Sunday, May 29, 2005

YESTERDAY I FINISHED Erik Saar's book, Inside the Wire: A Military Intelligence Soldier's Eyewitness Account of Life at Guantanamo. I highly recommend it.

Saar spent six months at Guantanamo -- from December 2002 to June 2003 -- as a linguist trained in Arabic. His job was to translate in the cell blocks when the MPs needed help communicating with a detainee, or when the detainee himself needed something or just wanted to talk. In the second half of his stay there, Saar translated during interrogations.

The experience of being at Guantanamo and seeing on a day-to-day basis what went on there changed Saar profoundly. He went in eager to be a part of getting intelligence from detainees who, he believed, had vital information to impart that could prevent future terrorist attacks on U.S. soil. He believed in the mission wholeheartedly, and had no doubt that every detainee held at Guantanamo either was directly involved in the planning of 9/11, or was involved in terrorist activity aimed at launching another devastating attack against Americans.

By the time he left, Saar's feelings had changed significantly. Contrary to his initial belief that most if not all of the detainees there were terrorists or had ties to terrorists, he left convinced of the exact opposite: that most of the detainees had no substantive or meaningful connections with terrorist activity, had no useful information to impart, and in many cases were innocent of any wrongdoing. He acknowledges that there are some very dangerous men there who would kill Americans without a second thought if they were released; but they are not the majority. Furthermore, the anything-goes interrogation policy and the legal black hole in which Guantanamo detainees exist has done enormous harm to U.S. national security, in Saar's view. And the stunning bottom line is that the degrading, physically and psychologically abusive tactics that are used against detainees at Guantanamo and elsewhere don't even work.

Saar describes one particular interrogation in which he translated for a female interrogator who tried to get a detainee to talk by severing his connection with God through the use of sexual humiliation. The idea was that such treatment would make the detainee feel dirty and strip him of the ritual purity he needed to pray, which in turn would supposedly deny him that source of support and inner strength and induce him to turn to his interrogator as a source of help and salvation.

Had someone come to me before I left for Gitmo and told me that we would use women to sexually torment detainees in interrogations to try to sever their relationships with God, I probably would have thought that sounded fine. And if someone had spelled out for me the details of the interrogation I had just participated in, I probably would have approved.

But I hated myself when I walked out of that room, even though I was pretty sure we were talking to a piece of shit in there. I felt as if I had lost something. We lost something. We lost the high road. We cashed in our principles in the hope of obtaining a piece of information. And it didn't even fucking work.

It would be a mistake to think that Saar is now anti-military or anti-war. Rather, he comes across very much as a patriot whose experiences convinced him that military and administration policies on the treatment of detainees in U.S. custody are working against our national interests and are damaging U.S. standing in the world.

My time in Guantanamo didn't make me love my country any less. And those six months couldn't erase the overall positive experience I had in the U.S. Army, an institution filled with men and women who would sacrifice everything to protect their nation. ... But what I saw, and the continuing revelations since I have left that have allowed me to put it in context, convinces me that we should be a lot smarter about fighting this enemy.

It's a shame -- and more than that, a dereliction of duty -- that the Bush administration ignores voices like Saar's. Because every time this country treats detainees in ways that are inconsistent with our Constitution and with our own moral values, we lose ground in the war on terror, both strategically and morally.

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