And so, we come to the next stage of the "case" against David Hicks, a/k/a "the Australian Taliban", a/k/a "the worst of the worst,"... the man so bad, that thus far, he has been the first and only man charged under the newfangled military commission system passed last year by a Republican-led Congress (with the complicity of a few feckless Democrats who will also eventually have to answer to God for their role in turning our nation back to the year 1214)... Hicks' punishment, after his guilty plea for "material support of terrorism in general"? Nine months, with most of it to be served in Australia.
The Australian source cited seems to indicate that the timing was meant to coincide with the Australian federal elections later this year... wouldn't want to hurt our buddy John Howard, now, would we?
And so it goes: a triumph for our brilliant and perfect Administration, who has, as usual, brilliantly and perfectly picked up and held (indefinitely) the world's worst terrorists... people so bad, that we can sentence them, even after they have pleaded guilty to charges that we say carry a 20 year sentence... to a term of months. First, Hicks was softened up a little by tossing off his trusted counsel, including Josh Dratel. Then he was offered the chance to go back to Australia-- at least before he is dead... And then, out of nowhere, it appears he will be a free man (to the extent possible, of course; his fellow Australian, one-time GTMO resident Mamdouh Habib has not had an easy time of it back home) by the end of the year.
This, boys and girls, is the absolute worst of the worst of the worst, at least in terms of the prosecution choices made by our government. If enough people start to put all this together, this could be the beginning of the end of our excellent GTMO adventure... Of course, with the Bushmen in charge of anything, that is not-- not at all-- how you bet.
Marc D. Falkoff is a Professor of Law at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb Illinois; Professor Falkoff is co-counsel with the national law firm of Covington & Burling in the representation of 17 Yemeni nationals held as detainees at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility. On March 28, 2007, I had the privilege of interviewing Marc Falkoff by telephone; what follows are my interview notes as corrected by Professor Falkoff. [I first interviewed Mr. Falkoff together with his then colleague at Covington & Burling, David Remes, in February 2006; that interview has not been published.]
The Talking Dog: Thank you for speaking with me again. I usually start with this question because a surprising number of people I've interviewed were in downtown Manhattan on that morning and within a hundred yards of the World Trade Center (as were my brother and I). So, where were you on September 11th of 2001?
Marc Falkoff: I was in Denver clerking for a federal judge. When I went to the court house, I had heard that a plane had flown in to the World Trade Center. It occurred to me that at that very moment my wife was on a plane into New York, from London on a business trip. At that moment, we had no idea how many planes were involved, or which planes. I later learned my wife's plane had been diverted to Canada. I was pretty much a wreck from all that.
The Talking Dog: Please tell me the current status of your 17 Yemeni clients? Have any been released? Have any of your clients been designated for trial by military commissions?
Marc Falkoff: All 17 of our Yemeni clients are still at Guantanamo. A total of 107 Yemenis have been held at Guantanamo; prior to 6 weeks ago, when 6 Yemenis were returned, only 2 Yemenis had been repatriated from Guantanamo in 5 years. None of my clients have been designated for the military commissions.
The Talking Dog: Did you– or your clients– know the Yemeni(s) who committed suicide last year?
Marc Falkoff: Certainly, our clients knew about the suicides. We haven’t asked them directly whether knew him (I believe there was only one Yemeni suicide)... they certainly knew of him. I haven’t had any specific conversations on the subject.
Of relevance, three of our clients are on the Defense Department’s “transferrable list”... there are 80 or 90 detainees overall on that list, eligible to be transferred out of Guantanamo as soon as a receiving country agrees to take them. The list is from both earlier Administrative Review Board and other earlier determinations... as you know, the ARB’s began in late 2004. This is somewhat subtle, and no one seems to understand this, but what it means is that some of these men have been eligible for release– determined by our own military to present no threat whatsoever– for a period of several years, but instead, they languish at Guantanamo. Three of my clients are sitting at Guantanamo even though the United States military has determined them to be of no danger whatsoever.
The Talking Dog: Can you tell me what assistance you are rendering to Professor Neal Katyal and (former!) Commander Charlie Swift in their continued appellate work for Mr. Hamdan, and where do you stand with respect to participating in appeals of Boumediene and the recent D.C. Circuit cases upholding the Military Commissions Act?
Marc Falkoff: I do work with Neal and Charlie... but our clients' interests are somewhat distinct. We certainly worked on an amicus brief for them some time ago. Mr. Hamdan was charged by the first round of military commissions; that puts his case on a different track from our clients’ cases. None of our guys have been charged. We are all seeking review in the Supreme Court of the recent D.C. Circuit decision; a number of certiorari petitions are pending... we may be hearing something from the Supreme Court on them as early as this coming Monday (2 April).
The Talking Dog: Does it look like any of your clients will be charged by the “new and improved” military commissions? What, if you can tell me, do the CSRT charge sheets and other available data tell you that your clients are accused of having done?
Marc Falkoff: Again, none of our clients has been deemed “eligible to be charged”... we know of no reason why they would be, though there is one client about whom we know virtually nothing. As you know, our 17 clients are the subject of four separate habeas cases, including different judges, and the government has utterly refused to let us know anything about one of them... Hassan bin Attash... is somewhat of an unknown. Unfortunately, we have not been able to establish enough trust with him to talk about what his background is and what might be the basis of charges... and the government has refused to provide any information about him, and federal judge Royce Lamberth of the D.C. District Court has likewise refused to order them to provide factual justification for his imprisonment.
The Talking Dog: Let’s jump to other current events... can you comment on the David Hicks guilty plea?
Marc Falkoff: This is not unexpected, by any means. The Bush Administration will doubtless try to make hay from this as a success story of its military commissions and detention policy. But there is little there there. Hicks presents a unique situation: the Australian public is up in arms about the treatment of its national. The Australian government has therefore put pressure on the Bush Administration to find a way so that Hicks will go home. From Hicks’ perspective, he just wants to get out. Under the bizarre rules of Guantanamo, even if Hicks were sentenced to a term and served it, or even if he were acquitted, he could still be deemed dangerous and held at Guantanamo indefinitely. So he took the first chance he could do get back to Australia. Indeed, for all we know, he could be released the minute he sets foot in Australia, or at least shortly thereafter.
This is a one-off– in no sense a test of the commissions system. The only thing the commission did– in the 20 minutes it was in session– was to find two of Hicks’ lawyers ineligible and disqualify them from the defense team! This hardly gives confidence that the system works.
The Talking Dog: Let me stay on current events a moment... can you also comment on the recent Khalid Sheikh Mohammed confessions, where KSM confessed to being responsible for orchestrating the 9-11 attacks, the Daniel Pearl murder, and everything else from kidnapping the Lindbergh baby to global warming?
Marc Falkoff: KSM is a remarakable thing. Here we have a major player in al Qaeda who has confessed to a major role in 9-11. And yet, rather than being met with the same fanfare as, say, the capture of OBL, instead you have a shrug of shoulders, or a genuine dismissal simply because you can’t trust anything he said. There is an unknown extent to which he talked just because he was beaten down... we just don’t know whether to believe him re: Daniel Pearl, or whether this is the result of braggadiccio, or abusive treatment... We put ourselves in a pickle here. In one sense, we should be saying “Great! We CAUGHT one of the bastards!” and instead, we have doubt...
The Talking Dog: I think it’s worse than that... this has become triviliazed– the stuff of late night show jokes...
Marc Falkoff: I absolutely agree– this has gone down in a horrible way. Of course, the real test is not KSM, or Hicks, but what happens when guys start asserting their innocence? Just remarkable.
The one thing that is clear is that the Administration has insisted that most of the guys at GTMO will never be tried. Of course, even the New York Times misses the point about how things are done... for example, it seems to misconstrue theCSRT (combatatant status review tribunal) process, which is NOT a first step toward the commissions. For most guys, it’s the beginning and the end. The Administration says it will try 80 people– at the absolute most.
In the end, at GTMO you have at most 30-50 guys who MIGHT be involved with al Qaeda... otherwise you have a bunch of innocent guys swept up after the fact, or you have unfortunate Taliban recruits... what will you do with them? This is a problem of the Administration’s own creation.
The Talking Dog: I’ve intimated elsewhere that the Administration’s grand strategy is to make this someone else’s problem in January, 2009...
Marc Falkoff: That certainly seems to be the case. At this point, Yemenis, of all the Yemenis sitting there, they do not appear, as a group, to be more guilty than any other nationality.. They are held in continued detention because of politics. When the Yemeni government makes a deal for their release, their numbers will go down. But you’re certainly right that GTMO will not close while George W. Bush is in office.
The Talking Dog: Please tell me anything of particular note about some of your clients, or of events or observations that you find particularly important.
Marc Falkoff: One of our clients is Adnan Farhan Abdul Latif... he was in Afghanistan literally looking for medical treatement– he had an injury he suffered from an accident in 1994, and was looking around the world for affordable treatment... He was and is in frail shape, physically and psychologically. During my recent visit with him, he was “IRFed”...
The Talking Dog: That’s of course, I R F, for immediate reaction force...
Marc Falkoff: Correct– a group of soldiers, in body armor, run in and essentially beat him up. He presented a woeful sight– of his eyes, one was swollen shut, the other was black and blue, he had contusions all over his body. What he did to get “IRFed” was to step over a line in his cell when he was served lunch (and that means shoved through a slot in his cell door). He had psychological problems before his detention. It is unclear as to whether he is taking his medication... he certainly doesn’t trust the doctors at GTMO, and he has occasionally been a hunger striker. He was talking about suicide, and he had attempted suicide.
We had asked the Department of Justice for permission to have our own doctor examine him, because we are literally trying to prevent someone else from dying at Guantanamo. Adnan could die there. We are contemplating asking for court intervention. Unsurprisingly, the government’s response is “the medical care he receives is adequate”. Further, given recent Congressional action, it is not unlikely a court will just conclude it lacks jurisdiction to decide any of this... superficially, the court doesn’t want to be supervising the military.
The Talking Dog: Can you tell me the status of those detainee/clients who had previously attempted to fire you (and the Covington & Burling firm)?
Marc Falkoff: A number of our clients, over all these years of litigation, have told us that they do not want a lawyer.... they do not want to participate or be complicit in a farcical system. And then, by our next visit, we talk about their case and about such news as we are allowed to convey and then we are unfired. There is a tremendous amount of frustration– both with us, and of course, with the legal system. The slow, if not glacially slow pace of the courts here is causing unbelievable frustration. In the end, we do not believe that any of our clients have “fired us”, and in any event, we will certainly do nothing to compromise their legal rights or position while we represent them.
The Talking Dog: Can you tell me if any of your clients are on hunger strike?
