Eleven years ago, on January 11, 2002, the Bush administration proudly presented to the world one of its major responses to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 — a prison on the grounds of the US naval base in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, designed to hold hundreds of men and boys seized in the “war on terror” that was declared in the wake of the attacks, where the prisoners were to be neither criminals not soldiers, but “enemy combatants” without any rights whatsoever.
The base was chosen because it was presumed to be beyond the reach of the US courts, and when the prisoners were deliberately excluded from the protections of the Geneva Conventions, in a directive issued by President Bush on February 7, 2002, it became a genuinely evil experiment, devoted to torture and other forms of coercion, indefinite detention without charge or trial, and the extraction of false statements from the prisoners that were then dressed up as evidence to justify holding them.
This was in spite of the fact that, for the most part, the prisoners knew nothing about Al-Qaeda or international terrorism, and were sold to US forces for bounty payments by their Afghan and Pakistani allies, or seized as a result of inept US intelligence. Many of the prisoners were living in Pakistan or visiting Pakistan, or were visiting Afghanistan as missionaries, humanitarian aid workers, refugees or economic migrants.
Others were soldiers, recruited by clerics in their homelands to help the Pashtun Taliban fight an inter-Muslim civil war against Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance, comprising the country’s other ethnic components — the Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazara who make up over half the population. These men may have been sold a lie about the Taliban establishing a “pure Islamic state” in Afghanistan, but few of them had even met Osama bin Laden, and only a few dozen of the 779 could genuinely be alleged to have had any involvement with terrorism or to have traveled to Afghanistan to engage in any kind of conflict with the United States prior to the 9/11 attacks.
Eleven years on, the prison’s continued existence demonstrates the profound failure of the US establishment to deal with the crimes committed in the name of counter-terrorism by the Bush administration. Although torture has largely been replaced by assassination as government policy — in the drone attacks that are such a hallmark of the Obama administration — the cancer of indefinite detention continues, at Guantánamo, to eat away at America’s belief in justice and fairness.
166 men are still held, of the 779 held in total since the prison opened, and, shockingly, 86 of these men were cleared for release — or otherwise told that the US government did not want to continue holding them without charge or trial for the rest of their lives — at least three years ago, after an interagency Guantanamo Review Task Force, established by President Obama, issued a report after a year spent reviewing all the prisoners’ cases. In around half the cases, these men had previously been cleared for release, between 2004 and 2007, by military review boards established by the Bush administration.
In two-thirds of the cases, these prisoners are still held because they are Yemenis, and President Obama imposed a ban on the release of any cleared Yemenis from Guantánamo after Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a Nigerian man recruited in Yemen, tried and failed to blow up a US-bound plane on Christmas Day 2009. The rest are largely held because of onerous restrictions imposed by Congress, where lawmakers have passed legislation designed to prevent any prisoners from being released, for the most part as a cynical political maneuver.
On the 11th anniversary, I call on President Obama to fulfil the promise to close Guantánamo that he made when he took office in January 2009. The Yemenis, held on the basis of “guilt by nationality,” must be freed, and negotiations need to take place between the administration and Congress regarding the passages in the National Defense Authorization Act that prevent the release of prisoners, requiring the secretary of defense to make promises about the men’s future conduct that are impossible to make; namely, that they will not, under any circumstances, be able to pose a threat to the US or its interests.
Last Wednesday, when President Obama signed the latest National Defense Authorization Act, a $633 billion monster that will fund America’s bloated military-industrial complex for another year, he included a signing statement in which he criticized Congress, noting, “I continue to believe that operating the facility weakens our national security by wasting resources, damaging our relationships with key allies, and strengthening our enemies.”
Although President Obama had threatened to veto the bill, as he had threatened last year, he failed to do so in the end, stating, from his vacation in Honolulu, that he signed the bill into law because of “the need to renew critical defense authorities,” for which “funding was too great to ignore.” He did, however, give notice to Congress that he was not necessarily prepared to accept the restrictions if they violated what he regards as the acceptable reach of Presidential power.
Specifically, he stated, “My administration will interpret these provisions as consistent with existing and future determinations by the agencies of the executive responsible for detainee transfers. In the event that these statutory restrictions operate in a manner that violates constitutional separation of powers principles, my administration will implement them in a manner that avoids the constitutional conflict.”
