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Do They Even Know It's Christmas (on Guantanamo)?


Thursday, Dec. 20, 2007

Just in time for Christmas (only five shopping days left …), here's a handy list of the year's crop of war-on-terror-related books.

They're an interesting mix, including two books from former Bush Administration officials, one from a former Guantanamo detainee, and another from a former military interrogator; one put together using military, FBI and Justice Department documents that the ACLU obtained via Freedom of Information Act requests, and another based on thousands of pages of documents from hearings held at Guantanamo; one focusing on abuses at Abu Ghraib, and another looking at the broader problem of torture as carried out by democratic governments.

There's lots that's naughty, and not much that's nice:

At the Center of the Storm: My Years at the CIA, by George Tenet. A self-serving memoir by former CIA head George "Slam Dunk" Tenet. Even recognizing that memoirs as a genre tend to be charitable in their portrayal of the memoirists' faults, the fingerpointing, excuses, and justifications that fill this book are painful.

Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA, by Tim Weiner. Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Tim Weiner has written a masterful account of the CIA's first 60 years. His conclusion: The CIA isn't evil, as some see it. Actually, it's worse: incompetent. While the post-9/11 world makes up only small fraction of the book's 516 pages, to appreciate the CIA's current activities, it helps to understand the CIA as an institution. Weiner's book explains how the CIA was started, what forces drive it, and where it has failed. (It has less to say about the agency's successes). The book recently won the National Book Award for nonfiction.

The Terror Presidency: Law and Judgment Inside the Bush Administration, by Jack L. Goldsmith. Goldsmith, a former head of the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel, spent nine months in 2003-2004 giving legal advice to an Administration that believes in executive discretion, not legal constraints. To his credit, Goldsmith refused to hand out the get-out-of-jail-free cards that his colleagues were seeking. But he's no civil libertarian, as this book makes clear: He seems far more passionate about the separation of powers than about preventing torture.

The Guantanamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America's Illegal Prison, by Andy Worthington. An admirable book. Worthington plowed through thousands of pages of records about detainees at Guantanamo, including all of the unclassified material that the military has released, to paint a portrait of the hundreds of detainees who've been held at Guantanamo.

Poems from Guantánamo: The Detainees Speak, edited by Marc Falkoff. The poetry to pair with Andy Worthington's prose.

Five Years of My Life: A Report from Guantanamo (Fünf Jahre Meines Lebens: ein Bericht aus Guantanamo), by Murat Kurnaz. The latest Guantanamo memoir (I count at least 8 of them, in languages ranging from Pashto to Arabic to French). Former Guantanamo prisoner Murat Kurnaz made a big splash in Germany with his account of the five years that he spent behind bars in Cuba. It's not yet available in English, so if you're like me and you don't read German, then buy Moazzam Begg's "Enemy Combatant" instead (published in 2006).

Administration of Torture: A Documentary Record from Washington to Abu Ghraib and Beyond, by Jameel Jaffer and Amrit Singh. A damning collection of documents -- from White House memoranda to FBI reports -- together with an essay by ACLU lawyers Jaffer and Singh that pieces the documents together, explaining how the Bush administration chose to employ torture against detainees in Guantanamo, Afghanistan, and Iraq.

Torture and Democracy, by Darius Rejali. We tend to associate torture with dictatorship not democracy (Saddam's Abu Ghraib, not ours), but Professor Rejali's extraordinarily well-researched book suggests that we're wrong.

Fear Up Harsh: An Army Interrogator's Dark Journey Through Iraq, by Tony Lagouranis. A former army interrogator at Abu Ghraib, Lagouranis describes how he and his fellow interrogators brutalized hundreds of prisoners. A compelling first-person account.

Monstering: Inside America's Policy of Secret Interrogations and Torture in the Terror War, by Tara McKelvey. From a sad interview with notorious Private Lynndie England to sadder interviews with Iraqi women prisoners, McKelvey's book gives a detailed account of how soldiers at Abu Graib abused detainees. Sex, drugs, rock and roll, and sadism.

Joanne Mariner is a human rights attorney. Her previous columns on the detainee cases and the "war on terrorism" are available in FindLaw's archive.

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