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Six Questions for Karen Greenberg, Author of The Least Worst Place


Karen Greenberg, the director of NYU’s Center on Law and Security, took a close-up look at the first hundred days in the life of the detention center at Guantanamo. What emerged is a remarkable book that shows a quiet struggle between military leaders, who wanted to do things by the book, and their political overlords in the Pentagon, who wanted a break with tradition but were wary of putting their ideas on paper. I put six questions to Karen Greenberg.

1. Your book tells us that notwithstanding the immense rush with which it was created, Gitmo started out with a group of dedicated career military officers committed to observing traditional military rules governing the treatment of prisoners—and that Rumsfeld and key members of his Pentagon team were very unhappy with this. What was it that Rumsfeld didn’t like about the old rules?


Actually, the immense rush and the related policy void at the beginning left the troops on the ground with no choice but to cling to rules. Rather than improvise in what amounted to a policy void, they chose to follow the rules they knew–primarily, the Geneva Conventions. I can only be speculative here but most likely under the old rules the detainees would have been categorized as prisoners of war under the terms of the Geneva Conventions, which account for all categories of individuals picked up on the battlefield, including civilians. As such, they could be questioned but could not be forced to answer. The United Stats did not hold these routine hearings to establish the detainees’ status as prisoners of war–-so the decision to sidestep the Geneva Conventions seems to have taken place well before prisoners arrived at Guantanamo Bay.

Pentagon officials and others have long alleged that they needed to avoid the Conventions for the sake of operational flexibility, referring for example to the physical conditions and logistics of Guantanamo Bay, and the impracticalities of satisfying certain articles of the conventions there, such as the right to have access to exercise, or to elect representatives, or to earn wages for work. But in fact the requirements of the Geneva Conventions are flexible according to conditions, context, and political realities–something the International Committee of the Red Cross made clear once it arrived at Guantanamo.

2. It looks like Rumsfeld dealt with this situation by creating a second, parallel command at Gitmo that had to report straight back to him. But wasn’t this structure totally at odds with U.S. military doctrine? Didn’t it undermine the idea of “unity of effort”? And what purpose was served by circumventing the regular command structure, under which everything would have reported back to Washington through SOUTHCOM?

It’s worthwhile to understand the chronology behind setting up this parallel command. In the middle of February, 2002, the second, parallel command was launched–JTF-170 commanded by reservist Major General Michael Dunlavey. Dunlavey erected his interrogation command side by side with the original detention effort at Guantanamo–JTF-160 commanded by Marine Brigadier General Michael Lehnert. Although a new, and much weaker general–a reservist graveyard supervisor out of Rhode Island’s national guard named Rick Baccus–replaced Lehnert at the end of March, the two commands existed side by side until the formation of JTF GTMO in November 2002. But almost immediately after Lehnert left, Dunlavey’s command took charge of the tenor and purpose of the detention facility. The tension between the two units was intense but Dunlavey had a greater rank and greater ties to Washington, as he boasted even in his testimony before the Schmidt investigation. Notably, Baccus left on the same day that Diane Beaver penned her famous memo legally approving the use of the torture techniques requested from above. For two weeks, Dunlavey was in charge by himself. In November, the two commands were officially unified under General Geoffrey Miller, who was later sent to Abu Ghraib to unify the parallel commands there.

Unity of effort and command ensures, above all, accountability. There is an agreed-upon mission, for which everyone is on board. With fragmentation and duplication of authority comes confusion as well as tangled lines of reporting. Dunlavey nominally reported to U.S. Southern Command but in fact he had a direct channel to Secretary Rumsfeld. Realistically, he was in a position to pick and choose which information to convey to each line of authority. The parallel command was established as an alternative to trying to give the professional military of JTF-160 orders to perform interrogations. Rather than work through the unit in charge of detention, they worked around it. This is an important precedent for the split system created eighteen months later at Abu Ghraib where reservist Brigadier General Janis Karpinski was chosen to head a detention effort and Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez was chosen to head a parallel interrogation effort. Their agendas clashed repeatedly, with Sanchez–the higher ranking general, with closer ties to Washington, taking virtual control of the camp.

3. Rumsfeld previously suggested that he called the Red Cross (ICRC) in to check things out at Guantanamo. But your book suggests very strongly that the Office of Secretary of Defense was adverse to the idea of the Red Cross being involved and that this occurred at the initiative of senior military at Gitmo. Can you elaborate on this?

The story of the ICRC’s arrival at Guantanamo is one of quiet defiance. General Lehnert had requested the presence of the ICRC when he first arrived at Guantanamo, before the detainees were en route. His request was denied up the chain of command to the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Meanwhile, at U.S. Southern Command, where there was widespread agreement that the ICRC presence was necessary, a military lawyer finally gave into his frustration over repeated requests for guidance from the Joint Chiefs. He picked up the phone and called Geneva himself and invited the ICRC to Guantanamo Bay. They readily accepted, much to the chagrin of the Joint Chiefs and the Pentagon, who not only chided the military lawyer for what he’d done but asked if there were ways to delay or even divert the arrival of the Red Cross. (Even to this day, we should note, the ICRC, is excluded from the ghost prisons at which other prisoners in the war on terror are allegedly held.)

