Peter Jan Honigsberg: The Stain on America’s Soul That Will Not Wash Away
Guantanamo Bay has become a name synonymous with torture and lawlessness. Years after the so-called “War on Terror” began, information about operations in this U.S.-controlled section of Cuba have slowly leaked out. In an astounding new book titled “A Place Outside the Law: Forgotten Voices from Guantanamo,” University of San Francisco law professor Peter Jan Honigsberg documents the firsthand accounts of 52 of the 780 detainees held at Guantanamo Bay by U.S. authorities.
On the latest installment of “Scheer Intelligence,” Honigsberg, who was allowed to interview only former detainees, tells Truthdig Editor in Chief Robert Scheer some of the stories of these men who were “purchased” by the U.S. government, and detained without charges or a trial, most of whom were completely innocent.
“The way this happened was after the attacks on 9/11, America dropped flyers over Afghanistan that said, ‘Bring us Taliban and al-Qaida fighters and we’ll pay you,’ ” the law professor explains.
“We paid $3,000 to $5,000 a person,” he goes on. “One man told us he was sold for $30,000. We purchased a lot of the people in Guantanamo [and] we didn’t really care so much about who they were; we just took them.”
One of the more surprising revelations Honigsberg makes to Scheer is that there were 22 Uighurs, a persecuted Muslim minority living in China, detained at Guantanamo Bay. The fact highlights the hypocrisy of a West that criticizes Chinese mistreatment of the minority, and yet has itself participated in their oppression. All of this lawless oppression, which took place in Cuba, where American officials seemed to believe they could get away with little to no scrutiny, forms part of a larger message the U.S. wanted to send in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, according to Scheer.
“The [Uighurs, like all other Guantanamo Bay detainees] were needed for this movie …for this propaganda,” Scheer says. “That really is what you’re talking about. You round up these people, they are supposed to be Muslims, they are not white. You call them terrorists. You keep them locked up for 12 years so you can tell the American people we got the bad guys, we got them in there. And you don’t want a trial, because then it’ll become very obvious that you don’t have ’em; you got people you picked up to be extras in your horror film.”
As of May 2018, it was estimated that 40 people are still detained in Guantanamo Bay, a site that remains in operation to this day despite promises from the Obama administration that it would be shut down. As Honigsberg points out, however, it is not just the detainees who have been cruelly and indelibly impacted by U.S. actions on the site. It is also the Americans who took part in the torture, and the rest of us who are complicit in this harrowing chapter in American history, one which we have not even begun to make amends for.
In the summer of 2020, several of Honigsberg’s interviews with former detainees will be aired on television for all to bear witness to. In the meantime, listen to the painful, all-important conversation between Honigsberg and Scheer as they discuss the truly heinous acts the U.S. government has carried out in Guantanamo Bay in our name. You can also read a transcript of the interview below the credits.
Natasha Hakimi Zapata
Robert Scheer: Hi, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of “Scheer Intelligence,” where I hasten to add the intelligence comes from my guests. In this case, Professor Peter Jan Honigsberg, a professor of law at the University of San Francisco Law School, a Catholic institution. And I must say, I mention that connection because in some sense, you’re doing God’s work with this book. And I want to set the stage. The book is called A Place Outside the Law: Forgotten Voices from Guantanamo. And this is a chapter in American history, the torture of prisoners in Guantanamo without trial over more than a decade–I mean, 17 years or something. And it’s an indelible experience. And the irony is, the only reason the United States is in Guantanamo is back in the old Spanish-American War we had this as a trophy, this 43 square miles or something of Cuba. And you would think, given all of the U.S. opposition to the Cuban Revolution and our interference, our invasion and everything, you would want to make Guantanamo a place where democracy and rule of law flourishes.
And your whole point is, a place outside the law–we turned Guantanamo, it will never be forgotten in the annals of American history as the place–it’s Devil’s Island for the French; it’s where the U.S. tortured. So just put us there. It was 780 prisoners, and what was–the whole project that you have calling attention to it. And in a very telling way, you begin by connecting it to your own father’s experience.
Peter Jan Honigsberg: That’s correct, Bob. I want to thank you that you invited me, I appreciate that. Yes, back in 2008 both candidates, Barack Obama and John McCain, said they were going to close Guantanamo if they were elected. And of course I was thrilled; many people I knew were thrilled. But I was also concerned, because I felt that if they just shut it down, it might fade away and be forgotten. Because there wasn’t much documentation about it. There was some reporting, and there were some stories, but not enough. And I felt that it could just disappear, and one of the darkest times in American history would not ever be recorded.
So I was reminded of my father; my father is a refugee from Nazi Austria. And when Steven Spielberg knew about the Holocaust deniers back in the 1980s, he created the Shoah Foundation, where he had interviewed, or he had people interviewed on film who had escaped the Nazis. And my father is one of the people that the Shoah Foundation interviewed. I was present at the time, and it was very moving and powerful. And I thought, we should do that for Guantanamo. We should have people–the detainees and others, interrogators, interpreters, chaplains, military officials, medical personnel, lawyers, both civilian and JAG, military lawyers, prosecutors–all tell their stories on what happened to them, and what they experienced and what they saw. So that the stories, their oral histories, will always be there, just like my father’s was.
