Obama’s First 100 Days: A Start On Guantánamo, But Not Enough

4.5.09

Speaking at a press conference to mark his first 100 days in office, Barack Obama made two bold claims about the policies he has already implemented to tackle the Executive overreach of the Bush administration, with regard to detention and interrogation policies in the “War on Terror.”

“We have rejected the false choice between our security and our ideals by closing the detention center at Guantánamo Bay and banning torture without exception,” the President said.

Unfortunately, neither claim is strictly true, as I aim to demonstrate in two articles, with particular reference to the three Executive Orders that Barack Obama issued as one of his first acts as President.

In the first order, which is the focus of this article, Obama stipulated that Guantánamo would close within a year, and also established an inter-departmental review of the cases of the remaining prisoners, a requirement to assess whether the prison conformed to the standards required by the Geneva Conventions, and a request for the reviled system of trials by Military Commission at Guantánamo (the “dark side” of the law, as envisaged by Dick Cheney and David Addington) to be halted for four months. The second and third orders will be dealt with in the following article, looking at Obama’s progress on “banning torture without exception.”

A misleading statement, and too few released prisoners

While Obama is to be credited for issuing these orders, his decision to state, “We have rejected the false choice between our security and our ideals by closing the detention center at Guantánamo Bay,” rather than, “We have rejected the false choice between our security and our ideals by ordering the closure of Guantánamo by January 20, 2010,” is rather too economical with the truth for my liking.

Moreover, while the review established by Obama, which is being “conducted with the full cooperation and participation” of the Attorney General, the Secretaries of Defense, State and Homeland Security, the Director of National Intelligence and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, got off to a flying start, it has, to date, accomplished very little. Just one prisoner, Binyam Mohamed, has been released, and this, it must be noted, only came about because the story of his “extraordinary rendition” and torture, which was the subject of court cases on both sides of the Atlantic, meant that he was fast-tracked to the top of the list to avoid embarrassment to either government. And beyond Mohamed, only one other prisoner — the Yemeni doctor, Ayman Batarfi — has been cleared for release.

The ongoing problems of clearing prisoners and rehousing them

At this rate, of course, it will take decades to close Guantánamo, but on Wednesday, on a visit to Europe, Attorney General Eric Holder stated that, as a result of the administration’s ongoing review, around 30 prisoners would soon be ready for release. He added that the Justice Department would be approaching allies about taking specific prisoners “within weeks as opposed to months”, but did not explain whether the 30 prisoners he was referring to were new cases examined as part of the review, or whether they included some, or all of the 60 or so prisoners who have already been cleared for release.

About 40 of these men were approved for release after their cases were reviewed by multiple military review boards at Guantánamo, and the rest were ordered to be freed by courts on the US mainland within the last six months, when, after long delays, the lower courts were finally empowered to review the prisoners’ claims for habeas corpus, following last June’s Supreme Court ruling in Boumediene v. Bush.

The distinction is important, as it would be distressing to discover that the Obama administration felt the need to revisit decisions already made by the US military, but it would not be entirely surprising if this were the case, because the administration has already caused spikes of discontent in the courts, where certain judges appear to be coming to the conclusion that the administration seems to regard its own review process as more significant than the habeas reviews.

Mutiny in the courts

Just three weeks ago, AFP reported that two habeas judges had made a rare public row of their impatience with government prosecutors. Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly, appalled by a government lawyer who “repeatedly missed deadlines” in the cases of four Kuwaiti prisoners, wrote that his “compliance was not optional,” and added that the court had “serious concern about counsel’s ability to read and comprehend its orders,” and Judge Emmet G. Sullivan was equally outraged by government lawyers’ “repeated” delays in providing unclassified exculpatory material to the defense in the case of a Yemeni prisoner. Judge Sullivan said, “To hide — and I don’t use that word loosely — to hide relevant and exculpatory evidence from counsel and from the court under any circumstance … is fundamentally unjust, outrageous and will not be tolerated.” Threatening to sanction the government, he added, “How can this court have any confidence whatsoever in the US government to comply with its obligation and to be truthful to the court?”

