The Deepening Shame of Guantanamo

Exclusive: For more than a decade, the Guantanamo Bay prison has been a blot on America’s conscience. President Obama vowed to close it but acceded to congressional demands to keep it open. Now, an emerging humanitarian crisis a mass hunger strike is drawing only scant attention, says ex-CIA analyst Ray McGovern.

By Ray McGovern

There have been nine congressional hearings on the Benghazi controversy with more to come but almost no one in Congress dares put the spotlight on the unfolding scandal surrounding the Guantanamo Bay prison where most of the remaining 166 inmates have opted to “escape” from indefinite detention via the only way open to them starving themselves to death.

One exception to the congressional cowardice is Rep. Jim Moran, D-Virginia, who sponsored a highly instructive panel discussion on the prison at Guantanamo last Friday. Why simply a “briefing,” rather than a formal House hearing? Simple. Not one of the majority Republicans who currently chair committees in the House and have the power to call hearings wants Americans to hear the details of this blight on the nation’s conscience.

Rep. Jim Moran, D-Virginia, who held a public briefing on the Guantanamo crisis. (Official Congressional Portrait)

To be completely fair, the reigning reluctance seems, actually, to be a bipartisan affair. Moran is one of the few Democrats possessed of a conscience and enough moral courage to let the American people know what is being done in their name. For other lawmakers, it is a mite too risky.

Folksy folks like Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, a member of the Armed Services Committee which is supposed to exercise oversight of the lethal operations carried out by the Joint Special Operations Command, make no bones about the dilemma they prefer to duck when it comes to letting detainees die at Guantanamo or letting the president blow up suspected terrorists via drone strikes.

Here’s Graham quoted in Esquire magazine last summer on why Congress has engaged in so little oversight of the lethal drone program: “Who wants to be the congressman or senator holding the hearing as to whether the president should be aggressively going after terrorists? Nobody. And that’s why Congress has been AWOL in this whole area.” The same thinking applies to showing any mercy for the people held at Guantanamo.

It seems to me that Guantanamo is a three-fold scandal: (1) the abomination of the cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment given those prisoners; (2) the reality that most of those remaining were cleared for release more than three years ago; and (3) the fact that Moran’s was the very first congressionally sponsored public “briefing” of its kind more than 11 years late.

While there has been endless attention paid to how the Benghazi talking points were drafted for use on Sunday talk shows last September, the American people have been spared high-profile testimony about how 86 of the remaining 166 prisoners at Guantanamo were cleared for release more than three years ago following a year-long investigation of their cases by an interagency task force of officials at the Departments of Justice, Defense, State, and Homeland Security.

How might Americans feel if they knew that most of these 86 are now on a prolonged hunger strike and that many are being force-fed against their will, a notoriously painful, degrading and even illegal practice. Two weeks ago, 40 additional military medical personnel were sent to Guantanamo to assist with the force-feedings.

The American Medical Association has condemned such force-feedings as a violation of “core ethical values of the medical profession.” The United Nations has condemned the practice as torture and a breach of international law.

Concerned Citizens

Friday’s unusual “briefing” sprang from an initiative by a group of concerned citizens mostly from Moran’s district in northern Virginia. On April 30, Kristine Huskey led a small group of us to meet with Moran, one of the very few members of Congress to speak out against the obscenity called Guantanamo. We put our shoulders to the wheel (and enlisted the willing shoulders of many other pro-justice people) and brought about the briefing in nine days.