And so in 2008 I was very fortunate, someone gave me a very generous contribution, and I was able to begin the project in 2009, going to five countries, interviewing 16 detainees, and let them speak–I had no agenda–let them tell their stories on how it was when they were in Guantanamo. And when we had those 16 stories on film, and each was two hours or longer, we then had some credibility to be able to go to other countries to interview other detainees, as well as some of the Americans I mentioned to you.
RS: These were detainees who were released.
PH: Yeah, you’re not allowed to interview anybody in Guantanamo; the only ones who can speak to them are the lawyers. But I couldn’t.
RS: Yeah, and as your book documents, the lawyers had very limited, obstructed access. But I want to get–you’re a professor of law at a major university law school, University of San Francisco. And basically, this is a book about–the United States said what dictators have said down through–and despots, through history: ”I don’t care about the law.” And the irony, as I said before, doing this at a place in a country that you have defined as the unfree Cuba. You’ve had a crusade against Cuba for half a century, blockades, invasion and everything else. Take us to Guantanamo. How many people were there? What have you learned? And what you really are doing is documenting this. There will be–Duke University now has a repository; you’ve got this book; you’ve got, I think, 300 hours or something of tapes–
RS: –so that it will not be forgotten. And the reason it’s important is because we all here in this country live on a variant of American innocence. It absolves America of any profound responsibility. So I’ve done podcasts in which the genocide against Native Americans was described quite brilliantly. What we did in Vietnam with the carpet bombing, in which we also did torture. But always it’s somehow–it was a mistake, it was an accident. Well, no. This came out of some kind of, you know–”we were attacked, and therefore we have the right”–and this is what every dictator has always claimed. So it doesn’t really work, in terms of the Geneva Convention, the rights of people–that, no, we were attacked, therefore all the rules change. That’s really the thesis of your book, right?
PH: That’s correct. They chose Guantanamo because they believed that it was a place outside the law. And they felt that these detainees could never challenge their detentions if they were brought to Guantanamo. And consequently, they believed–and to a large extent, it was true–the Constitution did not apply, federal statutes did not apply, the Geneva Conventions did not apply. That it was just lawless. And in fact, the only rules that did apply were ones that were made up by the military, and changed every day. So there was really no law. And what’s interesting, which you read in the book, is that the way this happened was after the attacks on 9/11, America dropped flyers over Afghanistan that said, “Bring us Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters and we’ll pay you,” essentially, money. And what we did was–
RS: A lot of money, actually.
PH: A lot of money. We paid three to five thousand dollars a person. One man told us he was sold for $30,000. We purchased a lot of the people in Guantanamo. And these were people who were–well, I should say, they were–when the Afghan and Pakistani military heard of this lucrative business, they went ahead and rounded up anybody they could grab who was Arab and Muslim, and we purchased them from them. And we didn’t really care so much about who they were; we just took them. So if they weren’t local, and the Afghan and Pakistani didn’t know them, they figured they were free to sell to us and make a lot of money, which they did.
RS: So this is a show trial. It’s an effort by the U.S. government to show the world, we are responding, you know, to–you attack us, we’re going to get you. We’re going to get the bad guys, this was George W. Bush. And what it was was a pretense for many of these people–we’re talking about 780 people who ended up in Guantanamo. Your book argues that they mostly were kind of picked up, sold to the Americans as here, here’s another terrorist, without any seriousness of purpose, right? And then mixed in it are supposed to be the key activists, you know, the Khalid Sheikh Mohammeds and everything. But primarily, these 780 people grabbed somewhere, put into an orange jumpsuit with a diaper so they can be put on an airplane, shackled, must sit upright on an 18-hour flight. That’s a form of torture right there. You know, they’ve been brutalized before they’ve even been put on the plane. They’re sent to Guantanamo. And, you know, the evidence is that first of all, there was never any trial for these people, and that they were often just picked up on the street.
PH: That’s correct. In fact, hardly anybody in the 780 has been charged with a crime or anything else. They just were held there, detained. And in fact, the UN rapporteur for torture told us that he’s never seen any country in the world ever detain people for as long as we had without charges. It’s never been done, in his understanding. So, and almost all the people there–just a handful of people were prosecuted, charged. Almost everybody there was just detained without charges, and just held. And held for more than a decade, a lot of these people; now, it’s like you said, it’s up to 17, 18 years. And there are still 40 people there. They’re also, most of them are held without charges. We held people for more than a decade, and it could be two decades soon, without charges. That’s right. And apparently, just as you said, to show the world we’re tough, we can just pick up these people, and that’s what happens when America gets attacked.
RS: Yeah. And you actually, we could begin with, you describe–you know, because there are heroes in your book, of lawyers and others who under very difficult circumstances said, wait a minute, this is wrong. One of them was somebody in the U.S. military, and ends up being punished for allowing lawyers to know, or allowing the outside world to know, the names of the people in. The very fact that, you know, they were in there was not known to their families or anyone else.
PH: That’s correct. President Bush in February of 2002 said the Geneva Conventions do not apply. Which is not really true, because we signed the Geneva Conventions; they do apply. And–
RS: The whole world signed it, right?