Speaking to AFP, David Cynamon, a lawyer for the Kuwaitis, stated his belief that the government was “trying to delay these cases until the review team can make decisions without pressure,” and another lawyer said, “The Obama administration would probably prefer that some cases stop for a while.” These were worrying comments, although there seems little reason to doubt them, but an additional assertion by the second lawyer, that “the habeas lawyers have represented these men for four or five years and are not content to wait any longer,” was particularly relevant, because, after the long struggles it took to secure legal rights for the prisoners in Boumediene, and to rein in the Executive over the course of seven years, it was unsurprising that both judges and lawyers would be perturbed to find themselves apparently overridden by the Executive again.

Focus on the Uighurs

These are not the only troubles. When it comes to the prisoners who have already been cleared for release, it has long been known that the majority of these men face enormous problems, because they are from countries including Algeria, China, Libya, Tunisia and Uzbekistan, and there are fears that they will face torture if they are repatriated (as prohibited in the UN Convention Against Torture). However, as I reported in March, six Saudis have been cleared since before Obama came to power, and yet they still languish at Guantánamo, despite a long-established rehabilitation program in Saudi Arabia that has seen the successful return and reeducation of the majority of Guantánamo’s Saudi prisoners.

In addition, the administration has dragged its heels over the Uighurs, Muslims from China’s Xinjiang province, who comprise 17 of the 23 prisoners whose release was ordered after their habeas reviews, but who are still held in Guantánamo. (To date, just three men have been released since being cleared by the courts).

The release of the Uighurs into the United States was ordered last October by District Court Judge Ricardo Urbina, in a ruling that was notable for his assertion that, because the government had accepted that it had no case against them, their continued detention was “unconstitutional,” and that, because no other country could be found that was prepared to enrage China by accepting them, they should be accepted onto the US mainland. Shamefully, the Bush administration appealed, and the new government did nothing in response when, on February 18, a notoriously Conservative appeals court reversed Urbina’s principled ruling.

This impasse, too, may soon be coming to an end, if reports last week are to be believed. According to a report in the Los Angeles Times, the Obama administration was preparing to admit into the United States as many as seven of the Uighurs, even though the decision “is not final and faces challenges from within the government,” in particular from the Department of Homeland Security. As the Times also explained, however, administration officials “believe that settling some of them in American communities will set an example, helping to persuade other nations to accept Guantánamo detainees too.” This is undoubtedly correct, as European countries, still shocked by the brusqueness with which Bush officials — and even the President himself — demanded that they help out, while refusing to do anything themselves, need positive encouragement to help clear up what is widely regarded as America’s mess.

To his credit, Eric Holder noted this in a speech during his European visit, when he stated, “I know that Europe did not open Guantánamo and that in fact, a great many on this continent opposed it, but as we turn the page to a new beginning, it is incumbent on us all to embrace new solutions, free from the rancor and rhetoric that divided us in the past.” However, it still remains the case, as I have been explaining since Obama came to power, that accepting the Uighurs into the US would be the most effective way to break this particular deadlock.

A sleight of hand on detention policies, and further concerns in court

Even if the Uighurs’ resettlement goes ahead, this is still not the end of the Obama administration’s problems with Guantánamo. In March, in a court filing that introduced the “current, novel type of armed conflict” as a replacement for the Bush administration’s “War on Terror,” the government also dropped the use of the term “enemy combatant,” but, crucially, maintained a similar definition for the now nameless prisoners to the one invented by its predecessors. Whereas Bush had insisted that he could hold people outside the law who were “part of, or supporting, Taliban or al-Qaeda forces or associated forces that are engaged in hostilities against the United States or its coalition partners,” the new administration kept this definition largely intact, but added that individuals who supported al-Qaeda or the Taliban were “detainable only if the support was substantial.”

