4 May, 2009Issue 9.2North AmericaPoetryPolitics & SocietyThe ArtsWorld Politics

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A Few Good Men

Daniel Hemel

guantanamoKaren Greenberg
The Least Worst Place: Guantanamo’s First 100 Days
Oxford University Press, 2009
221 pages
ISBN 978-0199557677

In January 2002, with the war in Afghanistan underway, US Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld described the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base as “the least worst place” to hold Taliban and al Qaeda captives. At the time, Rumsfeld’s claim might have seemed plausible. Certainly, the captives were better off at Guantanamo than in the hands of Northern Alliance General Abdul Rashid Dostum, who had been keeping prisoners “locked in airtight metal containers, suffocating beside their fellow combatants, licking moisture off the walls in the effort to stay alive”.

George W. Bush initially considered moving the prisoners onto the US mainland but determined the domestic political backlash would be too severe, as Barack Obama has recently discovered. The White House also weighed the option of using one of many military bases the US maintains in other countries, but it realised that placing captives on foreign territory would require delicate diplomatic manoeuvrings. Guantanamo was a gift-wrapped solution: it was far enough away from US civilians that a detention facility there would not provoke a domestic political backlash, and it required no deft diplomatic dealing, as Cuba had effectively ceded sovereignty over the site in a century-old treaty. Two days after Christmas 2001, the Pentagon made two fateful choices: it established Joint Task Force 160 to set up a detention facility at Guantanamo, and it put Brigadier General Michael Lehnert in charge.

Lehnert is the protagonist—and the hero—of The Least Worst Place, New York University law professor Karen Greenberg’s new account of Gitmo’s first 100 days. In twenty-eight years of active duty, Lehnert had proven himself to be both competent and compassionate. In the mid-1990s, he served at Guantanamo as commander of a camp for several thousand Cuban and Haitian migrants who tried (unsuccessfully) to sail to the US in rafts. He believed that the treatment of detainees in his custody should be “fair, just, legal, and, if possible, even rehabilitative”. He is the model of what a Marine should be. And he is a symbol of what Guantanamo could have become.

To be sure, it is a gross exaggeration to say—as one Florida Republican congressman did—that Guantanamo under Lehnert’s leadership was “too good for the bastards“. For the first several months, detainees lived in six-by-eight-foot cages with no running water, food they could not digest, and the round-the-clock glare of halogen floodlights overhead. In short, this was not a “Caribbean vacation resort“. But it was also not “the world’s most notorious prison”.


On 11 January 2002, the first 20 detainees arrived at Guantanamo, clad in bright-orange jumpsuits and ghastly goggles. Eleven days later, Bush administration attorneys filed a memorandum concluding that, “al Qaeda and Taliban prisoners are not POWs under [the] Geneva [Conventions]”. But Lehnert did not want to wander into a “legal no-man’s land”. He downloaded the Geneva Conventions’ 143 articles off the Internet and did his best to abide by them. Consistent with the convention, JTF 160 invited the Red Cross onto the base. Rumsfeld’s minions were not pleased, but for now, Lehnert was the commander on the ground.

Yet Lehnert’s command would not last long. In February 2002, the Defence Department dispatched an Army reservist named Michael Dunlavey to lead “Join Task Force 170” alongside Lehnert’s 160. Number 160 would retain responsibility for the detainees’ health and welfare, while number 170, an intelligence-gathering mission, would conduct the now-infamous interrogations of inmates. Whereas Lehnert was a consummate professional, Dunlavey was a “political animal“. A county court judge in Pennsylvania, Dunlavey was well-connected to the state’s Republican establishment. And whereas Lehnert was a thorn in Rumsfeld’s side, Dunlavey would be one more weapon in the defence chief’s arsenal.

For weeks, Lehnert’s 160 and Dunlavey’s 170 fought a fierce turf war. Dunlavey wanted access to the files of psychiatrists who attended to detainees’ mental health needs. Lehnert said no: that would be “unethical”. Dunlavey wanted to use pushing and shoving during inmate interrogations. Again, Lehnert refused. But in March 2002, the Pentagon ordered Lehnert to leave the base. From that point on, Dunlavey was effectively in charge—and the Geneva Conventions were effectively null and void.

