Holder Unplugged

Ben Lerner
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Posted: Mar 20, 2010 12:01 AM

Reality keeps intruding on Attorney General Eric Holder’s approach to terrorism.

During recent testimony before the House Appropriations Commerce, Justice and Science Subcommittee, Holder had a heated exchange with Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas), over the rights of terrorists – specifically over whether a captured Osama bin Laden would need to be read his Miranda rights in accordance with the civilian prosecution model that Holder continues to advocate. 

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Holder’s response: “Let’s deal with reality…we will be reading Miranda rights to the corpse of Osama bin Laden.  He will never appear in an American courtroom…He will be killed by us, or he will be killed by his own people so he’s not captured by us.  We know that.”  End of story, according to Holder – no need to allow the question of civilian trials to get hung up on a remote hypothetical…except that a day later, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, commander of US forces in Afghanistan, stated that the goal of US forces remains to capture bin Laden alive, “something that is understood by everyone.”  Almost everyone, anyway. 

Reality struck again back when Holder declared – without consulting with local authorities – that 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his associates, currently held in Guantanamo Bay, would be tried in civilian court in Manhattan.  Public outcry followed, during which New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, and Members of Congress from both parties voiced strong opposition to the plan and urged Holder to reconsider.  The White House is now apparently close to reversing Holder’s decision, one that was clearly disconnected from any understanding of the risks associated with trying KSM in the federal court system.    

Remaining unplugged from reality, Holder continues to advocate for the cessation of terrorist detention operations at Guantanamo Bay, notwithstanding the fact that he toured the facility himself, declaring it “well-run”. 

I also recently toured the detention facilities at Guantanamo.  They are beyond “well-run” – seeing detention operations up close puts in stark relief the extent to which closing Gitmo would be not only entirely unnecessary, but even counterproductive. 

Far from being the “gulag of our time”, as Amnesty International famously intoned, Guantanamo is a place where Joint Task Force personnel go to great lengths to provide for the health and welfare of the detainees.  Detainees are provided up to 6,000 calories a day, with their choice of six hot meal options, including meat certified “halal” and brought in at taxpayer expense.  They have 24/7 access to their own hospital, complete with X-Ray machines, Intensive Care Units, and 500 different brand-name medications. 

The detainee library contains 13,000 books, and thousands of magazines and DVDs, in multiple languages – and every detainee is provided with daily copies of USA Today, Egyptian and Saudi newspapers, and two Korans.  Detainees are offered classes in literacy (Arabic and Pashto), English instruction, art, and “life skills” such as resume writing.  They are allowed to make phone calls every three months, with video setup, for at least one hour.  They are also offered at least four hours of recreation a day, sometimes in groups, depending on the rules of the specific camp – I saw three camps that had outdoor soccer fields, plus several with aerobic exercise equipment, table tennis, and foosball.  Even the maximum security Camp 5 allows compliant detainees three hours of TV a week, on top of their daily four hours of outdoor recreation time. 

Guantanamo allows detainees to practice Islam, providing them with prayer rugs, prayer caps, prayer beads, Korans, and other religious materials.  The recreation yard of Camp 5 (maximum security) has clearly drawn arrows in the cement, pointing towards Mecca.  Group prayer is allowed in Camps 4 and 6 (where communal living is the norm).  All detainees are allowed to observe religious holidays such as Ramadan, for which the detainee kitchen adjusts its own food prep schedule. 

This is only a sampling of how detainees are treated at Guantanamo.  Yet while this treatment may understandably prompt some to feel that the detainees have it too easy, and should be transferred to a “real prison”, closing down Gitmo detention operations would leave us less safe.

Gitmo is uniquely secure.  As Admiral Tom Copeman, Commander of the Joint Task Force - Guantanamo, indicated during an interview, “it ain’t easy getting here.”  The only people who can go down to Gitmo are those cleared as having business on the base – there is no “getting close” to it.  You are either in Gitmo with proper clearance, or you are at least a three hour flight away in Florida, separated by hundreds of miles of ocean.  There is no “uncontrolled land access” to the base, as Copeman put it. 

Security precautions surrounding detention operations at Gitmo are tight, and down to a science, due to several years of practicing and perfecting these measures there.  For example, journalists have photos they take in Guantanamo screened to ensure that sensitive security measures are not disclosed, and must be escorted at all times.  Guards do not share their names or hometowns with detainees, cannot refer to each other by name when in the presence of detainees, and cannot be photographed above the shoulders without consent.  Guards are not allowed to give an exact figure on the number of detainees currently in any given camp – they can only disclose a camp’s maximum capacity.  While some might argue that these measures could eventually be learned and implemented elsewhere, it is unlikely to be an overnight process.

Even harder to transplant onto another location would be the requisite wartime mindset that characterizes detention operations at Guantanamo.  As Admiral Copeman puts it, at Gitmo “war is being waged inside the wire”.  The al Qaeda instruction manual has trained detainees to see confinement as another front in the war – Gitmo personnel are trained to see it the same way, and have been for the past eight years. 

This is all to say nothing of the reality that once detainees touch ground inside the United States, their lawyers will argue that their physical presence here entitles them to a greater range of constitutional protections, in deference to previous Supreme Court rulings on such questions – an argument to which many judges will no doubt be receptive.  Transferring detainees to foreign custody is also extremely risky – according to the Department of Defense, one out of five detainees released from Guantanamo have returned to terrorism. 

The reality of Guantanamo is one with which Attorney General Holder has yet to come to terms.  One has to wonder how much longer he and President Obama will remain disconnected from it just to keep an ill-conceived campaign pledge.