PH: The whole world, every country signed them. And–
RS: So what does the Geneva Convention say that applies to Guantanamo, or should apply?
PH: Humane treatment of detainees, and to reveal who we are holding. I mean, it’s all part of the humane treatment. We’re not allowed to torture anybody ever, and certainly under the Geneva Conventions we’re not allowed to; we’d have to hold them till the end of the war. If we followed the Geneva Conventions, we could hold them till the end of the war. That is a problem here, because the Afghan war is apparently still going on, but the government never claimed to follow the Geneva Conventions, and therefore the whole thing was outside the law. And what happened with Matt Diaz, he knew that–
RS: This is the guy who was in the–
PH: He was the guy who was a whistleblower, who was the lawyer, the military lawyer. And what happened was, he knew that there were families who wondered if their sons, their husbands, their fathers had been killed in a bombing. When we bombed Afghanistan after 9/11, they thought they’d been killed; they never heard from them again. Meanwhile, they weren’t killed. They were purchased by the Americans and brought to Guantanamo. And so when a human rights lawyer in New York–
RS: I have to stop with the word ”purchase.” Because you use it in the book, and really what we said to the military in Afghanistan, and Pakistan and so forth–hey, find us somebody who we’ll call a terrorist, and we will give you somewhere from five to thirty thousand bucks apiece for these people. And it shows the cynicism of the Dick Cheneys, the George W. Bushes, the Donald Rumsfelds. Because they really wanted a show place–we’re doing something, we’re rounding up these, you know, the evil ones, you know. And with the exception of a few, you know, a couple score of high-profile people that you could say, OK, they were in Al Qaeda–the rest of them, the 780, were people that were for show. You could hire them to be an extra in a Hollywood movie, is what they were–but they’re kept for what, 17 years. Some of them, a couple of them were 16 when they started. And they’re kept under these horrible conditions where you have psychological as well as physical torture.
PH: That’s correct. I mean, you know, the professor at Seton Hall did a study back in 2005 or ’06, and he found that using American data, the U.S. data, that nearly everyone that we picked up was just some low-level nobody, or just somebody that wasn’t really a threat to the U.S. But that didn’t stop us from picking them up. Because that was, like you said, we wanted to make a statement to the world. So families didn’t know about their sons, their husbands, their fathers being in Guantanamo. And when Matt Diaz was copied on an email that was sent to the Pentagon–
RS: He was the JAG, right–
PH: He was the JAG military lawyer. And he was copied–he was working in Guantanamo, and he was copied on the email to the Pentagon asking for the names. And the Pentagon said, we’re not releasing their names. Even, you know, though Matt Diaz felt we should; people should know, and it’s under the Geneva Conventions, they should be released. So Matt Diaz was really torn. And the day before he left Guantanamo, he downloaded the classified names, cut them up into smaller pieces, put them into an envelope, a greeting card, and mailed it to the lawyer in New York. And then Matt Diaz left.
RS: To the lawyer at the constitution–what’s the–
PH: Center for Constitutional Rights.
RS: Yeah, which played a pioneering role. It was the late Michael Ratner, who was a terrific civil liberties lawyer. And they were–
PH: They were on the ground at the beginning.
RS: –trying to find out who these people are that you’re holding. We’re not even talking about, OK, whether you’re going to have due process, whether you’re going to have a trial, whether you’re going to have charges–just even the names of the people being held.
PH: That’s correct. In fact, the Center for Constitutional Rights were the first lawyers–there were a couple others, actually, including Erwin Chemerinsky. But there were very few lawyers who stood up for the detainees back in December of 2001.
RS: Erwin Chemerinsky, by the way, who you mentioned, is the dean of the law school here at the University of California, Berkeley, where we’re doing this interview. But also, it’s where John Yoo is, the person who told us that torture was as American as apple pie, or told the government that it was perfectly legitimate. But he didn’t call it torture–it was, right–extraordinary means.
PH: That’s correct. And so these few lawyers of just a handful who stood up on behalf of the detainees early on, they received death threats. They received hate mail. They were considered unpatriotic. It was very clear at that time that the few people who stood up were alone. They were very alone in terms of believing in human rights, believing in the rule of law. Most people were afraid to, because they were considered–they would have been called unpatriotic. So Matt Diaz sent that list of names in the greeting card, left the base, and then a year later he was arrested and prosecuted and imprisoned for being a whistleblower, for basically what he felt was doing the right thing, in letting people know that their sons, their husbands, their fathers were in Guantanamo.
RS: So you basically, just to bring listeners into this, you spent all of these years with a team, making video and interviewing these prisoners after they were released, describing their conditions.
PH: And other people, like Americans who had worked there.
RS: And what’s the takeaway from this? What happened in a place outside the law, at Guantanamo? Because we still, to this day, know very little about it. And even the Senate torture report–which you know, there’s now a new movie out called “The Report,” and it’s a very good one. But we only have a redacted summary of what the Senate intelligence committee was able to find out. But you have sort of the basic video documentation, which will be at Duke University, and people can access it. What was it like inside Guantanamo from the point of view, yes, of some of the prisoners who were released, but also the guards and lawyers and what have you?
