National Catholic Register


Watching Gitmo

Catholics Assess Obama’s Guantanamo Plans



April 12-18, 2009 Issue | Posted 4/3/09 at 12:07 PM


WASHINGTON — A long overdue move. A completion of what Bush started. A principled stand. A dangerous grandstanding gesture.

Catholics have a variety of opinions about what is at the heart of Obama’s decision to close down “Gitmo” — the Guantanamo Bay detention camp. The facility is operated by the U.S. government near a U.S. naval base in Cuba.

In a January executive order, President Obama ordered the closing of the Guantanamo center, where about 250 detainees are held, and the expeditious closing of secret Central Intelligence Agency detention centers overseas.

Obama directed that U.S. prisoners be treated in accord with the protections of the Geneva Conventions and that the CIA avoid interrogation methods not authorized by the U.S Army “Field Manual.” The directives also called for a review of the Army’s manual and the possibility of a revised policy for the CIA.

Then, in March, the administration stopped calling Guantanamo inmates “enemy combatants.”

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops did not have a specific reaction to the decision to close the detention center, said Steve Colecchi, director of the conference’s International Office for Justice and Peace. But the president’s directives on the interrogation methods addressed the “longstanding concern for the U.S. bishops as well as the Holy See.”

In their 2007 document “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship: A Call to Political Responsibility From the Catholic Bishops of the United States,” the bishops make five references to torture, associating it with assaults on human life that are “intrinsically evil.”

In particular, the document notes that “the use of torture must be rejected as fundamentally incompatible with the dignity of the human person and ultimately counterproductive in the effort to combat terrorism.”

The bishops also published “Torture Is a Moral Issue: A Catholic Study Guide” in 2008, detailing the provisions of international treaties and Church documents.

The guide quotes Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI and No. 2297 from the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “Torture, which uses physical or moral violence to extract confessions, punish the guilty, frighten opponents, or satisfy hatred is contrary to respect for the person and for human dignity.”

The study guide notes that the 1984 United Nations “Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment” “defines torture as ‘any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person’ to obtain information or a confession, and where such an act is allowed by a public official.”

Other Catholic observers were more forthcoming about the president’s decision to close Guantanamo.

“It will put the U.S. back into compliance with the rule of law and the international treaties it has signed,” said Mary Ellen O’Connell, professor of law at the University of Notre Dame, citing the Geneva Conventions and the 1984 United Nations “Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.” “And as Catholics, we should be concerned about the moral issue of torture.”

O’Connell, a founding member of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture and author of The Power and Purpose of International Law, said the detention center “is a place where detainees are beyond the protection of the courts.”

Even if one argues that inmates were well treated, she said, having a place that is subject to so little outside scrutiny is unacceptable.

Moreover, she said that there is ample evidence of abuse: “There have been inmates there as old as 80 and as young as 13.” She still has concerns about the fate of some of the detainees who have been sent to other countries.

Water Boarding

Michael Novak, former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Human Rights Commission in Geneva in 1981 and 1982, suggested that Obama’s announcement on Guantanamo is “less than honest,” considering the difficulties that the issue posed for his predecessor.

“President Bush wanted to close Guantanamo and to get other countries to take some of the prisoners,” said Novak, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. In particular, he suggested, countries that had citizens among the detainees should have “stepped up,” but no one else would.

Holding such dangerous prisoners “is a job that must be done,” so Bush was in a difficult situation, Novak said.

There is also sharp criticism of the planned closing of the detention center. Congressman Peter King of New York, ranking Republican member of the House Homeland Security Committee, called the Guantanamo detention center “a necessary evil” and the president’s order “wrong and misguided.”

“These are hardened terrorists,” and the U.S. should have recourse to a wider range of interrogation methods, King said, citing national security concerns. He specifically approved of water boarding, where a person is bound to a board and water is run over his face and breathing passages — using cellophane or a damp rag — to simulate drowning. He called for careful monitoring and limited use.

“Water boarding was reportedly used on Khalid Sheik Mohammed (an al-Qaida leader who reportedly helped plan the Sept. 11 attacks), and he revealed information that saved thousands of lives,” King said.

Others, such as Peter Bauer, a former U.S. Army interrogator, decried water boarding. “It doesn’t just give the sensation of drowning,” he said. “It makes you think you are going to die. It’s the equivalent of a mock execution,” pointing an unloaded gun at a detainee’s head and pulling the trigger to intimidate the detainee.

Bauer organized a statement with 23 other former Army interrogators, submitted to the U.S. House and Senate Armed Forces committees, which argued that “trained and skilled interrogators can accomplish the intelligence gathering mission using only those interrogation techniques” found in the Army manual.

Not only are detainee abuse and torture unnecessary, Bauer said, but they undermine the proven methods developed over many years by trained interrogators. Information gained through torture, he said, is unreliable.

Notre Dame’s O’Connell is quick to argue that the international treaties that the U.S. has signed cover such interrogation methods as water boarding.

Best Methods

Others see a need for the CIA to have access to a wider variety of interrogation methods than the Army manual allows.

“I’m an Army guy,” said counterterrorism expert and retired Army Lt. Col. Michael Sheehan, but Army interrogation methods alone may not be adequate for the CIA’s needs. He praised the president’s decision to review the manual for possible revision. “That would also be a good idea for the FBI.”

On the other hand, Sheehan said that interrogation methods should conform to human-rights standards: “I think we are all against torture.” As to water boarding, he called for further study.

Sheehan was a National Security Council staff officer for the George H.W. Bush administration, ambassador-at-large on counterterrorism for the State Department for President Clinton, deputy commissioner for the New York City Police Department on counterterrorism, and author of Crush the Cell: How to Defeat Terrorism Without Terrorizing Ourselves. He sees the closing of Guantanamo as inevitable. “Nobody was happy with it,” he said. “Had John McCain gotten elected, he probably would have closed it,” and Bush advisors like Robert Gates and Condoleezza Rice indicated they thought it should be closed.

Figuring out how to close it and making provisions for all the inmates “is not going to be easy,” he said.

Robert George, professor of jurisprudence at Princeton University, former member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, pointed out that in many cases the U.S. can’t send detainees back to their countries of origin “because they would face human-rights violations there.”

Trying them in the U.S. poses problems, as well. “They would have rights to a defense and could subpoena military records, which would compromise national security,” George continued.

Fortunately, Sheehan said, the president allowed a year to assess the problems before actually closing Guantanamo. “Some of the detainees will be tried,” but the details will have to be worked out.

Classified Documents

Sheehan does not worry about defendants’ gaining access to classified information for their defense.

“We handle situations like that all the time,” Sheehan said. “They don’t get secret documents because the judge will not allow it.”

In some cases, a defendant may gain access to documents for the trial that “are five, six, seven years old. They might be embarrassing,” but nothing that would compromise national security.

Sheehan compared the situation to the reality of some cases where the government is not able to make a case against a criminal that it is assured is guilty and has to release him.

“In some cases, we won’t have enough to hold the detainees, and they will have to be released,” Sheehan said. He acknowledged reports that in the past some detainees have again been apprehended by U.S. forces, and said, “This is just part of the risk of life.”

Pete Sheehan writes from

Rockville Centre, New York.