The revolving door

The NYT describes how a former Guantanamo Bay detainee continued his career to become the deputy leader of al-Qaeda in Yemen upon his release.

BEIRUT, Lebanon — The emergence of a former Guantánamo Bay detainee as the deputy leader of Al Qaeda’s Yemeni branch has underscored the potential complications in carrying out the executive order President Obama signed Thursday that the detention center be shut down within a year.

The militant, Said Ali al-Shihri, is suspected of involvement in a deadly bombing of the United States Embassy in Yemen’s capital, Sana, in September. He was released to Saudi Arabia in 2007 and passed through a Saudi rehabilitation program for former jihadists before resurfacing with Al Qaeda in Yemen.

His status was announced in an Internet statement by the militant group and was confirmed by an American counterterrorism official.

Said Ali al-Shihri is an example of what a certain percentage of those who will be released from Guantanamo will do. Not everyone to be sure, but a certain percentage are likely to do just that: get back to business. And since many European countries have refused to consider taking ex-Guantanamo prisoners, citing legal and procedural difficulties (see previous post) while simultaneously objecting to the repatriation of ex-detainees to countries which do not meet European human rights standards, sooner or later some will be released domestically or in whatever place international law allows. Inevitably some will kill again, maybe in a neighborhood next to yours.

Michael Scheuer described how the rules under the Clinton administration were crafted to ensure the US would never hold prisoners. This meant, as a practical matter, that terror suspects were always shipped offshore to a foreign government where they were either tortured, killed or both. Michael Scheuer described how bad that was, not only only from the moral point of view, but from the persective of US intelligence intelligence. If US intel wanted to know something they had to submit any questions to their foreign counterparts in writing, with the near certain knowledge it would be asked under torture, and ineffectively at that. Guantanamo was established to create an environment where terrorists might be aggressively interrogated in a manner falling short of the tortures applied by foreign governments. In the aftermath of 9/11 it was deemed important to fix what was broke. It's easy to forget that Guantanamo was conceived as the solution to a Clinton era problem. But don't worry the problem is back in full force. It's worthwhile to recall the interview Scheuer gave describing the good old days under Clinton and what happened then.

Die Zeit: Who invented the "extraordinary renditions" system?

Michael Scheuer: President Clinton, his security counsellor Sandy Berger and his terrorism counsellor Richard Clarke instructed the CIA in autumn 1995 to destroy Al-Qaida. We asked the president what we should do with the arrested persons? Clinton replied that this was our problem. The CIA indicated that they are not jailors. It was then suggested we find any solution whatsoever to this problem. And this is what we did, we established a procedure and I myself was part of this working group. We concentrated on those members of Al-Qaida who were wanted by the police in their respective countries of origin or those who had already been convicted during their absence.

Die Zeit: How did you take the decision as to who should be arrested?

Michael Scheuer: We had to present quite a lot of accusatory material to a group of lawyers.

Die Zeit: Lawyers? Within the secret services?

Michael Scheuer: Yes, there are lawyers everywhere, within the CIA, the Ministry of Justice, the National Security Councill. We have established a list of targets under their surveillance. We then had to find the person and this in a country ready to cooperate with us. Additionally, the person's country of origin had to be willing to take the person back. It is a very complicated procedure aimed at a very restricted target group. ...

Die Zeit: Did the interrogations take place in the target country?

Michael Scheuer: We always submitted our questions in writing.

Die Zeit: The CIA never really took part in the interrogations?

Michael Scheuer: I have never heard of anything like that. The lawyers enjoined us from doing so.

Die Zeit: Did you not have doubts concerning the use of torture in these countries?

Michael Scheuer: No, my job was to protect American citizens by arresting members of Al-Qaida. The executive power of our government has to decide whether it considers this hypocritical or not. 90% of this operation was successful and only 10% could be considered as disastrous.

Die Zeit: Which part was the disaster?

Michael Scheuer: The fact that everything was made public. From now on the Europeans will diminish their assistance because they fear reading about it in the Washington Post. And then there is this troublemaker in the Senate, Senator John McCain, who virtually confessed, wrongly of course, that the CIA uses torture. And that is how the program will be destroyed.

Die Zeit: Why did you transfer the persons to their countries of origin instead of transferring them to the USA? Could you not have imprisoned them there much more safely?

Michael Scheuer: The crimes they had committed were always acts of violence. We did not have the slightest doubts that those people would be released by their countries. And president Clinton did not want them to be transferred to the USA.

Die Zeit: Why not?

Michael Scheuer: Our leaders did not wish us to treat them like prisoners of war but rather like common criminals. Additionally, they feared that they would never be able to assemble sufficient proof in order to defend the case before our law courts.

Closing Guantanamo and the court decisions granting enemy combatants access to the US legal system will jointly make it impossible for the US to detain prisoners again. Capturing a live prisoner is one of the most hazardous operations of war. It is far easier to drop a JDAM on him. But why would anyone take the trouble if prisoners cannot be interrogated, harshly to be sure, in an American jail, but in a manner far short of the Clinton era alternative. Instead they must be turned over to some brutal foreign official who will torment the prisoner and pointlessly anyway. Better to drop the JDAM. The result is that either no prisoners will be taken or those taken will wind up, as they did in the past, in the dungeons of the Mukhabarat. The irony is that closing Guantanamo Bay may result in the revival of the old Clinton-era practices, which were not only more brutal to the detainees, but brought us 9/11 to boot. One of the reasons the US has managed to prevent a second terror attack is intelligence gathered from the battlefield. That was then, this is now. Henceforth such intelligence must be gathered by foreigners so that the politicians can proclaim their hands clean. Theirs is the cleanliness of hypocrisy; of secret brutality in which everything is licit so long as it is one degree of liability removed.  This is the new morality which serves not man, but the press release. The new kindness, behind which lurks the secret smile.