News stories do not always collide with symbolic resonance –- and especially not in close proximity to such an esteemed event as America’s Day of Independence –- but two particular stories, in the last few days, have conspired to demonstrate the twin extremes of the Bush administration’s disregard for the law.
On the one hand, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, close adviser to Dick Cheney and convicted perjurer, had his two and a half year sentence –- for covering his boss’s ass and lying about the outing of CIA agent Valerie Plame –- conveniently dismissed by the President, who called it “excessive.” Libby, sensitive news outlets informed us, will still have to pay a fine of $250,000 and suffer two years of probation, but while his story, which emerged on 2 July, was still dominating the media, Independence Day itself was marked by an Associated Press article which focused on those at the other end of Bush’s scale of justice: the “enemy combatants” of Guantánamo Bay, who, we learned from the recently installed prison commander Navy Rear Admiral Mark H. Buzby, may, after 2,000 days of illegal imprisonment without charge and without trial, be allowed to watch a movie once a week.
Buzby explained that this privilege would initially be extended to the “best-behaved” prisoners, the 45 men –- mostly Afghans –- held in Camp 4, a communal block reserved for the “most compliant” prisoners, and explained that the authorities had recently started allowing these prisoners to watch soccer matches and other programs vetted for jihadi content, including nature documentaries and episodes of “Deadliest Catch,” a Discovery Channel series about crab fishing crews off the Alaskan coast. Buzby added that there were even plans to introduce TV-watching privileges to the 330 or so prisoners held in Camps 5 and 6, the blocks modeled on “Supermax” prisons on the mainland, where the prisoners are held in solitary confinement for up to 23 hours a day in windowless cells.
After describing plans to increase the almost non-existent recreational areas in both these camps, Buzby said that the authorities were considering a way to allow the prisoners in Camp 6 –- “and possibly Camp 5,” reserved for the “least compliant” prisoners, or those with purported “intelligence value” –- to watch some television, perhaps putting the TV set on a cart so that they could watch programs in the recreation area. “We’re proceeding cautiously forward with these initiatives and as long as everybody behaves themselves we will probably be able to provide these things,” the commander added.
There is, of course, more to this story than is at first apparent. What Buzby failed to mention was that those held in solitary confinement in Camps 5 and 6 include at least 80 prisoners who have been cleared for release for at least a year, and that, unlike prisoners on the US mainland –- say, for example, convicted mass murderers –- who are regularly allowed visits by family members, and, typically, have unlimited access to books, TV, music, pens and paper, the prisoners in Guantánamo have, for five and a half years, only been allowed to have a copy of the Koran, have never been allowed family visits, have persistently had all correspondence to and from their families either “misplaced,” delayed or heavily censored, have only had sporadic access to books, have had no access to TV, except when granted as a reward for cooperation by their interrogators, and have had no access to music –- with the exception of Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA,” which was played every morning in the early days of Camp X-Ray, “The Star-Spangled Banner,” which, until 2005, was regularly broadcast to interrupt evening prayers, and, it should be noted, the songs by, amongst others, Eminem, Li’l Kim and Rage Against the Machine that were regularly played at deafening volume, and for many long hours, as part of the process of “setting the conditions” for interrogations that were introduced by Major General Geoffrey Miller during his tenure as the prison commander in 2002 and 2003, when this aural assault was frequently accompanied by strobe lighting, and took place in rooms where the prisoners were short-shackled in painful positions and frequently left alone until they soiled themselves.
As for writing materials, a forthcoming book of poems by Guantánamo prisoners, Poems from Guantánamo: The Detainees Speak, edited and compiled by law professor Marc Falkoff, who represents 17 Yemeni prisoners, notes that poems written in Guantánamo by a wrongly imprisoned Afghan poet were scratched into a Styrofoam cup with a pebble and were then passed in secret from cell to cell. When the guards discovered what was happening, they smashed the cups and threw them away, fearing that it was a way of passing coded messages. As the military explained, poetry “presents a special risk, and DoD [Department of Defense] standards are not to approve the release of any poetry in its original form or language,” out of a fear that poetry’s allegorical imagery could be used to convey coded messages to militants outside.