Marc Falkoff: As far as I know, three of our clients are now on hunger strike– Abdul Salaam Al-Hela and Farouk Ali Ahmed, and Uthman Mohammed Uthman. Farouk is just the sweetest young kid... he has had no disciplinary problems. He is someone who would likely be released in the first wave, if the releases start for Yemenis. This kid with such a cheery disposition is hunger striking... it’s like your little kid brother... on hunger strike. It’s heartbreaking....
The Talking Dog: Of course going on hunger strike is pretty much the only power these guys have...
Marc Falkoff: Well, that’s exactly right. And that’s just it.
The Talking Dog: Since last we spoke, have you had any interactions with your clients’ families in Yemen?
Marc Falkoff: I went to Yemen again last summer. I met with a number of families, who were happy to receive updates, but were extremely upset about the continuing detention of their sons, brothers, fathers... it was more frustrating because as of last summer, we had nothing but bad news. We couldn’t buck the legal logjams, and we effectively knew nothing about what was going to happen. You try to be optimistic... but it’s not easy.
The Talking Dog: Can you tell me what Yemeni government reaction (and if applicable, public reaction) seems to be to your clients’ continued detention?
Marc Falkoff: There is not much “public” reaction... if there is any. In Yemen, what the government does is extremely important. I wrote an op-ed in the Yemeni papers– in English, also translated into Arabic– urging the Yemeni population to motivate its government to bring their kids home from GTMO. Yemen may be hesitant to sign the statement required by the United States saying that they won’t torture anyone released to it... the “official” thinking as I can fathom it is that they fear it implies they DO torture their prisoners! But this is silliness... Germany signed the same statement, and Germany does not concede that it tortures prisoners! We are frozen out of any inter-governmental negotiations. The State Department doesn’t let us have knowledge of any of this. We have spoken to members of Yemen’s parliament, but we have no access to the all important President Saleh.
The Talking Dog: While I remember to do so, let me ask you about the poetry project you are putting together.
Marc Falkoff: The poetry project started a couple of years ago. I got poems in the legal mail, from our clients. As I have a doctorate in English literature, I found it extremely interesting. It came about slowly.
I saw a group of poems by Brian Turner, an Iraqi war veteran. These were terrific and moving poems about the experience of being a soldier. I thought that this is something we can do for our prisoner/clients– about their experiences as prisoners. And so I asked our clients to ask around to other clients. One of the detainees from Pakistan was quite an accomplished poet.
This is, of course, a difficult endeavor, because the military presumes that everything the detainees write is classified, and the military refused to declassify a number of poems, claiming they might contain “hidden messages”. But I got a sufficient number of poems, in translation... many were confiscated, and/or the military refused to declassify them... or sometimes, would declassify an English translation but not the original Arabic...
Also, a number of poems were never intended to be kept. In the early days at GTMO, the prisoners were not provided with pen and paper; detainees would carve poems on styrofoam cups provided for meals– often they would write two line poems, and pass the cups on... and others would write more, and then the cups would be collected and thrown into the rubbish at the end of the day.
A number of poems– especially by the Pakistani poet– are remarkable. A poetry magazine has published some, and the University of Iowa Press will be publishing the collection– which I am editing now even today. We have a release date of August 15, 2007– please buy several copies!
The Talking Dog: I certainly plan to; maybe General Geoffrey Miller can autograph a few... I smell an E-Bay coup! Are any available publicly now?
Marc Falkoff: Good luck on that. One or two of the poems are available on the internet, such as at Harpers.Org. And if you look around on the internet, you can find some of them. The book will feature an introduction by myself, and an after-word by Ariel Dorfman.
The Talking Dog: I’m going to combine my penultimate and last (lawyer’s weasel) questions: Do you see an exit strategy for GTMO and the rest of American detention policy, at least while George W. Bush is in office, and what else do my readers and the public need to know on these subjects (or what else should I have asked you but didn’t)?
Marc Falkoff: As to an exit strategy, I certainly don’t consider myself a genius. But that said, Bush has screwed things up royally. He doesn’t know how to extricate the United States from the mess he has made, and I suspect that he isn’t going to. And so we have 390 or so men still being held... almost all of them can go home, no problem, at some point. Maybe 80, 90, perhaps 100, present some arguably threat... so what do you do with them?
Well, GTMO is a public relations disaster. So close it: bring the detainees still held into the United States– lock ‘em up at Fort Leavenworth. And charge the people who violated the laws of war or United States laws– and then put them on trial, using either the federal courts or ordinary courts martial. And that’s it. Period. As to those captured Taliban? Treat them as ordinary prisoners of war. I will concede (my own opinion, I’m not speaking for my clients) that the Afghanistan conflict is still waging, and there is an arguable justification to hold combatants from that while those hostilities are still going on... there is a great presumption to the executive to determine when a particular conflict is ongoing, and as to Afghanistan... it certainly is ongong.
But in the end, these are PEOPLE... most of whom did nothing. As to those who committed a crime in our estimation? PUT THEM ON TRIAL.
We have to stop pretending that there is such a thing as a “war against terror”. We do not know what those words mean. They mean nothing, of course. We have simply handed perpetual martial law powers to the President by continuing to believe those words.
What is the worst thing that will happen if we have trials? Evidence obtained by torture will be excluded... so we can’t convict.
The Talking Dog: But isn’t that the bottom line here? Only being a little snarky... isn’t the argument that these are TERRORISTS, more powerful than thousands of nuclear armed Soviet ICBMs, Imperial Japan, the Third Reich and the Confederacy combined?
Marc Falkoff: Exactly. But what this does is aggrandize the members of Al Qaeda. When we went to GTMO for the first time, we expected to be confronted with super-sly terrorists– super calculating, like the best top notch secret agents...
The reality is that this is absurd. If any of these guys are guilty, I submit that the United States has enough credible evidence not obtained by torture to convict some of them... although for most of them, if you remove the evidence tainted by torture and coercion... you have nothing left. Why is the evidence obtained this way untrustworthy? BECAUSE IT IS FALSE.
The British historian Andy Worthington is working on a history– he is piecing together the available CSRT material, and showing what the GTMO detainees are... and it is not much. What appears to have happened, after the Tora Bora bombing, two groups of people took off– one headed north to the White Mountains, the other headed on the road to the border crossing at Khost... The United States military decided that AQ leadership was heading for Khost, and began bombing and attacking that column... It turns out that the United States military picked wrong! They were attacking the wrong people– the Al Qaeda leadership and fighters were in the other column. But when the group attacked reached Khost, it included a large number of Arabic speakers, so the United States decided that THESE were the Al Qaeda fighters! Simple as that! You can explain nearly 1/3 of the Yemeni GTMO detainees just by that one incident! Truly mind-boggling!
The Talking Dog: Professor Falkoff, we’ll let that be the last word. I thank you for being so generous with your time, and I join all my readers in thanking you for that informative interview.
Readers interested in legal issues and related matters associated with the "war on terror" may also find talking dog blog interviews with attorneys 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 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, and with journalist and author David Rose on Guantanamo related issues to be of interest.
The old Vaudeville bit about a man hearing a trigger word and slowly going into a pre-programmed tirade seems to be the best shorthand I can think of (other than perhaps "6-minute abs" from There's Something About Mary) to describe what is probably happening at the White House now after the Senate voted 50-48 to leave in language calling for a troop pullout from Iraq-- starting in just four months-- as a condition of approving ongoing war funding. Wildman Chuck Hagel of Nebraska joined RINO Gordon Smith of Oregon to cross party lines (Pryor of Arkansas was the lone Dem sellout... Lieberman was with the GOP on this... as usual...), and put the measure over the top.
It's called a "must-pass" bill because it's funding "for the troops". But this is horse-manure. The troops' salaries are paid out of the existing DOD budget; so are their uniforms and munitions. (Or is the "new money" for that body and vehicle armor or medical care we're not providing?) This is funding "for the war" or more accurately for Halliburton and Bechtel to provide "support services" that amount to frequently the opposite of "supporting our troops"-- diverting them from their mission to guard civilian bigwigs who are just there to make money. So, to paraphrase Noel Coward's Why Must the Show Go On?", why is this a must-pass bill? Oh... the punch line... this troop withdawal part is NON-BINDING!!!
It strikes me that if it is, the branch of government that "needs" it to pass is the Executive... and yet it is the President who is threatening a veto if language is inserted telling him what the American people and their representatives want him to do (even if he doesn't have to!). Well, let's keep this in perspective: the President is welcome to veto the bill, but then he has no right whatsoever to expect a new one in its place to his liking. In fact, I would strongly suggest that House and Senate leaders suggest that "this is the best they can do", its heavily compromised as it is, etc., etc., and if the President vetoes it, well, so be it... there just may not be a war funding bill at all.
We can see who gets to go all "schoolyard" on that, given that an astounding 59% polled want a troop withdrawal included in legislation.
In the end, I don't think it will be the President.
Let me cut right to the chase with the fiasco of Attorney General's office spokesperson Monica Goodling's purported invocation of the Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination: if she is not fired by the end of the week, then Alberto Gonzales should be fired (or if necessary impeached) for not firing her.
Reading her tactic (which I presume was orchestrated by Karl Rove, because everything else seems to be) in its best light, she has supposedly tried to avoid "a partisan perjury trap", to wit, the same horseshit Bill Clinton was arguably exposed to-- questions with no underlying purpose other than to try to get someone to lie under oath. This supposed trap has not, however, been recognized as a justification not to testify. Further, the usual invocation of the privilege is not at a refusal to appear pursuant to a subpoena (which is rightly contempt of Congress for which Miss Goodling should rightly be penalized, i.e. 1 to 12 months in jail and a fine of $100 to $1,000), but at the time of questioning, at which time, immunity can be offered, if necessary. Note that we're not talking about a special prosecutor like the Clinton people had to deal with, but simply a Congressional committee... just one, you know, elected by the People, as opposed to Pat Robertson's friends.
But what Miss Goodling has actually done is far more serious: she has either demonstrated, with her cutesy tactic, that (1) she has committed criminal acts in her role as a high level official in the United States Department of Justice, our nation's principal law enforcement agency, and/or (2) she has no concept of one of the most basic of Constitutional privileges. In short, she has just confessed that she is either too dirty, or too stupid, to continue to serve in her job (or possibly both). (I won't even go into the significance of her having attended Pat Robertson's Regent University Law School or a similarly situated Christianist "Messiah College"... institutions that, academically, compare poorly to the average community college, but which seem to graduate a wildly disproportionate number of people who make it into the ranks of Congressional and White House aides... though, if possibility (2) is in play and she is not a crook, then her "education" has ill-served her.)
And there you have it. An easy, ready made scandal that even Chuck Schumer ought to be able to understand: regardless of what happens to Alberto "Abu" Gonzales, Miss Goodling can simply not be trusted to serve the public. Not another day. Not another minute (though it's after hours). She has demonstrated either sufficient nefariousness... or sufficient numb-fuckness... to be sacked immediately.
