Monday, January 18, 2010

Keeping the Guanatanmo issue alive

Several of the blogs are focusing on a recent article in Harper’s that casts doubt on government claims that three Guantanamo prisoners who died in 2006 committed suicide. Andrew Sullivan has posted several excerpts from the article:

There are now credible accounts that, far from being suicides, these deaths were either the result of serious negligence in treatment of prisoners under "enhanced interrogation" or that, quite simply, they were tortured so badly in what appears to be a secret Gitmo black site that they died. Their deaths were then covered up and faked as suicides. Like some footnote in Daniel Jonah Goldhagen's work, these suicides were nonetheless described by the military as aggressive acts of asymmetrical warfare against the U.S. Many branches of government must have been involved in such an act of torture or negligence or both, and the subsequent cover-up - from the FBI, the Justice Department, the State Department, the Pentagon and the CIA, and JSOC. The cover-up appears to have been continued by the Obama administration - a staggering surrender to pragmatism that is in fact a cooptation of evil.

As I do with most big news stories, I am trying to reserve judgment on this until I see more facts fleshed out.

The story paints a picture of “coercive interrogations” that may have resulted in the brutal deaths of three prisoners whose guilt (and, for that matter, who intelligence value) was questionable at best. My gut reaction is, “This is horrible and nightmarish, if it is true.”

I can’t emphasize that second point enough. I have never heard of Staff Sergeant Joseph Hickman (the whistleblower quoted at length in the article), Teresa McHenry (the Justice Department official who investigated Hickman’s claims), Colonel Michael Bumgarner (the Guantanamo commander in charge of the cell block where the detainees died), or, for that matter, Scott Horton; therefore, all I have to go on is this particular story.

What is important to me is that the current administration takes some decisive action to vet these claims, either to expose officials who committed war crimes or to clear the names of American military and intelligence personnel whose integrity has been called into question – whichever the case may be.

I’m not even opposed to the administration doing so quietly until other, more pressing concerns are addressed (i.e., unemployment, healthcare, etc.). Simply put, even if this story is true, I wouldn't necessarily be willing to sacrifice political capital in pursuing these allegations until the administration clears away some of the issues that affect the country as a whole. That sounds cold and pragmatic, and some might even characterize such a position as lacking in courage.

But the truth is that a full-blown investigation into Guantanamo, and the Bush administration's practices in the war on terror, is not cost-free. The fact that the likes of Sarah Palin and Dick Cheney still have an audience means that such an investigation would become heavily-politicized, and pursuing it would require a significant portion of the administration's attention. The administration could make such an investigation its top priority, but make no mistake -- other controversial policy goals would need to be sacrificed.

I don't think that the Obama administration should permanently turn a blind eye to the abuses of the Bush years. However, I find some goals to be more important than others, and issues such as healthcare, unemployment, reform of the financial sector, and energy independence matter more if the administration has to choose where it focuses its energy.

However unpalatable, the best option in the short term may be to keep the Guantanamo issue alive in the blogosphere through stories like these, and pushing for a more concerted focus when the administration is in a stronger position politically. Putting something on the backburner isn't the same as taking it off the stove.

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