In the Penal Colony | The Nation


In the Penal Colony

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Several new books present a wealth of detail about interrogation in Afghanistan and Guantánamo, including firsthand descriptions of protracted hooding, deprivation of sleep and toilet facilities, forced nakedness and recurrent cavity searches, position abuse such as chaining and tying prisoners to chairs or hooks in the floor, and manipulation of lighting, sound, temperature, food and medicine. The Interrogators: Inside the Secret War Against al-Qaeda, by Sergeant First Class Chris Mackey (a pseudonym), written with Los Angeles Times reporter Greg Miller, is an account of interrogation at Kandahar and Bagram during the first year of the GWOT. Mackey describes his training as a military interrogator at Fort Huachuca, the deployment of his reserve unit after 9/11 and how he wrestled with his conscience and his colleagues about how to balance Geneva Convention rules with intense pressure from Washington for actionable intelligence. From his vantage point, this really was a "new kind of war" because military interrogation techniques devised in the cold war had to be rewritten to "break" the prisoners in Afghanistan. Mackey is bluntly critical of certain aspects of the war, acknowledging the difficulties in trying to distinguish members of Al Qaeda and the Taliban from innocents handed to US soldiers for bounty, as well as the risks of relying on privately contracted translators. Yet he seems unaware that threats to turn prisoners over to other countries for torture were not idle; he and his colleagues found this to be a successful "fear up harsh" tactic because it tapped into the anxieties of "conspiracy-obsessed Arabs." Among the prisoners he encountered were three from Britain, nicknamed by guards "the Beatles," whose accounts about how they had landed in Afghanistan and then in US custody he found "outrageous" and "comical."

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Lisa Hajjar
Lisa Hajjar, a professor of sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, is the Edward Said Chair of...

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These so-called Beatles were Asif Iqbal, Shafiq Rasul and Ruhal Ahmed, and their story is movingly told by David Rose in Guantanamo: The War on Human Rights. Mackey is half-right: Their experiences are outrageous. As the three men recounted to Rose, they had gone to Pakistan in September 2001 for Iqbal's arranged marriage and had ventured into Afghanistan in October, naïvely believing they could use their trip money to provide humanitarian aid for a country about to be attacked. When the war started, they were captured by Northern Alliance warlord Rashid Dostum's troops while trying to flee the country and were among the few to survive transport in truck containers to Shebargan prison. In late December 2001 they met ICRC representatives who reported their British identity to guards, at which point they were sent to the US-controlled prison in Kandahar. They were among the first to be sent to Guantánamo in early 2002, where they were interrogated hundreds of times and eventually released and repatriated to Britain in March 2004. Rose's Guantanamo combines a harrowing account of physical and psychological abuse from these and other former prisoners' perspectives with a finely honed analysis of the policies governing the lawless world of "Gitmo." As he explains, the degradation and desperation of prisoners gave rise, inevitably, to attempted suicides; by the end of September 2003, the official tally was thirty-two attempts, at which point they were reclassified as "manipulative self-injurious behavior."

Guantanamo: What the World Should Know, by Michael Ratner and Ellen Ray, also features the Britons. Two of the three are among the prisoners represented by Ratner, a human rights lawyer and president of the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR). Written in the style of an interview, Ratner and Ray's book combines a primer on the history of Guantánamo and the laws of war with an insider's account of the legal battles that led eventually to the Supreme Court. It went to press before the June 2004 decision in the Guantánamo cases, but Ratner predicted correctly that a majority of Justices would not defer to executive power and permit indefinite incommunicado detention of prisoners without rights to a hearing.

The Interrogators and the two Guantanamos confirm the fraudulence of official pronouncements about humane treatment and commitment to the "spirit" of Geneva. They also substantiate revelations throughout 2003 and early 2004 by investigative journalists and human rights organizations that US agents were routinely subjecting prisoners to protracted hooding and isolation, stress positions and sleep deprivation, and more extreme tactics such as "waterboarding" against "high value targets." Before the Abu Ghraib scandal, however, when officials from the Pentagon and the White House were questioned about such tactics at press conferences, they answered in a manner that the sociologist Stanley Cohen characterized as "interpretive denial." Having concluded that these tactics did not constitute "torture" and were therefore not "illegal," they readily acknowledged and justified their use. The rationale for this conclusion lies in the most scandalous of all the torture memos, dated August 1, 2002, to Gonzales from then-Assistant Attorney General Jay Bybee (subsequently appointed as a federal judge to the Ninth Circuit Court). But credit for intellectual authorship goes to Yoo and the OLC.

The background to this memo was a request by the CIA for an opinion on the legality of interrogation tactics already in use against prisoners held in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Hence, the main issue to which the authors devoted themselves was where to draw the line between "torture" and "not torture" in accordance with Title 18 of the US Code Section 2340, which implements the UN Torture Convention (ratified by Congress in 1994). The criminality of torture looms so large in the analysis that the imagined subject is repeatedly referred to as "the defendant."

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