Regardless of what happens to the Attorney General himself, his selection of this criminal, or this idiot, or both... speaks volumes about his own management skills. And she just has to go.
In an extraordinarily bizarre day at the extraordinarily bizarre court set up at the extraordinarily bizarre detention facility set up at a location literally intended to be beyond the rule of law, after five years of open-ended detention with no apparent hope of release, Australian national David Hicks pleaded guilty to heretofore nonexistent charges of providing material support to terrorism in general (rather than face a potentially never ending show trial). Earlier in the proceedings, the military commissions decided to arbitrarily (as in "for no reason whatsoever") disqualify two of Hicks' three lawyers (including Josh Dratel, who yesterday, as in my interview with him, observed the complete arbitrariness of a military commission process where the rules quite literally change day to day).
Just as with the execution of Saddam [by the Mahdi Army] and other great moments in right wing triumphalism... let the right wing triumphalism fly! We'll forget that the charge against Mr. Hicks was made-up, and selected so that he could get a 20-year sentence (parallelling to John Walker Lindh, for the crime of being a Christian Western Anglo converting to Islam) rather than a life sentence for the other charge (also made up) of providing material assistance for a terrorist act. For parallels, note that it wasn't a crime for U.S. citizens to go serve in the Spanish Civil War (on either side, btw... of course, there weren't swarthy Muslims involved, for the most part, now, were there?)
Even though earlier in the day, Hicks apparently pleaded not guilty and actually wanted to expand his defense team, by the end, he was willing to put up with having only Major Michael Mori as his sole attorney, and evidently, with the promise of being removed from Gitmo by the end of the year and serving the remainder of his sentence in his native Australia, Hicks was willing to say just about anything... if necessary, he probably would have repeated Khalid Sheikh Mohammed's confessions... which, to be fair, were at least extracted by methods even Americans would be more likely to recognize as torture.
And that's just it: his father Terry Hicks, who hadn't been permitted to see his son for over three years, said that David has changed a lot... solitary confinement in a 6x8 ft. cell with the lights always on and constant haranguing interrogations and no hope of ever being released will do that kind of thing... if that's not "torture", then what the hell IS?
Frankly, many I have interviewed suggested Hicks was likely treated better than most of the other detainees, in a physical sense, anyway, because he spoke English, had his own lawyers from the beginning, had some following in a friendly Western country, and so forth... OTOH, he wasn't a native Arabic, Urdu or Pashto speaker (as so many of the other detainees are), and, I understand from Moazzam Begg's book, may even have been more isolated from other detainees by becoming less interested in Islam...
And so, for whatever the reason, Hicks is the first to crack and plead guilty. And it only took five years. The Soviets, Chinese and North Koreans are doubtless laughing their asses off at our amateurish methods, such as abusing the Koran, the sexual humiliation, the chains and the orange jump suits... the waterboarding... what we soft Western fools think will break people. Ha! It's the isolation-- the hopelessness... things that our well-paid and frequently overweight pundits tell us aren't torture at all.... because only the rack and thumbscrew are torture, don't you know.
Well, congratulations to the thousands of men and women deployed to Joint Task Force Guantanamo, indeed, to our entire military... and of course, to the Bush Administration. Congratulations. You have nailed a huge fish: I understand that Hicks guarded a Taliban tank position. I understand that one of OBL's automobile mechanics and motor pool drivers is up next, and who knows... maybe we'll get Al-Zawahiri's shirt-maker to confess.
Congratulations are also in order to the American judicial system. Nothing like holding out the illusion of our being a nation that has due process of law and that respects the rule of law, with a deliberately mind-fuckingly slow court process, and not just one, but two major "victories" for detainees in the Supreme Court of the United States that include enough outs and weasel words for the government to simply continue its outrages more or less unabated. Well done... no Soviet apparatchik could have proven more effective. And congratulations to the Democrats in Congress, who neither stopped these outrages through the procedural devices available to them in the minority, nor reversed them now that they have attained the majority, and whose leading candidate for President seems to have no position on this at all...
All in all, a great day for Amerika, the Empire. Not so good for our rights as citizens, our moral standing, or much else... but what's good for George W. Bush is just plain good (and let's face it, this will take Gonzales and the fact that a key aide Monica Goodling is taking the Fifth Amendment) down a notch for a day or two... So it's a win-win situation!
In the latest round of Gitmo show trials that never quite seem to get going, it looks like "Australian Taliban" David Hicks (whose "crime", you'll recall, was being a White Christian Anglo from a cool first world country who dared convert to Islam), will face arraignment today at GTMO on a charge of "providing material support to al Qaeda", a charge which not only has the virtue of not being true, but that charge did not even exist until 2006. In other words, we are inventing conduct that we can charge Mr. Hicks with over five years after he has been in American custody. The original charges were that he committed a war crime by guarding a Taliban tank position agianst the Northern Alliance... in other words, participating in a war on a side we don't like was designated a war crime. Well, not now... those (somewhat flawed) charges were dropped in favor of the current (somewhat flawed) charges...
In the meantime, defense attorneys will be doing their own wrangling, aside from having Hicks plead not guilty, perhaps seeking the ouster of the prosecutor Col. Moe Davis for his unveiled threats against defense counsel Maj. Michael Mori for doing his job.
I predict... that nothing will happen for quite a while... the plan is to keep the circus going until early 2009, of course... we will see.
And on the "up close and personal" theme, Dan sends us this video... apparently, while little contact with GTMO detainees is allowed with the outside world (and none directly with the press), it seems MTV Cribs managed to get in there and film this look at David Hicks' crib. Kind of makes you hungry for some lemon chicken and rice pilaf...
The House of Representatives has (almost unbelievably) acceded to the will of the people with respect to the Iraq War, and has imposed conditions that the Iraq war be ended attached to war spending, discussed in my American Street post "The Power of the [Fashionable] Purse".
It now appears that Attorney General Alberto "Spanky" Gonzales's nose has grown a few inches: contrary to his public protestations that he was not involved in the decision to politicize the nation's administration of justice by being part of the plan to sack loyal Republican United States Attorneys for not being partisan enough and bringing politicized witch hunts against Democrats and not bringing cases against Republicans... Abu Gonzales was, in fact, front and center at a key meeting discussing the plan, and there are incontrovertible e-mails to this effect. Well, well. Alberto made it past my "over-under" of Thursday... but I do wonder how much (dwindling) political capital the Lame Duck in Chief can continue squandering on the A.G.... Well, time will tell.
And I have refrained from commenting on John Edwards's decision to continue campaigning for his presidential run in light of his wife Elizabeth's diagnosis of metastisized cancer, but it seems, the Grey Lady has found some strains of public discussion on the subject. I'll just say that there is no right answer on this: evidently, it was Elizabeth Edwards who insisted that John continue to run. Well, so be it.
God, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, or Random Chance has put us here apparently once: we get to live our lives as best we can, hoping to advance whatever dreams we have. If, for the Edwards family, that is a shot (no matter how long the odds) at being elected President of the United States, so be it. If, for the rest of us, it is standing up to a government hellbent on squandering what made this country unique in the history of the world-- it being a genuine prosperous meritocracy governed by the rule of law, instead of a more typical crony-ocracy where everyone must suck up to the rich and powerful for the few crumbs that "trickle down"-- then that, too, is our perogative. As that great beer ad tells us, you only go around once... GO FOR THE GUSTO!
It seems that upon the arrival of the Carlyle Group's turnaround specialist Robert Gates to head up the Pentagon, the Grey Lady reports that one of his first activities was to try to close down Guantanamo Bay's detention facility. He did, at least, manage to greatly reduce the scope and scale of the expanded prison and adjudication facility there, permitting Halliburton to collect a measly $10 million instead of the $100 million it was hoping for, on the basis that the massive $100,000,000 project created the unwanted image of permanence... though let's face it, its residents have already been there for five years without charge or trial or particular hope of release.
Gates found an interesting ally in his quest to close Gitmo, Secretary of State Incompetetentalleezza Rice, who realized (several years too late) that Gitmo is an international public relations disaster (if not a millstone around this nation's neck) and it would make her job somewhat easier if we put it behind us (moving the prisoners either back to their home countries for those we are not going to try, i.e., almost all of them, and hold the rest in military brigs followed by proper courts-martial). Gates was thwarted, however, by
Karl Rove the President himself, by the Vice-President and by Karl Rove Attorney General Alberto "Spanky" Gonzales... the Veep and Gonzo both lobbied hard to keep one of America's most visible moral outrages and public relations disasters open, front and center.
Just as, it seems, that the whole unprovoked war against Iran is being put on hold pending the resolution of "U.S. Attorney-gate" (ironically, Watergate itself was comparatively small potatoes compared to the current regime's attempted subversion of the entire American justice system for political advantage, though back in the 1970's, we had a functioning press corps, ethical Republicans, and network television consisted of programs other than Macchiavellian game shows... but I digress...)...Gates has surmised that Gonzales's presumably... somewhat compromised... position might create another opening to deal with Gitmo.
We'll see. The thing with Rummy, Cheney and Junior is that they always thought that they always had the biggest one in the room (and I don't mean brain.) And that's what the whole Gitmo thing is: the ability to abuse powerless men, for the twin goals of sadistic personal amusement and to show the rest of us that they can... because, you know, our leadership has, like... the biggest one.
Thus far, at least, SecDef Gates, the Emissary from the Grownups, hasn't been able to crack into the Guantanamo Sandbox... nor, for that matter, does it look like our Excellent Iraq Adventure is going anywhere either... Still and all, as Poppy's Fixer presents at least the possibility of a rational (or at least not insane) conduct of our military policy for a change... I guess it's in all our interests to hope that he succeeds in some of his endeavors.
The Governator, in response to Rush Limbaugh's decrying him for being all liberal and s***, responds by calling the Right Wing's greatest mouthpiece "irrelevant".
I have said before that the Democrats can consider themselves fortunate indeed that California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, that man of initiatives on universal health care, global warming, and other things that the Democrats in Congress should be leading the way on... is ineligible to run for President. It would seem that now the (other) Republicans can consider themselves fortunate in that as well.
It would seem that we have another Republican California Governor of true national stature... a visionary... only this time, with a vision of an America worth living in for people with less than $100,000,000 in net worth.
And so the big newspapers, such as in this Grey Lady article, breathlessly anticipate a "Constutional showdown", or perhaps "constitutional crisis", to cover the latest inter-branch dance, in this case, the question of whether Senate Democrats are going to go forward and issue subpoenas to members of the Bush Administration (answer: yes), in particular, Karl "Bush's Brain" Rove (answer: maybe, but that's not how you bet). Subject: the ongoing U.S. Attorney firing fiasco. (The Senate, btw, voted 94-2 to repeal that portion of the USA Patriot Act giving the Attorney General the power to replace fired U.S. Attorneys without Senate confirmation.)