PH: Well, I think it’s interesting, because when people hear the word ”torture,” they think physical torture, brutality. But in fact, even though there was physical torture in Guantanamo, the detainees usually experienced physical torture in Afghanistan before they were put on the plane on that 18-hour ride. When they arrived in Guantanamo, even when they were tortured–especially force-feeding when they went on hunger strikes. But most of the detainees, when we asked, told us that the real torture that they suffered was psychological torture, such as isolation–both physical isolation and linguistic isolation. Where they would be, say, placed in a cell and people around them didn’t speak their language, so they couldn’t communicate. And then there was something called sleep deprivation, and that was pretty common as well. Something called the frequent flyer, where especially juveniles–and there were juveniles in Guantanamo–would be moved from cell to cell every two to three hours, for two to three weeks, to break them.
And so the detainees told us that the psychological torture is much worse. And one man told us, he said you know, when you pull the knife out in physical torture, you begin to heal. But you never heal with psychological torture. And the UN rapporteur for torture told us that after 14 days, someone who’s been in isolation, physical isolation, can sometimes never return to who he was before. So the psychological torture–some detainees even felt that Guantanamo was designed to be a psychological torture prison. And that’s–and they felt that the government was even using them as experimental. I don’t know if that’s true at all. But they were certainly clear that psychological torture was a large part of the torture they experienced.
RS: And so give us a description of this psychological torture, say for the 16-year-old, or–
PH: Well, what people would do, you know, it would be in long-term isolation where, you know–just like you understand isolation, physical isolation. But in linguistic isolation, they–say, this one young man was put in a cell. They realized, the government realized pretty quickly that he was not a threat to America. So they just put him in a cell, but they put him in a cell where–
RS: They didn’t release him. He’s not a threat to America, they don’t give him a trial, they don’t release him, and they keep him there for how long, eight years or something?
PH: This one was held for eight years. And that’s until a country would take him; he couldn’t go back to Uzbekistan, where he was from, because he would have been tortured in Uzbekistan. A lot of countries didn’t want these Guantanamo detainees back; these dictatorships would just torture them if they came back. China didn’t–China would have tortured and executed the Uyghurs, who were Sunni Muslims from China, if they gone back.
RS: So that’s an interesting thing here, is we’ve criticized, or people criticize China for their treatment of this ethnic minority. And yet, what was it, 20 or 18 of these prisoners–
PH: Twenty-two Uyghurs.
RS: Yeah, were the people that were in China opposed to their government. Somehow we conflated them with the World Trade Center attack.
PH: Well, they were purchased by us like everyone else, because they had no protection in Afghanistan. They were picked up. And their enemy was China. They had–
RS: They were like extras in this weird Sikora movie.
PH: Their enemy was China, and they loved the U.S. In fact, they first, they said to us that when they were first purchased by the U.S. they were very happy, because they felt they really believed in U.S. values. They felt that we cared about them against China, and that once we realized that they were innocent and the enemy was China, we would release them or let them even into the U.S., whatever, we would care about them. But, no, we didn’t–we kept them there for years. Some of the Uyghurs we kept there for more than a decade. And that was always just–I mean, there were all these heartbreaking stories, Bob. But that was one that was particularly heartbreaking, because everyone knew, there was absolutely no doubt the Uyghurs had no issue with the U.S., they loved the U.S.–but it didn’t matter.
RS: They were needed for this movie. For this propaganda. That really is what you’re talking about. You round up these people, they are supposed to be Muslims, they are not white. You call them terrorists. You keep them locked up for 12 years so you can tell the American people we got the bad guys, we got them in there. And you don’t want a trial, because then it’ll become very obvious that you don’t have ‘em; you got people you picked up to be extras in your horror film. Right?
I mean, it’s really what this book, A Place Outside the Law, Guantanamo, Peter Jan Honigsberg, what this book is–Beacon Press. What this book really details is this whole charade, the sick charade of–oh, we’ve been attacked, we’re going to get the bad guys. You don’t really care to get the bad guys. You get some of them you claim that are the key guys; you don’t ever bring them to trial. Because you know, of the hijackers, 16 of the 20–there were 19, 15 on the planes, but even–and the other one, they were from Saudi Arabia. That ally of ours that we have sold so much military equipment to, and supported, you know, in their rise to prominence–and, of course, exploited their oil. We don’t want to know, really, about the 16 Saudis or the other four. So we get this other play going on at Guantanamo. And we pick up these extras around the world and torture them, one way or another. And oh, we’ve done our job, wipe our hands free, and go on.
PH: Got the worst of the worst, as Donald Rumsfeld said.
RS: Yeah. But they weren’t the worst of the worst. They were people picked up off the streets of Afghanistan and Pakistan, primarily, who very likely had nothing to do with it. And if they had anything to do with it, the government has never been able or willing to take them to trial. And so you have interviewed–how many did you interview who have been released?
