On Guantánamo, Lawmakers Reveal They Are Still Dick Cheney’s Pawns

6.10.09

The logo of the US House of RepresentativesI like to believe that, despite studying Guantánamo for four years, I still have a sense of humor, but last Thursday I lost it, after 258 members of the House of Representatives (including 88 members of President Obama’s own party) voted for an idiotic, paranoid and unjust motion proposed by Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ken.), which was designed to “Prohibit the transfer of GITMO prisoners, period” (those were his exact words). Just 163 Representatives voted against the motion, which, as JURIST described it, also supports “adding Guantánamo detainees to the federal ‘no fly’ list, and adopting Senate language forbidding the release of photos showing detainee abuse.”

Just in case there was any doubt about the motion, Rep. Rogers, in his inimitable style, explained that he was concerned with “protecting the American people from all threats … including the warped intentions of terrorists and radical extremists,” and proceeded to explain that “This motion strengthens the House bill’s current restrictions on Guantánamo Bay detainees by ensuring their names have been put on the No Fly list and by clearly prohibiting their transfer to the United States — for whatever reason.”

After lambasting the Obama administration for having “No plan” for how to close Guantánamo, Rep. Rogers explained that “this motion prohibits the granting of any immigration benefit for any reason. Without such a benefit, there is no legal way to bring these terrorists to American soil and in our constituents’ backyards. And, that means these terrorists cannot be granted the same constitutional rights as American citizens.”

He added, “After all, these detainees are enemy combatants, caught on the battlefield. They are NOT common criminals and they should not be granted legal standing in our criminal courts by bringing them onto US soil. From my point of view, we cannot waver on this issue, nor can we be weak. There is no reason these terrorists, who pose a serious and documented threat to our nation, cannot be brought to justice right where they are in Cuba. And, I certainly think that is where the American people stand on this issue — they don’t want these terrorists in their hometowns, inciting fellow prisoners, abusing our legal system, and terrorizing their communities.”

This, then, is the reason that I have lost my sense of humor. In May, members of the US Senate voted by 90-6 to approve an amendment to the Supplemental Appropriations Act of 2009, eliminating $80 million from planned legislation intended to fund the closure of Guantánamo, and specifically prohibiting the use of any funding to “transfer, relocate, or incarcerate Guantánamo Bay detainees to or within the United States.” Defending the amendment, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), speaking for himself and his spineless colleagues who had bowed to a Republican fearmongering campaign, said, “This is neither the time nor the bill to deal with this. Democrats under no circumstances will move forward without a comprehensive, responsible plan from the president. We will never allow terrorists to be released into the United States.”

In June, the House of Representatives followed up by passing a spending bill turning down the administration’s request for $60 million to close Guantánamo, which, as JURIST described it, “placed limits on the government’s ability to transfer detainees to the US and release detainees to foreign countries.” Approved by a vote of 259-157, the bill also prohibited funds from being used to release detainees from Guantánamo into the United States. In JURIST’s words, “The legislation [requires] the president to submit to Congress a detailed plan documenting the costs and risks of transferring a detainee to the US for trial or detention at least two months before the detainee is to be transferred. Additionally, the president [has] to notify the governor and legislature of the state to which the detainee is to be transferred at least 30 days before the transfer and must show that the detainee does not pose a security risk. The bill also requires that the president submit a report to Congress before releasing a detainee into his country of origin or last habitual residence unless that country is the US.

Last Thursday’s vote was for a non-binding motion to instruct conferees to follow Rep. Rogers’ motion (see an explanation here) rather than binding legislation, but, at the very least, it signals that lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are determined to scupper Barack Obama’s pledge to close Guantánamo by January 22, 2010, for two indefensible reasons.

The first is the NIMBY card (Not In My Back Yard), in which lawmakers wail, as Rep. Rogers put it, that “the American people … don’t want these terrorists in their hometowns, inciting fellow prisoners, abusing our legal system, and terrorizing their communities.” This requires everyone involved to conveniently forget that America’s Supermax prisons are the envy of prison-lovers the world over, that convicted mass-murdering criminals — including some convicted of terrorism — are safely locked away in these prisons, and that the rest of the world is looking on and laughing at the lawmakers’ feeble paranoia.

