Thursday, May 26, 2005

LOOKS LIKE Amnesty International's 2005 International Report has really touched a raw nerve on the right; and even in the so-called "liberal" media. The Washington Post has an editorial sharply criticizing AI for calling Guantanamo "the gulag of our times."

Like Amnesty, we, too, have written extensively about U.S. prisoner abuse at Guantanamo Bay, in Afghanistan and in Iraq. We have done so not only because the phenomenon is disturbing in its own right but also because it gives undemocratic regimes around the world an excuse to justify their own use of torture and indefinite detention and because it damages the U.S. government's ability to promote human rights.

But we draw the line at the use of the word "gulag" or at the implication that the United States has somehow become the modern equivalent of Stalin's Soviet Union. Guantanamo Bay is an ad hoc creation, designed to contain captured enemy combatants in wartime. Abuses there -- including new evidence of desecrating the Koran -- have been investigated and discussed by the FBI, the press and, to a still limited extent, the military. The Soviet gulag, by contrast, was a massive forced labor complex consisting of thousands of concentration camps and hundreds of exile villages through which more than 20 million people passed during Stalin's lifetime and whose existence was not acknowledged until after his death. Its modern equivalent is not Guantanamo Bay, but the prisons of Cuba, where Amnesty itself says a new generation of prisoners of conscience reside; or the labor camps of North Korea, which were set up on Stalinist lines; or China's laogai , the true size of which isn't even known; or, until recently, the prisons of Saddam Hussein's Iraq.

Worrying about the use of a word may seem like mere semantics, but it is not. Turning a report on prisoner detention into another excuse for Bush-bashing or America-bashing undermines Amnesty's legitimate criticisms of U.S. policies and weakens the force of its investigations of prison systems in closed societies. It also gives the administration another excuse to dismiss valid objections to its policies as "hysterical."

At Memeorandum, all the commentary so far is from the conservative bloggers. They are all outraged by the use of the word "gulag" to characterize Guantanamo, and they all lavish praise on the Post for its angry response.

I think "gulag" is a perfectly reasonable and appropriate word to describe Guantanamo. My American Heritage dictionary lists three definitions for "gulag." The first is "a network of forced labor camps in the former Soviet Union." Even the WaPo must agree that this is too narrow to be the only definition, because their editorialist calls North Korea, Cuba, Iraq, and China "gulags" as well. The second definition is "a forced labor camp or prison, especially for political dissidents." Guantanamo IS a prison, although its inmates are never called "prisoners," because that sounds too much like "prisoner of war," which would imply that the "detainees" (the Bush admin's term of choice) actually have rights under the Geneva Convention. True, the prisoners are not "political dissidents," although many if not most of them are definitely there for political reasons -- not because they themselves are political, but because the Bush administration wants to look like it's doing a good job fighting the war on terror by calling these 500 or so Arab and Muslim men "terrorists" and keeping them in Cuba indefinitely. (And speaking of Cuba, isn't it a bit hypocritical to call that country a "gulag" when we have a vast detention and interrogation camp there, whose involuntary residents have no legal rights whatsoever?)

On to the third definition of "gulag": "A place or situation of great suffering and hardship, likened to the atmosphere in a prison system or a forced labor camp." Bingo.

Another point: There actually IS a network of concentration camps run by the U.S. military, and Guantanamo is part of it. And wonder of wonders, the Washington Post was the paper that wrote about that network -- almost exactly one year ago. In a May 11, 2004, article titled "Secret World of U.S. Interrogation," the Post described a vast, shadowy, global network of detention centers into which detainees vanished.

In Afghanistan, the CIA's secret U.S. interrogation center in Kabul is known as "The Pit," named for its despairing conditions. In Iraq, the most important prisoners are kept in a huge hangar near the runway at Baghdad International Airport, say U.S. government officials, counterterrorism experts and others. In Qatar, U.S. forces have been ferrying some Iraqi prisoners to a remote jail on the gigantic U.S. air base in the desert.

The Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, where a unit of U.S. soldiers abused prisoners, is just the largest and suddenly most notorious in a worldwide constellation of detention centers -- many of them secret and all off-limits to public scrutiny -- that the U.S. military and CIA have operated in the name of counterterrorism or counterinsurgency operations since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

These prisons and jails are sometimes as small as shipping containers and as large as the sprawling Guantanamo Bay complex in Cuba. They are part of an elaborate CIA and military infrastructure whose purpose is to hold suspected terrorists or insurgents for interrogation and safekeeping while avoiding U.S. or international court systems, where proceedings and evidence against the accused would be aired in public. Some are even held by foreign governments at the informal request of the United States.

"The number of people who have been detained in the Arab world for the sake of America is much more than in Guantanamo Bay. Really, thousands," said Najeeb Nuaimi, a former justice minister of Qatar who is representing the families of dozens of prisoners.

The largely hidden array includes three systems that only rarely overlap: the Pentagon-run network of prisons, jails and holding facilities in Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantanamo and elsewhere; small and secret CIA-run facilities where top al Qaeda and other figures are kept; and interrogation rooms of foreign intelligence services -- some with documented records of torture -- to which the U.S. government delivers or "renders" mid- or low-level terrorism suspects for questioning.

All told, more than 9,000 people are held by U.S. authorities overseas, according to Pentagon figures and estimates by intelligence experts, the vast majority under military control. The detainees have no conventional legal rights: no access to a lawyer; no chance for an impartial hearing; and, at least in the case of prisoners held in cellblock 1A at Abu Ghraib, no apparent guarantee of humane treatment accorded prisoners of war under the Geneva Conventions or civilians in U.S. jails.

Although some of those held by the military in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo have had visits by the International Committee of the Red Cross, some of the CIA's detainees have, in effect, disappeared, according to interviews with former and current national security officials and to the Army's report of abuses at Abu Ghraib.

The CIA's "ghost detainees," as they were called by members of the 800th MP Brigade, were routinely held by the soldier-guards at Abu Ghraib "without accounting for them, knowing their identities, or even the reason for their detention," the report says. These phantom captives were "moved around within the facility to hide them" from Red Cross teams, a tactic that was "deceptive, contrary to Army doctrine, and in violation of international law."
None of the arrangements that permit U.S. personnel to kidnap, transport, interrogate and hold foreigners are ad hoc or unauthorized, including the so-called renditions. "People tend to regard it as an extra-judicial kidnapping; it's not," former CIA officer Peter Probst said. "There is a long history of this. It has been done for decades. It's absolutely legal."

In fact, every aspect of this new universe -- including maintenance of covert airlines to fly prisoners from place to place, interrogation rules and the legal justification for holding foreigners without due process afforded most U.S. citizens -- has been developed by military or CIA lawyers, vetted by Justice Department's office of legal counsel and, depending on the particular issue, approved by White House general counsel's office or the president himself.

In other words, it's legal because the administration says it is. Does that make this American network of secret prison and interrogation centers, with thousands of detainees whose identities are almost completely unknown outside the military, less of a gulag than the same kind of system in the former Soviet Union or Cuba or any of the other countries the Post's editorialist used as examples of countries that really have gulags?

I don't think so.And when Oxblog's Patrick Belton says that, by "singl[ing] out the US and UK for criticism, Ruth Khan [AI's director] lets the Cubans, Syrians and North Koreans know that they are not her biggest concern," and when he adds that "[i]t's exactly the same as when Bush singles out Egypt for criticism but lets Pakistan and Saudi Arabia slide," he gets it backward. The point is that when countries like Cuba, Syria, and North Korea are criticized for their human rights violations but the United States lets itself off the hook or is let off the hook by others, then Cuba, Syria, North Korea, and the world's many other human rights violators get the message that the most powerful country in the world is above adhering to the standards it wants others to follow. If the United States allows the absolute ban on torture to get fuzzy, and detains people indefinitely without charges or access to attorneys and in total secrecy, then how can we expect Amnesty International to try to persuade other countries to respect human rights?

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