US Embarrasses Self Again on Symbolism of Newest Floating Prison

The USS San Antonio entering New York Harbor during Fleet Week, 2006. When I first saw this photo, I thought that the image created the illusion that the ship was holding the Statue of Liberty, but it turns out that is part of the ship's structure and not Liberty's torch that we see. I still can't quite shake that metaphor, however.

The USS San Antonio entering New York Harbor during Fleet Week, 2006. When I first saw this photo, I thought that the image created the illusion that the ship was holding the Statue of Liberty, but it turns out that is part of the ship’s structure and not Liberty’s torch that we see. I still can’t quite shake that metaphor, however.

I fought what seemed to be a one-person battle over what appeared to me to be efforts by the United States to rehabilitate the image of the USS Bataan. In 2010, I pointed out the depravity of using a ship that once was a floating torture chamber as a hospital ship during Katrina and then after the earthquake in Haiti. And then I completely went ballistic when the Bataan Rehabilitation March came even closer to home with the disgusting spectacle of the torture ship being used to stage a college basketball game. At least Mother Nature won that particular round, as the game had to be cancelled at halftime when the surface of the court became unplayable due to moisture as the ship cooled in evening air.

The whole concept of the floating “interrogation” ship is being used again by the US and the naturally arising question is that if no less than Charlie Savage is being used on the preemptive “nothing to see here, move along” gov-splaining of the use of the ship is needed, is the US reverting to the torture practices that were carried out on the Bataan? But this time, instead of the USS Bataan, the interrogation of Abu Anas al-Libi is being carried out on the USS San Antonio. The San Antonio can be considered the poster child for all that is wrong with military procurement systems today:

Five years ago, the USS San Antonio (the first LPD 17 class ship) entered service. Or at least tried to. The builders had done a very shoddy job, and it took the better part of a year to get the ship in shape.


Although the San Antonio did get into service, it was then brought in for more inspections and sea trials, and failed miserably. It cost $36 million and three months to get everything fixed. The workmanship and quality control was so poor that it’s believed that the San Antonio will always be a flawed ship and will end up being retired early.

Just as the San Antonio was “commissioned” and then towed back for repairs because it couldn’t move on its own, the “interrogation” that is currently underway for al-Libi is a false start and a “clean team” will have to be brought in for any interrogations that will be used should al-Libi ever be brought to trial. From the gov-splanation:

Q. What will happen next?

A. If the Obama administration follows the model it set in 2011 in the case of a Somali man, Ahmed Abdulkadir Warsame, after the intelligence interrogation is finished, it will give Mr. Ruqai a break of several days, allow the Red Cross to visit him and send in a “clean team” of fresh F.B.I. interrogators who have not been briefed on what he said to the interrogation group. The new team will read him a Miranda warning, including whether he waives his right to be questioned with a lawyer present, then ask him a new round of questions intended to gather evidence that could more clearly be used against him in court.

And just why is the stupid ploy of a prison ship being used again?

Q.Why did the United States put him on a ship?

A. The Obama administration lacks a clear place to house newly captured Qaeda detainees for intelligence interrogations. It still wants to close the prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba; though Congress has blocked it from doing so, the administration has held the line at adding any new detainees there. For a time, the United States brought some detainees to the prison at Bagram Air Base, in Afghanistan, but it has now largely transferred that facility to the control of the Afghan government, which does not want to deal with detainees from elsewhere. Were Mr. Ruqai to be brought to a military base on land somewhere, it could raise legal issues with the host government, and were he to be brought onto United States soil, he could arguably have an immediate right to a lawyer. Holding him — and possibly transporting him — on an American vessel in international waters avoids potential diplomatic and legal headaches.

Ooops. What was that about “could raise legal issues”?

Q.Does the interrogation raise any legal issues?

A. Possibly.

Savage goes to great lengths to claim that Obama has ended the “interrogation policies”, or torture, from the Bush administration and that all interrogation will be under the guidelines of the Army Field Manual, but as Jeff Kaye has pointed out repeatedly, Appendix M of the Army Field Manual still allows practices that are indeed torture that has been used in both Afghanistan and Guantanamo. And AP gets more information on the legality of this entire approach from Hina Shamsi of the ACLU:

“It appears to be an attempt to use assertion of law of war powers to avoid constraint and safeguards in the criminal justice system,” said Hina Shamsi, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union and the director of the civil rights organization’s national security project. “I am very troubled if this is the pattern that the administration is setting for itself.”


