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Hullabaloo


Monday, January 18, 2010

 
Moral Travesty

by digby

I have been reading a lot around the sphere about how the administration shouldn't be criticized for not being able to get various things through congress because the congress is a dysfunctional institution, badly in need of reform and there's not much you can do when you just don't have the votes.

Ok fine. But there's no excuse for not dealing with this. And I'm not making a political argument here. There's simply no excuse for not dealing with it for any reason:

Late in the evening on June 9 that year, three prisoners at Guantánamo died suddenly and violently. Salah Ahmed Al-Salami, from Yemen, was thirty-seven. Mani Shaman Al-Utaybi, from Saudi Arabia, was thirty. Yasser Talal Al-Zahrani, also from Saudi Arabia, was twenty-two, and had been imprisoned at Guantánamo since he was captured at the age of seventeen. None of the men had been charged with a crime, though all three had been engaged in hunger strikes to protest the conditions of their imprisonment. They were being held in a cell block, known as Alpha Block, reserved for particularly troublesome or high-value prisoners.

As news of the deaths emerged the following day, the camp quickly went into lockdown. The authorities ordered nearly all the reporters at Camp America to leave and those en route to turn back. The commander at Guantánamo, Rear Admiral Harry Harris, then declared the deaths “suicides.” In an unusual move, he also used the announcement to attack the dead men. “I believe this was not an act of desperation,” he said, “but an act of asymmetrical warfare waged against us.” Reporters accepted the official account, and even lawyers for the prisoners appeared to believe that they had killed themselves. Only the prisoners’ families in Saudi Arabia and Yemen rejected the notion.

Two years later, the U.S. Naval Criminal Investigative Service, which has primary investigative jurisdiction within the naval base, issued a report supporting the account originally advanced by Harris, now a vice-admiral in command of the Sixth Fleet. The Pentagon declined to make the NCIS report public, and only when pressed with Freedom of Information Act demands did it disclose parts of the report, some 1,700 pages of documents so heavily redacted as to be nearly incomprehensible. The NCIS report was carefully cross-referenced and deciphered by students and faculty at the law school of Seton Hall University in New Jersey, and their findings, released in November 2009, made clear why the Pentagon had been unwilling to make its conclusions public. The official story of the prisoners’ deaths was full of unacknowledged contradictions, and the centerpiece of the report—a reconstruction of the events—was simply unbelievable.

I wrote many posts during that period about Harris and his inane characterization of suicide as "asymmetric warfare." It was ridiculous on its face. But I had no idea what the real story behind this was and it was far, far worse than I thought.

I realize that "looking in the rearview mirror" is frought with all kinds of complications and difficulties. But that doesn't change anything. Running the most powerful country in the world is complicated and difficult but there is an obligation to ensure that no one anywhere believes that this egregious, illegal behavior is sanctioned by the people of this country.

We activists and gadflys spend a lot of energy talking about institutions being broken and corporate malfeasance and all the other failures of our system. And we strategize and theorize about how to change it. But this issue isn't difficult and it's the one issue on which there is simply no decent case to be made for "pragmatism." Not that people don't make it --- but it is indecent to do it.

I have sympathy for the administration in dealing with all the problems it inherited, trying to outmaneuver an insane opposition and work with a political base that knows what it wants and demands action. It's not easy. But this isn't really about politics at all. It's a very basic moral issue and one that, so far, the president has failed to address properly. And it colors his relationship to his country in ways that I don't think are measurable. It may not poll well and people may not put it high on their list of priorities. But on some subliminal level most of them know this is terribly, terribly wrong. And they need someone to right it for all of us. Only the moral authority of the president himself can do it.

There are many problems right now that are impossible for the president to unilaterally fix. This isn't one of them.

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