The good news is that the Obama Administration has doubled the number of GTMO detainees it has released as a result of its executive review process. The bad news is that it has doubled that number... to two, with the release of a Yemeni orthopedist, Ayman Batarfi. Dr. Batarfi fell into that category of those swept up who were guilty of "being in Afghanistan while Arab," a category that was far more likely to pick up aid workers than actual jihadists. Apparently, after seven years, the government has concluded that Batarfi... was an aid worker.
The pace will have to pick up if the Obama Administration means to "close GTMO in one year" by any means other than simply relocating it to Leavenworth or Charleston or Alcatraz... the equivalent, as George Clarke noted in my interview with him, of asking the deer that Joe Pesci is hunting about Pesci's pants... i.e., if the wrongfully incarcerated men are merely wrongfully incarcerated somewhere else... who cares?
Well, the slog goes on... for whatever reason, anything that reduces the scope of the festering problem known as Guantanamo, even a little, is a welcome development, so we will welcome this one, and give plaudits to the Administration when it earns them, which it has for this action. May it earn many more.
Update: Candace tells us that another habeas petition has been granted, to a Yemeni detainee... the courts, it seems, are moving forward...
George Clarke is a member of the law firm of Miller & Chevalier in Washington, D.C., specializing in tax law and related matters. For the past four years, he has represented two Chinese (Uighur) and two Yemeni detainees at Guantanamo Bay, two of whom have been determined to be "not enemy combatants" (or whatever nomenclature will replace that term) and one of whom has been "cleared for transfer or release" (two years ago and is still sitting in Guantamano) . On March 26, 2009, I had the privilege of interviewing Mr. Clarke in New York. What follows are my interview notes, corrected as appropriate by Mr. Clarke.
The Talking Dog Where were you on 11 September 2001?
George Clarke I was in my office at my old law firm. After the second tower was hit, I figured something was clearly amiss, and we had a terror attack rather than an accident of some kind. A friend and I quickly decided that we would not take the metro, as terrorists would likely target that, and so we left the building. As we got to the ground, my office then (as now) was very close to the White House. Security was extended; guards told us to get out of the area. We quickly walked to I Street, then to 14th Street, and kept walking toward the Potomac. It was surreal. Just at the time we left the office, the Pentagon had been hit, and you could see smoke from it behind the Washington Monument, and many people were freaking out as it appeared we were in some kind of Armageddon. Also, cell phones weren't working. My friend and I walked to the 14th Street bridge, and hitched a ride; every car passing filled up by taking people walking over the bridge (the woman who picked me up ended up driving me home). I'd like to think this is the "real America" of people looking out for each other in a crisis. As we drove down I-395, we could still see flames coming out of the Pentagon. Needless to say, the situation that day was wild.
The Talking DogI understand you represent nationals of China (Uighurs) and Yemenis now held prisoner at Guantanamo Bay; can you identify your clients by name and nationality, where they are now (e.g. "Camp Iguana, GTMO" or "home, Yemen", or whatever is applicable), and can you tell us something about each of them (something about their personality, their family, or whatever you feel pertinent)? Can you tell us if the Government has decided they are, or are not,"enemy combatants" (or whatever they will now be called), and how long they have had this status and nonetheless remained at GTMO (if applicable)?
George Clarke I represent two Uighurs (Anwar Hassan and Dawit Abdurchim), both of whom have been detemined to be non-enemy combatants and are being held at Camp Iguana, Guantanamo Bay, and two Yemenis (Toffiq Al-bihani, not "cleared for release," now held at Camp 4, and Alkhadr Al Yafie, cleared for release but still at GTMO, though I don't know where). Al Yafie has refused to meet or speak with me on my last several visits, and indeed, has not since he was declared "cleared for release" in 2007 , though he, of course, hasn't been actually released. He is a very stoic man; when he was cleared for release, he told me he didn't need me anymore; I do occasionally hear through GTMO's grapevine such as it is that Al Yafie "says hello". As to Al-bihani, his brother is the now famous "Taliban cook" that Judge Leon saw fit to conclude was an "enemy combatant.
The Talking Dog Can you tell us the current status of your clients' litigations (for example "habeas on appeal to Supreme Court") or whatever description is most accurate?
George Clarke A certiorari petition is being considered, and being prepared, and we hope to be filing that in the next week or two. There is a doctrine known as Munsingwear vacatur, where the Court may, in the course of dismissing an appeal as moot, vacate the underlying Court of Appeals decision; this is what happened in the Al-Marri case, and we hope, occurs with the Uighurs, who, we hope, will be released somewhere, and soon.
The Talking Dog I understand that you brought one of the only "original habeas" cases inthe U.S. Supreme Court accepted by that Court since WWII, before the Boumediene case supposedly recognized the generalized constitutional right to habeas corpus case (the only other similar case of which I am aware is Candace Gorman's Al-Ghizzawi case, on which I made some editorial suggestions). Can you tell us the genesis and the outcome of your original habeas case?
George Clarke: The genesis of the case was the belief that the Supreme Court needed to be let in on some of the egregious facts of Anwar's case (Anwar, like Al-Ghizzawi, had a "do-over" CSRT, after he was first declared "not an EC" or whatever the term is now). Although the Supreme Court deals with matters it reviews from what we think is a purely "legal" perspective, we thought it might be helpful for the justices to know exactly what was happening at the Combatant Status Review Tribunal (CSRT) level. The legal arguments were, in part, a product of speaking to Prof. Eric Freedman, reading Bollman, and then morphed into the petition.
My recollection of the sequence is that we filed our petition, then the Boumediene plaintiffs filed for certiorari review, then the Supreme Court denied cert., somewhere the government moved to dismiss our petition, we had a reply due on the motion to dismiss, which we used as a call to grant cert. in Boumediene, and then the Boumediene plaintiffs moved for reargument which was granted. I don't know what effect our filing had on the Court's decision to grant reargument in Boumediene; we'd like to think it had some effect. Certainly, Boumediene's facts also involved egregious conduct at the CSRT level. We cannot, of course, know what effect our petition had.
The Talking Dog How did you come to represent GTMO detainees, and how has the GTMO litigation affected you personally? You can respond in terms of your practice,your life, or in whatever way you'd like to answer.
George Clarke In 2004, while I was still at my former firm, I was pushing along with two other guys for about a year to take Guantanamo representations. The firm agreed eventually, and supported our efforts, and, in conjunction with the Center for Constitutional Rights, or CCR, we've continued the representations. My involvement began in 2005, before passage of the Detainee Treatment Act.
I count myself as an extremely libertarian person. It has not surprised me too much that the government can wreak havoc over our liberties... the sort of gross unfairness that our military has participated in, I must say, has surprised me, particular with the situation of Anwar and the Uighurs... situations where everyone knew they didn't do anything. And unfortunately, we ask "why are you holding people you know you shouldn't be holding?" The war on terror may well be a real war (many may disagree, but I actually accept that it is a real war) but even wars have real rules. Just because it's a real war doesn't mean we can pick up people who didn't do anything, and hold them forever. The entire situation, I found, offended my sensibilities (and still does, of course).
The Talking Dog What do you see as the intermediate term (we'll say... by January 20, 2010,the President's supposed deadline to close GTMO) outlook for Guantanamo, and other aspects of the legacy "war on terror" in terms of (1) the courts, including both the habeas cases and any possible criminal trials of the supposed"high value" detainees, and a potential grant of a certiorari petition regarding the Uighurs' admission... and (2) the politics, including possible legislation ("preventive detention") and executive decisions, such as, for example, admitting some of the men (such as your clients) into provisional asylum in the U.S., admitting others to their home countries and still others to third countries? Forced prediction re your own [Uighur] clients-- given China's extensive efforts to block its nationals from going to any third country (Albania has already paid a heavy diplomatic price for taking 5 detainees), do you believe the United States government will relent and admit some or all of your clients by the end of 2009?
George Clarke With respect to the litigation part of that question, a lot will have to involve "wait and see" with respect to the executive review process now going on. We are hopeful that process will restore some dignity back to the executive, and to the entire process. We will also have to wait and see how the new definition of "enemy combatant" (or whatever it is called or going to be called) results in a fair and reasonable definition applied in a fair and reasonable manner.
As to the political aspect, the phrase "closing Guantanamo" reminds me of a scene from My Cousin Vinnie where the Joe Pesci character asks the Marisa Tomei character what kind of pants he should wear to go hunting, and her response is "Do you think the deer care one bit about the pants the guy who shot them is wearing?" And so we have an executive order that says "close Guantanamo". Then what? More than 240 guys go to multiple facilities elsewhere, still isolated, still under lock and key, just that they are sent to a new facility (at yet more taxpayer cost)... and so, I see a detainee asking... "how will this help me... or really change anything?" The real question is the substance of "closing Guantanamo"... and not nomenclature, or political terminology... the question... will it really matter in substance? I've asked my Yemeni client about this, and he said that he doesn't care where he is being held prisoner-- he just wants to be released! So this "close GTMO" has spun out of control, by focusing on the image and the politics and not the actual substance of it.
I will certainly say that the definition of enemy combatant proposed by the Obama administration is a disappointment. We need something with spine. We need people who aren't afraid to say about holding people for years for no good reason, "THIS IS WRONG". Someone to realize that EC [enemy combatant] means someone who raised arms against us; training in military tactics once a long time ago... just isn't enough to hold someone as an EC. Do we really want to hold such people? Are they, in fact, really so different from many other people in their own countries? The problem thus far has been that this has been played politically, and for what seems to sound good, rather than substantively, and as such, we have not yet seen anything that will "fix" anything. So I am disappointed as to where this is now.
I would like to see a more robust effort to figure out who should still be held, and who should be released, and why. Especially since it seems that we are effectively imposing life imprisonment.... we must ask, who are we doing this to? So... if the conditions these men are held in are the same, just "not in GTMO"... what has been accomplished?