However, the second reason for my despair is rather more fundamental. To hear Harry Reid, the Senate Majority Leader, use the word “terrorists” when referring to the Guantánamo prisoners, and to hear this same word repeated ad infinitum by Rep. Rogers, and by those many members of the Senate and the House who have persistently voted to prevent the closure of Guantánamo, is to step back into those dark months after the 9/11 attacks, when former Vice President Dick Cheney and his closest advisors were hatching their plans to hold anyone who ended up in US custody as an “enemy combatant” — in other words, neither as a criminal nor as a prisoner of war, but as a whole new category of non-being without rights.

It involves stepping back to a time when Cheney and his associates were hatching their plans to hand out bounty payments, averaging $5,000 a head, to the US military’s Afghan and Pakistani allies, who seized at least 86 percent of the men who ended up in Guantánamo, the majority of whom were not “caught on the battlefield,” as Rep. Rogers cla.

It also involves stepping back to when these same men — and defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld — were hatching their plans to prevent the military from conducting competent tribunals under Article 5 of the Geneva Conventions.

Pioneered by the US, and conducted during every war from Vietnam onwards, competent tribunals were designed to separate soldiers from civilians, in situations in which enemy soldiers did not wear uniforms, by holding tribunals close to the time and place of capture, in which these men could call witnesses to establish their credentials. In the first Gulf War, these tribunals led to nearly three-quarters of 1,200 men being released, but in Afghanistan the administration’s decision not to proceed with the tribunals (which was dictated from the highest levels of government) not only contributed to the filling of Guantánamo with people who were neither soldiers nor terrorists, but also led the administration to conclude that the humane standards of treatment required by the Geneva Conventions for all prisoners (whether uniformed personnel or not) did not apply to “enemy combatants.”

This was just the beginning. Voting to prevent the Obama administration from bringing Guantánamo prisoners to the US for any reason — even for federal court trials — endorses the notion that, having randomly rounded up hundreds of prisoners, and having refused to screen them, it was then justifiable to deprive them of the protections of the Geneva Conventions and to transport them to Guantánamo, where they continued to be held without rights, and where, if the lawmakers had their way, they would remain in that perpetual limbo.

What the nation’s lawmakers seem to be forgetting is that the legal black hole of Guantánamo’s early years was only maintained until June 2004, when no less a body than the US Supreme Court was required to intervene. The Supreme Court took the unprecedented step of granting the prisoners habeas corpus rights because, although some of them may well have been soldiers, who should have been held as prisoners of war, or terrorists, who should have been prosecuted as criminals, the Bush administration’s decision to hold them as “enemy combatants” without rights meant that those who claimed that they were innocent men seized by mistake — perhaps in connection with those bounty payments mentioned above — had no way whatsoever of challenging the basis of their detention. Without the intervention of the Supreme Court, they could have been held for the rest of their lives without ever having been screened adequately to determine whether they were, in fact, terrorists, soldiers or innocent men seized by mistake or sold for money.

Even then, this miserable story was far from over, as lawmakers should recall. In an attempt to ignore the impact of the Supreme Court’s ruling, the Bush administration introduced one-sided military tribunals to evaluate the prisoners’ cases, relying on supposed evidence that in fact consisted largely of “confessions” extracted from other prisoners, either through torture or coercion, or through bribery (the promise of better living conditions, or the false promise of freedom), and persuaded Congress (including many of the same cowardly propagandists responsible for the votes in May, June and last Thursday) to pass two hideously flawed pieces of legislation — the Detainee Treatment Act of 2005 and the Military Commissions Act of 2006 — which purported to strip the prisoners of the habeas rights granted by the Supreme Court.

Last June, the Supreme Court rose up again, this time granting the prisoners constitutionally guaranteed habeas corpus rights, and setting in motion a process of reviews that, to date, has led to District Court judges examining the government’s supposed evidence in 38 cases, and ruling that, in 30 of these cases (in other words, in 79 percent of the cases), the government failed to establish that the men in question were members of, or supported al-Qaeda and/or the Taliban. If the lawmakers cared to read the rulings, they would discover that this was largely because the judges concluded that the government was relying on supposed evidence that in fact consisted largely of “confessions” extracted from other prisoners, either through torture or coercion, or through bribery (the promise of better living conditions, or the false promise of freedom).

Fortunately, the lawmakers are no longer able to prevent these cases from taking place — as no doubt, if they were able, they would yet again cast the remaining prisoners into a lawless abyss — but by making such sweeping generalizations about the “terrorists” in Guantánamo, and about preventing the government from transferring any of these “terrorists” to the US mainland to be imprisoned and to face trials, they are committing a number of grievous errors.

