This op-ed was written by GAP President Louis Clark. A version of it also appeared in Radio Left.
In 2002, while commiserating about government scandals, President George Bush reportedly joked about stringing whistleblowers up “by the thumbs. The same way we do with prisoners in Guantanamo!”
Ironically, a few years later Bush presided over military forces in Iraq that essentially tortured two U.S. citizens who had blown the whistle on their employer, who was illegally dealing arms and laundering money. The White House’s decision to suspend the legal right of individuals to challenge their captivity resulted in one whistleblower enduring 97 days of inhumane treatment at the hands of U.S. military personnel within an Iraqi military prison.
The whistleblower, Donald Vance, is a 29-year-old veteran. Until his ordeal began, he had supported the war in Iraq. In fact, he voted twice for Bush. His compatriot, Norman Ertel, is also a veteran. He too supported the Iraqi War effort.
While working in Iraq as employees of Shield Group Security, Vance and Ertel noticed that company officials were holding meetings with seemingly unsavory characters. They suspected that their bosses were engaged in illegal arms dealing and contacted the FBI with their concerns. They became unpaid FBI informants, sending reports about a variety of activities. They were told to phone the Bureau the next time that they suspected that a cache of arms was actually present at the worksite. Soon after, Vance and Ertel were illegally held by the company. The U.S. armed forces raided, ostensibly rescuing the men.
Vance and Ertel might have first thought their countrymen had rescued them. They were wrong. They were now held against their will and interrogated about what they had told the FBI. In fact, they have no idea why they were held because, with the suspension of one of the most precious and basic constitutional rights – the right to challenge one’s confinement – jailors do not have to explain or justify their actions.
For reasons that remain mysterious, the U.S. military failed to act on Vance’s and Ertel’s credible claims of innocence. Even long after the F.B.I. confirmed that they had acted in the best interests of their government and were indeed whistleblowers working with law enforcement officials, U.S. forces continued to hold, interrogate, isolate, humiliate and mistreat them.
During their ordeal, the two men, both U.S. citizens, were held illegally without notification of their families, who suspected that they were dead. Vance’s family futilely sought information from the U.S. Embassy and State Department. They frantically gathered cash in preparation for a potential ransom, while at the same time gathering information about how to send a body back to the United States.
Meanwhile, Vance took careful notes about his maltreatment, which he hid in his Bible. He spent long, agonizing nights in sometimes-frigid conditions trying to stay warm without the benefit of clothing or blankets. Both Vance and Ertel were denied food and water for extended periods. They were subjected to bright lights for hours on end. They had to endure blasts of heavy metal and country music.
Inexplicably, Ertel was released after a month. Vance suffered three times as long, for 97 days. Neither man was allowed legal counsel, nor were they able to examine the evidence against them. Because he was a U.S. citizen, Vance was eventually given a hearing, but not allowed to look at exhibits the hearing examiners supposedly reviewed in rendering the decision to continue the confinement.
Both men suffered psychologically during and after their ordeals, as did their families. All of us must wonder what has become of our democracy if such events can happen to citizens who have risked their lives to serve their country. Their ordeal reminds us of the Vietnam War, when a general declared that we had to bomb a village in order to save it. Now, in our current war, we have compromised the rule of law, squandered the good will of patriots, and sacrificed basic human and constitutional rights in the name of bringing democracy to parts of the world that are barren of such ideals.
It is not funny for our elected leaders to speculate about terrorizing whistleblowers that leak, espouse or expose inconvenient truths. These truth-tellers exemplify the motto of greatness, of being all they can be, despite the crippling blindness and moral deficiencies of their supposed leaders.