When I traveled to the US military base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba in 2009 to visit a client imprisoned there, the daily routine was straightforward: Every morning, legal teams representing detainees would leave the Combined Bachelor Quarters that also housed civilian guests on the base and meet our military handlers. We would take a ferry to the bay’s windward side, where most of the facilities are located, and make a breakfast stop at McDonald’s (the only one in Cuba) before heading to the prison. One day, my supervisor pointed out a familiar face behind the counter: One of the Filipinos taking orders also worked nights at the front desk of our motel. Struggling to make ends meet, he was one of the thousands of foreigners — mainly Filipinos and Jamaicans — who comprise most of the base’s work force. Like our detained client, who hailed from Saudi Arabia but had been abducted in Pakistan, the man was neither local nor American, but rather what the military calls a “third-country national” (TCN).
The US-led “global war on terror” cannot be fully grasped without putting TCNs — be they detainees or workers — at the center of the story. Extraterritorial prisons such as those at Guantánamo and the CIA “black sites” have long been symbols of that war. They embody the logic of contemporary American empire, which favors keeping its victims offshore in the territory of sovereign client states whenever possible, beyond the reach of US courts. These regimes, in turn, can shrug off responsibility for prisoners held at the behest of the United States if they are foreigners. And the detainees’ own governments have little stake in protecting them either if they are held in other countries. That is why the US continues to distinguish between local prisoners and foreign ones: Even March’s celebrated “handover” of Bagram prison to Washington’s client regime in Kabul pointedly excluded non-Afghan detainees, who will remain indefinitely in US custody.
Less noticed has been the US military’s overwhelming reliance on workers who, like the prisoners at Guantánamo, are largely outside the legal protections of their home governments, the countries where they find themselves, and the American justice system. As Jana Lipman shows in her book Guantánamo: A Working-Class History Between Empire and Revolution, the US began to import Filipinos and Jamaicans as easily deportable replacements for the base’s unionized local workers after the Cuban revolution. In the past decade, the Pentagon’s privatization drives have dramatically increased its global reliance on TCN labor, fed by the same circuits of recruitment and migration that bring workers from the greater Indian Ocean region to the Gulf petro-states. In Iraq and Afghanistan TCNs have comprised between a quarter and a half of the total military contractor work force, which itself has at times exceeded the number of uniformed personnel. TCNs have worked in many crucial aspects of US military operations, from food preparation to perimeter security. Yet they are often trapped in layered contracting and subcontracting agreements that obscure lines of responsibility between the military and its private partners, thereby all but eliminating the possibility of effective labor rights. A major 2011 exposé in The New Yorker documented the merciless exploitation many TCNs have endured: deprivation of wages, inhumane and dangerous conditions, sexual and physical abuse, debt slavery.
Despite their many obvious differences, both extraterritorial prisoners and workers share a predicament: They are caught up in overlapping transnational jurisdictional arrangements, forced to navigate different national bodies of laws (both public and private). What court will hear the appeal of a Sri Lankan working for a Jordanian company on a US base in Iraq? What laws promise justice for a Kuwaiti abducted in Pakistan and held by the CIA in Romania? The overlapping legal regimes are brought together and shaped by a spatial logic of circulation: Suspended outside the US and beyond local jurisdictions, workers and prisoners can be more readily repatriated or perhaps transferred to yet another country for further work or detention. At the same time, they serve to reduce US dependence on and vulnerability to local populations.
Extraterritorial prisoners and TCN workers are not necessarily more mistreated or exploited than the millions of “ordinary” migrants and exiles on the planet. But they do usefully highlight how the US can wage a global war while traveling light (or “lite,” as the warmongering pundit-politician Michael Ignatieff put it), upholding an empire that dares not speak its name. At overseas bases like at Guantánamo, keeping the McDonald’s staffed and the prison filled with people who are neither local nor American has gone a long way toward keeping the empire’s burdens manageable and the voices against it muffled.