The Talking Dog

December 11, 2013, TD Blog Interview with John Hickman

John Hickman is Associate Professor of Government and International Studies at Berry College in Mt. Berry, Georgia. He is the author of Selling Guantanamo: Exploding the Propaganda Surrounding America's Most Notorious Prison, in which he offers a detailed critique of the "official narrative" the public has been provided surrounding Guantanamo Bay and the men it holds. On December 11, 2013, I had the privilege of interviewing John Hickman by telephone. What follows are my interview notes, as corrected by Professor Hickman.

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

John Hickman: I was sitting at my desk here in Evans Hall on the campus of Berry College, then as I am right now. One of my academic specialties is election research-- often dry, quantitative research -- and that's what I was working on when a student telephoned to tell me to get to a television set immediately. Walked down to the Evans Hall faculty lounge, and watched the horrors unfold with other faculty members and students.

The Talking Dog What got you, a mild-mannered government professor at Berry College in Georgia, interested in the subject of Guantanamo, and in particular, in its propaganda underpinnings?

John Hickman: I note that there are probably a number of more mild-mannered professors here at Berry College (which I should note is actually the largest contiguous college campus in the world at 28,000 acres, here in Northwestern Georgia-- with 2,000 students, we have an acres per student ratio!) It's a beautiful campus, if anyone is interested in visiting! Back to the question, I grew up on Army bases. I was constantly around evidence of the power of the state, at bases in Wurzburg, Germany, El Paso, Texas and other locales. Later, I found myself in Oxford, Mississippi in the last days of segregation. I became acutely aware that some people would just believe anything-- such as older people who believed in nonsensical justifications for segregation and then pitched them to me.

As such, I have always been interested in the power of ideas, and the presentation of those ideas, especially when they are used by the powerful for purposes of deceiving.

In the case of Guantanamo, I watched [former Defense Secretary Donald] Rumsfeld speak about Guantanamo, and I was bothered by his presentation-- his words, his tone, his body language. I note that the Guantanamo decision was an extraordinary one-- and the reasons given for it were implausible on their face. I thought that perhaps there might be a book in this!

I know a number of others have dealt with aspects of the imprisonment itself-- but I wanted to tell the story of the narrative offered for it, and how it both seemed, and it turned out, is, both extraordinary, and implausible.

The Talking Dog Notwithstanding my personal proximity to the WTC on 9-11 (my office was a block away, I lost my job, some people I knew were killed, and my home in Brooklyn and the lungs of myself and my family were subjected to God knows what burning from the site for the next several months), of your reckoning of "the official rationale" for holding prisoners at Guantanamo Bay (they represented extraordinary threats to the American people, possessed valuable enemy intelligence, and were awaiting prosecution for terrorism or war crimes), it was the last one-- possible prosecution in a "new Nuremberg" paradigm"-- that first drew me in to the subject, possibly as a matter of professional interest to me as a lawyer. I should also note-- and I will ask specifically about him below-- that I was also extremely concerned about the Jose Padilla situation. I note that after I interviewed attorneys involved in the defense of prisoners set for military commissions at Guantanamo Bay, I learned that the commissions turned out to be the tip of a rather troubling iceberg of hundreds of other men detained at GTMO who should never have been held as prisoners to begin with. Did any of the "official narrative" rationales strike you as particularly more compelling subjects of your interest, as opposed to the others?

John Hickman: What seemed to have caught everyone was "the worst of the worst" language. It struck me that the elevation of a bunch of nobodies into terrorist supermen reminded me of the domestic invention of "super-predator" criminals. It struck me as a brilliant right-wing narrative-- tapping into the anxiety and anger surrounding the September 11th perpetrators combined with the general anxiety about violent crime.

Of course, what was lost on American audiences was why Guantanamo was significant in terms of what it meant for international law, such as the Geneva Conventions. Americans did not pay attention to the broader significance of American unilateralism, whereas European and Asian audiences, perhaps more sensitive to violations and abandonment of those structures in World War II and other recent conflicts, did "get it" in a way that simply didn't register with most Americans. I teach a course in Genocide and War Crimes, and my students learn that much of international humanitarian law originates here in the United States, with the Civil War era Lieber Code. But notwithstanding the American origins of this body of law, somehow, its apparent abandonment seemed to resonate so little with Americans in general.

