Monday, June 16, 2008

McClatchy: We Got The Wrong Guys

We don't express, often enough, the enormous debt that we owe organizations like McClatchy--they do the heavy lifting of the actual reporting, we do the blogging, and they do excellent work. THIS series is Pulitzer worthy already--it details what we need to know about the detainees at Guantanamo Bay in a way that shows that the US is not fighting the war on terror in a way that would make us proud:

An eight-month McClatchy investigation in 11 countries on three continents has found that [Mohammed] Akhtiar was one of dozens of men — and, according to several officials, perhaps hundreds — whom the U.S. has wrongfully imprisoned in Afghanistan, Cuba and elsewhere on the basis of flimsy or fabricated evidence, old personal scores or bounty payments.

McClatchy interviewed 66 released detainees, more than a dozen local officials — primarily in Afghanistan — and U.S. officials with intimate knowledge of the detention program. The investigation also reviewed thousands of pages of U.S. military tribunal documents and other records.

This unprecedented compilation shows that most of the 66 were low-level Taliban grunts, innocent Afghan villagers or ordinary criminals. At least seven had been working for the U.S.-backed Afghan government and had no ties to militants, according to Afghan local officials. In effect, many of the detainees posed no danger to the United States or its allies.

The investigation also found that despite the uncertainty about whom they were holding, U.S. soldiers beat and abused many prisoners.

Prisoner mistreatment became a regular feature in cellblocks and interrogation rooms at Bagram and Kandahar air bases, the two main way stations in Afghanistan en route to Guantanamo.

Why did this happen? Well, for starters--poor leaders. Weak, ineffective leaders who did not know, chose not to respect, or ignored the rule of law meant we had people in the field doing things that reflect badly on them and on all of us. To date, many have been put on trial, but, really, that's just scapegoating. Like the old adage--if a ship runs aground, the Captain of the ship is relieved--then the policy should be that if troops under a general officer's command abuse detainees or prisoners, they should be relieved. If you make THAT the rule, every commander will sit up and pay attention--and respect the rules of war.

McClatchy's expanded coverage adds this to the mix:

The Defense Department has said that detainee abuse in places such as Bagram was the work of a handful of wayward soldiers. Even after Habibullah and Dilawar were beaten to death, U.S. military officials continued to say that such violence was isolated.

Cammack and other soldiers say the abuse was the outcome of sending troops, often reservists with no background in detainee operations, to installations where the rules were unclear and they received little support.

"It tore us down mentally really bad," said Cammack, who pleaded guilty to hitting Habibullah and received three months in prison and a bad-conduct discharge. "You had no support whatsoever ... everybody hit their boiling point."

Cammack was a specialist in the 377th Military Police Company, a reserve unit based in Cincinnati. Many of his buddies were small-town police officers or, like him, blue-collar laborers. He was one of four soldiers from the unit who agreed to interviews with McClatchy.

No one at Bagram, Cammack said, had any idea what he was doing. Senior officers who came through the Bagram Collection Point paid no attention to the privates and sergeants, who, Cammack said, were slowly losing control of themselves in the face of the war in Afghanistan.

I'm not going to fault Cammack for his perception--he was there, I was not. But I suspect that there are two issues here. One, if he, as a member of a Military Police unit, didn't know how to handle people in his custody, then he hasn't been trained properly. Military Police units should all be required to know how to handle detainees and prisoners in any and all events. If he and the members of his unit are predominantly police officers, then they know that there are rules for treating people in their custody. Those rules should have been defined and explained to them in Afghanistan--as in, hell yes, you can shoot someone if they're a threat to you, but no, you can't just beat the hell out of people because you don't like how fast they're eating. Second, it wasn't a "wayward soldier" issue. It was a leadership issue, and clearly, Cammack was made a scapegoat for failed leadership.

What the McClatchy series does is peel away the covers on how we handled these issues--the capturing, the detaining, and the processing of people suspected of being terrorists. If you want a clear cut example of what this process looked like in, for example, 2004, please see THIS .pdf file and note that a very clear-cut legal basis for capturing, holding, and putting these detainees on trial was attempted by the Bush Administration.

I say, "attempted" for obvious reasons--the legal basis for what they were doing was shaky, at best, and many of the sources were unreliable.

