Guantanamo in the Rearview Mirror

30 July 2013, 1538 EDT

Here at the Duck and elsewhere, there has been much discussion of the gaps between academia and the policy world.  I took part in a program that seeks to bridge that gap–the Council on Foreign Relations International Affairs Fellowship–which I have mentioned here before.   One thing I did not discuss here before is that such experiences can put one in morally challenging situations.   Whenever Guantanamo comes up in the news, I am reminded of this.  Why, see my tale belowe:

I was on the US Joint Staff in 2001-2002 when the US picked up six Algerians in Bosnia and sent them to Guantanamo. So, yesterday, I saw this tweet and it got me thinking

I tweeted back at Jimmy Sky a question and then followed it up with this tweet.

It got picked up and discussed at Political Science Rumors.  The discussion, which went all over the place, did raise a valid question: what happens when an academic ends up in a policy position and is in the midst of a process where difficult decisions are being made?*   Should I have quit my fellowship that put me on the Joint Staff?  I don’t think so, but I am posting my tale here so that others can think about this kind of situation that they might face if they cross over into the policy world.  To be clear, I still think that my year on the Joint Staff was incredibly valuable to me–it has informed my teaching, and it led to a very interesting research agenda.

* I can talk about this because it has been discussed in the media elsewhere.  Indeed, it was the cover story for a Bosnian magazine in the aftermath (that is Uncle Sam pissing on the Bosnian constitution and the European Charter of Rights–or its equivalent. and then in Time and eventually the Washington Post.  Oh, and apparently Wikipedia.  So, Bradley Manning I am not.

In the late fall of 2001 (a month or two after 9/11), the US got some intel that six Algerians were planning on engaging in terrorist attacks against US/NATO targets in Bosnia.  The US was still participating in the NATO Stabilization Force [SFOR] at the time.  The Americans informed the government of Bosnia, which then arrested these Algerians.  Two months or so later, the Bosnian government indicated that the Algerians would have be released because they did not have enough evidence, given the US’s unwillingness to share intel.  The US had been trying to get Algeria to take these guys, but Algeria had refused, also citing the lack of intel.

So, in late January 2002, the issue suddenly appeared in the US interagency.  The American commanders in Europe were seeking guidance from the interagency about what to do.  The choices were: let the Bosnians release the six suspected terrorists; give the Bosnians/Algerian the intel (actually, this was never discussed as far as I can remember),* or have the Americans pick them up and hold them someplace.  At this point in time, the only people that had been sent to Guantanamo were those picked up in Afghanistan.

* One of the fundamental problems for the US in its war on terror was its refusal to share intel.  Like the tendency to over-classify stuff, the reluctance to reveal key bits of evidence cut against American interests.  But the intel folks fought hard to restrict access, citing the fear that it would reveal American “means and capabilities”–how the US gets its info.
Oh, and when I used this situation as a simulation for a course on US foreign Policy a couple of years later, the students came up with another option–kill the suspected terrorists.  That was not an option that was discussed in 2002.

The guidance cable that eventually went out (it was slowed by a day or so because the folks under Rumsfeld did not want to bother him after 7pm and also because the Office of the Secretary of Defense’s lawyer was pondering whether this was good policy–which was not his job–and this gave the folks in Bosnia some time to organize a protest that could have turned into something far worse) that had the consent of State, National Security Council, OSD and the Joint Staff.  It gave the US military orders to act on their own and not part of NATO (the double hatted folks essentially took one hat off for the night) to pick up the six Algerians and drive them to Tuzla, where they could be put on a plane and flown to Guantanamo.

At the time, sending these guys to Gitmo did not seem to be a horrible idea.  Yes, it did not help Bosnia’s efforts to build a robust rule of law.  Nor did it play well among the Bosnian Muslims, but those folks still had a favorable position towards the US (they hated UN, but liked NATO and the US).  On Poli Sci Rumors, I tried to clarify that I was involved but not at the table.  This was not meant to indicate that I had no responsibility because I was just following orders but to clarify that I was not a decision-maker. Had I been one, knowing only what I knew in January 2002, I would have supported the decision that was made.  In fact, I did support the decision at the time.

What I did not know in 2002 was that detention without trial would be the norm.  I also did not know at the time about the rules that Rummy and others were sending out to detention facilities that essentially gave the green light for torture.  So, the relatively straightforward tradeoffs of 2002 were less straightforward with more information.  If I knew in January 2002 what I know now, I might not have been as supportive of the decision.  But given the tradeoffs, releasing six guys who we had good reason to believe were terrorists (I didn’t see the actual intelligence since I had a Top Secret clearance which was not high enough to see the signals stuff–NSA stuff) seemed to be really problematic.

Anyhow for a better example of “Steve just following orders”: in the summer of 2002, the Bush Administration was trying to get all of the mandates of the US missions in the world, including the Bosnian mission, revised to exclude the US troops from being vulnerable to being tried by the International Criminal Court.  I was strongly opposed to this stance, not so much because I believed in the ICC, but because I knew that American allies really cared about ICC.  Given that a new war was on the horizon (Iraq), it seemed foolish to antagonize American allies in Europe over a symbolic issue (the ICC rules give the country of the troops the first chance to handle any suspicion of war crimes, so the Americans could always handle the cases themselves).  I argued with my superior officers and then went ahead and did the paperwork–that I was just following orders.  In the Gitmo case, I believed that the course of action was the best of a set of lousy alternatives–so I was not just following orders.

So, there you have it: my role in the sending of some suspected terrorists to Guantanamo.   As the years went on, I did learn more and more about Gitmo, and so I look back at that process in January 2002 and feel far more squeamish about it now than I did then.  That is why I asked the question on twitter: to find out whether any of these guys were still left in Gitmo.  A former student sent me to a Gawker post that suggested that some of the Algerians sent to Gitmo in 2002 are still there.

I am posting this here as the policy world is a complex place with incomplete information.  Stepping into that world means taking part in processes that are quite gray.  Should I have resigned rather than take part in this?  I don’t think so, given what I knew at the time.  If I had known then what I know now?  I am not sure.