In Greenberg’s narrative, Lehnert and his team represented “the United States at its best throughout history”—defined by “decency, honor, and compassion”. The subsequent months and years represented the United States at its worst. When future generations hear the word “Guantanamo”, they will not think of “A Few Good Men” (1992), the Oscar-nominated film that is set there, nor will they think of Michael Lehnert and the many good men (and women) who served under him in JTF 160. They will think of canine attack squads, kicked Korans, and the mind-numbing number 266.

The aftermath of 11 September triggered concerns about the militarisation of US politics and policy. Greenberg’s account triggers a different concern: the politicisation of the US military. Not only did Rumsfeld and his civilian aides run roughshod over international law, they ran roughshod over the US armed forces as well. The US Uniform Code of Military Justice requires service members to abide by the laws of war. Rumsfeld & Co. sought to subvert military command structures so that the soldiers at Guantanamo would violate the code they had sworn to obey. In this respect, Greenberg’s book delivers a resounding “guilty” verdict to Rumsfeld and his “Torture Team”—a verdict that might never come from a court of law. But it lets the rest of us off too easily. Greenberg ought not be faulted for her focus on Gitmo’s first 100 days. But that focus pushes aside two of the difficult legal and ethical questions that the US and its allies face today.

First, Greenberg’s chronological constraint allows her to defer the ethical dilemma of coercive interrogation: should the “worst of the worst” terrorists be subjected to harsh techniques if those techniques might yield information that would prevent imminent attacks on innocent civilians? This dilemma was not present in the first 100 days of the prison, when the prisoners housed there were more “Mickey Mouse” than monster. One was a nonagenarian; another was a 66-pound tuberculosis sufferer whose ailments earned him the nickname “Half-Dead Bob“. There was no excuse for the US to use coercive interrogation techniques against such detainees.

Yet the composition of the prison population would change to include inmates such as Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the “principal architect” of the 11 September attacks. Bush administration officials assert that the interrogation of Mohammed generated “critical information” that foiled an al Qaeda plan to crash an airplane into Los Angeles’ Liberty Tower. President Obama says he “reject[s] the false choice between our security and our ideals“, but as Obama’s own intelligence director acknowledges, the interrogations yielded “high value information“. In Gitmo’s first 100 days, interrogators were engaged in a cruel and quixotic effort to extract “critical information” from the “half-dead” and the brain-damaged. In that period, morality was black and white—and the interrogations were clearly on the dark side. But the later interrogations that arguably averted catastrophic civilian casualties lie in a more complicated grey area.

Second, Greenberg describes Guantanamo as a “legal black hole”—which it was in early 2002. The Bush administration in fact chose to place detainees at Guantanamo in part because its lawyers believed that habeas corpus rights did not extend to the island base. But in Boumediene v. Bush (2008), the Supreme Court ruled that—on account of Guantanamo’s unique history as a “de facto” appendage to the US—inmates there do have the constitutional privilege of habeas corpus. Guantanamo is no longer “a Constitution-free zone“.

While Obama accepts that habeas applies to Guantanamo, his administration argues that habeas does not extend to inmates at the US’s Bagram base in Afghanistan. Thus if Obama’s efforts to close Guantanamo by January 2010 lead to inmates being incarcerated at Bagram instead, the move to shut down Guantanamo may shut the doors of US courts to more detainees. In the pre-Boumediene era, it was easier to say (as Greenberg did) that we should “close Guantanamo now”. But post-Boumediene, Rumsfeld’s “least worst” statement contains a kernel of truth.

Admittedly, the treatment of detainees at Guantanamo is not yet “fair”, “just”, or “rehabilitative”, as Lehnert had hoped. Recent reports indicate that inmates still “live in constant fear of physical violence”. Yet conditions at other US detention sites are—to use another Rumsfeld phrase—”unknown unknowns”. While activists and attorneys regularly visit the inmates at Guantanamo, Bagram inmates are “out of sight, out of mind,” and, for the most part, “out of court“. With constitutional safeguards for prisoners and oversight from rights groups, Guantanamo may now be—for all its faults—”the least worst place”.

Daniel Hemel is an MPhil student in International Relations at New College, Oxford. He is a senior editor of the Oxonian Review.