Finally, as to my Uighur clients, there is no chance they will be sent to China; I am optimistic that there is a reasonably good chance that the United States itself will have to take them in.
The Talking Dog At this point (we're roughly 2 months in) into the Obama Administration, what advice would you give (my old college classmate) our new President concerning Guantanamo? Feel free to throw in anything else you'd like to discuss re war on terror, Bagram, state secrets, al-Marri or anything else you feel worth commenting on, including the supposed position [which may be coming down the pike] that even if the Administration concludes someone is not an enemy combatant, that would actually divest a habeas court of jurisdiction (as, goes the logic, that academic question of status is the only thing the courts are empowered to hear, and remedy is entirely a matter of executive whim)?
George Clarke: Well, reverting to the enemy combatant definition (or non-definition), we see that too much of the focus has been about semantics. Semantics matter, of course, in diplomatic and legal contexts, but in this case, a change in language has to mean a change in substance, as opposed to simply nomenclature, semantics and what sounds good politically, and that's why the EC definition by the Administration is problematic.
The other piece is the need for an overall "re-think" of the whole "war on terror," and like enemy combatant, I don't mean just a change in what it is called! The Bush Administration, for example, used an EC definition was the same as the Napoleonic total war definition, and chillingly, its the same justification that Hamas or Hizbollah would use to attack civilians, to wit, you're all our enemies just because you think you are opposed to us. Well, that's not the system, or the law of war... though the Bush Administration evidently didn't understand that.
I can only hope that this does not escape the current Administration... there may well be people out there who plain out hate us... but this is not the definition of a combatant. Maybe our intelligence services got out of control on this, and over-sold the scope of who are enemies are... but we would hope the Justice Dept. or White House will pull back from that (though so far, they have not). A lot, to be sure, will take place with the executive reviews.
With respect to the argument you raise of a possible "jurisdiction stripping" if the Administration's review concludes someone is not an EC, but can hold the man forever at its whim, I wish a lot of people would pay more attention to this. We did a good job of arguing this in Kiyemba... the Government took people from somewhere, and put them in GTMO. The Government cannot compel a foreign nation to take them. They are at GTMO because of foul play on the part of the United States Government. There are serious problems, of course, with releasing some of these men in the United States, but the U.S. Government did this, and we need damned good reasons to make sure it doesn't do anything like this again. One might well ask why we didn't use holding facilities we had in Afghanistan when the conflict was taking place there... the decision was made to remove men to GTMO, to take them beyond law, and that decision has been a disaster... admittedly, in a far-flung war on terror, men might be picked up in many places... but if you're going to move them to a wholly controlled American base on land leased by the United States and hold them for years, you'd best be damned sure the man you're holding really does meet some real definition of an enemy combatant.
The Talking Dog Can you give an overall critique (or praising, if you like) or media coverage of matters GTMO, including as relevant to your representations, both during the Bush Administration, and thus far during the Obama Administration?
George Clarke In general, the media was not focused on abuses and problems associated with those captured in the war on terror in first few years after September 11th. This is probably understandable; there was a great deal of anger out there, and most people expected their government to do the right thing.
Unfortunately by this point a lot of the main stream media is tired of the war on terror, and indeed, of the excesses that have taken place in the war on terror. Currently, of course, the financial crisis is dominating the news cycles for the most part (though some outlets, like the New York Times, Washington Post and others have kept up their coverage of Guantanamo). While those of us involved think this is of critical importance, there are lots of other important things out there.
In this regard, blogs have helped a great deal; I just couldn't see the same kind of backlash against the Global War on terror without blogs. In a great sense, these individual voices have changed journalism, certainly in a way that was harder to see before blogs. My understanding of the Vietnam era is that there was a build up of backlash, which eventually built up and blew up. So, blogs in some sense have kept up focus in the present times that just couldn't have been there before the internet .
The Talking DogSomeone I talked to suggested that not having pictures from GTMO was an issue... can you comment on that?
George Clarke: Of course, the government controls all aspects of GTMO, including images; if you can't put a face to the person, it makes it more difficult to humanize them... which is part of what is going on, of course.
The Talking Dog Is there anything else I should have asked you but didn't, or anything else that my readers and the public needs to know on these subjects?
George Clarke I think you've covered what's of interest. People will now have to watch what transpires with the executive reviews; what the judges do in the litigations may be less interesting to watch, but ultimately may be more important. In some sense, most of us have failed as lawyers in the GTMO litigation... the Boumediene case is our only saving grace, insofar as it is the only thing that seems to have shown that our efforts have made any difference. That said, if waiting for "the king to change" is the only way to get relief, then we are not living in the country I thought we were living in. We will all have to see if the new President lives up to the promises he has made, and we will have to see ultimately how the role of habeas corpus plays out.
The Talking Dog: I join all of my readers in thanking Mr. Clarke 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 former Guantanamo military commissions prosecutor Darrel Vandeveld, with attorneys Buz Eisenberg, Steven Wax, Wells Dixon, Rebecca Dick, Wesley Powell, Martha Rayner, Angela Campbell, Stephen Truitt and Charles Carpenter, Gaillard Hunt, Robert Rachlin, Tina Foster, Brent Mickum, Marc Falkoff H. Candace Gorman, Eric Freedman, Michael Ratner, Thomas Wilner, Jonathan Hafetz, Joshua Denbeaux, Rick Wilson,
Neal Katyal, Joshua Colangelo Bryan, Baher Azmy, and Joshua Dratel (representing Guantanamo detainees and others held in "the war on terror"), with attorneys Donna Newman and Andrew Patel (representing "unlawful combatant" Jose Padilila), with Dr. David Nicholl, who spearheaded an effort among international physicians protesting force-feeding of detainees at Guantanamo Bay, with physician and bioethicist Dr. Steven Miles on medical complicity in torture, with law professor and former Clinton Administration Ambassador-at-large for war crimes matters David Scheffer, with former Guantanamo detainees Moazzam Begg and Shafiq Rasul , with former Guantanamo Bay Chaplain James Yee, with former Guantanamo Army Arabic linguist Erik Saar, with former Guantanamo prison guard Terry Holdbrooks, Jr., with law professor and former Army J.A.G. officer Jeffrey Addicott, with law professor and Coast Guard officer Glenn Sulmasy, with author and geographer Trevor Paglen and with author and journalist Stephen Grey on the subject of the CIA's extraordinary rendition program, with journalist and author David Rose on Guantanamo, with journalist Michael Otterman on the subject of American torture and related issues, with author and historian Andy Worthington detailing the capture and provenance of all of the Guantanamo detainees, with Joanne Mariner of Human Rights Watch, and with Almerindo Ojeda of the Guantanamo Testimonials Project to be of interest.
Unfortunately, Americans have long cared about money (and the things money can buy, such as guns, SUVs, flatscreen t.v.'s, McMansions, et al.) more--far more-- than just about anything else. Certainly, despite our national fetishization of both children and avoiding death, we care about money more than either of them (though we are willing to throw a wildly disproportionate share of our immense national health care costs at the futile attempt to belay death). Anyway, let's just say that "the outrage" (faux or otherwise) over the AIG bonuses is an interesting phenomenon... but for what people should be outraged about... read on.
The case in point is the relatively contained outrage about the case of two Pennsylvania judges literally selling children into imprisonment for profit. From the Grey Lady:
Last month, the law caught up with Judge Mark A. Ciavarella Jr., 58, who ran that juvenile court for 12 years, and Judge Michael T. Conahan, 56, a colleague on the county’s Court of Common Pleas.
In what authorities are calling the biggest legal scandal in state history, the two judges pleaded guilty to tax evasion and wire fraud in a scheme that involved sending thousands of juveniles to two private detention centers in exchange for $2.6 million in kickbacks.
On Thursday, the State Supreme Court ordered that the records be cleaned for hundreds of the 2,500 or so juveniles sentenced by Judge Ciavarella, and in the coming weeks, the two judges will be sentenced, under a plea agreement, to more than seven years in prison.
While the scandal continues to ripple nationally as legal experts debate whether juvenile courts have sufficient oversight, here in Luzerne County people are grappling with more immediate questions: How did two native sons, elected twice to the bench to protect children and serve justice, decide to do the opposite? And why did no one stop them?
Among infractions for which young kids were sent to jail included the case of a then 15-year old girl who posted a disparaging remark about a school administrator on Myspace, or getting into family fights...
Let me make it easy: while I have no brief for AIG's bonus-babies, their "crimes" weren't crimes... these two "judges" should face a firing squad (or at a minimum, at least one day for every day they wrongly sentenced juveniles to, with no possibility of parole).
I realize they won't, of course, because in the end, they are powerful white men with a lot of money, and for crimes that really do warrant nothing short of a firing squad, their plea agreement will result in seven years in federal prison. One can only hope they encounter at least a couple of the kids whose lives they turned upside down inside... I'm not usually a fan of jailhouse justice, but what we are looking at in these two bastards (and in the case of their co-conspirators, many of whom will doubtless escape justice altogether) is every bit as bad as the conduct of the callous torturers of the Bush Administration and its "war council":
nothing more than the arrogance of power at its worst, in the case of Messrs. Ciavarella and Conahan, even more craven, because, in the end, it was just about money.
But what is most galling is that I don't hear senators calling for ritual suicides nor am I receiving blast e-mails telling me I should be outraged, because in the end, it wasn't that much money. It seems our sense of national outrage only involves what we can pitch as "a lot of money." Sadly, the couple of million in bribes and kickbacks (notwithstanding the fact that literally thousands of children were needlessly imprisoned)... just isn't enough to get our attention. Sorry about that, kids. But it's not as if you warranted AIG (or A-Rod) money, now is it?
In the wake of a school shooting, I have often said that we Americans loves our guns more than we loves our children. Well, I think I can safely add that we loves our money more than we loves our children too. The lack of a national outrage is deafening. Just deafening.