The ACLU’s Shamsi said it’s a good thing that al-Libi was not being held secretly, as was the policy during the Bush administration. But, she said, al-Libi should be entitled to counsel and a speedy trial.

It would appear that the workmanship in crafting a terrorist detainee interrogation program is held to the same quality standards that were used in constructing the USS San Antonio. Both seem in distinct danger of simply sinking at sea at any moment.

Many years ago, Jim got a BA in Radiation Biophysics from the University of Kansas. He then got a PhD in Molecular Biology from UCLA and did postdoctoral research in yeast genetics at UC Berkeley and mouse retroviruses at Stanford. He joined biosys in Palo Alto, producing insect parasitic nematodes for pest control. In the early 1990’s, he moved to Gainesville, FL and founded a company that eventually became Entomos. He left the firm as it reorganized into Pasteuria Biosciences and chose not to found a new firm due a clash of values with venture capital investors, who generally lack all values. Upon leaving, he chose to be a stay at home dad, gentleman farmer, cook and horse wrangler. He discovered the online world through commenting at Glenn Greenwald’s blog in the Salon days and was involved in the briefly successful Chris Dodd move to block the bill to renew FISA. He then went on to blog at Firedoglake and served a brief stint as evening editor there. When the Emptywheel blog moved out of Firedoglake back to standalone status, Jim tagged along and blogged on anthrax, viruses, John Galt, Pakistan and Afghanistan. He is now a mostly lapsed blogger looking for a work-around to the depressing realization that pointing out the details of government malfeasance and elite immunity has approximately zero effect.
17 replies
  1. Jeff Kaye says:

    @Saltinwound: Charlie Savage enters role of high apologist for DoD. Lots of access coming his way.

    Consider how he also alibis the Army Field Manual (I know you already addressed this, Jim, for which my gratitude, but I can’t help also noting it, as I’ve not time to write it up as a blog post):

    Under an executive order issued by Mr. Obama in 2009, they must obey the restrictions of the Army Field Manual, which was written to comply with the Geneva Conventions and forbids torture and lesser forms of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. The manual largely permits a variety of “rapport building” techniques, including direct questioning, the “good cop, bad cop” routine, tricking a detainee into revealing more information, inducing him to brag about his exploits, appealing to his emotions or threatening him with severe legal consequences (though threats of torture are not allowed) and offering incentives for cooperation. It requires that a detainee receive at least four hours of continuous sleep every 24 hours.

    Leaves out Appendix M use of isolation and forms of sensory deprivation, environmental manipulation, or how AFM allows use of drugs on prisoners. Savage spins sleep deprivation, allowed by Appendix M on prisoners like al Liby, as something humane! “It requires…” Yeah. I want to see how Savage would stand up after a month of Appendix M interrogation. Of course, that would include the use of isolation, which Savage totally leaves out of his account. Or the use of goggles and mittens and earmuffs to give him a nice taste of sensory deprivation under the control of big, loud, angry men and women.

    Have fun with your access, Charlie.

  2. rosalind says:

    @Phil Perspective: jeff kaye has, charlie’s response:

    “@jeff_kaye I’m going to block you if you go on a “lying” rant again. Appendix M is for separation from other detainees captured, as you know”

  3. Jeff Kaye says:

    @rosalind: Thanks, I saw that (thanks to your notice). I’ve answered him on Twitter. I doubt he’ll say more. I pulled back from “lying” to “misrepresening” or not understanding. But after all this time to still have the position he does is outrageous and remarkable. Charlie Savage is not a dumb man.

    As to his claim re separation of prisoners:

    Separation is not about the “normal interrogation process” [quoting befow from Appendix M itself]:

    The use of separation should not be confused with the detainee-handling techniques approved in Appendix D. Specifically, the use of segregation during prisoner handling (Search, Silence, Segregate, Speed, Safeguard and Tag) should not be confused with the use of separation as a restricted interrogation technique….

    Separation should be used as part of a well-orchestrated strategy involving the innovative application of unrestricted approach techniques. Separation requires special approval, judicious execution, special control measures and rigorous oversight.–_and_still_does?paging=off&current_page=1#bookmark

  4. greengiant says:

    @Jeff Kaye: Who is Charlie Savage? Employed by the NYTimes. Enough said. In the stalwart company of Judith Miller and Joe Nocera. I would advise would be journalists to research possible corruption of possible employers and co-workers before signing on.