The Talking Dog You observe that in "the early days" of Guantanamo Bay, decisions were made to exhibit the prisoners to politicians, diplomats, and other elites, and, of course, the press was given a glimpse of the shackled men in orange jumpsuits, which played to cheers domestically, and jeers in the rest of the world (almost without exception). In some sense, I tend to think that many of the decisions surrounding Guantanamo initially, while doubtless doctrinally driven, were rather ad hoc, and in all cases, were driven by domestic political concerns. The question, if I can ever get it out, is whether you believe the orange-jump-suit "perp walks" and the open air kennel cages first shown to the world were anything more than a knee-jerk, ad hoc decision, which, on further reflection, were made politically useful after the fact (which may actually explain all of GTMO detention operations)... or if they were actually intended from the get-go to serve the propaganda equivalent of Roman legions returning with barbarians in chains dragged through the imperial capital... (something as you observed that was also done by American forces with native Americans at times in our history)... or if there is yet another possibility I didn't consider?

John Hickman: Was it intended-- from the outset-- as a spectacle? I am convinced that the answer to this is "YES."

The guys making the decisions were politicians with an acute awareness of how to run campaigns. They even saw longer term time horizons than the next hour or day or short term horizons. They were experienced at making decisions like that, designed to impact both the immediate news cycle and the broader campaign.

Let's just say that many if not most decent human beings are less calculated in their actions than these decision-makers, who make decisions based on the likely public reception of their messages, designed for multiple time horizons. Decisions based on how they were played in news cycles, and whether you win in the end, were calculated, and in the case of the Guantanamo narrative, calculated quite successfully.

The Talking Dog You have observed, quite accurately, that both explicitly and implicitly, journalists, pundits, lawyers, academics, and even released prisoners who authored books about the island prison (many of whom have themselves been the subject of TD blog interviews) endorsed some or most of the elements of the official narrative. This leads me to (at least) a two-part question... (a) in some sense, this is almost a meta-problem, straying from the official narrative too far might make it very hard for one to get published (especially in North America), or indeed, it might make it hard even for sympathetic readers to grasp on to the story, and so the question becomes how one could reasonably expect someone that close to the story to express it differently-- or if you like, how would you have preferred the stories to have been expressed?... And (b) the flip side of that question, which I've been trying to deal with for years myself, noting that for the most part the people willing to be interviewed by, say, me, a one-off independent anonymous blogger with a small readership, are generally those for whom "the regular channels" aren't effectively dispensing their message... admittedly, I am not wedded to "the official narrative," but nor am I able to overcome the incessant official-narrative drumbeat ("worst of the worst," "you're with us or you're with the terrorists," "can't be tried but too dangerous to release") that virtually all Americans apparently accept with the same degree of certainty as tomorrow's sunrise... in other words, maybe it's just the first part of the question all over again... but unless one is willing to invite the whole "Susan Sontag" treatment to be brought upon themselves, isn't it just about impossible to avoid the "official narrative," even as one is criticizing it?

John Hickman: Once again, the thing to recognize is that Bush Administration’s official narrative about Guantanamo were spectacularly successful. The messages were repeated with impressive consistency, and audiences started repeating it back to themselves without even thinking about it! Indeed, even those close to the story-- such as former prisoners themselves-- often end up repeating large parts of it! It is an extraordinarily clever narrative. It was put out there-- and other elites, such as the news media, did not challenge it, which was their professional responsibility.

And now to this day, figures such as one of Georgia’s Senators, Saxby Chambliss, just call everyone at Guantanamo "a terrorist." This is an extremely powerful lie.

And yet, many people feel compelled to repeat the lie; it is not even clear if it's even conscious any more-- it's that powerful a narrative.

As a scholar, however, I can speak to a wide range of audiences, and can to that extent, "be free" to challenge it. But it is clear that the effectiveness of the official narrative must be respected, and it must be feared. It's that powerful.

The Talking Dog Following up that last question (or questions?), one of the works you critiqued for advancing "the official narrative" was that of Army linguist Erik Saar, author of "Inside the Wire", whom I interviewed back in 2006. You noted that Saar, himself at GTMO as a linguist there to assist in interrogations, naturally "bought into" the "intelligence gathering" rationale (even as he clearly did not buy into "the worst of the worst" rationale.) I'd ask you about my series of questions and Saar's answers below (my question to you is right after that):

The Talking Dog: OK, let me use that a segue into a question I wanted to ask later, but I think applies to this. And that is my supposition that the higher ups simply didn't care whether they got any useful intelligence, i.e., they knew they by and large had people with no connection to Al Qaeda, but simply wanted to "look tough" for political or other "non-military" reasons?

