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Former Reagan Attorney General Shoddily Defends Guantanamo on Tenth Anniversary

Former Reagan Attorney General Edwin Meese III (photo: Wikimedia Commons)

(update below)

On the tenth anniversary of the opening of the Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba, most news articles are covering the stories of former detainees and highlighting how unlikely it is right now that detainees will ever be released, despite President Barack Obama’s promise to close what is now a symbol of US torture and abuse. Few are defending the prison in op-eds (though at least one torture apologist and indefinite detention supporter was eager to moonlight on the anniversary).

But Edwin Meese III, who served as Attorney General under President Ronald Reagan, has written a defense of the military detention and interrogation facility. He asserts it continues to serve an “important role in the war against terrorists,” as it houses “high-value terrorists, like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the architect of September 11.” He celebrates the “Expeditionary Legal Compound,” the “military commissions’ courthouse,” as a “world-class, state-of-the-art specifically designed to accommodate the needs of both defense and prosecutors dealing with classified information.” His praise for the military commissions system, of course, ignores the reality that, according to former chief Guantanamo prosecutor Morris Davis, only “six trials” have been completed.

Like other apologists for Guantanamo, he notes the United States is still “engaged in armed conflict and has been since September 11, 2001.” Citing the AUMF, he cites this as “legal authority” for holding prisoners at Guantanamo. Interestingly, he does not mention the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which essentially has given the detention facility a new lease on life.

Meese goes on to write that under the “law of war, engaging the enemy includes killing or capturing the enemy.” He says detaining enemies during wartime is “just as applicable to al Qaeda as it was to Nazi POWs in World War II.” This is blatantly misleading and Meese likely knows it. The Pentagon has, since “terror suspects” began to be held at the prison, maintained the prisoners are not POWs and thus not entitled to all of the international legal provisions affecting POWs. They have been considered “enemy combatants” or “unlawful combatants.”

If the “law of war” were applicable as the “law of war” was applicable to Nazi POWs, Meese might have an obligation to take a moment to chide all US politicians in Congress that have made it impossible and politically dangerous for one to support giving Guantanamo prisoners a fair trial in the United States. He might challenge those who would deny these “terror suspects” due process. He might also condemn Obama for supporting a policy of targeted assassinations that makes it permissible to kill suspects rather than take them into custody on charges of terrorism (after all, Nazis were given some semblance of due process and mere suspects weren’t assassinated). But, Meese’s argument is not one in defense of human rights. It is a deceptive and cleverly worded argument of semantics, all a part of a sinister game so-called believers in justice have played to defend Guantanamo.

Meese writes “one of the obvious ways to learn their intentions was through lawful interrogation at a safe detention facility. Guantanamo used as a detention facility since the Clinton administration was just such a place.” It has been reported that doctors at Guantanamo concealed evidence of torture. A top Bush administration official, Susan Crawford, admitted in January 2009 that Mohammed al-Qahtani had been tortured at Guantanamo. And this memo from Office of Legal Counsel Steven Bradbury indicates interrogation methods—forced nudity, dietary manipulation involving “minimum caloric intake at commercial weight-loss programs, facial and abdominal slapping, walling, stress positions, wall standing, cramped confinement, sleep deprivation and waterboarding”—which amount to torture were approved.

Meese challenges the idea that Guantanamo is a “recruiting tool for the enemy” with one of the weakest arguments possible.

It has been said that the mere existence of Guantanamo is a recruiting tool for the enemy. However, recall that there was no Guantanamo detention facility when al Qaeda bombed the World Trade Center in the 1990s or blew up the U.S. embassies in East Africa in 1998 or attacked the USS Cole in 2000. And I suspect that if the Bush administration had brought the Guantanamo detainees not to Cuba but to a detention facility in the United States, that facility would have been the object of their scorn and derision.

Essentially, Guantanamo is not an abomination radicalizing people in the Middle East because terrorist attacks have been committed before Guantanamo was used to hold prisoners. It’s not about where Gitmo is; it’s about what happens there. The argument can be obliterated by what military leaders like Gen. David Petraeus have admitted:

Gitmo has caused us problems, there’s no question about it. I oversee a region in which the existence of Gitmo has indeed been used by the enemy against us. We have not been without missteps or mistakes in our activities since 9/11. And again, Gitmo is a lingering reminder for the use of some in that regard.

Meese concludes by writing Guantanamo Bay has “played an invaluable role in the war against terrorists by keeping them off the battlefield and allowing for lawful interrogations.” This phony statement would be somewhat truthful if he had just written “played an invaluable role in the war against terrorists.” For the US, it has likely been part of why the “war on terror” has continued. Just like the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which have provided “terrorists” with a theater to battle America, Guantanamo has ensured Top Secret America can continue to pursue the war it so desperately wants to fight, whether there is evidence to support the global war or not.

He calls out former President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama for failing to offer an alternative to Guantanamo. Obama actually tried to move terrorists to a facility that could be a “Gitmo North” and be located in America. This isn’t what human rights supporters want. They want the prisoners to be released, as the majority have endured torture. They want any person who is actually dangerous to receive due process where proof of their danger or that they committed an actual crime is presented. But Obama did propose this alternative and Meese appears to be someone who did not approve of this compromise, which would have “symbolically” ended Guantanamo but continued it in another form.

It is appalling this op-ed from a person with a history in power will appear on CNN‘s website all throughout the tenth anniversary of Guantanamo. True, the news website has posted a firsthand account from Moazzam Begg, a former Guantanamo detainee, and a news website should be able to publish a wide range of views. But postings like these are why Americans continue to justify the torture and abuse of prisoners and the continued operation of Guantanamo.

Op-eds like this may appear to be level-headed and truthful. The arguments are presented in a rational manner. But they are born from an ideology of fear that uses fact-free logic. They masquerade as something enlightening and informative, but they rest on a staggering amount of disinformation and outright lies.

This may be typical of establishment media like CNN. But even the establishment has a tough time defending Guantanamo this openly these days. So, what CNN is doing here is manufacturing a debate where the evidence to support one side of the debate is largely non-existent.


Al Jazeera English’s “Inside Story” program on a “decade of Guantanamo”

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof Press. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."