June 18, 2006

Close Guantanamo?

When three prisoners at Guantanamo Bay committed suicide last week it focused attention once again on this top secret prison. The US military has identified the three men as Ali Abdullah Ahmed of Yemen, and Saudis Mani Shaman Turki al-Habardi al-Utaybi and Yassar Talal al-Zahrani. Since 2002 the United States has used Guantanamo to hold prisoners in the “war on terror” because it exists in a kind of a legal limbo that, according to the Administration, puts it outside of any legal oversight.

The US established the Guantanamo Bay base during the Spanish American war over 100 years ago. That war “liberated” Cuba from Spanish colonial rule, while firmly establishing an American presence, including extended periods of American military occupation and the establishment of a dictatorship friendly to American business interests. The original lease for the Guantanamo base was signed in 1903 under terms established by the Platt Amendment, which set the terms for ending the US military occupation. In 1934, the lease was rewritten with the provision that it could not be changed or canceled without the agreement of both the US and Cuban governments, or until the US abandoned the base. In other words, the US can maintain a base in Cuba, even against the wishes of the Cuban government and since the revolution in 1959, this has been the situation. Cuba contests the legality of the lease, refuses to cash the checks the US dutifully sends it, and demands that the US leave but recognizes that they don’t have the ability to force the question.

The Bush Administration finds this situation very convenient. They claim that because Guantanamo is outside the US, that US laws and the Constitution do not apply there and since Cuba does not recognize the American presence, they have no oversight either. This is quite different than US military bases elsewhere in the world, which are subject to agreements with the host countries that have to be periodically renewed. This gives them some leverage. Furthermore, the Administration claims that the Geneva Conventions and the international laws of war do not apply because the prisoners aren’t technically soldiers in an established army. Rather they are relegated to the status of “enemy combatants” who have neither the rights accorded to Prisoners of War, or to civilians. Logically this position doesn’t make much sense. Either we are fighting a war, or we aren’t. If we are fighting a war, then our enemies must be recognized as fighting a war as well, and should be treated as enemy soldiers under international and military law, and as POWs when they are captured. If we aren’t, then prisoners should be brought to trial under the criminal justice system.

The “Enemy Combatant” label is a convenient fiction that is maintained to allow the government carte blanche in their treatment of these prisoners. They want to be able to hold people indefinitely with no standards of treatment and no accountability to anybody. Guantanamo is actually the most public of these prisons. Others exist in Afghanistan and Iraq, including Bagram Airbase and Abu Graihb. Add to those the CIA prisons reported to have been established in secret locations around the world. Apparently the Eastern European locations were closed after their cover was blown. And in a process known as rendition, prisoners are secretly transported to other countries, apparently so they can be tortured without any restrictions that might appl under American custody.

Although they don’t like the word, torture is central to what goes on in all of these secret prisons. Interrogation techniques employ a sophisticated combination of physical and psychological techniques to break them down. The military claims that it is necessary to obtain information. The classic argument is that torture would be justified in order to prevent an imminent terrorist attack. I assume that if that ever happened it would have been trumpeted as a major victory. In fact, studies have shown that torture is remarkably ineffective. Prisoners will either resist despite extreme pain or break down and say anything they think the torturer wants to hear, neither of which is useful. Psychological methods, such as isolation, sensory deprivation and humiliation aimed at breaking down personal identity and resistance have been developed by the CIA and are being put to widespread use now.

The continuing resistance of prisoners at Guantanamo calls these techniques into question, even on the grounds of effectiveness, to say nothing of morality or the effects on world opinion of America or the treatment of Americans who are held as prisoners or hostages.

The suicides are a matter of great concern to the military, not out of concern for the prisoners, but because of the effect on public opinion. Amazingly the military considers itself the victim here. This is made clear by the statement of Navy Rear Adm. Harry B. Harris, commander of Joint Task Force Guantanamo, who said, "I believe this was not an act of desperation, but an act of asymmetric warfare aimed at us here at Guantanamo, We have men here who are committed jihadists. They are dangerous men and they will do anything they can to advance their cause." (From the Department of Defense defenselink website story Three Guantanamo Bay Detainees Die of Apparent Suicide.)

There is plenty in the conditions of their confinement that could lead to suicide as the only way out. They are at the complete mercy of their captors with no prospect of ever being released, looking forward to the rest of their lives spent under conditions of physical and psychological abuse. Their only avenue of protest has been hunger strikes, which have been combatted by tying the prisoners down and forcing feeding tubes down their throat. It may also be true that the suicides are a last ditch attempt to sacrifice a hopeless existence on the chance that it will attract enough attention to improve conditions for their fellow prisoners.

The new film, “The Road to Guantanamo” documents these conditions, while telling the story of three British Muslims captured in Afghanistan and held for two years at Guantanamo before being released with no formal accusations or charges ever being leveled.

