Ground Truth


Sorry for the extra post this week, but I had to get this one out there. It’s a letter to the editor of the Chicago Tribune from the Joint Task Force Commander here in GTMO. It was written in response to the question “What should we do about Guantanamo?”

It’s a very good outline of our operations here in GTMO. And it’s all true, even the unpleasant “cocktails” he describes.

My time in GTMO is drawing to a close (only 9 more days!). I’ve been down here long enough and seen enough that I might be able to answer some of the questions you may have. Fire away.


11 Responses to “Ground Truth”

  1. Michael Lasley Says:

    More than one post a week? Makes me feel silly for my one post every two months. Thanks for the article, Joe. The writer (sorry, I’ve already forgotten his name and rank) seems very thoughtful, and I do think it’s important that we all know that independent review teams like the ICRC have access to the facilities. I really don’t have anything but the most basic of questions. Do detainees there have access to lawyers? And what is the plan for trials for these men? Maybe those aren’t relevant questions, since my sense of the law comes from Law and Order where everything is neat and tidy and is cleared up in an hour. Hope you have a safe trip home next week.

  2. Al Sturgeon Says:

    My thanks, too, Joe.

    My simple question is unloaded: What was your job while you’ve been there? I’m just interested to know as a friend – you’ve been in a rather unique place, and I’d just be interested to hear of your day-to-day experiences.

    Now to the letter to the editor: It struck me as extremely well-written as well as exactly what I would expect him to write. I’m not saying it isn’t true, but anything less than his description I would have found surprising. That we are running a perfect detention camp, though a bit difficult to believe, is what I would expect to hear.

    It’s funny, but the stereotypical fan of the “kick butt and take names” style of justice (which ironically seems to be a significant part of the 1/3 that still approve of the President) will either (a) hate what the letter says – libraries? soccer? 12 hours of recreation?, or (b) wink and say, “Heh, we know what REALLY goes on down there!”

    I stand and applaud humane treatment of detainees, but I really feel the need to say one profound thing, and it is, “Like Mikey often says, I don’t think I have a point.”

  3. Joe Longhorn Says:

    The detainees have access to lawyers for the purposes of filing a writ of habeas corpus (challenge of the reasons for detention) and if they are facing trial by military commission.

    Most of the detainees here are not ever going to face trial before a military commission because they are simply unlawful enemy combatants. Their only crime is choosing the wrong side to fight for. They were captured on battlefields on which the U.S. is still engaged. The purpose of GTMO is to keep these enemy combatants from returning to the fight, not to punish them. They are very much like prisoners of war, but do not meet Geneva Convention requirements for that designation.


    I have spent my time down here working as the scheduler for the Office for the Administrative Review of the Detention of Enemy Combatants (OARDEC). Every detainee down here goes through an annual process called an Administrative Review Board (ARB). It’s analagous to a parole board in that all of the information we have on a detainee, both classified and unclassified, is reviewed to determine the level of threat the individual poses and the intelligence value of the individual. The detainee also has the ability to submit statements or documents on their own behalf and to be present for the board proceedings. The board is made up of three military officers. This board can make a recommendation to continue detention, transfer the individual to another country’s custody with conditions, or outright release the individual. The board’s recommendation is then reviewed by the Designated Civilian Official (DCO), currently the Assistant SecDef in Washington, to make the final decision. This process is above and beyond the requirements of international law. I was down here for the end of the first ARB cycle last December, about 50 cases, and by the time I leave will have coordinated another 130 ARBs for cycle two. During the first ARB cycle, about 30% of the detainees were designated for either transfer or release.

    My part in this process has been to coordinate the schedules of all parties involved with actually conducting the boards.

  4. Michael Lasley Says:

    Thanks, Joe. What will happen with all of the detainees when the war ends? Will they simply be released as part of the peace agreement? Or are there detainees who are such threats that there will be some sort of trial for them? Have most of them been active in terrorist activities or are they just on the wrong side of the war?

    Al — come on. Why do you have to remind everyone that I often have no point?

  5. Joe Longhorn Says:

    You ask a very good question Mike. They will likely be re-patriated to their country of origin. The sticky part about that is determining when the war is “over”. Most of these guys were captured directly on the battlefield or retreating from the battlefield, most with kalashnikov in hand. Others were captured in known AQ or Taliban safehouses.

  6. juvenal_urbino Says:

    The sticky part about that is determining when the war is “over”.

    That was going to be my question, Joe. Or the one logically prior to it: what war(s) were these people “unlawful combatants” in? The Iraq war? The Afghanistan war? The “war on terrorism,” whatever that is? (Not trying to be smarmy. I really don’t know what it is, nor have I ever heard any official even try to define it in any way — much less one precise enough to be useful in making legal determinations about the status of prisoners, etc.)

