Read and Despair
Media myths about Guantanamo.

The American Spectator, November 2006

GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba--The most striking thing about visiting the terrorist detention facility here, which has become a staple of anti-American propaganda, is the realization that our own media, which are free and supposedly in the business of telling the truth, have so often gotten the story appallingly wrong--and at the expense of America and the servicemen who guard the dangerous men who are held here. To start with a fairly trivial example, on September 13, two weeks after I visited here, Bob Herbert of the New York Times complained:

Very few Americans are aware, as the Center for Constitutional Rights tells us, that of the hundreds of men held by the U.S. in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, many "have never been charged and will never be charged because there is no evidence justifying their detention."
The real problem here, as Will Rogers might say, is what very many Americans are aware of but isn't so. The reason many Guantanamo detainees haven't been charged is that this isn't a criminal detention facility. "What we are about is keeping enemy combatants off the battlefield," Rear Admiral Harry Harris, commander of Joint Task Force Guantanamo, told me. Prisoners of war can be held for the duration of the conflict, even if they are not alleged to have committed war crimes. Although the detainees here are not entitled to POW privileges because they do not follow the rules of war, they too can be held for the duration, as Justice John Paul Stevens pointed out in the Hamdan v. Rumsfeld case last June.

Herbert's assertion that "there is no evidence justifying their detention" is flatly false, as is the implication that they are being held without due process. In fact, every detainee has gone before a Combatant Status Review Tribunal to re-examine his designation as an enemy combatant. Known as Article 5 hearings in the parlance of the Geneva Conventions, such proceedings are mandatory under international law only if there is doubt about the detainee's status. In 2004 the Supreme Court held, in Hamdi v. Rumsfeld, that detainees who were U.S. citizens also were entitled to Article 5 hearings. Although only one detainee held U.S. citizenship, the military decided to extend Article 5 rights to everybody.

Further, every detainee annually goes before an Administrative Review Board, analogous to a parole hearing, to determine whether he can be released without harming U.S. security. Most detainees have petitioned for habeas corpus under the high court's 2004 Rasul v. Bush decision. And the only reason war crimes trials have been delayed is that Osama bin Laden's bodyguard was able to use our appellate courts to challenge the legality of the proceedings.

Perhaps it is unsporting to pick on a feeble opinion columnist. But Jane Mayer of the New Yorker is a serious reporter. Here is how she handled the question in an article from the July 3 issue:

[Rear Admiral Donald] Guter said that the Pentagon had originally planned to screen the suspects individually on the battlefields in Afghanistan; such "Article 5 hearings" are a provision of the Geneva Conventions. But the White House cancelled the hearings, which had been standard protocol during the previous fifty years, including in the first Gulf War. In a January 25, 2002, legal memorandum, Administration lawyers dismissed the Geneva Conventions as "obsolete," "quaint," and irrelevant to the war on terror.
In Mayer's account, the story ends in 2002. Her article makes no mention of Hamdi or the subsequent decision to hold Article 5 hearings for noncitizen detainees. While what she says is true, her omissions leave the reader with a false impression.

This isn't the only example of journalists passing off outdated information as current. Admiral Harris showed a Reuters article on Guantanamo from May 2006, illustrated by a photo of inmates housed in cages at Camp X-Ray. Reuters' slogan is "One man's terrorist is another's freedom fighter," but maybe it should be "One man's ancient history is another's news." Camp X-Ray, originally built during the Clinton years to house criminal migrants, held terror detainees for only about as long as John Kerry was in Vietnam. They were moved to the more modern Camp Delta in April 2002--more than four years before Reuters ran the offending photo.

On June 10, three inmates, all in the same cellblock, were found hanged with clothing and sheets, spurring another round of media mythmaking. Two days later the New York Times tried to co-opt their martyrdom for its own anti-war cause, editorializing that the suicides were "the inevitable result of creating a netherworld of despair beyond the laws of civilized nations." When Admiral Harris described the suicides as an act of "asymmetric warfare," the Times scolded him for displaying "a profound disassociation from humanity."

We've already dealt with the myth that Guantanamo is "beyond the laws of civilized nations." What about the claim that the suicides were motivated by "despair"? Reporter Tim Golden demolishes it:

When doctors reviewed their files on the three men, they found that none of them had shown signs of depression or other psychological problems. All three had been on hunger strikes--one of them since the previous August--and at least two of them had been evaluated when they abandoned their protests. One doctor recalled one of the men telling him brightly: "I'm sleeping well. I feel well. No problems."

What the men hoped to communicate by their deaths may have been contained in brief notes they left behind in Arabic. The notes have not been made public, and a Navy investigation into the suicides continues.

Golden's article appeared in--I'm not kidding--the New York Times, the Sunday magazine of September 17. Golden also reported that detainees had told a camp official of a "prophetic dream" that Shaker Aamer, a "religious leader" among the detainees, was said to have had, "in which three prisoners had to die for the rest to be free." If this is what the detainees were trying to accomplish, they won the endorsement of the Times, which in that same editorial urged that "Guantanamo Bay should be closed."

It can't be said, though, that the Times is guilty of selective outrage. Here's an excerpt from a February 12 editorial:

Tim Golden of the Times reported that United States military authorities had taken to tying up and force-feeding the prisoners who had gone on hunger strikes by the dozens at Guantanamo Bay to protest being held without any semblance of justice. The article said administration officials were concerned that if a prisoner died, it could renew international criticism of Gitmo. They should be concerned. This is not some minor embarrassment. It is a lingering outrage that has undermined American credibility around the world.
What Golden reported but the editorial ignored was that force-feeding, conducted through a nasal tube, is a last resort, imposed when the detainee has refused to eat for so long that his life is in jeopardy. Admiral Harris told me that he orders such feedings only on the advice of the camp physician, who bases his recommendations solely on medical necessity.

In any case, where is the logic in being outraged by detainee suicides and by efforts to save their lives? In the view of our anti-war journalists, America is damned if detainees die and damned if they don't.

Next article: Lieberman Saves the Day for Hillary (11/11/06)

Previous article: Boomer Terror (The American Spectator, 10/06)

Go to main list