In the wake of September eleventh, the US-led "War on Terror" began with nearly the entire world sympathetic to America's cause and condemning al-Qaeda. It did not take long for the Bush administration's ham-fisted response to reverse much of the world's feelings in the matter. Among the most influential of the policy disasters that won the sympathies of so many for al-Qaeda was the detention facility at Guantánamo Bay. In The Least Worst Place, Karen J. Greenberg, director of NYU's Center on Law and Security, takes a close-up look at the first hundred days (from December 2001 through March 2002) in the life of Camp X-Ray, the initial detention facility for prisoners from the invasion of Afghanistan. She examines the persons and pressures that shaped Camp X-Ray into a world-wide embarrassment for the US
The US has maintained a naval base (designated GTMO or "Gitmo") on Cuba's Guantanamo Bay since 1903 when it was one of the "spoils of war" acquired as a result of the Spanish-American War. Gitmo had previously served as a prison camp for Haitian refugees from the 1970's until it was declared unconstitutional in 1993.
Following the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 the Defense Department again turned to Gitmo as a secure site outside the continental US for a prison camp. The special attraction of Gitmo over established facilities in the US lay in a bizarre interpretation of law that held that as long as the prisoners were held outside the US, their confinement was not subject to US laws. Camp X-Ray at Guantánamo was quickly established as a temporary facility until construction of the more permanent Camp Delta was completed.
The Bush administration asserted – falsely as the courts agreed and as a plain reading of the Geneva Conventions would have shown – that the detainees were "unlawful combatants" and thus not covered by the Geneva Convention. Here there was no standard for how they were to be treated while in detention. The marines charged with guarding them at Camp X-Ray and the American public were told that the detainees were "the worst of the worst" – hardened al-Qaeda and Taliban zealots.
When the first detainees arrived from Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan, they did not live up to the Marine's expectations. Instead of hardened, fanatical fighting men, most of the detainees seemed to be malnourished and rather passive, with a number being elderly and some others being children. Even their language was, in most cases, not the Arabic the guards were expecting, but Persian and Pashto, the national languages of Afghanistan. The circumstances of their capture were unknown to anyone, their personal effects had been combined together and could not be matched to their owner, and the Pentagon refused to support any measures that would pin down their legal status as combatants or civilians.
The Marine staff, officially known as Joint Task Force 160 (JTF-160), under the command of Marine Brigadier General Michael Lehnert, thought to create a detention facility that would comply with the Geneva Conventions and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Initially left on their own, Gen. Lehnert and his staff struggled to strike a balance between confinement and humane treatment of their prisoners. After the first few months, however, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld began to take a direct interest in the operations of Camp X-Ray and in its ability to validate his version of reality in the "War on Terror".
In February, 2002, Rumsfeld created a second, parallel command under reservist Major General Michael Dunlavey, that was designated JTF-170. This parallel command was apparently established as an alternative to trying to give the professional military of JTF-160 orders to perform interrogations that violated the Geneva Convention. Rather than work through the unit in charge of detention, they chose to work around it. Eighteen months later a similar parallel organization structure was established at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, where it also contributed to a breakdown of administration and a pattern of human rights violations. The two commands pursued side by side at Gitmo until they were merged into a single Joint Task Force GTMO under General Geoffrey Miller in November of 2002. It is the ironic that the same Gen. Miller was later sent to Abu Ghraib to unify the parallel commands there.
While Gen. Dunlavey and his JTF-170, like Gen. Lehnert and JTF-160, nominally reported to the US Southern Command, he also had a direct channel to Secretary Rumsfeld. As Greenberg points out, Gen. Dunlavey was in a position to pick and choose which information to convey to each line of authority. There was a continuing clash between the two units and the opposed priorities of their commanders, but Gen. Dunlavey held the higher rank and had greater ties to Washington, so his priorities and policies prevailed.
When he first arrived at Guantanamo, even before the detainees were enroute, Gen. Lehnert requested the presence at Camp X-Ray of representatives from the Red Cross. While the presence of Red Cross observers at any such facility is normal military practice, in this case his request was denied by the Pentagon. Meanwhile, at US Southern Command there was a broad agreement that a Red Cross presence was necessary. Finally, one of the military lawyers at Southern Command frustrated by the Pentagon's refusal to comply with international law called the Red Cross in Geneva and invited them to send observers to Guantánamo. Secretary Rumsfeld and the Joint Chiefs were not pleased by this action and let the lawyer know it. While they would later claim to have invited the Red Cross is, they actually thought to delay or divert the Red Cross inspection when they were faced with its imminent.
While Greenberg more than exceptionally documents the ongoing violations of human rights that have occurred at the Gitmo detention facilities, her account is not just an exposé of Guantánamo horrors. The grand theme of this book is the importance of the rule of law, which must never be subordinated to claims of national security, patriotism, or God being on our side. It is her point, that it is dutiful adherence to international law, not personal integrity, that is the foundation and ultimate guarantor of humanitarian policy in world affairs. This is a lesson that not only needs to be well learned by our national leaders, who have all to often failed to Behave decently, but one that every citizen of a democracy needs to learn, because the public has all too often provided eager to support leaders in abandoning the rule of law and democratic values.