The Fun-Filled Ocean Resort at Guantánamo Bay
A growing hunger strike among detainees is mocked by gullible journalists spouting familiar Potemkin Village propaganda.
If you’re looking for a fun activity-filled resort to take your family for a summer vacation, you simply cannot do better than Club GTMO, according to a new glossy travel guide just published by Robert Johnson, the Military and Defense Editor of Business Insider, under the guise of a news article. Scrumptious meals. Video games galore for the kids. Outdoor sports. Newspapers from your hometown delivered by smiling bellhops to the front door of your villa. Picturesque Caribbean vistas. All that and more can be yours – provided that you’re “compliant”. What more could vacationers – or prisoners kept in a cage for more than a decade with no charges thousands of miles away from their family – possibly want? They are, proclaims Johnson, treated “absurdly well”. Not just well: absurdly well. They are, he actually writes, lavished with “resort treatment”.
The context for Johnson’s glowing thumbs-up is an intensifying hunger strike among (totally ungrateful) prisoners at the camp. Lawyers for the detainees say the hunger strike was triggered “as a protest of the men’s indefinite confinement without charge and because of what they said was a return to harsh treatment from past years, including more intrusive searches and confiscation of personal items such as mail from their families.” That includes, the lawyers say, a lack of sanitary drinking water which has “already caused some prisoners kidney, urinary and stomach problems”. Detainees also complain about the recent manhandling of Korans. One lawyer for 11 detainees, Carlos Warner, identifying himself as a “liberal” supporter of Obama, told CNN that the detainees are now deprived of some privileges they had all the way back in 2006 and said the situation there was “dire”.
The US military, needless to say, denies these claims. While detainee lawyers insist that the overwhelming majority of detainees are participating in the hunger strike, US military officials claim that “only” 31 of the 166 are doing so. They do acknowledge that some are being force-fed, a few have been hospitalized for dehydration, and that more and more are participating in the strike. As the New York Times’ Charlie Savage notes this morning, the conflicting claims are difficult to resolve. That is in part because journalists have very restricted access to the camp and no access to the detainees.
But none of that is a problem for Robert Johnson. He recently took a trip to Guantánamo – approved and arranged by the US military. He saw parts of the camp – the parts the US military showed him and wanted him to see. He spoke with camp officials and guards, but not any detainees. From that extremely selective picture, he pronounces: “When I visited Guantánamo earlier this month, it was hard not to see things from the military’s point of view.” He further decrees that “the overriding philosophy on base these days is to treat the detainees really well.” One by one, he declares each detainee grievance to be invalid – based exclusively on what camp officials told him and showed him. Shiny pictures with his article are included, accompanied by glib and playful captions such as “Here’s what Guantánamo detainees could be eating” underneath a photo showing food in styrofoam containers, and “Detainees get to play sports too (be careful the ball doesn’t get caught in the barbed wire)” under a photo of a soccer ball on top of a fence. He then gushes:
“Compliant detainees enjoy a selection of six balanced meals, 25 cable TV channels, classes, and an array of electronic gadgetry and entertainment. Seriously, I’m talking about a Nintendo DS for every compliant detainee, plus Playstation 3 access with a library full of video games.”
He does not share what one has to do to be deemed a “compliant detainee”, nor does he explain what conditions are like for ones deemed non-compliant. He evinces no curiosity about any of that. Asking about that would be terribly gauche given the very gracious treatment he received from his resort hosts in the US military.
Upon his return, Johnson – before writing this latest article devoted to debunking the validity of the detainee hunger strike – posted a series of frolicking observations about the happy life of detainees at the camp; here’s one illustrative example of many:
Tasty. Two weeks ago, he also posted a pictoral tour of the camp’s “surprises”, including stunning tropical skies, funny iguanas, and colorful floor stains from the camp’s art classes.
