TD Blog Interview with Charles Gittings

Charles Gittings is the progenitor of the Project to Enforce the Geneva Conventions, a web-site compiling “torture memos” and other evidence of governmental criminality during the so-called “War on Terror,” as well as court papers, amicus briefs and other relevant documents. On July 2, 2009, I had the privilege of interviewing Mr. Gittings by e-mail exchange.
The Talking Dog: Where were you on 9-11?
Charles Gittings: I was at the MacArthur BART Station in Oakland, California, waiting for the train to my job in Hayward. I was standing by myself towards the end of the platform reflecting on the anniversary of 9/11/2000 — the grim day I was laid- off my previous job and found out my girl-friend was leaving me in the space of two hours. That was a nightmare at the time, but it turned out I recovered pretty well.
So I was pondering all that and this guy walks up to me and says: “Did you hear about the two planes that crashed into the World Trade Center in New York?”
I just looked at him and asked, “Two!?”, and he said, “Ya.”
Then I just shook my head and thought to myself , “It’s starting,” because I not only wasn’t surprised, I’d actually been working on the possibilities and problems of such an attack since 1987.
My second thought was, “We are in deep sh*t,” because it was one of the worst case scenarios — an administration of right-wingers predisposed to over-react militarily and capitalize on the crisis for partisan political purposes… And according to my analysis of that scenario, the principal strategic aim of the attack would be to provoke exactly the sort of reaction it got from the Bush administration in the event.
Life doesn’t get much more surrealistic than that day was for me… I’m riding the train to work thinking “I need to be at the Pentagon right now and the bastards wouldn’t even take the call if I tried to phone them.”
And the other thing I was thinking was: “Whoever and wherever we are, we’re all in the Resistance now.” I committed myself to do whatever I could however I could right then and there. The whole world was at risk, and not a doubt about it.
The Talking Dog: My understanding is that you were employed in the tech sector, in California, until some point in the early ‘aughties (’02?). Shortly after 9-11 (around November 2001, when the President’s initial orders concerning treatment of prisoners taken in Afghanistan came out), you began compiling information that collectively has become the Project to Enforce the Geneva Conventions. What are the philosophical underpinnings of the PEGC? Was there anything particular in your background that led this to be an interest of yours? What other “citizen activism” projects of this kind are you aware of (if any), and given that (IIRC), PEGC is largely a one-man show (or is it?), do you have any kind of funding needs (legal research engines, federal court PACER fees, copying, etc…. and if so, how are these needs met?), or do you use exclusively publicly available data?
Charles Gittings: My programming career started in August 1973 at Bank of America in San Francisco, and ended at Mendel Biotechnology in Hayward in July 2002.
But the programming career was merely a fortunate byproduct of me trying to cope with a miserable childhood and figure out who I was and what was important, and it’s a long story that goes all the way back to 1954 when I burned my right hand in a mangle (an appliance used for ironing laundry) at the age of 18 months. That required a lot of operations over the next 5 or 6 years, and I was sickly on top of that. My mother read to me a lot when I was little, and I was reading by age three. My Grandmother was my day care, and there was a small but choice library in her front room including a classic WW1-era Encyclopedia Britannica. I didn’t read it cover to cover like J. S. Mill did, but I read it a lot.
When I was nine, I read the Iliad and the Odyssey, which made a huge impression on me, and when I was ten, my abusive step-father and the Cuban Missile Crisis combined in way that led me to a conscious decision to absolutely reject adult authority and think for myself… And I was smart enough to understand that I was just a kid who didn’t know jack, so if I was going to think for myself and resist the adults I had some serious studying to do.
It was all about power, so I started with Caesar’s commentaries, followed by Arian, Xenophon, Livy… By Junior High I was studying Thucydides, Napoleon, and Guderian, etc, and branching out into political theory and philosophy. I drove my teachers crazy, because I was angry, sullen, introverted kid who would ace all the tests but never do any homework at all. Some would give me an F, some would average it out to a C, some would just shrug and give me an A or B — and I didn’t much care one way or another as school was just a prison to me.
At 16 I dropped out, took the SAT, got admitted to college, and soon realized college was even worse, because I was still me and but now was younger than everyone else on top of that. So I quit and decided to spend a year or two playing tournament Chess in order to educate myself in real time decision- making under pressure. After a year, I was nearly a master, but I’d learned what I wanted to learn and didn’t want to continue the hermit life of a serious chess player, so I switched to Bridge, because a) it has an added linguistic / social dimension that interested me a lot in the context of decision making, and b) girls play the game, unlike Chess at that time.
So by 21 I was an expert bridge player, got the chance to work as a computer project librarian through a friend of a friend from the Bridge club, quickly established that I’d accidentally self-educated myself to the equivalent of a masters in computer science (the logic is much the same as Chess and Bridge, only easier), a lucky series of events gave me the chance to become a wunder- kinde, and I took off like rocket and never looked back.
And in the background of all that, from 1962 until now, I never stopped studying power, history, politics, military history, strategy, and tactics, philosophy, etc… Just because I’d understood right at the start how important those problems were, and even though my take on them had evolved with my understanding of things, that only resulted in me seeing that the problems were even more important and difficult.
Then I went through a nasty divorce in 1987 after 11 years of marriage and three kids, and because of my own childhood it devastated me… and the legal aspects of it absolutely enraged me, because the entire legal process was so biased, unfair, and predatory.
So in my misery and rage, a not-so-idle question crossed my mind…
How could one man fight a war against the State of Texas?
Then in a flash it struck me that it was actually possible.
But despite my anger I recoiled in horror because my long study of power had led me to believe that the only real power is reason, and that the great task of facing humanity in the here and now is to learn to live by reason and cooperation instead of force and coercion — to be truly and fully human and quit behaving like animals. Such a war could easily destroy all of us. Equally, it was fascinating problem of strategy and tactics.
The Talking Dog: Among your efforts have been numerous petitions to legislative bodies and amicus briefs to courts; can you describe what traction (if any) you’ve gotten with your efforts from these bodies? Have you gotten any “bites” on efforts to obtain counsel (pro bono, discounted, or human rights groups, perhaps) with respect to your proposed “complaints” (or direct criminal complaint and/or civil enforcement complaint)?
Charles Gittings: Well here are my two briefs (the first one, in Hamdi, is Exhibit A to the second, In re Gitmo).
And here are the opinions in the cases:
* Hamdi v. Rumsfeld, 542 U.S. 507 (2004)
* In re Guantanamo Detainee Cases, 355 F.Supp.2d 443 (D.D.C. 2005)
I was happy with the rulings in both, but had some problems with the dicta… a couple of major beefs in Hamdi, a relatively minor detail in In re Gitmo. It’s very hard to gauge how much influence you have with an amicus brief. All I know is that the Hamdi brief was the hardest thing I ever did in my life, and I’m very proud of it. Writing it was such a nightmare that I couldn’t look at it for a month and half, but after it was finally accepted and I re-read it, I was really pleased with how it turned out. The finished brief only covered about half of the original outline, but cutting it down made it a lot stronger.
As for Congress, I did have direct contact with the Senate Judiciary staff for a few years, and saw some signs they were actually paying attention to the stuff I was sending them, but they don’t encourage that sort of thing and it’s pretty frustrating all in all.
The Talking Dog: I take it you are aware that there have been a number of proceedings in a number of jurisdictions of relevance; of course, you’ve submitted amicus briefs in some; have you had any involvement in (including efforts to compile documents) in such proceedings as may be taking place in, say, Spain (the investigation of torture memo lawyers); Germany (considering, though it dropped, charges against Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and others), Britain (the Binyam Mohammad litigation and others) and Italy (the Abu Omar cases)?
Charles Gittings: Well I’ve helped a Canadian friend, Gail Davidson of Lawyers Against the War, with her efforts to get the Canadian government to do something about Omar Khadr. I’ve also had a bit of contact with Cageprisoners in England.
But while I’m supportive of any effort to stop or prosecute the war crimes, from the start I’ve felt that it was important to prosecute the perpetrators under US law in US courts, because that’s what Geneva requires, that’s what the laws of the United States say, and getting convictions would establish a precedent that would represent a significant advance and reinforce the precedent of Nuremberg. In his preface to his report on the IMT conference, Justice Jackson stated:
“The most serious disagreement, and one on which the United States declined to recede from its position even if it meant the failure of the Conference, concerned the definition of crimes. The Soviet Delegation proposed and until the last meeting pressed a definition which, in our view, had the effect of declaring certain acts crimes only when committed by the Nazis. The United States contended that the criminal character of such acts could not depend on who committed them and that international crimes could only be defined in broad terms applicable to statesmen of any nation guilty of the proscribed conduct. At the final meeting the Soviet qualifications were dropped and agreement was reached on a generic definition acceptable to all.”
That’s what the project is about: upholding Geneva and articles 6-8 of the IMT charter with the idea that NEVER AGAIN will such crimes be tolerated or excused.
The Talking Dog: Our friend Candace Gorman frequently uses items you have posted or assembled at the PEGC on her Guantanamo Blog, and in the course of her representations. Are you working with other attorneys or human rights activists in the course of their work?