PH: Well, we can only interview people who were released. We interviewed 52 former detainees, and the rest were–
RS: And what’s the common denominator of those 52? And by the way, people listening to this, you will be able to watch some of these interviews on this Duke University–
PH: Next summer, in the summer of 2020, Duke University will release the full interviews. We have, of the two-hour, three-hour interviews that we did of each of these people, we–
RS: Two, three hours with each of them.
RS: OK. So these are people who are still to be presumed innocent. The U.S. government never took them to trial. Right? In most cases were not even charged.
PH: The people we interviewed were never charged, or never went to trial.
RS: Never charged, never given a trial. Yet despite the presumption of innocence–which has been, you know, affirmed in these international agreements that we all signed–they were released, and yet they had been subject to the most horrible of conditions.
PH: And you know the fact, as I said, most of the people in Guantanamo have never been charged with a crime. Basically, the U.S. government just detains them. Just held them, and held them for years and years. And also I will say, witnesstoguantanamo.com, which is the project that I did for a decade, has clips–you know, one, two, three-minute clips of some of the interviews that people can access now, if you just want to see some highlights of the interviews. But we couldn’t afford to put the full-length video online, the oral histories that Duke University Human Rights Archive will do next summer, when I donated the 300-plus hours of film to them.
RS: So I mean, let’s cut to the chase here. A Place Outside the Law, Guantanamo, Peter Jan Honigsberg. You’re basically saying this was a macabre show trial that never even went to trial. That–we got to do something, we’ve been attacked, we’re going to have a war–the war is without end, because terror will always exist in the world, and the use of civilians is killing civilians. Which by the way, the U.S., in dropping the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, certainly was willing to do that. And other nations have done that. And so you have an excuse, the kind of excuse in Orwell’s 1984, of a permanent enemy. And in the name of fighting this enemy, you can carve out places, black boxes, centers and so forth. And you can do whatever you want. And it’s all for the folks back home to say, oh, they’re making us safer.
PH: I mean I think, as I said, you know, it’s a lawless place where they made up the laws that went on. And I think, you know, one of the chapters in my book is about the term ”enemy combatant,” which–there’s–it’s not a, it’s not a legal term. It’s not in the Geneva Conventions. There’s no such term; it was made up, it was made up for a TV newscast show. And it was used, and everybody knows the term now, and thinks that that means something–it has no meaning. And that is what happened. There was no law, on every level, and it was just holding these people for years, and even for decades.
RS: You know, what’s so odd about this–because Guantanamo, as I said, was a place we carved out south of the border, which should be a showcase–”we” being the U.S. government; I didn’t carve it out–for democracy. We’ve made it into a showcase for, you know, criminal behavior, really, on the part of a government. But what’s interesting is that we have gone through this whole period of torture. First of all, it didn’t just happen after 9/11. There’s considerable evidence that torture has been done going back to the treatment of Native Americans, a genocidal campaign going right up through the Vietnam War, where there was torture and what have you. But the interesting thing is, usually the U.S. can hide behind some idea that other people did it–we sent prisoners to Egypt and they got tortured there, right? Or we, you know, people will die, but maybe we were on the scene, but we didn’t encourage it. In Guantanamo, you have a showcase that is, you know, American-owned. We own this. And so what is the takeaway of your book, really, about what do we learn from this showcase of American torture?
PH: Well, you know, one thing we didn’t cover yet, and I want–I think it’s important, because my book is basically these oral histories, a collection of some of them, with some commentary of course. But I think we need to understand that it affects everyone who was–who passed through Guantanamo. The detainees got it worst, of course, and that is unquestionable. But you know, we interviewed a lot of people–like I said, interrogators, interpreters, and military officials, and lawyers, and medical personnel. And they all suffered too. And the fact is, the way they suffered is something that we need to understand–that when we do bad things, when we do bad things we suffer too. It’s not like we can do bad things and walk away. And so one of the people who read the book and quoted, Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson who was the Chief of Staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell, said–quoted Nietzsche when he said, you know, ”When you look into the abyss, the abyss looks back.” I think that’s really a powerful quote, and very relevant here, because that’s what happened. We all were affected. Every American who touched Guantanamo was impacted dramatically. Maybe not like a detainee, but very much so. And we need to understand that as Americans, that we can’t just do something to other people and walk away. We were incredibly impacted too.
RS: But we weren’t. We weren’t. Our society is not traumatized by anything. I don’t know, I’ve been–
RS: –around for a long time, and I have no sense that whether it was the napalming of children in Vietnam, and innocent civilians or what have you, whether again, the dropping of the bombs–there’s something about this notion of American innocence that is quite pernicious. And I think your book captures it, you know. You say, yes, the people who were in those rooms were impacted by it. But we’ve had the Senate torture report now, OK. And Guantanamo is a piece of it. But this, you know, what was all this about? The Senate intelligence committee, the democrats on it because the republicans wouldn’t join–and you know, as I say, there’s a movie, the documentary that people should check out, The Report, and I’ve done a podcast on that. Where, you know, we have a record; however, most of that record is still withheld from us. We have a redacted version of the summary. And the argument is we can’t release that to the world, because it will shock people, and then they’ll be angry with America, and they’ll commit crimes against us.