C-Span filmed the entire hour and a half. You will not be at all bored if you tune in. And that goes in spades if the disinterest by the corporate media has left you wondering how it came about that America is fast losing its soul. You can find the video under the title, “Panel Holds Discussion on Guantanamo Detainees,” May 10, 10:00-11:30 in Rayburn B-354. Participants included:

Pardiss Kebriaei, Esq. (Center for Constitutional Rights; attorney for several Guantanamo prisoners)

David Irvine, Esq. (Brig. Gen., USA ret., & Member, Constitution Project Task Force on Detainee Treatment)

Larry Wilkerson (Col., USA ret., & former State Department Chief of Staff)

Dr. George Hunsinger, (Professor, Princeton Theological Seminary, & founder, National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT);

Moderator Kristine Huskey, Esq., counsel on Rasul v Bush (2004) and Boumediene v Bush (2008): Adjunct Professor, Georgetown U. Law Center.

Toward the end of the Q & A (at 1:29:50), I asked why Bush administration lawyers such as Alberto Gonzales and David Addington have not been held accountable by the legal profession. Official documents released by the Bush administration show them to have been responsible for advising President George W. Bush to disregard international law, including the key Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions.

It occurred to me that three of the four panelists, plus Rep. Moran, moderator Huskey and former chief prosecutor at Guantanamo, Col. Morris Davis, USAF (ret.), who joined the panel when Moran had to leave after the first hour, are lawyers. The response I got was: “I’m not sure there’s an answer to that.”

In fairness, I need to point out that the panel had been under way for almost an hour and a half, and my question had already been described as “the last one.” Still, I was left wondering: can it be true that there is no answer to that?

I thought of the many lawyers in my immediate family and especially of my father, Joseph W. McGovern, a long-time professor of law at Fordham University who loved the law as if the law itself were a member of our family. Dad also served for 14 years on the New York State Board of Regents including six years as Chancellor (1968-75), whose broad mandate included holding accountable professionals licensed to practice in the State of New York. I could sense him rolling over in his grave at the proposition that there is no answer to the question of holding the likes of Gonzales and Addington accountable.

Dad took particular pride in the principled way in which U.S. Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson prosecuted Nazi leaders after World War II at the Nuremberg Tribunals. Jackson said this about the purpose of Nuremberg: “We must make clear to the Germans that the wrong for which their fallen leaders are on trial is not that they lost the war, but that they started it.”

The intent was to establish a precedent against aggressive war like, say, Iraq, just 57 years later. Jackson said: “Let me make clear that while this law is first applied against German aggressors, the law includes, and if it is to serve a useful purpose, it must condemn aggression by any other nations, including those which sit here now in judgment. …

“We are able to do away with domestic tyranny and violence and aggression by those in power against the rights of their own people only when we make all men answerable to the law. This trial represents mankind’s desperate effort to apply the discipline of the law to statesmen who have used their powers of state to attack the foundations of the world’s peace and to commit aggression against the rights of their neighbors.”

Including Lawyers?

On April 24, 1946, Nazi defendant Wilhelm Frick, for example, told the Tribunal, “I wanted things done legally. After all, I am a lawyer.” Of course, not all laws are good things.

Frick drafted, signed and administered laws that suppressed trade unions and persecuted Jews (including the infamous Nuremberg Laws). He insisted he had drafted the Nuremberg Laws for “scientific reasons,” to protect the purity of German blood. Frick also knew that the insane, aged and disabled (“useless eaters”) were being systematically killed, but did nothing to stop it.

Frick was one of 11 defendants sentenced to death by the Nuremberg Tribunal. He was hanged on Oct. 16, 1946.

Lest I be misunderstood, I do not advocate capital punishment even for the likes of Gonzales and Addington. I simply want them held accountable, as their faux-lawyer Nazi counterparts were. Otherwise, we have made a liar out of Justice Jackson and made a mockery of the Nuremberg principles, which will be revealed as just another case of “victor’s justice” despite Jackson’s promises to the contrary.

I haven’t a clue as to how the legal profession tries to hold lawyers accountable. But here I was among a group of fine lawyers: Pardiss Kebriaei, David Irvine, Kristine Huskey, Moe Davis and Jim Moran. Had they no idea either? Or were we just out of time.