Erik Saar: I thought that was a most interesting question, and no one has asked me that question in quite that way. One part of me wants to answer "Maybe". But my answer is I don't think so, and here's why. To the point of complete ignorance, a lot of our leaders thought that Guantanamo was full of bad people-- actual terrorists, all with useful intelligence if we could get it out of them. The initial process of how detainees got to Guantanamo was what was most flawed. The mistakes just unfolded and compounded from there.

The Talking Dog: And, of course, no one would admit that any mistakes were made...

Erik Saar: No, and that's critically important. I spoke with someone who was an officer involved from the get-go in setting up the base for detentions. He certainly had a belief that we needed a place to send the worst people around, and that Guantanamo was that place and the people we were sending were the worst. The original concept was an effort-- or at least a belief--that the people sent to Gitmo only were hardened al Qaeda members. However I believe there both practical and political reasons that detainees often left Afghanistan and found themselves in Guantanamo’s legal black hole. Eventually detainees were sent so rapidly that who was who in an intelligence sense became hopelessly convoluted. Even if you put aside any moral problems with the possibility of detaining men who shouldn't be there, you're left with a hopeless problem of how can I-- a junior NCO-- figure out who is who? Some of these guys were trained terrorists; others were sheep herders in the wrong place. You're putting junior soldiers in a position of trying to sort this out, and you are asking for a disaster.

OK... my question to you is...

I personally have no doubt of Saar's sincerity in the belief of his responses... my question to you is whether you would be willing, at least in part, to accept the Charlie Foxtrot ("cluster-f*ck") possibility of-- even accepting that the "intel" rationale was patently absurd on its face-- that what was really driving things was the pathological stupidity of senior members of the Bush Administration... [or if you, like, please feel consider Yogi Berra's adage, "in theory, theory and practice are the same; in practice, they are different..."] or put another way, that, regardless of the actual facts, whether reasonably or unreasonably, some people in the military-- and possibly higher up in the Bush Administration-- actually believed that if they simply scooped up enough adult Muslim males in South Central Asia and then shipped them to Cuba to be given "the third-degree", someone would have something of intelligence value. Possible... or just absurd? How would you respond to that?

John Hickman: We have to recognize that the "product" out Guantanamo did not have to be effective as intelligence in its own right. It just had to convince the American public that it was, and to effectively signal to the rest of the world that we were changing American foreign policy to jettison such niceties as the Geneva Conventions and other limitations on American assertion of power. On those terms, it succeeded brilliantly!

I grew up on Army bases. Many of my extended family have served in the military. There is a mindset of the loyal soldier that you go forward with your orders and your mission. If, as happens from time to time, that your orders and your mission require you to mouth nonsense, that's just part of the deal. As an academic, I don't have to do that.

I have to say, yet again, that the success of the narrative is there-- as a propaganda success of course, rather than an "intelligence" success, because from the "intel" standpoint, there was little or nothing useful obtained as "an intel" matter from the prisoners at Guantanamo.

The Talking Dog: One area that your answer suggests is the comparison of "the narrative" concerning Guantanamo with the narrative that led us into the Iraq War. Can you discuss these connections?

John Hickman: The Iraq rationales were offered to the public in sequence rather than all at once as with Guantanamo. As one rationale for the Iraq War failed -- be it, Saddam's "WMD" stockpiles, the need to bring "democracy" to Iraq, Saddam's harboring of terrorists, or human rights abuses in Iraq, a new one would be offered. Much of the public eventually recognized that each of these rationales was a fraud of some kind, and hence, the Iraq narrative-- as a narrative-- was ultimately unsuccessful.

What connects Iraq to the Guantanamo narrative, however, is the spectacle of victory. We held the virtual prisoner parade to show that Afghanistan was a quick, decisive victory, which would in turn pave the way for us to go on to the main event-- the Iraq war.

The Talking Dog You have provided a plethora of scholarship and outstanding analysis to conclude that the official narrative was cover for the actual propaganda agenda of GTMO, which you show had three components: (1) the prisoners were put on display as symbols of military victory, (2) the prisoners suffered "enhanced interrogation"-- better known as "torture" (or "cruel and degrading treatment" under international law at an absolute minimum) so that someone could be punished as substitutes for the architects of 9/11 who remained at large, and (3) the prisoners were used as pawns in a neoconservative move to signal a new U.S. foreign policy that ignored the United Nations (and irritating things like the Kyoto protocols), disregarded the Geneva Conventions, and scoffed at the International Criminal Court. Assuming (accurately) that I accept those as the underlying policy rationale for establishing "the legal black hole" on the edge of Cuba, my first question is whether you believe any of those three was the most compelling reason for the Bush Administration's opening of the place-- and for my college classmate Barack Obama to keep it open years after promising to close it... I would argue that (1) and (2) are largely the same reason for American domestic consumption, and that the appearance of Neanderthal-like toughness by both George W. Bush, and later by Barack Obama, ends up being its own political reward (see "Kerry, John"). How would you respond?