As I wrote at the time, this supposed change was actually worthless, as a close inspection of the government’s assertions revealed that it proposed to detain someone who never even “attempted to commit any act of depredation or entered the theatre or zone of active military operations” and may only have stayed in a house associated with those who did engage in militancy. It was, moreover, noticeable that the government’s whole approach perpetuated the Bush administration’s myth that it was justifiable to equate the Taliban with al-Qaeda, even though one was a government (however reviled) and the other was a small group of terrorists.

In a response filed shortly after the government announced its sleight of hand, lawyers for some of the Guantánamo prisoners argued, as SCOTUSblog described it, that the new government was “still asserting too much authority. The President, they contended, is engaging in ‘impermissible law-making’ by the Executive branch, intruding on Congress’s powers.”

Last week, the habeas cases took another turn, when Judge Reggie B. Walton largely supported the government’s position, but warned that he was laying down some inviolable “limiting principles.” As SCOTUSblog again explained, he “rejected arguments by detainees’ lawyers that only an individual who was taking part in active hostilities against the US at the time of capture could be detained,” although he said he had some “distaste for the government’s reliance on the term ‘support’ at all,” and also made it clear that he was only prepared to accept the terms “substantially supported” and “part of” if they were “interpreted to encompass only individuals who were members of the enemy organization’s armed forces, as that term is intended under the laws of war, at the time of their capture.”

Expanding on his chosen definition, Judge Walton also stated, “Only persons who receive and execute orders from the enemy’s command structure” could be held as members of enemy armed forces, adding, “The key question is whether an individual receives and executes orders from the enemy force’s combat apparatus … The individual must have some sort of ’structured’ role in the ‘hierarchy’ of the enemy force.” This, he stated, could include those who “provided housing, feeding or transporting ‘al-Qaeda fighters,’ such as a cook who was a part of the armed forces but was temporarily assigned only a non-combat role,” but he averred that it did not include “civilians who may have some tangential connections to such organizations,” adding that “[s]ympathizers, propagandists, and financiers” who had “no involvement” with the command structure, even if they were “members of the enemy organization in an abstract sense,” could not be held unless they took “a direct part in hostilities.”

This was sufficiently different from the views of other judges — for example, Judge Richard Leon, who “has been using a detention definition that gives the government more authority than the Obama administration now claims” — for SCOTUSblog to note, “Sooner or later, the Supreme Court may have to sort it all out.”

Nearly a year after Boumediene, this wrangling is doing nothing to address the Supreme Court’s concern that “the costs of delay can no longer be borne by those who are held in custody,” but from my point of view the main problem is not with the courts’ attempts to work out where the lines should be drawn, but with the Obama administration’s close adherence to its predecessor’s rationale, which does not bode well for the outcome of Obama’s review, and makes me wonder if other disturbing developments are in store.

Certainly, there have been other disappointments. In February, the Pentagon’s review of conditions at Guantánamo concluded that they met the standards required by the Geneva Conventions, even though, at the time, a hunger strike was raging and at least 20 percent of the prison’s population was being brutally force-fed, and beaten if they resisted; and the initial expectation that the Military Commissions would not be resuscitated at the end of the four-month review period is now looking a shade more dubious at least.

Will the Military Commissions be revived?

Also in February, I complained that the Pentagon, under defense secretary Robert Gates (still, unnervingly, the same man employed by George W. Bush), retained other Bush officials in worryingly high places (Susan Crawford, for example, a protégée of Dick Cheney and a close friend of David Addington, who oversees the Military Commissions), and a week after Obama took office the Commissions’ recently appointed chief judge, Army Col. James M. Pohl, refused to suspend the arraignment of the Saudi prisoner Abdul Rahim al-Nashiri, until it was called off by Crawford. In what appeared to be a snub to the new President, Col. Pohl stated that “he found the prosecutors’ arguments, including the assertion that the Obama administration needed time to review its options, to ‘be an unpersuasive basis to delay the arraignment.’”

