Dick Durbin takes Gitmo head on

Angered by an FBI report of abuse against detainees, the senior Senate Democrat brings the debate over the U.S. military prison to a boil.

Published June 17, 2005 2:11PM (EDT)

The debate over the U.S. military prison at Guantánamo -- and the rhetoric -- continues to escalate.

In a speech on the Senate floor Tuesday, Democratic Sen. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois ripped into the Bush administration, citing an FBI report describing prisoners chained to the floor in the fetal position without food or water and sometimes kept in extreme temperatures. "If I read this to you and did not tell you that it was an FBI agent describing what Americans had done to prisoners in their control," Durbin said, "you would most certainly believe this must have been done by Nazis, Soviets in their gulags, or some mad regime -- Pol Pot or others -- that had no concern for human beings."

Needless to say, those comparisons set off a firestorm of criticism on the political right, and from the White House. Bush spokesman Scott McClellan said it was ''beyond belief'' that Durbin would compare the treatment of so-called enemy combatants at Guantánamo to the killing of millions of innocent people by oppressive governments. ''I think the senator's remarks are reprehensible," he said. "It's a real disservice to our men and women in uniform who adhere to high standards and uphold our values and our laws."

The senior Democrat stood by his comments, saying Thursday that it was "just plain wrong" to say he was diminishing past horrors. He said he was comparing interrogation techniques that the FBI reported on at Guantánamo with those in foreign detainee camps.

But he also seemed to back off a bit from his statements on the Senate floor. According to Friday's Washington Post, Durbin said his words had been misinterpreted as an attack on the U.S. military, adding that he didn't even know who was in charge of the particular interrogation cited in the FBI agent's account. "Sadly, we have a situation here where some in the right-wing media say I've been insulting men and women in uniform," he said. "Nothing could be farther from the truth."

Durbin also acknowledged that the regimes to which he'd referred had committed horrors far beyond the techniques he was condemning at Guantánamo. But he said it was "no exaggeration" to suggest that the techniques cited in the FBI report were not acceptable in a democracy. "This is the kind of thing you expect from repressive regimes but not from the United States," he said.

Durbin's pointed comments and the crosscurrents of the debate over the last couple weeks seem evidence enough that things have gone terribly wrong with U.S. practices against prisoners -- and not just at Guantánamo. (Does anyone recall Abu Ghraib?) There's probably plenty more we don't know about when it comes to the U.S. government using explicitly anti-democratic tactics in the war against terrorism, practices buried in the name of protecting national security -- though there's plenty that we already do know about. Durbin's comments may have been pushing the envelope, but with good reason: As time drags on and the horrifying allegations of abuse pile up, no less than the core principles of American democracy may be at stake.

Of course, the White House doesn't see it that way. Last weekend, Vice President Dick Cheney made a point of saying that Guantánamo or no, international opinion of the U.S. is in perfectly fine shape, while Republican Congressman Duncan Hunter, a close ally of the Pentagon, talked up the prison facility's fine dining.

Cheney may have more than one reason to whitewash what's happening at Gitmo. As it happens, his former company, Halliburton, has just been tapped by the Pentagon to build a new $30 million detention facility and security fence at the U.S. military base in Cuba.

By Mark Follman

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

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