Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Rule of Law vs. Political Expediency: Which Side are We On?

I managed to get through Scott Horton's fantastic, must-read article for Harper's. In it, Scott reports on the deaths of three Guantanamo prisoners -- two Saudis, one Yemeni -- that were ruled suicides by everyone, from Gitmo's commend to the Pentagon to the State Department to the Justice Department to the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS). The US media, led by Fox News, bought the story in total.

However, Scott reports that these deaths, which occurred June 9, 2006, may actually have been homicides. Using information obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests, a team of students and faculty at Seton Hall University in New Jersey have pieced together information that completely contradicts the NCIS report. In their report released November 2009, they assert that the official story was full of contradictions that have never been acknowledged and that the reconstruction of the events was not credible. Horton writes:
According to the NCIS, each prisoner had fashioned a noose from torn sheets and T-shirts and tied it to the top of his cell’s eight-foot-high steel-mesh wall. Each prisoner was able somehow to bind his own hands, and, in at least one case, his own feet, then stuff more rags deep down into his own throat. We are then asked to believe that each prisoner, even as he was choking on those rags, climbed up on his washbasin, slipped his head through the noose, tightened it, and leapt from the washbasin to hang until he asphyxiated. The NCIS report also proposes that the three prisoners, who were held in non-adjoining cells, carried out each of these actions almost simultaneously.

Standard operating procedure in this part of Gitmo required guards on duty after midnight to "conduct a visual search" of each cell and detainee every 10 minutes. The NCIS report does not explain how the prisoners were able to hang torn sheets and T-shirts, while shaping extra sheets and pillows on their cots to make it appear that they were asleep when their allotment of linens is also tightly controlled. The report also did not explain how the men managed to hang undetected for more than two hours.

Two guards who were on duty that night came forward to the Seton Hall faculty who led the investigative team. One in particular was Army Staff Sergeant Joseph Hickman. Here's how Horton describes him:
Hickman grew up in Baltimore and joined the Marines in 1983, at the age of nineteen. When I interviewed him in January at his home in Wisconsin, he told me he had been inspired to enlist by Ronald Reagan, “the greatest president we’ve ever had.” He worked in a military intelligence unit and was eventually tapped for Reagan’s Presidential Guard detail, an assignment reserved for model soldiers. When his four years were up, Hickman returned home, where he worked a series of security jobs—prison transport, executive protection, and eventually private investigations. After September 11 he decided to re-enlist, at thirty-seven, this time in the Army National Guard.

Hickman had been promoted to staff sergeant after returning to the States and told Horton that that "with a new administration and new ideas I could actually come forward. It was haunting me."

After coming forward, Hickman through his lawyer met with officials in Obama's Justice Department. Their investigation, Horton writes, appears to have been fairly cursory and they have determined that "the gist of Sergeant Hickman's information could not be confirmed." The Justice investigator who communicated with Hickman's lawyer -- who, it should be noted, served under the Bush Justice Department and had "firsthand knowledge of the Justice Department's role in auditing [torture] techniques" -- would not elaborate on what exactly that "gist" was and would not explain why Hickman's conclusions about what happened could not be supported.

If it is true that the Obama Justice Department erred on the side of politics rather than truth and the rule of law in investigating and handling the deaths of these three men, then in my eyes they, including the president, are as guilty of war crimes as Bush and Cheney and Rumsfeld and Gonzalez and Addington and Yoo and Rice. Until the truth can be officially sanctioned by the government, there is no truth except that which they deem to be truth, via their links to a media that is brazenly more concerned with access to people in power than in challenging the statements and actions of those people in the administration of their official duties.

I find the conclusions of Horton's piece deeply troubling. I do not have access to the inner workings of the Justice Department or even the White House. But it is my hope (dimming, though it may be) that Obama is not content to put all that stuff behind us and just move forward. We may be facing serious economic issues and the winding down of two wars, but none of that matters one little bit if the foundations of our country -- our laws, our treaties, and our commitment to freedom -- are followed. Obama needs to open this whole thing up.

Further comment by Atlantic contributor Megan McArdle here.

We have become a torturing nation. We have become barbarians. We have become lawless. We have given into our baser selves, that side of ourselves whose existence we cannot deny but must do all we can to thwart. According to many Americans, we should go so far as denying anyone who looks Arabic or Muslim the ability to ride in public transportation, and we should go so far as dropping tons of bombs on any country that is even suspected of harboring Islamists. All this will keep us safe (and drunk on crude oil too).

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