Monday, December 18, 2006

Franz Kafka's Trial Re-Enacted?

Read The Trial if you haven't already. It begins with a simple announcement:

Someone must have slandered Joseph K., for one morning, without having done anything truly wrong, he was arrested.

Joseph K. learns that he is accused of a crime so secret and mysterious that he himself is not allowed to learn its name. Thus begins his futile and panic-filled struggle against the blind and impossible-to-understand processes of criminal justice; a struggle like that of a fly desperately trying to free itself from the sticky web of an unfeeling spider, causing nothing but further enmeshment. Kafkaesque. This is where that word was born.

Now compare Joseph K.'s experiences with those of Donald Vance. Sadly, Vance is not a fictional character:

One night in mid-April, the steel door clanked shut on detainee No. 200343 at Camp Cropper, the United States military's maximum-security detention site in Baghdad.

American guards arrived at the man's cell periodically over the next several days, shackled his hands and feet, blindfolded him and took him to a padded room for interrogation, the detainee said. After an hour or two, he was returned to his cell, fatigued but unable to sleep.

The fluorescent lights in his cell were never turned off, he said. At most hours, heavy metal or country music blared in the corridor. He said he was rousted at random times without explanation and made to stand in his cell. Even lying down, he said, he was kept from covering his face to block out the light, noise and cold. And when he was released after 97 days he was exhausted, depressed and scared.

Detainee 200343 was among thousands of people who have been held and released by the American military in Iraq, and his account of his ordeal has provided one of the few detailed views of the Pentagon's detention operations since the abuse scandals at Abu Ghraib. Yet in many respects his case is unusual.

The detainee was Donald Vance, a 29-year-old Navy veteran from Chicago who went to Iraq as a security contractor. He wound up as a whistle-blower, passing information to the F.B.I. about suspicious activities at the Iraqi security firm where he worked, including what he said was possible illegal weapons trading.

But when American soldiers raided the company at his urging, Mr. Vance and another American who worked there were detained as suspects by the military, which was unaware that Mr. Vance was an informer, according to officials and military documents.

At Camp Cropper, he took notes on his imprisonment and smuggled them out in a Bible.

"Sick, very. Vomited," he wrote July 3. The next day: "Told no more phone calls til leave."

Nathan Ertel, the American held with Mr. Vance, brought away military records that shed further light on the detention camp and its secretive tribunals. Those records include a legal memorandum explicitly denying detainees the right to a lawyer at detention hearings to determine whether they should be released or held indefinitely, perhaps for prosecution.

Can this be true? I'd prefer it to be from a book, even from the Trial. At one point in the book Joseph K. gives this speech:

"There can be no doubt—"said K., quite softly, for he was elated by the breathless attention of the meeting; in that stillness a subdued hum was audible which was more exciting than the wildest applause—"there can be no doubt that behind all the actions of this court of justice, that is to say in my case, behind my arrest and today's interrogation, there is a great organization at work. An organization which not only employs corrupt warders, oafish Inspectors, and Examining Magistrates of whom the best that can be said is that they recognize their own limitations, but also has at its disposal a judicial hierarchy of high, indeed of the highest rank, with an indispensable and numerous retinue of servants, clerks, police, and other assistants, perhaps even hangmen, I do not shrink from that word. And the significance of this great organization, gentlemen? It consists in this, that innocent persons are accused of guilt, and senseless proceedings are put in motion against them..."

Donald Vance also had a hearing:

"Boards," he wrote April 24, the day he and Mr. Ertel went before Camp Cropper's Detainee Status Board.

Their legal rights, laid out in a letter from Lt. Col. Bradley J. Huestis of the Army, the president of the status board, allowed them to attend the hearing and testify. However, under Rule 3, the letter said, "You do not have the right to legal counsel, but you may have a personal representative assist you at the hearing if the personal representative is reasonably available."

Mr. Vance and Mr. Ertel were permitted at their hearings only because they were Americans, Lieutenant Fracasso said. The cases of all other detainees are reviewed without the detainees present, she said. In both types of cases, defense lawyers are not allowed to attend because the hearings are not criminal proceedings, she said.

Lieutenant Fracasso said that currently there were three Americans in military custody in Iraq. The military does not identify detainees.

Mr. Vance and Mr. Ertel had separate hearings. They said their requests to be each other's personal representative had been denied.

At the hearings, a woman and two men wearing Army uniforms but no name tags or rank designations sat a table with two stacks of documents. One was about an inch thick, and the men were allowed to see some papers from that stack. The other pile was much thicker, but they were told that this pile was evidence only the board could see.

The men pleaded with the board. "I'm telling them there has been a major mix-up," Mr. Ertel said. "Please, I'm out of my mind. I haven't slept. I'm not eating. I'm terrified."

Mr. Vance said he implored the board to delve into his laptop computer and cellphone for his communications with the F.B.I. agent in Chicago.

Each of the hearings lasted about two hours, and the men said they never saw the board again.

Can this be true? How many times did Joseph K. turn the same question over in his head?