Mozzam Begg is in the McClatchy database of detainees, and his case is one found in that .pdf. You can see the government going back and forth--is he or isn't he?

McClatchy details his story here:

From childhood, Moazzam Begg relished tales of heroes, those who protect the very weak from the very strong. In his Jewish school, he heard them from his teachers. In his Muslim home, he heard them from his father. Later, on weekends, he heard them from an English lady-friend of his father.

The stories were about vastly different peoples: from ancient Jews to Arabian legends to more modern Britons. But to Begg the stories had several things in common: All were about people who stood up for what was right, no matter how strong the opponent. And all inspired him.

He never dreamed, however, that an arrest and three years of what he calls "torture light" in a superpower's prison would put him in a position to carry on their fight. Today, as he travels around the United Kingdom, speaking to university gatherings, politicians and civic groups, exposing what he describes as the inhuman nature of the U.S. Guantanamo Bay terrorist prison, he thinks that it has.

Begg was arrested on Jan. 31, 2002, at his home in Islamabad, Pakistan, while his wife and children slept nearby. During the next three years, U.S. authorities would accuse him of operating, funding and supporting al Qaida camps and operations. He maintains that while he'd supported Islamic causes in the past, including Kashmiri groups favoring secession from India in the mid-1990s, he'd never been involved in al Qaida or any movement that promoted violence against the West. In the 1990s, he'd traveled to Bosnia during its war and he'd attempted to travel to Chechnya during the conflict in that breakaway Muslim republic of Russia.

He says that what the U.S. claimed was an al Qaida camp he'd funded and was directing in Afghanistan was a girls school. The school in Kabul was an experiment under Taliban rule, which didn't allow co-education, to prove that girls could be well educated within a Muslim country. He says that he and his wife raised money for two years before heading to Afghanistan in 2001, and both taught there. His daughter even attended the school, he said.

He said they fled Afghanistan for Pakistan when the U.S. began bombing to oust the Taliban regime, and hoped to return to Afghanistan to reopen the school. He'd been in Islamabad for about three months when he was arrested.

Begg said that from the first moment of his arrest, he was convinced that the Americans had no idea whom they were seizing.

"When they put me in the vehicle, an American guard, who was trying very badly to look Pakistani, showed me a pair of handcuffs and told me, 'These were given to me by the wife of one of the September 11 victims. I promised her I'd use them to handcuff one of the men responsible.' He then put the handcuffs on me. All I could think was, 'Won't he feel stupid when he realizes I'm the wrong guy.' In the end, I don't think he cared. I was dark-skinned, that's all that mattered," Begg said.

And I go back to this issue--who the hell was that soldier and why didn't he have someone in his chain of command tell him to knock it off? He may very well have been given handcuffs and told to go get someone who was responsible for the 9/11 attacks. Well, did it ever occur to the guy to get the right person? Instead of just any person?

My position is this--we are going to make mistakes in a time of war. But if we maintain a solid foundation in the rule of law and make damned sure we have good leaders doing what they are supposed to be doing, we'll be able to do what we need to do--and that is kill the terrorists and protect this country--while still having a framework that allows us to criticize our conduct, evaluate what we do, and compensate anyone who is not treated fairly.

I am all for fighting the war on individuals who use "terrorism" as their chief tactic of achieving their goals. I am against being a dumbass about it. The smart way to fight terrorism is to spend a little bit of time and effort to find the Mohammed Akhtiars and the Moazzam Beggs and whoever else and ask them, pay them, and recruit them to fight on OUR side where possible. I'm funny that way--I see the world in a way that must make the neoconservatives giggle and fall down. I see the world as being many, many shades of gray, and if we are intelligent and surgical in the way we counter the ideology of the people against us by convincing the fence sitters and the somewhat apolitical people in their society to join us and help us if we promise not to abandon them (our track record there isn't so hot, I admit) then maybe--just maybe--we can counter the rise of the individuals who use radical Islam as their foundation for recruiting followers.

I would submit that we are in the position that we're in because the leadership at the top didn't pay attention to the important things. They paid attention to consolidating their power and demonizing their political enemies back home.

And we're suffering because of those choices.

For the record, no. I don't hate America. But thanks for asking. It makes me feel special.

No comments: