Inconvenient News,
       by smintheus

Monday, November 27, 2006

  America's slaves

Something essential is wrong about the way we discuss the detainees in George Bush's prison-network abroad. It's troubled me for a long time. Published descriptions of this program, no matter how critical, have always seemed just a bit hollow. But why, what is missing?

This week the answer to that puzzle became blindingly clear as I read the testimony of Murat Kurnaz, a German resident who endured years of captivity at Guantanamo:

"They [the Pakistani police] caught me and sold me to the Americans for 3000 or 5000 dollars."

The obvious fact, little remarked, is that he and many other victims of Bush's gulags were sold into slavery to the U.S. government.

You'll say, "That can't be." But it is exactly what has been happening. The federal government-or, arguably, George Bush himself-has become a slave-holder.

While critics of the program have devoted considerable energy to uncovering and cataloguing the abusive treatment meted out to the "prisoners", we've overlooked the equally basic problem of identifying what fundamentally is going on. We've concentrated on the epi-phenomena of this system of detention, the indefinite captivity, cruelty, torture, secrecy and so forth, while forgetting that there is also the phenomenon itself that needs to be understood.

There isn't any way around the unpleasant fact that the phenomenon of a world-wide network which exists in order to capture, sell, transport, hold, and abuse without remit large numbers of innocent men cannot be described as a 'prison' system. It is instead a classic system of slavery. That is an observation so basic that most of us, certainly I, have failed to note it at all.


So why is it that America has not been discussing during these last few years the restoration of a flagrant form of slavery by our government?

For one thing, we've been seduced into accepting the administration's terminology of "prisoners". As a consequence, critics of the program have sought to identify the ways in which their "imprisonment" does not accord with the laws on imprisonment and trial. But these are not "prisoners" in any of the senses that the word is normally used in the modern U.S.

They are not prisoners of war. Many, perhaps most, were not captured on a battlefield (despite the frequent false assertions of Bush administration officials that they are all captives of war). They have not been treated according to the Geneva Conventions. They were not rounded up in the U.S., the citizens of a nation we are at war with. There is no war going on, the conclusion of which will result in the release of these "prisoners".

Nor are they prisoners in criminal cases. They have not been convicted of anything. Nor have they confessed to crimes, nor are they awaiting sentencing. Nor have they been awaiting trial all these years. They have not been denied bail. They have not been charged. They have not been given due process in the courts. Until very recently, none had been made aware of what charges, if any, might be leveled against them. They were being held, quite simply.

They were not being held as material witnesses. Nor were they being held as suspects awaiting interrogation. Many have not been interrogated in years, though they continued to be held. No, they were simply being held against their will.


And here we return to this fundamental fact, underlined recently by Murat Kurnaz: Many of these "prisoners" are being held because they were bought by agents of the American government. The U.S. purchased not just possession of their bodies but also the right to treat them any way it wishes.

Of course it is not news that the Bush administration has paid out huge sums to gain possession of these men. In May 2005 Michelle Faul of the Associated Press published an important report, based upon FOIA requests, about the purchase of detainees in the "war on terror".

Bounties ranged from $3,000 to $25,000, the detainees testified during military tribunals, according to transcripts the U.S. government gave The Associated Press to comply with a Freedom of Information lawsuit….

There have been reports of Arabs being sold to the Americans after the U.S.-led offensive in Afghanistan, but the testimonies offer the most detail from prisoners themselves….

Khalid al-Odha, who started a group fighting to free 12 Kuwaiti detainees, said his imprisoned son, Fawzi, wrote him a letter from Guantanamo Bay about Kuwaitis being sold to the Americans in Afghanistan.

One Kuwaiti who was released, 26-year-old Nasser al-Mutairi, told al-Odha that interrogators said Dostum's forces sold them to the Pakistanis for $5,000 each, and the Pakistanis in turn sold them to the Americans.

