Selling Guantanamo: Exploring the Propaganda Surrounding America’s Most Notorious Military Prison

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When the Bush administration transported twenty prisoners to the east end of Guantanamo Bay – the military penal complex on a navy base in Cuba – it began one of the darkest chapters in American history.

More than half of these 166 prisoners of war – carefully deemed ‘dangerous and unlawful combatants’ by Washington – had not been charged for over 11 years. Many more were caught in legal limbo and political haywire, despite being cleared for release.

Our nation was fighting the so-called war on terror in Afghanistan and Iraq and these prisoners were evidence of our victory. And the American public was sold.

John Hickman, an associate professor of government, explores how the government manufactured the Guantanamo Bay lie in his new book, Selling Guantanamo: Exploring the Propaganda Surrounding America’s Most Notorious Military Prison.


"One of the reasons for Guantanamo was that it provided a virtual prisoner parade, evidence of a quick victory in Afghanistan so that the American public could be talked into going to war against Iraq.  As we see almost every day in the news, there was no victory in Afghanistan."

From initiation to President Obama’s failed commitment to deliver on election pledges to close the prison, the book makes an enticing argument that Washington used its prisoners as pawns in an orchestrated propaganda war.

His alternative explanation for the rationale artfully exposes the holes of the Guantanamo Bay narrative on three fronts. Guantanamo provided evidence of a quick military victory where the pawns of the game – the prisoners – were contained behind parts.

Secondly, the prisoners were ample substitutes for the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks. Thirdly, and most importantly, the prison was a signal that the U.S. intended to reconstruct international order with its nations as a global hegemony.

Treating prisoners as illegal combatants rather than prisoners of war as mandated under the Geneva Conventions was only the beginning of this massive propaganda campaign, Hickman writes. Critiquing statements made by Donald Rumsfeld, former president Bush, and other top level officials, Hickman emphasizes that the prison was not a stopgap, reasonable response to the exigencies of wartime.

Decisive action was what the public expected of leaders during the national security crisis. Aggressive posturing was what the public accepted and received as a substitute.

The book loses its edge when it dips into age-old historical comparisons; though often relevant to the Guantanamo critique, the casual digressions steer away from the power of Hickman’s critique. But his comparisons to three notorious military prisons – the internment of Chiricahua Apache tribe in Florida in the late 19th century, the internment of British fascists on the Isle of the Man in the 1940s, and the internment of Haitian “boat people” at Guantanamo in the 1980s – are very refreshing.

Distinguishing putative from actual purposes, the examples symbolically represent so-called security threats greater than their true form. That chapter and one hidden in the book’s appendix - Guantanamo in popular culture - are special treats for the reader.

But Hickman does not disappoint. He recognizes that war threatens to cultivate language not only as a description but a justification for war. He details prisoner abuses and the timeline leading up to the prison’s initiation and later efforts to keep its doors open. In this bill of goods, one thing is very clear: the goods – the prisoners - simply did not measure up to advertising.

For those looking for a holistic critique on the underpinnings of Guantanamo Bay, Hickman’s book is an incisive starting point. Its concluding remarks on President Barack Obama’s responses and the prison’s implications on our foreign policy may run thin, but for the rest of the book, the reader is sold.

Do not be deceived if Selling Guantanamo reads like a history. The prisoners at Guantanamo Bay are still starving for justice.

The Muslim Link connected with the author, John Hickman, for an exclusive interview. Hickman is an associate professor of government at Berry College in Mount Berry, Georgia.

What was your reasoning behind the title of your book, “Selling Guantanamo”? Why did the public ‘buy’ this bill of goods on the rationale for detaining ‘unlawful combatants’?

You are correct that the title reflects the fact that the American people were purposefully deceived about the Bush administration’s Guantanamo decision.  The public relations fraud succeeded because popular anxiety was deliberately heightened rather than calmed by the administration for many months after September 11, 2001.  Compare that with the rather greater fortitude we displayed when facing the threat of nuclear annihilation during the Cold War!

So, do you believe the public was sold a version of the so-called wars on terror in Iraq and Afghanistan? What is Guantanamo’s place in this picture? Did the prison create a misguided policy disaster or cement one already in place?

