Generally lost in recent news headlines was a curious ruling by the Washington D.C. federal court that the Pentagon can't be compelled to make public video images of a particularly brutal procedure practiced at the Guantanamo Bay prison called "forced cell extraction.''
Conducted by eight-person teams of Military Police officers known as an Immediate Reaction Force, these squads are used to subdue detainees alleged to be uncooperative or resistant to interrogation. On paper, the IRF squads sound relatively benign; prison policy says they must employ "minimum force'' in subduing inmates and orders that all such extractions be videotaped.
But as with so much of the lore that has sprung up around America's most notorious prison, the reality suggests something more sinister. "They are the Black Shirts of Guantánamo,"says Michael Ratner, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, which has represented many Guantánamo prisoners. Army Chaplain James Yee, a witness to several forced extractions, called the procedure the "worst punishment'' meted out to Gitmo detainees. "The troopers called it IRFing,'' Officer Yee wrote in a book about Gitmo. "The seemingly harmless behaviors that brought (an IRF) on " often left him depressed, "as I wasn't accustomed to seeing such an open and violent display of strength versus weakness.''
Many observers have said that forced extractions at Guantanamo, at least in some cases, were as inhumane as any torture techniques employed over the years at the prison. Because I represented two men detained at the Guantanamo prison camp, I filed suit in 2008 to examine the videos and other documents relating to them. After more than four years, a judge ruled last week on my request for the forced cell extraction videos.
Having been involved for six years now in seeking justice for my Guantanamo clients, I was hardly surprised that the U.S. Government opposed my request. I have grown somewhat accustomed to the absurdity of representing clients who have not been charged with a crime and mounting a legal defense in a case where all of the government's "evidence" is third-hand hearsay, often from anonymous witnesses.
But I have to doff my hat to the U.S. Department of Justice's cheek in justifying the federal government's refusal to let me see the extraction tapes -- even after those tapes are edited to remove images that could identify individual soldiers. Any images from these tapes, the U.S. Government said, could "incite the civilian population... thereby putting U.S. military forcesand its allies at increased risk."
In other words, seeing what really happens to prisoners behind the iron doors at Guantanamo might inflame the "Arab street." As if the world hasn't been sufficiently inflamed by the dog-kennel setup at Gitmo's Camp X-Ray in the early days, and the deeply disturbing images of torture in Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison, where our government imported the techniques first used on the prisoners at Guantanamo.
Even as I write this, I'm shaking my head at the Justice Department's Orwellian logic. And mind you, this is not the Justice Department of George W. Bush, whose neocon lawyers repeatedly riled the "Arab Street,'' not to mention many American citizens, by writing up reams of legal briefs justifying the outright torture of Guantanamo detainees. Instead, the censorship argument is advanced by the administration of Barack Obama, who campaigned against the brutality of Guantanamo and who, only two days after his inauguration, issued an order promising to shut it down within a year.
But perhaps the most surprising thing of all to me is that on December 4, in a 14-page decision, U.S. District Judge John D. Bates bought the government's censorship argument and ruled that there was "no reason to second-guess" the government's assertion that "even solo images of detainees taken from the forced cell extraction videos could pose a substantial risk and danger to national security."
My clients have not yet decided whether to appeal this ruling. But I have some advice for the U.S. government going forward: if you don't want to "inflame the street," don't commit acts that will inflame the street. Don't imprison men for a decade without charge or trial; don't tell the world that Guantanamo inmates are "the worst of the worst," without offering any evidence to prove it. Stick to the basics: Don't torture inmates; charge them and try them in court. Show some respect for other cultures. Let rule of law be the law of the land.
It's surely true that a picture is worth a thousand words, as the Justice Department has demonstrated in this instance. It's long past time for President Obama to end the un-American practice of indefinite detention without charge or trial. At the end of the day it is this image writ large -- America's offshore gulag and all it encompasses -- that incites the civilized world and "puts our military and allied forces at risk."
David Cynamon is an attorney who has represented Kuwaiti citizens held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.