"I also heard that Saudis were sold to the Saudi government by the Pakistanis," al-Odha said. "If I had known that, I would have gone and bought my son back."

Leaflet offering "bounties" Image Hosted by

So let's not pretend any longer as a nation that it is anything other than what it appears to be-slavery.

The price that Kurnaz estimates he was sold for in Pakistan, approximately $5000, resembles the sum the U.S. was offering per person in Afghanistan to the Northern Alliance in 2001/2002. And it is well within line with the sale prices for more traditional slaves in the current global human trafficking network. A current article in Foreign Affairs (available here) points out that the U.N. estimates that the average price of a slave worldwide is now about $12,500.


The U.S. of course prefers to call the sums paid for the transfer of human beings "bounties", but that too is a misnomer in most cases. A bounty-system can only function in places where civil jurisdiction is sufficiently settled as to identify criminals who need to be captured. That doesn't describe the almost lawless conditions in which many of these "bounties" were paid out.

Besides, a "bounty" is a payment for the capture of a named criminal. American officials are aware that the fantasy of law-and-order cloaked under the term "bounty" is subject to challenge, witness their blanket denials of wrongdoing and claims of ignorance recorded by Michelle Faul:

The U.S. departments of Defense, Justice and State and the Central Intelligence Agency also said they were unaware of bounty payments being made for random prisoners.

The U.S. Rewards for Justice program pays only for information that leads to the capture of suspected terrorists identified by name, said Steve Pike, a State Department spokesman….

But a wide variety of detainees at the U.S. lockup at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, alleged they were sold into capture.

In fact many of the people who ended up at Guantanamo were not being sought by the U.S. by name. They were just whoever happened to be turned in for the "bounty":

In March 2002, the AP reported that Afghan intelligence offered rewards for the capture of al-Qaida fighters — the day after a five-hour meeting with U.S. Special Forces. Intelligence officers refused to say if the two events were linked and if the United States was paying the offered reward of 150 million Afghanis, then equivalent to $4,000 a head.

That day, leaflets and loudspeaker announcements promised "the big prize" to those who turned in al-Qaida fighters.

Said one leaflet: "You can receive millions of dollars. ... This is enough to take care of your family, your village, your tribe for the rest of your life — pay for livestock and doctors and school books and housing for all your people."

Helicopters broadcast similar announcements over the Afghan mountains, enticing people to "Hand over the Arabs and feed your families for a lifetime," said Najeeb al-Nauimi, a former Qatar justice minister and leader of a group of Arab lawyers representing nearly 100 detainees.

Even though there were a few individuals identified by name, in separate posters, never the less the U.S. was in effect offering to buy anyone and everyone who might be turned over to them. Many of these payments, then, can't reasonably be termed "bounties".

Instead, the sums are the sale price for slaves.


So far, I've presented two reasons for accepting the conclusion that what George W. Bush has created is actually a system of state-owned slaves. The first reason is that the government has not treated the men held captive as it would if they really were "prisoners" in any normal sense of the word. The second is that the sum paid out for such men resembles nothing so much as the sale price for slaves.

Now let's consider what we know about the conditions of traditional chattel slavery, from the perspective of both the slave and the slave-holder. Here, I draw upon my knowledge of ancient slavery in the Mediterranean world. Most or all of these generalizations also apply to plantation-style slavery in 18th and 19th century America.

Parenthetically, it's worth noting that in antiquity it was common for the state to own some slaves for various purposes. Also, it was a truism in ancient Greek and Roman society that any testimony derived from slaves had to be extracted under torture, without which their statements could not be considered trustworthy. I don't believe for a moment, however, that George Bush knows either of those things.


What does it mean to be or become a slave? Virtually all the conditions faced by the long-suffering human beings held captive in secret CIA prisons or at Guantanamo, beginning with their capture, are paralleled by the conditions of the chattel slave.

* They generally are enslaved without having been convicted of any crimes.

