The Talking Dog

June 2, 2009, TD Blog Interview with Peter Honigsberg

Peter Jan Honigsberg is a professor of law at the University of San Francisco, where among other subjects, he teaches a course on terrorism and national security law. He is the author of numeous articles and books, including most recently, Our Nation Unhinged: The Human Consequences of the War on Terror. On June 2, 2009, I had the privilege of interviewing Professor Honigsberg by e-mail exchange.

The Talking Dog Your book notes that you ask your students in a terrorism/national security law class where they were on 11 Sept. 2001; I happened to be across the street from the  WTC; please tell us where you were.

Peter Honigsberg: I was at home in California with my wife and family. We woke up the kids, turned on the television and watched the second plane hit the tower. I called the law school and cancelled my 9:00am class. I also called my friend, who was on his way to San Francisco from the east bay, and suggested he turn around. Who knew what would happen next?
But, I would like to comment on why I ask my students to describe where they were and how they felt on 9/11. In studying the “war on terror” (a term from which President Obama has moved away), it is important to understand what we were experiencing that day and in the weeks and months that followed. Fear enveloped the nation, and unless we appreciate how pervasive that fear was, we cannot fully understand the administration’s reaction. People were afraid of another attack, and many people were willing to yield their civil liberties for national security and the safety of themselves and their families. It is in that environment that the Bush Administration overreacted. We can never condone the torture and inhumane treatment that the administration conducted in the name of our great nation. However, we must understand that Bush and Cheney did not want another attack, and they were willing to break the law, discard the rights of others, act inhumanely and do whatever else they thought necessary to “protect the nation.” And many people, including the media, deferred to the administration.

A few days after 9/11, I went to our dean at the law school and told him that we needed to offer a course on the issues that would arise from these events of 9/11. I offered to teach the course without pay -- it was that important to me. The dean was very supportive of my offer. However, he was concerned that some alumni would consider my course “unpatriotic,” and in those early days everyone supposedly needed to lock-step behind the administration. I told him that I would teach the course regardless of any resistance from alums. I analogized the course to my experience in college and law school when we had “teach-ins.” In those days, professors and others would hold all-day and all-night sessions to discuss the Vietnam War. It was an amazing experience listening to people voicing their thoughts. I wanted to replicate that experience in some way. Perhaps teaching a class would be my contribution to the next generation. I pushed ahead and began the first course on the war on terror in January 2002.

The Talking Dog  Amongst your many writing credits, including a number of children's books, legal books (including for law students' favorite shortcut, the Gilberts series), bar review books and materials, articles  on Huffington Post and "Our Nation Unhinged" is a prior book on  civil rights (Crossing Border Street: A Civil Rights Memoir). In that book, you describe your own well-spent youth (or young-grown-up-hood)  in 1960's New Orleans, working for a civil rights organization in the Jim Crow South.  The obvious question  (so I'll ask it!) is  what comparisons you can draw between what you see, in legal systemic terms, is  going on with America's various ad hoc legal responses to  the war  on terror, and what you personally observed during that rather turbulent era in American legal history?  I take it that it was those  experiences that got  you interested in GTMO and "the war on terror" area... or was it something (or someone) else?

Peter Honigsberg: Mark Denbeaux [whose son Joshua is one of your talking dog interviews] was in my class at NYU Law School. He also worked in the South and had been instrumental in releasing a report documenting that over 80% of all the people sent to Guantanamo were sold to the United States for $5000 to $20,000 by Afghanis and Pakistanis. Not long ago, he said to me that our work on post 9/11 issues is on a continuum from our participation in the civil rights movement. I agree.

As you know, I worked in Bogalusa, Louisiana, with the Deacons for Defense and Justice. The Deacons were the first modern-day black group to carry weapons and use them to defend themselves against the Klan. I worked in Louisiana two summers and two winters, while in law school. I also worked during the school year, taking a few weeks off from classes. After I completed law school, I took the NewYork Bar exam and left the next day for California. Once in California, I joined the movement against the Vietnam War and, actually, was arrested in a demonstration. Yes, there is a continuum from the civil rights movement to the anti-war movement to the movement of today for human rights in the war on terror.