After this, the Commissions went quiet, but on Wednesday Col. Patrick Parrish, the judge in the case of Omar Khadr, the Canadian who was just 15 years old when he was seized, half-dead, after a firefight in Afghanistan in July 2002, notified his lawyers that pre-trial hearings would recommence on June 1, unless he was notified to the contrary by the government. This means that Col. Parrish is either being somewhat provocative, or that he expects the administration to press ahead with the trials after the four-month freeze expires (as the New York Times suggested in a worrying article on Saturday, in which senior officials, speaking anonymously, said that “administration lawyers have become concerned that they would face significant obstacles to trying some terrorism suspects in federal courts”), but either way it is a troubling development for those who hoped that the administration would shut down the Commissions without hesitation, would resist all calls to reinstate them, amend them or set up another novel and untried system, and would, instead, move the prisoners regarded as genuinely dangerous to the mainland to face trials in federal court.

The dark specter of preventive detention

According to Lawrence Wilkerson, Colin Powell’s former Chief of Staff, “no more than a dozen or two of the detainees” held in Guantánamo ever had any worthwhile intelligence. Wilkerson’s statement, included in a column he wrote in March, was particularly significant, as it should indicate that no more than two dozen prisoners should face a trial, and that the rest — though many were low-level fighters for the Taliban — should be released.

However, within hours of President Obama’s 100 Days speech, in a genuinely disturbing development that mirrors what Robert Gates’s former masters used to say with monotonous regularity, the defense secretary announced to members of the Senate Appropriations Committee that the question was “still open” as to what the government should do with “the 50 to 100 [prisoners] — probably in that ballpark — who we cannot release and cannot try.”

Back in Bush’s day, these same men were sometimes referred to as those who were “too dangerous to release but not guilty enough to prosecute” — essentially because the supposed evidence against them was extracted through the use of torture or coercion. Regardless of how they are described, however, the notion that there is now an acceptable “third way” between the guilty and not guilty verdicts delivered in a courtroom is almost incredibly disturbing, not only because, yet again, it attempts to exert Executive authority over the courts’ ongoing habeas reviews, but also because it will undoubtedly play into the hands of those lawyers — including Neal Katyal, a law professor who helped overthrow the first incarnation of the Military Commissions in June 2006 (in the case of Salim Hamdan) — who have recently taken positions in the government (Katyal is the principal deputy Solicitor General) and are advocating for a system of preventive detention to be established.

Just think about it: These are men against whom the information that purports to be evidence was often gathered by extremely dubious or downright illegal means, including the use of torture. It cannot therefore be used in a US court, although real evidence — such as the kind based on detective work or non-coercive interrogations — can. And yet, because of a suspicion that, if they were to be released, these men would at some point in the future commit an offence, we are told, by those advocating a system of preventive detention, that they should be imprisoned forever on the basis of secret evidence.

As Kenneth Roth, the Executive Director of Human Rights Watch, explained in March, “A regime of preventive detention would be perilous for the liberty of US citizens and others. It would enable the US government to detain individuals for an indeterminate period based on predictions about the danger they might pose in the future, rather than on provable crimes that they had actually committed.”

You can draw whichever dystopian conclusion you wish, so long as it’s one of the following:

  • That’s the same as Guantánamo.
  • You can’t imprison people, based on evidence that can’t be tested, for what they may or may not do in the future.
  • Who will be next? The poor? Political protestors? You and me?

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed, and see here for my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009.

As published on Antiwar.com, CounterPunch, the Huffington Post and ZNet.

