A peek into the Pentagon's legal black hole

With a new report out on the U.S. military prison in Cuba, it seems the Pentagon is shoring up its case for keeping Gitmo a gulag.

Published April 19, 2005 8:22PM (EDT)

With a new report out on the U.S. military prison in Cuba, it seems the Pentagon is shoring up its case for keeping Gitmo a gulag, where hundreds of detainees in the war on terrorism continue to do time without legal due process.

The Pentagon's declassified summary, to date its most comprehensive public report on Gitmo, culls from more than 4,000 interrogation reports from the prison. It says some detainees indicated that al-Qaida operatives were pursuing chemical, biological and nuclear weapons -- though it doesn't go into any further detail on the issue of WMD.

It does, however, include some other alarming details. The L.A. Times reports:

"More than 20 detainees have been positively identified as Osama bin Laden's personal bodyguards and one as his close 'spiritual advisor,' according to the report. Another is listed as the 'probable 20th 9/11 hijacker' -- a Saudi man named Mohamed al-Kahtani who made it to Orlando, Fla., before being deported just a month before the Sept. 11 attacks.

"One detainee vowed to his captors that U.S. citizens in Saudi Arabia 'will have their heads cut off.' Another prisoner, this one with strong ties to Bin Laden, the Taliban and the Chechen mujahedin leadership, said of Americans everywhere: 'Their day is coming. ... One day I will enjoy sucking their blood.'"

Makes it kind of tough to argue that the guy deserves the benefits of the American justice system, right?

Wrong, says blogger Phillip Carter over at "Intel Dump." Now an attorney in L.A., Carter is a former U.S. Army officer with expertise in anti-terrorism and intelligence. Here's his take on the Pentagon's latest P.R. campaign:

"Whenever I see an unclassified summary of classified reports, whether in the law enforcement, military or intelligence contexts, I'm always a little skeptical. Not that I necessarily think we should be releasing classified intelligence into the public domain -- but there's inevitably going to be a selection bias which is going to produce a selection error in the data. Moreover, it's clear here that there's an intended purpose for this report: to tell the Defense Department's side of the story with respect to Gitmo. I think it's also inevitable that this intended purpose will produce a slant in the selection of classified data for inclusion, and the arrangement of the information in this unclassified summary. So to be quite honest, I put about as much weight in this report as I do in a Pentagon press release.

"I also think that [the L.A. Times article] describes the Gitmo critics too narrowly. The ranks of the critics are not limited to 'civil liberty advocates, defense lawyers and the families of prisoners'. Indeed, some of the fiercest criticism of Gitmo has come from the quarter of the world that I inhabit: the military and the ranks of ex-military officers who are appalled at the way we have squandered our moral and political and legal standing in the world to create this facility which has done more to undermine our war on terror than to help it. There is also great concern that our legal sophistry has forever undermined our ability to request reciprocal protection for our own soldiers when they are captured, and that this bill will be paid by generations of young Americans to come. (See the amicus brief by the generals and admirals in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld for more on this.) So it's not fair to simply say that the usual suspects (civil liberties types and prisoner families) oppose the operations at Gitmo. In fact, the chorus of voices speaking out against Gitmo is much larger than that."

Carter acknowledges that "we probably should be holding many of the men now detained at Gitmo, and we ought to be interrogating them too." But he still argues for method over madness: "As a nation, we have long adhered to certain principles in the way we conduct warfare because we have understood that certain strategic and tactical advantages accrue to the side which is just in warfare."

"Shredding Geneva has had very bad repercussions for us," he adds, "and it has brought us little gain, notwithstanding the questionable contents of this report. I think we should reevaluate our Gitmo facilities and expeditiously bring this chapter of American history to a close."

By Mark Follman

Mark Follman is Salon's deputy news editor. Read his other articles here.

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