Arthur Herman: The Gitmo Myth and the Torture Canard

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Arthur Herman’s Gandhi and Churchill was a finalist for the 2009 Pulitzer Prize in general non-fiction.]

On January 21, 2009, President Barack Obama issued his first executive order: He was closing the detention center at the Guantánamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba and calling a halt to the military commissions created in late 2001 to try terrorist suspects detained there. Like the startling opening chord of a Beethoven symphony, Obama’s action was intended to herald a new tone in America’s “war on terror” and a restoration of America’s moral standing. The response was electric. The facility at Guantánamo (Gitmo for short) had become “America’s most notorious prison,” as Fox News put it. In the minds of many, it was the American equivalent of the Bastille or the KGB’s Lubyanka prison: a dungeon used to isolate, intimidate, and torture generally hapless inmates, many of whom were innocent of any crime against the United States. Dana Priest of the Washington Post took to the paper’s front page to proclaim joyously that “with the stroke of his pen,” Obama had “effectively declared an end to the ‘war on terror,’ as President George W. Bush had defined it.” Now Obama could begin the process of rehabilitating America’s image around the world, the very image Gitmo had done so much to blacken.

Then several strange things happened. Obama’s order “closing” Gitmo actually left it open for a year, ostensibly until new arrangements could be made for the 240 or so inmates still detained there—though Obama admitted privately it might have to stay open longer than that. Later, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that, far from being “the Bermuda Triangle of human rights” that Human Rights Watch’s Wendy Patten had dubbed it, Gitmo was in full compliance with the humane-treatment provisions of the Geneva Convention. Meanwhile, the military commissions, which Human Rights Watch and others groups had denounced as a travesty of justice, were only being suspended for 120 days, pending a review—and, indeed, following that review, will be reinstated almost exactly as they were before.

If one adds to this mix:
• the twelve separate inquiries into the abuses alleged by critics and former detainees at Gitmo that found no evidence of those abuses taking place;
• the revelation during the release earlier this year of the so-called “torture memos” that waterboarding and other harsh interrogation techniques had been applied to exactly three suspects in the course of eight years and had never been standard operating practice at Gitmo;
• the evaluation by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point that 73 percent of Gitmo detainees were “a demonstrated threat” to Americans;
• and, finally, the fact that the detention facility was created in the wake of a declaration by Congress in September 2001 that “all necessary and appropriate force” should be used “against those nations, organizations, or persons” [emphasis added] responsible for the attacks of September 11;
—one may be permitted to wonder why, exactly, the pressure to close the prison facility has been so intense and long-lasting.

The standard argument is that the public shift in attitude toward Gitmo was gradual, and reflected a growing disillusionment with the war on terror as the sordid details of how George W. Bush and his assistants chose to wage it came out, including the supposed secret use of torture. Once the detention center had become a cesspool of human-rights abuse, the evil spawned there then seeped into other facilities where prisoners in the Bush war on terror were being held, most notoriously the Iraqi prison at Abu Ghraib. In 2004, former Vice President Al Gore announced that Abu Ghraib “was not the result of random acts by a ‘few bad apples’: it was the natural consequence of the Bush administration policy” of retaining and interrogating inmates at Gitmo.

What this account and others like it fail to take into consideration are the aggressive and unending efforts of a cadre of lawyers, activists, left-leaning Democrats in Congress, and civil libertarians against the facility, its purpose, its goal, and its existence. These efforts began even before it was opened, in November 2001, and continue to this day. The anti-Gitmo forces worked tirelessly to shape the public perception that Gitmo was the red-hot center of an aggressive policy approach that led the leftist financier George Soros to declare: “The biggest terrorist in the world is George W. Bush.”

The enemies of Bush and Gitmo have succeeded brilliantly. But in so doing, they have done grave violence to the truth about the Guantánamo Bay facility, have aided in the release of prisoners who have since committed acts of terrorism outside the United States, and may yet succeed in having Barack Obama’s government release young men with terrifying ambitions for murder and mass destruction onto the soil of the United States...

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