Shutting Down Guantanamo
Jumana Musa, advocacy director for domestic human rights and international justice at Amnesty International, speaks with Truthdig about the war on human rights, why conditions at Guantanamo have only gotten worse and why she has hope for the future.
This is Truthdig. James Harris here with Josh Scheer. On the phone: special guest Jumana Musa, advocacy director for domestic human rights and international justice at Amnesty International. As you work on this case as we get deeper and deeper into this war, perhaps exploring the idea of going to countries like Iran, perhaps Pakistan, furthering efforts in Afghanistan, what do you think is the most profound effect of the war on terror on human rights?
Jumana Musa: I think it’s kind of what you just said, which is, what started as allegedly a war on terror targeting some very specific groups who are alleged to have taken responsibility for some really serious acts has become in many ways a war on human rights and a war on the law, whether it’s U.S. law or international law. Even as you introduced it, you were talking about as we go from here … a war in Iraq, a war in Iran … from our perspective, we don’t see that as a war on terrorism; we see that as a war between nations. I just want to back it up some that way. I think it’s gotten so easy to use the term war on terror that for a lot of folks it doesn’t have any meaning any more or we don’t know what its meaning is. And so I’d like to bring it back to what it is we’re talking about.
There is an alleged war on terror that’s supposed to be dealing with some very specific issues but at the same time there’s the government’s interpretation of the war on terror which spans the globe in all places at all times, meaning that, rather than use what’s usually in place when there is a war, which is a human rights framework which says people have certain rights, that they want to use the law-of-war framework that says we can kill anyone anywhere, we can detain anybody anywhere because we’ve determined that even though it’s a law-of-war framework, people don’t actually have the protections of the law of war, so we can detain them for as long as we want however we want. And having gone down that road, it’s really become a war on human rights, and I think that’s where we get concerned. Not the idea that the U.S. is actually legitimately going after people who have plotted and planned attacks that amount to crimes against humanity, but the fact that they’ve just sort of taken the show on the road and said it applies to everywhere anytime, to anyone we say. And that’s where you end up with the problem.
Harris: A guy like Dick Cheney would probably say, if he didn’t have to be politically correct, “You know what? You’re damned right it’s a war on human rights. We are at war with a country. Why do we need to give them human rights? Why do we need to respect their dignity? They are prisoners of war.” What would you say to that kind of argument?
Musa: The first thing I would say is that Dick Cheney is still saying that al-Qaida was connected to Iraq even though numerous reports have said otherwise. The other part of it is this: The U.S. has said they are not prisoners of war. And, in fact, they don’t have rights. And they haven’t said that we’re at war with a country. They’re at war with groups and ideas, which is much more dangerous. We’re not saying, “We’re at war with Iran,” or “We’re at war with Iraq,” or “We are at war with this single nation.” They said, “We’re at war on terrorism, and that war will not be over until there’s no group of global reach that could commit a terrorist attack affecting the U.S. or U.S. targets.” Which basically means we’re in a forever war for all times and we cannot be bound in any way in the way we operate in that war. And if you look where that’s brought us, that’s brought us a couple of decisions from the Supreme Court that say, “Well, not exactly. You can’t really operate outside of any laws.” It’s brought us some serious rebukes from U.N. committees that look at our treaty obligations and how we comply with them. It’s got us some serious rebukes from Congress and even a Republican-led Congress that says, “Just because we might be at war or we might be fighting terrorists, that doesn’t mean that you get to throw all the rules out the window and commit cruel, inhuman, degrading treatment and interrogate people through these abusive means.
The fact is that someone like Dick Cheney might want to say that, but the rest of civil society understands why that’s a bad idea. And what we’ve seen more than anything is that the people who really understand it’s a bad idea is the folks who have been in the military, who are high-level in the military, who have advised us against this track from the very beginning. Because what they’ve said is, if we do that, we lose our order, we lose face overseas, we lose the principles we’ve always been bound by. And so you have soldiers who — for a long time they didn’t have any clarity on the rules because they threw the rulebook out the window. You have places like Guantanamo where now they have people who probably should’ve never been there. They can’t get rid of them, they don’t know where to put them. You have CIA agents getting indicted in European nations for kidnapping people off the streets, and that doesn’t bring us to a place that makes us feel safe and secure. It doesn’t bring us to a place where we’re saying, clearly this is working while we’re sharing information with our allies. Our allies are indicting us. And so, I think it’s not a question of, “Why should we?” but “Is this getting us anywhere?” And what we’ve seen so far is, it isn’t.