The President has graciously offered to allow "his people" (because, you know, just because they hold positions of supposed trust and cash Treasury Dept. checks covered by our tax dollars, the President's staff are, you know, personal livery answerable only to him and not, you know, to anyone else) to "privately" talk to Congressional committee members, not under oath, or with any record made, or anything like that. And he's vowed to "fight subpoenas in court" if Congress wants to do, you know, its job.
Assuming we weren't some kind of a dictatorship [a somewhat dubious proposition; see "Padilla, Jose"; see also how vigorously the Supreme Court's rulings in Rasul v. Bush and Hamdan v. Rumsfeld have been enforced and implemented], an honest court would immediately throw out any lawsuit attempting to quash or otherwise impede a Congressional subpoena, because how Congress choses to do its job is the purest of the pure political questions-- a court should have no jurisdiction over such a question. Understand, of course, that the President and a Republican controlled Senate have packed the courts, particularly the District of Columbia district and circuit appellate courts, with ideological compatriots. Even still, for some judges, the law is actually the law as Congress said it, and not as the President wants them to make it up as they go along. OTOH, given the kind of bat-shit ideological and not legal rulings that have come out of the D.C. Circuit of late, I wouldn't hold my breath. In the end, this may once again come down to Justice Stevens' health, and just how tenuous Justice Kennedy's integrity really is.
But we'll see: can Bush tie this up for the 21 months and 29 days until he can get out of town? This Administration has proven again and again that in the area of an executive that refuses to comply with the law or the Constitution, an opposition party that is afraid of taking any kind of risks that might cost it votes and a press corps that is afraid of taking any kind of risks that might cost its members cocktail party invitations or that vaunted "access" or anything else that, heavens, might interfere with their careers (count the opposition party in that category too)... nothing is impossible. (Except, seemingly, any semblance of good government, fiscal integrity, non-reckless foreign policy, Karl Rove facing any kind of justice... )
At the end of the day, look for some kind of unsatisfying deal to be made; perhaps Laura Bush or Dick Cheney will have to go testify before Congress. The blessed St. Turdblossom... will somehow not. Just watch. We'll see how this plays out. Somehow, I'm betting on bid'ness as usual. Don't get me wrong: I can always be pleasantly surprised.
But somehow, with this Administration (and these Congressional leaders) it just about never happens.
This Washington Post story tells us that evidently, our allies in Riyadh seem to be objectively pro-terrorist, at least insofar as insisting on promptly releasing, usually within weeks, those people that we have deemed worthy of release from Guantanamo Bay's open-ended (and once open-air) detention center. Indeed, according to a report by two Washington, D.C. lawyers Anant Raut and Jill M. Friedman, who represent detainees and did an analysis of 24 of the Saudi detainees so far released (about whom data is available), most of those we release are promptly released by their home countries.
This is quite consistent with what we learned, for example, from Moazzam Begg, who was released by our back-stabbing British allies within hours of his return to Britain. It seems that, quite often, if our government has no basis to continue holding people... neither does the detainee's. The difference is that other governments seem capable of doing this within days or weeks, if not hours... while ours takes years, and still has over half the detainees sent to GTMO still in custody, with only ten ever charged, and only one currently charged (none tried... of course.)
Which adds yet another a lie to "The Tale of the Worst of the WorstTM", to wit, the "we have to continue to hold people because we won't release people to their home country who is likely to abuse or torture them" lie. (Think about the Uighurs that we have sent to Albania, for example.) Setting the somdwhat unusual case of China aside, which, unlike Saudi Arabia and Yemen, does have a history of poor treatment towards its Moslem minority, it does seem that this sounds like Orwellian code for "we don't want to be embarrassed about holding someone completely innocent for so long and will grasp at any excuse possible to avoid that embarrassment."
Feel free to consider our history of accurate accusations in the War on Terror, starting with GTMO Chaplain James Yee and work your way back; links to my other interviews are at the end of the post. Other whoppers we have been fed over the years include canards such as "captured on the battlefield", "all trained killers", "worst of the worst", "giving us valuable intelligence", "asymmetrical warfare", and, well... things that the media will merrily repeat from the Administration. Well, as I said... read what the players who were there have to say... and draw your own conclusions. (Please note that I have, from time to time, asked officials from the government, the military, members of the "regular media" and other officials associated with the policy to talk to me; some have politely declined, while most have simply ignored my requests.)
And there you have it. It seems that although some in Congress (such as Jack Murtha) are calling for legislation effectively ending the GTMO outrage, most members of what had been a rather feckless Democratic opposition are now willing to be part of a feckless Democratic majority that does not want to lift a finger to end one of America's most visible moral outrages. So, perhaps, it comes down to the rest of us to keep the pressure on...
The ongoing abuse of a few hundred (or perhaps, a few thousand, counting other locations) men swept up in our net, is perhaps not so outrageous when measured against the evils of the world (or even the history of our own nation, which has interned Japanese Americans, massacred Native Americans, enslaved African Americans, etc.) But this is our nation in our time, supposedly to protect us. And there we have it. To quote from (unbelievably!) former Michigan Governor George "father of Mitt" Romney, If not now, when? If not us, who?
And onward goes the U.S. Attorney firing story, with this WaPo piece now observing shifting versions of the story coming from the White House, the Justice Department and recently resigned Alberto Gonzales aide-de-camp Kyle Sampson. Well, well. What gives?
In some sense, the last thing the White House propaganda operation wants people to think about is how integrally tied it was to maintaining its Congressional majorities, to the point of stage-managing prosecutions of Democrats and suppressing prosecutions of Republicans timed to the election cycle... which seems blatantly troubling and should be iillegal if it already isn't... We tend to pretend that there is "prosecutorial discretion", independence of political concerns, and so forth. It all makes us feel better about a system already grossly stacked in favor of the powerful and/or rich.
And this whole incident takes the mask off that... And the Bushmen would rather we not know how the system works-- and indeed, under their governance, we become less and less a nation governed by laws and more a nation governed by and for the benefit of [rich, White, racist, venal] men.
But at the moment, it being Washington and all, it comes down to personalities, because, well, it's all high school, right? Issues don't matter-- it's who the uncool kids who wanna be cool wanna have a beer with, right? OF COURSE IT IS.
Which is why the story is now about the over-under on Gonzo. Well, boys and girls, the over-under on Gonzo here at the talking dog is "Thursday, Noon." Place your bets; if Alberto is still in office at noon on April Fools Day, the game is called off... But otherwise, feel free to use comments (or email email@example.com if you're shy about public comments) and tell me when YOU think Alberto will resign or be fired, date and closest hour, we'll let CNN and its "Breaking News" emails be the official timer on this... OK... place your bets! Winner gets lunch at the swanky restaurant of my choice... if you're not in the New York area, we'll think of something... perhaps an autographed copy of that book I'm surely going to write!
But if it comes down to Gonzo or Rove... sorry Alberto. If it came down to Bush-kidz Jenna and
Not Jenna Barbara... sorry girls. Frankly, if it's Rove or Laura... er, sorry Laura. Pretty much anyone short of Poppy and the Carlyle Group goes before Rove (and if the CG is threatened by him... there's always a remote ditch in one of the D.C. area's many picturesque parks...)
O.K.... the Alberto Gonzales Career Dead Pool: Ready. Set. GO!!!!
Supposedly, in an omerta ceremony to which reporters were not allowed that the Bush Administration has euphemistically called a "Combatant Status Review Tribunal" (a/k/a "rubber stamp") held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, alleged September 11th mastermind Khlaid Sheikh Mohammed, who is always pictured in his perp shot after he was apprehended in Pakistan more than vaguely resembling adult movie star Ron Jeremy confessed to being the mastermind of the 9-11 attacks, and indeed, expressed regret that there were so many victims of his supposed handiwork. (Who writes this crap?)
Well, well. The thing with the Bush Administration is that they only do things like this when they have some political motivation to cover for something else. You will recall the Bush Administration's rather generous use of deliberate false alarms associated with the ridiculous color coded terror alert system (the one I appreciate the most being tied to a plot to attack the New York Stock Exchange, a building a few steps from where I go to work every day... a plot later revealed to be years old, even as it was blasted over every news outlet in the world.) So now, with Bush Administration approval ratings hovering in the toilet, controversy over "the SurgeTM", Halliburton's h.q., CEO and numerous bags of cash moving to Dubai and the coming war with Iran all looming (not to mention a bad week for A.G. Gonzales, who after the U.S. Attorney firing fiasco in which good old Harriet Miers is implicated, is called upon to resign by N.H. GOP Senator Sununu), we get this little "Gift from Gitmo"TM.
No one is denying that KSM, or perhaps all of the other 14 "high value terrorists", are creeps and bastards, who should be brought to justice. The problem, of course, is that after five years of being tortured, and there is no doubt whatsoever that that is what we have done, that anything KSM, or anyone else who was a guest of our "CIA black prisons" says, is tainted by that torture thing. Indeed, part of KSM's script was to note that he was subject to torture, "but is still making his confession freely and voluntarily."
Er, no. In a real court, once you start poisoning the tree, you may as well pour the whole bottle in, because the tree and all its fruit are poisoned. Period. KSM's confession would not hold up in a real court-- which is why the Bush Administration, helped along by its friends Senators Graham and McCain (who will themselves also eventually have to answer to God, if not eventual war crimes tribunals for their role in turning our country back to the early Middle Ages), changed the rules for the
kangaroo courts military tribunals at Gitmo to permit such evidence obtained by coercion... or less euphemistically, torture.
Which is neither here, nor there, because it is extraordinarily unlikely that KSM or the other 13 "high value terrorist suspects"TM will ever see even the inside of a kangaroo courtroom; the name of their game, like the Gitmo game in general, is to slowly trickle out the innocent rubes we are holding there (it's down to 385 now; a few seem to be released each month) until January 2009, when this all becomes some other President's problem.
We'll ignore the legal implications of our blatantly disregarding our nation's ratification of international bans on torture and the Geneva Conventions themselves, to simply ask what this says of us, as a nation supposedly governed by "the rule of law", when we have to debase ourselves to the very level of the people we supposedly despise most.
Let's just say that it doesn't say anything good.
Our veep is just an amazing fellow... while just in the last couple of weeks it was an [insane and dangerous] adventure to a war zone where the Taliban try to blow him up, and where just the trip led to potentially dangerous thrombosis in his leg...
NOW, in between blasting Democrats as "not supporting the troops if they dare cut off or reduce funding for the Iraq war that has largely gone to contractors (and hence, his friends, if not himself), and his other mirth and merriment, it seems Cheney still found time to move the company to Dubai to save some taxes.