I'm tempted to just say "what Krugman said," and leave it at that. What he said is that just a generation or two ago in the not so boring 1960's, the boring banking and insurance sectors combined sucked out a seemingly reasonable 4% of American GDP for their services of greasing the wheels of capitalism, in a time of real growth at a pace never seen before or since. Fast forward to current times, and Professor Krugman notes, those sectors alone suck out a princely 8% of GDP... we won't even talk about immense fees paid to mutual funds, pension managers and so forth that makes the financial sector... which is nothing more than a giant croupier... so big and powerful.
The point made is that the justification for this immense growth in this sector, and its companion issue, the securitization of...everything... was supposedly the ability to reduce, systemic risk... when it has, of course, had exactly the opposite effect.
In effect, the financial sector (as noted by Prof. Roubini, cited in a recent post here) was and is a giant Ponzi scheme.
And, it seems, other than fixing the short term problems, there seems precious little overall vision by the Obama Administration that the whole bloody thing cannot go on as before... in short, the fears of many that we are putting off-- and worsening, btw-- an eventual day of reckoning (think, for example, of what happens the day that the rest of the world tires of loaning us money...) will only be worse.
Well, I don't know. Americans are an overall "irrationally exuberant" lot... preferring belief in, say, magic, or angels, or Santa Claus, over facts on which there is a scientific consensus... because they might be... hard or something.
Well... there you have it... we can all hope that, against good sense, and the evidence, we will come out unscathed, and everything will be wonderful. I don't know... given how powerful the croupiers are... I'm not so sure that's how you bet, or that I'd want to bet at all.
It seems that the Obama Administration is hellbent on continuing the abuse of the "state secrets" privilege that the Bush Administration first abused to try to kill off embarrassing law suits; such is the saga of a case involving an Oregon Islamic charity pending in San Francisco.
Obviously, this is not exactly "news"... but it's still disappointing.
Ah, basking in the glow of a sleepy Sunday morning (made all the more sleepy after this morning's surprisingly difficult Colon Cancer 15K in Central Park, caused by a cold morning and a late start which combined for an early breathing problem... ending in a rare "negative split" of finishing the second half faster than the first half... on this blog, it's always about me, people...)
And so... where to begin... why not with our friend (and interview subject) Terry Holdbrooks, and his big interview in Newsweek?
And since we're on the subject of how America treats its guests held beyond law, let's go for this Grey Lady editorial on the Obama Administration's rather mixed and muddled message on adherence to "the rule of law," which sadly, we have to put in quotation marks.
The Grey Lady will be our segue into Professor Krugman's piece there, quite critical of "the Geithner plan," the latest proposed central planning measure to purportedly cure what ails our financial system (albeit at obscene cost). Put Krugman down as a strong "no". James K. Galbraith also votes "no" (unless some transparency in the form of the Government actually reviewing and determining the value of the underlying loan portfolios of the supposed "toxic assets" to determine if the government is paying anything remotely like "fair value" for the taxpayers money, rather than doing what the Bush Administration told us for so long..., i.e. "trust us"). Taking the cautious "Yea" position is Professor Brad DeLong, with an informative Q&A, and an even more informative comment thread of very skeptical commenters.
We'll go back to the Grey Lady to finish up with Frank Rich's general comment that we would like to see... less flippancy coming out of the Obama Administration, particularly on the key economic issues. A truly cynical observer might wonder if the Obamas don't know something with their plans to grow their own food.
Where does it stop? You got me. The bottom line is that the President is clearly in over his head on both signature issues of the nation... the body (economy) and soul (adherence to laws and principles) that have been dealt such severe blows by our prior President and his minions. Not to say anyone wouldn't be, btw; Bush left us with a mess that I'm not certain we can clean up.
Would the President's college classmate (that would be me, your talking dog, who, unlike the President, used his college daze to take a lot of economics courses, though both Barack and I were international politics concentrators in the political science major...) do things any better? Well... I'll just say I would do things a bit differently. Frankly, I would be actively seeking the advice of both Republican Congressional leadership and former Bush Administration officials, who have an uncanny ability to be 100% wrong, all the time, on everything... that would at least tell me what won't work, ever.
Then, I might want to solicit a survey of "best practices" in other countries on everything from bank bailouts to health care to whether we should save our auto industry and replace it with horses and buggies (I'm not kidding)...to of course, best agricultural practices, to best practices on criminal justice. And best practices both global warming alleviation... and preparation (we're going to have some consequences)... someone in the world has better answers than we do... or perhaps, we have the best answers, and it would be good to know. On "rule of law," (I'm certain I'm right, btw) I suspect that I, as a working lawyer of 22 plus years experience in both public and private practice, has more practical working answers in this than the Constitutional law
professor lecturer and [state and federal] senator (senator, as we know, isnt a real job). Actually, that's a big problem with the President: like his predecessor (far too much like his predecessor), President appears to be one of his first real jobs, and surprise, surprise... it's freaking hard. We value the ability to get elected (i.e. salesmanship, the premier American value) over the ability to do the job (sadly, for other than incumbents, we don't have much to go on but "experience"... which was most misused in the last election cycle, because candidate Hillary Clinton failed to tout her own actual most relevant experience-- her over 20 years as a working lawyer, preferring instead to rely on Bill's experience, grossly overstating the popularity of and goodwill toward a guy who never got more than 44% of the vote, and grossly underselling her own unique and valuable experience... hint: it didn't include being a Senator [that goes for you too, McCain]... or First Lady, so much). But I digress...
Anyway... all water under the bridge. The President is now the man in the big chair, for most of the next four years, at least. On matters economic... see above. On matters GTMO, of course, the reason I am convinced that I have the answers is because of the efforts I have undertaken to study as many aspects of the situation as can be studied, reading whatever's out there, asking whoever would talk to me about it. Some might say I'm not adequately "fair and balanced" because I have so few "pro'" Bush policy interviews... but this is because so few would talk to me (I did try to get such sources). In any event-- that's what is needed on just about everything: careful study of what is actually happening, and of "best practices" to fix it... from all sources. Not merely the usual Washington policy of relying on vested insiders (which is what is happening now... btw... as a novelty, if these packages of toxic assets are "so good" that we are allowing hedge funds to have "skin in the game"... why not invite members of the public... taxpayers both as individuals and as an amorphous blob via the government... I mean... why not?... But I digress...) Certainly, solutions will involve not relying on ideology-- of any kind... Thinking "out of the box" has been alarmingly lacking... but it was what we probably most need right about now.
The President can give us change we voted for... but will he? As I keep saying (and as he says, frankly)... we're going to have to make him, because, sadly, the default is "business as usual." And there you have it. This has been... Sunday pot pourri.
This would be two seemingly disparate, but not that disparate at all, pieces in major magazines, the first a Newsweek article about Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, former Chief of Staff to Colin Powell, the second a Forbes column by NYU Professor Nouriel Roubini, currently the "it economist" because of his long-time moniker based on his forecasts of economic pessimism"Dr. Doom'... which, alas, has seemingly finally come to fruition.
In the Newsweek piece, Col. Wilkerson tells us that there are at most two dozen or so actual terrorists at GTMO, including the 14 so-called "high-value" terrorists; rather than mince words, Col. Wilkerson suggests that they cannot be tried because they have been tortured, but they should probably be transferred to Colorado's super-max and forgotten, and everyone else at GTMO should be released immediately. Wilkerson said that he was speaking out now because he felt he had to respond to the [outrageous] public statements of former Vice-President
Annie Oakley Dick Cheney that President Obama would be "endangering the republic" if he completed his plans to close GTMO, and Wilkerson said he felt he had to rebut Cheney's horseshit complete pack of lies, which Wilkerson adds, were created by Cheney and Rumsfeld in the first place in the hope that the poor bastards originally turned over for $5,000 bounties in the first place were close enough to the action to know something. Wilkerson observed that the game continued for so long because Cheney and Rumsfeld dug in their heals about it: releasing the wrongly held men and acknowledging that mistakes were made would have made Cheney and Rumsfeld look bad, and like the weak and ineffectual leaders that they were [and are]. Not to mention war criminals (so I will!)
In the Forbes piece, Professor Roubini calls this nation "The United States of Ponzi" and notes that incarcerated scammer Bernie Madoff was a paradigm of the entire economy and everyone in it, just playing a bigger and bigger shell game of borrowing more and more against unreal assets, as the housing bubble got bigger and bigger, and neither households, businesses or the government took in more income than they spent, instead denying reality by relying on their (fake) assets to pretend otherwise...resulting in a house of cards that we are now observing fall around us, although as Prof. Roubini notes, may still not be fully solving with current plans, if in the end, households, businesses and the government don't start taking in more than we spend.
The unifying point is that these are the two signature issues of our new President's Administration, or, as I like to think of them, our national soul and our national body, both of which have been damaged (possibly irreparably) by the former Bush II Administration, with the cooperation of a reality-challenged public. More people will, of course, think that the economy is more important than a bunch of Muslims foundering in an offshore gulag, of course...but they are wrong: the point of the GTMO exercise was, and is, to demonstrate, simply, that the government can get away with creating a lawless zone, and put anyone it wants there and do anything it wants to them... as long as GTMO, and the other tinker-toys of tyranny stand, unabated, they remain a danger to us all... probably a bigger danger than anyone cares to admit, as more generalized repression is often an eventual tool in the arsenal of many a government's dealing with economic collapse.
The prior handling of these issues to this point has been based on outright lies, in turn, supported by an amazingly... reality-challenged public. A President who seems more interested in demagogue-ing stupid issues and making Special Olympics jokes on a late night talk-show is, alas, not necessarily increasing anyone's confidence about the future handling of them, either.
Though, we can at least hope that we eventually get change we can believe in.