However, I think there are motivations for my current work that go back even further than my participation in the civil rights movement. In fact, they go back to my early memories of stories my parents, who were Jewish refuges from Nazi Austria, told me as a child.

In one story, an Austrian woman hid my father in her home on Kristallnacht, November 9, 1938, when the Nazis wantonly destroyed Jewish homes, shops and synagogues. Concealing a Jew was a crime. When the Nazis came to her door searching for Jews, she expressed outrage. How dare they accuse, or even intimate, that she may be harboring Jews! They apologized and left, never searching her house.

Some time later, my father received a letter from the Nazis summoning him to the local train station for deportation to a concentration camp. He ignored it. He disregarded a second letter as well. A third dispatch warned him that if he did not appear the next morning, they would come for him. That same day, he and my mother received visas to America. Under United States law, an immigrant could not obtain a visa unless someone promised to support the immigrant for five years if the immigrant could not find work. The couple, who vouched for my parents by signing an affidavit of support, did not know them.

Perhaps, a large part of my motivation to work in the South and in human rights came from hearing these and other stories as a child. Certain people took considerable risks to save my parents’ lives. As a child, I was drawn to questions as to why they would do it. Although I had not recognized it when I worked in the South, I now think that my work in civil rights and human rights was largely motivated by my wanting to give thanks to those who had been there for my parents.

The Talking Dog I'm guessing from your schooling (CCNY, alma mater of Colin Powell and TD Mom, and law school at NYU (undergrad alma mater of TD Dad, and law school alma mater of Rudy Giuliani and me) that you are a New Yorker (Bronx, perhaps?).  New Yorkers, being from a cosmopolitan city of immigrants, tend to have a somewhat different world view than most Americans, at least in my perception.  Can you tell me, in your experience teaching law at a Jesuit university in the Bay Area, or your legal practice, or your personal life or anything else, if you have observed any regional differences among Americans in their reactions to what you describe as the excesses of the Bush Admin. in its approach to legal policy in the so-called war on terror?  [Is this reflected in book sales... i.e., are all the books being bought on the coasts?]  Do you see a difference between Americans and non-Americans in their reactions to it all, and if so, what?  How would you view your own perspective, if I am not mistaken, as a child of Holocaust survivors, in this overall context?

Peter Honigsberg: Actually, I am from the tip of Manhattan, near the Cloisters. But as to your question, I think people are essentially the same all over the United States and even all over the world. In the U.S., there are, of course, pockets of certain interests and certainly “birds of a feather, flock together.” However, if you reflect back to the enormity of Obama’s victory, you can see that people all over America cared and wanted to do the right thing. And people all over the world were rooting for us to return to the nation that they could once again hold in esteem.

Certainly, my being a child of Nazi survivors, as I describe in the above question, heavily influenced me. But then, other children of Holocaust survivors have not always reacted the same way as I have. Henry Kissinger, who is quite a bit older than I and also a son of Nazi survivors, grew up in my apartment building. Yet, he and I turned out quite differently. Even if our childhoods help form us, our cultures, environs, schools, friends, family and certainly our genetic composition, all contribute to who we are.

As for the Jesuit connection, I am extremely comfortable teaching at a Jesuit institution, especially in the bar area. USF’s values of education and justice are in sync with my own. Over time, I think people find their homes and where they belong. Immediately after taking the New York bar exam, I flew to California. When I arrived in the bay area, I said to myself, “this is home.” And it still is decades later.

The Talking Dog  You wrote a Huffington Post piece describing your debate with fellow Bay Area law professor John Yoo, bete noire of progressives and human rights advocates everywhere, widely credited with writing key "torture memos" while an official with the Ashcroft Justice Department. (Professor Yoo was perfectly polite in declining a request to be interviewed for this blog.)  Your article, aside from drawing the requisite Hannah Arendt "banality of evil" comparisons, notes that at a non-public level, Yoo seemed somewhat less charming, and more in need to demonstrate self-aggrandizement and hubris than one would have thought for someone so confident of his world-view.  Professor Yoo, who is married to the daughter of broadcast journalist Peter Arnett, may be paradigmatic of something as or more troubling than even the banality of his own personal evil, in my view.  I have no doubt of his personal intellectual firepower, and I'll even accept the sincerity of his views.  But is there some sort of broader disconnect out there-- in other words, Yoo is as much symptom as disease-- which perhaps we also see in investment bankers who merrily engage in fraudulent transactions that have devastated our financial system, or "scientists" willing to deny everything from global warming to the dangers of chemicals to the Earth being round, or "journalists" willing to guffaw along with Authority while George W. Bush mocks thousands of dead Americans looking under his chair "for missing WMDs"... the John Yoos of the world are simply creatures of a grander American "Yuppie Nuremberg Defense" of "I was only paying the mortgage" or "I needed to advance my career"? In other words-- maybe it hurts to acknowledge this, but the Bush Administration wasn't particularly "out of step" with a country (or large parts of it) that had pretty much already moved to an "ends justifying the means" mindset and ethic (and those ends apparently really were "prosperity with a purpose... the purpose being the most prosperity for the fewest people")... not to mention a rather clear "fear of the other".  Does any of this make any sense, and can you comment on it?

Peter Honigsberg: I think you are describing something that we have all experienced over the years. It does seem that corporate greed and perhaps a concomitant decline in values have changed our culture since the idealistic sixties. The culture of greed has infected the attitudes of many people, perhaps making them more skeptical, even cynical, and less responsive to issues of ethics and morality. I found it interesting that when President Obama gave his speech on Guantanamo on May 21, he spoke the word “values” frequently. A lot has been written about the decline in values and ethics in the last 30 years, and I doubt I have much to add. However, it does strike me that something turned in the 80’s when greed began to take over the culture.

During the Bush years it seemed that the most powerful media players did not have the courage to stand up to the administration and question what they were hearing. Perhaps, the media feared that they would be denied access to the inner circle of the white house if they challenged the administration. However, the loss of integrity was not limited to the media.

I had a conversation with a lawyer back in 2005 about John Yoo’s torture memo. The lawyer said that what John Yoo did in countenancing torture for the administration was not all that different from what the lawyer had seen every day in his firm over the past 24 years of his career. For years, perhaps decades, lawyers have been creating documents as CYAs for their clients and their supervisors, just like Yoo did for the administration. And then there is the account of former Hewlett Packard chairperson Patricia Dunn who was charged with four felonies for an illegal spy probe into boardroom press leaks. She claimed that she had relied on counsel for advice before making her decisions. The prosecution ultimately dropped the charges against her.

The Talking Dog  Please summarize for us a bit your UCLA law review article on the "enemy combatant" definition (i.e., it's nowhere found in international law, it's made up as the Bush Admin. goes along), and discuss in the context of other definitions, one being from the DOD itself: Any person in an armed conflict who could be properly detained under the laws and customs of war. Also called EC. (JP 1-02 Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms).  Near and dear to me, and to my friend Candace Gorman and her client al-Ghizzawi, is a decision on the subject by US Dist. Ct. Judge John Bates which in my view, and Candace's, is pretty pragmatic.  Judge Bates refused to go to the extreme "anyone even remotely supporting anything we say is terrorism" justification used to hold detainees so far.  Can you comment on the trends in the law viz how the habeas judges and appellate courts are ruling on the "EC" definition, and what you think this bodes for the future of an executive's ability to make up a term (such as "enemy combatant") to back up whatever abuse it has in mind?