I know what you're thinking: moving Halliburton to Dubai will be good for America, and especially good for global warming. Not only is Dubai a strong ally, but think about all the greenhouse gases generated to transport people with those heavy bags of cash from Iraq all the way back to Houston-- it's a much shorter ride to Dubai! And you'd be exactly right!
Just as Dick had a thing with February (last year blasting Harry and this year the Taliban almost blasting him), it seems Dubai has a thing with March (last year the ports thing, and this year, our crown jewel, Halliburton). Well, let's just say when the next round of sweetheart no-bid contracts go out to a company based in the United Arab Emirates, we can all proudly say that we just made a decision to "Dubai American." It's only patriotic.
Given his unbridled energy, let's just say we are all... sorely disappointed... that our frenetic veep hasn't decide to seek the presidency himself.
James Yee is a graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point. In 2002 and 2003, he served as the Muslim Chaplain at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, with the rank of Captain in the United States Army. After ten months of deployment at Guantanamo, while traveling home for a two week leave, Captain Yee was arrested, and accused of espionage and spying, charges which carried the death penalty. He was then placed in solitary confinement in the Naval Brig in Charleston, South Carolina, under conditions resembling those in which Guantanamo detainees were kept, for 76 days. As the case against Yee fell apart, the military instead added criminal charges of adultery and having pornography on his computer, charges that were also eventually dropped. Captain Yee left the Army with an honorable discharge and service commendations. He is the author of For God and Country: Faith and Patriotism Under Fire. On March 8, 2007, I had the privilege of interviewing James Yee by telephone. What follows are my interview notes corrected as appropriate by Mr. Yee.
The Talking Dog: Because on that day, as on this, I was seated about one City block from the World Trade Center, my first question usually concerns September 11th. We know from your book that on 11 September 2001 you were an Army Chaplain, stationed at Fort Lewis in Washington State. Can you tell me at that time, what you were feeling at that moment about (1) serving as an officer in the United States military, and (2) learning that the perpetrators of the attacks were religious extremists?
James Yee: The attacks occurred right before 9 a.m. on the East Coast. Out in Washington State, it was just before 6 a.m., and I was about to wake up and to go to physical training... as they say about the Army, we do more before 9 a.m. than most people do all day. At that time, I received a call from my mother in New Jersey; she saw on television that the first tower had been hit, and told me to turn my t.v. on. I put on the t.v., saw the fire in the first tower, and thought that perhaps an intoxicated pilot had a mishap, or otherwise, an accident. Then the second plane hit, and I continued to watch the coverage until both towers collapsed... which was mind boggling, to see both towers collapse they way they did in minutes after they were hit.
For me, I had no idea who was responsible for this. But I knew that regardless of who was responsible, there would be a backlash against the Muslim community, just like what happened after the Oklahoma City bombing. There was a backlash even though Muslims had absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the Oklahoma City bombing.
The Talking Dog: I understand that you have been the subject of government surveillance, most notably the subject of so-called "national security letters" seeking financial, telecommunications and other records. Certainly, these were used during the period you were under charge and investigation. Do you know whether or not you and your family are still under some kind of surveillance and monitoring (including this phone call and e-mails arranging it)? Are you engaged in legal activity regarding your surveillance, or in any other kind of legal action concerning your treatment by the government?
James Yee: Regarding the recent news that the government has probed into my financial, banking and credit records, I don’t have any information regarding when this specifically occurred. It’s very possible that I am under this type of government surveillance still... I do not know if it is not happening right now.
Clearly, I am concerned that this blatant invasion of privacy is continuing. I don't know, and I don't know if I will ever find out. This is a problem: national security letters are done in complete secrecy: how they are done, who they are done to, or for what reason and based on what information is a complete secret. There are no court approved warrants, and certainly no judicial oversight of their execution.
And I don’t know exactly how much surveillance I am under right now. But the relevant questions are: Is my telephone tapped? Is my residence entered and searched when my family and I leave it? Is my mail being opened? Are my e-mails monitored? And if so, by whom? All of this raises concern. Perhaps I am still subject to such surveillance, and perhaps I will be until the end of my life – even though I am a patriotic American citizen.
I have engaged respected legal organizations to research these questions, to the extent possible. It’s an obligation for everyone to do what they can to uphold the Constitution and prevent the government from breaking the law.
The Talking Dog: After September 11th, you gave a number of talks at military bases as a Muslim chaplain calling for understanding, and indeed, you became a spokesman for the military in general at various times. Indeed, my understanding is that your visibility as a Muslim chaplain led to the decision to assign you to Guantanamo. Were you in a position to have turned down that assignment, and whether or not you were in such a position, in retrospect, do you wish you could have?
James Yee: I was not in a position to turn it down. I agree that I was probably assigned to GTMO because of my visibility. I was assigned to serve the Joint Task Force- Guantanamo in November of 2002. My orders were actually cut in an expedited fashion because there were personal reasons necessitating the ending of the previous Muslim Chaplain’s assignment early. I had first gotten word perhaps in the Spring of 2002 that they needed a Muslim Chaplain at Guantanamo, and I heard that it was possible that I might be one of the first to go down there. I didn't think it was the right time for me, given my own family situation. But eventually, I was tasked with the assignment.
Do I wish I hadn't been assigned there? I don't look at things that way. For that job, as Muslim Chaplain, there was no better Chaplain in the United States Army for that particular task...
The Talking Dog: I take it I am correct that you were certainly the only Muslim Chaplain who graduated from the United States Military Academy?
James Yee: That is certainly true. I achieved things that no other chaplain would have been able to do. I received two awards, and was recommended for a higher award. For the ten months I served at GTMO, I received the highest performance evaluation I had ever received in my military career. And it was dated two days before I was arrested.
I wrote a number of Standard Operating Procedures that are probably still used to this day at GTMO. I wrote the religious support procedures for Camp Delta, including funeral and burial rites, which were, unfortunately, put into action when three prisoners committed suicide last year. The protocols for the handling of the bodies in accordance with Islam were written by me. My contributions also included those associated with the policy for treating the Koran with respect. When the issue of desecration of Korans became public in 2005, what did the Pentagon do? They referred to my policy, and the instructions I drafted concerning this. Of course, the Pentagon never at any time acknowledged that these Standard Operating Procedures were the work of Captain James Yee. But it is clear that only someone with an in-depth knowledge of Islam and Muslim practices would have had to have authored this policy, and that person, indeed, was me... So, I certainly made a substantial contribution.
The Talking Dog: Can you tell me what your expectations were of Guantanamo and the men we were holding there? How did those expectations compare with what you actually encountered? Did you encounter either David Hicks or Moazzam Begg? Can you tell me about the use of 9-11 images at Guantanamo, both for personnel stationed there and for detainees? Can you tell me about the juveniles you encountered at Camp Iguana?
James Yee: The expectations I had, both from the military itself and our political leaders, were that we were holding 700 totally hard core terrorists. Of course, that's not at all what I encountered when I got there. It became clear that none of the individuals we were holding at Guantanamo were connected in any way to the September 11th attacks. It became more clear that if our military and government had captured a legitimate terrorist suspect, they would not have been brought to Guantanamo Bay at all, but to the secret CIA black sites, that the President admitted existed when he transferred 14 so-called "high value" terrorist suspects to Guantanamo in September 2006 in order to get Congressional support for the Military Commissions Act after the Administration lost in its attempt to unilaterally impose military commissions of its own devising after the Hamdan case. Only at that time were any real terrorists possibly connected with September 11th brought to GTMO.
I certainly did interact with David Hicks. I had several personal interactions with him, including holding classes with him on how to properly recite the Holy Koran, both when he was in general population and later when they had him in isolation at Camp Echo. Begg was one of the few prisoners I was never allowed access to. When his group was brought in, he was kept in isolation. I was led to believe that the British prisoner, Begg-- might be "negotiating" some kind of plea, and that that was the reason he was not permitted to see the chaplain.
As for the juveniles, there were at least three boys in Camp Iguana between 12 and 14 years old. There were at least 6 others, by the way, who were 15 or 16, definitely younger than 18, in general population. The three in Camp Iguana I met weekly. We were led to believe they were "hard core terrorists" but this was utterly ridiculous. The guards in charge of them would frequently discipline them with "time-outs" just as many American parents discipline their own children.
I spent a fair amount of time with the youngsters; they learned to throw footballs, and I watched them kick soccer balls- occasionally over the fence and into the ocean. These kids were not the hard-core super-terrorists capable of slitting anyone's throat, as we were led to believe, and as portrayed by our military and governmental officials. Nevertheless, it was no fun and games for these pre-teens boys. They were subjected to harsh interrogations just like the other prisoners. Several of these interrogations were taking place when I would come visit and thereby prevent me from accessing Camp Iguana.
The Talking Dog: Let me ask you about your impressions of some of the commanders at Guantanamo, particularly General Geoffrey Miller. Do you have particular impressions of anyone else in the Guantanamo command structure or of particular detainees that you would like to comment on?
James Yee: General Miller was completely overbearing as a general officer. He surrounded himself with “Yes” men. Yes, Sir, was the only thing he wanted; he had no use for anyone who told him anything other than what he wanted to hear. He was also big on usurping authority that was not his.
This was quite evident when he attempted to get the house of Guantanamo’s Base Commander, Navy Captain Les McCoy. The base commander is a military grade 06, or a Navy Captain. General Miller, of course, outranks a Navy Captain, but at Guantanamo Bay, the Joint Task Force prison operation and its personnel are guests on the island’s naval base. General Miller wanted Captain McCoy’s house for his own personal use insisting that his two-star general rank gave him that privilege. Race also may have been a factor, since Captain Les McCoy is also African American. Some of the rumors that swirled down at Guantanamo that circulated among the officers was that he disrespected Captain McCoy and many of the other black officers. Someone would later get Captain McCoy relieved of his command. It doesn’t take an advanced degree to understand why.
Because Miller’s direct links to the Pentagon – Rumsfeld, Cambone, etc. the perception was quite clear that Major General Miller carried himself like he wielded the authority of a four-star general without a chain of command. It would be interesting to know if General James T. Hill, the four star general in command of U.S. Southern Command, and Miller's superior officer, felt the same way.
Let me comment on the Chief of Chaplains in the U.S. Army, coincidentally also named David Hicks. He stayed noticeably silent during my entire incarceration, which I found quite disturbing. (I paid him back a bit, as there is a prominent picture of me shaking hands with him in the book!). I think that might be a reflection of just how much integrity leaders in the US Army Chaplain’s Corps really have. It should go without saying that military chaplains, of all people, should have the courage to speak up for the truth. But that still might be asking too much from the military these days.
There are many other people who made an impression, for better or for worse, but we don't have time to talk about all of them.
The Talking Dog:During your time at Guantanamo, which I understand was about a year, you observed conditions for detainees worsen, particularly their mental states. Did you observe anything in the manner that detainees were treated, whether during interrogations or otherwise, that particularly disturbed you, as still worthy of mention? Is there anything (besides the issue of the charges against you, which we'll discuss shortly) about how you were treated at Guantanamo that particularly disturbed you, as still worthy of mention?