Manipulating gullible, vapid, subservient “journalists” to spout Potemkin Village propaganda like this, with military-arranged visits, is nothing new. It’s been going on almost since the camp opened. During the Bush years, right-wing outlets such as the Weekly Standard and National Review were repeatedly taken on fun day trips to the resort, and they then produced agitprop mocking the camp as “Club GITMO”. Sounding exactly like Johnson now, Rush Limbaugh in 2005 said:
“Any resort promotion would brag about its amenities that cater to the needs of its guests. Anything better than diet, Qurans, prayer rugs, I mean where else can Muslims go in the world to find everything they need? There’s no better place than Gitmo. Club G’itmo, the Muslim resort. . . .. It’s a tropical paradise down there where Muslim extremists and terrorist wannabes can get together for rest and relaxation. ”
Republican officials spent years touting it as a Caribbean resort for which detainees should be grateful. (Time’s Joe Klein generously performed that propagandistic service back in 2002 without even getting a trip from the military, when he ran to the Guardian to mock complaints about torture at Guantánamo as “total rubbish”, to proclaim that it is “clear that the prisoners  are not being treated badly at all”, and to say that he “would actually prefer [the detainees] be dressed in pink tutus, to give them an appreciation of the freedoms accorded western ballerinas”).
It’s hard to overstate the denseness needed for a self-proclaimed journalist to believe that he’s able to know what Guantánamo is really like from a military-arranged tour. In 2008, the New York Times’ David Barstow exposed the Pentagon’s domestic propaganda program under which retired generals serving as “military analysts” for every network and cable news outlet were secretly collaborating with the Pentagon to disseminate military-approved assertions masquerading as news. One of the great successes of this program were the continuous day-trips to Guantánamo for these “analysts”, who then dutifully went on television to “report”, with no challenge, how fantastic the camp really was.
One of these trips was planned by the Pentagon in June, 2005, immediately after Amnesty International had issued its most scathing denunciation yet of Gitmo. That was part of the human rights group’s report on what it called the “new gulag of prisons around the world beyond the reach of the law and decency.” It specifically called Gitmo “the gulag of our times”, and detailed years of extreme abuses that were taking place there.
When the emails relating to the Pentagon’s “military analyst” program were released, it detailed how the US military used these coordinated trips to Guantánamo to plant propaganda with friendly and/or gullible TV military analysts. One of those analysts, retired Gen. Don Shepperd of CNN, went on a hastily-arranged one-day trip along with “analysts” from MSNBC and Fox, and upon his return, he repeatedly went on CNN to proclaim – just as Johnson is doing now – that complaints about the camp were “totally false”, that “people are being very, very well-treated”, and that it is “by far the most professionally-run and dedicated force I’ve ever seen in any correctional institution anywhere.” He also explained that detainees he observed being interrogated were playfully laughing during their “very cordial, very professional” interrogation sessions.
But apparently unlike Robert Johnson (himself a former US Army officer), Gen. Shepperd was sophisticated enough to know that what he had been shown was pure propaganda, not reliable truth. In a report he filed with his Pentagon handlers, Shepperd wrote: “Did we drink the ‘Government Kool-Aid?’ — of course, and that was the purpose of the trip.” He added the obvious: that “a one day visit does not an expert make” and that “the government was obviously going to put its best foot forward to get out its message”. Of course, none of those skeptical notes was revealed to CNN viewers, who heard only gushing claims about the camp (nor was it disclosed that at the time of his pro-Pentagon CNN reports, Shepperd was the President of The Shepperd Group, which “provides expert guidance and consulting services to defense contractors”).
The kind of mindless servitude to government and military claims on display from Business Insider’s Robert Johnson is one of the country’s most serious problems. Nobody doubts that conditions at the camp have improved in many ways from its darkest days of 2002 through 2005. But it is reckless in the extreme to resolve conflicting claims about detainee treatment in favor of the military, and to proclaim detainee grievances baseless, all from a highly selective visit managed by camp officials and by treating official claims as truth. And it’s nothing short of demented to talk about Guantánamo as anything other than a shameful travesty, let alone glorify it as a luxury ocean “resort”.
