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The Least Worst Place

[ 0 ] May 30, 2009 |

I just finished reading Karen Greenberg’s excellent The Least Worst Place: Guantanamo’s First 100 Days, a book that is (for obvious reasons) relevant to the hyperventilating spasms currently being mistaken for a “debate” about what to do with the crown jewel of Bush administration lawlessness. It takes a more narrow approach to questions of law, detention and interrogation than recent work by Jane Mayer or Philippe Sands — whose books serve well as companions to Greenberg’s — but the book is a valuable reminder of why the facility (and the legal theories that gave birth to it) need to dismantled as soon as possible.

Greenberg focuses on the first three months of the facility because they coincide with the tenure of Michael Lehnert, the Marine brigadier general tasked with overseeing the initial wave of detainees brought to Cuba in early 2002. Less than a decade earlier, as part of Operation Sea Signal, Lehnert had managed a detention facility at Guantanamo for Cuban and Haitian refugees; there, as Greenberg explains, he developed a reputation for “tending to the spirit as well as the physical health of those in his custody.” In other words, while Lehnert’s earlier experience at Guantanamo (and earlier at Subic Bay) made him an appropriate candidate for managing a wartime detention facility, he possessed a moral sensibility that was completely alien to the people — Rumsfeld, Yoo, David Addison, Jim Haynes among others — who were developing the policies that would soon enough turn camps X-Ray and Delta into laboratories for torture and embarrassments to the rule of law. Lehnert and others in Joint Task Force 160 happened to believe that the Geneva Conventions were not, in fact, “quaint,” and they were by no means horrified (as the Bush administration was) by the suggestion that the Red Cross be permitted access to the facility and its captives. Indeed, to the degree that it would have been possible to create a “humane” situation, it seems that Lehnert and his colleagues were moderately successful at doing so, at least until the White House and the Pentagon clarified that the prisoners at Guantanamo were to be harvested around the clock for intelligence.

Greenberg’s account of Guantanamo under Lehnert is interesting for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that it underscores two of the qualities — (a) an aimless incompetence on policy and (b) an abiding faith in the notion that beating the shit out of people produces decent tactical intelligence — for which the Bush administration will always be remembered. As she points out, Rumsfeld’s office along with the Office of Legal Counsel provided little guidance to Lehnert and his team as they prepared to accept the first round of detainees. He and his staff filled the void, albeit temporarily, with a body of practices that a different administration — one committed to following the law — might have judged acceptable, particularly if that administration had actually been interested in charging and bringing prisoners to trial. But the White House and the Pentagon, because they expected to leave the detainees on the island forever, quickly nudged aside the folks who had originally been assigned to the project, creating an entirely new task force staffed with people who had no qualms about “enhanced interrogations” and accepted the prevailing administration view that Gitmo detainees were insufficiently human to deserve Geneva protections. This parallel unit — JTF 170 — was focused on interrogating prisoners (rather than simply maintaining custody over them); its existence created additional confusion to an already fragmented situation.

Although The Least Worst Place suggests in some ways that the history of the Guantanamo facility could have turned out otherwise, such an outcome would have required a government that actually paid attention to people — like Lehnert — who seemed to have a decent, practical awareness of how to manage complex situations. For an administration that demonstrated continually that professionalism mattered far less than ideology, it’s depressingly hard to imagine how any of that might have come to pass.

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