James Yee: The prisoners were subjected to a variety of troubling things during their interrogations. I was assigned to detention operations, working with the guards, rather than with intelligence operations. And I never crossed over that line, refraining from even observing any of the interrogations. That was appropriate because I was technically assigned to the detention operation, not the intelligence operation. However, I did strongly raise concerns about why there was no chaplain assigned to the intelligence operation, not to assist interrogators but to appropriately advise the commander of that intelligence operation on whether that commander’s decisions were morally or ethically sound. This is a specific role of the chaplain as laid out in army doctrine. But the commander of the Joint Interrogation Group had no chaplain assigned.
At Guantanamo, the abuses were predominantly, though not exclusively, happening in the interrogation rooms. There were some abuses by guards, but not anywhere near the extent of Abu Ghraib. I suspect that the abuses at Abu Ghraib in the interrogation rooms by intelligence officials and interrogators were even far worse than the sexual humiliation we’ve seen occur in the prison cell blocks by the guards. I think that has yet to be exposed to the public.
The Guantanamo cell blocks were nowhere near as bad as Abu Ghraib: it was a much more controlled environment, but I don’t think I could say the same for the interrogation rooms. At least down in Guantanamo, my regular walking of the cell blocks prevented some abuse. Soldiers working as guards understood that it was a bad idea to do anything abusive in front of me. While I outranked them, some tested me because I didn't have direct command authority over them, but they eventually understood their position and backed down – especially when the realized that I was not someone willing to cover up cruel, degrading abuse of prisoners.
The Talking Dog: Please tell me about the issue of abuse of the Koran (or, perhaps, perceived abuse) as you observed it? Did you observe other indicia of what I'll call disrespect of the detainees' religious practices, and if so, what? Was there anything you could do about this? Did the command structure react to any of this?
James Yee: Abuse of the Koran was not good for anyone at GTMO. It was humiliating for the prisoners. It was humiliating for American Muslims serving at the base who observed it. They were deeply offended, and many came to me in confidence to complain about it. But it was also bad for the guards: it led to hunger strikes, suicide attempts, and chaos, and the guards lost control.
Interrogators, who thought it was a good idea to abuse Korans, toss and kick them around during interrogation sessions, came to realize it didn't work. Prisoners upset enough to kill themselves because of this were prisoners who
could not be interrogated.
Those concerned eventually turned to me. I implemented a policy regarding how personnel were to handle the Koran, preventing guards from disrespecting it. The policy was implemented helping to calm some of the tensions over this issue.
At this point, the government cannot truthfully say that the Koran was not desecrated and disrespected at Guantanamo. In at least one case, this abuse and desecration led to a suicide attempt in protest by at least one detainee who ended up in a coma; though he eventually emerged from the coma, he now has permanent brain damage.
The Talking Dog: As you left for what you believed to be a two week leave shortly before your assignment at Guantanamo was scheduled to end, the military decided to charge you with a number of offenses, including espionage (carrying the death penalty), mishandling of (unspecified!) classified documents and for good measure, adultery, all of which charges the military dropped completely, after you which you received an honorable discharge and a commendation for your service.
Further, not just yourself, but for a time, virtually every Muslim service member leaving Guantanamo was, if not arrested by the military on extremely serious charges (as was the case of an Airman, I believe Al Halabi) few if any of which ever held up, for a while, every Muslim leaving Guantanamo was at least hassled and harassed on his way back to the United States. Is it fair to say that this was some kind of policy decision, either by General Miller or perhaps higher up in the Pentagon if not the White House, to simply suspect all Moslems as disloyal based on personal resentments and biases rather than actual evidence?
James Yee: I have absolutely no idea whether there was a policy or not. The fact that so many American Muslims were under investigation, or outright arrested, shows that this was systematic, and that we were being targeted for no other reason than for being Muslim.
Now, was this the result of affirmative bigotry? Or was it the result of hyper-vigilance? Or perhaps was it just ignorance? Probably all of the above, but it is clear that we were targeted because of our faith.
There were three Muslims charged with improper handling of classified information: besides myself and Airman al Halabi, there was a civilian translator, Ahmed Mehalba, who was jailed. By contrast, when a non-Muslim, Col. Jack Farr was accused of mishandling classified information, he wasn't even arrested, and indeed, he was permitted to continue on duty at the base, apparently without any consequences at all.
The Talking Dog: In particular, given the treatment you have received and have seen others receive, let me ask if you could comment on the perception by many in the Muslim world that, contrary to our leaders' rhetoric, our war on terror really is, in fact, what amounts to a war against Islam in general (or a "Crusade" as some might call it)? What steps would you suggest the United States government undertake to dispel this view?
James Yee: There are a few things that can be done. One is for our leaders in the government to be educated about Islam, Muslims and the Muslim culture. This is absolutely critical.
We are not winning hearts and minds: we are offending and insulting people. This is why the perception that we are waging a war against Islam itself is widely believed. The perspective in turn creates more terrorists and anti-American sentiment. Right now, we have leaders with absolutely no understanding of Islam or Muslim culture.
In addition, our leaders should, indeed must, listen to the Muslim community and its leaders. For example, Karen Hughes is supposed to be helping to change the perception and improve America's image in the Muslim world. But how can she do that, with any kind of success, without taking the advice of Muslims? Muslims know what it will take to win over the hearts and minds of other Muslims. And yet, the government is absolutely failing to undertake this effort.
Now, one positive step is that I understand that the newly elected Muslim member of the House of Representatives, Keith Ellison of Minnesota, is conferring with the State Department in an effort to win friends over. That is certainly a good idea.
But we have to be clear about how we do this. I understand that there is one program that is a people to people initiative: it features “happy, successful American Muslims" trying to talk up their happy experience here and how great America is. That approach will fail.
We must be honest and sincere- we have to talk about negative backlash and discrimination against the American Muslim community and the profiling of us all being terrorists that has been commonplace especially in the post 9-11 era. Certainly, we still benefit from many aspects of the American system... but you presenting a bunch of “happy successful American Muslims" will only be perceived as propaganda.
How the State Department approaches these things will determine whether we are able to win friends.
The Talking Dog: You have given rave reviews to your legal team, especially Eugene Fidell, the attorney who successfully represented you against the charges that were brought by the military, charges that were all, every last one, withdrawn by the government. Of course, the Guantanamo detainees also have legal representation, in many cases from top flight legal counsel. This leads me to at least two questions.
First, do you believe the system "worked" in your case, given that although you were ultimately cleared, you were held in solitary confinement or 2 ½ months in conditions virtually identical to those so-called enemy combatants were held, you and your family were subjected to the notoriety and pressure of your being accused of a spy, not to mention invasive investigations as the government that was most reticent about trying you in a court was very aggressive about trying you in the media?
Second, for the majority of Guantanamo detainees (not to mention virtually all detainees held elsewhere, such as Afghanistan, Diego Garcia, Iraq, the ghost prisons and elsewhere as a result of the rendition program) the system hasn't worked at all... indeed, detainees have won two major Supreme Court cases, and the government simply ignored those rulings (including an express ruling that detainees are entitled to the protections of the Geneva Conventions.) While even you, an exemplary military officer that the military itself had chosen at times for its own spokesperson, could still be subjected to the same chains, orange suit, black out goggles and windowless cell as any of the so-called enemy combatants... what does this say about whether we have a government that still respects the rule of law, or worse, respects it in name only while defying its substance out of expedience?
James Yee: What happened to me was a gross miscarriage of justice. The system failed, and failed miserably. In my case, I was wrongfully accused. I was treated in the worst way any military man can be treated and has been. The system failed completely, in every respect. It was only because of the skill and expertise of my legal team that I was cleared. With lesser counsel, I could well be on death row right now.
My case serves to undermine the current Administration's attempt to use military justice for terror suspects. If American citizens cannot be treated with anything remotely fair, then how can foreign nationals, who are to be treated to a system even less protective than the Uniform Code of Military Justice that I was subjected to. They can’t possibly get a fair trial. This completely undermines the President's claims about the fairness of military tribunals.
Now, the government has a golden opportunity to restore some credibility in this area: it can issue an official apology to Captain James Yee, as a first step to changing the system, and acknowledging that the system can be improved, as it recognizes its own mistakes. As I said, right now, the government has a golden opportunity to restore some credibility with such an official apology.
The Talking Dog : I take it I am correct that all that has transpired has taken a significant toll on you and your family? Has anything you have experienced shaken your faith in (a) your religion, (b) the United States military and (c) American society?
James Yee: The situation I experienced has certainly shaken my faith in the leaders of our government, and the leaders in the United States military. No system will succeed with corrupt leaders.
Why was I treated the way I was? Indeed, why is Guantanamo the way it is? There are corrupt leaders in the military and our government, many of whom harbor tremendous personal biases towards members of religious and ethnic minorities. I cannot stand for these attitudes: they are, in fact, unAmerican. It is up to us as people to get these leaders out of power, to return to our values.
The Talking Dog We'll let that be the last word. I join my readers in thanking Mr. Yee for being so generous with his time, and for that thorough and compelling interview. Interested readers should take a look at For God and Country: Faith and Patriotism Under Fire.
Readers interested in legal issues and related matters associated with the "war on terror" may also find talking dog blog interviews with attorneys 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 Army Arabic linguist Erik Saar, 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, and with journalist and author David Rose on Guantanamo related issues to be of interest.
That would be the sudden announcement and chiding by Attorney General Alberto "The Law is What Me and the President SAY IT IS" Gonzales directed at FBI Director Robert Mueller over the now admitted abuse of National Security Letters. As our friend Julia might say, this calls for the Claude Rains Memorial Gambling Awareness Award... we are just shocked... SHOCKED... to hear that the abusive NSL's that were authorized by the USA PATRIOT Act might be used in an abusive way by officials of the Bush Administration. Just shocked.
This is the same Alberto Gonzales who tells us that the Geneva Conventions are "quaint", that habeas corpus is not intended to protect individuals, and that the President is the commander in chief of a unitary executive that confers him dictatorial powers subject only to whatever limits he feels like.
But, as it seems, Scooter Libby may be facing, you know, jail, for his role in advancing the pet political projects of this Administration, Gonzales figures he had better get some positive marks in his column, before the eventual day of reckoning when he may well find himself personally answering for his crimes against our Constitution (and against humanity). And hence, the sudden "concern" with the privacy rights of American citizens that, he now admits, was abused by the National Security Letters, at least (although the reporters who told us about this and other programs, such as the warrantless wire-tapping and electronic eavesdropping under other programs, should still be charged with treason and executed... of course.) Indeed, some low level schmucks' heads may have to roll for all this.
