2015 was supposed to be the year I visited Guantánamo Bay.
I was meant to attend pretrial hearings in April for the five “HVDs” — high-value detainees — held at the prison. The HVDs are accused of involvement in 9/11; topping the list is Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the attacks.
I booked a flight from Beirut to Washington, D.C., and badgered the army official in charge of allocating seats on the plane from Andrews Air Force Base to Guantánamo until I was assured a spot. When I arrived to D.C., however, I was informed that the hearings had been canceled due to complications arising from the FBI’s infiltration of one of the defense teams the previous year.
As defense lawyer Ramzi Kassem had remarked a few months earlier: “The imperatives and mechanics of justice and intelligence gathering are, to a significant extent, incompatible. Nowhere is that contradiction sharper than at Guantánamo, where those two worlds collide.”
This particular observation had been made in response not to the FBI infiltration but rather to the news that one of the interpreters at Guantánamo client was an ex-employee of a CIA black site.
As the prison complex now celebrates its 14th birthday — more than seven years after Barack Obama promised to shut it down — worldly collision continues apace. And while it may be clear to any objective observer that “justice” does not exist within the realm of possible outcomes at a U.S. detention camp-cum-torture chamber operated on occupied Cuban territory, the U.S. makes every effort to distract from the bigger picture by cultivating a façade of fairness and respect for human dignity in day-to-day procedures at Guantánamo.
Back in 2010, for example, The Miami Herald’s Carol Rosenberg reported on “a new twist in the U.S. military’s Islamic sensitivity effort in the prison camps … Military medical staff are force-feeding a secret number of prisoners on hunger strike between dusk and dawn during the Muslim fasting holiday of Ramadan.” Among the enticing menu selections was butter pecan-flavored Ensure (“Flavor made no difference going down, one nurse explained, but a captive could taste it if he burped later”).
Never mind that the apparent respect for Ramadan is more than canceled out by the fact that having feeding tubes jammed into one’s orifices against one’s will is also a form of torture. According to the U.S. approach, a million wrongs somehow make a right.
But what exactly is the point of keeping Guantánamo open when it’s widely regarded as a liability — detrimental to the American image worldwide and fueling anti-American sentiment — in addition to being mind-blowingly expensive?
For starters, ample bipartisan commitment to over-the-top incarceration schemes, not to mention the sizable profits generated by the prison industry, is part of what has helped make the U.S. a veritable prison nation.
Guantánamo, of course, is a special case: an offshore penal colony that’s close enough to administer with ease but far enough away to exist on the margins of legality.
Writing in The New Yorker about the naval base’s pre-9/11 functions, Vanderbilt University’s Paul Kramer discusses the territory’s utility as a holding pen for Haitians attempting to flee the brutal 1991 coup in that country. By July 1992, he notes, refugee interception operations by the U.S. Coast Guard had led to a situation in Guantánamo in which “nearly 37,000 people were confined in makeshift tent cities ringed with barbed wire.”
Regarding the ensuing showdown in a New York court over the camp’s dismal conditions, Kramer explains: “Lawyers for the government responded that Gitmo was simply ‘a military base in a foreign country’ and ‘not United States territory.’ Detainees there were ‘outside the United States and therefore they have no judicially cognizable rights in United States courts.’”
A convenient precedent, no doubt.
In its current incarnation, the attractions of Guantánamo are numerous. The facility houses America’s mega-enemies, whose human qualities as well as possible motivations for the crimes they’re alleged to have committed are kept safely out of reach of the U.S. public. This justifies not only their continued imprisonment and mistreatment but also ongoing war against other larger-than-life threats across the globe.
Furthermore, Guantánamo offers a hermetic container for more than just physical bodies: thoughts, too, are contained. Because so many of the details of the pervasive torture meted out to terror suspects in the aftermath of 9/11 by the U.S. and its allies are deemed too dangerous to release, many victims of torture who are now detained at Guantánamo are effectively silenced. As Lisa Hajjar, author of “Torture: A Sociology of Violence and Human Rights,” once put it: “Their memories are classified.”
Inmate Mohamedou Ould Slahi’s book Guantánamo Diary, written in 2005, was finally published last year with more than 2,500 Defense Department redactions. Military censors took the liberty of removing not only pertinent information about Slahi’s sexual abuse by guards but also more seemingly banal details like the name of the late Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser.
But even if these and other valuable state secrets begin to seep out of the prison camp, prospects for terminating the whole abusive structure remain dim. As James Connell, a civilian counsel for HVD Ammar al-Baluchi, commented in an email to me:
“Closing Guantánamo means standing up for human rights and the rule of law, which are not politically popular in the United States at the moment. Even President Obama’s [‘closure’] plan doesn’t actually close Guantánamo; it simply relocates indefinite detention and military tribunals to a Guantánamo North within the United States.”
And while, at 14, the detention camp may still be relatively young, it’s pretty much guaranteed that — no matter what happens in Gitmo — the U.S. disdain for justice will continue to thrive.
Belén Fernández is the author of “The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work,” published by Verso. She is a contributing editor at Jacobin magazine.