Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Book Review: 'The Least Worst Place: Guantanamo's First 100 Days' by Karen Greenberg



Review by Joan McCarter
The Least Worst Place: Guantanamo's First 100 Days 
By Karen Greenberg 
$27.95, 288 pages 
Oxford University Press, New York, March 16, 2009
On December 27, 2001 Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld made the announcement that Guantanamo had been chosen as the public prison site for combatants picked up in Afghanistan's battlefields.
"I would characterize Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, as the least worst place we could have selected. It has disadvantages, as you suggest. Its disadvantages, however, seem to be modest relative to the alternatives."
Those disadvantages included the fact that the place had been essentially mothballed, and was in no way logistically prepared to handle the hundreds of prisoners that would come its way, either in terms of resources on the ground or staff trained in prison duty. The primary advantage, which Rumsfeld kept to himself that December day, was that the Pentagon and the administration had concluded that Guantanamo was a legal no-man's land, beyond the reach of either the American or international system of law.
Karen Greenberg's The Least Worst Place provides an engrossing narrative account of the first one hundred days of Guantanamo, and the men charged with getting it open and running. Greenberg, an expert on the Bush administration's policies on terrorism from her role as executive director of the Center on Law and Security, NYU School of Law, effectively shows in a running parallel narrative on the development of the administration's extralegal policy and the establishment of the prison.
Out of that narrative, a number of themes emerge. The strongest is the real tension that exists in the military culture between doing what needs to be done to defend the nation and doing so within the rules. When the rules are thrown out, we get the result that we got in Guantanamo, and later in Abu Ghraib.
Guantanamo's first commander, Brigadier General Michael Lehnert, understood what could happen in a policy vacuum when a group of gung-ho troops and Marines were put in charge of the people they were told were the terrorists responsible for 9/11. With essentially no early direction from the Pentagon, Lehnert did his best to turn his command into a functioning detention unit--with untrained staff--that followed the only rules that existed for detainees, the Geneva Conventions. As days passed, it became increasingly clear that Rumsfeld and his bosses had no intention of following those rules, and then the struggle for Lehnert and his colleagues really began.
This part of the story effectively highlights the very real damage done to our military in "the war on terror." The toxic mixture of inadequate planning, incompetence, arrogance, and the conviction that the rules didn't apply to them that characterized Rumsfeld and the military and intelligence leaders in the White House directly resulted in the abuses at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib. Rumsfeld and the White House made deliberate decisions, like an unprecedented joint command between detention and interrogation units that broke the chain of command, that led to a broken military and the horrific abuses at these prisons. Those decisions were deliberate: the administration was purposefully creating limbo. As Greenberg says:
This, then, was the sand on which the Guantanamo operation was precariously built. It was ominously shifting ground on which no person, no code, and no precedent could weigh in with authority. It was not just a legal black hole, as it came to be called later. It was also a military black hole, a legally compromised operation whose premise would ultimately come to threaten the integrity of the military and those under its command.
Lehnert and his colleagues had one success--they were responsible for getting the Red Cross (ICRC) to Guantanamo, without clearance from the Pentagon. Military lawyer Col. Manuel Supervielle, frustrated by the legal limbo in which they were trying to operate in those early days, and without authorization from higher up, directly called the ICRC and invited them to Guantanamo, for which he was roughly rebuked. Ironically, the presence of the ICRC ended up being a boon to the PR efforts of the administration--how bad could Guantanamo be, they argued, when the ICRC was there.
It's a testament to the Greenberg's skill in telling this important story that, even though you know how the particular history of these men and their role in Guantanamo ends, you nonetheless find yourself rooting for Gen. Michael Lehnert, Cpt. Robert Buehn, Lt. Abuhena Saifulislam, Col. Manuel Supervielle, and Cpt. Albert Shimkus to prevail. The Obama administration should strive to make sure that Guantanamo's final 100 days emulate what these men tried to do in its first 100 days--make Guantanamo a place America could be proud of. It's too late to erase the stain, but transparency, strict adherence to the rule of law, and an expedited process will at least partially ameliorate it.




Editor's note: This review was originally published at the Daily Kos, which notes that its "content may be used for any purpose without explicit permission unless otherwise specified." The original page can be found here. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right. 

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