Appetite for Authoritarianism Spawns an American Gulag


Last week, the United States confirmed it is holding children under the age of 16 at Camp Delta at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. In keeping with the other shadowy facts about this camp, it is not clear how large the children’s wing at Camp Delta has become. Before the Marine guards launch a Toys for Terrorist Tots campaign, it is time to get some answers about our government’s plans for the growing number of detainees, including children, held in Cuba.

The camp’s children are among 664 detainees from 42 countries. Some were captured in Afghanistan; others were rounded up elsewhere. Many have been held without trial for more than two years.

The Bush administration has argued that these detainees are not “people” under the Constitution but, rather, legal nonentities it may hold, release or even execute at its sole discretion. Recent reports indicate that the Justice Department has no intention of trying the vast majority of these prisoners. Rather, estimates on possible tribunal trials rarely exceed two dozen. The administration has simply decided to hold hundreds of people without trial or judicial review at the president’s whim. There is a term for that type of prison: gulag.


Although certainly tiny compared with Chinese or Soviet models, the facility operated by the U.S. can no longer be defined as a prison or even a military camp. It is an American gulag, holding hundreds of prisoners without trial or access to the courts. In fairness to the Soviets, it must be noted that at least their prisoners got sham trials. This makes Camp Delta an even more extreme variation on the gulag theme.

Camp Delta was originally justified as a holding area for alleged war criminals from the Afghanistan conflict. The administration now has broadened its use to include anyone whom it defines as a terrorist suspect or a person suspected of aiding or abetting terrorists. Of course, suspicion in the Bush administration is as good as a conviction because the vast majority will never be submitted to a tribunal, let alone a legitimate court of law.

Administration officials like Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft appear to covet the authority to hold individuals indefinitely. Ashcroft recently announced that legal immigrants would be held indefinitely based on a simple declaration that such confinement served national security. As for citizens, Ashcroft has previously claimed that he has the unilateral authority to declare U.S. citizens to be “enemy combatants” and to strip them of all constitutional rights -- including access to the courts or counsel. Alternatively, Ashcroft is seeking new powers in Congress giving him the ability to strip people of citizenship, subjecting them to deportation or indefinite incarceration.

Camp Delta, the enemy combatant policy and the new alien policy are all examples of a certain appetite in the administration for the trappings of authoritarian power. While the number of affected individuals remains relatively small, the taste for such unilateral power is clearly growing into a craving.

It is tempting to dismiss these measures as mere indulgences on the edges of society -- akin to a frolic or fringe benefit for the autocratically inclined. Yet the construction of facilities like Camp Delta require the destruction of something irreplaceable in a nation of laws.

Ironically, Americans were appalled when Iraqi citizens looted their own national museum. Many asked how a people could destroy their own cultural treasures and history. Yet such looting is openly occurring in this country. As a relatively young nation, we have few gilded treasures like those from the Mesopotamian period. In fact, our greatest treasures tend to be documents, like the Bill of Rights, that define us as a nation. It is that legacy that is being looted and destroyed through the creation of places like Camp Delta.

Since his arrival, Ashcroft has rushed through the U.S. legal system with the same rampaging rage as a Baghdad looter, thoughtlessly shattering artifacts in looking for things of instant value. What remains are pieces of Americana, like the presumption of innocence and due process, that lay in shards after only a two-year period.

What is tragic is that, like the Iraq Museum looting, none of this was necessary or inevitable. If there was evidence that these detainees were terrorists or war criminals, they could have been handled in the very legal system that they sought to destroy. Instead, it is American hands that are pulling down that system and constructing a gulag in a new American image. Meanwhile, Congress remains silent.

Just as the military watched as the Iraq Museum was plundered, Congress has adopted a pedestrian role concerning the this administration’s excesses. The only preservation that appears to motivate our representatives is self-preservation.

Jonathan Turley is a law professor at George Washington Law School.