So... what can you do? Just part of the grand canvass on which the Bush Administration-- which didn't invent "the signing statement", but really is the first Administration to use it to tell Congress to f*** off (rather than a veto), encouraging the complete culture of rich-White-man's lawlessness that has led directly to Enron and Worldcom and then on to Abu Ghraib-- is painted.
And so... the Attorney General is shocked... just SHOCKED... to learn that abuses may have taken place.
Former Vice-Presidential Chief of Staff I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby was convicted on four of five counts arising from his lying to federal investigators in the investigation of the outing of former CIA operative Valerie Plame Wilson.
If When Libby is sentenced in June, he will probably face 20-27 months in prison. His overpriced legal team will appeal, hopefully keeping it in play until after the November 2008 election, when, if appeals and other maneuvers aren't successful, Mr. Libby will receive a Presidential pardon.
Some of the jurors commented that they were annoyed that Karl Rove and Dick Cheney weren't also in the dock, based on their own knowledge of the case. Well... what can I say? The whole Plame-gate thing proved maddening; we all at least were hoping that Rove would go down for his obvious crimes-- pretty much the same misleading of federal investigators as Libby. But, it seemed, Rove had a gutsy defense lawyer in Robert Luskin who had him testify before a grand jury ad nauseam, until he convinced Fitzgerald that he would never get a conviction. (That... or something...)
Well, what can you do? Frankly, Libby is karmically guilty, and indeed, while, sadly, everyone involved in the disastrous PNAC venture won't go to jail (though in a perfect world-- or even a marginally good one-- they would), at least Libby
For which chance, we are grateful.
Friend of freedom, Guantanamo blog proprietress H. Candace Gorman lets the military have it in this piece in the Huffington Post, specifically directed at the (outrageous) decision of Gitmo military commission chief prosecutor Colonel Moe Davis to charge Marine Corps Major Michael Mori (military counsel to Gitmo detainee David Hicks; Mori's co-counsel, Josh Dratel is interviewed here) with speaking contemptuously of the President, Vice-President or Defense Secretary. Mori has traveled to Australia and called the rigged kangaroo courts in which his client is to be tried... rigged, kangaroo courts.
Mori, of course, now that he is facing charges, must retain his own counsel, and inquire as to whether Davis's (unlawful and made up) charge against him would create a conflict in his representation of Hicks, and if it does, thereby delay the military tribunal against Hicks (hopefully by around the 23 months or so before Dubya can hand the mess over the next President, by which time he will have arbitrarily detained hundreds of men without charge, trial, or proper POW treatment in derogation of our treaties for seven years). And Col. Davis, the Pentagon, the White House, and thereby, the lazy-ass press, will repeat accusations that it is the detainees and their counsel that are holding up the process.
Lather. Rinse. Repeat. Candace told me that Cully Stimson's recent broadside on pro bono Guantanamo detainee lawyers was intended as part of a campaign to ensure that the commissions never got going. Ostensibly, the government has very little evidence against any of its detainees; most of the charges against Hicks, for example, have disappeared, replaced by a charge of "providing material aid to terrorists", which only became unlawful in 2006, around five years after Hicks was already in custody. You get the picture, and it ain't a pretty one.
The New York Times had an editorial called "The Must To-Do List" calling on the new Democratic majority to take some action to start to restore sanity and lawfulness to our government's behavior... culminating in closing Gitmo (and presumably releasing its occupants, or at least charging them with something)...
It would be nice. But given how much courage seems to be floating around Washington (as usual)... let's just say, it's not how you bet.
In the Bush Administration, it seems it's never, ever about anything else. For those inclined to blame Joe Lieberman for everything, feel free: he just sat there during the Vice-Presidential debate in 2000 and let Dick Cheney lie through his teeth about the government "having nothing to do" with his inconceivably good financial fortune as head of government parasite corporation Halliburton. And so, over six wonderful years later, the mirth and merriment (for those of us uncomfortable with technical terms like "graft") just keeps on coming.
We'll start with this WaPo report indicating that the Bush FDA is approving-- over the objections of a technical committee it convened, not to mention the AMA, doctors, the World Health Organization and just about everyone who doesn't stand directly to make money off of this-- a powerful antibiotic to treat cattle respiratory problems, even though it is widely feared that this will inevitably result in drug resistant strains jumping over to humans, rendering some of the last lines of antibiotic defense... useless. You know: this will probably kill people. A lot of people. But we don't know who they are, and even if we did, it's not like they hire lobbyists, or make deposits in numbered Swiss bank accounts, or hire ex-Administration officials for cushy jobs with expense accounts, now do they?
Similarly, the military was in a quandary over the whole Walter Reed thing that (Congress is about to start harumphing and investigating, starting with General Kiley, the Army's top doc). Why, we wonder, are we doing such a piss-poor job treating those veterans who used to be those troops we cared so much about that we sent them to Iraq without adequate body armor and equipment in the first place ("you go to war with the
hapless schmucks Army you have, not with the Army you wish you have")? That's not exactly a hard one: there are no defense contractors standing by to bribe contract officers, hire brass for revolving door jobs or hire lobbyists to treat the wounded stateside, now are there? The Benjamins that are there to build new weapons systems and aircraft and ships and shit for the cool services (Navy and Air Force) just aren't there for treating the wounded grunts in the Army and Marines... sorry, guys. (To be fair, it's not as if a lot of Americans don't get miserable health care, now is it?)
And the City of New Orleans has sued the Army Corps of Engineers for $77 billion, having concluded that the Corps' construction of levies that were not up to a hurricane the size and magnitude of Katrina led to the destruction of large parts of the city, and seeing if the courts will see it the same way... of course, New Orleans is a city with a lot of poor people many of whom are Of Color... it's not as if they were in a position to spread the Benjamins around to make sure that their levies were adequately funded by the federal government, now was it? Of course, as the great humanitarian Newt Gingrich just said, "How can you have the mess we have in New Orleans, and not have had deep investigations of the federal government, the state government, the city government, and the failure of citizenship in the Ninth Ward, where 22,000 people were so uneducated and so unprepared, they literally couldn't get out of the way of a hurricane?"
Yessirree folks... like I was saying, in George W. Bush's America, it's the people who don't have the Benjamins who are always at fault. Newt certainly agrees with that wholeheartedly, as did the cheering conservatives to whom he addressed his remarks. So it must be true.
British national Moazzam Begg was a prisoner of the United States for over three years, first at Bagram and Kandahar in Afghanistan, and then at Guantanamo Bay. He was also one of the first six men designated as eligible to be tried by military commissions. He was abruptly released two years ago, and the British authorities cleared him of any involvement in terrorism related activities within hours. He lives with his family in Birmingham, England, and is currently the spokesperson for the activist website Cage Prisoners. Mr. Begg is the author of “Enemy Combatant: My Imprisonment at Guantanamo, Bagram and Kandahar”. On March 1, 2007, I had the privilege of interviewing Mr. Begg by telephone.
The Talking Dog: I have always gotten interesting answers to my “where were you on September 11th” question, including at least two attorneys (Josh Dratel, attorney for David Hicks and Andy Patel, attorney for Jose Padilla) who were very close to the World Trade Center, as was I myself. I’ll come back to the 9-11 issue later in the interview, but as this is my usual first question, we know from your book that on 11 September 2001 you were with your family in Kabul, Afghanistan, and later, on 7 July 2005, you were at home in Birmingham, U.K. Can you tell me what your initial reaction was, on each of those dates, when you first heard of the events of those days?
Moazzam Begg: On 11 September I was in Aghanistan. I heard about the events of that day on the radio; there were no televisions. I didn’t see the pictures until a month later when I made it to Pakistan, and I first actually saw how horrible it all was. I was most directly affected by the bombing of Afghanistan, which led to my leaving.
As to 7 July, I was here in Birmingham. I often traveled to London, by train... I had a great feeling of dejection, hoping that Moslems hadn’t done this. Then it became a matter of fear for me... I stopped going by train. I feared being deemed a suspect for further terrorism, as all Moslem people have now become.
The Talking Dog: Too many Americans are willing to just assume that a European Moslem in Afghanistan in 2001 was up to some kind of mischief. Please describe what you were actually doing there. Also, please correct me if I am wrong, but did not a fair number of men doing what amounts to humanitarian work get swept up in the so-called war on terror and ended up at Bagram, Kandahar and/or Guantanamo Bay, where many are still held to this day?
Moazzam Begg: I went to Afghanistan in the summer of 2001. We had planned, funded and supported a school in Kabul– a girl’s school. The program was to go to help, teach, expand and advance and to get some social value. I was also involved in digging some wells and a water project in a drought stricken region in NorthWestern Afghanistan.
The Talking Dog: Did working with a girl’s school make you unpopular with the Taliban?
Moazzam Begg: The school would take girls– my own daughter was to attend the school... the Taliban actually didn’t allow education of females by what they believed to be non-Moslem groups... But the Taliban didn’t stop us, they certainly knew what we were doing. There were quite a few Moslems doing humanitarian work and Moslem NGOs. There were also lots of non-Moslem organizations working in Afghanistan. Of course, after the American bombing, only Moslems were picked up... Like an Al Jazeera camera man [Sami Al Hajj] who had nothing remotely to do with terrorism. But it can certainly be said that a number of those detained by the Americans were doing humanitarian work.
The Talking Dog: We know from your book that after a harrowing escape through Afghanistan, after you were separated from your family, you managed to make it to Pakistan where you were reunited with your family only to end up being picked up after a late-night knock on the door by members of the Pakistani Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) agency, apparently after ISI was tipped off by Britain’s MI-5 intelligence service. While I assume I know the answer, let me ask anyway: have you, to this day, ever received any kind of official explanation (or official apology) from the governments of Pakistan, the United Kingdom or the United States concerning the circumstances of your detention or even why you were held in the first place?
Moazzam Begg: I should point out that CIA agents were present right from the beginning. They were dressed– very badly– as locals– but they were there. Unbeknownst to me at the time, my family had brought a habeas corpus petition in the courts in Pakistan. The government there denied knowledge that I was there, even as they were holding me. And no, I have never been given an explanation or an apology from any of those three governments.
The Talking Dog: Many Americans are not cognizant of this, but am I correct that in over two years of detention at Guantanamo Bay, although you could communicate with other prisoners while shouting between cells from time to time, or while you or others were being led in and out of their cells, and you could hear calls to prayer, you were not permitted to see another human being face to face except for interrogators?
Moazzam Begg: Well, I did see representatives of the International Committee for the Red Cross once every few months. But otherwise, I only saw interrogators and guards. While I had heard of the Moslem chaplain (Captain Yee), I was in solitary confinement and not permitted to meet him, or anyone else, until quite literally the last two months of my imprisonment, when I was put in with Hicks, Hamdan and the others scheduled as eligible to be charged by the military commissions, and I only saw them through several layers of wire mesh. .
