I just finished reading your attorneys' commentary on CNN.com regarding President Obama's decision to fight the ill-conceived release of additional detainee mistreatment photos.
In your commentary, you attempted to berate the current President and the previous administration for, "widespread and systemic" abuse. As a veteran who served in Iraq and handled detainees from time to time, this couldn't be further from the truth.
While my unit trained at Ft. Bragg and upon our arrival in Kuwait, we were briefed repeatedly on the rules of engagement, our general orders, and the laws of war to ensure that we would know how to responsibly handle enemy combatants and detainees once they were neutralized on the battlefield. Unfortunately, we had to put our training into practice our first day after crossing the berm.
We encountered about 50 military-aged men looting weapons from an Iraqi military installation in Taji, just north of Baghdad. The unit I was attached to managed to gain control of the situation, took possession of the arms, and built a cordon around the detainees near one of the facility's perimeter walls. We would now need to wait for military police and intelligence units to join up with us to properly vet and process the detainees.
As nightfall rolled in, my teammates and I entered into the equation to pull security on the group. Once Intelligence was on site, they began to speak with each detainee individually. The conversations were often brief and even-tempered. Most of the men were immediately released. However, a handful of the answers didn't satisfy the interrogators, and these men remained in our custody.
Only having a vague knowledge of how to handle detainees from our earlier briefings, the intelligence soldiers pulled us aside and gave us another hasty--albeit critical--briefing on how we needed to handle these men. Time and again they reiterated that we could only use proportional force to ensure they stayed put, until the unit commander decided the best next course of action.
"Proportional" meant that we were only authorized to keep watch over the men and ensure they didn't try to escape or, worse, attack us. Intelligence was very clear that the ONLY circumstances under which we could draw our weapons is if we were in imminent danger of personal harm, meaning that the men somehow gained control of a weapon and turned to use it on us.
Next, we were obligated under international law to feed them, provide them with water, allow them to sleep, and render medical aide, if necessary. We were a little taken aback, since our rations were now on the line to ensure that these potential criminals were treated properly. But we did it. We field stripped a box of MREs, took the matches, hot sauce, and heaters, then demonstrated how to properly eat them with the help of our interpreter.
Contrary to popular belief, we weren't instructed to beat, harass, or otherwise "screw" with the detainees. In fact, Intelligence made it clear that we would face dire consequences if we even thought of mistreating them. The night came and went, the detainees stayed put, and we handed them off to another unit the next day.
We carried the lessons of that day with us throughout the deployment and dozens of other encounters with detainees. Does this sound like "widespread and systemic" patterns of abuse?
Over the years, stories have come to light regarding overseas rendition camps and detainee abuse incidents from troops on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan. Neither I nor the Pentagon seek to refute incidents of abuse, but the mischaracterization of the actions of all American troops is what troubles me. As I pointed out in my last posting on this issue, enemy combatants will always choose American custody over their local criminal justice system, or the killing houses of Al Qaeda. This should serve as a testament to the professionalism of our troops tasked with handling enemy combatants today.
Unfortunately, from your commentary I've gathered that you believe American troops are actually trained to harass and mistreat detainees as a matter of policy, which is patently false. The Pentagon (especially under the new Administration) has been very candid in its responses to illicit detainee abuse incidents. Today, very stringent measures are in place to assure that detainees are treated equitably, as evidenced by numerous independent reports on American detention facilities, which is why Obama has decided to fight the photos' release.
The Pentagon has taken corrective action. Dated photos from incidents for which justice has been meted out will not provide anything of value to the public discourse.
In your commentary, you also purported that the President's directive lacked a "limiting principle," meaning that blocking the release of these photos would only further the presumption that the Executive enjoys the ability to censor information at will.
The limiting principle to this decision is obvious: These particular, old, subpoenaed detainee photos, which have been used in old investigations that have since been closed do not need to be released publicly. To me, this seems like a clear limit. The Administration has already demonstrated considerable consideration for transparency, even lifting the decades-old ban on filming flag-draped coffins returning from the battlefield. In this individual case the President has chosen national security and the safety of our troops over your voyeuristic desires.
Some have argued that releasing the photos would demonstrate that the United States has changed its "old habits," somehow ensuring that the extremists we're fighting would see it as an olive branch from which we can move forward. We already know this is not true. No sooner had Obama been elected that Al Qaeda released an inflammatory statement seeking to defame him and the nation he now represents. Al Qaeda and its operatives will not respond to symbolic gestures.
However, Al Qaeda will seize on opportunities to use our own transparency against, as we've seen in the past. When the Abu Ghraib incident came to light, violence in Iraq spiked dramatically--from 52 U.S. deaths in March 2004 to 135 U.S. deaths in April 2004 after "60 Minutes" aired the photos.
In the commentary you noted that, "To give the government the power to suppress information because it might anger an unidentified set of people in an unspecified part of the world and ultimately endanger an ill-defined group of U.S. personnel would be to invest it with a virtually unlimited censorial power."
I have already refuted the "unlimited censorship" idea, now I want to refute your remaining ambiguous assertions. The "unidentified set of people" is Al Qaeda and its network of operatives. The "unspecified part of the world" is Southwest Asia, particularly Iraq, Afghanistan and the Peshwar region of Pakistan. Finally, the "ill-defined group of U.S. personnel" is the more than 300,000 American military men and women who have selflessly volunteered to serve in harm's way across the aforementioned regions, as our lives go on tonight. Your argument is not salient, and, as a veteran, I take offense to being labeled as an "ill-defined group of U.S. personnel."
I guess I just don't understand why you want to possess these photos so badly. To generate more hits for your Web sites and blogs? To set in motion a complete reversal of all progress in Iraq? To compromise our latest surge of forces in Afghanistan? To further malign the selfless acts of our military men and women?
I'm appalled and offended by the proposition of releasing these photos, and I'm happy to see that Obama has listened to his top military minds on this issue. I hope these photos never see the light of day, giving our enemies another opportunity to kill or maim Americans fighting to keep us safe.
(Photo: Members of my unit discussing what to do with military-aged Iraqi men caught looting a military installation north of Baghdad in 2003. I am the second soldier from the right, pulling security. Photo courtesy of Ryan Gallucci.)