I grew up in New London, Connecticut, watching many a military ship float by my window. New London was home to the Coast Guard Academy and sat across the river from a US Navy submarine base. Uniformed guardsmen, sailors in training, and sub crews leaving port would regularly wave to my friends and me from the decks of their ships. It never occurred to me that, 50 years later, such ships would come to my attention again, this time because of the confusing messages they’re sending overseas, a reflection of the conflicting images embedded in Washington’s latest version of diplomacy and foreign policy.
We still want populations around the world to admire, appreciate, and respect this country as a democracy and a powerful protector. Some ships are used to make exactly that point. And yet, in the 21st-century version of war American-style, other ships have become the very image and essence of hardship and harm in ways that violate the most basic tenets of democracy and justice.
This mixed message is anything but new to American foreign policy. In 2003, seven months after the invasion of Iraq, Margaret Tutwiler, incoming undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs, was assigned to deal with the sort of worries then being raised by Senator Richard Lugar (R-IN). He chaired the Foreign Relations Committee and so oversaw Tutwiler’s confirmation hearing, describing himself as “deeply concerned” and “anxious” about the country’s deteriorating image abroad.
“Americans are troubled,” he explained, “by examples of virulent anti-American hatred in the Islamic world and are frustrated by public opinion in allied countries that seems increasingly ready to question American motives or blame American actions for a host of problems.” Tutwiler responded with intrepid optimism. She understood the uphill battle she faced, she assured him, one that required “maintaining and in some respects regaining respect and understanding” for the United States around the globe. And she promised to do what she could “to contribute to the overall effort of trying to prevent any further deterioration in our nation’s image.”
Five months later, Congressman José Serrano (D-NY), a member of the House Appropriations Committee, would suggest just how implausible was Tutwiler’s task of convincing allies and enemies alike of the good intentions of the United States, in Iraq in particular. Though respectful of the idea of public diplomacy, he expressed extreme doubt about the possibility of applying it successfully in that war-torn land then occupied by the US military. As he put it, he was cognizant of just “how difficult it has become for us on the one hand to try to change the image of who we are; and, on the other hand, you know, invade and occupy an Arab country.” Then he added, in a bow of empathy for Tutwiler, “I just wonder how my job would be if I had to tell people that I am a good guy, while, on the other hand, I hit them over the head with a hammer.”
I was at that long-ago hearing and his words punctuated an otherwise boilerplate event, bringing the room to a stunned silence for a moment—even if, soon after, everything went right on as if Serrano had never said a word. Since then, those words of his have come back to haunt me often, as I’ve witnessed the policies and practices deeply embedded in America’s war on terror. In that moment, Serrano highlighted the deep contradiction between Washington’s desire to project a protective, constructive, compassionate image abroad, and the contrasting reality of injustice and aggression which has torn at our standards and tarnished that very image. Recently, as I began to delve into this story of US ships deployed on the high seas, his words resonated one more time in an unexpected fashion.
For a century, the US Navy has used hospital ships to bring medical aid to those in need around the globe. In recent years, there have been two such vessels: the USNS Mercy and the USNS Comfort. The last two are still in operation as floating hospitals, transporting medical aid to communities around the globe. They provided medical assistance to Indonesia in the wake of the tsunami and earthquake in 2004, help to Haiti in the aftermath of its devastating 2010 earthquake, and aid to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria ripped through the island in the fall of 2017.
As 2018 ends, the Comfort is completing a three-month medical assistance program designed to tend to the sick in Ecuador, Peru, Colombia, and Honduras. Deployed as part of US Southern Command’s Enduring Promise Initiative, that ship, according to the Navy, “reflects the United States’ enduring promise of friendship, partnership, and solidarity with the Americas.”
Several years ago, out of curiosity, I asked a Navy friend if I could see the Comfort at a time when it was docked in Baltimore. Granted it didn’t have patients then, but it proved to be a remarkable vessel. A full-scale hospital on the seas, it has 1,000 beds, several operating theaters, labs, radiology equipment, and dental equipment, while carrying a staff of 900. The Comfortis prepared to see up to 1,000 patients a day in distant lands. On December 1st, the head of US Southern Command, Admiral Craig Faller, visited Colombia and met with local officials to underscore the “security partnership” between the two nations at the moment the ship was stationed there.