For a sequence of articles dealing with the Guantánamo habeas cases, see: Guantánamo and the Supreme Court: the most important habeas corpus case in modern history and Guantánamo and the Supreme Court: What Happened? (both December 2007), The Supreme Court’s Guantánamo ruling: what does it mean? (June 2008), Guantánamo as Alice in Wonderland (Uighurs’ first court victory, June 2008), What’s Happening with the Guantánamo cases? (July 2008), Government Says Six Years Is Not Long Enough To Prepare Evidence (September 2008), From Guantánamo to the United States: The Story of the Wrongly Imprisoned Uighurs (October 2008), Guantánamo Uyghurs’ resettlement prospects skewered by Justice Department lies (October 2008), Guilt By Torture: Binyam Mohamed’s Transatlantic Quest for Justice (November 2008), After 7 Years, Judge Orders Release of Guantánamo Kidnap Victims (November 2008), Is Robert Gates Guilty of Perjury in Guantánamo Torture Case? (December 2008), A New Year Message to Barack Obama: Free the Guantánamo Uighurs (January 2009), The Top Ten Judges of 2008 (January 2009), No End in Sight for the “Enemy Combatants” of Guantánamo (January 2009), Judge Orders Release of Guantánamo’s Forgotten Child (January 2009), How Cooking For The Taliban Gets You Life In Guantánamo (January 2009), Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics (February 2009), Bad News And Good News For The Guantánamo Uighurs (February 2009), The Nobodies Formerly Known As Enemy Combatants (March 2009), Farce at Guantánamo, as cleared prisoner’s habeas petition is denied (April 2009), Judge Condemns “Mosaic” Of Guantánamo Intelligence, And Unreliable Witnesses (May 2009), Pain At Guantánamo And Paralysis In Government (May 2009), Guantánamo: A Prison Built On Lies (May 2009), Free The Guantánamo Uighurs! (May 2009), Guantánamo And The Courts (Part One): Exposing The Bush Administration’s Lies (July 2009), Obama’s Failure To Deliver Justice To The Last Tajik In Guantánamo (July 2009), Obama And The Deadline For Closing Guantánamo: It’s Worse Than You Think (July 2009), How Judge Huvelle Humiliated The Government In Guantánamo Case (Mohamed Jawad, July 2009), As Judge Orders Release Of Tortured Guantánamo Prisoner, Government Refuses To Concede Defeat (Mohamed Jawad, July 2009), Guantánamo As Hotel California: You Can Check Out Any Time You Like, But You Can Never Leave (August 2009), Judge Orders Release From Guantánamo Of Kuwaiti Charity Worker (August 2009). Also see: Justice extends to Bagram, Guantánamo’s Dark Mirror (April 2009), Judge Rules That Afghan “Rendered” To Bagram In 2002 Has No Rights (July 2009).

11 Responses

  1. Frances Madeson says...

    Again, it’s all so abstract for the decision makers. If only the First Lady would interrupt her delightful days of gardening and puppy training to visit, even briefly, the Detention Center, we could make some real progress here. Besides being a lovely-to-look-at fashion icon, mom and wife, she also happens to be an off-the-charts brilliant lawyer in her own right. One wishes she would be more like Eleanor Roosevelt and less like Betty Crocker, and dig into the social justice concerns in desperate need of her attention. Those seeds need to be watered too.

    I mean, she’s already got the job, and we know she’s likable and beautiful (but honestly, she’s teetering on the edge of vapid). What else has she got? I for one would like to see her strut that other stuff, and soon!

  2. the talking dog says...

    Very nice round-up.

    I offer this coda: the Obama Administration’s view on its executive review is actually even more insidious than described above. The Government proposes that in the event the executive review clears someone, such clearance would deprive the courts of further jurisdiction. In other words, notwithstanding a multi-year habeas corpus case to prove the unlawfulness of detention, if the Government concedes that unlawfulness, the courts can go home. It’s, of course, the logical extension of the Government’s position in the Kiyemba (Uighurs) case [to paraphrase President Andrew Jackson]: Judge Urbina has made his decision, now let him enforce it… or, if you like, habeas corpus is merely an academic exercise, and if it’s politically inconvenient for the Government to honor a court’s law-based decision, well, it just won’t honor it (and the Executive branch has the guns… literally).

    This will all, of course, require yet a further decision from the S. Ct. (the irony being that the kind of jurist President Obama is likely to nominate to replace Justice Souter, i.e., one against too many restrictions on abortion, is likely to be one who would also side against the Government on issues of executive powers in general). But it seemed that Boumediene had already answered these questions by making habeas a Constitution-based remedy; end of story, right? Evidently… no.

