The Vanished Moral High Ground

Blowback, Detainee-style: The Plight of American Prisoners in Iran
By Karen J. Greenberg

For Americans, it should be startling to see the word “detainee” suddenly appear in a different country, on a different continent, and referring not to alleged jihadi terrorists but to a group of Americans. After all, “detainee” is the word the Bush administration coined to deal with suspected terrorist captives who, they argued, should be subjected to extra-legal treatment as part of the Global War on Terrorism. Now, that terminology is, as critics long predicted might happen, being turned against American citizens. I am referring to the current detention of Americans in Iran.

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s government currently holds in custody Haleh Esfandiari, Kian Tajbakhsh, Parnaz Azima, and Ali Shakeri, Iranian-American scholars and activists accused of being spies and/or employees of the U.S. government intent on fomenting dissent and disruption within Iran. (A fifth American, Robert Levinson, a former FBI agent engaged in business of an unknown nature in Iran, disappeared on March 8th.) The four are apparently behind bars at Tehran’s Evin prison, notorious for its special wing for political prisoners and, among human rights activists, for being the location of the lethal beating of a Canadian-Iranian journalist in 2003. Evin and other Iranian prisons are cited by Human Rights Watch for frequent torture and mistreatment of arrested Iranian dissidents.

The Iranian government has said that the detained are threats to “national security,” despite protests that they were visiting their families and/or engaged in purely peaceful work. The U.S. Government has been denied information on their treatment and the possible accusations against them.

The Bush administration is naturally incensed over the incarceration of these Americans. As well its officials should be. “It is absolutely incredible to us,” said State Department deputy spokesman Tom Casey, “to think that there could be any possible doubt in the Iranians’ minds that these individuals are there simply to conduct normal, basic human interactions, including family visits.” President Bush himself has insisted that “their presence in Iran poses no threat.” The Associated Press reported that Bush was also “‘disturbed’ by the fact that Iran has still not provided any information about the welfare and whereabouts” of the missing Levinson and has condemned Iran for being “defiant as to the demands of the free world.”

President Bush is correct. These detentions represent a travesty of justice and a violation of the rules of conduct among nations. It is horrifying that these Americans, who are engaged in foreign affairs at non-governmental and scholarly levels, are held, seemingly without recourse to law and certainly without respect for international rights.

But there is another disturbing reality here which must be faced. In numerous ways, the U.S. has robbed itself of the right to proclaim the very principles by which these prisoners should be defended. Though President Bush and his spokespersons may not see it, their past policies have set a trap for the government — and for Americans generally. More than five years after setting up Guantanamo, and then implementing national security strategies based upon torture, secret prisons, and illegal detentions, the Bush administration has managed to obliterate the moral high ground they now seek to claim in relation to Iran.

The new American prisoners in Iran belong, in part, to a broader diplomatic game of chicken now raging between the two governments that began with the U.S. capture in January of five Iranian officials in Irbil in Iraqi Kurdistan, prisoners the U.S. continues to hold somewhere in Iraq without charges. The more telling context, however, is that of Bush administration detention policy from the moment in 2002 when it set up its prison in Guantanamo, Cuba, offshore from American justice, to this day.

At the inception of the war on terror, the Bush administration broke the very rules it now accuses the Iranians of breaking. As part of a high-stakes stand-off with countries associated with Islamic fundamentalism, it was the Bush administration that first collected individuals, some guilty of crimes, some simply swept up in the chaos — initially off the Afghan battlefield and then off the global one. Often, they did so with very little knowledge of, or care about, whom they were rounding up. They incarcerated these prisoners for long periods without releasing their names or, often, their whereabouts; they refused to give them the established rights of prisoners of war; they defied the united protests of allies around the world; and they sought to justify this whole policy with the term “detainee.”

In fact, uncomfortable parallels between notorious Guantanamo and grim Evin abound. At Gitmo, as at Evin, information about “detainees” has often been difficult to obtain. At Gitmo, as at Evin, the government has been a champion of denying prisoners access to lawyers. At Gitmo, as at Evin, “national security” concerns invariably trump the need to produce evidence or to indict prisoners. At Gitmo, as at Evin, there have been repeated reports of coercive interrogations and the mistreatment, as well as torture, of prisoners.

At Gitmo, as at Evin, authorities deny such accusations despite obvious evidence to the contrary. One year ago, journalists were invited to assess conditions at Evin for themselves. Allowed to see only the women’s section of the prison, they were shown the medical facilities and told about the excellent food the prison serves — self-evident proof of the fair treatment of prisoners. So, too, media tours of Guantanamo stress the quality of the food and the superior medical treatment available in the prison complex. At Gitmo, suicide is an ever-present threat. At Evin, according to a BBC journalist on the tour, authorities boasted of only one suicide in six months — as if that were a record to be proud of. Iranian authorities refused to discuss “political prisoners” because “Iran does not recognize this as a category.” So, too, the most suitable term for those held at Gitmo, “prisoner of war,” has been forbidden on the premises.

In all these ways, but especially by wielding their chosen term “detainee,” and by defining “detainees” as essentially without rights as Americans would understand them, the Bush administration has stripped the United States of its traditional standing as the foremost champion of human rights. It has relinquished its bona fides to express the kind of moral outrage that could indeed buttress international support and legal due process for Americans who have been illegally imprisoned. Even more surprising, when administration officials, including the President, denounce the Iranians, they are tin-eared. The hypocrisy in their own words just doesn’t register. When George W. Bush shows his outrage at the imprisonment of Americans without cause, evidence, or due process, it’s as if he has no sense that, in much of the rest of the world, these are exactly the charges that ring out against his own administration.

Essentially, a frantic, fear-filled, information-impoverished, but stubbornly defended policy has finally blown back on America’s own citizens. This was something former Secretary of State Colin Powell — who last weekend called for the closing of Guantanamo — predicted in January 2002 might well happen to captive U.S. troops, if not citizens, if the United States refused to classify its detainees in the Global War on Terror as prisoners of war.

Whether or not President Bush hears the hypocrisy in his own pleas, the fact remains that his detainee policy has deprived the government of a means of defending its own citizens on the international stage. It has, in effect, amputated the very legs it would need to stand on to protest against the Iranian detentions.

Try as they might, Bush administration officials can only cry foul by calling attention to their own systematic violations of justice and the law. In their mouths, the appeal to fundamental rights rings hollow indeed, depriving Americans of the protections afforded by once-accepted standards of decency and justice. Here, as on so many other fronts, the President’s fierce “national security” policy has created an ever more insecure future for this country.

Karen J. Greenberg, the Executive Director of the Center on Law and Security at the NYU School of Law, the co-editor of The Torture Papers: The Road to Abu Ghraib, and the editor of The Torture Debate in America. She recently took a Pentagon-guided tour of Guantanamo.


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