* They are seized unaware, typically with collusion from locally powerful and corrupt figures, who receive payment for them.

* They disappear without being given an opportunity to regain their freedom or contact their families.

* They are spirited away, usually in the dark or under cover, by professionals who specialize in transporting slaves.

* Upon arrival at their place of confinement, they are taught that they are helpless.

* They are subject to every form of capricious treatment, and may hope to escape harsh and humiliating treatment only by total submission to the will of their owner.

* They are are routinely raped, tortured and brutalized.

* They are treated as less than fully human.

* Their guards have been trained in forms of humiliation, and are encouraged to mistreat slaves.

* Their living conditions are degrading.

* They have no legal rights, and no protection except what their owner is willing to grant.

* They have no documents and little personal property.

* They have no past or hope of a better future except what their owner is willing to grant.

* They may be freed only if their owner volunteers to free them.

* No outside entity has any authority to rescue them from their captivity or interfere in how the owner treats them.

In other words, the conditions experienced by the man handed over to American forces by Pakistani policemen, or by Northern Alliance militiamen, or by anybody eager for the $5000 bounty, is parallel in many basic ways to the conditions that a chattel slave experiences.


What does it mean to be a master of slaves? Virtually all the powers and privileges that the federal government-or, arguably, George Bush himself-exercises over the long-suffering human beings held captive in secret CIA prisons or at Guantanamo are the powers and privileges of the slave-holder. Above all, this is the power or privilege:

* to have the slave abused, degraded, tortured, raped, or killed without being held accountable

* to do what you will with the slave, without having to render any account of his activities, treatment, upkeep, care, or housing

* to place brutal overseers in charge of the slave, without needing to justify it to society

* to inflict a regime of psychological domination over the slave

* to control information about the identity, origin, and name of the slave

* to move the slave around wherever you wish

* to release the slave or give the slave over to others for any reason, or for no reason, without explanation

* to be the final and sole arbiter in issues involving the slave, without these being subject to appeal

* to be beyond the reach of the slave's family or society

There are other conditions of slave-holding besides the powers and privileges it brings. The slave-holder gains status by the mere fact of owning slaves, but also lives in fear of a conspiracy by the slaves, and with the suspicion always that the slaves share secret information that can be damaging or dangerous. The slave-holder feels a constant need to hound slaves to get the most out of them, as well as the need to keep them off-balance. The slave-holder must also present a public face that masks the brutality of the control exercised over the slaves, and limit the flow of information about their actual conditions. The slave-holder feels obligated to promulgate an ideological framework in which the slavery is necessary, justified, and beneficial to society.


In short, when you consider what captivity in George Bush's "war on terror" actually means for the man seized, or for those who hold absolute control over him, the conditions are extremely close to those of chattel slavery.

In a second post, I'll expand this commentary into areas that I've only touched upon so far. I'd like to say a little more about what we learned last week from Murat Kurnaz. Also, I'll add some information about the wider relationship between the Bush administration and the global human trafficking network.

Finally, I'll discuss how it makes sense to talk about the "prisoners" in the "war-on-terror" as slaves. The world trade today in slaves, as in the past, is mostly connected to a brutal economic system that thrives by exploiting slave-workers. George Bush is not buying and holding these slaves for productive purposes. So how, some might ask, can it really be regarded as slavery?

I'll have some thoughts on the topic next time. Meanwhile, I'd be happy to hear what you think.

This is an expanded version of a post from Unbossed and Never in Our Names


  • You are correct about the bounties. I still represent two prisoners at Guantanamo and represented a third who was released. All three are entirely innocent. One of the remaining prisoners actually worked for MI5 in England and the British have asked for him back. If you would like a copy of the letter I'd be delighted to send.

    The reason I'm responding is to bring to your attention a series of reports prepared by Prof. Mark Denbeaux at Seton Hall Law School. In the appendix of his first report, all of which may be obtained from the school's web site, are copies of the flyers offering bounties.

