Guantánamo, Our Gulag

I recently read an article by Kelley Vlahos about Thomas Drake, a news-worthy fellow who attained notoriety by becoming a federal whistleblower.  Instead of being lauded as a hero, he faced criminal charges and lost his job at the National Security Agency. Drake explained, “I saw, experienced government wrongdoing and malfeasance, directly and indirectly”, but chose to speak out because “… if I had done nothing, I would have been an accessory. I could not sit idly by while the Constitution of the United States was being subverted.” 

I share Mr. Drake’s crisis of conscience.   

As an Army attorney for over 27 years, I took an oath to uphold and defend the Constitution from all enemies, foreign and domestic. But in recent years, I have observed the undermining of many cherished institutions which I view as the bedrock of our U.S. legal system. I was appalled by the so-called Patriot Act and Military Commissions Act (MCA); indeed, in waging the “Global War on Terror” it seems our leaders had sacrificed liberty for security time and again. I was dismayed by what I viewed as the systematic erosion of our rights, but constrained by my military status from speaking out.  But in 2008 a glimmer of hope appeared, and the long-awaited promise of change.  I expected that soon the detention facility at Guantánamo Bay (or GTMO, as we call it) would close.  Nothing happens overnight, I knew, and so I soldiered on…  

Although I considered retiring in September 2010, a few months later I accepted one more job, as a defense attorney assigned to the Office of Military Commissions. Last year I was detailed to represent a detainee – Ghassan a Sharbi, by name, ISN # 682. Ghassan has been held almost TEN YEARS, seeing no member of his family, and largely in seclusion. He has been force-fed and hospitalized countless times, from which one may draw their own conclusions… as have I, since I can’t get any straight answers from government officials about his condition.  Men like him are being driven mad, due to isolation and loss of hope.  Some have even committed suicide. Ten years at GTMO – what if it were your son, or father, or brother? 

I took this job naively believing that, in my own small way, I might bring attention to the festering (but largely invisible) national wound that is GTMO. Instead, I found an entrenched bureaucracy operating at a glacier’s pace, hamstrung by political infighting, red tape, and inefficiency.  I can’t even send my client a letter without it being held up for weeks and, now, read by government officials who laughably, inexplicably, still assert some national security interest in our communications.    

In ten years over 800 detainees have been held at GTMO; of that, only 171 remain. Most were repatriated without charge, and of those remaining over half are cleared for release.  But notwithstanding the campaign promise to close GTMO, it remains open for business. This, despite the fact that in ten years, only five or six trials have taken place under the auspices of the MCA, almost all of which involved guilty pleas. Everyone in America should recognize that GTMO is a failure.  And its exorbitant expense (cost of about $800K per year, per detainee) is but another unheralded cost of the misery.   

GTMO now takes its place among the world’s most notorious and evil prisons, right up there with Devil’s Island and the Siberian gulag. And if some have their way, it will remain a Sartrean place of being and nothingness, with no exit except by death for the Muslim men now held there. But where is the logic and justice in this, for them or us?  What happened to speedy trial, attorney-client privilege, and the presumption of innocence?  What happened to the rule of law, and universal human rights?     

GTMO’s tragic legacy has made the leap, or creep, into countless other awful federal policies.  These range from public acceptance of “enhanced interrogation techniques”, to loss of civil liberties, perpetual surveillance, rampant militarism, and now the possibility that you, or someone you love, might be whisked away, with no trial, and held indefinitely until… you either die, or informed citizens demand that these maddening, immoral, unjust, inhumane laws be overturned.  

Closing GTMO now would be a small but substantial step in the right direction. But beware, not only may GTMO’s population expand again, but new detention centers are being planned. Thanks to the latest blight on our legal system, the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), GTMO may spawn a local franchise of equal-opportunity gulags where domestic “terrorists” or suspected (not convicted) national security risks like Bradley Manning, or even Thomas Drake could get sent indefinitely.  

And when they declare martial law and come for you and me, who then will speak out?

Author: Donna Lorraine Barlett

Army Lt. Col. Donna Lorraine Barlett is defense counsel in the Office of Military Commissions. The views expressed are solely those of the author and do not represent those of the Department of Defense or U.S. Government.