    And when the next case answers them again… will it require yet another S. Ct. case to implement that decision, and so on?

    Unless the Obama Administration surprises everyone by unilaterally releasing the overwhelming majority of detainees on its own in relatively short order, the promise of “closing Guantanamo” by 20 January 2009 will be unkept; ironically, President Obama will probably not be too unhappy about this, as only people who supported him will be unhappy about that, and at least in the national security area, he seems content to have adopted his predecessor’s playbook.

    Unless the President seriously starts to “feel it” politically, with overwhelming public outrage… we can expect business as usual to proceed.

  3. the talking dog says...

    That, of course, is the promise of closing Guantanamo by 20 January 2010.

    And the jurisdictional deprivation is to actually prevent the courts from ordering– and obtaining– the “cleared” detainee’s actual release.

  4. Obama’s First 100 Days: A Start On Guantánamo, But Not Enough by Andy Worthington « Dandelion Salad says...

    [...] Guantánamo, But Not Enough by Andy Worthington Posted on May 4, 2009 by dandelionsalad by Andy Worthington Featured Writer Dandelion Salad http://www.andyworthington.co.uk Originally posted at the Future of [...]

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    TD,
    Fine coda.

    I do, however, think that we need to remain focused on Jan 20, 2010 as Gitmo Gone Day. I have reason to believe that it was handed down to those required to work out how to accomplish it as a fixed date that was not open to negotiation, although of course the order was not necessarily accompanied by the presentation of all the tools required to complete the job.

    However, when I read about the funding shortfall for dealing with the closure of Guantanamo the other day, it made me hope — just briefly — that such constraints would lead to the answer that you and I and others have been pressing for for years anyway — do all in your power to send home or rehouse all but those regarded as truly dangerous. It can’t cost THAT much, surely, to free 200 + prisoners from Guantanamo, can it?

  6. turning the page on tyranny « seeking spirit says...

    [...] up something that is — quite simply — a mess; a misguided experiment that has left in its wake a flood of legal challenges that my Administration is forced to deal with on a constant basis, and that consumes the time of [...]

  7. Obama’s First 100 Days: Mixed Messages On Torture by Andy Worthington « Dandelion Salad says...

    [...] about Guantánamo, and analyzed his progress — or lack of it — in closing the prison in a previous article, and in this second article I’m going to focus on his assertion that the new administration has [...]

  8. Why Did It Take So Long To Order The Release From Guantánamo Of An Al-Qaeda Torture Victim? by Andy Worthington « Dandelion Salad says...

    [...] the Bush administration, and has, under Attorney General Eric Holder, done all in its power to disable the habeas reviews by preventing the prisoners’ defense teams from having access to exculpatory material — or any [...]

  9. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed Profile « Emptysuit says...

    [...] 2009), The Talking Dog interviews Darrel Vandeveld, former Guantánamo prosecutor (February 2009), Obama’s First 100 Days: A Start On Guantánamo, But Not Enough (May 2009), Obama Returns To Bush Era On Guantánamo (May 2009), New Chief Prosecutor Appointed For [...]

  10. “Model Prisoner” at Guantánamo, Tortured in the “Dark Prison,” Loses Habeas Corpus Petition « freedetainees.org says...

    [...] (March 2009), Farce at Guantánamo, as cleared prisoner’s habeas petition is denied (April 2009), Obama’s First 100 Days: A Start On Guantánamo, But Not Enough (May 2009), Judge Condemns “Mosaic” Of Guantánamo Intelligence, And Unreliable Witnesses (May [...]

  11. Transcript Of President Obama’s Speech About Guantánamo And Terrorism « Covering Delta says...

    [...] up something that is — quite simply — a mess; a misguided experiment that has left in its wake a flood of legal challenges that my Administration is forced to deal with on a constant basis, and that consumes the time of [...]

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