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William Fisher: Gitmo's Forgotten Soldier

Gitmo's Forgotten Soldier

By William Fisher

Many people will remember Janice Karpinsky, the Army Reserve Brigadier General who was reprimanded and demoted for failing to stop the prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

But few will remember Brigadier General Rick Baccus, who was sacked as commander of the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba (GITMO), for coddling detainees.

Under Gen. Baccus's watch, detainees were granted such privileges as distributing copies of the Koran, providing prisoners with "rights cards," special meals, adjusting meal times for Ramadan and other Muslim holidays, and disciplining prison guards for screaming at inmates. Inmates were told they need only give their name, rank and number.

Many of these are the same practices the Pentagon now proudly hails as examples of its humane treatment of detainees.

Shortly after he was sacked, after only seven months in command, Gen. Baccus told the Guardian newspaper: "I was mislabeled as someone who coddled detainees. In fact, what we were doing was our mission professionally." After his dismissal, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld put all of GITMO, including military police, under the control of military intelligence.

Pentagon officials insist that, in contrast to the CIA, military intelligence officers continued to operate under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, and the Geneva Conventions.

Gen. Baccus, who wears the Army Ranger and Special Forces tabs and the master parachutist and pathfinder badges, said he faced constant tension from military interrogators trying to extract information from inmates.

"There is a dynamic tension that exists in that kind of situation," Gen. Baccus said. "Often times, those kind of approaches led to questions as to why am I doing that. Am I trying to coddle the detainees? Am I trying to bend to their desires?" he said.

The Pentagon's frustration with Gen. Baccus is officially denied. It claims he was relieved of his duties as part of a general reorganization of the camp, which called for a commander of higher rank.

Gen. Baccus insists he did his job honorably. "In no way did I ever interfere in interrogations, but also at that time the interrogations never forced anyone to be treated inhumanely, certainly not when I was there." In retrospect, says Reed Brody, Director of International Programs for Human Rights Watch, "The firing of Gen. Baccus looks like an important step in the downward spiral that led to the widespread abuse of detainees at Guantanamo and elsewhere." He told IPS, "Under Gen. Miller, detention and interrogation functions were brought together for the first time, creating a model in which guards could 'soften up' prisoners for interrogation."

Baccus, 53, was also relieved of his duties with the Rhode Island National Guard. Its commander, Maj. Gen. Reginald Centracchio, told The Associated Press he relieved Baccus for various reasons that "culminated in my losing trust and confidence in him."

But Lt. Col. Bill Costello, spokesman for the U.S. Southern Command in Miami, Fla., which oversees Guantanamo, said Baccus' departure was related to the merging of operations at the Naval base. He said Baccus did a good job overseeing the safety and security of detainees.

Although the detainees at Guantanamo were not given the protections of the Geneva Convention, Gen. Baccus says he took steps to ensure they were not subjected to abuse. He said there were fewer than 10 instances of abuse during his seven months in command.

The Pentagon was reportedly particularly upset by the speech Gen. Baccus made to incoming prisoners via GITMO'S public address system:

"Peace Be With You", he began. "I will continue to address you when I have information that you need to know. I know you are aware that not all of those who came to this camp are still in this camp. Some are being cared for at our hospital. Others are in jails elsewhere. Each of your cases is different.

"As we learn the truth about each of you, we are better able to address our concerns with each of you, and the United States government can resolve your status. Whether you are here at this camp, or elsewhere, as long as I am responsible for you, be assured that you will be treated humanely, and in accordance with the reputation of the United States as a nation of laws. I also expect you to respect the camp rules. Your cooperation encourages me to consider improvements in the camp. My priority continues to be the safety of the guards and your safety. The new detention facility will be ready in about two weeks, God willing. We will inform you about your move to the new and better facility as we near the completion. I continue to urge you to be patient. I will inform you of any developments as we learn. May God be with you."

"All the service members here recognize the fact that they need to treat the detainees humanely," Gen. Baccus said. "Any time anyone lays down their arms, our culture has been to treat them as noncombatant and humanely." Early on in the war in Afghanistan, the Pentagon was apparently reluctant to use the harsher interrogation techniques authorized for the CIA. But Gen. Baccus's successor at the camp was Major General Geoffrey Miller. Miller instituted a "72-point matrix for stress and duress", which the Washington Post said set out a guide for the levels of force that could be applied to detainees.

These included hooding or keeping prisoners naked for more than 30 days, threatening by dogs, shackling detainees in positions designed to cause pain, and extreme temperatures.

General Miller was later put in charge of the US military's prisons in Iraq. His recommendations for Abu Ghraib -- merging the functions of prison guard and interrogator as he did at Guantanamo -- were cited in the Pentagon's internal report on the Iraqi prison.

Those reports confirmed that the abuse at Abu Ghraib was systematic, part of a policy instituted at U.S. military detention centers from Guantanamo and Afghanistan to Iraq, and not restricted to low-ranking soldiers.


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