Dear President Bush
Welcome back to Texas! I think I speak for many, many, many fellow Texans when I say that, as I watched your helicopter lift off from the White House lawn on Jan. 20, I was overcome with joy that you would soon be returning to the Lone Star State. I look forward to seeing you refocusing your energies in Crawford with cycling and what-not. And don’t forget the cedar-clearing: That should keep you plenty busy!
At some point, I imagine you might want to make the drive south on I-35 to your old stomping grounds in Austin. When you do, you might be surprised at what you hear. You’ve lived in an echo chamber up there in D.C., surrounded by Dick Cheney, Karl Rove and Co., for the last eight years. A road trip might broaden your horizon as you reflect on the “moral clarity” you believe you demonstrated during your years in office.
Speaking of moral clarity, there’s someone I’d like you to meet: Dicky Grigg. Like you, he’s a good ol’ West Texas boy, but with a rather different take on your presidency. In a legal paper titled, “Guantanamo: It’s Not About Them-It’s About Us,” he argues that your administration brushed aside “long-standing principles of human rights recognized by civilized countries all over the world,” and in so doing enabled “our enemies to take the moral high ground from us.”
Maybe this will sound like the usual liberal talk to you. But Dicky, who practices law in Austin, doesn’t come across as your stereotypical human rights activist. He grew up in Lubbock and played defensive tackle for Texas Tech, back in the day, he likes to say, when “normal-sized humans” played college football. He works in an unpretentious building just off I-35, in an office cluttered with Red Raider paraphernalia and bookcases lined with old Copenhagen tins.
He’s about as unlikely a fellow as you can imagine to be spending his time defending terrorists; after all, he jokes, his Lubbock high school’s “Pashto Department was very weak.” But in 2005, he was attending a legal seminar and heard an appeal from the Center for Constitutional Rights to assist in the defense of the approximately 770 terrorism suspects housed at Guantanamo Bay, none of whom had legal counsel or had their cases reviewed by an impartial court.
If you meet Dicky, he’ll probably acknowledge that he joined what’s become known as the Guantanamo Bay Bar Association because he was constantly “belittling” your administration. “It was a way for me to put my money where my mouth was,” he says.
He quickly learned, though, that Guantanamo Bay was not “a partisan issue.” At a two-day seminar with other volunteers, he was surprised to learn that “a majority of the other lawyers were from big conservative business law firms.” From their disparate political backgrounds, they were united in their commitment to one thing: “It’s about the rule of law.”
After that brief orientation, Dicky faced a lot of hurdles before he could actually see the first of three clients over a three-year period. He’s spent, at last count, $40,000 of his own money for the privilege. (That’s cash: He’s contributed much more if you actually count his billable hours.)
First, the FBI had to conduct a background check. (Dicky claimed to his friends that the FBI was screening him because you were considering appointing him to the federal bench. That always got a big laugh.) Then he flew to Washington, D.C., to a secure facility where he was allowed to review information about his first client but not allowed to take notes.
Next, he flew on a 10-seater airplane out of Fort Lauderdale for the three-hour flight to Guantanamo-taking the long route to avoid Cuban air space. Once at the base, he and his interpreter had a military escort as their constant companion. Security was tight; everything was searched thoroughly.
Finally, Dicky met his first client, who, at that point, had been an American prisoner for three and a half years. In a stark white room the size of a one-car garage, the man was chained at the hands and shackled to the floor. Knowing it would be extremely difficult to earn the man’s trust, Dicky apologized to him. “I told him what the American government had done to him was wrong, but that a lot of Americans felt it was wrong. He said, ‘Would you write that down?’ and so I did.”
Dicky soon learned his client still viewed him, and probably all Americans, with distrust. Having contacted his client’s family, Dicky obtained a picture of his children: “nine little kids in the dirt in a Pakistan refugee camp.” His client showed no emotion and claimed he didn’t know the children in the picture. “Until we gained his trust, he wouldn’t acknowledge the picture,” Dicky recalls. “That left the deepest impression.”
He soon learned his client had been a regional commander in the Afghan army. Like 86 percent of the detainees, Dicky’s client had not actually been captured by American forces but had been turned over to the CIA for cash. Apparently, the CIA was handing out money like candy, actually promising informants in bounty fliers “wealth and power beyond your dreams.”
It turns out that some people will do anything for a buck. In Dicky’s client’s case, somebody motivated by an old grudge lied to the CIA about him-and was paid handsomely for it. “You could turn in your enemy and get paid for it,” Dicky says. (Apparently this happened a lot: The New York Times just ran a story about a man who was turned in to the CIA by a competitor who wanted his job. While the man sat in Guantanamo on phony charges, this so-called informant not only took his job but stole and drove his car for two years.)
Dicky says he also learned his client had been subjected to “all kinds of advanced interrogation techniques” but says he “showed no emotion about that.” The client broke down in tears just once: when he described to Dicky his shame, as a Muslim, when his American captors made him stand naked in front of a woman. “We don’t have any concept what that’s done to America’s moral authority in the Muslim world,” Dicky says.
Of course, by now you’ve probably heard that Vice President Cheney’s “enhanced interrogation techniques”-the sleep deprivation, the exposure to extreme cold, the forced standing for interminable periods-have been rejected by the American military as producing unreliable intelligence. Turns out water-boarding is a really bad idea, despite what your veep might have told you: one of the Pentagon’s own lawyers has called its use “torture.”
Dicky, and his fellow members of the Guantanamo Bay Bar Association, believe that Gitmo was created to avoid our federal courts, where such abuses would have been exposed-and condemned-years ago. That’s a view also held by a man Dicky calls “a real hero,” retired Navy Lt. Cmdr. Charles Swift, who lost his job after doing his job representing detainee Salim Ahmed Hamdan before the U.S. Supreme Court.
“Those military lawyers are the real heroes,” says Dicky, who downplays his own contribution to protecting the detainees. “They spoke out, knowing they would be fired.”
It didn’t take the Obama administration long to figure out that Guantanamo’s sole purpose appears to have been circumventing habeas corpus. On his first day in office, your successor signed directives ending “enhanced interrogation techniques” and vowing to close Guantanamo. (Of course, three U.S. Supreme Court decisions had already repudiated your administration’s claim that detainees had no right to hearings in federal court, but that didn’t seem to persuade you to close it.)
Soon, it appears, the Obama administration will relegate Guantanamo to history. As you work on your presidential library, you must be realizing that one of the first questions historians will have about your administration is why. Why did Guantanamo happen?
Historians could start with these two answers: “The whole purpose of Guantanamo is for torture,” Swift has said. “Why do this? Because you want to escape the rule of law. There is only one thing that you want to escape the rule of law to do, and that is to question people coercively-what some people call torture. Guantanamo and the military commissions are implements for breaking the law.”
But you have to appreciate Dicky Grigg’s blunt, if profane, West Texas-style explanation, too. He summed it up this way, when during one visit at Gitmo, his client emotionally wondered aloud why he had landed in such a terrible predicament.
“Because George Bush is an asshole,” Dicky replied.
It didn’t translate perfectly in Pashto, but close enough to communicate moral certainty, with clarity.