They are preventing justice from being delivered in the cases of the small number of prisoners actually accused of involvement in the 9/11 attacks and other acts of international terrorism, and they are shamelessly, ridiculously, and unforgivably tarring everyone held at Guantánamo as a “terrorist,” even though the majority of the men have never been charged with any crime, even though the lack of screening and the bounty payments that I mentioned above have been assiduously chronicled by lawyers and writers — myself included — who have not succumbed to a witless parroting of Dick Cheney’s hollow propaganda, and even though judges in US courts continue to demonstrate that, behind the hype and hyperbole, the majority of these men are not “terrorists” at all.

My sense of humor will return (you don’t deal with Guantánamo day in and day out without having a sense of humor, however dark), but my despair at the spinelessness and stupidity of the majority of the nation’s lawmakers will only dissipate when these men and women can be bothered to examine the facts, rather than letting themselves remain infected by the lies and paranoia of the most disgraceful Vice President in American history.

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 I can also be found on Facebook and Twitter). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009, and if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

As published exclusively on the website of the Future of Freedom Foundation, as “Dick Cheney’s Pawns On Guantánamo.” Cross-posted on The Public Record and uruknet.

21 Responses

  1. the talking dog says...

    Well, this is the most frustrating part of what we who try to enlighten the public on these issues are up against: the public evidently doesn’t seem to want to be enlightened. Certainly, the public’s “elected representatives” have less than no interest at all in learning of the ugly reality of the injustice of Guantanamo (and the rest of America’s gulag archipelago). Indeed, they don’t even care about the brute political reality that the ongoing injustice of Guantanamo’s very presence is one of the world’s most effective recruiting sergeants for terrorism in general and anti-American terrorism in particular.

    As David Cole said (at least, as relayed to me by Tom Wilner http://thetalkingdog.com/archives2/000572.html ), the Guantanamo detainees simply have no domestic constituency. There is no particularly identifiable discrete group of voters who will be moved by “doing the right thing,” (such as their counterweight, so-called “security moms,” or better yet, “military industrial complex moms”) and we certainly do have an active military-industrial-complex feeding campaign coffers of congress members to keep the permanent war going, i.e., creating more enemies for America is a good thing in the apparent minds of most of our elected officials, because it keeps the campaign coffers full, and hence, in their cushy jobs. What happens to the national treasury, or to soldiers and their families is utterly irrelevant– as long as the members are returned to their nice offices, health clubs, commissaries, cocktail parties, etc.

    Republicans, at least, have a simple, consistent message: if it embarrasses Obama, then bully for it. While reprehensible to those of us who think of themselves as people of goodwill, it is at least a consistent position– frankly, Democrats could learn a thing or two about being an “opposition party.” The thing is, Obama blowing his “close GTMO in a year” promise because Democrats got in the way will only serve to hurt the individual Democratic members, who will be tarred with any such “embarrassment” themselves, regardless of what they foolishly see as their “strategic” voting on this.

    But then, as the current manual for American governance tells us, “Ignorance is strength.”

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks. TD, for today’s T-shirt slogan: “Ignorance is strength.” I have to say that I do reserve almost all my disappointment for the Democrats obstructing Obama, because I expect the ghost of Cheney to run through the Republican party — but then again, if I was an intelligent Republican (and there must be some intelligent men and women in both parties, surely?), I’d be angered that Cheney’s violent self-seeking paranoia had triumphed so comprehensively.
    That’s really the bottom line. However much the administration faffs about, the courts are able to deconstruct the Cheney world-view, but the lawmakers just don’t get it. Do all the Democrat lawmakers who’ve been voting for all this crap really not investigate any of the background to this horrible story AT ALL?

  3. Andy Worthington Discusses Guantánamo And Bagram On Antiwar Radio « Dandelion Salad says...

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  5. Will Shirley says...

    I suppose it’s because I was raised by parents who thought lying was the #1 worse thing you could do, because, my father said, if you lie you lose your honor and a man without honor is an empty shell. “Dick” Cheney is an empty shell of a man. But now we have a political party without honor, only greed, and the opposing party,( which is merely an extension of the first party), is too afraid of somehow putting themselves in the wrong light by being right. One party, bound by fear and hate, propelled by greed, financed by our children’s future.

