Bruce Shapiro, a contributing editor to The Nation, is executive director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, a global resource center and think tank for journalists covering violence, conflict and tragedy.
He has been described as one of the most “sharp and thoughtful” (Washington Post), “perceptive” (Slate) and “nuanced” (Village Voice) analysts on the contemporary American scene.
Shapiro began his career on the fertile journalistic and political terrain of Chicago in the 1970s, where he was a founding editor of the radical magazine Haymarket. He was later co-founder and editor of the New Haven Independent, a weekly newspaper devoted to innovative grassroots muckraking. From 1991-1995 Shapiro was director of The Nation Institute’s Supreme Court Watch, a civil liberties watchdog.
Shapiro has written extensively on civil liberties and human rights. For The Nation, Shapiro has reported since 1981 on subjects ranging from the psychopolitics of cults to the privatization of public schools, and dissected national events from the nomination of Clarence Thomas to Bush Administration war crimes.
Shapiro is co-author of Legal Lynching: The Death Penalty and America’s Future, with Rev. Jesse Jackson and Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (New Press), praised by Washington Post Book World for “intellectual clarity” which “might convince even the strongest supporters that the machinery of death has run its course.” His most recent book is Shaking the Foundations: 200 Years of Investigative Journalism in America (Nation Books), called “vibrant and pertinent” by Columbia Journalism Review.
Since 1994 Shapiro has taught investigative journalism at Yale University. He contributes a weekly report on American politics and culture to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Late Night Live.
It's safe to assume that the 150 or so Al Qaeda and Taliban militiamen now occupying those 6-by-8-foot cages in Guantánamo Bay are not sympathetic characters. It's also reasonable, and important, to say that they are in less danger to life and limb than their comrades handed over by the United States to the Northern Alliance. While the Western press has focused almost exclusively on Camp X-Ray, Amnesty International reported on February 1 that "the lives of thousands of prisoners in Afghanistan are at risk" from hunger and "rampant" dysentery, pneumonia and hepatitis, in overcrowded prison camps where inmates suffer shortages of food and medical supplies and "are not sheltered from severe winter conditions."
The fact that Camp X-Ray comes out ahead of the dreadful prevailing POW standard in postwar Afghanistan does the United States no credit. The image of prisoners shipped hooded, shackled and sedated to an unknown location was a foreign-policy disaster: in Europe, the Mideast and Asia alike, conjuring raw memories of the most vicious hostage-takings. Defense Secretary Rumsfeld's insistence that X-Ray's prisoners fall outside the protections of the Geneva Conventions and the US Constitution only furthered the impression of an Administration descending to the brutal law-enforcement benchmark of an authoritarian regime like Saudi Arabia. (Evidently the Administration just wants its guests to feel at home: Saudis count for at least 100 of the Guantánamo prisoners.) The White House's February 7 turnabout, declaring that Geneva Convention rules apply to Taliban captives but not Al Qaeda, amounts to a fig leaf satisfying neither the specific requirements of the accords nor the broader sense of alarm worldwide.
In part the shock expressed by US allies at the method of transport and incarceration at Guantánamo shows the huge gap between Europe and the United States on prisons and punishment. Western European prisons, for the most part, come nowhere near the degrading and isolating inmate-control regimens in many US facilities. Camp X-Ray is a close cousin to supermax penitentiaries with their psychically debilitating twenty-three-hour-a-day solitary confinement and twenty-four-hour cell lighting.
But comparing X-Ray to conventional prisons, and Afghanistan militia to conventional prisoners, only forces the questions Rumsfeld and the White House have tried so hard to obfuscate: Are the prisoners POWs or criminals? Just what rights should these international brigades of clerical fascism retain, as the losing side in a war backed by the United States but fought largely by proxy forces? Rumsfeld and the White House insist that neither Taliban nor Al Qaeda are prisoners of war but instead "unlawful combatants," suggesting that they don't deserve the numerous protections afforded POWs, most famously the right to respond to questions with name, rank and serial number but also including rights to representation, repatriation and due process. The Administration is now willing to admit that Taliban militia, as the former army of Afghanistan, are at least covered by the accords' broader humanitarian provisions; but the majority of Guantánamo prisoners--those Al Qaeda "Arab Afghans" who fought as allies of the Taliban regime--the White House still casts completely outside the protection of the Geneva Conventions.