Peter Honigsberg: I will try to keep this issue of “enemy combatant” simple. Readers can read the article or the section in my book that describes the term enemy combatant for more detail. The term “enemy combatant” had no established meaning when the administration first introduced it in the spring of 2002. It was nothing more than a generic term. The Geneva Conventions (GC), of which we are a party, recognizes only two types of combatants, lawful and unlawful. That is the universe of combatants. Lawful combatants are also known as Prisoners of War. Any member of a nation’s armed forces who is captured would be a lawful combatant. An example of an unlawful combatant would be a spy or a saboteur. Lawful combatants have more protections than unlawful combatants, but both types of combatants must be treated humanely.

Consequently, by labeling the captured men as neither “lawful” nor “unlawful” combatants, but rather as “enemy combatants,” the administration was attempting to circumvent the Geneva Conventions. The administration officials believed that if the captives were not covered by the law, then anything done to them would not violate the law. This is an amazingly cynical policy and, ultimately, did not work. The Supreme Court ruled that the men held in Guantanamo were protected by the GC, and had the right to due process and the rule of law.

What always amazed me was why the administration resorted to using the fictitious term, enemy combatant, when it could have held the men lawfully under the GC. Under the conventions, combatants can be held until the end of the war. Obviously, there were questions as to when the war on terror would end. But in the early days, that concern was not a prevailing issue. The administration could have held the captives lawfully and treated them humanely, and the world would have been completely accepting.

Since those early days, the term enemy combatant has gone through any number of different definitions and permutations. It had one definition in the early Supreme Court case of Hamdi v. Rumsfeld, another definition was used at the administrative hearings in Guantanamo, and many other definitions were created, sometimes monthly or even weekly, by the Department of Defense (DOD). I used to ask students to check the DOD website everyday, since the definition changed so frequently, and arbitrarily. In 2006, Congress passed the Military Commissions Act which, finally, defined the term statutorily. However, even that did not settle the matter, since the definition was inconsistent with the GC.

Recently, a few federal judges holding habeas due process hearings mandated by the Supreme Court in the 2008 case of Boumediene v. Bush, are redefining the term enemy combatant in deciding whether the administration can continue to hold a detainee. Since the judges are not in total agreement as to the meaning of the term, the definition continues to evolve, and will likely be decided by a higher court, perhaps even the Supreme Court.

What this means for the future is troublesome. One of the real problems with the introduction of the term enemy combatant is that the media accepted the term without questioning its legitimacy. If we engage in another war in the future and an administration again creates a legal fiction that the media accepts without inquiry, we could repeat the same type of situation. It is up not only to the lawyers, but the media and the public to take note of what the government is doing, and challenge actions that are questionable. The public and the media cannot blindly and passively bend over and submit to government actions in time of war.

The Talking Dog  Like me, you have communicated with many players on these issues (often the same players!), and among those you have communicated with but I have not are John Walker Lindh's father Frank Lindh and the former occupant of the office next door to you, Carlos Castresana Fernandez, former Spanish prosecutor credited with the first "universal jurisdiction" assertion, over Argentine "dirty war" officials.  I think we both agree on the imperative of getting relevant players to document their recollections of these issues while it is still "fresh" (albeit still "raw").  Has the "testimony" of anyone in particular-- or to be less putting you on the spot-- any type in particular (lawyers, former prisoners, military officers, bureaucrats, etc.), struck you as  particularly compelling in telling this story, and why?

Peter Honigsberg: As you know, I have been following and researching issues regarding the war on terror since it first began in fall 2001. The more I read, the more I was shocked by the stories. Every story unnerved me. That is why I added to the title of my book, Our Nation Unhinged, the subtitle, the Human Consequences of the War on Terror. I felt it was critical that the stories of the human consequences of the war be told. There have been many other books written on the war on terror, but not that many detailing what had really happened to the men we held. Not only are the individuals you mention fascinating people, but everyone’s story, whether a family member, lawyer, human rights advocate or detainee is compelling.

There is the story of American citizen Jose Padilla, locked up in a cell and isolated from everyone, including his family and lawyers, for 2 ˝ years, without charges and without any hearing. Ultimately, he went crazy, as anyone who is isolated and denied all sensory stimulation for that period of time would. He was also physically abused. No matter how bad a person he may have been, and there is a question as to whether he really was all that much of a danger, we still must treat all prisoners, citizens and non-citizens humanely.

Actually, we have read so much recently about physical torture but, to me, the mental and emotional torture that Padilla suffered is worse. We are human beings, social creatures. To isolate someone from all human contact for weeks, months and even years strikes me as the most vicious form of torture.

You mention, Candace Gorman. She is an amazing person. Her energy, passion and dedication to her clients are remarkable. But not only is her story amazing, but the stories she tells of her clients are heartbreaking. One of her clients in Guantanamo, Abdul Al-Ghizzawi, has hepatitis B and tuberculosis, but the military would not provide him any medical care, no matter how often and how loud Candace demanded it. Al-Ghizzawi was losing his sight and was so weak that he often had to cancel meetings with his lawyer. The last scene that I write about Al-Ghizzawi in the book is where he is washing his clothes in the toilet.

And then there is the story of a Canadian citizen, Omar Khadr. He was only 15 years old when he was captured in Afghanistan, taken to Guantanamo and imprisoned with adult men. He is one of dozens of juveniles who have been held in Guantanamo, in violation of international law.

There is John Walker Lindh, who is known as the “American Taliban,” an American citizen who was tortured for 54 days before his parents were able to convince the administration to allow him to see a lawyer. Frank Lindh, the father, is an amazing man. He has spoken at my school for the past four years and travels around the country passionately telling his son’s story. He is a mesmerizing speaker. I will continue to invite him to speak at the University of San Francisco until his son is released.

There is a group of people who have greatly inspired me as I was writing Our Nation Unhinged. They were the lawyers who stood up on behalf of the rule of law and due process at the very beginning, immediately after 9/11. I will discuss my admiration for them in my answer to your final question.

The Talking Dog  Following up on that question, in your comprehensive survey of what-is-wrong-with-this-picture, in which you discuss "manipulating the law" (making up terms like enemy combatant and enhanced interrogation and unitary executive), "Lawless detentions in America" (Hamdi, Padilla, al Marri and immigrant preventive detention), "Lawless Detentions in Guantanamo", "Foreign Prisons and CIA Black Sites" and "Detentions in America with due process" (Lindh, Reid, Moussoaui and the Lackawanna Six) as well as your recounting of your own "GTMO vacation"...  which of those items do you find the most compelling (perhaps in terms of trouble-spots for us... and I'll disclose that for me it's ALWAYS "lawless detentions in America"-- as bad as everything else is, the others at least have some broader context in the ugly history of war)?  

Peter Honigsberg: I can certainly see why you find detention in America the most alarming To think that Jose Padilla, an American citizen, could be held in such horrific isolation for so long undermines everything that this nation is about and has strived to be since independence. One could argue that people captured in a war on a foreign battlefield have fewer rights. But, Padilla was seized in Chicago and is an American citizen. There was no excuse for holding him this way. At minimum, he was entitled to an immediate hearing before an independent judge to determine whether he could be held and, if so, under what conditions. Another American citizen, Yaser Hamdi, was held in the same naval brig in Charleston, South Carolina, as Padilla. And an American legal resident, Ali al Marri, was held under the same isolating and numbing conditions as Padilla in the naval brig.

America acted unlawfully and inhumanely in treating the men it captured. We believe in due process, the rule of law and human rights. And we violated these principles in the most fundamental way with all our captives, whether we held them in America, Guantanamo, or overseas. As I said earlier, we did not have to respond inhumanely to secure the safety of our nation.

The Talking Dog  Tell me about your visit to GTMO... and, as creepy as you described the actual "being there" part [including the periodically Kafkaesque/Orwellian "hints" that you weren't exactly "welcome"]  can you give a broader assessment of the "gestalt" of the experience, applying to go, going,  looking around, talking to your  military minders and others... and leaving?  I'm going to make  a hyperbolic analogy (surprise,  surprise!) and suggest that GTMO-- a clean, orderly military-run police state with "the other" safely behind barbed wire and egregiously mistreated-- is actually something that, while it may creep the hell out of you, me or Candace, is something that a great many Americans wouldn't be all that uncomfortable with, and indeed, this has been the problem with the whole issue thus far: it's not nearly as much of an outlier for many Americans (who already have the highest incarceration rate in the world as it is).   Any thoughts on that?

Peter Honigsberg: Guantanamo may seem outwardly as just another military base. But, the reason why so many people who go there describe the place as Kafkaesque, or as an alien planet says something more. I mention in the book how a photographer, with whom I shared a condo, reacted while we were there. At one point, he said to me that even if he returned 100 times and took thousands of photographs, he could still not capture the essence of Guantanamo.

Guantanamo was not just another army base with its McDonald’s and KFC. This may sound odd, but the evil that penetrated the base permeated everything, day and night. You could not escape it. I slept fitfully each night, having feverish dreams of the detention camps, the detainees I saw in wire cages, and the many soldiers and officers who told me that they were just “doing their jobs.” And yet you could not really capture those feelings in words or in pictures. I have yet to see anyone describe the profound and unspeakable effects that the naval base has on people who have been there. But I can say that although I doubt the military would ever permit me to return to Guantanamo, there is no way I would. Once was enough.

The Talking Dog  Your promotional website for the book is Cuban iguana dot net (presumably a reference to Tom Wilner's quip in the al-Odah certiorari petition-- as relayed to me by Moazzam Begg, for the first time, that the Cuban iguana has more legal rights than do some human beings at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba).  You have described certain  updates since the election of my college classmate Barack Obama to the White House on the site, as well as other features.  Let's get right to it with respect to the Obama Administration: as a law professor, I'm going to ask you to give the new Administration a letter grade so far, and you can discuss overall, specific areas, atmospherics, or anything you like, in reaching that grade.  I'd also like a forced prediction as to where we will be in January of 2010 (GTMO closed, GTMO moved, most of Bush "war on terror" apparatus dismantled, none of the above...). 

Peter Honigsberg: The Cuban iguana story you refer to is actually told on the introductory page of my book. For readers who are not familiar with it, I would like to add it here. It provides a powerful image of what our justice system had become in only two years from September 2001.

In the fall of 2003, attorney Tom Wilner needed to persuade the justices of the Supreme Court that it was in their interest to take the case of a dozen Kuwaiti detainees being held in isolation in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, without charges, without a hearing and without access to a lawyer. Wilner used three arguments in his elegant petition to the court. He argued that, under the Constitution, the courts have a critical role in striking a balance between the president’s need to protect our nation’s security and the people’s need to protect the in fundamental right to a fair hearing with a lawyer present, before a neutral decisionmaker. Wilner further argued that the administration’s mistreatment of the detainees and the denial of their rights under law had become an international embarrassment. Here was the opportunity for the Supreme Court to make it right.

In his third argument, Wilner referred to the example of the Cuban iguana. When the Cuban iguana crosses the Cuban border into Guantanamo, it is protected by American law, under the Endangered Species Act. However, the human beings held prisoner at Guantanamo were not protected under American law. Wilner concluded that if the Supreme Court does not review his clients’ cases, the Cuban iguana would have greater safeguards than human beings at Guantanamo.

The Supreme Court agreed to hear his case.

As to President Obama’s performance, here at the end of May, 2009, I am going to give him the benefit of the doubt. Given the “mess” (his word) that he inherited from the Bush Administration, he is doing the best he can. He is trying to undo what he can and bring us back to the world of due process, the rule of law and a true adherence to human rights. Sure, he has made decisions with which I would disagree, such as his not releasing the additional Abu Ghraib photos and his support of the Bush Administration’s approach to the state secrets doctrine. He has also disappointed me in his support of a case on extraordinary rendition.

However, he did release a number of additional torture memos, some of which are horrifically brutal in their language. It is very disturbing to know that government lawyers wrote them. Obama must have known that by releasing the memos, he would be telling the public that the previous administration had violated everything that we, as Americans, believe in.

A couple of days after he took office, President Obama promised to close Guantanamo in a year. Apparently, he is discovering that it is not as easy as it first seemed. He needs to find other countries who are willing to take the released detainees -- countries that will not torture -- and he needs to set up court systems to prosecute those who are charged with war crimes.

He is also considering something called “prolonged detention” to hold people he cannot prosecute or release. I am very concerned that he could be sliding down a path that again will move us away from the rule of law. Even though he says that he will bring in Congressional and judicial oversight in any prolonged detention situation, that oversight does not substitute for the absence of due process. We, as Americans, do not hold people for prolonged periods of time without rule of law justification and a hearing. There are also issues in bringing war crime charges in a military commission, since military commissions violated due process when created by the Bush administration. It is not certain that Obama’s military commissions, although perhaps slightly better, will still provide the protections we expect in a fair hearing. Finally, given all the complexities, I doubt he will be able to close Guantanamo by late January 2010.

Creating policies is a much more complicated procedure once you are inside the White House. I believe Obama wants to do the right thing, every time. But, there are immense pressures from the military, the state department and other political influences that he was probably not as cognizant of when he ran for office. I can only hope that he continues to do his best and that he always remind himself to do the right thing. I will reserve the grade until the first year is through. Ask me in January 2010 for his grade.

The Talking Dog  Following up on two items on your web-site are two projects identified, one as trying to work on "truth and reconciliation commissions" (I'm guessing Alermindo Ojeda has something to do with that), and on the subject of Almerindo and his GTMO Testimonials Project, I understand you are also working on a similar project to videotape statements and interviews of as many former GTMO detainees as possible.  How are these projects going? 

Peter Honigsberg: Our project is called, “Witness to Guantanamo.” The overarching goal of this project is to collect, document and archive audio and videotape testimony from up to 500 former detainees of the Guantanamo Bay Detention Center. Videotaping witness testimony will play a critical role in documenting former detainees' first-person accounts of their time at Guantanamo.

We are looking to the "Shoah" oral history project -- in which Holocaust survivors were interviewed and videotaped to ensure that the history of the Holocaust was accurately documented -- as our model for archiving our video footage as insurance against denials of torture and systematic abuse by U.S. authorities in Guantanamo. The videotapes will document human rights and rule of law violations.

Professor Almerindo Ojeda, who directs the Guantanamo Testimonials Project at the University of California, Davis, is on our Advisory Board, and may assist us in the interviewing process. However, we are not otherwise connected with his project, which is very different. Professor Ojeda is collecting every piece of information he can, mostly written from news media accounts and from court documents on Guantanamo. We are focusing on taping full interviews of the detainees and archiving them. No one else has done this. U.C. Berkeley did a very interesting study on the lives of 62 detainees after they were released, but they did not focus on the systematic abuse at Guantanamo. In addition, their study did not involve videotaping, and to the extent that they audiotaped any detainees, the professors were required to destroy all tapes at the end of the study. The McClatchy news company interviewed 67 detainees, of which only ten were videotaped. Their videotapes were very short, often less than a few minutes.

We are working with Laura Poitras, who was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary for her film, My Country, My Country,, on Iraq in 2004. She is our Artistic Director, and will be in charge of the filming of the interviews. We are hoping to begin interviewing this summer with an eye on Bosnia, Albania, France and Algeria and possibly other countries. We have raised over $100,000 from a couple of foundations, and are currently seeking funding from other foundations and funding sources.

The Talking Dog   You and I (and Candace) are part of "the new independent media," which has been a major source of relevant information associated with these issues, in my view.  The professional press, particularly Carol Rosenberg, William Glaberson, Charlie Savage and others  in the print media have done yeoman's work, but really, not too many more reporters have taken these issues up, and non-NPR broadcasters have been, in my view, abysmal in their coverage of these issues.  Can you comment on media coverage-- independent, traditional journalism, international, or whatever, and how you might improve upon coverage, or what you believe is necessary to secure appropriate coverage of these issues?  How has your own work been covered, in your view?