Unfortunately, this is not the only message that US vessels are sending out these days. In the same hemisphere where the Comfort now sails, there are more than a dozen other ships on a shared mission of quite a different sort. These also fly the US flag, although under the auspices of the Coast Guard, a division of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), rather than the Navy. Approximately 400-foot vessels, they are known as National Security Cutters and have been refashioned not as hospital ships but as prison ships. They, too, are patrolling the southern waters of the Americas. Their mission is the apprehension and detention of drug smugglers, part of a multinational effort to stem the narcotics trade. They detain prisoners of the “drug war” on board, theoretically as a prelude to their future charging and prosecution, usually in the United States.
During the first 20 years of this drug interdiction program, the United States detained around 200 individuals per year on board such ships. Then, in 2012, Washington escalated its efforts by launching a Coast Guard-led multinational campaign. It would soon be overseen by Marine General John Kelly, who became head of US Southern Command as that year ended. A further and more pronounced expansion of the program came when he was appointed secretary of DHS, the Coast Guard’s mother agency. In 2017, as shipboard detentions soared, Kelly described the policy as an effort to stem the “existential” threat to the nation that drug traffickers posed.
As if to enshrine Congressman Serrano’s long-gone comments and offer a new lesson in American “public diplomacy,” this program of increasingly murky detentions at sea was dubbed Operation Martillo, or Operation Hammer. Under it, by the fall of 2017, the numbers of detainees had leapt more than 300% to 700 that year. Meanwhile, some of the detained, on release, have reported unjust, often brutal treatment, in both physical and legal terms. Physically, some were shackled for significant periods to the decks of Coast Guard ships, kept there in chains exposed to the wind, rain, and sun, while forced to defecate into buckets.
Legally, they suffered as well. As the New York Times reported, they were “not read Miranda rights, not appointed lawyers, not allowed to contact their consulate or their families.” Nor were they brought before a judge in the timely fashion that the law demands. In many of these cases, stateside judges have failed to apply a basic legal rule known as speedy presentment, designed to prevent the incommunicado warehousing of defendants for interrogation purposes and start the 70-day period that the government has to bring a case to trial.
Of course, this sort of militarized detention of prisoners offshore of American justice is nothing new in this century. No surprise, for instance, that these Coast Guard prison ships were referred to as “floating Guantánamos” by a former Coast Guard lawyer and “boat prisons” by another Coast Guard officer. For those of us who have been following the role of the US detention facility at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, in the war on terror, the playbook has, in fact, been all too familiar. Claiming the need for intelligence about operational networks (in this case those of drug running outfits, not terror ones), the authorities claim the right to detain those apprehended in their busts for informational purposes before turning them over to the criminal justice system.
Increasingly, in the case of the Coast Guard (as at Guantánamo), there seems to be no time limit on such imprisonments and anything but a rush to charge the detainees in federal court. Nor, it seems, is any special attention paid to the conditions of confinement, no matter how cruel. As at Guantánamo, being held at sea now increasingly means being kept away from both public scrutiny and the law as it is acknowledged and practiced on shore.
Remember, many of the individuals who arrived at Guantánamo had already been held for long periods of time away from lawyers or the legal system. Not surprisingly, the assumption of guilt rather than innocence was baked into such detentions, as it now is into the Coast Guard ones. As a former Coast Guard commandant claimed, when defending that service against the name “floating Guantánamos,” such detainees are “peddlers of poison who elected to engage in criminal activity.” In this, he was following to a T the Guantánamo playbook. There, in defense of the mistreatment of war on terror detainees, it was often said that they had engaged in anti-American activities—the assumption being that they were not worthy of the protections afforded others in US custody.
In 2017, Seth Freed Wessler offered a vivid portrait of such attitudes and of the kind of imprisonment at sea that went with it. (“Most of the time, he couldn’t move more than an arm’s length in either direction without jostling the next shackled man. ‘The sea used to be freedom,’ he told me. But on the ship, ‘it was the opposite. Like a prison in the open ocean.’”) Wessler focused on two Ecuadorians detained in 2014 on a Coast Guard vessel for more than 70 days and spoke as well to many other prisoners held on such ships, often for long periods, prior to their prosecution in the United States. In some instances, the Coast Guard detainees were even transferred from one ship to another, while authorities prodded them for information outside the court system.
