Saturday, June 04, 2005

Beacon No. 43: A Camera in Every Cell


In a Newsday article headlined "Pictures Could Fix a Thousand Problems," James P. Pinkerton writes about stopping the stream of Gitmo-prisoner-abuse stories permanently.

After noting that Guantánamo abuses are nothing on the scale of, say, the Soviet gulag archipelago—this in response to Amnesty's over-the-top "gulag" language—Pinkerton says the U.S. needs a graceful way out of a persistent public diplomacy crisis. His solution:

... Since perspective is exactly what's lacking, the U.S. should provide it—literally. How? By putting cameras in each and every prison cell, so that the condition of each prisoner can be observed 24/7 by the world. After all, if we are preaching "transparency" as part of our democratizing plan for the world, why don't we practice it?

Cameras for security purposes have changed the world for the better. Millions of video monitors, in public places and private spaces, have helped identify thousands of criminals and deterred countless more crimes. Many parents use cameras in their own homes to keep track of their children and their children's caregivers. To put it simply, surveillance equipment has made the world safer.

In addition, cameras can protect officialdom against false accusations. Right now, any Gitmo prisoner can say just about anything about his American captors, and chances are that millions around the world will believe him. The best way to counter the charge that the U.S. is running a "Gitmo Archipelago" is to show that the alleged abuses aren't occurring. And they wouldn't be, if cameras were always whirring.

So who would watch all those camera feeds? That's the beauty of Internet Webcams: Anybody with a computer can watch.

Pinkerton's proposal raises serious but solvable 8th Amendment and Geneva Convention problems, and he addresses them in part:

But what about the privacy of prisoners? There are lots of possible answers. The U.S. could make the video feed available to each prisoner's home government, or perhaps to Muslim religious leaders, not to mention outfits such as Amnesty and the Red Cross.

The U.S. would have to rein in its interrogation methods, which is a good thing in light of this morning's newspaper stories on the latest Pentagon explanations of Qur'an abuse at Guantánamo. Reading them finally made me lose my patience with officialdom. Here's how the Times covered the story:

U.S. Southern Command, responsible for the prison for foreign terrorism suspects at the U.S. naval base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, described five cases of "mishandling'' of a Koran by U.S. personnel confirmed by a newly completed military inquiry, officials said in a statement.

In the incident involving urine, which took place this past March, Southern Command said a guard left his observation post, went outside and urinated near an air vent, and "the wind blew his urine through the vent'' and into a cell block.

It said a detainee told guards the urine "splashed on him and his Koran.'' The statement said the detainee was given a new prison uniform and Koran, and that the guard was reprimanded and given duty in which he had no contact with prisoners. Army Capt. John Adams, a spokesman at Guantánamo, said the inquiry deemed the incident "accidental.''

Frequent readers of Beacon know that I use even-handed, respectful language when discussing controversial ideas and people; I cite public figures by their full name or title-and-surname ("Donald Rumsfeld," "Secretary Rice") and shy away from sarcasm, with the exception of naming an award for General William G. Boykin a few months back. I try to assume that people are acting in good faith even if I disagree with them.

But on reading the Times account, I reached the end of my patience. This story reeks of Defense doing flips and twists to explain how urine came into contact with a Qur'an. We can't deny the urine part anymore, but how can we make it look innocent, incidental, almost like a non-urination?

Pity the guys tasked to come up with this particular account; hopefully, after enough caramel frappuccinos, they egged each other on until finally one said: I've got it! We could say someone was peeing near an air vent, and there was a sudden typhoon!

If this account is false, it's so absurd that someone should be demoted for idiocy.

But suppose it's all true? The guards are trained hit a target with their sidearm at 25 meters on the range, but appear to be having trouble in the latrine at considerably shorter distance.

Could the Pentagon please detail female prison guards to Guantánamo? At least their urine is less likely to go sailing around the Caribbean like some airborne goddamned Flying Dutchman.

Back to Pinkerton's modest proposal which builds, knowingly or not, on author and futurist David Brin's ideas about a Transparent Society. Brin envisions a world where everyone is observed most of the time. This world is actually imaginable today as camera prices drop and Web hookups become ubiquitous.

I wrote to David Brin about Pinkerton's Gitmo proposal, and here is part of his reply:

I have long argued that we need to consider the battlefield. On a tactical battlefield, we benefit by controlling information flow, blinding enemies and even partially blinding elements of our own side.

On the grand, societal, and strategic battlefields—of civilizations and decades—our civilization is built to benefit at nearly all times by maximizing information flows. Maximum knowledge enables the players in our four "accountability arenas" (science, markets, courts and democracy) to make best-valid decisions, discover errors, fabricate solutions and revise assumptions with a rapidity that no other culture could emulate.


Which brings us to the suggestion of cams operating at all times in Guantánamo.


Let me make clear that when I first heard of the Guantánamo incarcerations, I thought "How clever," assuming that the purpose was tactical and short-term and that it would be run by professionals. Now, alas, those tactical benefits will be forever lost, since this will have to be outlawed.

In the short term, the camera suggestion would of course ease the abuse and reassure the world THAT is has been eased. Alas, it would also eliminate all conceivable usefulness of Guantánamo. The inmates might as well be sent to Egypt. (Morally problematic, but practical by realpolitik.)

An intermediate step would be to place cameras in all cells and LIMIT the audience. Pick a dozen moderate-minded and relatively trusted individuals around the world to watch the scenes and ensure nothing heinous happens. But while the Muslim world might somewhat trust these persons (e.g. a minister in Indonesia) they would also be prison officials who are used to the general rough and tumble of prison life, and they would not blow the whistle on the normal scuffling and feces-throwing that would shock regular folks.

I used to think David Brin's transparent-society proposals were a bit unlikely, and told him so in my initial e-mail; but now, a radical change in the U.S. approach to detainees may be what's needed, and more ideas like James Pinkerton's are welcome.

But I'm not holding my breath about tuning in to, say, anytime soon. As one colleague who's knowledgeable about DoD policymaking said, "Oh, the Secretary will just love that."

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