Well, that would be an argument for not having had the Nuremberg Trial after the defeat of Nazi Germany. The argument for having the Nuremberg Trial is, no, we–and you know, in the trial of Eichmann, that was well documented by Hannah Arendt and other people–we need to know. We need to look into the abyss, OK? And really, that gets–let’s cut to the chase. Your book compels us, A Place Outside the Law, to say, wait a minute. This is what we did. Now, the counterargument is we don’t want to know what we did, because it will upset other people around the world, and they’ll get angry with us. Maybe we need to look into it to, say, find out who we really are. Because after all, the assumption of–and you’re a law professor–the assumption of our system of law, our Constitution, is that we all have the capacity for evil.
You know, maybe that’s even a Christian notion. We’re all struggling with the devil inside us. And so if we all have the capacity for evil–and that’s why we have a notion of limited government and checks and balances, right, and individual rights–is this not, this war on terror, this glaring example of the capacity of Americans for evil? And therefore, there’s something instructive and necessary about looking into that abyss.
You’re a law professor. Why, you know, why do we accept this idea, again, that the Senate intelligence committee report is something we shouldn’t be able to read? It was compiled by responsible researchers for the Senate intelligence committee. Why shouldn’t American citizens–so it goes to really the idea of Spielberg’s work on the Holocaust. We need the minutiae. We need to examine the detail. We need to know how evil works to be on guard against it. Is that not–
PH: Well said, that’s very well said. I think that’s why I did the oral histories. We need to document what happened before Guantanamo fades away and is forgotten, and is denied. And I think that’s right. We can’t allow one of the darkest places in American history to just be denied with no documentation to say otherwise.
RS: Well, let’s circle back. I mean, we don’t want to in any way minimize the horror of the Holocaust. But you wrote this book, A Place Outside the Law, and indeed you have devoted, you know–
PH: A decade.
RS: –two decades, really, or going on two decades to trying. And you were inspired by the horrible experience your father had fleeing Nazism. And what would your father–I know, you know, with immigrants, I’m a child of immigrants–America was the place they went to for refuge. And if your father were alive now and he would read your book, let’s set the stage, OK? Describe your father. He’s got your book. And this is not Nazi Germany, but this is an example of horrible behavior in the country that he went to for freedom. What do you think he would respond?
PH: You know, my father would be very mixed, I think. Because my father was a very–as you probably know, most immigrants are very strongly pro-American, because America saved their lives, America gave them freedom, American gave them opportunity. America gave them so much that they could never have gotten otherwise. And so my father was so loyal to America, this would be really hard for him to acknowledge. He would acknowledge it because his son did it; he would read the book, but it’d be really hard for him to think that America had done this. That’s not the America he knew, and that’s not the America he came to when he fled Nazi Austria. So it would be a very complex story for him.
RS: And then what if your father said to you, you are an educated man. You are a professor of law. Professor Peter Jan Honigsberg, you have studied the law in a country that is dedicated to mistrusting power, originally. Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely. And what if your father said to you, you know, Peter, how did this happen here? How did this happen here? What is your answer?
PH: Fear. Fear. I mean, that really is what informed the actions of the government right after 9/11. They feared, as you said, they feared another attack. And they–and I think the administration felt if there was another attack, they would never be voted in again, it would be the end of their careers. So they felt that for the safety of Americans, and for their own future as administrators and politicians, they wanted to make sure it would never happen again. And it was all fear, and they wanted to do whatever they could. They were trying to get intelligence. They were doing it the wrong way. But I think fear motivated their actions–and fear motivated the country, because when they saw their president and their vice president all in fear, they were in fear, too.
RS: But isn’t that a cop-out? I mean, really–fear. And then you go throw money around and say just bring us hundreds of people, 780 of them, and maybe some of them will be terrorists, but we just want a show–a show, a fake. This was fake, this is not making us more secure. I think you’re–you know, no, you’re being too easy, I daresay. If they really were afraid of terrorism, they wouldn’t just be grabbing taxi drivers in Afghanistan so they can say, oh yeah, we got another Muslim terrorist. They would be more disciplined and serious in how they pursued this issue. You’re really talking about cynicism on the ground level; you’re talking about a dark, dark cynicism and political opportunism.
PH: You know, this is an interesting conversation, which I think can’t go on too much longer in this podcast because of the time. But I will say that, you know, you’re speaking from a very intelligent perspective, but you’re not a politician, Bob. And I think these politicians see the world very differently.
And from their perspective, this is not necessarily–even Obama, I mean, it’s not–I mean, he was a very thoughtful man. But he also didn’t do a lot; he didn’t close Guantanamo being so thoughtful. I think when you’re a politician, you have to think differently. And I don’t really understand politicians, I’m not. But I do think it’s a little different from somebody with your intelligence, who is looking at it away from the action. You’re not accountable. You’re not responsible if we’re attacked again, but President Bush and Dick Cheney are, and they need to worry about their careers and their lives, and how they’re going to be written about through history. They, you know, there was already question on whether they might have known about the 9/11 attacks to begin with; they certainly couldn’t afford another one. So, you know, they were looking out for themselves and looking out for the country, if you will, too. But they didn’t have your, I don’t think, your thoughtfulness. And you weren’t there, where they were in the war room, looking at it from their perspective. I think it’s very different.
