Book Review

‘Guantanamo’: The War on the War on Terror

Guantanamo: The War on Human Rights by David Rose

Guantanamo: The War on Human Rights by David Rose.
New York: The New Press.
160 pp. $21.95.

As one can tell from its title, Guantanamo: The War on Human Rights is a polemic against the continued detention without trial of some 550 suspected terrorists at the United States Naval Station in Cuba. David Rose, a contributing editor to Vanity Fair, argues that the prison — which the Bush administration set up in the wake of the American invasion of Afghanistan — is an affront to both the United States Constitution and the ideals of the Enlightenment. Worse still, little information useful to the War on Terrorism has emerged from the island.

However, for all its revelations, the book is already outdated as journalists now have far greater access to Guantanamo than did Rose a year and a half ago. He has not interviewed any interrogators or witnessed any tribunals held there, and what information he does have is presented in a disturbingly skewed fashion. Rose does not even bother to mention that 3,000 Americans were murdered on 9/11; for him, it’s just the date the United States stopped caring about human rights.

Prisoners from the Afghan theater were deposited in the open-air cages of Camp X-Ray in January 2002. In addition to the draconian conditions, guards initially kept detainees from talking to each other or sleeping with their hands beneath their blankets. The following year, when X-Ray gave way to Camp Delta, the conditions improved dramatically, but Rose notes that they were still less than what a prisoner of war would get under the Geneva Convention.

The United States holds that Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters should not be considered P.O.W.s because they are “illegal combatants,” and until the creation of the quasi-judicial Combat Status Review Tribunal in July 2004, Guantanamo detainees were assumed to be members of either group. Rose writes that “it was enough for evidence merely to be asserted that an individual was a Taliban fighter or a member of Al Qaeda, and he would be on his way to Gitmo.”

Rose interviewed three British-Pakistani detainees from Tipton who were held for over two years until it was discovered that they had falsely confessed to meeting Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan. No doubt, the drama of their story, of the interrogations they endured, would be all the more moving if Asif Iqbal, Shafiq Rasul, and Ruhal Ahmed were shown to be innocent victims of an unjust imprisonment, rather than wannabe mujahideen coerced into making grandiose statements about themselves.

Rose does argue that the Tipton Three were not Islamic radicals, noting, “They did not, for example, wear beards; they liked soccer, and had Christian friends.” But that’s not saying much. Sayyid Qutb, the late Muslim Brotherhood ideologue and brother to Osama bin Laden’s mentor, did not wear a beard, and Al Qaeda conspirator Abdel Ghani Meskini would drink beer and pick up women at discos.

The reader is told that the trio flew to Pakistan in early September for Iqbal’s wedding, but there are too many unanswered questions regarding the trip. When was the ceremony supposed to have taken place? Why did they venture at least 170 kilometers inside Afghanistan to Taliban-controlled Kunduz? If, as Rose writes, the Tipton Three wanted to help war-stricken Afghans, why didn’t they keep to the United Nations refugee camps near Peshawar, on the Pakistani side of the border?

Former interrogator Chris Mackey recounts being told a different, less philanthropic story by one of three British-Pakistani prisoners. “He and his companions got bored waiting for the wedding date,” writes Mackey, in The Interrogators: Inside the Secret War Against al-Qaeda, “and, with the help of a Pakistani, arranged a sort of adventure holiday to Afghanistan to see a ‘real war’ between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance.”

Which story is true, or are they both false?

Other current and former detainees are equally suspicious characters. An ex-thief with an unstable employment record, Tarek Dergoul somehow raised the funds “for an extended holiday” (at least two months!) in Pakistan and then ended up wounded in Afghanistan. His alibi is that he is a war profiteer, not a terrorist. Then there are the 12 Kuwait fundamentalists tersely described by Rose as “charity workers” and an ex-detainee whose brother had met with a radical cleric in England.

But with a stunning lack of curiosity for a journalist, Rose doesn’t look too closely at these individuals. Instead, he makes much of Prozac consumption among the Guantanamo detainees; the “menacing” rules (such as not yelling or throwing objects at the guards) displayed in the camp, and the cartoon mascot (“a ferocious mastiff”) of the Joint Detentions Operation Group.

When confronted with evidence of released detainees returning to the jihad, Rose implies that their time at Guantanamo had turned them rotten. He quotes an anonymous intelligence analyst, one of a few unnamed sources relied upon in the book, who says, “Quite frankly, I’d have thought that if they weren’t terrorists before they went to Gitmo, they would be by the time they came out.” It’s pure sleight of hand.

Rose critiques the American intelligence gathering effort at Guantanamo, but once again, he does so by playing games. He questions the abilities of civilian translators there without getting a rebuttal from the private companies that hired them. Similarly, he quotes then Joint Task Force commander Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller as saying that interrogations have produced “enormously valuable intelligence,” but Rose doesn’t give the general the opportunity to explain what he meant before attacking him for exaggerating the truth.

By contrast, Rose is a lot more on-target when discussing interrogation tactics used at Guantanamo. The detainees’ accounts of dogs, sexual taunts, strobe lights, and loud music being used at Camp Delta have been supported by recent reports for The New York Times and Associated Press. And the government already admits that its interrogators are allowed to alter the sleep schedules of detainees, put detainees in “stress positions,” manipulate the temperature in the interrogation booth, and switch hot meals for field rations.

The case of the Tipton Three and their false confession demonstrates the danger of using of this type of coercion to extract uncorroborated bits of intelligence, but Rose never explains why an Al Qaeda terrorist like Abdullah Tabarak or Abu Zubayda would freely hand over vital secrets to the American government. It’s hardly surprising given that Rose has very definitive opinions about the immorality of Guantanamo, the innocence of most of the detainees, and the uselessness of the interrogations practiced there. However, it would be nice if at least the reader kept an open mind regarding these thorny issues.

View the Worldpress Desk’s profile for Erik Schechter.