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The Least Worst Place:

Guantanamo's First 100 Days

by Karen J. Greenberg

Oxford University Press, 2009.

 

In the wake of September eleventh, the U.S.-led "War on

Terror" began with nearly the entire world sympathetic to

America's cause and condemning al-Qaeda. It didn't take

long for the Bush administrations ham-fisted response to

reverse much of the world's feelings in the matter. Among

the most influential of the policy disasters that won the

sympathies of so many for al-Qaeda was the detention

facility at Guantanamo Bay. In The Least Worst Place, Karen

Greenberg, director of NYU’s Center on Law and Security,

takes a close-up look at the first hundred days (from

December 2001 thru March 2002) in the life of Camp X-Ray,

the initial detention facility for prisoners from the invasion

of Afghanistan. She examines the persons and pressures

that shaped Camp X-Ray into a world-wide embarrassment

for the U.S..

 

The U.S. has maintained a naval base (designated GTMO

or"Gitmo") on Cuba's Guantanamo Bay since 1903 when it

was one of the "spoils of war" acquired as a result of the

Spanish-American War. Gitmo had previously served as a

prison camp for Haitian refugees from the 1970's until it

was declared unconstitutional to do so in 1993.

 

Following the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 the Defense

Department again turned to Gitmo as a secure site outside

the continental U.S. for a prison camp. The special

attraction of Gitmo over established facilities in the U.S. lay

in a bizarre interpretation of law that held that as long as

the prisoners were held outside the U.S., their confinement

was not subject to U.S. laws. Camp X-Ray at Guantanamo

was quickly established as a temporary facility until

construction of the more permanent Camp Delta was

completed.

 

The Bush administration asserted -- falsely as the courts

subsequently concluded and as a plain reading of the

Geneva Conventions would have shown -- that the detainees

were "unlawful combatants" and thus not covered by the

Geneva Convention. Hence there was no standard for how

they were to be treated while in detention. The marines

charged with guarding them at Camp X-Ray and the

American public were told that the detainees were "the

worst of the worst" -- hardened al-Qaeda and Taliban

zealots.

 

When the first detainees arrived from Bagram Air Force

Base in Afghanistan, they didn't live up to the Marine's

expectations. Instead of hardened, fanatical fighting men,

most of the detainees seemed to be malnourished and

rather passive, with a number being elderly and some

others being children. Even their language was, in most

cases, not the Arabic the guards were expecting, but

Persian and Pashto, the national languages of Afghanistan.

The circumstances of their capture were unknown to

anyone, their personal effects had been mixed together and

could not be matched to their owner, and the Pentagon

refused to support any measures that would pin down their

legal status as combatants or civilians.

 

The Marine staff, officially known as Joint Task Force 160

(JTF-160), under the command of Marine Brigadier General

Michael Lehnert, sought to create a detention facility that

would comply with the Geneva Conventions and the

Uniform Code of Military Justice. Initially left on their own,

Gen. Lehnert and his staff struggled to strike a balance

between confinement and humane treatment of their

prisoners. After the first few months, however, Secretary of

Defense Donald Rumsfeld began to take a direct interest in

the operations of Camp X-Ray and in its ability to validate

his distorted version of reality in the "War on Terror".

 

In February, 2002, Rumsfeld created a second, parallel

command under reservist Major General Michael Dunlavey

that was designated JTF-170. This parallel command was

apparently established as an alternative to trying to give the

professional military of JTF-160 orders to perform

interrogations in a manner that violated the Geneva

Convention. Rather than work through the unit in charge of

detention, they chose to work around it. Eighteen months

later a similar parallel organization structure was established

at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, where it also contributed

to a breakdown of administration and a pattern of human

rights violations. The two commands existed side by side at

Gitmo until they were merged into a single Joint Task Force

GTMO under General Geoffrey Miller in November of 2002.

It is perhaps ironic that the same Gen. Miller was later sent

to Abu Ghraib to unify the parallel commands there.

 

While Gen. Dunlavey and his JTF-170, like Gen. Lehnert

and JTF-160, nominally reported to the U.S. Southern

Command, he also had a direct channel to Secretary

Rumsfeld. As Greenberg points out, Gen. Dunlavey was in a

position to pick and choose which information to convey up

each line of authority. There was a continuing clash

between the two units and the opposed priorities of their

commanders, but Gen. Dunlavey held the higher rank and

had greater ties to Washington, so his priorities and

policies prevailed.

 

When he first arrived at Guantanamo to command JTF-160,

even before the detainees were enroute, Gen. Lehnert

requested the presence at Camp X-Ray of representatives

from the Red Cross. While the presence of Red Cross

observers at any such facility is normal military practice,

in this case his request was denied by the Pentagon.

Meanwhile, at U.S. Southern Command there was

widespread agreement that a Red Cross presence was

necessary. Finally, one of the military lawyers at Southern

Command frustrated by the Pentagon's refusal to comply

with international law called the Red Cross in Geneva and

invited them to send observers to Guantanamo. Secretary

Rumsfeld and the Joint Chiefs were not pleased by this

action and let the lawyer know it. While they would later

claim to have invited the Red Cross is, they actually sought

to delay or divert the Red Cross inspection when they were

faced with its imminence.

 

While Greenberg more than adequately documents the

ongoing violations of human rights that have occurred at

the Gitmo detention facilities, her account is not just an

exposé of Guantanamo horrors. The grand theme of this

book is the importance of the rule of law, which must never

be subordinated to claims of national security, patriotism,

or God being on our side. It is her point, that it is dutiful

adherence to international law, not personal integrity, that

is the foundation and ultimate guarantor of humane policy

in world affairs. This is a lesson that not only needs to be

well learned by our national leaders, who have all to often

failed to behave decently, but one that every citizen of a

democracy needs to learn, because the public has all too

often proved eager to support leaders in abandoning the

rule of law and democratic values. The terrorists, of course,

rely upon and benefit from knee jerk reactions such as

Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, or the Patriot Act.