by Karen Greenberg. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. 288pp. Cloth. $27.95. ISBN: 9780195371888.

Reviewed by Emily Crawford, Faculty of Law, University of New South Wales. Email: emilyjtcrawford [at]


Eight years have have passed since the ‘9/11’ terrorist attacks on the United States, and the commencement of the ‘War on Terror,’ involving armed conflict in both Afghanistan and Iraq. These past eight years have been something of a boon to authors, from all disciplines – law, politics, philosophy, religion and spirituality, to name a few. The initial attacks and the international political and legal responses to those attacks – not the mention the mistakes made in those responses – have provided a rich source of material for the scores of books that have been published about these events.

A new entrant into this field is Karen Greenberg’s THE LEAST WORST PLACE: GUANTÁNAMO’S FIRST 100 DAYS. The title derives from the name bestowed on the Guantánamo Bay detention facility by then Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld. It is an apt description for both the facility itself, as well as the general attitude towards detainee treatment that would come to typify US and coalition-run detention facilities, that of trying to get away with the minimum possible standards of treatment.

In her introduction, Greenberg makes it clear that the period of time charted by her book predates the 2002 ‘Torture Memo,’ the abuses that took place at Abu Ghraib, and the stories of torture and mistreatment that came out of Guantánamo itself. Instead, Greenberg focuses on the first months at the facility in Cuba looking at how the site was chosen and how the people on the ground had to implement the policies devised by Washington. From December 21 2001 to March 31 2002, the US military facility at Guantánamo Bay was forced to transform itself from a state of ‘permanent hibernation’ in early 2001. A relic of the Cold War era, the Guantánamo Bay site was considered a low-priority for the American military. Part of the post-Cold War downsizing of the military, Commanders at ‘Gitmo,’ as it was nicknamed, were given instructions to ‘keep the lights on’ – run the facility at a minimum, and not ask for nor expect anything but basic funds with which to finance operations.

The events of September 11, 2001 were to radically transform the base. Greenberg charts the three month period where the military at Guantánamo were forced to hastily prepare a high-security detention facility for a rapidly increasing number of Taliban and al-Qaeda prisoners transported from Afghanistan. The speed with which the facility had to be brought to operational capacity was demonstrated in the appalling institutional short-comings the facility experienced during its first months; those running the camp were not told that their Muslim charges would require [*772] Korans, specific foods prepared in specific ways, or that the prisoners would need culturally-dictated hygiene facilities and practices.

In limiting herself to this first 100 days, Greenberg attempts to see if the ‘groundwork’ for later events in Iraq and Guantánamo itself – such as the abuse at Abu Ghraib prison – were sown in these first months in Cuba. What emerges from the book is a devastating picture of lost opportunity – soldiers on the ground who wanted to treat the battlefield detainees humanely but were stymied by confusing and contradictory instructions from above; officers who believed that ‘principled humanitarianism’ was fundamental to operations in Guantánamo Bay, who believed that observing the Geneva Conventions was the only logical and sensible way to operate, but who were ignored and often deliberately countermanded by those higher up the military and political hierarchy.

It is easy to see the seeds of Abu Ghraib in Greenberg’s account – not through the negligence of the military commanders, but through the subversion and outright exclusion of military input into Gitmo – that the bureaucracy in Washington were pulling the strings, often against the instructions of the persons having to implement the plans. When instructions were provided, they were frequently vague and unhelpful – such as the infamous edict that the US would be guided by the Geneva Conventions and their comprehensive protections, but not bound by them. Greenberg shows us the confusion that this ‘policy recommendation’ produces amongst a group of people used to operating within defined parameters and with definite rules. What is particularly sad to read, especially in light of what we now know happened in Guantánamo Bay in later years, is that many of the officials ordered to implement these minimal rules were often entirely reluctant to do so. Greenberg cites examples of how attempts to communicate with the Office of Legal Counsel was met with stonewalling and obfuscation, as Gitmo officials and lawyers tried to refute John Yoo’s statement that the Geneva Conventions were not applicable, and that neither Taliban nor al-Qaeda detainees were POWs; worse still, early requests to contact the International Committee of the Red Cross – standard procedure in situations where battlefield detainees exist – were denied by senior officials.

Greenberg also shows us that for every Rumsfeld, Bush and Lynddie England (the US reservist who was pictured in photos participating in prisoner abuse in Abu Ghraib), there were and are decent and honourable officials trying to protect their country while protecting its dignity and international standing – often having to defy their own government to do so. We are shown the courage and integrity of Michael Lehnert, the facility’s first commander, who struggled to ensure humane conditions for the detainees, often fighting both his own superiors and those serving under him, and Manual Supervielle, Corrections Officer at Gitmo in 2001, who took the initiative to contact the ICRC directly, requesting they visit the detention facilities, and incurring the wrath of the Bush Administration in doing so.

In terms of execution, Greenberg writes in an elegant and thoughtful manner. Though we are aware that she [*773] disapproves the course taken by the US during the ‘War on Terror,’ the book does not proselytise; it is critical, without carping. Greenberg shies away from discussing the relative guilt or innocence of the detainees, choosing instead to focus on those tasked with the unenviable duty of running the most highly publicised and highly scrutinised prison in the world at the time, with little to no guidance on how to accomplish such an endeavour. She presents her narrative in a straightforward, well-structured and logical way, and depicts the protagonists in a respectful and considerate manner. Greenberg gives us a picture of Guantánamo from the ground-up, showing us the functionaries and officials who instituted the policies and procedures that have come to notoriety, and she does so in an approachable and engaging style. The book is accessible for those without a legal background, and fascinating for those with an understanding of the legal machinations that ensued in those first few months following 9/11.

© Copyright 2009 by the author, Emily Crawford.