Clearly the veil of secrecy is ever so slowly being pulled aside, leading to pressure to close the prison. At the same time, the publicity and court decisions giving a little bit of access to lawyers and requiring some legal process for prisoners are a hindrance to the policy of total isolation that the Administration thinks is necessary both for successful interrogations and to minimize political criticism. It might actually serve their purposes better to close Guantanamo and use other secret prisons, even more removed from public view instead.

June 11, 2006

Haditha, War Crimes and an Act of Conscience

Lets start with First Lt Ehren Watada, who this week announced that he will refuse deployment to Iraq. He feels impelled to take this action, which puts him on the line for court martial and a substantial prison term, because he believes that “the war in Iraq is not only morally wrong but a horrible breach of American law.” Lt. Watada joins a number of other soldiers, sailors and marines who cannot in good conscience participate in the war.

Each individual who has taken this position has acted for their own unique reasons. Lt. Watada is notable because he is the first commissioned officer to refuse deployment. He hasn’t claimed Conscientious Objector (CO) status because he does believe that some wars are justified. In fact, he joined the Army in 2003, when the war was already under way.
However, he has come to realize that the reality of this war is very different from the story that he believed when he signed up. The government told him that the war was about weapons of mass destruction and fighting terrorism. It turns out that the weapons were imaginary and that Iraq posed no threat to the United States. Furthermore is is clear that the Bush Administration knew this very well and deliberately lied to the American people and to the world. They sent our troops into harms way on false pretenses in furtherance of a secret agenda.

The war at its inception was a violation of international law, the UN Charter, and US law because it was not sanctioned by the UN and was not undertaken in self defense.

The war in its conduct is a violation of all of the above as well as the Army’s Law of Land Warfare because of the indiscriminate killing of civilians, collective punishment in Fallujah and elsewhere and torture and mistreatment of prisoners.

Given this new understanding of the war, Lt. Watada could not in good conscience participate. In his words, “My oath of office is to protect and defend America’s laws and its people. By refusing unlawful orders for an illegal war, I fulfill that oath.” He informed his superiors and asked to be assigned to duties not directly connected to the war, or to resign from the Army. The Army has refused these requests and intends to prosecute him if he refuses deployment to Iraq.

The Haditha “massacre” offers some insight into why people have been talking more and more about war crimes. This was just one incident during three years of war but it is hardly unique. Haditha is a city in Al Anbar province about 150 miles northwest of Baghdad. It is the site of the largest hydroelectric dam in the country, which gives it strategic importance. It has been the site of several attacks against Iraqi officials and police and American troops.

Initial reports from the Marines stated that a roadside bomb killed one American and 15 civilians in November 2005. In February 2006, a video of the bodies of the civilians showed that they had been shot in their homes. Eyewitnesses reported that after the American was killed, Marines stormed nearby houses and killed men, women and children indiscriminately. The story only made it to the mainstream press in the US a few weeks ago, leading to investigations and possible prosecution of the troops involved. The thing that was most shocking to Americans was the possibility that our troops had deliberately murdered civilians. Congressman John Murtha, a former Marine said that the episode might prove to be America’s darkest hour in Iraq. “This is the kind of war you have to win the hearts and minds of the people. And we’re set back every time something like this happens.”

Today’s Washington Post offers an account of the events that day by one of the Marines involved. Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich told his story through his attorney in an attempt to show that his actions were consistent with military rules of engagement in Iraq and to defend himself against possible criminal charges.

He says that they did not set out to kill civilians. However, they shot first and asked questions later. “Marines noticed a white, unmarked car full of ‘military aged men’ lingering near the bomb scene. When Marines ordered the men to stop, they ran; ...it was standard operating procedure at the time for the Marines to shoot suspicious people fleeing a bombing, and the Marines opened fire. ... Iraqis .. said the vehicle was a taxi carrying a group of students to their homes and that the driver tried to back away from the site, fleeing in fear. ... AK-47 shots rang out from homes on the south side of the road. ... A corporal with the unit leaned over to Wuterich and said he saw the shots coming from a specific house ... A four-man team of Marines, including Wuterich, kicked in the door and found a series of empty rooms, noticing quickly that there was one room with a closed door and people rustling behind it ... They kicked in that door, tossed a fragmentation grenade into the room, and one Marine fired a series of "clearing rounds" through the dust and smoke, killing several people ...The Marine who fired the rounds ... had experience clearing numerous houses on a deployment in Fallujah, where Marines had aggressive rules of engagement.” Noting that there were only civilians in the room, they figured that the insurgents had slipped out the back door, so they charged into another house with the same tactics and the same results. Altogether, 15 - 24 civilians were killed, including children as young as 2 years old. It does not appear that any actual insurgents were killed.