Charles Gittings: I’ve had dealings with a number of attorneys in the habeas cases dating back to 2002. I’ll do anything I reasonably can to help anyone who asks. I also make suggestions, offer analysis, point out flaws in the government briefs that might be exploited, etc. But I don’t talk about contacts in public, and try very hard not to be critical or pushy with the habeas attorneys because while my concerns coincide with theirs to an extent, the individual interests of their clients have to come first for them. (It’s an interesting problem even.)
But I’ll say this much: a number of those attorneys count as some of the finest people I’ve ever known.
The Talking Dog: Many of the major human rights groups such as the ACLU, Human Rights Watch, etc. (many of whom are linked to on PEGC) have their own caches of relevant documents available on the Internet; what is the theme of PEGC’s collection, and how does it differ from the others? If you can answer this, is there a theme or trends for particular places and particular documents (for example, “for litigation go to CCR”, for torture docs, go to ACLU, etc.) that you have discovered (other than “for interviews go to Cage Prisoners”… and the talking dog!)?
Charles Gittings: I don’t spend a lot of time looking at what the big organizations do, though I do read their reports now and then. My project has been a criminal investigation first and foremost from the start, and the archive reflects evidence, supporting documents, relevant legal authorities, etc. I’ve been downloading the petitions and briefs in the detainee cases since 2002 because they afforded me a window on detainee policy and operations, and soon realized the briefs themselves were prima facie evidence of the crimes. Indeed, as far as I am concerned, every time DOJ files a brief or motion in any of the cases it’s an offense pursuant to 18 USC 2441(c)(2), even said so in my intemperate little reply brief filed in the DDC five years ago.
The problem was how to get the job done, and my answer has always been to do whatever what might move things an inch forward. That brief and reply was an attempt to stab the governments detainee polices in the heart. I wrote a couple of status reports (here and here) along the way that will give you a pretty good idea.
The Talking Dog: I note that you haven’t updated your PEGC blog since the day (my college classmate) President Obama took office. Obviously, a big part of that is because of your health (as you acknowledged in your post), though you also acknowledged in your post of that date that the project only gets harder when the Bush Administration leaves office. Well, it’s left office. Do you believe that we have, in fact, hit a hard part? Where do you see things going with respect to recent developments from an Administration whose performance has been “conflicted”… rhetoric about closing Guantanamo within a year, while releasing only a single prisoner; rhetoric about transparency followed by assertion of state secrets privilege in some cases, selective release of some torture memos in others, while still insisting that there won’t even be further investigation, let alone prosecution…? How important do you see the role of “citizen activist” in pushing the Obama Administration to do the right thing on this, and given national ambivalence as shown in polls, how hard do you see this (“this” being ultimate accountability for those responsible for turning the United States of America into a torture regime) as?
Charles Gittings: It’s actually worse that I thought — I could never have predicted that the new administration would keep the Bush Defense Department intact. That was a terrible mistake in more ways than one. The task now is to educate Barrack Obama and get him to see how he is being misled by his subordinates. I have to believe it’s possible, because the DoD / DOJ policies are simply fallacious and fraudulent, but the trick is getting the president to actually consider the facts.
The Talking Dog: From your perspective as “citizen activist,” how would you comment on media coverage of issues surrounding the war on terror, arbitrary detention, torture, bringing those responsible to account, and similar matters?
Charles Gittings: It sucks. Superficial and clueless. God forbid anyone might do any actual analysis of the facts or the law!
That said, there’s been some excellent reporting now and then — within the dreary editorial confrines of the mainstream media. Luckily torture is soooo sexy… if it was just the tens of thousands of innocent people they’ve murdered over the last eight years…
I try not to think about it too much and just stick to the facts and the law. I want them indicted if it takes 50 years to do it, period.
The Talking Dog: One of the President’s day-one executive orders concerned implementation (restoration?) of Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions as the base-line standard for treatment of detainees (presumably around the world). Do you see any evidence that this order has been complied with in ways other than lip- service and symbolism– or would you accept that relaxation of the total isolation regime of many detainees somehow makes USA detention facilities “Geneva compliant”? Do you see this development as encouraging, troubling (because it arguably attempts to gloss over rather than solve serious problems)… or something else?
Charles Gittings: No: it’s just more fraudulent make-believe by DoD and DOJ. There have been some efforts to moderate the treatment of the detainees but the whole operation at Gitmo is illegal under both CA3 and CA2, and by “illegal” I mean violations and grave breaches of Geneva and Hague that are criminal offenses pursuant to 18 USC 2441 and potentially carry life imprisonment or the death penalty. From day one until now, the only real purpose of Guantanamo Bay is to perpetrate war crimes in the form of unlawful detentions and systematic 24/7 abuse. It’s a damned disgrace.
