Inside The Wire, a book by Erik Saar & Viveca Novak

July 28, 2006

“It wasn’t what I expected.”

Sergeant Erik Saar, speaking to a superior officer shortly before the end of his tour of duty, said the above of his experience of interrogation Camp Delta at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.

It might also be what many of us would say of the book he wrote about it. This is not to say that it isn’t a remarkable and telling insight, nor that it doesn’t stand as a searing indictment of the facility and the way it is run. It’s more the targets the writer chooses to criticise, and the commendable care and restraint with which he does so.

There’s no doubt, from Saar’s experience, that prisoners at ‘Gitmo’ are badly mistreated and have been for years. But he is careful not to blow it out of proportion. He saw no torture there (although he wouldn’t be surprised at all if it was going on in cellblocks away from his assignments), and he makes no attempt to pretend otherwise. But he still found that the other methods used were needlessly humiliating, dirty, and ultimately de-humanising. Even without bringing torture into the equation, surely this is bad enough.

His disillusionment stems less from the techniques than from the nonexistent reasons the prisoners were there in the first place – he reckons that of the 600-odd prisoners held there, less than 100 have any useful information to impart at all, and only a few-dozen are Radicalist terrorists – and the treatment of the personnel garrisoned there.

This second point is one of the problems frequently missed, and it is probably the most eye-opening part of Inside The Wire. When he arrives at ‘Gitmo’, Saar discovers that morale is horribly low among the personnel, partly because of a lack of worthwhile results to all the months and months of interrogations, and worse yet, a terrible factionalism that has developed. Not so much between the personnel and the detainees – although there’s no doubt that there’s a lot of that as well – as between different groups of personnel.

Saar is a Military Intelligence officer, assigned to the base as a linguist to help with interrogation. The army has plenty of out-and-out soldiers on the base, for obvious reasons, as well as field interrogators. A number of intelligence agencies, including the CIA, the DIA, and the FBI, have interrogators of their own there. The army interrogators hate the linguists, leaping to the joint irrational conclusion that being able to speak Arabic must make them ‘al-Qaeda’ sympathisers, and hate the Intelligence agents, because the techniques they use are slower and much gentler with the prisoners than those used by the military. (A disgusting air of anti-Arab prejudice surrounds the soldiers as they bully the prisoners, all of whom are just assumed to be terrorists without ever getting a hearing.)

Some of the interrogators are themselves Muslims, which is why they get assigned to the base. They are treated as traitors by the detainees, and as terrorist sympathisers by the soldiers. Great tension even sets in between the Muslim group and the other interrogators.

The organisation of the base is shown to be a bureaucratic joke that would fit very neatly into an episode of Yes, Prime Minister, especially the high-handed mistreatment of staff who have completed their tours of duty; frequently they are barred from leaving, as suitable replacements prove to be unavailable (despite months of advance arrangements for a handover). Not only is it unfair, it is also handled with appalling irresponsibility; the leaver has to report back to his home base, and failure to do so has to be justified by a written report from the staff officers at Guantanamo. The staff officers seldom bother to send these reports, and it is the outgoing officer who gets punished for it.

All the incompetent organisation and mismanagement is cynically covered up by the people in charge. Saar describes bitterly how every time someone in authority from outside the army surveys the base, a fake interrogation is always performed to make it look like progress is always being made.

The overall policy of the US Government gets many moments of condemnation. That many of the detainees had been held without trial for over twelve months by the time Saar had arrived, and had only been interrogated the once, shortly after their arrival, highlights that the USA was well aware at a very early stage that it had arrested many innocent people. (An indictment of the truly brainless policy in Afghanistan of paying the Northern Alliance a reward for every al-Qaeda/Taliban suspect they handed over, without ‘checking the goods’ in advance.) Not only was it morally inexcusable that the detainees still had to wait for several years for their release (indeed the overwhelming majority of them are still waiting), it also causes many practical problems. For one, it complicated the job of sorting the very few prisoners who did have Salafist links from the ones who were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. For another, it increases still further the (largely valid) US image of an aggressive Empire that must be resisted at all costs; a number of the former prisoners have become involved in terror activities since being released.

As a whole, the book is not one that will make your blood race in outrage very often, so much as shake your head in depression at the Western tendency to encourage lunatics to run the asylum. This is a reflection on Saar’s tone of writing, which edges on exasperated without ever degenerating into whining or ranting. In fact it’s a very smooth read – Saar’s authorship style is refreshingly eloquent and insightful for an ex-military man – and the conclusions it offers in the epilogue are most intelligent (although hardly anything that people on this forum aren’t already well aware of).

It’s perhaps a book noteworthy for the nature of who wrote it and what he was prepared to make public, as much as for the standard of its writing. As I said before, it’s not qute as scathing or outraged, or remotely as graphic, as I’d been expecting, but in fact this is in the book’s favour as it makes it clear that it’s not trying to sensationalise, but is trying to be honest and authentic. As George Orwell once said when reviewing a book by Winston Churchill, “it reads like the work of a human being,” which is higher praise than you might think. (Certainly not the sort of praise you could give the likes of Ann Coulter or Michael Moore.)

Recommended.

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