There are a number of aspects of this report that are deeply disturbing. The Geneva Conventions require troops to minimize civilian casualties. This conduct displays a reckless disregard for civilian life. Troops assume that anybody they encounter is likely to be an enemy and act accordingly. This is especially true of men of “military age”. During the siege of Fallujah, women and children were allowed to leave the city as American troops prepared to attack but men were not. The assumption was that all men were suspected insurgents. There have been numerous reports from American troops that they respond to any attack with indiscriminate fire in that direction, regardless of who might be caught in the crossfire. Air attacks cause the most civilian casualties. The very first “official” bombing of the war, attempting to kill Saddam Hussein, instead killed a small child. Thousands of civilians have been killed and wounded by American troops who cannot or will not tell the difference between fighters and bystanders. Dahr Jamail, an independent journalist covering Iraq, documents many other similar events in his article, Countless My Lai Massacres in Iraq.

Other violations of international law, constituting war crimes, include the use of white phosphorus bombs in Fallujah, attacks on ambulances, preventing people from receiving medical care, and the widespread torture of prisoners. There are also indications that the American supported Iraqi police or militias are involved in rounding up, torturing and killing people. This may be related to the Salvador Option, as outline in this January 2005 Newsweek article.

Lt. Watada is responding to this systematic violation of international law by taking a principled and courageous stand. It is the highest form of patriotism to defend the Constitution, the rule of law and morality when the government seems to have abandoned it.

June 04, 2006

Controlling the Net

Check out last week’s discussion of Net Neutrality

Save the Internet: Click here

When the internet burst on the scene in the 90s it was a classic demonstration of free market economics as companies big and small, new and well established, competed like crazy for their share of cyberspace. It was the most competition the American economy has seen in years.

The same thing happened in the political sphere. And the combination of e-mail and websites made the net a great organizing tool. Advocacy groups get people signed up for e-mail lists that deliver action plans direct to your desktop. Websites give more information and people are urged to pass along these messages to their friends and get them involved too. Bloggers and alternative media sites can deliver a very focused message. Grassroots democracy got a real shot in the arm. These tools are being used by all political viewpoints. It has fostered a competitive marketplace of ideas that is available for anybody to search out.

I didn’t even mention the purely social aspects of the net, which are huge and all sorts of information (true and not so true) that people share over the net in a way that we couldn’t even imagine a decade or two ago. Plenty of people are finding ways to make money facilitating that as well. Plenty of others are just using it for all that it is worth.

Now that we have it, there is a feeling that this is the only way that things could have turned out. The internet as a force of nature. Actually, it was designed to be a structure that is free and open...the information superhighway that would allow anybody to go anywhere they want to go. The idea was to facilitate precisely the kind of competition and innovation we have seen. It succeeded beyond anybody's wildest dreams precisely because of that openness and lack of centralized control.

The internet could have been set up differently, as a more centralized way for companies to deliver content to consumers. Then it might have ended up more like cable TV for instance. Now, cable as a model isn’t terrible. It just doesn’t offer the innovation and flexibility and democracy that we get from an open internet.

China presents an interesting example of more centralized control over the net. They are trying to use their government control over internet portals to limit political opposition. In this case they try to filter out politically objectionable sites, much as filters here try to block spam or porn. Their idea of objectionable isn’t written down anywhere but encompasses discussions of Tibetan independence, Falun Gong, the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, and the BBC.

Western companies have come under criticism for helping China control the net in this way. They argue that the tools they provide are basically the same as firewalls and filters that any large network needs. They aren’t responsible for what the Chinese government does with these tools. In any case they figure it is the price they pay for doing business in China. The Chinese market is growing rapidly as they move rapidly into the digital age. China has more people online than any other country except the United States.

In addition to sophisticated filtering, China has established a principle that any website or access provider is responsible for monitoring the content they make available. A crackdown a few years ago closed a number of internet cafes and installed sophisticated filters in others that block 500,000 sites and report people to the police who attempt to access them. This is much more effective than having government officials try to monitor everything. Providers will tend to err on the side of caution to avoid being shut down or even prosecuted. It is difficult to maintain this level of control and some people just put up sites that they know will be shut down in the hope that they will attract an audience in the interim. Still, Amnesty International has documented 33 people who have been imprisoned for using the internet to circulate or download information. Amnesty also reports that China “aims to use advanced information and communication technology to strengthen police control in China and a massive surveillance database system will reportedly provide access to records of every citizen.”

Similar efforts in the US haven’t gotten very far, yet. Schools and libraries routinely restrict access to sites they think are objectionable. Pornography is the usual target but I have heard rumors that schools are restricting access to blogs in general as well. Apparently they think it is a waste of time for students who are supposed to be studying. There have also been attempts, unsuccessful so far, to hold providers here responsible for objectionable content on their servers, which sparked accusations of suppression of free speech. And of course the NSA has been analyzing internet activity as part of their “war against terrorism”. The FBI asked Service Providers to maintain records of everybody’s activity on the net for two years so they can track every site you visited and the searches you made and who you email.

Here corporate telecommunications companies control the portals and without net neutrality there is nothing to stop them from exercising the same kinds of control as the Chinese. The difference would be in the types of sites they don’t like. Right now they are asserting the right to restrict high speed access to companies that pay for the privilege. They could decide to block anti-corporate sites or sites they think are unpatriotic. It’s downright un-American.

Here is a petition to help persuade Congress to preserve Net Neutrality.