Indeed, we as Americans may be running out of time in a moral sense and running out of time to spare innocent Guantanamo detainees from death. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. warned many years ago, “There is such a thing as too late.”

Ringing in my ears was George W. Bush’s response to a question by NBC’s Matt Lauer on Nov. 8, 2010:

Lauer: Why is waterboarding legal, in your opinion?

Bush: Because the lawyer said it was legal. He said it did not fall within the anti-torture act. I’m not a lawyer. But you gotta trust the judgment of the people around you, and I do.

Are American lawyers going to let that kind of thing stand?

Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, a publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington. He was an Army infantry/intelligence officer and a CIA analyst for 30 years, and now serves on the Steering Group of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS).

3 comments for “The Deepening Shame of Guantanamo

  1. Michael Taylor
    May 15, 2013 at 18:43

    I have also struggled with many of the same questions raised by Mr. McGovern. There is accountability under state licensing boards. Is the fear of attempting to prosecute these individuals due to fear of retribution or an ethical lapse in governance of the legal profession? The failure to question abuses of the law risks weakening respect for (indeed making a mockery of) the advancements most believed were made following the WW2. Reading accounts of the Nuremberg Trials should be deeply embarrassing to the previous and present administations.

  2. F. G. Sanford
    May 13, 2013 at 23:56

    Americans are largely delusional when it comes to their own contribution to injustice, whether it is conducted at home or abroad. The “Law and Order” mantra that helped sweep Reagan into office had its phylogenetic roots in George Wallace’s campaign strategies, but Reagan’s handlers succeeded in making the concept palatable to voters by disguising the notion that it would be applied almost exclusively to people of color. Now, we have an American Gulag which is the world’s largest industrialized prison system. Minority inmates are most definitely over-represented. It may come as a shock to most Americans, but “force feeding” of prisoners is routinely conducted inside the U.S.A. It is only illegal in three states.

    Of course, Lindsey would resort to the dodge that nobody wants to convene the hearing perceived to embrace a “soft on terror” policy. He routinely champions any policy that might be regarded as “manly”. I suppose that strapping a helpless victim into a chair with his head immobilized, shoving a tube into his nose, using a wedge to open the teeth and then inserting a forceps to guide the tube into the esophagus might fall anti the category of a “masculine” endeavor for such a politician. That would perhaps “harden” his appeal to his constituents.

    We’ve been barraged lately with “good” reasons to intervene in more wars to fight “terrorism” on humanitarian grounds. The R2P crowd has made lots of hay over the “responsibility to protect” initiatives that would get us into a war in Syria. They remind us that 70,000 civilians have already died. Does anybody remember Niger, the country that figured prominently in the Valery Plame scandal? Recent headlines indicate that 800,000 people in that country now face starvation due to food shortages. I suppose the same Republicans that engineered the Plame fraud would say, “Let them eat yellow cake”. Where is the “responsibility to protect” now?

    Sometimes, you just have to laugh to keep your sanity. For example, what’s the difference between a bottom dwelling filter feeder and a lawyer? Well, the one is a slime dwelling scum sucker, and the other is a fish. I don’t suspect that the legal profession is likely to offer much moral guidance on any of these issues. There’s no money in morality. And white collar criminals, no matter how scandalous their transgressions, almost never go to jail. At least…not since Nuremberg. But sooner or later, one of those prisoners may develop aspiration pneumonia. Or, even more horrible, every medical student has probably seen that notorious x-ray. It’s the aftermath of an NG tube insertion performed by an incompetent technician. The tube penetrated the paper-thin ethmoid bones in the nasal cavity and found its way into the cranium. The x-ray clearly shows the tube coiled inside the brain case. Now THAT is a lawyer’s delight: prima facie evidence of malpractice, and I’m sure the settlement was huge.

    • gregorylkruse
      May 14, 2013 at 08:57

      I’m sure the thought of inserting a tube into someone’s mouth, (or his own) would “harden” Senator Graham considerably.

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