    Fascists always find a minority group to stigmatize and isolate as “the enemy”. Those members of that group within society are stripped of their humanity and those located elsewhere are held up as dangerous and threatening to our welfare. We have to go out into the world and decimate the population. In other words the policy of the right is to kill every enemy and potential enemy until the only ones left are those who love and respect us. I suggest we poll Congress with this question: “Should we torture and murder all those prisoners left at gitmo?” and see how many of our great leaders would answer “yes”. This would at least identify the psychotics.

    Andy, I think it would be good, if impossible, if we could just have a referendum on the national level and determine once and for all if progressives, those who care for human life, those who support the rule of law, are in fact a tiny minority of the population. If we found out that most Americans think we should kill for security, even the innocent who are simply nearby, ie collateral damage, then those of us who think otherwise could apply for political asylum in Europe or somewhere else. I worry that lawful, honorable, decent people might be in the minority. Look at what we have on TV for entertainment! Look at the games we give our children to play. We are breeding killers, educated in unethical behavior and taught that violence is the first option. Why do we wait until college to teach philosophy, ethics, debate? I fear the future of Amerika.

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Will. Sadly, although I think the Right is more rabid and numerous in the States than here in Old Europe, where we are more adept at recognizing fascism in our midst, we are also deeply infected by the fearmongering and murderous impulses fostered over the last eight years. One million people voted for the fascists in our recent elections, and the Tories, who may win the next election, have already announced that one of their key policies is to scrap the Human Rights Act.

  7. The Demise of the Dollar - Robert Fisk, Michael Moore’s Problems Are Our Fault, No Matter Who Loses, Goldman Sachs Wins, | Tea Break says...

    [...] On Guantánamo, Lawmakers Reveal They Are Still Dick Cheney’s Pawns – By Andy Worthington on Guantanamo and US Supreme Court – I like to believe that, despite studying Guantánamo for four years, I still have a sense of humor, but last Thursday I lost it, after 258 members of the House of Representatives (including 88 members of President Obama’s own party) voted for an idiotic, paranoid and unjust motion proposed by Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ken.) [...]

  8. The Boiling Frog says...

    Sir, you may be forgiven even if you have suffered a permanent loss of your sense of humour. Perhaps all that is truly required is to maintain one’s sense of the absurd.

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    You’re right. A sense of the absurd — however dark — is certainly useful.

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    The following inspiring message came from Vietnam veteran Wade Kane:

    I’m a Vietnam US Army combat vet, June 67-June 68, Chinook door gunner, Tet ’68,. Battle for Hue, Relief of Khe Sahn, The April ’68 A Shau Valley debacle. When I was in the Army, the stuff we are doing to “combatants” at Gitmo was stated as being done by the evil commies in “why we fight” speeches by our commanders. Damned if I can see how attending a Taliban training camp can become life in prison without charges or a trial. Russia should go around South America arresting and transporting to a Siberian Gulag every single graduate of the “School of the Americas” Where we train people the same way. Funny running and funding “Charlie Wilson’s War” we trained Afghanistanis in Afghanistan. Terrorism, what was Nagaski and Hiroshima Atomic bombs? Even Curtis LeMay opposed using them. Before WWII Major General H H Arnold and Col Ira C. Eaker stated on page 9 of their 1941 book Winged Warfare, that several years earlier in international negotiations the Bombing Plane, like Poison Gas, be labeled taboo in warfare. This was because “the vision of the bomber dropping his deadly cargo on defenseless women and children, in crowded streets, on the seats of government, on the banks, the factories, the railroads, was provocative of unpleasant emotions.”

    I guess those high ideals of a history of over a century of America being defensive not aggressive just went right out the window after Pearl Harbor. It was after all the US that humiliated the Japanese in the 1850s by forcing them to give our ships coaling rights. Their response was to buy battleships from Britain and France, and by 1905 decimated the Russian Pacific fleet. They, better than the US, learned the lessons of the Brit attack with torpedo planes on Italian battleships at Tarranto in 1940.

    But could not Obama transfer the prisoners we hold at Gitmo by “extraordinary rendition” to the USA?

    As a kid I learned that wherever the US flag flew, American Law applied. I guess the Navy don’t have a single flag pole at Gitmo.

    To get full retirement I needed to retire in 2006. I left a full time position with the Air Guard in 2004 as I just could not stand to be a part of a military which was doing stuff we hanged Nazis and Japanese Officers for doing. Not in my Name!

    Seems to me firing a hellfire missile from a drone aircraft flown by an operator in the US is a war crime. Maybe by 2025 Obama and Bush can share a jail cell at the Hague.

    Thanks for your good work.

    Wade

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