The Talking Dog: Did any particular guards or others you encountered (including interrogators or fellow prisoners) make a particular impression on you that you’d like to comment about? I understand at least one female guard has invited you to her home in the U.S. Virgin Islands; are you planning on taking her up on that, and do you anticipate any difficulties from authorities in entering a territory of the United States? On the subject of your captors, let me follow up with an observation you made regarding the materialism of many Americans you encountered (things such as discussing their preferred cars and trucks and so forth). Can you expand on that?
Moazzam Begg: She hasn’t actually invited me to her home, but we remain in contact. The interrogators and guards varied from person to person and from place to place. Bagram was a much harsher regime than even Guantanamo... I came across a number of decent soldiers and interrogators that I would be happy to call friends. At Guantanamo I had a number of conversations, and indeed, interpersonal relationships, with guards that I considered just amazing. I learned an awful lot from these people, and about them.
As to the materialism question, a lot of soldiers joined the Army for financial security... their life's aspirations, in many cases, were material– they wanted a certain kind of car, or a house, or to watch the latest movies– and they were actually oblivious of the situation they were in. Some seemed perfectly content and happy to be completely oblivious of the quite serious situation they were in. To their credit, many left Guantanamo much wiser, with a greatly changed view of what had been their preconceptions. Still, for many, “ignorance was bliss”, and they would rather not know.
Some soldiers became confused from the disconnect between what their superiors were telling them and what they were actually seeing and doing... some were certainly quite opposed to what was taking place in front of them.
The Talking Dog: I understand that images of 9-11, and news concerning Saddam Hussein, were displayed to the detainees. Can you comment on that?
Moazzam Begg: On one occasion, I was shown 9-11 images. Other detainees told me that they were shown such images as well, and told “we were somehow responsible for that”. As to Saddam, there was one day when the sergeant of the guard of the camp read a statement to everyone that Saddam Hussein had been captured... quite out of nowhere.
The Talking Dog: . As the United States Congress debates the possible repeal of portions of the Military Commissions Act that purport to revoke habeas corpus rights, and as the United States Supreme Court considers the appeal of the recent case from the District of Columbia federal circuit court that upheld the Military Commissions Act denial of habeas corpus and dismissed a number of petitions filed by a number of the 395 men still held prisoner at Guantanamo, what would you, from the perspective of all you have undergone, like to tell the American Congress and Supreme Court?
Moazzam Begg: The illusion of habeas corpus was just something to hold on to. To quote, I believe it was Justice Kennedy, “Habeas corpus is a promise to the ear to be broken to the hope... a teasing illusion, like a munificent bequest in a pauper’s will.”
I remember this, that’s how the idea floats– habeas corpus means you get your day in court... But in reality, no one at Guantanamo in reality will ever get to court... this is a game, a charade, an illusion...
U.S. justice at Guantanamo is an oxymoron. The Supreme Court decides that there is a right to be heard– for detainees to present their case in court. And the government doesn’t afford that right. Anywhere else, the government would be in contempt of court. And yet, the court ruling is simply ignored, or sidestepped by the government.
And there is also the inconceivably long time it is all taking. Why is it taking so long? It became understood by detainees that this was all part of the sentence– another means of keeping us locked up... On paper we’re offering you the right to present your cases to court... but in reality, it is nothing but a munificent bequest in a pauper’s will.
The Talking Dog: . There has been some recent controversy here about whether Senator Barack Obama attended a “madrassa” or Islamic religious school while he was a child in Indonesia. I understand that you actually attended a "yeshiva", or Jewish religious school, in your youth in Birmingham. Can you tell me what support you or your family have received from your school friends? To what extent have you received support from the larger British Jewish and Moslem communities, or from other communities within Britain?
Moazzam Begg: I have indeed... I think in terms of friends, and a broader community rather than separate communities. People of all backgrounds stand together for what they think is right. I have actually received more support from non-Moslems– the British Moslem community is quite a small minority. I have certainly received support from the Jewish community– many people have been extremely sympathetic and supportive.
While there is the Israel-Palestinian issue (indeed, my wife is Palestinian), this is NOT a Jewish-Moslem problem– this is a regional problem with its own unique issues.
The Talking Dog: Have you received support from elsewhere– be it Middle Eastern or other American communities, and can you tell me what? One specific question I have is whether, for example, the September 11th families have ever contacted you or other detainees’ families (perhaps objecting to a grave injustice being maintained supposedly in the names of they and their loved ones)?
Moazzam Begg: I have not had direct contact with the September 11 families... but my father did, when he came to the United States. A few expressed solidarity with us, and the injustice we were facing. In many ways, this is all quite difficult for me to do this... many detainees, no, all of them actually, disagreed with what the perpetrators of September the 11th did... killing innocent people... We were all certainly sympathetic with the victims and their families.
But what is to be done in response? What has been done- the invasion of two countries now, has completely overshadowed it. You do not reply to the deaths of 2,700 people with the deaths of hundreds of thousands. I find I can get more done speaking to the present soldiers than I can to politicians.
The Talking Dog: Your book documents numerous instances of abuse you suffered in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Cuba, in categories I’ll describe as “physical”, “psychological” and “religious/spiritual” (and of course, these may overlap). If it isn’t too painful, could you identify one or two instances of each category that you suffered that still strike you as most indicative of your ordeal?
Moazzam Begg: I will never forget what transpired in Bagram... this is the base that was bombed just the day before yesterday.. I was held there for a year. I was hog-tied– left in painful positions or hours, interrogated, kicked, beaten,... but I remember the screaming of a woman in the next cell, and I was led to believe that she was my wife.
I witnessed the deaths (or the beatings that led to the deaths) of two detainees at Bagram... this will never go away.
I met a number of former Irish prisoners... they were interned for years without trial, held in hoods, subjected to white noise– the commonality of their experience with mine was remarkable... just replace Northern Ireland with Guantanamo and it was almost virtually the same.
The Talking Dog: Your book mentions a number of encounters with your legal team, which included the Center for Constitutional Rights lawyer Gitanjali Gutierrez whom you met in Cuba, Clive Stafford Smith, an English lawyer who has also worked extensively in the United States, notably on death penalty cases, as well as Guantanamo matters, and of course, your own solicitor, the famous English human rights lawyer Gareth Peirce. You noted that Clive had a relatively different approach from Gita– Clive basically said that the U.S. legal system would be very hard to get anywhere with– what was called for amounted to somehow embarrassing the American government into releasing people. At over 5 years into the open ended detentions, I am certainly struck at how remarkably ineffective the American legal system has proven to be when confronted with a rather basic overreach by the American executive, and this has been true of citizens (Padilla), legal residents (Al-Marri) or simply those swept up anywhere and everywhere, such as the Guantanamo detainees and those held elsewhere. Clive seemed to understand our system... which, even after over 20 years in it, I had previously thought better of. Do you have a comment on this?
Moazzam Begg: Yes, Clive threw a bunch of legal papers on the table in front of me and said “This crap won’t work. You just have to embarrass these bastards.”
The iguana happens to be a protected species at Guantanamo. If you hurt or kill an iguana, you can be fined $10,000. Detainees– human beings– have less rights there than iguanas.
The only admitted Al Qaeda member there (Mr. Al Bahlul, who has refused a lawyer for the military commissions) told us that the legal system was all a facade, a veneer– the goal was simply detention by any means, and the illusion of the legal system was part of it. Many refused to participate with lawyers.
I was trying to get other detainees to see lawyers... But there was a real fear of can we get “the enemy” to represent us? Many opted not to do so, feeling it would feed into the system. That is certainly an easy way to look at it– the whole thing was bizarre.
I should note that I only first met Clive and Gita after over 2 years and 8 months in detention!
The Talking Dog: I suppose on a happier note... can you describe your work with Cage Prisoners?
Moazzam Begg: Not so happy, actually, as I often have to relive a lot of what I experienced. The connotations of the Global War on Terror involve picking up thousands of people all over the world. Many people are contacting me for help with missing relatives that they fear or believe have been swept up into detention facilities- Bagram or elsewhere... we know they exist. This is all extremely troubling... there are new anti-terrorism laws allowing this sort of thing... people are concerned. Many see me as a “success story”– I was released, when it was believed that neither I, nor anyone, would ever be. Here in the U.K., thousands have been detained on terrorism laws, yet the number charged is in the dozens, the number convicted but a few more than ten. (Of course, to this day, no one at Guantanamo has been convicted of anything, and only ten even charged.) We highlight these injustices, and campaign for people held around the world.
The Talking Dog: What opportunities have you had to speak with governmental officials (of your own or any other government)? Can you briefly describe who else (either specifically or in category), such as detainees, their families, lawyers, activists, the media, etc.?
Moazzam Begg: I spoke to Americans regarding their internal investigations of the killings in Bagram that I witnessed, or at least witnessed the beatings that led to the deaths. I have spoken to members of the British parliament in Commons. I understand hundreds of people, including about 10 MPs saw a reading of the play Guantanamo by [co-author of Enemy Combatant] Victoria Brittain in the House of Commons. I have had no direct contact with government ministers, though many have said Guantanamo should be closed... P.M. Tony Blair has not.
Cage Prisoners is a focal point for detainees and their families, and helps to collect information pertaining to detainees.
The Talking Dog: Do you have a comment on media treatment of American detention policy (and you can break that down between American media, U.K. media, European and other media, if you like)?
Moazzam Begg: There is a clear distinction between the general press in the United States and that of the rest of the word. It is part of my job with Cage Prisoners to speak with the media. From the perspective o the American press, their position towards Guantanamo is still to justify the position of the government and the greater war on terror. Now that developments in Iraq are factoring into it, and it is becoming clearer to more people that because of the Bush Administration’s foreign policy, the world is becoming a more, rather than a less, terrifying place...But it is part of my work to deal with the press and to present a human face. Besides my book, and the recent movie “The Road to Guantanamo" involving the Tipton 3... have all helped to shape public opinion. Just as much of 9-11 involved the effects it had on human beings, so Guantanamo and Bagram and the other detention policy have had effects on real human beings on the other side... and the people in the United States are beginning to feel this reality. I recall doing an interview with CNN– which was surprisingly empathetic. And this, despite CNN’s largely pro-war positions, and after almost 6 years into the Global War on Terror.
The Talking Dog: We’ll let that be the last word. I join all of my readers in thanking Moazzam Begg for that compelling and informative interview. Interested readers should take a look at “Enemy Combatant: My Imprisonment at Guantanamo, Bagram and Kandahar”.
Readers interested in legal issues and related matters associated with the "war on terror" may also find talking dog blog interviews with attorneys 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 detainee Shafiq Rasul , with former Guantanamo Army Arabic linguist Erik Saar, 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, and with journalist and author David Rose on Guantanamo related issues to be of interest.