A press outspun by Rumsfeld's daily patter has missed the simple fact that, as law, this argument has more holes than a Tora Bora cave after US bombardment. "Unlawful combatants" is a phrase found nowhere in the Geneva accords. Here is how Human Rights Watch summarizes it: "Under international humanitarian law, combatants captured during an international armed conflict should be presumed to be POWs until determined otherwise." Only a court or other "competent tribunal"--not the Defense Secretary or the President--can make that determination. In fact, the Pentagon's own Judge Advocate General Handbook declares that "when doubt exists" about a prisoner's status, "tribunals must be convened"--as they were for Iraqi prisoners in the Gulf War.
The United States has good reason to care about these procedures. During the Vietnam War, Hanoi declared captured US fliers "unlawful combatants." It was Washington that insisted otherwise; in 1977 the United States made sure that the Geneva protocols were revised to insure that anyone captured in war is protected by the treaty whether civilian, military or in between, whether or not they technically meet the POW definition. Simply put, when President Bush unilaterally declares the majority of its prisoners outside the penumbra of the Geneva convention, he is still flouting both international law and international sensibility.
The trouble with placing Guantánamo's prisoners in a legal no man's land doesn't end there. If captured militia are not POWs then they can continue to be held only if they're individually charged with war crimes or other specific offenses. If that should happen to the Guantánamo prisoners, they're entitled to a "fair and regular trial" (a standard that almost certainly cannot be met by the drumhead courts authorized by Bush).
Bush's latest policy turn amounts to internment without trial for alleged Al Qaeda. It's entirely appropriate to want to question the Al Qaeda mafia's foot soldiers, and there are plenty of legitimate claims on the prosecution of Al Qaeda, from citizens in Kabul and New York and points between. But the way to go about both is through existing criminal and international laws--an approach that gets results, as the victims of Gen. Augusto Pinochet proved in courts on two continents. The Rumsfeld-Bush strategy, on the other hand, undermines the idea of cooperative transnational prosecution and representation of victims, replacing evolving international law with an autocratic extension of this Administration's foreign-policy unilateralism: If we can live without the ABM treaty, why not pitch those troublesome Geneva accords over the side as well?
In the Administration only Colin Powell understands how profoundly this shortsighted approach runs counter to the national interest. Powell is no friend of human rights. But he pushed so hard--winning the compromise of Geneva Convention recongition for Taliban prisoners--because as a former military man he knows that the United States, the world's number-one projector of force, has its own reasons to seek universal respect for the Geneva Conventions--conventions we instantly invoked when American pilots were shot down in the Persian Gulf, and again in the Balkans. Powell knows, too, that the whole logic of the Geneva accords--those special POW protections--is to entice losing combatants into pragmatic and dignified surrender. By making a transnational mockery of the Geneva protocols, Rumsfeld and Bush are inviting future enemies to conclude that suicidal escalation, rather than surrender, is the only sensible closing chapter of their jihad.
Rumsfeld is hell-bent on turning the prisoners of Camp X-Ray into legal nonpersons--essentially stateless, without the safe harbor of either international law or the US Constitution, granted status and rights only at the whim of the Defense Secretary. That may seem to serve the short-term goals of Al Qaeda interrogation, but the picture it presents to the world--a superpower playing semantic games with the most basic wartime covenants, setting back the evolving machinery for transnational justice--will generate its own unhappy blowback.
