Last week’s long awaited hearings on abuses at Guantanamo proved to be just business as usual.
Field Report, Amy Schiller, Brandeis University, June 15, 2005
Last week’s long-awaited hearings on abuses at Guantanamo proved to be just business as usual.
By Amy Schiller, Brandeis University
“Guantanamo Bay would make a magnificent resort,” exclaimed Jeff Sessions (R-AL) during today’s long-awaited hearings on the treatment of detainees at Guantanamo Bay.
Way to demonstrate our sensitivity as we struggle to regain the world’s trust, Senator! (Perhaps if he plans to flout federal law and take a trip to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, he can remember to bring Tom DeLay back some cigars.)
Given the current news frenzy around the mistreatment of detainees, with reports of disturbing abuses nearly every day, the room was packed, despite the record heat, and an overflow room had to be opened up.
Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA) began by emphasizing the overdue nature of the hearings, saying, "It may be that it’s too hot to handle for Congress, may be that it’s too complex to handle for Congress, or it may be that Congress wants to sit back as we customarily do…But at any rate, Congress hasn’t acted.” So Specter was at least suggesting that Congress might do something.
Despite the seemingly noble intentions of the hearing, however, the answer to Specter’s question seemed to be: not much besides business as usual.
The panel included Rear Admiral James McGarrah, who monitors the "enemy combatant" detention program for the Navy, Air Force Brig. Gen. Thomas Huntington, Deputy Associate Attorney General Michael Wiggins, and Justice Department Inspector General Glenn Fine.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, the ranking Democrat (VT) on the committee, opened with remarks lambasting the current treatment and legal status of detainees: “This administration asked Congress and the American people to trust them to fight terror effectively, to maintain human rights in detaining combatants, to keep America safe…The only thing that is clear now is that that trust may well have been misplaced.” Leahy added that “ Guantanamo is a festering threat to our national security” that has done “immeasurable damage to our reputation as a defender of democracy.”
Sen. Joe Biden (D-DE) drew a distinction between the war on the battlefield and the “war for hearts and minds,” saying, “We need to dry up the recruiting pools. There are 1.2 billion Muslims in the world, and when the world hears about Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, the streets of our allies are filled with tens of thousands of protestors.”
Incidentally, those concerns are shared by several Republicans. Folks like Sen. Mel Martinez (R-FL), normally a right-wing hatchet man, has urged the president to close down Guantanamo. Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-NE) also warned that Guantanamo is ‘going to end in disaster… if we don’t wake up and smell the coffee.”
It looks like the coffee might have to wait. As the proceedings went on, the military officials on the panel performed their duty well, constantly reasserting the legality of the military’s policies, with Brig. Gen. Huntington providing the requisite September 11 reference to remind everyone that " America is at war. It is not a metaphorical war. It is as tangible as the blood, the rubble that littered the streets of Manhattan.” However, there were some glaring discrepancies in the military’s defense of the tribunal system used at Gitmo, called CSRT, Combat Status Review Tribunal. According to both the admiral and the brigadier general, the CSRT process provides a “rigorous and fair” determination of a potential combatant’s threat level and allows for a “full and fair” trial.
However, according to a memo authored by Ken Gude, Associate Director of the International Rights and Responsibilities Program at the Center for American Progress, Article 5 hearings are a much more effective, swift and accurate method and have precedence over the CSRT. “Article 5 of the Geneva Conventions stipulate that if there is a question about the status of a detainee in wartime he should be treated as a prisoner of war,” Gude writes. “President Bush has declared that the Geneva Conventions do not apply to Taliban or al Qaeda detainees. The president may have exceeded his authority by making such a blanket determination.” Already, a federal judge has ruled that the President’s decision violate the Geneva Convention and halted the prosecution. As Gude notes, “the Bush Administration has attempted to create a new system when a well-established and respected system already existed.”
Inspector General Fine was the only panel member to provide documented examples of mistreatment, which happened to take place at, um, well, the Brooklyn Detention Center. Such problems included a lack of timely notification of charges against the detainees, a three-week long communications blackout that thwarted access to counsel and family members, and physical and verbal abuse. While these charges were, perhaps, representative of similar problems in Guantanamo, many in the audience were left wondering why a similarly thorough documentation was not available for the actual base in question at the hearings.
Some of the committee members’ questions felt like President Bush’s Social Security “town halls,” since they only served to bolster claims of the legitimacy and necessity of Guantanamo Bay instead of truly investigating the issue at hand. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) expressed his support for Guantanamo’s operations, saying, “I think physical and psychological stress are absolutely justifiable methods of interrogation…we just don’t have enough Congressional buy-in.” After dropping that, he smoothly segued into his question: “Do you [panel members] feel that greater Congressional support would help you gather information at Gitmo more effectively?” The unintentional humor came in the detached indifference that the military officers displayed while responding to the Senator’s eager encouragement, as if to say “how thoughtful of you to offer – but frankly, we’re just going to do what we do regardless.”
Another softball gem came from Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) who asked, “please tell us how Guantanamo had made us safer, has helped the war on terror, and saved American lives?” Great question, assuming that we are all copasetic on the issue of whether Guantanamohas actually made us safer. According to Gude, “Any examination of the sum total of the activities at the detention center at Guantanamo Bay leads to the conclusion that it is making that task [of safety] more difficult.” Many committee Democrats shared that opinion, particular regarding the public perception of America in the War on Terror.
However, the panel seemed to clam up when the tough questions started flying, including such zingers as Leahy asking, “How many people are actually detained at Guantanamo?” Leahy’s attempts at getting an exact figure were thwarted. Brig. Gen. Huntington responded, “that’s outside the scope of my responsibility,” helpfully suggesting, “why don’t you ask the [notoriously secretive] Secretary of Defense?” Similarly, when Leahy asked Huntington if there were any detainees from countries other than Afghanistan, he received the same dead-end response. Which explains why the audience was rather surprised when he quickly summoned up that very precise information while answering a question about possibly deporting detainees to Afghanistan to be tried there since it is a U.S. ally, responding, “We have 47 countries represented at Guantanamo Bay….” Well, glad we cleared that up.
Feeling that the panel was not bound to be productive in terms of reshaping behaviors at Guantanamo, Sen. Kennedy (D-MA) chose to read a statement of his position rather than ask questions. Guantanamo, he commented, has “thrown our moral authority into free fall,” and has become “a symbol of American hypocrisy,” therefore rendering Guantanamo’s closing a necessity.
While there was more testimony to come, it was Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s (D-CA) attitude that was most representative of the feeling in this hearing: incredulous resignation. She postponed her questioning of the panel after Brig. Gen. Huntington challenged her use of the word “isolation” in describing the condition of a detainee from the testimony of Lt. Commander James Swift. Given the stone-faced adherence to the administration’s party line by the panelists and the lack of substantive presentation of opposing evidence, it seemed to many that even committee members who were willing to probe deeply would be met with resistance.
While the Guantanamo hearings today probably won’t result in any real change anytime soon, the Center’s Ken Gude offered up a few suggestions in his memo on Guantanamo that was distributed at the hearing today. His suggestions include dismantling the prison at Guantanamo and shifting operations to Fort Leavenworth, transferring detainees of low security risk and low intelligence value to their home countries, abandoning failed interrogation policies and prosecuting the remaining detainees in standardized general court-martial proceedings.