Josh Scheer: It was Lindsey Graham, I think, the Republican [from South Carolina], who said that the reason he voted against the Military Commissions Act was because this could be used against our own soldiers and you take away the [unintelligible] and there’s no rules. But besides that, you just came back from Guantanamo, I was told by you guys, and I want to talk about specifically Guantanamo Bay and what’s happening there. Can you just give us a brief … what’s happening there right now, for our listeners?
Musa: Sure, and I welcome them to go to our website, which is www.amnestyusa.org. We have some recent reports that talk about what’s going on there, but at this point there’s just under 400 people who are being held in Guantanamo. The government’s position is they can hold them indefinitely, until the end of the war on terror, which, as I said, may never end for generations. There’s also folks there who are scheduled for release that they can’t release because they can’t send them to their home countries and they can’t find another country to take them. There’s people there who may be facing charges in a system that won’t provide a fair trial for many reasons, including the fact that it allows evidence obtained through coercion or cruel, inhuman, degrading human treatment which would never see the inside of a court, U.S. court, or a court-martial. And it’s really situations now where the majority of people are living in a supermax facility, some even more serious than supermax facilities here in the U.S., living under standards that don’t even meet the standards of what a prison is supposed to be in the U.S.
And while some people say, “Well, who cares? … They’re bad people,” the fact is, they’re living in isolation and conditions of indefinite and arbitrary detention, and these are folks who’ve never been sentenced to anything. So when you put that all together, the fact that people were picked up from lots of different places, not really necessarily just on the battlefield fighting the war, but turned over for bounties and picked up in places like Bosnia and Gambia where there was no conflict going on, brought to Guantanamo, don’t actually have a sentence, so they don’t know — I’m here for the rest of my life, I’m here for five years, I’m here for two more months … no certainty for their future.
They’re also in a place where there’s not only uncertainty for their future but their situation has been getting worse. And when I say that, I know the government has said we’ve built new, modern facilities. They have air conditioning, they’re better than where they were staying before. … The problem with that notion is, maybe in physical structure, maybe it’s a solid structure that has air conditioning, but at this point a lot of these folks got moved even from Camp Four, which was less modern, perhaps, but you could eat communally, you could play sports and exercise communally, you could talk to people, you could see people, you could see natural sunlight. All of that is absent in Camp Six and Camp Five, which are like supermax facilities. People are in cells all day by themselves, without seeing natural sunlight, without being able to talk to people. And these things wear on people both physically and psychologically. So from our perspective, the situation in Guantanamo has gotten more serious than it was even a year ago.Scheer: I was just reading a press release from the ACLU and they were talking about closing it down. Also, this week, I believe Sen. Jim Webb said he thought all of Guantanamo should be shut down. Obviously, you guys are probably for that, you want at least some kind of fair trial, but do you think that’ll play in Washington? Jim Webb saying that? Do you think he’ll get some action done or do you think Washington’s just going to look the other way like they have for a while?
Musa: I certainly don’t speak for Washington politicians. But I would also point out that it’s not just Jim Webb but Secretary of Defense Robert Gates who said that he thought it should shut down. The fact is that during the time we were down in Guantanamo observing the plea agreement that was reached and the military commission for David Hicks, Secretary Gates was up here testifying to Congress that he didn’t think that any trial in Guantanamo was going to have the appearance or legitimacy of a fair trial because people were going to have the perception even partially by just being down there that it was unfair, and that he thought people should be moved up here and tried here. I think what’s significant about that is, about two years ago now, Amnesty International did come out and say quite publicly that we thought that Guantanamo should be closed. And at the time, very few people were saying that. At this point, the secretary of defense is saying that, and I think that shows some significant movement. It doesn’t mean it’s done, and it doesn’t mean it’ll be easily done.