And I think I will say, you know, people are disappointed with President Obama, who is a very thoughtful, smart man, but he couldn’t close Guantanamo. And someone said to us they felt that Obama was captured. And that really struck me. I said, what did that mean? And the understanding was, Obama just couldn’t do what he wanted to do. There were so many forces outside that were pulling him to have him do actions that maybe he didn’t want to do. But that’s what happens when you’re president. That the person in the presidency is not just that person; the presidency is more powerful. And I that is understood. You know, there’s too many other investors in the presidency who have their own agenda, and who control the people in power, the executive and others.
RS: But you know, we’ve really sort of stumbled upon a major issue. Maybe the major issue of why evil occurs–the willingness of people to think of something else to avert their eyes. I mean, we have so few whistleblowers. I mean, as we’re recording this, Chelsea Manning, formerly Bradley Manning, is in prison. Because she has not fingered or singled out Julian Assange, the publisher who published her reports that we were actually shooting innocent civilians, killing them, killing journalists and so forth in Iraq, in the name of freedom. And so this low-ranking military person, then Private Bradley, or Corporal Bradley Manning, told us–wait a minute. I’m looking at this material, and you’re killing innocent people here. I have to let the world know about it. OK. Then you’re telling me that somewhere, you know, for most people or many people, or for powerful people, they don’t say that. They say, I’m going to look the other way.
Because we have–how many whistleblowers do we have? In your book you have a few whistleblowers, and they suffer. They face long sentences for revealing. But wait a minute! We’re going to go out now after we do this interview, and we’ll be with lots of ordinary folks in the street, and look at them and say: Would you, as in the case of Bradley Manning, see innocents being shot by American troops, say I’m going to look the other way? I’ll go have lunch, I’ll forget about it? And in your book, Guantanamo, a lot of people knew what was going on before. I mean, Guantanamo actually was one of the better places. What went on in those black sites, what went on in those prisons where people had rendition. What are the details of the Senate intelligence report–for God’s sake, here they spent all these years, five years, looking. They’ve read all the raw data and everything. What was done in our name, paid for by our money as citizens of a democracy? And you say we–you know, what, that they worried about their career? Well, if that’s true, what despot, what dictator, what torturer in the world couldn’t offer that excuse?
PH: Well, I’m not going to simplify it that it’s just they were worried about their career. What I’m saying is that there’s a lot of interests inside the executive position that I don’t understand very well, I don’t really know–but they all pull at the executive. That it’s not necessarily–even though Truman might have said ”the buck stops here,” the fact is there are a lot of people who are pulling at him before he makes that decision. And those things are very complicated. So you’re right in a way, but I think–I’m not the executive, I can’t–I just watched Obama who, like I said, is so thoughtful and so smart, and yet he still couldn’t do what he wanted. I think it’s complicated. And I do think they look at it for their careers, but I think they also have other people, and industry, and the Pentagon, and the military. They’re all pulling at them for, you know, that causes them to have to make decisions that maybe they shouldn’t be making, but they can’t stand up to all these different interests.
RS: That is one of the most depressing observations–really–that I’ve heard in one of these interviews, or any interview. I mean the fact is, human rights, the defense of human rights–I don’t want to preach here, but it would seem to me either they’re critically important, inviolable–well, you’re the law professor. Either that the accused the victim, the other–they have rights. Either those things are sacred, or they’re negotiable. Right? And what your book really says is that in Guantanamo, all of that meant nothing. The rule of law meant nothing, right? Rounding innocent people up and putting them into a torturous, situation of torture–physical and psychological, because they were sent to other camps, they were sent to other countries. You can do anything to them, you can tear their bodies apart, you can isolate them, you can drive them crazy. And yet somehow, some notion of career or security–that is the Orwellian world 1984 describes. You know, that is really what we’re talking about. That is a more frightening–I mean, you’re really basically saying that goodness cannot withstand evil.
PH: [Laughs] Um–
RS: You’ve spent a lot of time in this field. I’ll give you the last few minutes. But really ponder that. Is that not the takeaway from your book?
PH: Well, you know, who were the people who were put there in the first place? Were they good people, and therefore–or were they not good people? I don’t really know. I mean, I do think–I’ll say it again, Bob. I think it’s really complicated to understand that when you’re put in that kind of position, you make choices and you make decisions that maybe you would not make, you and I. You and I can believe in human rights and say we’d always stand up for human rights. And I know that President Obama believed that, too, very much; as a constitutional law professor, he totally understood the rule of law, he totally understood human rights. But when you’re put in that kind of position, it is much more a mix. It is not simply black-and-white. Maybe you’d like it to be; I’d like it to be. But apparently, as someone told us, you know, people get captured. There’s too many other interests in there that cause you to do things that maybe you wouldn’t do, you and I, or we think we would do.
