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Earlier this month three inmates at the Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, prison camp committed suicide. For anyone wondering why, Joseph Margulies’ new book, Guantánamo and the Abuse of Presidential Power, is a good place to start. Relying largely on published news reports, Margulies traces the evolution of Guantánamo as an interrogation and detention center deliberately placed beyond the law. The landscape depicted by Margulies is not at all the orderly prison camp shown to diplomatic visitors but an anti-utopia — a bizarre and frightening world designed to psychologically manipulate its inhabitants and keep them in a constant state of anxiety and despair. Margulies was a lead counsel in Rasul v. Bush, the 2004 case in which the Supreme Court decided 6-3 that prisoners at Guantánamo Bay could challenge their detentions in federal court. While his book contains few new reports from the base, it weaves together accounts from journalists and human rights groups into a coherent narrative. One of Margulies’ accomplishments is simply gathering all that is known about Gitmo and the administration’s detention policies into one concise volume. More significantly, Margulies crafts a compelling case that the Bush administration’s unbounded vision of executive authority — a vision embodied at Guantánamo Bay — has alienated the United States from its allies, given the Muslim world a “rallying cry for terror,” and set the stage for the physical and psychological abuse of prisoners, many of them innocent. To be sure, Margulies is not the first to document or critique the Bush administration’s expansive view of presidential power. His book stands out, however, as one of the most thorough and sophisticated examinations to date. The result is a powerful, if at times pedantic, condemnation of the Bush administration’s detention policies in the war on terror. Heavy on Supreme Court case law, along with concrete details of life “inside the wire,” it is a book likely to resonate with attorneys and other readers particularly interested in the legal underpinnings of the war on terror. Margulies layers his description of Guantánamo Bay with an analysis of its legal architecture, starting with a Justice Department memo concluding that federal courts would not have jurisdiction to hear claims of foreign nationals held at Guantánamo Bay. He turns next to a January 2002 memo arguing that the Geneva Conventions should not apply to prisoners captured in the war on terror. Finally, he reviews the now-infamous torture memo of August 2002, which contends that, to constitute torture, “physical pain must be equivalent to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death.” Margulies applies the administration’s legal position on torture to the treatment of 36 U.S. airmen captured by North Korea in the Korean War. The men were isolated for months with no news of the outside world. They were subjected to constant surveillance and interrogated for periods of up to 20 hours. They were kept awake for days on end and forced to stand or sit in uncomfortable positions for hours. Within a year the men had falsely confessed to participating in a conspiracy to bomb civilian targets with biological weapons. A military inquiry found the false confessions to be blameless “on the grounds that it was the result of mental torture of such severity and such compelling nature as to constitute an excuse for his acts.” Margulies notes that none of the tactics used against the downed airmen would constitute torture as the Bush administration has defined the term. Indeed, many of the techniques — isolation, solitary confinement, relentless interrogation, sleep deprivation, stress positions — have been used at Gitmo. Given that Margulies has spent the past four years locked in contentious litigation with the Bush administration, his closing reflections are rather charitable. He likens the Pentagon, the Justice Department, and White House officials involved in crafting the administration’s detention policies to pilots experiencing a phenomenon known as “spatial disorientation.” “During certain maneuvers, pilots may become so disoriented that they cannot trust their senses,” Margulies explains. “Every instinct in their body will tell them that their life depends on taking a certain action. And yet, their instincts during these periods are wrong, and — tragically — what they believe to be their only safe option becomes precisely what kills them.” Margulies argues that, like these pilots, administration officials blinded by wartime hysteria have chosen their misguided course “with grim, deadly determination, fully convinced of the rightness of their actions.” He reserves special judgment for the lawyers who applied their skills to meet these leaders’ policy objectives and evade judicial review, allowing them to create a Guantánamo. “They approached their task bent on diminishing rather than enhancing the legal protection of prisoners seized during armed conflict,” Margulies writes. “It is a sad day when competent lawyers who are asked to play this role agree to do so. If the rule of law is to be silenced during war, lawyers should not be the ones who silence it.”
Vanessa Blum is a staff writer for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel . She previously covered Guantánamo Bay as a reporter for Legal Times .

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