Guantanamo: "Inside the Wire"

Viveca Novak
Washington Correspondent, TIME Magazine
Monday, May 9, 2005; 2:00 PM

Army Sergeant Erik Saar 's account of interrogation tactics at Guantanamo Bay, which was leaked to the Associated Press in January of this year, fueled the controversy surrounding prisoner abuse allegations that has become so prominent since Abu Ghraib. In "Inside the Wire," which Saar co-authored with journalist Viveca Novak , he describes how the behavior witnessed inside Gitmo deeply disillusioned him and demonstrated the harsh reality of detainee treatment.

Viveca Novak, Washington correspondent for TIME Magazine, as online to discuss their book, "Inside the Wire."

A transcript follows.


Rockville, Md.: In what way the treatment of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay different from that of those in Abu Ghraib? We've come across stories and seen pictures of extreme inhumane conduct on the part of the U.S. forces in Iraq of the detainees, was Guantanamo as bad or was it worse than Iraq?

Viveca Novak: The treatment of detainees at Guantanamo was overall not as bad as treatment of those at Abu Ghraib, but it's possible to see how things devolved. At Gitmo, the tactics included exposing the captives to loud music and strobe lights, sexual enticement to break the detainees' bonds of faith, sleep "management", leaving them in rooms that were much too cold or hot for long periods of time, threatening with dogs. At Abu Ghraib, the repertoire included all of these and much more.

I think there are several reasons for that. One, conditions at Abu Ghraib were absolutely chaotic, with a far worse guard-to-prisoner ratio and the fact that the place was actually under fire at times.

And two, once the Administration started changing the rules at Gitmo, going back and forth on what was permissible, and with the background of the "torture memos" that were being rocketed around the White House, Justice Department, DOD et al in Washington, it's easy to see that perhaps military personnel didn't know what the rules were any more. One of my co-author's main complaints is that nobody at the upper levels, where the atmosphere was set, has taken responsibility for what went on or has been held accountable.

Oxford, United Kingdom: I interviewed four of the British detainees freed from Guantanamo in March 2004 for the British newspaper The Observer, and later published longer accounts in my book Guantanamo: The War on Human Rights (The New Press, $21.95). They described exactly the abuse now reported by Mr Saar, but in 2004 two things happened: The Pentagon firmly denied their accounts, and the U.S. media resolutely virtually ignored them. Should we not, on several grounds, find this disturbing?

Viveca Novak: We are living in interesting times. The whole paradigm shift since 9/11 regarding our treatment of suspects is remarkable, but for the most part the American public seems to find it acceptable. As for the Pentagon's statements, since writing this book I no longer know what to believe when I hear a detainee's claims of abuse. Used to be that I took in these complaints with a good deal of skepticism. Now I have an open mind, much more so than before.


Fort Collins, Colo.: Hello,

I've heard that there are some children of detainees in Cuba. If a parent is detained, what happens to the child? What if the child is an infant?

Viveca Novak: There were no children of detainees at Guantanamo that we are aware of. Many of the detainees have children back home, of course. And there were several detainees who were as young as 13 years old. They were housed in a separate, less prison-like facility called Camp Iguana, where they received lessons, could watch selected movies, and had a yard in which to kick a soccer ball around. But any detainee who was at least 16 years of age was housed with the general population.


Lyme, Conn..: Did anyone in the military or government ever say anything to the affect of: if we treat people like this, I certainly hope an enemy never treats our captured soldiers like this? Isn't one point of showing restraint to our prisoners is to set an example to the rest of the world how we, especially that of a government seeking to show others how good democracy is, expect all people to be treated?

Viveca Novak: You're correct -- that is what the Geneva Conventions are all about. The primary reason to be part of them, in the view of many, is to ensure that our soldiers are humanely treated if and when they are taken prisoner.


Wheaton, Md.: Its a good thing you're exposing the horrors taking place at Guantanamo. Thanks to your report, maybe all the prisoners can be released in time to get home and circumcise their 10 year old daughters.

Viveca Novak: A separate issue, don't you think?


Columbia, Md.: I have not read your book yet, but I just wanted to tell you that after seeing Mr. Saar on C-Span, I couldn't be more proud of him than if he were my own son. His idealism, sense of decency, and faith in our country's founding principles is what makes us a great people and will keep this Union afloat even in the face of of moral relativists who would blur those bright lines. Thank you for you book.

Viveca Novak: Thank you. One of the reasons I agreed to do the book with Erik was that he really seemed to be without a pre-existing agenda. He's from a small town and has small-town values, strong religious values, a very conservative background. He was enthusiastic about going after the terrorists, and still is -- he just disagrees with the way we're going about it, at least with respect to our treatment of captured suspects.


