The Talking Dog

August 10, 2009, TD Blog Interview with Karen Greenberg

Karen J. Greenberg is the Executive Director of the Center on Law and Security at (my alma mater) New York University School of Law. She is the author of The Least Worst Place: Guantanamo's First 100 Days, editor of the NYU Review of Law and Security, co-editor of the Center's newest publication, The Enemy Combatants Papers: American Justice, the Courts, and the War on Terror (Cambridge University Press, August 2008), The Torture Papers: The Road to Abu Ghraib, and editor of the books Al Qaeda Now and The Torture Debate in America (Cambridge University Press). On July 29, 2009, I had the privilege of interviewing her at her office in Manhattan. What follows are my interview notes, corrected as appropriate by Dr. Greenberg.

The Talking Dog Where were you on Sept. 11, 2001?

Karen Greenberg: I was on the Upper West Side of Manhattan where I was then living, and my concern that morning was actually about how my daughter, then going to school in Brooklyn, was going to get home, given the events of that day. She stayed in Brooklyn overnight, and managed to talk her way through the police and security personnel and through the confused re-routed subways and made it home the next day.

The Talking Dog Your Ph.D. and academic career is/was in American Political History and European studies; how did it come to pass that without an apparent legal background you became director of (my alma mater) NYU Law School's Center on Law and Security, edit books on torture memos and so forth and develop this all-around "thing formerly known as the Global War on Terror" expertise?

Karen Greenberg: That's a very interesting question. It turns out that my background was very relevant to what I am doing now. As of September 11th and thereafter, I was semi-retired; I was writing and publishing works of fiction, and was anticipating doing that forever. I was spending more and more of my time in Connecticut. But after 9-11, my prior work in the international arena particularly in Eastern Europe, Russia and the former Soviet Union proved useful. In the international and civil society realms, the players, including politicians, journalists and foreign affairs experts - were the same people (and indeed, the very same people) that one would need in discussing the national security realm in the context of "European studies" that became allied with the United States in "the war on terror".

By way of background, American political history at Yale was largely a study of the history of the American Presidency. And so, I found that my American political history background and my European studies career had coalesced around the national security issues that have become the biggest story of our day. For me, this was an obvious thing; I like to put issues and people together, and that is what I ended up doing.

The Talking Dog Your book identifies the original JTF-160 commander, Marine Gen. Michael Lehnert, who I must admit that even I as a "GTMO buff" had not really focused on before, and is generally not a household name in "the literature" notwithstanding, for his example, his pivotal--and heroic- roles in negotiating early hunger strikes and in trying to set up a Geneva-compliant facility at GTMO. Obviously, the notorious Gen. Geoffrey Miller of Abu Ghraib fame is more well known, as are others, such as Gen. Michael Dunlavey , for, among other reasons, perhaps, because of his legal officer Diane Beaver's forays into writing her own "torture memos." Why isn't Gen. Lehnert-- who, by all accounts, did everything right (only to have it reversed by lesser Americans in the Bush Administration)-- better known? Am I correct that since Gen. Lehnert-- being an exemplary United States Marine and in my view, a hero in every sense-- probably doesn't see himself as one? And let me ask the same question about Col. Manuel Supervielle.

Karen Greenberg: I have actually been to Guantanamo myself, but during the tenure of the Bush Administration; you and your readers might want to see my article "Guantanamo is Not a Prison" for some key background.

One reason why Lehnert is not better known is that the military is absolutely superb at erasing unwanted narratives, and in his case, has succeeded 100%. They often do it by simple assignment rotation, and of course, there is a "don't question" culture. And so, we are given a narrative. And a second reason is that the story of what went wrong has legitimately captured the American imagination. The story of the first hundred days, by contrast, is a story of good efforts that were derailed. It is almost universally understood that the first two Guantanamo commanders were Generals Dunlavey and Bacchus; of course, we now know this is not true, but everyone let's it go! In this case, the torture story took over so quickly, that everyone wants to move to it and anything associated with "the bad stuff." The earlier period of comparative order and normalcy run by Lehnert is just not something most people are interested in!

In "war on terror studies," one must also look on the ground, be it in Afghanistan, or Iraq, or anywhere else. Now, I happen to prefer looking at people in these circumstances actually doing their jobs where we find them, rather than what most people seem to be interested in, to wit, Washington, D.C. intrigue; to most people, the people in power are more compelling. And of course, we're so used to criticizing ourselves, that focusing on the powerful allows us to do that. It's not that I'm uncritical, but I prefer to look at this story and try to see what positive lessons we can take away from it.

