As a U.S. Army attorney for more than 27 years, I took an oath to uphold and defend the Constitution from all enemies, foreign and domestic. But in recent years, I have observed the undermining of many cherished institutions that I view as the bedrock of our U.S. legal system. I was appalled by the so-called USA Patriot Act and the Military Commissions Act; indeed, in waging the "global war on terror" it seems our leaders had sacrificed liberty for security time and again. I was dismayed by what I viewed as the systematic erosion of our rights, but constrained by my military status from speaking out.
But in 2008 a glimmer of hope appeared, and the long-awaited promise of change. I expected that soon the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay (or Gitmo, as we call it) would close. Nothing happens overnight, I knew, and so I soldiered on.
Although I considered retiring in September 2010, a few months later I accepted one more job, as a defense attorney assigned to the Office of Military Commissions. Last year I was detailed to represent a detainee - Ghassan Abdullah al Sharbi, by name, ISN #682. Al Sharbi has been held almost 10 years, seeing no member of his family and held largely in seclusion. He has been force-fed and hospitalized countless times, from which people could draw their own conclusions, as have I, since I can't get any straight answers from government officials about his condition. Men like him are being driven mad, due to isolation and loss of hope. Some have even committed suicide.Our 'national wound'
I took this job naively believing that, in my own small way, I might bring attention to the festering (but largely invisible) national wound that is Gitmo. Instead, I found an entrenched bureaucracy operating at a glacier's pace, hamstrung by political infighting, red tape and inefficiency. I can't even send my client a letter without it being held up for weeks and, now, read by government officials who laughably, inexplicably, still assert some national security interest in our communications.
Today marks the 10th anniversary of the first arrival of detainees at Gitmo. In those 10 years, roughly 800 detainees have been held there; of them, only 171 remain. Most were repatriated without charge, and of those remaining over half are cleared for release. But notwithstanding the 2008 campaign promise to close Gitmo, it remains open for business. This, despite the fact that in 10 years, only a handful of trials have taken place under the auspices of the military commission, almost all of which involved guilty pleas. Everyone in America should recognize that Gitmo is a failure. And its exorbitant expense (cost of about $800,000 per year, per detainee) is but another unheralded cost of the misery.
Gitmo now takes its place among the world's most notorious and evil prisons, right up there with Devil's Island and the Siberian gulag. And if some have their way, it will remain a Sartrean place of being and nothingness, with no exit except by death for the Muslim men now held there. But where is the logic and justice in this, for them, or us? What happened to speedy trial, attorney-client privilege and the presumption of innocence? What happened to the rule of law and universal human rights?
Gitmo's tragic legacy has made the leap, or creep, into countless other awful federal policies. These range from public acceptance of "enhanced interrogation techniques" to loss of civil liberties, perpetual surveillance, rampant militarism and now the possibility that you, or someone you love, might be whisked away, with no trial, and held indefinitely until ... you either die, or informed citizens demand that these maddening, immoral, unjust, inhumane laws be overturned.
What to do instead
Closing Gitmo now would be a small but substantial step in the right direction. In its place, I would advocate that the vast majority of remaining detainees be repatriated - released and sent home. And those whom the government intends to actually try be sent to federal court/prison.
But if it remains open, beware, not only may Gitmo's population expand again, but new detention centers are being planned. Thanks to the latest blight on our legal system, the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act, Gitmo might spawn a local franchise of equal-opportunity gulags where domestic "terrorists" could get sent indefinitely.
Lt. Col. Donna Lorraine Barlett is a member of the U.S. Army Judge Advocate General Corps, currently serving as a defense counsel with the Office of Military Commissions. The views expressed are solely those of the author and do not represent those of theDepartment of Defense or U.S. Government.
Source: USA Today