I've been wondering for a while exactly how many people we have in detention outside the US. Roughly 455 at Guantanamo and 560 at Bagram: that was relatively easy to find out. But how many at all those other facilities whose names I didn't know? Apparently the AP wondered too, and reports the following (via TPM):
"In the few short years since the first shackled Afghan shuffled off to Guantanamo, the U.S. military has created a global network of overseas prisons, its islands of high security keeping 14,000 detainees beyond the reach of established law.
Disclosures of torture and long-term arbitrary detentions have won rebuke from leading voices including the U.N. secretary-general and the U.S. Supreme Court. But the bitterest words come from inside the system, the size of several major U.S. penitentiaries.
"It was hard to believe I'd get out," Baghdad shopkeeper Amjad Qassim al-Aliyawi told The Associated Press after his release — without charge — last month. "I lived with the Americans for one year and eight months as if I was living in hell."
Captured on battlefields, pulled from beds at midnight, grabbed off streets as suspected insurgents, tens of thousands now have passed through U.S. detention, the vast majority in Iraq.
Many say they were caught up in U.S. military sweeps, often interrogated around the clock, then released months or years later without apology, compensation or any word on why they were taken. Seventy to 90 percent of the Iraq detentions in 2003 were "mistakes," U.S. officers once told the international Red Cross."
Suppose the actual error rate is 80%: that's 11,200 people who are now locked up for no reason. An awful lot of lives broken, and an awful lot of people who probably now hate us:
"Another released prisoner, Waleed Abdul Karim, 26, recounted how his guards would wield their absolute authority.
"Tell us about the ones who attack Americans in your neighborhood," he quoted an interrogator as saying, "or I will keep you in prison for another 50 years."
As with others, Karim's confinement may simply have strengthened support for the anti-U.S. resistance. "I will hate Americans for the rest of my life," he said."
And that's also 14,000 people who are about to be definitively stripped of habeas rights if either the administration bill on military commissions or the Warner/Graham/McCain alternative passes:
"Human rights groups count dozens of detainee deaths for which no one has been punished or that were never explained. The secret prisons — unknown in number and location — remain available for future detainees. The new manual banning torture doesn't cover CIA interrogators. And thousands of people still languish in a limbo, deprived of one of common law's oldest rights, habeas corpus, the right to know why you are imprisoned.
"If you, God forbid, are an innocent Afghan who gets sold down the river by some warlord rival, you can end up at Bagram and you have absolutely no way of clearing your name," said John Sifton of Human Rights Watch in New York. "You can't have a lawyer present evidence, or do anything organized to get yourself out of there."
The U.S. government has contended it can hold detainees until the "war on terror" ends — as it determines.
"I don't think we've gotten to the question of how long," said retired admiral John D. Hutson, former top lawyer for the U.S. Navy. "When we get up to 'forever,' I think it will be tested" in court, he said."
When we get to 'forever', if we ever do, those detainees will have been in prison, uncharged and untried, for a very long time. Those who are innocent will have been needlessly deprived of the ability to live their lives, see their families, and do whatever it is they wanted to do with themselves. We will have broken their lives apart, and even if we manage to undo the damage Bush has done to our legal system and our republic, the damage we have done to them can never be undone.
And the crowning touch to all of this is that it was completely unnecessary. The need to find some way to distinguish genuine enemy combatants from people detained by mistake is not a novel one, nor is this the first time we have ever fought in a war in which it's hard to tell enemies from noncombatants. In almost every war between the drafting of the Geneva Conventions and George W. Bush's election, we managed to deal with this problem without just tossing the Conventions aside and detaining huge numbers of people [Please see update below fold.] In Vietnam, for instance, we convened "Article 5 Tribunals" and used them to decide which detainees to keep in custody and which to free. (Basic history and doctrine here. I said that we did this in 'almost all' wars before Bush because, as the JAG manual quoted here puts it, "No Article 5 Tribunals were conducted in Grenada or Panama, as all captured enemy personnel were repatriated as soon as possible.")
But our clever President decided to throw out decades of military doctrine and procedure, declare that the Geneva Conventions did not apply to anyone captured in Afghanistan, and decline to set up tribunals to determine the status of detainees. This is directly related to the fact that we now have 14,000 of them, many of whom are probably innocent. Just one more brilliant move in Bush's never-ending campaign to alienate the entire Middle East in the name of making us safer.
Update: On rereading the comments, I realize that the statement that "In almost every war between the drafting of the Geneva Conventions and George W. Bush's election, we managed to deal with this problem without just tossing the Conventions aside and detaining huge numbers of people" is unclear and misleading, on three counts:
(a) I meant to say that we had not (tossed the Conventions aside and (as a result) detained huge numbers of people; not that we had neither tossed the Conventions aside nor detained huge numbers of people, as though these were two separate things we had never done.
(b) (The most important unclarity): What I mean, and should have said, was that we had never imprisoned huge numbers of people as a result of tossing aside one specific part of the Geneva Conventions: Article 5 of the Third Convention, which holds that:
"Should any doubt arise as to whether persons, having committed a belligerent act and having fallen into the hands of the enemy, belong to any of the categories enumerated in Article 4, such persons shall enjoy the protection of the present Convention until such time as their status has been determined by a competent tribunal."
Had I said this explicitly, as I should have, I would not have given the impression that I thought we had never tossed aside any part of the Geneva Conventions, or that our treatment of prisoners in Vietnam was exemplary. To my knowledge, it was not.
(c) By 'tossed aside', I meant (and should have said) that we had almost never set that part aside as a matter of policy, not that no US soldier had never violated it.
I should have been clear on all these counts, and I'm sorry I wasn't.
When I wrote this, I believed, and then checked to make sure, that we had held Article 5 Tribunals in Vietnam, to determine the status of detainees. I did not check how many detainees we simply turned over to the South Vietnamese, nor do I want to make any claim about that now. As I said, the claim I meant to make was just that we recognized that Article 5 of the Third Geneva Convention applied, that it required that we determine the status of detainees, and that we had, as a matter of policy, institutions in place to make that determination, even though, in that conflict as in Iraq and Afghanistan, lots of combatants were not in uniform.
I leave it to lawyers to determine whether our turning over detainees to South Vietnam constitutes a violation of Article 5 of the Third Convention, and to historians and lawyers to determine whether, if so, our practices constituted an abandonment of Article 5 as a matter of policy. (Here I'm just having the rather banal thought that it would be possible to enact one policy that conflicted with another policy in a way so arcane as to make it wrong to say that in adopting the first policy one had abandoned the second; that (on the other extreme) it's also possible to adopt a policy that conflicts with another so massively that adopting the first policy does conflict with the second, even if the second is maintained in place pro forma; and that I leave it to others to determine where on this scale our policies in Vietnam fell, and whether, as a result, they should lead us to conclude that we did abandon our commitment to Article 5 of the 3rd Convention as a matter of policy.) If it did constitute an abandonment of Article 5, then I retract the claim I made in the body of the post.
In any case, I agree with those who have said that we don't need to argue on the basis of history. Not holding tribunals to determine the status of detainees is both wrong and counterproductive regardless of whether or not it's something we have done before. I did want to adduce evidence that it is perfectly possible to hold such tribunals, even when one's enemy does not appear conveniently in uniform; but I'd be prepared to argue for that claim, as well as the larger moral claim that is the heart of this post, independently.
Again, sorry for the unclarity.