    If you cant access, contact me at

    My full name is George Brent Mickum IV

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 7:28 AM  

  • Your posts are always so complete...

    If these allegations are true (and I'm not disputing them, believe me), then wouldn't it suffice to say that not EVERYONE in Guantanamo is guilty?

    So therefore, is torturing innocent people within the bounds of American law?

    You allude to several problems linked here, and use a historical background and words that have connotations that elicit a call to action. Great job.

    By Anonymous Wil Robinson, at 7:43 PM  

  • George, I've sent you an email about this. Let me know here if by chance you don't receive it.

    Wil, thank you for the comment. You've put your finger on the core problem. In fact, all these people are innocent until they've been proven guilty. Unless my information is out of date, none have been convicted of any crimes. So the U.S. government is trampling the presumption of innocence by torturing the detainees--quite apart from the illegality and monstrosity of torture per se.

    Completeness: this is one post (actually, to become a set of posts) that I mean to be as perfectly rounded as possible. That the Bush administration has created something essentially like a slave network is the kind of allegation that will invariably send many Americans into fits of indignation. Even many critics of the administration would approach the charge with great skepticism. If I'm going make a case for this idea, I'd better build good foundations.

    By Blogger : smintheus ::, at 8:41 PM  

  • On, and I meant to ask you Wil, have you seen by chance this article in the WaPo about the North Korean torture techniques that the CIA has studied so well?

    >>>The prisoner must believe his captors are "all-powerful." Confusion, fear and isolation are the interrogator's stock in trade, since they "create and amplify an effect of omniscience."

    Interrogators must create a menacing and ominous environment that destroys the prisoner's capacity to function as a "civilized man."...

    In order to achieve "the maximum amount of mental discomfort," (emphasis in original), your prisoner must be instilled with a sense of "debility, dependence, and dread." "When this aim is achieved, resistance is seriously impaired."<<<

    By Blogger : smintheus ::, at 8:54 PM  

  • I printed out your post and read it again over lunch yesterday. It is truly one of the better arguments made - and an original idea at that. Rather that regurgitating the bones that the "liberal" media throws the American public, you have gone beyond.

    I look forward to the next installment addressing the issues you mention in the last paragraph.

    Are you a university professor? Your writing reminds me of sitting in lecture. (not meant to be an insult - I rather enjoyed good lectures in college)

    I've also heard an interview with an assistant secretary of state William Burns in 2002:

    "Washington has much to learn from Algeria on ways to fight terrorism."

    Algeria's military government overthrew the democratically elected government after it didn't like the election results that would have put an Islamist party in power - I think in 1992 or 1994? They then "fought" terrorism by perpetrating their own regime of terror in order to get the international community on their side, blaming everything on the Islamic "terrorists."

    This got the French and Europe (and eventually the US) to back the military (and I might add, authoritarian) government in their "fight against terror," which was really a fight to maintain power in the hands of the unelected few.

    I'm rambling...

    Anyway, always enjoy your posts. Look forward to more on this slavery idea.

    By Anonymous Wil Robinson, at 11:11 PM  

  • Yes I am a university professor (in Classics).

    I've heard some stupid things from this administration, but praising Algeria for its crackdown on islamist parties...that's a new one.

    I remember back around the time of Gulf War One, when we began to hear talk that Iraqi exiles were trying to worm their way into the good graces of Bush pere and engineer a war that would topple Hussein, a middle east scholar and I decided to go into DC and attend a lecture at one of the meetings of a leading Iraqi exile group. We wanted to determine for ourselves whether these people, who some in government seemed to take seriously, were as crazy and fractious as they seemed to us. They were, and it only took a few minutes of listening to them debate to figure that out. We found them to be completely fact, I remember having to stifle laughter as we sat through all that squabbling.

    These are the same people who, about a dozen years later, were some of the prime informants and strategists for the invasion of Iraq.

    By Blogger : smintheus ::, at 11:26 PM  

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