Viewers of the old spy spoof Get Smart will remember the Cone of Silence--that giant plastic hair-salon dryer that descended over Maxwell Smart and Control when they held a sensitive conversation. Today, a Cone of Silence has descended over all of Washington: From four-star generals to lowly webmasters, the town is in information lockdown. Never in the nation's history has the flow of information from government to press and public been shut off so comprehensively and quickly as in the weeks following September 11. Much of the shutdown seems to have little to do with preventing future terrorism and everything to do with the Administration's laying down a new across-the-board standard for centralized control of the public's right to know.
The most alarming evidence of the new climate emanates from the Justice Department. Investigators still hold in custody 150 of the 800 people rounded up in the aftermath of the attacks. (One detainee died in custody in New Jersey.) No charges have been filed, no hearings convened. The names of nearly all those still held remain classified, as do the reasons for their incarceration. Lawyers for some of the hundreds cleared and released have told reporters of questionable treatment of their clients--food withheld, attorneys blocked from access. Of the 150 who remain detained, only four presumed Al Qaeda suspects have been publicly named. FBI agents frustrated at the lack of progress in their interrogations of those four now mutter in the Washington Post about using sodium pentothal, or turning the suspects over to a country where beatings or other torture is used. The government's stranglehold on information about other arrests makes it impossible to know just how far agents have already gone down that road, or whether the dragnet was mainly a public-relations exercise.
Just as damaging as these detentions is an October 12 memo from Attorney General John Ashcroft reversing longstanding Freedom of Information Act policies. In 1993 then-Attorney General Janet Reno directed agencies to disclose any government information upon request unless it was "reasonably foreseeable that disclosure would be harmful." Ashcroft reverses this presumption, instead calling on agencies to withhold information whenever the law permits: "You can be assured that the Department of Justice will defend your decisions," he writes. Ashcroft is in effect creating a "born secret" standard; in the words of the Federation of American Scientists, the order "appears to exploit the current circumstances" to turn FOIA into an Official Secrets Act.
One after another, federal agencies are removing public data from their websites or restricting access to their public reading rooms. Caution is understandable, but OMB Watch and Investigative Reporters and Editors have both documented egregious examples that seem at best tangentially related to terrorism and more likely designed as butt-coverage for mid-level bureaucrats. The Energy Department has removed information from its web-posted Occurrence Reporting Program, which provides news of events that could adversely affect public health or worker safety. The EPA removed information from its site about the dangers of chemical accidents and how to prevent them, information the FBI says carries no threat of terrorism. More relevant than Al Qaeda, it appears, was hard lobbying by the chemical industry, which found the site an annoyance. The FAA pulled the plug on long-available lists of its security sanctions against airports around the country--depriving reporters of their only tool for evaluating the agency's considerable failures to enforce its own public safety findings. At the Pentagon, news has been reduced to a trickle far more constricted than anything during Kosovo, which in turn was more restrictive than during the Gulf War. So comprehensive is the shutdown that on October 13, presidents of twenty major journalists' organizations declared in a joint statement that "these restrictions pose dangers to American democracy and prevent American citizens from obtaining the information they need."
In the short run, the Cone of Silence did most damage at the Centers for Disease Control. Could the two (at this writing) Washington, DC, postal workers who died of inhalation anthrax have been protected by earlier treatment? Did any of the CDC's doctors or scientists recommend a course of antibiotics for postal workers along the trajectory of anthrax-laden letters? Who knows? With the CDC's staff muzzled, the public and postal workers alike were left with politicians as the conduits for contradictory and inadequate information about the risk.
The uncertain dimensions of the Al Qaeda threat make equally uncertain which information the government publishes might contribute to another attack and what to do about it. But it should be noted that the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks apparently involved data no more confidential than an airline schedule. The Administration's response has been to treat all information and press access as suspect--an approach that will subvert public confidence and undercut legitimate media scrutiny more than it will damage Al Qaeda. During Vietnam, the famous credibility gap resided at the Pentagon, with briefings and Congressional testimony at odds with battlefield evidence. Just weeks into this war, the Bush Administration is risking a new credibility gap roughly the size of the District of Columbia.