Bill Newman: When law enforcement bends rules on interrogation

Last modified: Tuesday, March 24, 2015

NORTHAMPTON — After almost 40 years as a civil rights attorney, nothing that law enforcement does to shred constitutional guarantees should surprise me. But a news report this week made me flinch.

The Chicago police, America has learned, operate a secret interrogation facility in a non-descript warehouse called Homan Square. Prisoners – juveniles, as well as adults, some as young as 15 – are disappeared there, often shackled for hours, denied their right to counsel and beaten. At least one man, found unresponsive in an interview room, later was pronounced dead.

Brian Jacob Church, a protester who was held and interrogated at Homan Square in 2012, was quoted by The Guardian, which broke this story, as saying, “It brings to mind the interrogation facilities they use in the Middle East. The CIA calls them black sites. It’s a domestic black site. When you go in, no one knows what’s happened to you.”

Church has it right. Detainees at Homan Square exist in no official booking database. But shame on me for being surprised. For some time secret interrogation facilities in America have been entirely predictable, maybe inevitable. After 9/11 and a dozen years of Guantanamo, why wouldn’t we – and the government as well – have imagined secret domestic interrogation prisons?

Easthampton resident Ellen Meeropol has imagined exactly that. Her new novel, “On Hurricane Island,” tells – in the words of Center for Constitutional Rights President Emeritus Michael Ratner — “a chilling, Kafkaesque story about what happens when the United States does to its citizens at home what it has done to others abroad.”

The story begins before an anniversary of 9/11. University mathematics professor Gandalf Cohen is about to board a plane at JFK when Homeland Security agents cull her (politely, of course, “this is just routine”) from a TSA security line and escort her to an interrogation room. After that they fly her, blindfolded, to a facility on Hurricane Island, off the coast of Maine, designed for the interrogation of suspected domestic terrorists. These federal agents abduct Gandalf – they suspect her possible involvement in a terrorist plot – because in graduate school she had befriended and after that sporadically e-mailed a foreign student who later appeared on Homeland Security’s radar.

“On Hurricane Island,” Ratner says, “puts the reader right into the middle of (the United States government’s extrajudicial kidnapping, interrogation and detention programs) through characters about whom you really care.” Ratner further extols Meeropol’s work as “a story you can’t put down.”

And, I would add, that you shouldn’t.

After 9/11, Congress passed the Patriot Act. The government rounded up non-citizens and deported many. Congress also enacted the Authorization for the Use of Military Force and acquiesced in and endorsed the executive branch’s omnipresent surveillance of our movements and communications.

We should not feign surprise. America’s response to 9/11 was foreshadowed by our historical willingness to forfeit freedom in times of war or when facing enemies, real or imaged. Only years later do we learn that our abdication of our responsibility to preserve freedom made us no safer.

Recall the Alien and Sedition Acts in the early Republic, the Palmer Raids following WWI, the prosecution and execution of the Rosenbergs as an adjunct to the Korean War and the McCarthy witch hunts during the Cold War. In particular, remember the Supreme Court’s 1944 Korematsu decision, which upheld the right of the government during WWII to establish internment camps for Americans of Japanese ancestry.

In Korematsu the court ruled that the government may seize citizens and non-citizens whom it alleges could pose a national security risk, charge them with no crime and imprison them in detention camps . That 6-3 decision has often been criticized, but it has never been overruled.

And today the government insists that we are – and for the foreseeable future will be – fighting another war, the war on terrorism.

Given our extant legal apparatus and logistical infrastructure, it would take mere baby steps to build the internal interrogation facilities Meeropol imagines. If and when discovered and reported, the government undoubtedly would insist that the facilities were constitutionally permissible and created, both lawfully and appropriately, to thwart imminent threats to our national security. History and logic teach us that we stand only one terrorist attack away from Meeropol’s fiction becoming reality.

“On Hurricane Island,” although well-placed in the genre of dystopian political fiction, which includes George Orwell’s “1984,” Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” and Sinclair Lewis’ “It Can’t Happen Here,” is not categorically apocalyptic. Within its pages some loves flourish.

And Meeropol herself dedicates the book in part to her grandchildren “in the hope that people of good conscience can prevent events like the ones I’ve made up in this novel.”

Bill Newman is a Northampton lawyer, host of a WHMP weekday program and author of “When the War Came Home.” His column appears the first Saturday of the month. He can be reached at


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