According to Laura Pitter, US deputy director at Human Rights Watch, there’s a direct relationship between lack of access to the courts and the abuse of prisoners in custody. As she noted in describing to me a forthcoming essay of hers, “National Security and Court Deference: Ramifications and Worrying Trends”:
“A pattern of abuse characterizes these ship detentions. It has been made possible by judges permitting the government longer and longer delays in getting defendants before them as promptly as required, and once they get there these defendants have no real ability to challenge the way they’ve been treated. There are safeguards in place to guard against abuse, but the prosecutors have been circumventing them and courts have been permitting it.”
From the earliest days of the post-9/11 era, prisoners were put aboard ships for interrogation purposes. John Walker Lindh, a US citizen and among the first American captives in the war on terror, was held for questioning aboard the USS Peleliu; others were held aboard the USS Bataan before being turned over to the criminal justice system. As recently as 2014, Abu Khattalah, convicted in 2017 in connection with a 2012 attack on the US Embassy in Benghazi, Libya, was held aboard the USS New York and interrogated for 13 days without a lawyer being present.
Other terror suspects have spent long periods aboard such naval vessels,subjected to regular questioning, sometimes under harsh conditions, before being transferred to law enforcement custody. Abdulkadir Warsame, a Somali national, for example, was apprehended in the Gulf of Aden in 2011 and held aboard a Navy ship for two months for questioning. He later pled guilty to providing material support to both the Somali terror group Al Shabaab and Al Qaeda.
Abu Anas al-Libi, a Libyan, was captured by Army Delta Force commandos and held on a Navy vessel for about a week prior to being read his Miranda rights. As the Atlantic magazine reported in 2014, in such terrorism cases, the Navy had “taken on the role of high-seas prison warden.” Like the prolonged detentions at Guantánamo, such detentions at sea under conditions that avoid the requirements of law give America another black eye abroad. (It was no happenstance, for instance, that ISIS mockingly adopted Guantánamo’s orange jumpsuits for its prisoners before openly treating them in a horrific fashion.)
As the shackling of men on the decks of ships reveals, the Coast Guard’s present war-on-drugs detention mission is not one it has exactly been prepared for. Early this year, then-Coast Guard Commandant Paul Zukunft told Military.com that the service was “exploring the possibility of leasing a dedicated commercial vessel that would do nothing but hold suspects until they can be transferred to the United States.” Consider that an indication both of Coast Guard discomfort with its present role and of the fact that drug detentions at sea are likely to be realities for the foreseeable future—though conceivably in privatized settings where whatever happens on board would be even further removed from public scrutiny.
The conflicting images the United States is projecting in the Southern Hemisphere are perfectly illustrated by its bizarrely bifurcated seaborne missions of hope and despair. On the one hand, the hospital ships, as their very names—Mercy and Comfort—suggest, are beacons of US public diplomacy. On the other hand, those Coast Guard prison ships lower the “hammer” not just on drug dealers but on international legal codes, domestic law, and military law, while hammering this country’s reputation abroad as well. (It’s no irony but a reflection of 21st-century Washington reality that the prisoners shackled on those vessels are from some of the same countries, including Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru, targeted this year by those hospital vessels.)
Even as unlawful detention on the high seas continues, other challenges to the image of the United States as a lawful nation capable of bringing aid and comfort elsewhere are multiplying. Consider it more than symbolic that the very position Margaret Tutwiler once held, undersecretary for public affairs and public diplomacy, remains unfilled in Donald Trump’s Washington. It’s just one more sign of the State Department’s evisceration by a willful refusal to fill empty posts, including ambassadorships to Bolivia, Honduras, and Panama, countries central to the war on drugs. Worse yet, there are plans to retire either the Mercy or the Comfort by the end of 2019, reducing by half the US Navy’s ability to care for those in need around the world.
It’s clear enough these days where the image of America is headed.