    How will the detainees or we know when any of those wars is over? A good case could be made that both of the first two have been over for quite some time, but, since the states that were our enemies in those countries have been dissolved, there’s nobody to sign a peace treaty with.

    Is the plan that we will sign some sort of document with the new goverments in those countries at some point, declaring hostilities officially over and all POWs (or POW-equivalents) free to go home?

    As for the “war on terrorism,” do you know of any official definition of it? Does the military have one? How will we know when it’s over?

    (It probably seems like I’m trying to pepper you with questions just for the sake of pointing out problems. Just for the record, I’m not. Everything in this comment with a “?” at the end of it is a genuine question.)

  7. Joe Longhorn Says:

    Here’s the real dilemma at Guantanamo and other detainee camps. We are at war with Islamo-fascism. We know that these people want to destroy America. Plain and simple. But we can’t bomb their capitols, blockade their ports, or even engage them in diplomacy.

    We’ve got guys in here that have point blank stated that as soon as they are free from Guantanamo they are going to rejoin the jihad against America. What are we supposed to do with guys like that? If we turn them loose, we aren’t protecting our country. If we keep them in detention, we are the human rights scourge of the world. It’s the ultimate catch-22.

    You ask good questions. I’ll try to answer as many as I can.

    I think my point about Islamo-fascism touches on your first paragraph. Once we determine that the war on terror has cooled to a point that the threat of releasing these guys is minimal, we’ll turn them over tho their country of origin. We’ve alread done this with several detainees that were determined to be of a lower level threat. Unfortunately, some of these guys did, in fact, show back up on the battlefield.

    I do not know of an official definition of the Global War on Terror. It’s kind of like Justice Potter Stewart and pornography. We know it when we see it. Its a purposefully vague concept that allows a lot of policy leeway. Granted, that’s not an appealing concept, but I believe it is practical.

  8. juvenal_urbino Says:

    but I believe it is practical.

    No offense, Joe, but it’s practical only as long as you’re not one of the people who’s locked up, perhaps mistakenly.

    Its a purposefully vague concept that allows a lot of policy leeway.

    In a democracy, though, that can’t work. The people can’t hold the government accountable for it’s policies and performance if we don’t even know what the policies are or what a final successful outcome would look like.

    To me, that’s the real dilemma. Can we defend America without destroying it from the inside? By which I mean, without remaking it in an authoritarian mold. Can we defeat the enemy without becoming like them? The current theory (which I think is an overreaction) seems to hold that we can’t. At which point I have to ask: even if we win on those terms, who really won?

  9. Joe Longhorn Says:

    No offense, Joe, but it’s practical only as long as you’re not one of the people who’s locked up, perhaps mistakenly.

    That’s why we review the cases on an annual basis to evaluate the information pertaining to each individual’s detention.

  10. juvenal_urbino Says:

    Again, no offense, but if you were the one being told, “Don’t worry, if you’re innocent, you’ll have a chance to convince us a year from now,” would, “Okay, that’s fair,” be your response? Would it be Whitney’s if she were told that about you?

  11. DeJon Redd Says:

    I’m tardy to the conversation and it’s my loss.

    I’ll throw out my thoughts for what they’re worth.

    – I’m very happy your separation from the wife will soon end. I have a deep appreciation for what you and the wife have tolerated for the sake of your duty.

    – “Mad props” to Admiral Harris for addressing the Trib directly. Sure it has the polished sheen of an overly vetted document, but his inputs beats the heck out of the “bunker down” mentality shown by many military commanders.

    Back in Tucson I’ve been working with 3 Airmen just back home after 6 months guarding detainees at Camp Bucca, Iraq. We wanted to let the Tucson public know the kind of work these courageous young Airmen were doing. I’m still not sure we’ll get that chance. They don’t trust reporters and they’re still a little fragile from the experience. They are 3 volunteers out of a pool of almost 50.

    They told me about those dirty cocktails. One guy had a personal experience.

    The point they made and I pass on here is this… The folks they detained were not pick-pockets or white-collar criminals. They were hate-filled murderers. These Airmen had to watch their back every minute for 6 months – on guard for a detainee uprising (and they had quite a few) or a mortar lobbed from just beyond the fence line. They quelled murderous riots by non-lethal means. They described thousands of detainees gathered in the camp, and their responsibility to detain them humanely. They described the showering process as the most dangerous activity imaginable. The Red Cross required individual shower stalls … with shower curtains. The curtains provide impenetrable protection from the non-lethal weapons. And most riots started in the showers. The camps are made up of detainees from warring factions, warring tribes, hated ethnicities or sects. But they all unite in hate towards Americans.

    They proved to me that detainee ops is an ugly business.

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