Where — and What — in the World Is Diego Garcia?
With California weather in my blood, Cape Cod spring feels like an extension of winter.
What keeps me warm until summer comes is baseball - and fantasies about vacationing on a tropical island like Guam, where my 6th- and 7th-grade best friend, David Reed, and his Navy dad were transferred to from the now defunct Oakland Navy Base.
"Where's Guam?" I asked.
"It's some tropical island in the North Pacific Ocean. Kinda like Hawaii, but no tourists," Dave said. Then, already honing my gift of asking conversation-changing questions, I said: "Why do we have a base in Guam?"
It wasn't until years later I learned that Guam is a key FOB. That's military jargon for "forward operating base," just one of a million or so military acronyms.
In a world where America is the self-appointed global cop, an FOB is like a police precinct - a strategically located substation from which hardware and personnel can be quickly dispatched to keep the neighborhood rabble in line.
Diego Garcia is the other key FOB that people who consider themselves well-informed about the Busheviks "war on terror" ought to know about.
David Vine, assistant professor of anthropology at American University and author of the forthcoming book Island of Shame: The Secret History of Exile and Empire on Diego Garcia, details the post 9/11 significance of these FOB's, especially Diego Garcia - the coveted military outpost in the Indian Ocean's Chagos Archipelago, where the beaches look like one of those Corona beer commercials.
In the 1950s, U.S. war planners were worried about local populations catching the decolonization bug sweeping the Third World. So the U.S. Navy came up with the "Strategic Island Concept," which, in part, identified the British colony of Diego Garcia as a good place to build an isolated base, helping to ensure that former colonial subjects in the Middle East and Africa understood that freedom means whatever the hell the Washington consensus says it means.
But, there was one small problem. Actually, 2,000 small problems - the Chagossians, with ties to the island since the Portuguese first shipped in slaves and indentured laborers from Africa and India in the late 18th century to work the coconut plantations run by French Mauritians.
When British officials were secretly negotiating a 50-year lease with the U.S. in the 1960s, British diplomats were cutting a deal to give Mauritius its independence - minus Diego Garcia, which just so happens to be in violation of the U.N. Charter, if you're into that kind of namby-pamby stuff like me.
The Brit playbook called for the Palestine play - relocate much, if not all, of the indigenous population into a neighboring country to make way for new settlers. For the Palestinians, GB had Jordan in mind. For the Chagossians, it was Mauritius that was to absorb the dispossessed.
Of course, the Chagossian problem would be a lot easier to handle because there were only a couple thousand refugees and not several hundred thousand with millennia-old roots in "holy land." And like Golda Meier famously described Palestinians, the Chagossians have been said not to exist, which explains why most mainstream news accounts of the tiny atoll include some line about it being "an uninhabited island" - a remnant of British government propaganda intended to "as one official put it, 'maintaining the fiction' that the Chagossians were transient contract workers rather than people with roots in Chagos for five generations or more," Vine observes.
Vine goes on to point out the growing military importance of DG ever since the Chagossians took their coconuts to Mauritius. Fast forward to forward operating base Diego Garcia during Gulf War I. It served as the prepositioned weapons-and-supply cache for Marines sent to Saudi Arabia in 1991. The island, named after a ship, later became a launch pad for lobbing long-range bombs on Iraq.
After the '91 war, "the dream for many in the military became the ability to strike any location on the planet from Barksdale Air Base in Louisiana, Guam in the Pacific, or Diego Garcia," Vine reports.
After the 9/11 attacks, DG became even more strategically significant. The Air Force sent 2,000 of its personnel to a new 30-acre housing facility there called "Camp Justice."
(Seriously, who the hell comes up with these ridiculous names)?
When the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan began, B-1, B-2, and B-52 bomber sorties were flown out of "Camp Justice" and the island's blue lagoons were used to store prepositioned weapons and supplies for the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
In 2006, with the publication of Stephen Grey's Ghost Plane documenting the presence of a CIA-chartered plane used for rendition flights at DG, reports of "Camp Justice" being a CIA "black site" for detainee interrogation started to eke out. Official rumors were followed by a Council of Europe report identifying Diego Garcia as a secret CIA prison location, along with "black sites" in Poland and Romania.
This past February, British Foreign Secretary David Miliband told Parliament he learned of two instances when the Bush administration, in violation of the base lease with Britain, used Diego Garcia like a Guantanamo University satellite campus.
"The State Department's chief legal adviser said CIA officials were 'as confident as they can be' that no other detainees had been held on the island...Within days, UN special investigator Manfred Novak announced new evidence that others had been imprisoned on the island. Many suspect the United States may hold detainees on secret prison ships in Diego Garcia's lagoon or elsewhere in the waters of Chagos."
With the legal die having already been cast for secret "renditions" of murkily-defined "enemy-combatants," kept in secret prisons without recourse to Habeas corpus, consider yourself warned. If some guy in a suit approaches you on the street and says you've won a free dream trip to the exclusive tropical paradise of Diego Garcia - RUN!
Photos I've seen of the island are gorgeous, but it would be hard to appreciate the beauty while getting waterboarded.
In the meantime, you might ask your Congressman: why haven't there been hearings on where - and what - in the world Diego Garcia and those other FOB's are?
Sean Gonsalves is a syndicated columnist and assistant news editor with the Cape Cod Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org