Such is the military’s paranoia that when Clive Stafford Smith, the legal director of the charity Reprieve, who represents several dozen prisoners in Guantánamo, met with Ahmed Errachidi, the wrongly imprisoned Moroccan chef who was recently released, he realized that there was no way that the recipes that Errachidi eagerly wrote out for him during their meetings would get past the military censors. Because Errachidi dared to speak out about the prisoners’ treatment in Guantánamo, he was regarded, erroneously, as an al-Qaeda commander, and Stafford Smith realized that his recipes would undoubtedly be construed by the authorities as coded plans for the construction of a nuclear bomb.
Small wonder, then, that when asked by the Associated Press for comments on the latest developments at Guantánamo, Marc Falkoff declared, “These Band-Aid measures are going to do nothing to help alleviate the hopelessness and despair that many of our clients are fighting,” and added, “I hope that learning about these ‘improvements’ will help the public understand how harsh our clients’ lives have been for more than five years.”
For more on the conditions in Guantánamo, see my book Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed.
As published on CounterPunch.
I had some interesting responses to this article when it appeared on Counterpunch, which I thought I’d post here:
Anthropologist David Price, of St Martin’s University (http://homepages.stmartin.edu/fac_staff/dprice/CW-PUB.htm), who specializes in historical and contemporary interactions between American anthropologists and military and intelligence agencies, wrote:
Nice Counterpunch piece.
The FBI has long suspected that poetry was a secret code. I suppose the best poetry is by its very nature – but never the sort these crude thugs imagine. One of my favorite examples of this shows up in Natalie Robins’ fine book, Alien Ink: The FBI’s War on Freedom of Expression, where Robins examines MD poet William Carlos William’s FBI file and finds that the FBI was so concerned that his poems were somehow secret codes to unseen communists that they had an agent pose as a nurse in WCW’s office to spy and see what was really going on. Turns out what was really going on was poetry: gee, imagine that.
In his poem, Vignettes, Richard Eberhart wrote:
In 1952 I was sitting in my office, in Seattle,
When in came the FBI, truculent and bristling.
Did I know a poet named William Carlos Williams?
He had written a subversive poem called “The Pink Church”
in which he called the Russians comrades. Weren’t they?
We were shoulder to shoulder in the war. I said he was
As good an American as they were or I was,
Investigate America, go back and read his poetry.
Thanks, and peace. David
Dr P. Wilkinson in Dusseldorf wrote:
Reading your report on conditions at Guantánamo, I could not help thinking of all the conversations I have heard from people in the US (but also elsewhere) where the idea that people in prison should have TV, books, or anything comfortable (decent) was turned into a tirade about pampering prisoners who were there to be punished. Of course these discussions were based on ignorance since anyone who has ever been incarcerated for even a few hours knows that there is nothing pampering about being behind bars. Nonetheless this image of prison as a place where people have to be PUNISHED without limit still prevails among a large segment of the population. Funnily enough the same people believe that the death penalty is far more “merciful” than life imprisonment. I think that when these prison directors announce “privileges” they are trying to imply that these people are being punished as much as possible and so that the “correctional” function can be legitimated, they say we have people who respond and therefore can be rewarded with a microgram of their stolen dignity… I wish we had a less vindictive culture capable of real outrage at what US prisons are (and have always been). In the days of the Soviet Union there were those frequently publicized offers of asylum to the “political prisoners” of the USSR. No one has any means of ransoming US political prisoners – even if that would not solve the problem. The very recognition internationally that these are persecuted people and not criminals (the same applies obviously to mainland parts of the Gulag) would certainly be helpful. There is NO one at GITMO who is a criminal or terrorist under any internationally recognized standard of law. However, I fear that neither Europe nor the bulk of American citizens have any say in the matter.
Carol Ross wrote:
Thank you very much for giving these poor people a voice. I have felt bad for them for years. I hope your book will in some way help them to be released from the illegal conditions in which they are being held. I will certainly buy your book when it is released. Thank you again for trying to help them.
And from Strathmore, Canada, Orest Slepokura wrote:
You give new meaning to the Blakean phrase, “a fearful symmetry.”
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