And I think the biggest problem we have is the simple fact that the United States has created this untenable situation where they picked a place they thought was sort of beyond the law and that they could operate beyond the law. And then for various reasons they found out they couldn’t, whether it’s because the Supreme Court said that — it’s that Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions complying. You have to comply with that or other laws that have been passed. And now they’ve got a lot of people down there, again, some of which maybe should’ve never been there, that they don’t have anything to do with. Maybe their countries won’t take them back, maybe they can’t send them back to their countries, but they have no way to send the population that’s effective or safe. They don’t want to keep them there and they don’t want to take them here. In that sense, if they don’t bring people here and they don’t close the prison, then you’re talking about the United States being a country which will literally hold people till they die, in an isolated penal colony on a tip of occupied Cuba. And that should be offensive to anybody.
Scheer: Now how many of these people there … ? We’ve heard so many stories about charges and you’ve talked about bounty hunters and I heard a few years ago that warlords we were hired in Afghanistan were actually giving people they were just having problems with and not even Taliban. How many of these guys in there are innocent? Do you think there are more innocent people than guilty people? And what about these confessions that have just kind of come out with where they’re basically confessing to anything? What do you make of the whole situation?
Musa: The one thing I’ll say upfront is that we don’t take — we don’t know who’s guilty, who’s innocent, who’s this or who’s that. That’s exactly the problem with having taken away habeas for people in Guantanamo. I think part of the misperception is the idea that if you let people in Guantanamo come to court to challenge their detention, that it was a get-out-of-jail-free card and that it would open the gates and terrorists would then flood the world and attack America. The reality of the situation is that in order to know that, you need habeas. You need them to be able to come before an independent court and say, and basically challenge the government and say, “Why are you holding me?” And if the government has the evidence to say this person’s a serious criminal, we need to try them, this person’s a terrorist and if we don’t put them away they’re going to do something else. …” In that sense we would know. At this point we don’t know.
The problem is what we do know, by the Pentagon’s own transcripts, is that a large number of the people in Guantanamo were sold for bounties with fliers saying things. And people have found these fliers that you could have enough money to take care of your family, your tribe, your community, for the rest of your life. They were offering $5,000 a person, which I think is a good chunk of change here in the United States, but in Afghanistan, in Pakistan, this is a ton of money for some of these folks. And so, is it hard to see that there’s an incentive to round people up and say, “Hey, this guy’s al-Qaida. This guy’s Taliban. Here you go, take him”? I think that’s what we do know, is the way the people were detained and brought to Guantanamo was faulty to begin with, and there wasn’t good reviews in the beginning. And it is true that at this point they have people they detained, specially chose, that were “very high-value detainees,” as they call them, who we alleged to have committed very serious crimes. None of those guys were transferred to the island until September.
So it’s been this perception that they took all the really bad people there. The reality is that a lot of folks who were there at the beginning said there was no good process and they just took a bunch of people there, some who were as young as 13 when they got to the island, some who were so old that the people at the base at the time called them “old as dirt.” And that’s a quote. So at this point it really does call into question the entire detention regime, and then just saying everyone was really bad doesn’t fix that. So I can’t tell you that there’re this many people who are innocent and this many people who are guilty. What I can tell you is that the way they brought people there never gave them a chance to make that determination and never gave them a chance to properly classify people. And that does call into question who’s down there and why they’re there in the first place.
Scheer: And then to get on to rights. Do you think that habeas corpus, especially in international situations and the Geneva Conventions, do you think it’s dead? Do you think the Military Commissions Act killed all of this, or is there any kind of hope that in the international media we’ll ever get (1) our respect back or (2) these people’s rights back so they have fair trials and POWs are treated respectfully? Do you think it’s dead and won’t come back, or do you have hope?
Musa: I always have hope. I think sometimes there’s this perception that just because Congress passed a bill, that it’s all done and everybody goes home. The fact of the matter is, even though the president may not have acted this way the past few years, we do have a system of checks and balances. Yes, Congress can pass laws, but then again the courts can find those laws to be unconstitutional, or Congress can pass different laws and amend old laws, and there’s certainly a strong movement right now in Congress to repeal that provision that stripped habeas away. And so I don’t think that any of the acts that the U.S. has taken are irreversible. I just think it’s really critical that they start working to reverse them. And we’ve seen some. I’ve mentioned one with the McCain amendment, which affirms that cruel, inhuman, degrading treatment is not in fact legal overseas, which was the U.S.’s position that it may be prohibited in the U.S., but if we’re outside of the U.S. it’s legal. We’ve also seen the Supreme Court saying that parts of the Geneva Conventions do apply to these detentions. So they’re not in fact lawless detentions. We see also a new Army field manual that makes it very clear that many of the tactics that once were personally approved by Donald Rumsfeld are absolutely prohibited for any U.S. soldier and for anybody who is interrogating people in a U.S. DOD facility. So we’ve seen progress, and I don’t think anything’s irreversible. I just think that now is the time for people to really push to reverse some things, and I think habeas is one of the more critical.Harris: We’re talking to Jumana Musa of Amnesty International about the suspension of habeas corpus in Guantanamo Bay, among other things. Jumana, if we follow your line of logic and we follow our own humanity and hearts, we see that something is clearly wrong in Guantanamo Bay. What would you like to see happen to right these wrongs?
Musa: I think our perspective has been pretty clear. It’s never been — although we get accused of such, of being these mushy human rights groups that don’t understand security and therefore are off on a tangent. I think the reality of the situation that people need to understand is this, and I’ve said it before: Never once have we said that nobody has ever committed a crime, that people who are truly al-Qaida that are actually plotting attacks and this type of thing are good guys and shouldn’t be detained. From our position, anybody who would commit those kinds of acts has to be detained. They should be charged and given a fair trial and, if found guilty, put in prison. Granted, we are a human rights organization and, certainly, we don’t believe in recourse to the death penalty for many reasons, but the simple fact is that that is not the road the U.S. has gone down. And the U.S. has made this so broad that we would love to see it narrowed back to the way things are supposed to be, which is this: If you’re at war with another country, you comply with the laws of war. You don’t make up your own new rules and say, “We’ve decided that Geneva Conventions don’t apply to anybody, unilaterally, because I’m the president and I said so. We’ve decided that rules against torture, if we don’t call them torture, don’t count. We’ve decided.” It’s that kind of unilateralism that has to go.
What would be positive is an absolute return back to the laws and treaties that were already in place for the U.S., using the systems in place to try people. You referenced the Military Commission. … They said they needed the Military Commission back because without military commissions you couldn’t try any of the people in Guantanamo. What was very disingenuous about that is, the Department of Justice has touted over 250 terrorism convictions in U.S. courts. We have tried people for the first World Trade Center bombing here in U.S. courts. We’ve been able to deal with classified evidence here in U.S. courts. We have laws that accommodate that. We have laws that accommodate a lot of this. So I think, if anything, going back to the legal system that was in place before the U.S. went down this road, going back to the laws that were in place before the Military Commissions Act and actually complying with them. It’s not even making new rules, but complying with the laws and treaties the U.S. was already bound by before September 11th would go a long way towards fixing a lot of this. So it would be closing Guantanamo. It would be finally, absolutely, clearly renouncing the use of secret prisons, the use of a program … what they call “extraordinary renditions,” the idea that you can pick somebody up and send them to a country where they may be likely to face torture, but you can get a promise so it’s OK. It’s not OK. And so if they were to rein themselves back in and follow the laws and treaties that were already in place, I think we would be miles ahead of where we were.
Harris: Do you find it at all ironic that you’re requesting that the Bush administration follow the conventions set … in Geneva so many years ago, and they violated those very conventions when Bush decided to go to war? Do you really think that you’re going to be successful in this effort given your audience, given the Bush administration’s unwillingness to abide by those conventions, seriously?
Musa: Yes. And the reason I say that … again … I never said it was going to be a quick or easy fix, but I’ll say a couple of things. First, we have to be clear: We’re not an organization that’s partisan or promotes any one candidate, and the reason is, the next president doesn’t have to be Republican, doesn’t have to be somebody just like George Bush. Republicans and Democrats alike can violate human rights. I think our point about it is, this administration hasn’t been able to keep all their programs in place and they have had push-back, and they’ve had it from the other branches of government. They wanted to say that none of the Geneva Conventions applied. They just can’t say that anymore because the Supreme Court said it did, and they just can’t pretend that the Supreme Court didn’t speak, so there are checks on the system. Congress passed laws, and they can’t say they don’t count. They try to issue signing statements, but it’s important to remember that people have really questioned those signing statements that said, yes, I’m signing this bill with my understanding of the law, which, as you know, if you look at the Bush administration’s understanding of the law, it’s that the president doesn’t have to comply with it because he’s the commander in chief.
At the same time, the people would actually have to implement some of these things, such as interrogation techniques, that might violate not only what were existing obligations but these new laws, or these new rulings from the Supreme Court. Those folks have their own personal interest, to the point that it’s not the Bush administration as a whole that would go on trial if somebody was held accountable for torture or other bad behavior of people in custody. It would be that individual, and so that’s also a check on the system. It’s what are individuals willing to do and are they willing to risk themselves? And I think increasingly we’re seeing that people are not. So, again, I’m not saying that it’s because this administration has somehow seen the light and decided that human rights are the way to go and they really like international law and the Geneva Conventions were so important. That’s simply not the point. The point is having an informed constituent, having an informed constituent who’s willing to speak, who’s willing to press their elected officials, having a judicial branch that’s willing to look at the law and not policy, and going from there. And so I think to think that nothing will change would be to accept the president’s premise that because he’s the commander in chief he gets to make all the rules, and it just goes that way. And we don’t believe that.
Scheer: And I’m glad the Supreme Court doesn’t serve at the pleasure of the president because the chief justice and [Associate Justice Samuel] Alito, I’m glad they have their own minds and aren’t like the attorney general. And on that point, are you saying the Supreme Court — ? Many people, I don’t think, know what the Supreme Court even does anymore, and you’re saying that with Alito and [Chief Justice John] Roberts, the justices, they are going away from the Roves and Bushes and they’re going more with their jurist minds and less of their political minds?
Musa: I’m not saying that every Supreme Court justice is taking that position, but this Supreme Court that’s currently sitting is the one that considered the Hamdan case. When the decision came down last June, granted, Chief Justice Roberts didn’t sit in on that decision, rightfully so because he actually was on the appeals court that had made — the federal appeals court at the time that made the decision that was appealed to the Supreme Court. But it was a 5-to-3 ruling, so five justices said, “We don’t accept these commissions as they were set up. We think they’re unlawful. We think that the president exceeded his authority. And Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions applies to these detentions.” And that’s what they said. I know sometimes people say there’s no way this court — they’re too conservative. It was this court. Five justices said so. I know someone tried to say, oh, but that’s so slim. That’s not the point. A ruling is not about how big is your majority; it’s about, do you have a majority? And that’s what the majority of the court said. What will they say next time around? I don’t know. But the simple fact is, that’s what they said this time around. I think it’s a clear indication that there are people who sit on this court who recognize that we have these obligations, that these are important obligations, and that the United States needs to uphold them.
Scheer: Also, historically, the Supreme Court, no matter what political position you are, the law of the land and certainly the Constitution of the United States, are upheld overall. Hopefully this court will help you guys out. Again, thanks for talking to us today.
Scheer: It was great and good, informative. And hopefully … and what’s your website again, just for the Truthdiggers out there who want to dig with the Amnesty International USA?
Musa: It’s www.amnestyusa.org, and if you want to sign up for a denounce-torture campaign, we’re actually going to be doing a lot of work on this, especially in June, working to restore habeas and end extraordinary renditions, and we’d love it if you joined us.
Scheer: Thank you very much.
Musa: Thank you.
Harris: Jumana Musa, human rights attorney for Amnesty International. You have homework to do, audience, because she’s told us about some things that are just not right in Guantanamo Bay, and public awareness is always king. Be sure to visit the website. One more time, Jumana?
Musa: www.amnestyusa.org. Click on “Shut Down Guantanamo.”
Harris: For Josh Scheer, for Jumana Musa, this is James Harris, and this is Truthdig.