Thursday, November 03, 2005

Book review: Inside the Wire

Several weeks ago I finished reading Inside the Wire : A Military Intelligence Soldier's Eyewitness Account of Life at Guantanamo by Erik Saar & Viveca Novak, the story of Army Sgt. Erik Saar's first person account of the six months he spent at Guantanamo as an Arabic translator. Saar had gone to the island with high hopes of helping his country gather intelligence, but he left with serious doubts about the manner in which our government was going about its "war on terror."

When Saar first arrives at Gitmo one of the first things he notices is the relative inexperience of the MI's. Saar identifies several factors that dominated his experience at Gitmo:
- Inexperienced interrogators
- Pressure to gather intelligence
- Confusion over what the boundaries of acceptable methods were once it was declared that the Geneva conventions did not apply
- Guards were constantly told that detainees were "the worst of the worst" and terrorists responsible for 9/11

Over the course of Saar's 6 month service he notices that tensions on the base seem to grow. The guards become increasingly short-tempered and aggressive towards the detainees, while the translators Saar is assigned to work with grow divided between Christians and non-Muslims versus Muslims who had started to identify with the radicalized detainees. And overall, there is generally a desire to just get off the base and never come back. (With Saar detailing the frustrating process by which many military personel were held on base longer than they were supposed to be there through back-door bureacratic methods.)

One aspect of the detainee abuse scandal that I feel has been overlooked is the emotional stress placed on the interrogators and guards themselves. For example, Saar relates an incident where a female interrogator breaks down into tears after sexually exploiting herself (by rubbing her breasts on a detainee and smearing red dye from a marker on him while claiming it to be menstural fluid) in an effort to break one particular detainees religious faith.

There is also the disturbing incident where a military riot unit (the IRF) beats a US soldier (Sean Baker) severely enough to hospitalize him during a training drill where the soldier posed (unknown to the riot unit) as a uncooperative detainee.

Saar also sees that the base is having an undesired effect on the detainees, as well. The problem is that if the detainees were not radicals when they came into the base, there was a good chance they would be radicals when they came out. Detainees begin to attempt suicide more frequently either as a means to protest their treatment or to escape the (by design) hopelessness of their situation.

Amidst all this, Saar comes to the realization that most of the detainees either don't belong there or are of little-to-no intelligence value. Indeed, at one point another officer reveals to Saar that the military knows that most of the detainees at Gitmo should not be there but is purposefully releasing them slowly and in small numbers because to do other wise would make the US look bad.

Saar, either perusing detainee files or witnessing interrogations first hand sees much futility in the process, with inexperienced guards trying to force* or bully information out of detainees who simply become less likely to respond. He juxtaposes this sort of interrogation technique with a non-mp investigator he is assigned to work with who uses casual conversational techniques to patiently extract information from detainees.

Despite the general uselessness and counterproductive nature of what Saar witnessed going on at Gitmo, the base commander, General Miller maintained that Gitmo was obtaining valuable information to help combat terrorism. The emptiness of this rhetoric is exemplified in this pointed passage recounting a conversation between Saar and visiting Major General Keith Alexander

I gave him a quick highlight of what we did, highlighting the positive to the extent I could, per the drill, but then General Alexander asked me a pointed question. How many of a certain kind of classified report had we sent out from my office?

He caught me off guard because I knew that he was referring to reports released thoughout the U.S. intelligence community worldwide. Our office, for all the intrigue General Miller liked to cloak it in, didn't do that. Frankly, the results of our work didn't merit that treatment. "Well, sir," I said. "We haven't issued any reports like that. Primarily our product is used internally here at Camp Delta."

He stared at me blankly and seemed to wonder what General Miller was trying to sell him.
But the ultimate point to be taken from the book, which Saar summarizes in his epilogue is this:

To me, Gitmo represents failure on two fronts. The first failure is a moral one. Our government's dangerous dance around the Geneva Conventions and the use of questionable tactics on the detainees at Gitmo and elsewhere is morally inconsistent with what we stand for as a nation. We claim to honor the principles of justice and human rights. I didn't personally see anything that I would label torture as most people understand the word. But I saw many things that were dehumanizing, that degraded us all.

When I took the oath of enlistment along with other fuutre soldiers back in 1998, I swore to defend and uphold the Constitution of the United States of America. I believe that there is an inherent promise given to every soldier, sailor, airman, and marine in turn who pledges his or her life in the country's defense: The country will only use you to defend the principles embodied in that revered founding document. Guantanamo represents a broken promise. We're accurately called hypocrites when we deny any sort of justice or due process to individuals in the name of protecting Americans.

The second argument is more practical. The price we are paying for Gitmo is too high given the meager results we are getting. Guantanamo is a rallying cry throughout the Arab and Muslim world, and even some of our closest allies oppose us in this venture. The bottom line is this: the minimal intelligence we are gathering from those held in Cuba is not worth the harm we are doing to our international reputation. It's costing us our moral leadership in the world. How long until we pause, look over our shoulder, and find no one is following?
*I had originally written "beat or bully" but I've since changed that since its misleading, as Saar never alleges to see any direct physical beating during interrogations.

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