Monday, June 2, 2008

Prison Ships?

The Guardian UK reports of the possibility that the U.S. has used it ships to detain prisoners. Reading the report is just so sad, sickening and frustrating. The frustration is with the Bush Administration’s mania for secrecy. No where is the meme that “we can’t talk about tactics” more hurtful than in this example. Conspiracy theories sprout like mushrooms when there is a dearth of facts. It is the darkness and the fertilizer that helps both grow.

To really talk sense about the reality on the ground demands a shift into the first person and to personal knowledge about US Navy assets and specifically the facts about Diego Garcia. Please indulge me.

Let us begin with the U.S. Naval ships in question. I know quite a bit about these beasts because I rode them. I will start with the smallest of the ships in question and work my way up the food chain. Presently the smallest ship in the Amphibious fleet is the LSD. For reasons unknown to me all Amphibious ships are known as Gators and the Amphibious fleet is referred to as the “Gator Navy.” LSDs, Landing Ship Docks are the baby gators in the surface fleet. They are modest size ships with berthing for about 300 sailors and an extra 300 odd Marines. The Navy uses most of the available space on the ship not for the crew but for equipment. One wit once described the LSD as a “fast attack dump truck” not a martial vision but essentially true. The ship drops a tailgate of sort, sinks its butt in the water, and disgorges the Marines and their gear. Because of this design there is no room to put “cages” on to the ship. The ships may have a tiny brig that can hold perhaps three prisoners for a brief stay. On the ship I was on the Brig was used as a storage space.

Going up the ladder the next ship would be an LPD. LPDs are LSDs that have gone to the gym and buffed out a little. They have better Helicopter support than the LSDs. They can carry and support a small Marine detachment of aviators. Still the holding capacity for prisoners is quite limited. Every cage one puts into the LPDs is a hit on the real mission of the ship. That cage would suck up space for Humvees, trucks etc. LPDs probably have either tiny brigs or no brigs at all.

Last is the LHA/LHD. These are baby bird-farms. A bird farm is an Aircraft Carrier. The newest LHA/LHD is the size of a WWII Essex class carrier. This is the only ship were it is plausible to hold any number of prisoners. Maybe those ships were used as temporary holding facilities. The chance that suspects were detained there for any length of time though is not realistic. The ship’s design did not envision the brig being used for anything else other than temporary use. Brigs are not designed for prolonged stays; the most likely scenario considered for use was an “award” of three days bread and water plus confinement. Any confinement beyond three days becomes very problematic from a management perspective. It is a question of feeding the prisoners. The dining facilities on the ship, the "Mess Decks," are no where near the brig. Truth be told the mess decks are not even conveniently located for the crew or the embarked Marines. The prisoners would have to be escorted to their meals thrice daily, fed, and then brought back to their confinement or box lunches would have to be provided. This is just not workable for any length of time over a week.

Talking about ships design brings me to the vessels sitting in the lagoon of Diego Garcia. I know these ships, I’ve visited them. They are roll-on, roll-off ships: Ro-Ro’s. The idea behind them is add soldiers (or Marines) and mix. They are packed with equipment but short of staff. The ships are run by civilian crews- merchant mariners. Some are contracted out, others –the Military Sealift Command ships- have a tiny US Navy contingent and are operated by the Navy. None of these people have the time to be babysitting detainees. None of the ships I visited had any provision to detain even a drunken sailor – never mind captured “bad guys.” Can I prove that no one was held on those ships? No ,I can not. But I can tell you the logistics of even attempting to hold prisoners on those ships are damn near impossible even for the MSC ships- never mind the contract vessels. I can also tell you that such an attempt would escape Diego Garcia’s confines very quickly. The Merchant Marines would squeal or the contract workers on Diego Garcia would blab to their relatives in the Philippines. The info would first be plastered all over Filipino web sites and then on to the rest of the world. Small island, bored people, everybody knows everybody else’s deepest darkest secret. Diego Garcia is the absolute worst place in the world to have a secret prison.

So how did we get here, how did these allegations of ghost ships packed with unfortunate detainees riding the ocean blue get started? Probably it started from a very small kernel of truth. Maybe a flight with a detainee passed through Diego, it landed, it refueled, and it left. Maybe some lower level detainees rounded up in Afghanistan were temporarily placed in the brig of a LHA or LHD until room could be found elsewhere. Anyone detained in a ship’s brig would come out displeased with the experience. The brig is designed as punishment. From these small acorns mighty oaks have grown. This is the price we pay for Bush and Cheney’s obsession with secrecy. This is the price we pay for Gitmo and Abu Ghraib. This is the price we pay for extraordinary rendition and black-site gulags in foreign lands. People will now believe just about any wild tale about detainees that gets released. We have only ourselves to blame; we allowed Bush and Cheney to get away with this. This is what happens when Congresscritters put impeachment off the table.

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