As to Mike Lehnert, in some sense, I don't see him so much as a hero (though he clearly is) as a professional, trained to follow the law, and military order. This was his job, and he was going to do it, no matter what obstacles presented themselves, be they logistical or bureaucratic.

As to Manny Supervielle, in many ways, he's more complicated, because he actually does see himself in a heroic role, but in a humble way. Supervielle comes from a distinguished family of Cuban dissidents; his grandfather was a famous lawyer in Cuba who stood up to Batista and eventually committed suicide (who interestingly, was embraced by the Castro regime). In that sense, Supervielle considers dissidence as a birthright! But Supervielle played by the rules, and his agenda was the same as Lehnert's. But in picking up the phone and inviting the International Committee of the Red Cross to Guantanamo, Supervielle was definitely committing an act of defiance of the wishes of his superiors at the Pentagon (while still following "the rules" as he understood them as a military professional).

The Talking Dog Aside from Gen. Lehnert and Col. Supervielle, and your book features base commander Captain Buehn (and his wife), medical officer Captain Shimkus, the army jailer Col. Carrico, first GTMO Muslim Chaplain Lt. SaifulIslam, which of these, or if you like, other characters in the "early days of GTMO" saga strike you as particularly compelling-- you can discuss both "heroes" and "villains" if you like.

Karen Greenberg: Well, we'll talk about Carol Rosenberg in the context of another question. I think the chaplain, Abuhena Saifulislam is a most complicated and most interesting character. Though he was not American born (he is from Bangladesh) he is a United States Citizen. He has knowledge of South Asian languages. As such, and as a Muslim he found himself suspected basically of collusion with the enemy from day one; but Gen. Lehnert trusted him and protected him. You can see what happens to someone who did not have that kind of high-level protection as in the case of Captain James Yee. In Saifulislam's case, he was instrumental to Lehnert's ability to attend to the detainees based on what their communicated needs were. The case of "the General and the Chaplain" was the heart of the early Guantanamo pushback against Washington.

Later, of course, Dunlavey was seeking the exact opposite of the orderly, rules-following atmosphere set up by Lehnert (with Saifulislam's help), to wit, he was seeking to create conditions of disorder, which he seemed to believe were essential to his role as facilitator of an interrogation facility. And so, instability was in the air, and conditions of disarray were re-created, which, from Dunlavey's perspective, made perfect sense. Lehnert and Saifulislam, of course, were trying to do the opposite (as was Bacchus). In the end, Lehnert was gone, and Bacchus didn't have the clout (or the rank) to check Dunlavey and the Pentagon.

The Talking Dog You of course were interviewed by the premier journalist of our time (that would be Jon Stewart), who asked you, among other things, why you don't want America to be safe (I suppose I should also ask why you hate our troops, and Jesus, while I'm at it... then again, I ask myself the same questions all the time...) How has the press reception been to the revelations in your book, and can you comment overall on press coverage of GTMO-- first hundred days and since (if you like, you can talk about your earlier books with Josh Dratel, and anything else you've written)?

Karen Greenberg: There has been great interest in the current book. In some ways, I'm the last person who should be asked this question, but I have noticed that I get more and more interest as time goes on, notably with respect to the Red Cross story (how Manny Supervielle defied the Pentagon and just called them up and invited them to GTMO) and the general interest in a piece of the story that has remained unknown until now. Compared to collections of documents on torture, I was trying to make this book read more like a novel.

In my view, as time goes on, there will be more competition for who will ultimately get to tell the Guantanamo story; more and more little pieces breaking through.

In the broader sense of your question, in terms of reaching the public, I went beyond the usual Guantanamo cast of characters; this is a story about regular people and recognizable characters doing their jobs, albeit in unusual and trying situations.

I've been told that women like the story, and people in the military like it. I wanted to be able to reach out to regular readers, and thus far, it looks like I've succeeded in doing that.

