounds of law.

See? That’s what you get for following links. They’re smack, I tell you.

how we love our death squads…

You should have taken my silence as a combination of approval (for your post, not the torture), and quivering rage.

I think everything that needs to be said about the subject has been said, for now at least. What is needed is action. It looks like we may be getting some of that now on capitol hill.

I’m suspicious of what McCain can do, though. First, he is a hawk, and even though he’s already passed a torture amendment, he won’t stop being one. Second, GWB ignored the McCain torture amendment last time and claimed autonomy in spite of it in this signing statement:

The executive branch shall construe [the torture provision] in a manner consistent with the constitutional authority of the President to supervise the unitary executive branch and as Commander in Chief and consistent with the constitutional limitations on the judiciary….

That is maddening, isn’t it? I can’t think of too many solutions to that, to a president who blithely disobeys the law, or more accurately, doesn’t even seem to believe in the law.

What can be done about that? Impeachment?

Public outrage. Gridlock. Phoenix papers, maybe?

Judicial challenge. GWB is losing, and the people, finally, are coming around. He can fight only so many fights with approval ratings in the 30’s. His capital is evaporating, and those with moral highground may just prevail. McCain may be able to get this done BECAUSE he’s a hawk. He’s got cred.

No one in the Texas Air Guard was captured and tortured while avoiding duty in Montgomery, Alabama. So far as we know.

It may be so about McCain’s hawkness, JRB, which in this circumstance may be a boon. There’s also the adage, that he who’s been tortured speaks loudest against torture, in his favor. I have some mistrust of McCain in general, which probably shows.

Links are like heroin.

That’s smack we share.

Jim Henley (whose analysis I’m coming to respect a lot—and the dog makes me happy), examines on why the Bush Admin is going whole hog on torture again.