The tragic death of stage and screen actress Natasha Richardson, at age 45, wife and mother of two, after what seemed a minor fall during a skiing lesson, comes as a reminder to us all that not a single one of us is guaranteed anything... anything... including that we, or anyone or anything else, will be here in an hour, let alone a day, a week, a year, a decade...
Ms. Richardson certainly enjoyed a full and rich life, which in the end, is all any of us can really aspire to, even if, sadly in her case, it was cut tragically short.
R.I.P., Ms. Richardson.
And for the rest of us who might be living on or traveling to "Someday Isle," I will simply repeat: there is no assurance that the boat will ever get there...
The last time I saw this kind of a coordinated propaganda assault was, dare I say it, during the run-up to the Iraq War. And now, alas, it's "my side," led by my college classmate, The President, who rails against the current enemy the State,
Emmanuel Goldstein... no wait... I mean... those greedy bastards at AIG's credit default group who are getting hundreds of millions in bonuses that the President wants back.
The thing is, of course, that just as then Senator Obama railed against a $150,000 junket taken by AIG executives during the debates against Senator McCain, this is a sideshow... a smokescreen... a diversion. The real action is the credit default swaps themselves... the question is not, of course, why the clowns in the credit default department are getting bonuses... the question is why they still have jobs at all. As soon as the Government invested dollar one in AIG, it should have shut down credit default swaps, and, should have introduced legislation in Congress providing that such contracts (which are literally insurance against loans not being repaid, which conveniently override what used to be banks' job and key function, to wit, assessing the creditworthiness of their borrowers and the value of their borrowers' collateral and the like) are illegal as violative of public policy. Further, such legislation should have provided that credit default swap contracts cannot be enforced in federal courts, that a statute of limitations on enforcement is reduced to six months, and that anyone who undertakes such a contract in the future shall be subject to life imprisonment. (Indeed, legislation could even be proposed to deal with the bonuses themselves, and yet... isn't coming down the pike... I didn't get a harumph out of you... oh yes... kabuki and all...)
The reason for the current smokescreen (led by the Diverter in Chief... Corporate America clearly could have done worse than you, Mr. President) is...because... today... AIG actually revealed... where the real money went: over $105 billion in taxpayer money went to various banks, including Goldman Sacks and a number of foreign institutions. The few hundred million that everyone from the DCCC to Move On dot Org wrote to me today to tell me to rail against is but a tiny percentage of the real outrage: the use of taxpayer money to subsidize the most successful institutions in the world on contracts that should be against the law, but more to the point are being honored at 100 cents on the dollar when they could have been unwound for a tiny fraction of that. The bonuses are merely symbolic... but conveniently cover for an appalling lack of Government oversight, mostly by the prior Administration, but the current Administration is hardly blameless in this regard.
As loathsome as paying big bonuses to the individual AIG staff members who orchestrated the original credit default swap fiasco is, these bonuses are miniscule compared the broader fraud being perpetrated on taxpayers to prop up the balance sheets of major financial institutions, who would have, absent the Government's bailout, taken a huge hit on these credit default swaps, and who could easily have been persuaded to take far less than full payment had any effort whatsoever been made to do so.
But just as the Bush Medicare prescription drug plan actually made it illegal for the Government to negotiate for lower prices, so it seems, did the AIG bailout... oh wait... it wasn't illegal... it just wasn't done. No matter. Why think about substance and the real dollars... when you have a convenient political bogeyman? (I mean, what person now fighting to keep their job, or for their unemployment benefits, won't immediately loath some prick who cost his company-- and now the American taxpayer-- hundreds of billions of dollars, and then gets a multi-million dollar bonus... sounds awful, right?)
But nowhere near as awful as the real story... the one we are coyly being persuaded to turn away from. Congratulations, Mr. President. Nice trick.
This has been... "Two Minutes Hate".
Update: (3/18/09)... One knowledgable, though controversial figure, agreed with my premise that, as far as AIG goes, "it's the payments to the counter-parties, stupid".
I just thought that would be a cool thing to say.
One of the issues being hotly litigated in the ongoing Guantanamo habeas corpus cases is the definition of "enemy combatant;" the significance of this term, of course, is that only a properly classified "enemy combatant" may be held in military custody for the duration of "hostilities."
Interestingly, what you might think would matter is the military's own definition of "enemy combatant," from the Defense Department's own Dictionary of Military Terms, to wit, "Any person in an armed conflict who could be properly detained under the laws and customs of war. Also called EC."
But no... instead, as Scotusblog reports here, the main effect of the change(TM) is to change the nomenclature, and the hypothetical doctrinal bases ("derived from international law rather than from inherent Presidential power")... but ... the policy is... largely the same as that in the Bush Administration. And that policy is, quite literally, an "enemy combatant" (now to be called... something else) is anyone we say had any relation to anyone whatsoever that we say is bad. And the truly sad thing is... I'm not even making that up!
Indeed, having reviewed the court filing itself (hat tip to Lindsay) and given my anecdotal knowledge of many of the detainees' cases, while it certainly sounds good that only "substantial contributions" to hostilities can be considered grounds for detention-for-life-without-charge-or-trial, "the math" is that of the 241 known detainees left, 59 have already been designated "not enemy combatants," leaving 182 who are... since the government's memo contends that signing an A.Q. loyalty oath (actually, any loyalty oath to anyone or anything), or
visiting an A.Q. training camp, ever, even back when the A-rabs was on our side (in the big one against the Evil Empire(TM) back in the '80's, when we were paying them), or of course, anyone captured in a guesthouse with other bad guys... by my count, that means of the 182 detainees left, something like... 182 will be "enemy combatants" under the new and improved definition of... whatever it is (I suggest Foreign Renditioned Enemy Detainee, or "FRED").
And so once again, the President who vociferously and incessantly promised us "change" has given us... the exact same policy as his despised predecessor. BTW... for those not paying attention, the policy pronouncements indicate that there is no reason why someone in the United States can't be considered eligible for arbitrary life-detention, if the President says so.
Frankly, in this area, it's getting awfully hard for the Obama Administration to disappoint me, as I no longer have any expectations of it whatever. Deep sigh. This has been... Cool new name; same great totalitarianism.
Terry Holdbrooks, Jr. served as a military police officer with the rank of Specialist in the United States Army between 2002 and 2005, attached to the 252nd Military Police, and later assigned to the 463rd MP company, a mobile deploying unit, based at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. From 2003 to 2004, he was deployed to Guantanamo Bay, where he served as a prison guard. On March 5, 2009, I had the privilege of interviewing Mr. Holdbrooks by telephone. What follows are my interview notes, corrected as appropriate by Mr. Holdbrooks.
The Talking Dog: Where were you on September 11th?
Terry Holdbrooks: I woke up. My grandmother (who was then still alive) got me out of bed, and we watched the television accounts. At first, I thought it was an accident. By the second plane strike, I gathered it was a terrorist attack. After watching the accounts on CNN, Fox News and so forth with amazingly specific speculations, I got frustrated with the coverage, and went about my day. I went to my friend John's house, and we had a discussion about whether this was an act of war and the start of World War III. My goal for the rest of the day was to escape the coverage and the speculation and the endless discussion. At that time, I must say I reached the point where I didn't care to see or hear about it any longer, and eventually, I went to a bar, I recall playing pool and otherwise don't recall that being an all that consequential day for me, personally. I actually made it a great attempt all day long to escape the coverage and speculations that people had in regards to whether or not this was in fact a terrorist act, a threat, a mistake, the end of the world, and all the other crap that people thought it might be.
The Talking Dog: I understand you signed on to be a military police officer in the U.S. Army, and before deployment to Guantanamo (or "GTMO" as I will call it henceforth), were assigned to stateside bases. In the course of that, did you have any experience working in the detention context, either in stockades or short term facilities or anything of that nature? Before deploying to GTMO, regardless of "cultural or religious training" (for which, I understand the answer was "none") did you have any specific prison guard training (under any applicable Army Manual, Geneva Conventions, anything like that?) Can you describe any training and/or indoctrination (such as what you have described as "propaganda films") that you did receive? Can you comment on the overall "professionalism" of your fellow guards, and tell me why you come to this assessment? Were they generally from military police backgrounds?
Terry Holdbrooks: Well, we were given an introduction to detention tactics for a week or two in the course of training, but I did not find it particularly meaningful, or particularly realistic compared to what we eventually encountered. This was conducted at Fort Dix, New Jersey just before we left for GTMO. This was a crash course given to us by 5 random sergeants of the "31c mos", meaning, correctional officers. It was nothing like what we were going into, and in no way a real preparation for the experience ahead.
We also did see quite a number of what I would call propaganda films: films of towers falling, pictures of bin Laden, people crying and flags flying, and then random presumably Muslim individuals, all with heavy metal music playing, usually in three minute song length segments. Before going to Guantanamo (and even at Guantanamo) we saw a lot of these things, I just thought that this is how the Army stoked up people during training. Drowning Pool's Let the Bodies hit the Floor was a common song for this. It is simple to see how it is propaganda and programming. We also took a trip to "Ground Zero" just before the day we flew out, this was to really nail in the idea that "these people are bad" and to get us riled and ready for hatred. I remember reading a quote someone had left on the wall there, "this is the worst tragedy to happen to mankind". It really made me sad to think our educational system is so lacking, that this was the worst someone could think of to mankind. Never mind the Holocaust, Josef Stalin, the Crusades, the Armenian Genocide, they don’t count, they're not American-related, I suppose.
Also part of the training was an actual mock detention facility, which featured 2 or 3 cell blocks, and a larger area for recreation, a mess hall and so forth, we practiced guarding other guards... but frankly, the anger and animosity that we were supposed to encounter just wasn't there in this exercise (perhaps had we been trained in a real prison, like Leavenworth, it might have been more realistic).