The Talking Dog: Assuming you’ve made arrangements to keep the site up for a while, how do you anticipate the contents of the PEGC will be viewed by, say, Americans and foreigners of the future, say, 10, 20, maybe 50 years out? Will this be viewed as an aberrational trip to the dark side, led by peculiarly stupid and venal “leaders”… or, perhaps, as things go further to hell in a hand-basket, will it be viewed as an act of quaintness on your part– the perceived reality being we weren’t nasty enough… any thoughts on that?
Charles Gittings: The site will be staying up no matter what happens with me, thanks to my web host Deb Lagutaris (The Ansible Group) and I’m working on arrangements with a law school to preserve (and hopefully, expand/ improve) both the files and the project.
As for the future, that depends on what happens. First and foremost, we need to prosecute and convict George Bush, Dick Cheney, David Addington, John Yoo and the entire gang for their war crimes. If we do that, it will be a tremendous step forward in a couple of ways — a huge precedent in both international and domestic law, and equally, a heavy blow for the right wing idiots who’ve so frequently corrupted our domestic politics. Bonus: it will mean that the laws of the United States are something more than a bad joke the powerful play on the people.
And if we fail, we’re looking at more of the same… that’s a nightmare scenario that I don’t talk about in public, because I don’t want to give the wrong people any clues from my analysis of the strategy and tactics of terrorism. That’s been a big problem for me (how to talk about something I can’t talk about) but the bottom line is that I believe the polices of the Bush administration and Israel are essentially self-defeating and ultimately suicidal. They are playing an irrational game that cannot be won, and being irrational, losing it is just a matter of time. Nobody likes being tyrannized, and no one will tolerate it indefinitely. Israel blathers about their “security”, but they were a lot safer in 1948 than they are now.
The Talking Dog: Anything else I should have asked you but didn’t, or anything else the public needs to know about these vital issues?
Charles Gittings: Well one thing that I think is very important to understand is that the war crimes were not an aberration, but a part of an overt attempt to completely set aside the law. The torture memos get most of the press, but there’s nothing in the torture memos that wasn’t implicit in the very first memo John Yoo fabricated for David Addington after 9/11:
That memo is nothing less than an attempt to set aside both the Constitution and laws of the United States in their entirety on the theory that the Constitution gives the president the same powers as Stalin, Hitler, or Charles I of England — pure treason to whatever extent it isn’t uncomplicated idiocy and/or fraud.
It’s time to quit fearing or compromising with these bastards; they should be treated like what they are: murderous, fascist criminals. The idea that these people acted in “good faith” is just stupid. They are pathological liars and criminals and that is all that they are. The kindest view I can take of any of them is that they are insane.
The Talking Dog: I join my readers in thanking Mr. Gittings for that interesting interview.
Readers interested in legal issues and related matters associated with the “war on terror” may also find talking dog blog interviews with former Guantanamo military commissions prosecutor Darrel Vandeveld, with attorneys Ramzi Kassem, George Clarke, Buz Eisenberg, Steven Wax, Wells Dixon, Rebecca Dick, Wesley Powell, Martha Rayner, Angela Campbell, Stephen Truitt and Charles Carpenter, Gaillard Hunt, Robert Rachlin, Tina Foster, Brent Mickum, Marc Falkoff H. Candace Gorman, Eric Freedman, Michael Ratner, Thomas Wilner, Jonathan Hafetz, Joshua Denbeaux, Rick Wilson,
Neal Katyal, Joshua Colangelo Bryan, Baher Azmy, and Joshua Dratel (representing Guantanamo detainees and others held in “the war on terror”), with attorneys Donna Newman and Andrew Patel (representing “unlawful combatant” Jose Padilila), with Dr. David Nicholl, who spearheaded an effort among international physicians protesting force-feeding of detainees at Guantanamo Bay, with physician and bioethicist Dr. Steven Miles on medical complicity in torture, with law professor and former Clinton Administration Ambassador-at-large for war crimes matters David Scheffer, with former Guantanamo detainees Moazzam Begg and Shafiq Rasul , with former Guantanamo Bay Chaplain James Yee, with former Guantanamo Army Arabic linguist Erik Saar, with former Guantanamo military guard Terry Holdbrooks, Jr., with law professor and former Army J.A.G. officer Jeffrey Addicott, with law professor and Coast Guard officer Glenn Sulmasy, with author and geographer Trevor Paglen and with author and journalist Stephen Grey on the subject of the CIA’s extraordinary rendition program, with journalist and author David Rose on Guantanamo, with journalist Michael Otterman on the subject of American torture and related issues, with author and historian Andy Worthington detailing the capture and provenance of all of the Guantanamo detainees, with law professor Peter Honigsberg on various aspects of detention policy in the war on terror, with Joanne Mariner of Human Rights Watch, and with Almerindo Ojeda of the Guantanamo Testimonials Project, to be of interest.