The Talking Dog Foremost on the subject of heroes and journalists is Carol Rosenberg of the Miami Herald, considered the dean of Guantanamo reporting, and certainly, one of the few consistent beacons of information coming from the Eastern tip of Cuba since Camp X-Ray opened. While Ms. Rosenberg, and her employers at the McClatchy papers, have been the sources of just about the best reporting on GTMO, much of the media (broadcast especially guilty) has been content simply to recite whatever press release Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld were putting out on a given day about "the worst of the worst" to the point where Congress can merrily get the vapors at the thought of stateside transfers even to maximum security prisons. Even this year, we are still hearing such unsupported (and outright false) canards about released detainees "returning to the battlefield" even as the government's own documents demonstrate that virtually none of them were ever on "the battlefield" (and perhaps the number is as few as one detainee actually captured on the battlefield)... and terrorists who would chew through hydraulic lines to bring down their transport plane proved to be exhausted, emaciated, and/or juveniles and/or geriatrics who didn't even speak Arabic. The question (it's coming!) is, after nearly eight years of this garbage and propaganda, is it even possible to set the public straight on just what a big (what the military would call) Charlie Foxtrot the whole GTMO/Bagram/extraordinary rendition/ghost prison gulag archipelago program has been from the get go? And if possible, aside from forcing every member of Congress to read your book (an excellent idea if you ask me)... how do you see "winning hearts and minds" in a Fox News world?

Karen Greenberg: The reason "we" don't care about Guantanamo, in my view, is that no reporter has been able to successfully link a face to a detainee; we just can't find a particular human being to serve as the face of Guantanamo. Interviewing released detainees has been fascinating to me, as I ponder this. I wonder which detainee has a face and a story compelling enough to become "the" story... the "face" of Guantanamo. It might be Binyam Mohammad, or Shafiq Rasul, but when the press finally finds this person, the public will come round on these issues.

Thus far, we've returned 600 detainees, certainly very few are identified with terrorist causes, most just go back to their lives, but we have not yet found a human face that has captured the public imagination.

Turning to the other part of your question, about Carol Rosenberg, they used to say that the Cubans at Guantanamo, who have stayed at the base since Castro, and were literally living in exile in their own country, were the sole consistent eyes and ears on the ground at Guantanamo. They have largely aged out, and at this point, since September 11th, Carol Rosenberg has been the most consistent presence there. She is an amazing story in her own right, a reliable journalist who has in the past been trusted by the military; for example, she asked the Public Affairs Office of Southcom for the special dispensation of remaining at the base without returning each week in between media tours... and they let her stay.

In my view, she should write "the" story of Guantanamo. There is most likely no other perspective that is as comprehensive as hers: she has seen, felt and heard what they've tried to do since inception.

The Talking Dog While my college classmate Barack Obama has promised to close GTMO within a year, given the policies of his Administration, starting with his mean-spirited appeal in Kiyemba [the Uighurs' case, which could have been the entree to show that the world won't end if the Government complies with a court order, and men that both our military and the courts concluded have no connection to terrorism, were, on enumerated terms and supervision, released into the United States], followed by positions taken on Bagram, state secrets, the military commissions, "indefinite detention," and, of course, steadfastly opposing investigations to hold the prior administration accountable for whatever of their actions constituted crimes, it seems (to me, anyway) that he's simply not going to disown the Bush model of the imperial presidency and eternal national security state (and in my view, this "break" from "change" is partially responsible for his decline in approval ratings), what would you advise the President to do in this area-- right now? Can you give the Obama Administration a letter grade on its performance in the "law and security" area for, say, the first semester (January to July 2009)?

Karen Greenberg: We can start assessing the Obama Administration by at least noting that we are in a place that didn't exist for nearly eight years: we are at least having a full-fledge discussion about detention policy. The tone and the content have changed! The Obama Administration finds itself encountering a lack of coherence after seven years of the Bush Administration, so it certainly gets the benefit of being cut some slack for taking some time to figure out what it has to do. That said, it gets no slack for insisting on "all options". Some "options" must in my opinion be taken off the table, such as anything involving indefinite detention and anything compromising fair trials.

We can at least hope that the Obama Administration will seek a good end. Still, there are problems. The attitude of "we can't have acquittals" is a path we shouuld not want to go down. It is certainly a fair reason for delay in order for the Obama people to think their way through the palette of options, and they are starting to test the use of the federal courts to try detainees, as in the cases of Ghailani and Jawad. I am latching onto good things. If we detect positive direction, as with the use of the federal courts, I certainly think it should be encouraged.