John Hickman: I should note that the audiences being pitched to are a little different, depending on whether the person pitching was George W. Bush, or Barack Obama.

That said, the strands of the official narrative fit together nicely for a political decision maker. The narrative wasn't just a "two-fer"-- you get all three of the advantages I describe (a political spectacle of victory, and the public gets to feel avenged and the public still gets to believe "swift justice" will be affected). And furthermore, the various groups of administration officials participating in the Guantanamo decision-making each got something that they wanted, from the standpoint of "there's something in this for me too!"

Looking at Obama specifically, I can only conclude that he must be the kind of guy who pulls bandages off very slowly, so as to avoid even tiny amounts of pain! Viewed through this lens, rather than take on the most powerful (though obviously blatantly false) aspects of the narrative ("worst of the worst") directly, Obama and his people just side-stepped those. The unfortunate effect was that they seemed to implicitly endorse the rest of the narrative! That's part of the power of the original narrative-- even opponents are rightly afraid of it. In trying to avoid conflict, everywhere, Obama has dodged some of "the tougher" issues this way, even as he would be a far more effective leader had he been willing to accept more conflict.

The Talking Dog Same predicate as the previous question, but I would add, as a fourth real rationale for the GTMO project, the prisoners were used as a demonstration project for inserting the "national security wildcard wedge" firmly and permanently into American law; dividends have included "official state secrets" litigation privileges everywhere from lawsuits into improper surveillance of Islamic charities, to torture of GTMO prisoners (such as Binyam Mohammad) or others (such as Maher Arar), to improper eavesdropping on lawyers (the Wilner v. NSA suit for example), and, of recent post-Snowden history,to just about anything involving telecom interception... in that sense, the complete wildcard-- just say "terrorism" and "national security" and the need for the government to actually defend the merits of its own outrageous conduct in lawsuits disappears like magic... as an added bonus, we now have a possible model for brutal treatment for eventual use in the regular American penal system... or put another way, to me, the most compelling development in "the law" of the last dozen years did not involve any of the GTMO cases (Rasul, Hamdi, Hamdan, or Boumediene), but rather that of an American citizen named Jose Padilla (and a legal Qatari immigrant named Saleh al-Mari, to the same effect). It is now established law in at least one federal circuit (the Fourth Circuit based in Richmond) that the President can waive a magic wand called "national security" and arbitrarily incarcerate any citizen (or non-citizen) in a military brig for years, without recourse to the courts or Bill of Rights protections... that the Supreme Court didn't decide the issue that way but rather ducked the question in the name of "federal venue" is not comforting at all... but my question is how you would comment on the same legal geniuses (John Yoo, David Addington, etc.) who gave us "the torture memos" and the other rationales for detention policy in "the war on terror," and may well have used the term "legal black hole" for Guantanamo (while certainly cognizant of its unique "legal purgatory" status), and then later gave us Padilla, have now succeeded in degrading everyone's rights, to the point that at their core, our "rights" are best described as "privileges" or "allowances" the government affords to us rather than, well, "rights," and that THIS RESULT (much of which has been codified by "constitutional scholar" Barack Obama in such gems as the National Defense Authorization Acts), has become a situation that had never before the case [at least, as you have noted, for "non-savages" ... exceptions always seem to have been available as a historical matter for such people as Native Americans, whom the American state treated as second class at best.] I would argue that this was the signal achievement of Guantanamo Bay and post-9-11 American policy. Would you accept that as "an addendum" to your analysis, and if not, why not?

John HIckman: My response to that is "I don't know." I wish I had a clearer answer. As you frame it, did the architects of Guantanamo see it as a component of a larger, more powerful national security state? You make a compelling case that they did. Many worry about the erosion of liberty and due process rights since September 11th. In some ways, the national security state has expanded in ways we can't even detect. Snowden and the other recent leakers have revealed what was there, but what we apparently didn't and couldn't see-- as if chalk dust were sprayed over a previously invisible structure.