As to "professionalism"... that was just not a word I would use to describe guards at Guantanamo, other than when VIPs such as my home state's esteemed Senior Senator John McCain or generals, diplomats or other dignitaries showed up, when suddenly, everything would appear to be in perfect order. Otherwise, most guards were just eager to leave, and new guards were disappointed to be there. (While the guards were less than professional, the medical staffs, usually Navy and Marine Corpsmen were quite professional... patient care was patient care, whether the patient was an American or an accused terrorist.)
As to the backgrounds of the guards, almost all were military police, and not many of them had corrections background. We had a week of corrections training in military police school, but that is not enough to certify you to work in a facility as far as I am concerned.
The Talking Dog: I understand that you have converted to Islam, after your own personal spiritual journey. My understanding is that this was, in part, based on an interest you developed in your youth, which was augmented by your experiences at Guantanamo (and you were at GTMO from 2003-2004). I take it that your conversion was not known to the official military at the time you converted? Did your paths cross with former GTMO Muslim chaplain Capt. James Yee? Were you aware of Capt. Yee's arrest, and (at least for a time around 2003) the arrest of virtually every Muslim (soldier or civilian employee alike) who left GTMO?
Terry Holdbrooks: I did convert to Islam, though I wouldn't describe it as much of a spiritual journey. I would just say it was about acquiring personal knowledge in order to have a greater understanding with and about other individuals. While it developed to some extent in my youth, my interest was largely about matters of Middle Eastern culture and history.
At GTMO, I did indeed keep my conversion quiet, though there were outward signs, such as my quitting smoking and drinking alcohol.
And I did meet Chaplain Yee; he game me a Koran. As to his case, I was aware of it, I believed the basis for his arrest was utter B.S., and indeed, he was ultimately cleared, so there you are. I was also aware of the arrests of the other Muslims who left the base. This was, of course, the work of the Bush Administration, who needed to drum up public support for their war, and they needed bad guys as part of this. There was little talk of him, his arrest or speculation as to why he was arrested while I was down there. It wasn’t until after I got back to the states that I came to understand how he had been caught up in B.S., just like everything else that General Miller was involved in. Detainees would ask of him, but they did not know what had happened, and the new Islamic chaplain they brought in had little to no privileges in comparison to what Chaplain Yee had.
The Talking Dog: Let me follow up on something most Westerners (especially non-Muslims) the restrictions associated with music (those on pork and alcohol are more widely known, for example)... can you briefly describe the restrictions associated with music imposed by Islam, in your own words, and how this impacted you as a trained audio engineer and audio-phile with a large recording collection? Also, I understand you observed loud noises-- including loud music-- played to detainees... I'll ask you about other acts of religious or cultural disrespect in a bit... but was it ever explained to you (by either detainees or other prison staff... or anyone) that the selection of playing loud music was meant to "get under the skin" of the prisoners because of the religious injunction as to music... or was it just to (literally) drive them crazy with the noise?
Terry Holdbrooks: This music issue is certainly something to struggle with as a Muslim. I will say that there is some debate within the Islamic community as to the scope of the injunction... is it all music in all forms? There is some accepted opinion that, if the music is spiritual in nature, or created with good intentions, there is no reason why a devout Muslim cannot appreciate it. Something like Marilyn Manson, for example, is not "created with good intentions" or likely to fit with this, but plenty of worthy music is. Music by Johnny Cash, System of a Down, any classical artist, soundtracks of a musical instrumental only nature, Broadway productions, etc., that, for example, relates to issues of the Armenian genocide, or other music with a cause, such as to advance knowledge, is certainly within this worthy category, and I certainly would hope that this kind of music can be duly appreciated. What I have always enjoyed of Islam is that the script is in perfect form in regards to the Quran, it has not been changed in the 1400 years it has been in existence, still the same as day one. Obviously there are some matters that were not predicted, or rather written of, such as music, and we are a community of many, with many great scholars who will interpret the meanings in the Quran and hadith, and help for us to live the straight path.
As for me personally, what the injunctions mean is that I have about $6,000 in audio equipment, over 500 CDs and 38 gigabytes of music that just don't get played! I have found the music injunction harder than the bans on alcohol, tobacco and pork! Something like music, when it has been your life, and you can remember years back and pivotal experiences in your life due to the album you were listening to that week, it is a great to be able to recall something so well like that, and with a few notes of a song I can be in a completely different place in my life.
As to the use of music to either physically irritate prisoners or to get under their skin in a religious sense, it was probably a little of both. A few interrogators would play endless, loud music just to irritate detainees. Even my favorite songs would start to drive the crazy, if played for hours on end. Certainly, it had its effect in dark, cold rooms with detainees chained in uncomfortable positions. There were a few interrogators who were aware of the religious injunctions, and were trying to use them in the course of their interrogations. The guards, however, had nothing to do with this... for the guards, like myself, the only involvement in these interrogations was to move the detainees to and from them. Some of the music that would be played would be what we call in the states heavy metal, hardcore, industrial, etc… very annoying to listen to at a loud volume for a long period of time.
The Talking Dog: You described a "hazing" towards yourself... some soldiers "took you out back"... can you expand on this, and tell us if you were beaten, threatened, or what? Did you report this incident to your superior officers... or WERE these your superiors? Were you given a specific
Reason-- because you expressed an interest in or converted to Islam... because you were "going native" and getting "too close" to the prisoners (or being "too nice" to "them") or for any other specific reason?
Terry Holdbrooks: It wasn't exactly my "superiors"... it was a group of squad leaders, which, in the structure of an army unit, was just above a team leader. The army is organized with a soldier in a team of 3 or 4 soldiers, 3 teams form a squad, 3 squads form a platoon, and 4 platoons form a company. Each company has got a master sergeant and a captain; each platoon has a lieutenant. All lieutenants report to a captain of the company, who is nominally the commander, but often, the master sergeant, despite being lower in rank, has more pull than the captain.
In my case, a few squad leaders decided that I had shown too much interest in the detainees... I was not appropriately abusive or angry enough... I didn't harbor "the right feeling". So I was taken behind my barracks, and some blows were issued, pushing and yelling, a lot of profanity. I was told to "get my head on straight"... and asked why I was not with the program... I responded that it was "not my prerogative."
At that point, my own squad leader separated me out from the others, suggested that they end this, lest they all get in trouble. I did not report this to my captain or sergeant... I felt that the pain was temporary, and that there was no reason to worry about this incident, so I let it go.
In social terms, I will say that I ended up effectively shunned or "excommunicated" from the others in the company, and we really did not talk much until we left Guantanamo and returned to Fort Leonard Wood. Things largely returned to "normal" at some point between when I left GTMO in 2004 and left the Army in 2005. Closer to 2004, when we returned, the platoons were redistributed again, and things were different, almost as if it was an opportunity to start over, and we were reunited with 1st platoon who had been gone in Qatar at that point we were gone in GTMO.
The Talking Dog: There are doubtless those who will very likely view you as "disloyal" in some way, if not in an outright "treasonous" sense to the country, perhaps to the perceived camaraderie of the uniformed service, or the like, by coming forward and speaking critically of your experiences at GTMO (and critically of the conduct of other soldiers). Have you experienced any such criticism (rebukes, disdain, etc.) since you have come forward? What was it that did bring you forward, and do you have any regrets about that?
Terry Holdbrooks: Yes, I have no doubt that there is and will be a plethora of ignorant Americans who will have their own rather strong opinions, probably not grounded in reality, but that's their right. My short answers to most people like this is actually to ask them if they are in the service... and if not... then please don’t talk to me. If you've been there, of course, we can talk about it. Otherwise, the "criticism" to me is water off a duck's back.
As to coming forward, I made a decision to "cement" my links to Islam, and made this effort as part of trying to be a better Muslim. Certainly something needs to be done about Guantanamo... the world needs to be better informed. I have no regrets (other than perhaps to some extent, working with some American media outlets, as opposed to European and U.K. outlets, which have been uniformly great to work with, and indeed, I have been pleased with the reception I have received from the overseas audience).
The Talking Dog: Let me ask you about your own specific observations. While much discussion has been made of accusations of "torture at GTMO" and so forth, rather than labeling things or risking spilling into hyperbole, I'd just like to ask what your own specific observations were in some categories, and if it's only something you heard from someone else rather than observed yourself, please clarify that...
At GTMO... (1) Did you observe anything you would describe as "religiously disrespectful" such as mishandling of the Holy Koran, or serving prisoners pork, or whatever else you would so characterize? (2) Did you observe physical abuse of prisoners, such as beatings, or chaining them into uncomfortable prisoners? (3) Did you actually observe anyone being water-boarded? (4) Did you observe interrogations, at all, and if so, anything during them you would characterize as abuse or mistreatment? (5) Can you tell me your specific observations of the "Emergency Reaction Force" and "ERFing"... and how would you comment as to whether it may have been a legitimate (or at least understandable) fear on the part of camp guards (particularly after being told that the prisoners are "the worst of the worst" and "men would chew through hydraulic cables to bring down planes" and so forth) that led to a degree of apparent overkill? (6) Can you describe "overall confinement" conditions, such as noise, lighting, temperature, isolation and so forth? (7) Did you observe any prisoners being on "the frequent flier program"... i.e., being moved constantly to ensure sleep deprivation?
Terry Holdbrooks: I'll have to take those one at a time.
(1) As to "religiously disrespectful", I certainly did see a fair amount of mishandling of the Koran, such as handling it with the left hand, or without gloves (by a non-Muslim) or otherwise not handling it properly. This sort of thing upset the detainees greatly; I would describe this as mostly the fault of the Army rather than the individual guards by and large, because the Army failed to provide appropriate education and training on the environment that would be encountered, and the belief system of the prisoners. Other people went in with closed minds, took what they saw at face value, and came out very unhappy, or even ended up alcoholic as a result. Brandon Neely is a classic example of this... the situation made him just unhappy. This has come as a great pleasure to me to know that there are more out there in the armed forces that have a moral conscience, kudos to you Brandon!