As to a grade, I won't give the Obama Administration an incomplete; I'll give it a B or a B+, and encourage the President to do what he needs to do for an A, as an A is equivalent in many ways to a passing grade in this case (and a B is just not acceptable).

The Talking Dog One of your chapter titles is "The Petting Zoo," [my favorite chapter, btw) a reference to the fact that the early Camp X-Ray jailers had to take precious time from the impossible mission of setting up the detention camp (which, I think, you noted literally took less than four days, despite not adequately requisitioning enough materials... or anything else) to show VIPs around. Interestingly, the VIPs then,whether military or Pentagon brass (such as 'the War Council") or members of Congress, simply took in what they saw and rarely if ever questioned it (in my interview with Army linguist Erik Saar, he always asked why none of the visiting dignitaries ever wondered why the interrogations they saw were all perfectly orchestrated). Is your interpretation of this based on your interviews and research that this is the result of some sort of post-9-11 national shock... or are our "leaders" as just plain uninterested in what's going on around them as I fear they are... or is something else going on?

Karen Greenberg: My original book proposal was entitled "the petting zoo". I saw this as the appropriate metaphor for the entire Guantanamo operation. Everything is the image-- a specifically created image. The greatest challenge of Guantanamo has been covering it without pictures. And the Government certainly knew this too! The question is, "how gullible are people?" We have seen that the answer is "pretty darned gullible". They have pulled this "petting zoo" off... and too few people question it.

Now, I'd had dozens of interviewees from the early days go over the various buildings and cell blocks, the locations of the showers, the medical facility, the holding area, etc. But the military guys who take you through as your "tour guides" actually gave us wrong information albeit unknowingly, just following their script. They didn't care whether what they said was accurate or not. They told you what the briefing book in front of them told them to say. And it did not comport on all counts with the descriptions given by the military officers and troops who had been there. It was somewhat insulting if you actually knew the facts. They just assumed that no one had any relevant knowledge. While I called it 'the petting zoo", it was so much more insidious than that; the public's overall ignorance just bled into the whole charade.

The Talking Dog Is there any doubt in your mind that the most notorious abuses, whether at GTMO or later Abu Ghraib, were the deliberate result of the deliberate Pentagon decision to split up lines of command between military jailers and (higher ranking!) military intelligence? Your book portrays Maj. Gen. Dunlavey in a somewhat less favorable light, then, say, Dunlavey's fellow Erie, PA resident Lt. Col. Darrel Vandeveld did in my interview with him; Lt. Col. Vandeveld noted that whatever else one might say about Dunlavey, he had a unique background in military intelligence, the law and interrogations that, along with being a reserve officer, really made him an excellent choice to head the GTMO interrogation operation (and Lt. Col Vandeveld makes an excellent point that, say what you will about Dunlavey, he was certainly no Geoffrey Miller!). The second part of my question, then, is, given that we had Cambone and Feith (the latter someone Gen. Tommy Franks called the stupidest man he ever met, and in my view, that may be being too generous to Mr. Feith) running Pentagon intel, is there a basis to conclude either (1) that the Pentagon (and Dick Cheney and the gang) actually wanted to commit military malpractice by creating a military black hole and unclear lines of command that led to the same pattern at Abu Ghraib (where Brig Gen Janis Karpinski found herself as out of the loop and unable to deal with abuses by military intel as Brig Gen Rick Bacchus found himself), OR worse, in my view, (2) they were actually so incompetent and clueless as to sincerely believe that pressuring a bunch of irrelevant nobodies handed over for bounties by recently trained NCOs who didn't even speak their language using impromised methods not found in the Army Field Manual for interrogations might actually yield "actionable battlefield intelligence"?

Karen Greenberg: This question makes me uncomfortable in some ways. The two branches of your question whether the policy resulted from intention or incompetence- are not mutually exclusive.

Yes, they were trying to mess with the military. The Bush Administration disdained professionalism, be it in the military, the legal profession or even in the ingelligence services. Professionals were considered to be standing in the way of their agenda. This intentional lack of professionalism at Guantanamo was replicated at Abu Ghraib. Those who tried to diagnose what went wrong at Abu Ghraib were partially looking at the wrong thing. They failed to see how the story of detainee treatment was an experiment in getting the military to operate devoid of its usual protocols. The Bush Administration found that it could get results by messing with structure and rules. And so it did.

And there was incompetence as well- beginning with the lack of knowledge about who they had at Guantanamo and extending even to who they let go from GTMO.