The American public—what I observe from my students, who may in turn be channeling their parents and the broader society—feels increasing unease about the growth of our "national security state"-- the level of surveillance, secrecy and departures from the rule of law are aspects they find more and more disturbing. People seem more aware of this-- perhaps as never before-- and I take a degree of hope from that.

The Talking Dog Certainly, to me, the most obvious and compelling "official lies" concerning Guantanamo involve the fact that "the high value terror suspects"-- Khalid Sheikh Mohammad and the supposed organizers of the September 11th attacks-- were in CIA "black sites" for years before abruptly and cynically being transferred to Guantanamo just in time to secure passage of the Military Commissions Act of 2006, thus completely putting the lie to the "intelligence gathering" or "worst of the worst" official rationales for GTMO prior to that time (again, to me). But the military commissions fiasco speaks for itself... far more prisoners have died at Guantanamo than have been convicted in its military commissions (I believe there have been four or five such convictions, all of whom are now legally suspect as they involved "war crimes" that weren't "crimes" at the time they were committed!) Clearly, the commissions have not "brought the perpetrators to swift justice," as over seven years after their arrival, even "the high value detainees'" cases are proceeding at a snail's pace at best. My question is, once again, rather than cynically intended as a subterfuge by Bush (and later, by Obama) to justify the project-- at least at the outset, would it not be fair to believe that the Bush people actually believed that the military people would roll-over and let them have their show-trials rather than actually behave as professionals and try to comport themselves within the law (whether reasonable or not... do you question whether this belief was sincere?)

John Hickman: What I will pull out of this rather long question is to ask and then answer the question of why the established, but false, narrative did not fall apart when the "high value detainees" were moved to Guantanamo, even though all of the elements of the factual basis for Guantanamo were obviously false. And the answer to this is a testament to the underlying strength of the narrative itself.

The "high value detainees" - one of my favorite expressions-- were moved there at the very moment the GTMO narrative was weakening. The high value detainees were moved to there to shore up the basis for the GTMO decision-- and the tactic worked. It was successfully employed to show that there were actual bad guys at Guantanamo!

That said, it certainly would have been preferable to hold real trials in real courtrooms in the United States of America. Both the rest of the world and the United States would have been better off for it. The law is a very good tool for the public solving of certain problems.

But what this episode showed is that even a liberal democratic national public can be led into a desire for vengeance: it's an extremely powerful desire.

Of course, what historical war crimes tribunals-- Nuremberg and Tokyo for example-- do successfully is leave an extremely powerful narration in the form of transcripts and trial evidence, as to show just who the good guys, the bad guys and the by-standers were. The decisions of such courts stand as authoritative statements of responsibility and as such prevent further conflict. In short, trials end disputes.

In the Guantanamo case, however, the military commissions set up were not likely to end up with those kinds of trial transcripts. And the original designers of the Guantanamo arrangement were probably very pleased with that. The Neo-cons and others in the Bush Administration had found a strategy that never ends disputes-- and as such, there remained a continuing motivation to pursue the policy they wanted, specifically, perpetual policing of the Middle East and environs by the United States.

The Talking Dog Is there anything I should have asked you but didn't, or anything else you believe my readers need to know about these subjects, or anything else you'd just like to add?

John Hickman: I think it would be extremely helpful to hold up any news story coming out of Guantanamo-- any news story at all-- and ask how it fits into the established narrative, and virtually any story coming out of Guantanamo should be suspect on first appearance, and subjected to this kind of analysis.

The Talking Dog On behalf of all of my readers, I thank John Hickman for that intriguing interview. Interested readers should check out Selling Guantanamo: Exploding the Propaganda Surrounding America's Most Notorious Prison.

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 prosecutors Morris Davis and Darrel Vandeveld, with former Guantanamo combatant status review tribunal/"OARDEC" officer Stephen Abraham, with attorneys David Marshall, Jan Kitchel, Eric Lewis, Cori Crider, Michael Mone, Matt O'Hara, Carlos Warner, Matthew Melewski, Stewart "Buz" Eisenberg, Patricia Bronte, Kristine Huskey, Ellen Lubell, 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 former military interrogator Matthew Alexander, 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, with Karen Greenberg, author of The LeastWorst Place: Guantanamo's First 100 Days, with Charles Gittings of the Project to Enforce the Geneva Conventions, and with Laurel Fletcher, author of "The Guantanamo Effect" documenting the experience of Guantanamo detainees after their release, to be of interest.