Certainly, I did not observe any of the detainees being served pork. I certainly did observe the mocking (by guards and interrogators) of prayers, calls to prayer and the use of Arabic language.
(2) As to "beatings," certainly, there were blows thrown during "ERFings" by the Emergency Reaction Force; these were rapid, fluid reactive situations. I certainly did not observe any situations where a cell door would open and guards would just come in and beat up a detainee. As to chaining in uncomfortable positions... these were the essence of the interrogations. The detainees were invariably placed in uncomfortable situations, often on the floor; if there was a chair in the room, it would be used by the interrogators. The most humiliating part of this as an American who saw this occur, is that being a position like this for hours would cause a detainee to wet or soil themselves, and that is a humiliating experience. I may have mentioned this above, but either way, with acts like this, and the conditions down there as opposed to the rest of the correctional facilities our citizens are packed in, if detainees did not harbor feelings of ill will towards the US and were not in fact terrorists, we probably helped make them that way now! This is a huge blunder on our part, and will not be the end of it, as we have seen with the recent news of freed detainees turning to terrorism.
(3) As to water-boarding, no I didn't see it, and no, we didn't even hear about it. Once in a while you would see a detainee not scheduled for a shower who looked like he just had one, but they never complained of water-boarding to the guards, nor, I suspect, to the other detainees (as this could have the potential for causing riots). So no, in my time in Camp Delta, I didn't see or hear of any water-boarding. If water-boarding did ever occur, I am sure that it was not a detainee that is in general population, as in Camp Delta, and that detainee never would have returned to Camp Delta, for an act like that would be sure to enable a riot of unheard measures.
(4) As to interrogations, yes, I observed some a good number of times. What I would characterize as particularly "abuse" was one female interrogator with a blood capsule who would use it to pretend she had “menstrual blood" to get a reaction from the detainees. I certainly observed detainees in uncomfortable, painful positions, temperatures made very hot or very cold, loud music, and certainly, loud and abusive language. While there was no doubt that for most detainees, the interrogations and conditions of confinement were better than they would find in their own countries, one would have hoped that the United States employed relatively ethical facilities and respectful interrogation tactics... and we clearly did not do that.
(5) As to "ERFing," a fair number of soldier’s plain old got their rocks off by ERFing. They were literally excited-- they got off on tying a detainee up, smashing them into the wall. Indeed, excited to do it was a predominant attitude among guards who did it. Some guards volunteered for ERF duty, some teams were regularly assigned. Somehow, I never "ERFed" a single detainee... there were supposed to be two teams available for "ERFing" in each camp; somehow, when the ERF call came in, I took my time getting into the ERF riot gear, and "missed out” on the ERFing. I did not want to do it, to be sure.
Frankly, by my observation, in all the many times (and there were many) that ERF teams were called out, only one time did a detainee actually escalate the situation to the point where an ERF team was really justified... in that one case, during "flu shot day" (where the detainees had started rumors among themselves that something was more sinister than just flu shots) a detainee broke off a faucet handle and made it into a knife; this detainee managed to make a cut in a guard's neck... that guard, by the way, went on 100 - 200 more "ERFings" that shift!
(6) Confinement conditions varied depending on the Camp and the Camp’s population. In general, in Camp Delta, the camp was pretty much as depicted in the pictures that became public. Temperatures not too hot, not particularly clean or hygienic conditions, lights off by 9 pm, and not too much else happening; temperatures went down a bit at night, and detainees had blankets. While efforts were made to create an isolation situation, the detainees could talk through vents, or through the walls or the toilets if nothing else.
I was assigned to Camp 4, Camp Delta, and was aware and had friends who worked in Camp Echo and Camp Iguana. They were building Camp 5 and the Maximum Security Camp 6. You could see "Camp 7" (or "Operation Platinum" for the so-called "high value detainees"), but you couldn't get close to them. In training exercises at GTMO, we came across older holding facilities, made of wood, making one wonder just how long GTMO has been used for what we are using it for now.
(7) I did observe prisoners on "the frequent flier program", especially Detainee 590 (who introduced me to much of Islam) [Ahmed Errachidi], Detainee 239 (Shaker Aamer, known as "the Professor") was also often moved, as were a couple of Uighur detainees. A couple of British nationals-- the Tipton 3-- were also moved. Interestingly, David Hicks was usually not where I was in Delta... he was usually in Camp Echo, and I only saw him in Delta when he was moved for medical treatment. I will attempt to contact another guard who would have more knowledge on the status and life in Camp Echo.
The Talking Dog: Following up on that last one, from '03 to '04 which camps were you assigned to guard (Camp 6 probably wasn't finished yet, IIRC)? Can you describe the cells (one man per cell, more than one man, "furniture" or other objects in cells, etc.) and any exercise facility outside the cell? Am I correct that meals were shoved in to the cells, by guards, such as you? Also, can you tell me who the base commander(s) (or "JTF" commander(s) as applicable) was during your deployment to GTMO, and what your impressions were of him? Were you given orders in the way you were in other military assignments... or did you receive "power point" presentations?
Terry Holdbrooks: Camps 5 and 6 were not yet completed, as I said. In the camps I observed, there was one man per cell, and no objects of furniture, only a Koran, a work-out mat, called "the "bed padding", a tooth brush and toothpaste, soap, and maybe prayer beads, and that's it. A cell was perhaps 6' by 8', you would walk in and find a bed about 3' off the ground, about 2' off the wall. Next to that was a toilet-- a bidet style, in the ground, and then there was a combination sink and water dispenser with a multi-purpose faucet.
Outside the cells were a 20 X 20 cage for exercise, which, if detainees were lucky, 2 could go in with a ball and play soccer, though usually they went in alone. This was not to common uness they were on an incentive block, which was usually the Afghanis, who were taking part in an educational system to help them learn new languages and skills.
Meals were served through a beanhole....shoving was usually not required (sometimes I would just leave a meal if detainees were praying).
The camp commander was Gen. Geoffrey Miller. I'll just say I didn't like him. He was an outstanding liar; very good at his job, which was to be a front-man and publicist for the entire show. I don't know if he ever made a real decision on his own, other than to follow his standing orders and do what he was told.
I didn't receive so many written orders or even power points; GTMO was just thrown together, absolutely disorganized and generally poorly run.
The Talking Dog: I understand that you observed hunger strikes at GTMO, and I understand that the regime of force-feeding had not yet commenced (or in any event, you didn't observe force-feeding). What, if you recall, instigated the hunger strike, or hunger strikes?
Terry Holdbrooks: I did see a few hunger strikers. There was no force feeding when I was there.
What triggered hunger strikes were generally acts of religious disrespect, such as a Koran put in the toilet in an interrogation or cell cleaning and search, or abuse/wrongdoing during an interrogation.
Some hunger strikes would last a few days or a week or two; some would go on longer. There were only a few hunger strikes left by the time I left, and my understanding is that there is not that many down there. Makes you wonder, if these are the worst of the worst, why have we sent so many home, over 2/3rds of the population that was down there have been sent home now… we must be crazy to send these bomb making, suicide driven people home, back to the Taliban and Al Qaeda, or was this just a huge gimmick to keep a crap administration in office?
The Talking Dog: I take it that you left your deployment at GTMO before the Supreme Court's decision in Rasul v. Bush and the arrival of lawyers for the detainees (correct me if I'm incorrect). Can you tell me who, besides military personnel, you observed at the base, such as other government personnel, members of Congress, the Red Cross, journalists, and officials from the detainees own countries, etc. ? Did any of these people have unrestricted access to the entire detention facility, permitted to speak to detainees, etc., by your observation?
Terry Holdbrooks: I did not see lawyers down there (other than possibly for David Hicks). I did see Red Cross personnel there, and delegations from other countries would come down and get a tour, though they could not just go wherever they wanted. There were enough visitors.
By and large, Guantanamo was just a make-shift holding facility for the 700 or so men held there. There was an occasional dog and pony show put on for members of Congress or high ranking military brass or foreign delegations which was, of course, nor representative of actual conditions. Such delegations would have access to detainees only in passing, at most.
I do recall one time when I went on a so-called "air bridge" flight with about 50 detainees being released; we dropped them off in Iraq, then continued on to Turkey, Germany then to Virginia and back to GTMO. During the flight, detainees were as publicly depicted: hooded, shackled, black out goggles, chained to their seats... that's how they went home. Guards were lightly armed (batons only; only Air Force specialists trained in this could carry firearms on airplanes). There were 4 port-a-johns for detainees on the plane... no food or water, really an awful flight... I only hope it got better for them after they were released. Of the few that I have been able to speak with, or articles that have surfaced, it seems as if that has been the case, although we still haven’t heard anything of the Afghanis, Pakistanis, or Iraqis that have gone home…
The Talking Dog: Which people (prisoners, fellow guards, interrogators or whomever) made an impression on you at Guantanamo, how so, and why? To what extent did you find language barriers to be an issue... I understand you spoke to detainees (such as Hicks, the Tipton Three and Aamer) that spoke English... were you able to communicate with any of the non-English speakers?
Terry Holdbrooks: A number of the prisoners made a big impression on me. Many saw me as "the nice guard" and were quite civil to me. I didn't have to handcuff them when moving them to the shower; they were respectful to me and vice versa-- which was different from most guards. Hopefully, some day, they will get out, and I will be able to say I have friends in places like England and Morocco. This is an abstract and hard to digest idea for most Americans I would be willing to assume. To clarify, it was an amazing and horrific, surreal experience to have been down there. Every guard that has been down there will have a different story to tell, but it made an impact on all their lives. GTMO for me was an awakening of my own lack of knowledge of the world and history, and an encouragement to continue my studies and development as an individual and human being, not an American, or any other nation, simply a human. For the detainees who were innocent and down there, I would love to be able to one day sit and talk with them, have a cup of coffee and reflect upon how that experienced changed, and perhaps gave us both a greater appreciation for life each day.