  5. peasantparty says:


    Thank you so much for writing this up.

    There are so many things wrong here. First of all, the DOD had large parts of departments on furlough due to Govt. shut down. I’ve had a lot of people to tell me that the military operates regardless, this I already know. The issue is that these types of strikes should only have happened under a fully functioning department of Defense.

    Secondly, this event happened over the weekend of Oct. 4th and 5th. There are reasons for this that we both know, but I will not elaborate here. However, there was no extradition request first that we know of; and that is of utmost importance. Did Libya agree to capture and detention ahead of time? Do they agree with our newly secret laws of rendition?

    Third, I have yet to see an international agreement take place globally with all the leaders of the world’s countries to support these strange laws we have put into place for the GWOT. They go directly against all other treaties, the Geneva Conventions, etc.

    Fourth, that Army Field Manuel that Jeff and others have discussed above was secretly changed by Bush and Cheney, which you and Emptywheel spent a great deal of time to research and publish to show us that it was all a quick underhanded attempt to cover the war crimes they were already committing!

    Again, thanks for this most excellent piece of information.

  6. peasantparty says:

    I also would like to address the fact that the Pentagon doesn’t give a knat’s nose about the equipment. This has been going on for a very long time. I know this because my Dad was forced by the Navy to fight the Korean War on a refurbished USS Menifee that was hit several times during WWII.

    That ship not only held some of the best of the Navy at that time, they carried the Army and Marines on it. Members of the military are cannon fodder for the war makers. When those filthy politicians try to shame you as if you don’t support the military you can flip them one like I do. The population of citizens in this country IS their GD Military! All of us support and care for our family of men and women enlisted!

  7. svosprey says:

    Why if they plan on torturing him would they announce they are going to try him in US courts? Wouldn’t he have to enter the military commissions trial system or have the charges thrown out?

  8. thatvisionthing says:


    The USS San Antonio entering New York Harbor during Fleet Week, 2006. When I first saw this photo, I thought that the image created the illusion that the ship was holding the Statue of Liberty, but it turns out that is part of the ship’s structure and not Liberty’s torch that we see. I still can’t quite shake that metaphor, however.

    You reminded me of something Ted Kennedy said, when the Chilean tall ship Esmeralda, which had been used as a torture ship, was invited to sail in a Fourth of July OpSail past the Statue of Liberty:

    Protest marks Chilean tall ship’s visit

    In 1986, the U.S. Senate approved a resolution urging withdrawal of an invitation for the Esmeralda to participate in an event connected with the 100th birthday celebration of the Statue of Liberty.

    “The Statue of Liberty would weep at the sight of the Esmeralda entering the gateway of freedom at New York harbor,” said Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass.

    The Senate measure described the Esmeralda as “the notorious vessel used for the torture of 112 political prisoners at the time Gen. Augusto Pinochet seized power in a military coup” in 1973. Pinochet remained in power until 1990. The ship took part in the Statue of Liberty celebration.

    (From my old diary on Daily Kos, “John McCain, what about torture ships?”

    (oh yeah, John McCain! What about torture ships?)

  9. Jessica says:

    So much good stuff in this post, it’s hard to pick just one point to comment on. The one that stands out the most is this:

    “…were he to be brought onto United States soil, he could arguably have an immediate right to a lawyer. Holding him — and possibly transporting him — on an American vessel in international waters avoids potential diplomatic and legal headaches.”

    Or as those “headaches” are more commonly referred to: laws. Honestly, is it really too much to ask that if our government decides it’s necessary to capture people, then they must use our legal system to try those captives? And the description of bringing in a clean team, getting new information that is more usable in trial and all of that twisted, demented, acrobatic nonsense – it makes me feel ill.

  10. RirerCapital says:

    Excellent piece. A gov’t without shame can feel no embarrassment. Obama’s latest speech at the UN exemplifies this shamelessness.

    “The US Navy, a global force for exploiting international waters to evade international law and torture…for good.”(James Earl Jones voice over)

  11. Jim White says:

    @CTuttle: The Rays provided me many hours of great entertainment. They made it through a number of difficult situations, but their sixth elimination game in 10 days finally proved too big a challenge. I really was confounded by your Sox this year. There were not many personnel moves compared to last year. Last year’s team could accomplish nothing and this year’s version had every single thing go their way. I’m still shaking my head.

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