Whatever is true about the camp, the vast majority of those detainees have been kept in a cage for years – some more than a decade – without so much as having been charged with anything. They haven’t seen their families in years. Ten prisoners have died at the camp, the latest one just four months ago under very suspicious circumstances (the military claims that resort guest, despite all his luxurious amenities, committed suicide). At least half a dozen other resort guests have killed themselves, the latest being (if not the November, 2012 death) in mid-2011. Johnson himself notes in passing that there have been recent mass suicide attempts, though he disgustingly mocks them as nothing more than bids for “media attention”, as though he could possibly know that. This is what he actually wrote:
Suicide is another effective way of getting media attention, and there remains a rumor among detainees that three simultaneous suicides would force the Pentagon to close Guantánamo – despite three suicides already happening in 2006.
“Suicide is another effective way of getting media attention.” Apparently, these ungrateful guests are not as enamored of their resort treatment as Johnson thinks they should be, which is why they keep trying to check out via self-imposed death, with hanging themselves being the most favored method.
Whenever the issue of Guantánamo is raised, there are instantly deceitful efforts to relieve President Obama of any responsibility for the ongoing disgrace that is the camp. That is accomplished with the claim that Congress blocked him from closing the camp, a claim that is true but extremely misleading: as I’ve documented many times before, and as the ACLU has often noted, Obama’s plan was not to “close” the camp but rather to re-locate it and its core, defining injustice – indefinite detention – to Illinois (what the ACLU called “GITMO North”). Indefinite detention – being kept in a cage with no charges and with no end in sight – is one of the prime grievances driving this hunger strike, and Obama – completely independent of Congress – fully intended to preserve that system.
Moreover, while many conditions have improved, there have been numerous instances of vindictive treatment under the current president. In July of last year, the administration implemented what the New York Times called a “spiteful” new policy of severely restricting lawyer access to detainees (that policy was quickly struck down by a federal court as “an illegitimate exercise of executive power”). The Obama DOJ has continually appealed the habeas corpus victories of detainees – where courts ruled there was no credible evidence to justify their detention – and ultimately succeeded in imposing a virtually impossible-to-overcome standard for detainees to meet to win their release, all but rendering habeas corpus review a total illusion (the same habeas review which, after the Supreme Court in 2008 mandated it, candidate Obama hailed as “an important step toward reestablishing our credibility as a nation committed to the rule of law”). Just last week, detainee lawyers were infuriated when camp officials canceled all commercial flights to Guantánamo, thus severely restricting their access to their clients at exactly the time that grievances over worsening treatment led to the strike.
Not only have most of those detainees never been charged, but dozens of them have been cleared for release by the US government, yet continue to languish in cages with no release possible. That inexcusable injustice is due in part to a moratorium imposed by Obama – that’s imposed by Obama, not Congress – on the release of all Yemeni detainees, who compose the bulk of the remaining detainees (that includes Adnan Latif, who died at the age of 32 in the camp last November after having attempted suicide on multiple occasions, after having had his judicial victory ordering his release overturned on appeal). As former Gitmo guard Brandon Neely pointed out last September, after the death of a former hunger striker, more detainees have died at the camp (ten) than have been convicted of wrongdoing in what he called its “kangaroo courts”, meaning its military commissions (six).
In his gushing tribute to the fun and happy resort, Johnson’s only acknowledgment of any of this comes in this dismissive, yawning concession: “While indefinite detainment without trial may be morally offensive” – you think? He then quickly brushes that away with his next clause: “the overriding philosophy on base these days is to treat the detainees really well.” It’s repulsive enough to speak of a lawless hellhole in such glowing terms. To do so based on a manipulative, military-arranged tour and the uncritical treatment of the claims of military officials as truth, all while pretending to be a “journalist”, is just obscene beyond words. It is, however, anything but uncommon behavior for our nation’s intrepid, adversarial press corps.
Glenn Greenwald is a columnist on civil liberties and US national security issues for the Guardian. A former constitutional lawyer, he was until 2012 a contributing writer at Salon. He is the author of How Would a Patriot Act? (May 2006), a critique of the Bush administration’s use of executive power.
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