As to my fellow guards, I have to say that I didn't like them that much. Our educational system, our culture, our ideology... is something disillusioning. My experience in the military has not given me a particularly "warm and fuzzy" feeling toward this country and its values... I end up with great respect for the military and the service, but less for the nation itself, which has the tools and the people to be the best in the world, but we are just too damned lazy to do it...too many decisions at too many levels are based on pure expedience, and at the end of the day, as a country, we are just not in good shape.
As to interrogators, some would carefully explain what they were doing and try to keep us informed, and some were just plain jerks. Besides prisoners, guards and interrogators, there wasn't anyone else down there that I encountered!
Language was not an issue. If a detainee didn't speak English, another detainee would often translate. I learned some Arabic-- enough for words like prayer, food, clothes and so forth, so that between it all, we could usually figure out what we were talking about. If all else failed, we could just act things out, and figure out what we were talking about, or I could draw illustrations.
I did spend two days with David Hicks, and I rather enjoyed his company. It struck me that he got caught up and played; he ended up coerced into things that got him in trouble. I also spoke to the Tipton Three; I especially remember Shafiq Rasul who often swore; when I noted that profanity was against the tenets of Islam, he said "I'm a Muslim; I'm just not a good Muslim!"
I actually found that inspirational... I have found it trying at times on my own to give up alcohol and smoking; I have given them up and come back to them before... but the key is the effort and discipline to keep trying.
I especially remember an old man and a kid in Camp 4. The kid probably did not know that there was a world outside of Afghanistan... probably just an innocent somehow caught up in something; we talked a lot, said hi and so forth, and the detainees would often express feelings of hope. And I thought, man, I'm only here for a year, they have no idea how long there going to be here, and yet they're hopeful... there's no reason for me not to be...
The Talking Dog: Based on your observations and experiences, is there anything that you believe that (my college classmate) President Obama needs to know as to how to best implement his stated goal of "closing Guantanamo," and what he should know and what he should do in order to expedite that stated goal?
Terry Holdbrooks: Certainly, the tribunals and commissions and whatever else they are calling the trials, other than perhaps the 5 detainees for whom they have some kind of competent evidence, should be halted immediately. Bush put this handful of bad guys amidst all of these others just to plant the perception in Americans that he was holding a bunch of bad guys to keep everyone safe.
So that said, the only answer is to let everyone but that handful go... and, although they were certainly not terrorists when they came in, we're going to have to hope that after years of unjust imprisonment by our country, that they aren't terrorists NOW. We have to let them go, and send them home, or if sending them home will just end up getting them killed or tortured or imprisoned, then we have to find a place to take them as agreeable as possible, period.
And then, we should close Guantanamo altogether... sell or give the property to Cuba, forget about it and move on. Better thought, we should destroy GTMO, and GIVE it back to Cuba, along with our other not so famous secret facilities that we have world wide. Visit Cageprisoners.com for more information on these places. I am sure that there are countless facilities like GTMO world wide, and sure they are full of 95% innocent people, and 5% guilty, with that being said, I am more than sure we are making “friends” world wide.
Every Middle Easterner I speak to has virtually the same response: they say that the prisoners are far better off in Guantanamo then would be in Syria or Morocco or Egypt where they would really be abused and tortured, if not killed. So, as I said, we need to be very sure of where we are sending these men so that releasing them isn't even worse than holding them.
To summarize, President Obama should set aside the tribunals and commissions (beyond the 5 or so who can be tried, and those trials should proceed); the rest should just be released, and sent somewhere not worse, so that hopefully, we can give them the ability to get back to their loved ones. We can't make up 7 plus years of their lives that we've just taken away, but hopefully we can give them safe passage somewhere.
The Talking Dog: is there anything else I should have asked you but didn't, or anything else that the public needs to know about these subjects?
Terry Holdbrooks: I have been asked this question before, and I never have an answer! I suppose one can review my Newsweek and Cage Prisoners interviews, and this, and see whatever holes are in the puzzle. I hope, as this recounting experience and others develop, to be able to put together a book on these experiences, both what transpired at GTMO and what transpired from 2004, 2005 through now, as, hopefully, something of value for others, both as to what happened, and why I haven't been able to put it together until now.
The Talking DogI join all my readers in thanking Mr. Holdbrooks for that fascinating interview.
Readers interested in legal issues and related matters associated with the "war on terror" may also find talking dog blog interviews with former Guantanamo military commissions prosecutor Darrel Vandeveld, with attorneys Buz Eisenberg, Steven Wax, Wells Dixon, Rebecca Dick, Wesley Powell, Martha Rayner, Angela Campbell, Stephen Truitt and Charles Carpenter, Gaillard Hunt, Robert Rachlin, Tina Foster, Brent Mickum, Marc Falkoff H. Candace Gorman, Eric Freedman, Michael Ratner, Thomas Wilner, Jonathan Hafetz, Joshua Denbeaux, Rick Wilson,
Neal Katyal, Joshua Colangelo Bryan, Baher Azmy, and Joshua Dratel (representing Guantanamo detainees and others held in "the war on terror"), with attorneys Donna Newman and Andrew Patel (representing "unlawful combatant" Jose Padilila), with Dr. David Nicholl, who spearheaded an effort among international physicians protesting force-feeding of detainees at Guantanamo Bay, with physician and bioethicist Dr. Steven Miles on medical complicity in torture, with law professor and former Clinton Administration Ambassador-at-large for war crimes matters David Scheffer, with former Guantanamo detainees Moazzam Begg and Shafiq Rasul , with former Guantanamo Bay Chaplain James Yee, with former Guantanamo Army Arabic linguist Erik Saar, with law professor and former Army J.A.G. officer Jeffrey Addicott, with law professor and Coast Guard officer Glenn Sulmasy, with author and geographer Trevor Paglen and with author and journalist Stephen Grey on the subject of the CIA's extraordinary rendition program, with journalist and author David Rose on Guantanamo, with journalist Michael Otterman on the subject of American torture and related issues, with author and historian Andy Worthington detailing the capture and provenance of all of the Guantanamo detainees, with Joanne Mariner of Human Rights Watch, and with Almerindo Ojeda of the Guantanamo Testimonials Project to be of interest.
Guantanamo detainee Ghassan Abdullah al-Sharbi successfully moved to dismiss his own habeas corpus proceeding, on the ground that he did not want to participate in the process that he believed is entirely a sham. My interview with his now former attorney Robert Rachlin is here. BTW... given the astounding results to date... after over seven years, exactly three detainees have been released pursuant to habeas corpus order (while around two dozen more have been ordered released at one time or another, but are still at GTMO... with still over 200 in the hopper...), Mr. Al-Sharbi may have a point.
Al-Sharbi, one of the handful of men actually charged by the military commissions (in his case, with the nonexistent war crime of "conspiracy to commit war crimes") has steadfastly intended to refuse all counsel from the get-go, as Mr. Rachlin told us in his interview. Evidently, the district court in Washington accepted that, notwithstanding the harsh conditions of his confinement and possible abuse, that al-Sharbi could, nonetheless, freely refuse counsel, and refuse to participate in his case, despite the potential that such action was not fully "voluntary".
And just as I observed that it seemed off for the 9-11 conspirators to be permitted to confer with each other, alone, without counsel, when other [per se "less guilty" and certainly less dangerous] detainees have to exist in perpetual isolation, and indeed, with their attorneys only one at a time (and chained to the floor at that), I am bemused by the use of closed circuit video feed from Guantanamo in federal court. This is an extremely unusual circumstance; usually attorneys must mail their papers to a secure facility in Virginia from Guantanamo, and then relay things to the Court, all of which usually entail tremendous delays, typically of at least weeks, between a detainee telling his lawyer something and the lawyer conveying that to the court.
This use of video feed, representing actually hearing directly from a detainee, has not, as far as I know, been made available for, say, detainees who might be arguing about their medical care or other confinement issues or perhaps, to give evidence in support of their own claims of reasons why they are being held unlawfully. Instead, it is used, to my knowledge for the first time, but likely for one of the first times, so a detainee can dismiss his case.
Sadly, this seems to be part of a new Government tactic, as Candace suspects, of using every procedural dodge available to try to dismiss habeas cases.
Just as the Obama Administration has promised "transparency" and its much vaunted public relations promise of "closing Guantanamo" by next January... it instead behaves as if it intends to keep the GTMO mirth and merriment going indefinitely... the same stand as its predecessor. Obviously, at "day 50" of the Obama Administration, it's too early to draw any conclusions of anything... so I'll just remind [my college classmate] President Obama that "hope is not a policy"... "change" had best mean change... Mr. President, while your words are soaring and all... you will ultimately be judged by your actions.
Update (3/11/09): Candace spots something extraordinarily troubling: the Obama Administration may take the same position the Bush Administration did with respect to habeas corpus proceedings... where the government concludes a detainee is improperly held and should not be released, such a finding would purportedly divest courts of jurisdiction to do anything besides make an academic finding... only the mighty
emperor dictator President can decide to actually release a wrongfully detained prisoner. [Judges? JUDGES? We don't need no stinking judges!]
And, as if this were not enough to truly give one pause... could we be seeing the reemergence of the dreaded signing statement?
O.K... five GTMO "high value detainees" including
Ron Jeremy Khalid Sheik Mohammed have long tried to confess their role in planning the September 11th attacks, as they did once again in a joint five-way document submitted to the now halted military commissions supposedly trying them for their terrorist acts. And of course, regular readers know that the horrifically inhumane conditions at GTMO include extreme isolation where, other than the occasional gloved hand of a guard, the prisoners have no human contact at all.
