Pentagon Ends Daily Hunger Strike Reports: Whither Transparency?

In warfare, many military actions must remain secret. Calls for “greater transparency” are often too simplistic and fail to properly accommodate pressing national security needs. But what is the valid justification for the Pentagon’s decision to end its daily disclosure of the number of hunger-strikers on Guantanamo? More precisely, how can the Pentagon justify this decision when the underlying US action – force-feeding hunger strikers – is at least arguably a violation of the laws of war? [I wrote an Op-ed this summer on the law of war obligations concerning forced-feeding in wartime.]

Carol Rosenberg in the Miami Herald reports on the military’s stated justification:

“‘JTF-Guantánamo allows detainees to peacefully protest but will not further their protests by reporting the numbers to the public,’ the spokesman said. ‘The release of this information serves no operational purpose and detracts from the more important issues, which are the welfare of detainees and the safety and security of our troops.’

He refused to elaborate on how the daily report interfered with troop security and detainee welfare ….”

Must the disclosure of information serve an “operational purpose” for the military to release it? How would the disclosure of hunger strikes and forced feeding interfere with the safety and security of our troops? I suppose one response might be that the Pentagon is simply getting out of the business of a daily report, but might still disclose the information annually or the like. But then the question would not be about the sensitivity of the information itself, but the purported burden of daily reports.

The situation of hunger strikes and forced feeding implicate important ethical and legal concerns about the treatment of detainees. On Tuesday, Just Security published a guest post from the Attaché to the Holy See concerning drones and targeted killing. One line in the Holy See’s Statement on the issue of transparency seems appropriate here as well:

“When vital data … is withheld from scrutiny, how can compliance with international law, international humanitarian law and ethical standards be verified?”

 

About the Author(s)

Ryan Goodman

Co-Editor-in-Chief of Just Security, Anne and Joel Ehrenkranz Professor of Law at New York University School of Law, former Special Counsel to the General Counsel of the Department of Defense (2015-2016). You can follow him on Twitter @rgoodlaw.