By THOMAS E. RICKS
Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents are operating aggressively under President Trump, feeling, as The New York Times reported, “newly emboldened” and “newly empowered.” Officials’ use of detention powers is widening, with some people being held who have no criminal history at all. The government raids often are conducted around dawn, to catch people as they leave for work. The uniformed agents are wearing body armor and carrying semiautomatic weapons. The morning raids and the military appearance may not be new developments, but they are especially worrisome when ICE, a domestic law enforcement agency, is overseen by a former general.
And there definitely seems to be recklessness in the way ICE is operating. In recent days, its agents have taken a woman with a brain tumor out of a hospital, almost deported a distinguished French scholar flying into Houston to deliver a university lecture and scared the daylights out of an Australian children’s author who vowed after the experience never to visit the United States again.
This isn’t being done solely to foreigners. The son of the boxer Muhammad Ali, a citizen, was questioned upon arriving in Florida from Jamaica about his religion, which would seem to be a clear violation of the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious freedom. And passengers on a domestic flight from San Francisco to New York were required to show their identity documents, a violation of the Fourth Amendment and an overreach of ICE’s mission of dealing with entry to the country.
For people who witnessed the American wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, such an aggressive stance is all too familiar. Over the weekend, Brandon Friedman, a former officer in the 101st Airborne Division, questioned on Twitter why Homeland Security officers were operating without constraints. He added, “In the military, it happens to aggressive units with poor leaders.” Erin Simpson, a political scientist who worked on strategic assessments for the United States military in the Afghan war, added in another tweet that the federal agents seem to enjoy “near impunity.”
Most chilling of all was the comment by Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, last Tuesday that President Trump wants to “take the shackles off” federal agents.
All this reminds me eerily of the words and actions by United States military officers who helped create the conditions that led to the abuses of Iraqi detainees at the notorious Abu Ghraib prison, where a detainee abuse scandal in 2004 undercut the American effort in Iraq. I’m not suggesting that immigrants are being tortured in the horrific way that prisoners at Abu Ghraib were, but I do see parallels in the aggressive stance of ICE agents and the message this carries abroad.
Even the language is similar. On Aug. 14, 2003, as the Iraqi insurgency was mushrooming, an Army officer in the Human Intelligence Effects Coordination Cell at American military headquarters in Iraq sent out a directive saying that “the gloves are coming off regarding these detainees.” In case that wording left any doubts, he added, “We want these individuals broken.”
In response to orders like that, some Army units became far more aggressive. Like the ICE operations, these Army missions often were conducted as night or dawn raids. Those hundreds of roundups wound up swamping the Abu Ghraib prison. Six weeks after the “gloves are coming off” memo, it held some 3,500 Iraqis. Four weeks later, that number had doubled.
When Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski, the commander of the demoralized Army unit running the prison, complained about the numbers of prisoners arriving, she was dismissively told to “cram some more tents into the compound.” Perversely, this undercut the intention of collecting more precise intelligence, because there weren’t enough interpreters and interrogators on hand to detect the bad actors among the thousands of people being held. A subsequent investigation by the Pentagon found that some prisoners were held for months before being questioned.
What puzzles me is that Secretary Kelly surely knows all this. In his first tour in Iraq, he was General Mattis’s deputy commander. General Mattis was eloquent in his public comments about Abu Ghraib. “When you lose the moral high ground, you lose it all,” he said.
Secretary Kelly would be wise to think back on his years as a Marine, and to keep his honor clean, as the “Marines’ Hymn” admonishes service members. If he doesn’t, the United States may through the actions of his department lose far more than it gains.