The War on Terror elicited a lot of skepticism because it was supposed to be a struggle against a form of political violence rather than against a specific enemy.  In practice it became a collection of counterinsurgencies waged from North Africa to Southeast Asia against al-Qaeda and entities that could be deemed to be al-Qaeda affiliates.  Of course all of the rationales for the War in Iraq were exposed as nonsense during the occupation.

I argue that one of the reasons for Guantanamo was that it provided a virtual prisoner parade, evidence of a quick victory in Afghanistan so that the American public could be talked into going to war against Iraq.  In fact, as we see almost every day in the news, there was no victory in Afghanistan.  

You present three alternative theories in your book. What holes in the growing body of literature on Guantanamo’s failures did you hope to fill with your book?

In my research I discovered that no one had offered a comprehensive critique of all three of the justifications that had been offered by the Bush administration and are still being repeated.  What I found was that the prisoners transferred to Guantanamo were not terrorist supermen or “the worst of the worst.”  They were not important subjects for interrogation by torture and Guantanamo is not a place where interrogation by torture was especially effective.  Very few of the prisoners was even remotely worth prosecuting for war crimes.  They come up with anyone conceivably worth prosecuting, in 2003 the Bush administration had to move prisoners held in CIA black sites to Guantanamo.

So, what’s next? Do you believe the Obama administration will close the prison? Or could the prison and it’s underlying goals simply undergo cosmetic changes?

With the exception of the one major achievement of his presidency – health care reform – President Obama seems ever ready to give into Republican intransigence.  I suspect he hopes that the 166 prisoners held there are just forgotten.   He probably hopes his campaign promise to close the prison camp is forgotten.  

But there may be some lasting  implications of the prison on our foreign policy? Do you believe the prison will become precedent for decision-making by future lawmakers or an unfortunate exception? Given our track record, will there be another Guantanamo?

This is not the first time that a special population of prisoners has been imprisoned on an island prison to stage a spectacle of punishment.  What distinguishes it from other cases is that it has dragged on for more than a decade and it now has a supportive policy constituency.  Republican politicians are still deriving benefits from the deception.  This political pathology could happen again in America and elsewhere.   That’s part of the reason I wrote my book.

What was the mainstream media’s biggest flaw in covering the Guantanamo narrative?

Reporters and editors permitted their professional ambition, intellectual laziness and fear of public opinion to stop them from performing their crucial function in a liberal democracy.  Those who owned the news sources rewarded them for that failure. 

Are some media outlets more complicit than others in selling Guantanamo? What media outlets do you follow? What media outlets do you consider propaganda?

Their failure was general.  The problem with the broadcast news sources, Fox News in particular, just seems so much more obvious.  That said, there are news sources providing quality news coverage on many other foreign policy issues.  The New York Times and Guardian are still among the best print news sources.  The Los Angeles Times is good.  Foreign Policy magazine makes its material interesting. Unfortunately where news coverage of the Middle East on National Public Radio was once quite good, something is being lost.

Some people say there is evidence the government has prepared large camp-like facilities designed to detained thousands of people in case of an internment. Some American Muslims believe in the coming years American Muslim might be detained like the Japanese Americans. Is this a far fetched conspiracy theory, or is it possible?

That someone in the Bush administration contemplated doing something so horrible – a concentration camp of hostages - is possible, but I have trouble believing that such a proposal would have gotten very far.  At the time, senior decision-makers could derive political advantage from having hundreds of war captives to display but not several million innocents interned behind barbed wire.

On another note, it seems  like dissenting voices like yours are mostly ignored or dismissed by the general public. Why do you think that is the case? Among which sectors of the American public do you find the most positive response? The most negative response?

Much of the public is simply too distracted by trash popular culture and too politically disempowered to decide to ignore or dismiss dissent.  In the absence of a crisis, the audience for civil liberty and foreign policy issues is normally a minority of that general public.  So far the people most interested in my book are civil liberties and peace activists, American Muslims, and academics who teach International Relations, Middle East Studies, American Studies, and Native American Studies.  I am pleased with that kind of diversity.

Hickman’s book, Selling Propaganda: Exploding the Propaganda Surrounding America’s Most Notorious Military Prison, is available on Amazon.