In other correspondence in the run-up to the signing, defense secretary Leon Panetta wrote to House Armed Services Committee Chairman, Rep. Buck McKeon on December 11 to argue for “relief from the restrictions” by “highlighting the financial costs” of Guantánamo, where 1,700 troops and civilians work, and where, as the Miami Herald explained, “the Pentagon imports everything from food to fuel for electricity to entertainment for both captives and captors.” It costs around $800,000 a year to hold prisoners at Guantánamo — meaning that it costs nearly $70 million a year to hold the cleared prisoners alone — whereas the cost of one year’s federal confinement in a maximum security prison is just less than $35,000 a year; in other words, less than five percent of the cost per prisoner at Guantánamo.
Panetta also noted, “These sections would preclude moving even convicted war criminals serving life sentences to secure facilities in the United States that would also be economically efficient,” a reference that, at present, applies only to one prisoner, Ali al-Bahlul, convicted of producing videos for Al-Qaeda in a trial by military commission in 2008 at which he was given a life sentence after refusing to mount a defense.
Primarily, however, as the Miami Herald explained, President Obama took exception to a passage that “forbids the use of federal funds to transfer Guantánamo detainees to US soil for any reason, including a federal criminal trial,” and another which “maintains restrictions on executive branch authority to transfer detainees to a foreign country.” As the article noted, these restrictions “have all but frozen transfers from the base. Only those detainees who die in custody or who get court release orders can leave without a Defense Department waiver and certification to Congress.”
With the legitimacy of the military commissions under threat after a conservative judge in the D.C. Circuit Court, Judge Brett Kavanaugh, quashed the 2008 conviction of Salim Hamdan, a driver for Osama bin Laden, for providing material support to terrorism, because, as he correctly noted, it was not a crime at the time of the supposed offense, the administration may be looking for a way to revive federal court trials for Guantánamo prisoners.
Although terror suspects in general are prosecuted in federal court, where material support is a recognized offense, only one Guantánamo prisoner, Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, a Tanzanian peripherally involved in the 1998 African Embassy bombings, made it to the mainland for a federal court trial before the Congressional shutters came down. The administration’s intention to prosecute Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four other men in federal court in New York, which was announced in November 2009, was abandoned in a humiliating climbdown by President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder, when significant opposition was mounted, and they caved in to the criticism.
Perhaps hinting that officials wanted to look once more at federal court trials, President Obama stated that the proposal for federal court trials “substitutes the Congress’s blanket political determination for careful and fact-based determinations, made by counterterrorism and law enforcement professionals, of when and where to prosecute Guantánamo detainees.” Reiterating his concerns that his power as the President was being unduly impeded, he added, “Removing that tool from the executive branch undermines our national security. Moreover, this provision would, under certain circumstances, violate constitutional separation of powers principles.”
While the tug-of-war between Congress and the executive branch continues, there can be no justice for the remaining prisoners in Guantanamo — neither the 86 men cleared but still held, nor the 30 or so scheduled to face trials. For the sake of justice, a solution needs to be found that can lead to the release of the cleared prisoners, and fair trials, sooner rather than later, for the other men. In addition, a solution needs to be found for 46 others, who were recommended for indefinite detention without charge or trial by Obama’s Task Force, on the basis that they were too dangerous to release, but that insufficient evidence exists to put them on trial. This is deeply shocking, but also typical of the problems, as it infers a state of danger where none can be proved.
Everyone involved in this profoundly shameful story, in the executive branch and Congress, needs to stop treating Guantánamo as though it is some sort of challenging law enforcement matter. It is a legal, moral and ethical abomination, its rationale built on arrogance and vengeance, and sustained through torture and lies. Those who allegedly constitute a threat should be tried, and everyone else should be released, unless the US government can find the courage to declare that some of them are prisoners of war, as defined by the Geneva Conventions, who can legitimately be held unmolested until the end of hostilities.
However, that would involve the administration and lawmakers having to accept legal challenges regarding the duration of the “war on terror,” which, it seems, they do not want, preferring to continue to shirk their responsibilities for defining what kind of war America is allegedly involved in, and maintaining an ill-defined global war indefinitely.
The men at Guantánamo are victims of this bogus war, as are the 50 or so non-Afghan prisoners at Bagram, in Afghanistan, whose release was prevented by Congress for the first time in this year’s NDAA, even though some of them have been held for over ten years without even the limited rights of the Guantánamo prisoners.
That the lives of these prisoners should be sacrificed for endless war through a policy of indefinite dentition ought to be a source of undying shame for all Americans. It is time, once more, to demand the closure of Guantánamo, but this time not to give up if elected officials try to silence us with indifference.
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) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed — and I can also be found on Facebook, Twitter, Digg, Flickr (my photos) and YouTube. Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in April 2012, “The Complete Guantánamo Files,” a 70-part, million-word series drawing on files released by WikiLeaks in April 2011, and details about the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, and available on DVD here — or here for the US). Also see my definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all my articles, and please also consider joining the new “Close Guantánamo campaign,” and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.