Bethesda, Md.: It seems like Americans have taken our descent into torture state status with little more than a shrug. At the risk of being accused of playing a "race card", I'd like to ask them something: What difference would it make to people if the human beings being beaten, exposed to hypothermic conditions and forced to eat out of toilets were white, English-speaking young men from Topeka? What if they were corralled into prison for driving taxi cabs, or (in a miniscule fraction of the cases) truly resisting an invasion of their country by a foreign force? "Moral values" voters in the U.S. - if there indeed are any real ones - should be outraged.

Viveca Novak: As I indicated to someone else who wrote, "Do unto others" was the primary motivation behind the Geneva Conventions. We all want to win the war on terror, but this part of the machine is broken.


Raleigh, N.C.: Thank you for your incisive work and for talking with us today.

The children who were being held at Guantanamo -- were they really suspected combatants, or were they the children of suspected al Qaeda leaders?

It has been reported that the young sons of al Qaeda leader Khalid Sheikh Mohammed were captured and detained by U.S. intelligence forces and were subsequently used as leverage in Mohammed's interrogation. Where were/are they being held?

Viveca Novak: They were suspected combatants.

As for KSM's sons, good question. I can't answer that, nor do I know where KSM himself, Ramzi bin al Shibh or some of the other top-level al-Qaeda suspects are being held. However, it's clear they're not at Gitmo, even though the Administration claimed that Gitmo was the holding station for "the worst of the worst."


Newark, Del.: I saw Mr Saar on C-SPAN this weekend discussing his book before a signing. I found his arguments and conclusions quite compelling and I am in complete agreement. I definitely feel the same way as he does about Guantanamo and its current quasi-gulag state.

But one thing that was awkward was just how little he could discuss or that he claimed he actually knew. It was even asked a couple times by the audience. He explained that his security clearances prevented him from discussing some matters and that he was also a low man on the totem pole. But that begs the question, could it be that his lack of knowledge on certain issues could be clouding his conclusions on the treatment of prisoners?

Viveca Novak: Erik's top-secret security clearance and his job, particularly in the second half of his stint at Gitmo, permitted him access to every detainee's file. That combined with what he saw personally and what he heard from other interrogators and linguists gave him an excellent picture of the situation at Guantanamo. If you look at our book in conjunction with the FBI e-mails released recently as part of the ACLU's lawsuit, you'll note that there probably was a lot he didn't know -- a lot of even worse treatment of detainees.


Washington, D.C.: Do you know about the Conference held by Wayne Smith in March about Prisoner Abuse at Guantanamo Bay and if so what did you think about it?

Viveca Novak: Sorry, I'm not familiar with it. Sounds like I should be.


Greeley, Colo: Do you know what, if any, plans the DOD have for releasing suspects to prevent "terrorist recidivism." Could this really be prevented by the U.S. in a meaningful way?

Viveca Novak: At least a dozen former detainees began working against the U.S. when they were released. Some have been killed as a result. Some of them may have fooled their U.S. captors into thinking they were nobodies and could be released safely. Others may have become radicalized by their experiences in U.S. hands.

Erik is actually surprised that more haven't taken up arms against the U.S., given what they went through.


Washington, D.C.: U.S. compliance with the Geneva Conventions is obviously a good thing, but in practice it's never had any effect on reciprocal treatment of American prisoners in enemy hands, has it? Looking back over Korea, Vietnam, Gulf War I, Bosnia, Somalia and other conflicts, has there ever been a conflict in which U.S. prisoners were not subjected to some form of abuse or torture in enemy captivity? Regardless of the Geneva Conventions or U.S. compliance?

Viveca Novak: I think it's absolutely wrong to say it's had no effect. Yes, there has been abuse of captured U.S. soldiers, even atrocities, but it's likely there would have been much more of this kind of thing were Geneva not the accepted authority on handling of POWs. I'd also point out that most of the offenders you mention aren't signatories.


Anonymous: Recent reports say that the military is thinking about revamping the military commissions. Do you have any thoughts on what they might/should look like?

Viveca Novak: As you know, the proposed changes follow the decision by a federal judge to stop the commissions (the order came down on the mainland even as a preliminary hearing for the first defendant to be tried under the process was under way). Now that ruling has been appealed. Plenty of officials at the Pentagon, DOJ and maybe even the White House seem to agree that modifications need to be made, and should be along the lines of structuring greater independence into the process so the decision makers don't fear for their jobs; not admitting evidence obtained under torture; and otherwise strengthening defendants' rights.

Those seem like reasonable ideas, and would bring the tribunals more in line with regular courts martial under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. However, it appears that at least one VIP -- Dick Cheney -- has been resistant.


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