4. When Gitmo was first opened, Rumsfeld described those interned there as the “worst of the worst.” Roughly two-thirds of those originally detained were actually released by the Bush Administration, and just before the 2006 elections we learned that in fact the “worst of the worst” were not in Gitmo to begin with. What does your study of the first hundred days tell you about the vetting that went on at the outset?

Recent interviews with troops from the early days at Guantanamo confirm that the “worst of the worst” charge was suspect from the very first encounters with the detainees. There wasn’t any reliable vetting. Although the first troops on the ground at Guantanamo were led to believe that they would be receiving the “worst of the worst,” the detainees themselves seemed from the start to be far from the dangerous men they had expected – symbolically, individuals who, according to Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Richard Myers, were capable of chewing through hydraulic cables on board the transport planes but who it turned out arrived with rotting teeth and weakened physiques. Overall, the U.S. military was blindsided by who they received at Gitmo and by the condition in which the detainees arrived. Arriving dehydrated, and startingly thin, the detainees were mostly not only small and weak, but did not even speak the languages which the troops on the ground had been told to expect. Many came from countries outside of the Afghanistan/Pakistan area. Some did not even seem capable of any dire acts. Among the earliest arrivals, one was apparently an octogenarian; another was over ninety. One was a diagnosed schizophrenic. However possible the danger quotient of these first arrivals, the inclusion of these cases made the team at Gitmo suspect that the vetting process had been haphazard at best.

Later investigations have shown that most of the detainees were not captured directly by U.S. troops. Instead, the U.S. paid bounties to, or otherwise received the prisoners from, Pakistani boarder guards and Northern Alliance troops. There was no single profile for the detainees; instead they seemed like a ragtag and miscellaneous group. Nor did they arrive with information. The pocket litter that detainees were carrying when captured–materials that trained poice would have carefully preserved and labeled for use during interrogation–came stuffed randomly into bags but was often not separated per individual. Doubts about the identities of the detainees were registered by visiting Congresspersons and by members of the Bush Administration, but these doubts never seemed to go anywhere. Thus began the story of defending a mission that seemed in part fraudulent from the start. As the general in charge has noted in retrospect, it took a petty officer to put a detainee on the plane to Guantanamo and an order signed by the President of the United States to get him out.

5. In the last few days a couple of Gitmo guards have come forward with detailed accounts of what went on in the first two years. They describe an initial regime of strictly by-the-rules treatment of prisoners giving way to a very vague new regime in which beatings and mistreatment were actively encouraged. Does your research match these accounts?

My research shows that, yes, there was a deterioration of treatment from the first period onward. That said, there were occasional episodes all along of mistreatment by the guards–even at the beginning. Sometimes it was pushing, sometimes punching. My interviews have led me to think that, while this went on, the policy was that it was forbidden to behave like this, and that those who were found mistreating the detainees would be removed (and were removed) from inside X-Ray. As recent testimony has revealed, there were clear attempts to hide abusive behavior from the Marine command of the detention effort.

Aware of the fact that some of the troops were full of anger towards the detainees, the general in charge–Michael Lehnert–kept a close watch on the detention guards, often appearing in the middle of the night as a check on what was going on inside X-Ray. He relied upon the ICRC, the Muslim chaplain and the perimeter Marine guards to monitor a situation inside X-Ray that was tense at best. “I had no doubt,” General Lehnert recalls, “that some [troops would behave improperly] if they could get away with it.” The orders were clearly that any abusiveness or mistreatment was forbidden, including, for example, the use of female soldiers to transfer detainees to the showers (after an initial incident). The real shift was at the level of policy–what was forbidden as a matter of policy in the early days apparently turned into policy subsequently. Once Lehnert was removed, there was no check on the element among the guards who thought that abuse was a proper treatment for the alleged members of the Taliban and al Qaeda.


6. What lessons do you learn from the first hundred days that may be useful for the last hundred days—the process by which President Obama has committed to shut down Guantánamo?

One overlooked lesson from the early days is that the refusal to admit mistakes turned out to have tremendously dire consequences. Even though it was apparent early on that many of the initial arrivals were not hardened terrorists and posed little danger, the administration continued to publicly promulgate the notion that in fact they had brought the worst terrorists to Guantanamo. In fact, the worst of the worst were being held at ghost sites, not at Guantanamo. The detainee population also included a number of dangerous individuals, but the stubborn refusal to separate the innocent from the guilty turned Guantanamo into a fraudulent enterprise from the start.

Another lesson is that professionalism should not be sacrificed to ideology. The uniformed military can and did embody that professionalism–even or especially in times of emergency. The idea of dismissing professional codes and standards as a way of ensuring security is a misconception. Whether it is the lawyers advising the president or the military officers, sidestepping their professionalism is a step towards disaster.

Finally, time is a factor. The longer it goes on, the more President Obama owns Guantanamo. It is crucial that the Gitmo policy disaster be clearly ascribed to a President and an administration that has been voted out of power. In contrast to the innumerable myths perpetuated by many inside the Bush Administratio along the lines that “law is an impediment to national security,” the abuses at Guantanamo have in fact alienated a great deal of the world, including our allies, making us less safe as a nation. President Obama cannot fix everything that Bush broke. But the highly symbolic case of Guantanamo, he needs to move forward swiftly, showing what it means to redress this legacy of mistakes and paralysis in good faith.

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