The Talking Dog Let's talk about images. Interestingly, Gen. Lehnert insisted on a measure of "openness" by, inter alia, inviting the Red Cross and trying to be reasonably candid with the press (both of which sort of backfired when Pentagon bigwigs realized they could use these for propaganda purposes), and of course, the early iconic image out of GTMO [this one, I believe], ends up ironically "charged" to Gen. Lehnert, even though he had little to nothing to do with it, and unlike just about everyone else associated with commanding Guantanamo's detention facility, interpreted his vague non-order orders to run a "Geneva compliant-ISH" facility to mean complying with both the spirit and letter of the Geneva Conventions. Of course, it's a somewhat disturbing image, and of course, taken by a military phot ographer and controlled (and released) by the Pentagon. One of the reasons given by some people I interviewed as to why the American public and press haven't taken a greater interest in GTMO (say, compared to the rest of the world) is this lack of images, particularly television images... can you comment on this?

Karen Greenberg: As to images, I'd just like to revisit my earlier answer on the need to find "the face" of Guantanamo for the public to latch onto and identify with the issue, whether it is Shafiq Rasul or Binyam Mohammed or someone else.

The Talking Dog: Is there anything else I should have asked you but didn't, or anything else that the public needs to know on these critically important subjects?

Karen Greenberg: I'll end somewhat optimistically: I am going to trust President Obama, and the great team of lawyers he has surrounded himself with, to keep his promise and get the job of closing Guantanamo done within a year. I want to believe that they're going to get it done. And in a way that respects due process, fairness, and power of legal precedent.

The Talking Dog: I join all of my readers in thanking Karen Greenberg for that fascinating interview, and I encourage all interested readers to look at The Least Worst Place: Guantanamo's First 100 Days.

Readers interested in legal issues and related matters associated with the "war on terror" may also find talking dog blog interviews with former Guantanamo military commissions prosecutor Darrel Vandeveld, with attorneys Ramzi Kassem, George Clarke, Buz Eisenberg, Steven Wax, Wells Dixon, Rebecca Dick, Wesley Powell, Martha Rayner, Angela Campbell, Stephen Truitt and Charles Carpenter, Gaillard Hunt, Robert Rachlin, Tina Foster, Brent Mickum, Marc Falkoff H. Candace Gorman, Eric Freedman, Michael Ratner, Thomas Wilner, Jonathan Hafetz, Joshua Denbeaux, Rick Wilson,
Neal Katyal, Joshua Colangelo Bryan, Baher Azmy, and Joshua Dratel (representing Guantanamo detainees and others held in "the war on terror"), with attorneys Donna Newman and Andrew Patel (representing "unlawful combatant" Jose Padilila), with Dr. David Nicholl, who spearheaded an effort among international physicians protesting force-feeding of detainees at Guantanamo Bay, with physician and bioethicist Dr. Steven Miles on medical complicity in torture, with law professor and former Clinton Administration Ambassador-at-large for war crimes matters David Scheffer, with former Guantanamo detainees Moazzam Begg and Shafiq Rasul , with former Guantanamo Bay Chaplain James Yee, with former Guantanamo Army Arabic linguist Erik Saar, with former Guantanamo military guard Terry Holdbrooks, Jr., with law professor and former Army J.A.G. officer Jeffrey Addicott, with law professor and Coast Guard officer Glenn Sulmasy, with author and geographer Trevor Paglen and with author and journalist Stephen Grey on the subject of the CIA's extraordinary rendition program, with journalist and author David Rose on Guantanamo, with journalist Michael Otterman on the subject of American torture and related issues, with author and historian Andy Worthington detailing the capture and provenance of all of the Guantanamo detainees, with law professor Peter Honigsberg on various aspects of detention policy in the war on terror, with Joanne Mariner of Human Rights Watch, with Almerindo Ojeda of the Guantanamo Testimonials Project, and with Charles Gittings of the Project to Enforce the Geneva Conventions to be of interest.


excellent and helpful interview!

Posted by Bonnie Tamres Moore at August 10, 2009 11:09 PM

Another great interview and I look forward to reading Karen's book (which I recently picked up). I wish I could be as optomistic as Karen. Unfortunately the great team of lawyers Obama has put into place haven't quite figured out how to do the right thing.

Posted by hcgorman at August 11, 2009 3:34 PM