As published exclusively on the website of the Future of Freedom Foundation.
I’m sure that most of you know that Obama has nominated Jack Lew to replace Timothy Geithner as Treasury Secretary. Now, what does that have to do with Guantanamo? A lot.
Like Obama, Lew is an attorney. He’s yet another Wall St. person who believes in continuing the current big business approach to govt. He’s never publically criticized Guantanamo or for that matter any of Obama’s continuing Bush’s “fighting terrrorism” policies. Meanwhile, many progressives are saying that Paul Krugman would be a much better choice. Yet, we all know that that won’t happen due to Krugman talking about more govt. stimulus spending.
Some economists say the national debt will bankrupt us. Others say that rapidly falling deficits will actually hurt and not help the economy. Regardless of who you think is right, as Andy mentioned in this post, it costs a LOT of money to maintain Guantanemo. It may be offshore (and out of mind to many), but it’s still there. Also, somebody has to pay for it.
The average Congressperson works 3 hours out of a 10 hour day. The other 7 are for re-election fundraising. That being said, if “austerity cuts” are made, why not start with Guantanamo? Other than political expediency, what other purpose does it serve?
Like a lot of you, I’m trying really hard not to become angry, burned out and cynical all day long. Despite that, the current spin here is at times surreal. Obama talks about controlling gun violence, and many people buy out the same weapon that a shooter used to kill people. They use the “we must stop govt. tyranny” soundbite. Yet, if you say hang on a minute, does that also include Guantanamo as well, nobody will touch it.
Most would probably say if you have a celebrity attached to a cause, then it trends and therfore it is news. The problem with that is that not all but many celebs don’t deal with issues UNTIL they’re basically set for life. Then, who cares if nobody will hire me ever again?
Thanks, Tom, for the interesting comments.
We are, btw, actively seeking out celebrities who share our disgust at the ruinous cost Of Guantanamo, economically, morally, ethically, and in terms of justice, and the myriad ways in which the prison’s existence is fundamentally counter-productive!
On Facebook, Marguerite Dehler wrote:
Zilma Nunes wrote:
Thanks, Marguerite and Zilma, and everyone who has liked and shared this. Strange reality indeed … What’s impressed me the last few days is the depth of the indignation, and the determination to hit the administration over and over again with the inarguably powerful argument that holding cleared prisoners for the rest of their lives is absolutely unforgiveable. We have always had right on our side; now we have such a tightly targeted message, which reveals such profound hypocrisy and political cowardice and indifference, that we can, I believe, do damage to the administration, and help to write their legacy as one of abject moral failure, if they don’t sit down and talk to us, and work out how to move out of the seemingly permanent state of inertia created by all three branches of the government.
Christine Casner wrote:
Thanks, Chris. Good to hear from you.
Andy, you know I appreciate your work so much. But I can’t take seriously Obama’s signing statement. If he wanted to transfer prisoners, he could (easily easily) raise funds privately, and if he wanted to transfer prisoners, he could (easily easily) have the state department print a lovely certificate of suitability for each lucky “detainee”.
In my cynical mind, I believe that the men are kept in Cuba in the hopes that it will dampen the idea that they should be tried in Federal Court, since on the one hand they are not “prisoners” of “war”, although “we” are at “war”. The story is that these suspects were disguised, which isn’t fair, although our boys were disguised as a polio eradication team to get DNA from ben ladin’s compound, and the real polio eradication team was unfortunately subsequently killed, and the cause of polio eradication set back … years.
Good to hear from you, Martin. The signing statement is meant to tick the box marked “I care.” It’s obviously not meant, or, as you say, Obama would privately arrange for transfers. The problem, i believe, is that he doesn’t want to fight Congress, and has been told that none of the men still in Guantanamo are “innocent”; that there are supporters of terror and military men, in other words. On this, he presumably believes too much in the so-called “evidence” that his task force examined in 2009, when they erred on the side of caution to a troubling extent.
It’s for this reason that I’m looking at ways to expose the evidence as a sham, to demonstrate that (a) there are innocent men still held, wrongly regarded as dangerous, and (b) there may be former foot soldiers, but they’re nothing more than that, and they shouldn’t continue to be held 12 years after hostilities began. In connection with this latter point, it also ought to show those in power that they need to fully reinstate the Geneva Conventions.
Writer, campaigner, investigative journalist and commentator. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.”
Email Andy Worthington
Please support Andy Worthington, independent journalist: