Standard Operating Procedure: Forget Obama’s Latest, In Order to Move Forward, Look to Guantánamo

“Guantánamo is an abomination and has eroded our position in the world. We need to get rid of it. The rationale is unimportant.” – Leading military lawyer Gary Myers

President Obama started his first term with enormous expectations from the electorate. After eight years of President Bush, America was ready to exit the neo-conservative policy and worldview. Reality has been much different, partly because President Obama has proven to be a far better status quo politician than a real “change agent.” One reason that he has struggled from the beginning: the failure to close Guantánamo.

Just recently, at the George W. Bush Presidential Library opening, President Obama stated, “And that’s why every President gains a greater appreciation for all those who served before him; for the leaders from both parties who have taken on the momentous challenges and felt the enormous weight of a nation on their shoulders. And for me, that appreciation very much extends to President Bush.”

I.e.: Extreme policies at home and abroad come first, the American people and the world, second.

In order to get the perspective of our “standard operating procedure,” I interviewed leading military attorney Gary Myers. He does not use names of politicians. Myers’s response to my final question is similar to what Lawrence Davidson has said, “What the world is coming to realize is that US behavior is not just the function of who is president. Policy is the product of a system and that system is presently controlled by networks of special interests inimical allies.”

Gary Myers is known for his work in the cases of My Lai, Abu Ghraib, and Haditha. He is the first lawyer in United States history to use DNA evidence in a military trial. His work in the Abu Ghraib case was observed in the book The Lucifer Effect. He has appeared on PBS Frontline, AlJazeera English, and in numerous books and articles.

Falcone: I wanted to ask you about the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Not many average citizens are familiar with the term. What is the Uniform Code of Military Justice?

Myers: The UCMJ, as it is commonly referred to, is a compilation of crimes. Most of its crimes are known, including murder, rape, robbery, etc. Some are exclusively military crimes, like absent without leave or disobedience of a lawful order. Other federal crimes not specified in the UCMJ can be included by statute for prosecution in the military court-martial.

Falcone: What do you see as the role of the US media at wartime? Do you think that corporate ownership of media has impacted legal decisions regarding warfare?

Myers: The media sets the tone. The Pentagon learned from Vietnam not to give the media carte blanche. Vietnam was the first “television war.” The unfettered media was a political disaster. War in the living room was adverse to government interests. Desert Storm, Iraq, and Afghanistan were much more controlled environments. “Embedded” equaled “battle buddy.” The news got soft. The Pentagon Public Affairs guys were generally pleased. What they could not control were phone cameras and the Internet. They were more of a problem than the press.

Corporate ownership is constrained by national security interests and inherent bias. Reporting of our wars by other country’s news media has always been different from domestic coverage. This is normal and to be expected.

Falcone: Many pundits speak of the My Lai massacre of 1968 and how it compared to the Haditha killings of 2005. In what ways were these two cases similar and how were they different?

Myers: They were similar because multiple women and children were killed by American ground troops and face to face gunfire.

They were different because My Lai was actually a massacre. The area was declared a “free fire zone,” (kill anything that moves) but putting hundreds of people – including small children – in a ditch and shooting them from close range went beyond any possible rationale. Haditha was secondary to our Marines taking an IED which blew apart a Marine followed by small arms fire. The Marines reacted to this circumstance. The reaction met the rules of engagement standards.

Neither event was pleasant. There will always be those who call both massacres. I would simply say killing unarmed people lying in a ditch is different from entering dwellings where there was reason to believe hostiles were occupying.

Falcone: Back in 2004, Noami Klein mentioned you in an article, entitled “The Bush Doctrine: Thumbs Up, No Matter What.” There’s a passage in the article where she quotes your remark to Seymour Hersh in the New Yorker, “Do you really think a group of kids from rural Virginia decided to do this on their own?” Do you think the media gives cover to powerful elites, intentionally or unintentionally when they focus on crimes committed by young, frightened, untrained soldiers?

Myers: It is not the media which does this. It is rather the Pentagon’s Public Affairs Office. Their philosophy is to “isolate and vilify” those accused of a crime. This serves to insulate the corporate interests of the Pentagon. The media generally reports what the Pentagon says. Sometimes there is critical analysis of the Pentagon position, but the Pentagon is an expert at manipulating the news.

Falcone: Can you comment on Noam Chomsky’s remarks regarding Fallujah: “It is interesting that one of the only war crimes that the media is talking about is a marine who kind of lost it in the middle of combat. Yes it was a crime, but a minuscule footnote, when say compared to Operation Wheeler in Vietnam or a history of World War II. The real crimes, like say as far as Nuremberg was concerned, were perpetrated by the civilian commanders.” Do you see your work as a lawyer following a similar thought or approach?

Myers: I represent clients one at a time, not causes. I leave causes to politicians and those with commitments to that end. Sometimes in the course of representing an individual, the consequence has an impact on policy. For example, I think our work in Abu Ghraib contributed to the disclosure of Justice Department and White House legal memoranda on torture.

Falcone: I believe that Seymour Hersh is an outstanding reporter. What is your association with Hersh? In your view, what has he contributed to the country with his journalism?

Myers: Although I was involved in the My Lai case, I never knew Seymour then. I first met him when he interviewed me regarding the Abu Ghraib matter. Seymour is a brilliant writer with a curious mind and unlimited moral courage. My only concern with Seymour is that he sometimes goes [over the top in declaring this or that has occurred] without a hint of sources.

Falcone: Errol Morris, director of The Fog of War has also made a documentary film about Abu Ghraibentitled Standard Operating Procedure. He received substantial criticism for comparing the bad behavior of the soldiers to the potential overarching criminality of the initial invasion. He also claimed that while the photographs were horrific they did little to speak to the bigger picture and entrapped nature of soldier life at war time. Does Morris have a point here? Is he simply making excuses for the perpetrators at Abu Ghraib?

Myers: I know Errol and have spoken with him extensively about this. He is incredibly insightful and has mastered the presentation of an event by interviewing on screen the participants on a penetratingly personal level.

It is not merely Errol who believes there was responsibility at a higher level than those few enlisted personnel.

Again, in regards to the Pentagon’s Public Affairs Office – their philosophy is to “isolate and vilify” those accused of a crime. This serves to insulate the corporate interests of the Pentagon.

Falcone: What are your thoughts on President Obama’s plan to close Guantánamo? Does this reflect any change in policy or is it a form of perception management in your view?

Myers: Guantánamo is an abomination and has eroded our position in the world. We need to get rid of it. The rationale is unimportant.