Guantanamo Bay: 'The Least Worst Place'

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The mention of the Guantanamo Bay prison camp in Cuba may conjure up images of torture and abuse. But during the camp's first 100 days, the U.S. military did its best to maintain a humane detainment facility. Karen Greenberg talks with Ari Shapiro about her book The Least Worst Place, covering the first 100 days at Guantanamo.

ARI SHAPIRO, host:

Today, Guantanamo's international reputation is tied to torture and abuse. But during the prison camp's first 100 days, the base's leaders went to tremendous lengths to run things humanely. Those first 100 days are the subject of a new book called "The Least Worst Place."

Karen Greenberg is the author. She directs the Center on Law and Security at NYU law school. She writes that the people who ran Guantanamo literally dismantled abandoned buildings to assemble makeshift watchtowers and medical facilities before detainees arrived. And the legal structure to govern the base was constructed on the fly, as well.

Professor KAREN GREENBERG (Director, the Center on Law and Security, NYU Law School; Author, "The Least Worse Place"): In Washington, they had made the decision early on that they did consider these prisoners to be classified under the Geneva Conventions. But they hadn't followed up by saying, okay, then they're classified as X, and they will be treated accordingly, and the Geneva Conventions will be amended in the following ways.

At the same time, the military was doing its own work trying to figure out how to read the Geneva Conventions given the fact that these prisoners were about to arrive.

So you had two separate processes going on, unbeknownst to one another, about how to deal with prisoners who were not in any recognizable international or domestic category.

SHAPIRO: This seems to be a recurring theme in Guantanamo's first 100 days, that there was no legal guidance, there was no technical guidance, there were no rules about how to handle the detainees. What impact did all of that have on the operation?

GREENBERG: Well, what it did was to cause the military and General Michael Leonard, who was in charge of this mission, to say, well, the military only knows how to follow rules. That's what we do. Therefore, if you're taking away the rules, we're going to follow the rules we know. And the only rule we know for detaining prisoners are the Geneva Conventions, and we're going to follow them. So it didn't result in the kind of chaos we saw elsewhere when policies are removed.

SHAPIRO: You know, this is one of the things that surprised me so much about your book, is that all of the terrible associations that many people have with Guantanamo seemed to be largely absent from the first 100 days, that even though the first 100 days were so chaotic, there really was a strong sense of order at the base.

GREENBERG: There was a very strong sense of order because the uniformed military, left on its own, basically behaved as a uniformed military cadre would, which was to rely on what they already knew. Being innovative with the law is not something they were willing to take on.

SHAPIRO: Tell me about the role that the first Muslim cleric at Guantanamo Bay played. You write about his arrival, and his relationship with the detainees and the other officials on the base.

GREENBERG: Yes, Abuhena Saifulislam. He is called in at the request of General Leonard. And Saif would go into the cells, or cages, at all different times of the day and listen to the detainees. Now many of the detainees roll their eyes or criticize Saif but nevertheless, they were able to use him as their mouthpiece for certain things that they wanted to ameliorate, either their physical discomfort or their requests for Korans, etc., etc.

SHAPIRO: There's an incredibly poignant moment in the book when Saifulislam calls the wife of one of the detainees.

GREENBERG: Yes. He and Leonard decide with this one detainee who had been there, whose wife had been pregnant last he had heard from her, and he wanted to know if his child had been born. And Leonard makes the decision that they are going to call the wife, and they do. And they talk to the wife and repeat to the detainee what the wife has said. And there's this moment where they say, it's a boy. If you think about that in the context of what was going on, it's one of those human moments that at least gave something to the detainees' sense of limbo and having been virtually removed from the world.

SHAPIRO: And it's so at odds with what Guantanamo has come to represent.

GREENBERG: Well, Guantanamo after these first 100 days became the Guantanamo that we know. And that's why I wanted to write this book because I think there's a sense that, you know, we can only do something this way. And the truth is, we could have done it another way. And not that it would have been perfect but the fact is, that there was a way to do this that was not full of abuse, that was not burying them in a dark hole with no sense of their futures, and we willingly and knowingly tossed away that chance.

SHAPIRO: Karen Greenberg is author of "The Least Worst Place: Guantanamo's First 100 Days." Great to talk to you.

GREENBERG: Thank you.

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