The Guantanamo Camps: a Mistake Repeated

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from the debate over the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba are
the lessons of this country’s only previous attempt to imprison
foreign suspected subversives, captured overseas, in special camps
beyond the reach of the courts. Then, as now, casting aside legal
principles led to injustices while weakening support for the United
States abroad. As the Supreme Court joins the dispute, recalling
the mistakes of the past provides insight into the present.

time, the targets were German immigrants taken from Latin America.
During World War II, the U.S. government, fearing Nazi conspiracies,
seized more than 4,000 Germans living in 15 countries below the
Rio Grande and interned them in Texas. Long forgotten, the internment
of these men and women during a genuine national security crisis
displayed an indifference to basic American values that proved ineffective
and was ultimately ended by federal courts – for reasons still
relevant today.

the prisoners held at Camp Delta in Guantanamo, the internees in
Texas had no lawyers, no trials and no appeals. The FBI reported
after the war that it had evidence of espionage against only eight
of the 4,058 German internees. Camp commanders expecting to guard
hardened saboteurs found they were holding ordinary farmers, old
men and whole families. About one internee in ten was a member of
the Nazi Party, and it made sense to keep Nazis under surveillance.

like bewildered young Americans hunting the Taliban in Afghanistan,
U.S. officials unfamiliar with Latin America had a hard time figuring
out who was really a threat. They knowingly locked up 81 Jewish
refugees, some of whom had survived German concentration camps.
The only evidence against a Jewish butcher from Panama was his "many
German customers."

did a security program net so many of the wrong people? As Supreme
Court justices listen to arguments over Guantanamo, they will hear
echoes of the earlier program. Several plaintiffs from Afghanistan
claim they were innocents turned in by bounty hunters. During World
War II, intelligence agents in Latin America paid $50 to anyone
who would denounce a Nazi. Handing out cash for denunciations, then
and now, draws unscrupulous volunteers.

embassies took all comers," recalled former Justice Department
official Raymond W. Ickes, who traveled in 1943 to 18 Latin American
countries to investigate the operation. Since most U.S. intelligence
agents spoke neither Spanish nor German, Ickes said, "the local
people could get away with almost anything." As a result, he
insisted, most of the internees had "no more business being
in detention in the United States than I had."

deficiencies in investigative practice are again at work in Afghanistan,
where a U.S. ally, Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum of the Northern Alliance,
turned over young men he called "Taliban" for cash payments,
and American agents could not evaluate his claims.

Camp Delta, built in a Caribbean limbo, the Texas camps were deliberately
placed outside the legal system through a clever trick. When Germans
from Latin America arrived on U.S. soil, an immigration officer
asked for their visas. Flabbergasted, the typical prisoner blurted,
"What visa? I was kidnapped!" and was duly informed that,
having entered the United States illegally, he was subject to detention.
Indefinitely. That kind of ploy opens any incarceration program
to legal challenge.

from Latin American countries in the 1940s were dismissed like international
protests over Guantanamo today. When post-war investigations showed
most internees to be harmless, federal judges intervened to order
their release. District Court Judge John C. Knox expressed outrage
in 1947: "That a government can go into another country and
transport a man against his will thousands of miles across the sea
. . . is repulsive," he said. "If this situation were
to become generally known, it would be subject to the severest criticism."

the war against terrorism is unlikely to have a discernible end,
we cannot afford to wait until it is over to assess the Guantanamo
episode. Surely there are dangerous men held there, especially among
those seized in battle. But without trials to determine their individual
guilt, or prisoner of war status for combatants, the Guantanamo
scheme will suffer from the same deficiencies of injustice and ineffectiveness
that doomed the World War II operation.

sorry record of that first Guantanamo-style venture shows that violating
constitutional principles in the name of wartime necessity is both
unfair and impractical. It diverts attention to the wrong targets,
wastes resources, injures America’s international standing by alienating
allies, harms innocents and damages democratic government.

and their Supreme Court should see this forgotten precedent as a
cautionary tale.

17, 2004

Paul Friedman [send him mail]
teaches history at Florida State University. He is the author of
a book on the forgotten internment camps, Nazis
and Good Neighbors
(2003) and a writer for the History
News Service


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