Peter Honigsberg: As I had mentioned earlier, other than a few reporters like those you name, the public media did little in terms of questioning the administration. They bought into the administration’s assertions and accounts without any serious analysis or inquiry. Apparently, unless they played ball with the administration, they would not have had access. But, what good is access when the information fed to you is false? Where is the integrity? Business decisions trumped integrity. The media’s adoption of the term “enemy combatant” and the euphemistic term “harsh interrogations,” as well as the media’s acceptance of the administration’s statement that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, resulted in disastrous policies that we are still agonizing over today.

There were media outliers that challenged the conventional news issues by the major press organizations. But they were not heard by most of the people in America who only listened to and watched network newscasts. The unfortunate part of this is that it looks like media coverage and serious analysis are continuing to decline. Fewer and fewer media outlets remain, and as they shrink the resources for investigative reporting decline with them. The Internet has become the source of news for many of the young people in this nation, while newspapers flounder. Candace Gorman’s Blog is fabulous in identifying issues that the media overlooks. The Huffington Post and other bloggers raise critical issues and provide insightful and thoughtful commentary. But, we also need in-depth reporting, and bloggers do not have the necessary resources. Identifying the issue is only the start. Who will go deeper? And who can afford, and is willing, to pay reporters to seriously investigate a story over the long term?

The Talking Dog  Is there anything else I should have asked you but didn't, or anything else that the public needs to know about these issues?

Peter Honigsberg: There are two other subjects I would like to briefly cover. The first is the courageous lawyers who stood up on behalf of the men who were first captured in those very early days after 9/11. These lawyers were the recipients of hate mail and even death threats. They were attacked as being unpatriotic. But without the lawyers in those early days, things would have been even worse. Dean Erwin Chemerinsky, who wrote the Foreword to my book, was the first attorney in the nation to file a lawsuit on behalf of the detainees in Guantanamo, demanding a due process hearing. He and another lawyer, Steve Yagman, filed the lawsuit only nine days after the detainees were first brought to the prison. Chemerinsky received 200 pieces of hate mail and death threats over the weekend that he filed the case.

There are a handful of other attorneys, including Donna Newman, who defended Jose Padilla; Tom Wilner, mentioned above; Yaser Hamdi’s attorney Frank Dunham (who has passed); Joseph Margulies; Clive Stafford Smith; and the great team of lawyers at the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), led by Michael Ratner. I am sure I missed a few but, unfortunately, there were only a few in those early days. Most lawyers did not become involved until the Rasul v Bush Supreme Court decision in 2004. After that case -- when the court held that the detainees had habeas rights -- lawyers came out to help. It was important that they joined the cause then. We needed the lawyers to represent all the detainees. But, it would have been even better if they had been there in those early, very lonely, days.

The other subject is this: You -- since you have not revealed your name to the public, I will call you Talking Dog -- are doing a very worthwhile service for history. Ever since you began, I have followed your work and read your interviews. Even before you asked to interview me, I had felt that someone should publish your work when it is completed. Future historians and others would benefit from your public record of some of the people who were involved in challenging the policies of the Bush administration and its violations of the rule of law and human rights. Thank you for offering to interview me and, more importantly, thank you for doing this work.

The Talking Dog I thank Professor Hongsberg for that fascinating interview, and commend all interested readers to check out "Our Nation Unhinged".

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 Joanne Mariner of Human Rights Watch, and with Almerindo Ojeda of the Guantanamo Testimonials Project, to be of interest.


I am always amazed when I read your interviews. Even when I think I know the person interviewed I learn something astonishing. Today is no exception. Keep up the good work.

Posted by hcgorman at June 3, 2009 4:01 AM

You've done it again. I agree with the good professor that your work is important and valuable.

It was a little bit reassuring to "hear" him say that he would wait until January to judge our fellow alum's performance.

Posted by Michael L at June 8, 2009 12:52 PM