RS: Or rationalizations. And I mean, really, law is either law or–you know, yes, is it good law or bad law. But I mean, either it is law–and we got lots of people in jail now, because some judge or some jury or something said you should be in jail for 20 years, 30 years, 10 years, 5 years. So the very idea of administering law, practicing law, means you think you have the right somehow, through some process, to imprison people or to kill them or–what, you know, hold them accountable. And then you say, and however, if they’re called government officials, if they have enough power, if they could have the arrogance of thinking they’re saving the world, they then are subject to a different standard? Oh, really? You know, was that what McNamara admitted, that three and a half million people in Indochina died, most of them unnecessarily, in a war that he couldn’t even believe in? And we said, well, you had–but I thought the whole point of Nuremberg, of that trial, was to say–in the case of the people who wanted to kill your father–no, that that’s not acceptable. It’s not acceptable to say it’s complex, or our security, or there are other interests, or competition.
There has to be clarity. The clarity is, no, you cannot pick somebody off the street, and not know whether they’re innocent or guilty, and then subject to them. You can’t do that. And actually, what I find depressing about the reports about torture in books like yours and this documentary, is most people shrug it off. They shrug it off. They say, oh, that’s life. No, it isn’t. That’s death.
PH: You know, you’re–listening to you, I’m thinking of President Roosevelt, who everyone seems to admire. I don’t know if you do, but people apparently have a good impression of him. And you know, he lied, or his administration lied, when they put the Japanese Americans in internment camps. You know, they said they were a threat; there was no evidence really, apparently, because it came out later that there wasn’t. So the fact is–the fact is, a president’s executives do things that they feel they need to do to–and I’m sure Roosevelt thought he was saving the country. I’m sure he believed that it was the right thing to do. I’m sure of it. And I’m sure Bush and Cheney believed it was the right thing to do. That’s, you know, it’s not simple.
I’m not saying they were right. I know they’re not right. Because look at what happened. It was horrid. It was horrible. Everything was horrible. That’s why I documented it all. But I do think these people in there aren’t necessarily thinking that we’re going to do evil. I don’t think that. I think they think they’re doing something that is necessary. We think they’re doing evil, but they don’t–I don’t know. I don’t know their minds, I’m not a–I don’t know. But I do think that it’s much more complicated.
RS: Yes, it’s complicated, but I’m going to end with my own little editorial. I have interviewed people all over the world, you know, from Ronald Reagan to Fidel Castro, OK.
RS: I’ve–and obviously, many people who are not well known. Almost all of them, including Ronald Reagan, Fidel Castro–you know, lots of people, Richard Nixon and so forth–ah, present well. That’s what they do. That’s what they’re–they’re successful because they present well. They can rationalize effectively, they can justify effectively. At some moment you have to say–and that’s what Chelsea Manning, that’s what Daniel Ellsberg said–
PH: And Matt Diaz.
RS: A guy we haven’t mentioned on this torture thing, John Kiriakou, who was in the CIA, and said, What? No! You can’t do this. And that’s the guy in your book. What’s his name?
PH: Matt Diaz.
RS: Matt Diaz. He says, no! Wait a minute. I’m here. I see you got these people in Guantanamo. Right? You’ve got, what were they at that point, 700 or something in Guantanamo. Many of these people haven’t done anything. They’re here, you’re holding them, you’re doing all these terrible things to them, and you won’t even give their names out so their loved ones can say, wait a minute! You got my husband, my son, my cousin in your prison, I want to challenge that, I want to raise questions about it. He faces, what, 40 years in jail. Lawyers go along with it, judges go along with it, politicians go along with it, because he wants to give the name out that you’re holding someone, that you’re doing these terrible things, and you say they have their reasons? No, I’m sorry. It’s not acceptable. I’ll let you have the last sentence. Two sentences, three sentences.
PH: That’s why I highlighted Matt Diaz in the book. I believe in doing the right thing. Obviously, I believe in standing up. You know, the fact is when people thought–and I was not, but people thought I was courageous in even doing this project, I hardly think so. But I do think that there are not that many people who stand up when it’s necessary. Like I said, the lawyers in the beginning after 9/11 who stood up, there are very few who do. People don’t stand up for the right thing. They just are afraid to, or whatever the reason that causes them to just move away and forget about it, not think about it. They don’t stand up when they need to stand up. And if we don’t, then we get terror in its place. So we need to do that. But we need more people to do that. We don’t see that enough.
RS: Well, that’s it, and you did stand up. I have to take my hat off to you, Peter Jan Honigsberg. Please check out the book, A Place Outside the Law: Forgotten Voices from Guantanamo. By the summer of 2020, you’ll be able to actually see these hours and hours, 300 hours of interviews with people who our own government–because it has not tried them, has not convicted them–has admitted they are innocent. Because that’s the presumption–
PH: And also the other people, the Americans who were there, and their stories as well, will be on.
RS: Right. But watch this material, read the book, and then tell me whether you can just be an innocent bystander to this, if you know about it, and you didn’t, let’s honor the whistleblowers. And I want to also, to shift gears here, thank the University of California School of Journalism for allowing us to do this at the studio. Topher Routh, who is the studio manager, for helping us get through what is a very lengthy–but I think the length is required. I think we finally, at the end, got to a very interesting point. And Joshua Scheer, as usual, is the producer of “Scheer Intelligence,” which is hosted by or carried by KCRW, the public radio station in Santa Monica, and others. And see you next week with another edition of “Scheer Intelligence.”