Habeas Schmabeas and Guantanamo Bay


I recently finished listening to an episode of This American Life from NPR. It’s essentially a documentary series on the radio. This episode, called “Habeas Schmabeas,” was a look at the prison at Guantanamo Bay. It was fascinating and I would love for any of you guys to listen to it too and tell me what you think about it. You can get it by either subscribing to the free podcast through iTunes or other program like it, or just click here to listen to it online.

The people that created this show said their idea for this episode came from the realization that, while it’s known that there have been several hundred former detainees that have been released from guantanamo over the years, no one they knew of had ever heard an interview by any of these former prisoners. So, these guys tracked down some former detainees and talked to them. They also talked with some U.S. attorneys that had been assigned to represent prisoners at guantanamo about what it is like to represent a detainee.

One thing I found very interesting is that guantanamo was built to house high-profile terrorists—the worst of the worst—like Bin Laden and others like him. It’s essentially a supermax prison. However, one of the complaints that has come out from the military commanders in charge of the prison is that they’ve never received those high-level prisoners, they’re all kept in “black sites” run by the CIA. Instead, guantanamo ended up being used to house mainly lower-level, fringe players that provided very little valuable information, or very often, people that weren’t even terrorists to begin with. You’ll need to listen to the interviews to find out why it is that guantanamo received so many detainees that, upon review, got re-classified as NLEC’s (No Longer Enemy Combatants) and what the consequences have been.

The title of the episode “Habeas Schmabeas” refers to habeas corpus. A petition for habeas corpus is what’s known as a collateral attack against criminal charges. It doesn’t address the actual charges against you, it is a way of saying to the government, “before I answer anything else, you need to show me first that you had the right to arrest me and charge me with this crime, because I believe you didn’t follow the rules.” It requires the government to justify their actions and show that they behaved properly. This right first popped up in the Magna Charta in 1215 (Wow! politics, legal terms and now history. Could this post get any better?!) and is in Article I of the U.S. Constitution—it was such a fundamental, non-controversial right that it didn’t even need to wait until later to go into the bill of rights.

This concept of habeas corpus comes into play with the detainees at guantanamo because the current administration (we’re not naming any names here) has made a very interesting claim concerning the legal rights of the detainees. On the one hand they claim that U.S. legal rights, chief among them habeas corpus, don’t apply to the detainees because they’re prisoners of war. On the other hand they claim that the rights of the Geneva Convention don’t apply to the detainees because they’re not really prisoners of war. A little crazy, huh?

So, if I haven’t totally turned you off of it (and put you to sleep just a little), go listen to it and let me know what you think.


  1. Heidi
    May 12, 2007

    Robby, you are so high pressure… two buttons for the same link. I wasn’t sleeping and this does interest me. Thanks Rob.

  2. Rob
    May 12, 2007

    It’s worse than you think. I’ve got four of them in there. What? Too subtle?

  3. Cousin Banna
    May 12, 2007

    I actually listened to this one last week as per your webcast blog suggestion. Really interesting stuff. A bit lengthy but you finished feeling informed.