Which is why it seems so curious that the "high value detainees" are permitted to meet among themselves without counsel, to plan their legal stratagems. The premise of the isolation of the others, of course, is that they will somehow conspire to commit horrific acts, either against the guard, or against the United States, as they plan to chew through hydraulic cables to bring airplanes down (which is why we have released over 2/3 of them, and designated another 59 as "no threat," and haven't charged all but around 15 or so).
So you see the problem: here are the purported perpetrators of September 11th itself... who, of course, weren't originally at GTMO at all, but at some CIA torture facilities somewhere, who are there now, who have a history of plotting acts of terrorism, and while we won't let ordinary run of the mill schmucks, many of whom the military itself asserts are innocent, have human contact, the 9-11 perps are allowed to consult with each other?
Something is beyond wrong with this picture. I realize that "the deal" was that these guys would conveniently confess to everything, overlook the simple matter of their years of torture, and preferably go to Allah under conditions of martyrdom at the hands of the Great Satan while George W. Bush was napping... but the whole thing still seems... off.
Kind of like how President Obama allows his economic underlings to pump billions of dollars to financial institutions as counter-parties in credit default swaps honored by the now ostensibly government owned AIG (against the advice of smarter people, who suggest simply winding down the God damned credit default swaps and settling them for cents on the dollar, Goldman Sacks and Deutsche Bank be damned)... and then railing against those same institutions for taking that money and paying it to themselves in bonuses. Like... something seems... off.
The Grey Lady gives us this reminder that the
mafia consigliori lawyers in the Bush Administration who crafted the "legal opinions" nominally permitting other government officials to commit torture and other war crimes... are still out there.
Some, like John Yoo, have tenure at a major university in the San Francisco Bay Area. Others, like Jay Bybee, had good timing, and have lifetime tenure on a federal court, also in the Bay Area. Jim Haynes, it seems, got a job with Chevron. Others, however, such as arch-villain David Addington and arch-stooge Alberto Gonzales... are having trouble finding jobs.
As time goes on, and the full extent of their activity in "government service" is eventually disclosed (and make no mistake, "eventually" is a long time, and it will come out), current job woes may prove to be the least of their problems.
These men and so many others who spat on the oaths they took to uphold and defend the Constitution as officials of the United States Government (as well as similar oaths they took when they became attorneys) in the sole interest of expediently advancing the Bush Administration and its political agenda... may find themselves ultimately brought to account, some day, somehow; maybe not all of them, and maybe not for all of their actions, and maybe not to the degree many of us would like.
But somehow, accountability will occur.
Good news, bad news, from the U.S. Supreme Court in the tortured (pun intended) case of Saleh Al-Marri: the Court declined review of the case as moot, but vacated the loathsome Fourth Circuit case that held, as a matter of law, that the United States is a dictatorship. [You will recall that Al-Marri, a legal resident, has been detained for years in the brig in Charleston in isolation condition without charge as "an enemy combatant".]
What's that TD... an American court held that the US of A is a dictatorship? Well, yes: the Fourth Circuit in Richmond held that there are circumstances under which a President can say
abra cadabra hocus pocus "national security" and flush the entire Bill of Rights down the toilet, and pick up anyone he (always a he is our President) wants and lock him up in a dungeon, forever, without any semblance of due process. If that's not the definition of a dictatorship, kindly tell me what is?
Al-Marri's counsel Jonathan Hafetz (interviewed by me here) said that as disappointing as it was for the Court not to take the case for review, at least the Court vindicated the Constitution by vacating the loathsome 4th Circuit case. The Justice Dept. pretty much said the same thing, and did what the Bush Administration didn't do with Padilla, to wit, it ended the insistence on the government's "right" to lock up the next poor bastard.
For which we are, for the moment anyway, grateful. Baby steps. When the Obama Administration does something to vindicate the Constitution... it will get props from us. Today... at least half props.
We'll start, I suppose, with the shocking (not!) revelation, in response to a lawsuit by the ACLU demanding release of video tapes of torture-filled interrogation of "high value" detainees that the CIA intentionally destroyed 92 of the tapes; two years ago, the CIA told a court it had only destroyed 2 of the tapes.
A federal judge had ordered evidence of interrogations preserved as early as 2005 (discussed in part in our interview with Stephen Truitt and Charles Carpenter, who mention that at least one federal judge, Judge Roberts of the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., issued such an order on behalf of their clients); it is unclear, of course, if contempt will be sought, and it is inconceivable (to me, anyway) that a contempt citation would be issued against the government, although, of course, this kind of conduct is the very definition of contempt of court (for which those responsible should, ordinarily, go to jail and pay a hefty fine. As if.)
The tapes showed "harsh interrogations" (including waterboarding and God knows what else) of crazy-man (literally) Abu Zubayda and wild man Abd al-Nashiri. The ACLU certainly contends the Government is in contempt... well, that and $2 gets one a single ride on the NYC subway these days, I'm afraid.
For added fun, the Justice Department released nine once-super-secret torture memos from its Office of Legal Counsel, in response to ACLU's law suit seeking their release.
Among other things is John Yoo's contention that the 4th Amendment (unlawful search and seizures) doesn't apply if the President invokes the magic words (it only works for a Republican President, btw... Democrats lack the appropriate mojo)... the [Republican] President must click his heels three times and say
abra cadabra open sesame "national security".
And in the ultimate act of disclosure, our friend Andy Worthington treats us to his ultimate list of Guantanamo detainees-- that's every poor bastard publicly known to have ever been hooded and chained in an orange jump suit at America's Favourite Gulag and Beach Resort. Andy calls it "Guantánamo: The Definitive Prisoner List," and presents it in four parts: Part 1 (ISNs 002 to 200); Part 2 (ISNs 201 to 496); Part 3 (ISNs 497 to 732); and Part 4 (ISNs 743 to 10030). Andy tells us:
The list, which is the result of three years’ research and writing about
Guantánamo, provides details of the 533 prisoners who have been
released, and includes, for the first time ever, accurate dates for
their release. It also provides details of the 241 prisoners who are
still held, including the 59 prisoners who have been cleared for
release. Although some stories are still unknown, the stories of nearly 700
prisoners are referenced either by links to Andy’s extensive archive of
articles about Guantánamo, or to the chapters in "The Guantánamo Files"
where they can be found.
“It is my hope that this project will provide an invaluable research
tool for those seeking to understand how it came to pass that the
government of the United States turned its back on domestic and
international law, establishing torture as official US policy, and
holding men without charge or trial neither as prisoners of war,
protected by the Geneva Conventions, nor as criminal suspects to be put
forward for trial in a federal court, but as ‘illegal enemy combatants.’
“I also hope that it provides a compelling explanation of how that same
government, under the leadership of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and
Donald Rumsfeld, established a prison in which the overwhelming majority
of those held -- at least 93 percent of the 779 men and boys imprisoned
in total -- were either completely innocent people, seized as a result
of dubious intelligence or sold for bounty payments, or Taliban foot
soldiers, recruited to fight an inter-Muslim civil war that began long
before the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and that had nothing
to do with al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden or international terrorism.”
[Interested readers should check out Andy's "The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison." You can also check out my interview with Andy.]
This has been... "Adventures in Disclosure".
This blog devotes many of its column inches to discussing the collapse of our nation's moral authority and the ongoing collapse of its adherence to its own laws... we do occasionally take a break to discuss... its economic collapse. And so today...
Joe Nocera gives us this column in the Grey Lady walking us through the AIG fiasco, noting the various ways in which the denizens of world's largest insurance company American International Group, or AIG, gamed the system and gamed its own sterling AAA credit rating via regulatory loopholes and everything else it could think of in order to extort hefty fees of transmitting the world's (yes, the world's) risk associated with decline in American housing values to its own books... or, as Nocera more accurately tells us, to the books of the American taxpayer who would, inevitably, have to protect this "far too big to fail" behemoth.
And here we are: the simple principle of "credit default swaps" and the like is analogous to insurance, in the sense that the purchasing/contracting party expects its counter-party (AIG) to bear the loss under certain contingencies; a normal insurer would set aside appropriate reserves to cover the contingency. AIG... didn't. In fact, it actually increased systemic risk by taking its "premiums" and buying more mortgage-backed-securities, which, if and when real estate prices fell, would create an even bigger problem (which of course, it did).
Regulators were not unaware of all of this, but who's going to shut this down during fat times? And so... and so... Expect the American taxpayer to fork over at least another hundred billion dollars bringing the expected tab to clean up this one company to over a quarter trillion dollars.
Anyway, this is how "bubbles" become so widely destructive; everyone on Earth in some way or another is betting on the same asset price being strong and growing... in this case, American single family homes, especially new constructions in the sunbelt. Yank out that card... and the rest of the house of cards comes down... as explained by Nocera.
There's something about the homo sapien-- wired into our genes, perhaps-- that just encourages us to follow the most aggressie alpha males off of any cliff they want to take us, just so long as they are a little taller than the rest of us, and willing to fling their feces harder and grunt and screech louder. As it was for a disastrous "war on terror," so it has been for a financial system built on under-paying workers in wages but with the promise of compensation through increasing home prices (that they can borrow against!)... through, ultimately, the possible (some would say probable) cause of the ultimate demise of our "civilization": the response to two major imported-oil related shocks in the 1970's by lowering the price of gasoline and inventing the SUV, rather than recognizing the need to avoid creating permanent lifestyle infrastructure based on a commodity that must inevitably be depleted, everything else be damned.
Will any of the present events serve as any kind of a wake-up call to dramatic actions (which will include apparent "standard of living decreases," even if, by restoring meaning to many lives they may increase "happiness")? Ummm... I just can't see it. And there you have it: the thing is, while American International Group may be too big to fail, American civilization... isn't. We have had societal wake-up call after wake-up call (including the one we are in the middle of right now)... and yet, we just don't seem to wake up. We've been inconceivably lucky before... will that lucky streak continue? Quite literally... not how you bet.