I wrote the following article for the “Close Guantánamo” website, which I established in January 2012 with US attorney Tom Wilner. Please join us — just an email address is required to be counted amongst those opposed to the ongoing existence of Guantánamo, and to receive updates of our activities by email.
As the hunger strike continues at Guantánamo — which we publicized here in two previous articles, “How Long Can the Government Pretend that the Massive Hunger Strike at Guantánamo Doesn’t Exist?” and “Voices from the Hunger Strike in Guantánamo” — we’re delighted to report that Tom Wilner, the co-founder of “Close Guantánamo” with Andy Worthington, had an opinion piece published in the Washington Post last week, which we’re cross-posting below.
Tom, who is on the steering committee of “Close Guantánamo” with Andy, was counsel of record to the Guantánamo prisoners in Rasul v. Bush and Boumediene v. Bush, the two Supreme Court cases that established the prisoners’ right to habeas corpus.
In his opinion piece, “Get serious about closing Guantánamo,” Tom ran through the reasons why the prisoners are in despair, after eleven years of imprisonment, in almost all cases without charge or trial, and four years after President Obama promised to close the prison, and established an interagency Guantánamo Review Task Force, who recommended that 86 of the remaining 166 prisoners should be released. They are still held, as Tom pointed out, because of Congressional opposition — and also, it should be noted, because of President Obama’s own inaction.
A hunger strike is spreading at the Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, prison camp. The main reason, as the military has acknowledged, is the growing sense of frustration and despair among the detainees. As Gen. John Kelly, the head of U.S. Southern Command, explained to the House Armed Services Committee last week, detainees “had great optimism that Guantánamo would be closed. They were devastated … when the president backed off … He said nothing about it in his inauguration speech … He said nothing about it in his State of the Union speech … He’s not restaffing the office that … looks at closing the facility.”
The hunger strike is the Guantánamo detainees’ cry for attention. Why should Americans care? After all, haven’t members of Congress told the public that the detainees are terrorists who would kill us in our sleep if they got the chance? That is the reason lawmakers have given for enacting legislation that has made it virtually impossible to transfer detainees out of Guantánamo, to the United States or anywhere else. The American people have been led to believe that the detainees are all too dangerous to release or transfer, and that we must keep them at Guantánamo to protect our security.
That line may play well politically, but it is simply not true, and it is costing us dearly.
One hundred and sixty-six men are still held at Guantánamo. Fewer than 20 are “high-value detainees,” men who were transferred to Guantánamo from other locations several years ago and are scheduled to stand trial for war crimes. The others were, at most, low-level functionaries or people swept up and sold for bounties in the confusing initial stages of the fog of war in Afghanistan. Many simply were in the wrong place at the wrong time. In fact, more than half of them — 86 — were cleared for release more than three years ago by a special presidential task force composed of top U.S. intelligence and law enforcement officials. Some were cleared even before that, during the Bush administration. Because of congressional restrictions, however, they remain locked up. And unlike prisoners in the United States, these men are held virtually incommunicado, with no opportunity to see their families. Those not initially cleared were promised review hearings almost four years ago, but not one has occurred. They are understandably frustrated.
Even beyond the terrible injustice to them, the United States is paying a very high price for all this. Guantánamo is our nation’s most expensive prison, with an annual operating budget of almost $177 million, more than a million dollars per year for each detainee, and almost $90 million a year just for the 86 prisoners who were cleared for release three-plus years ago. The nearly $300 million spent jailing the latter group the past three years and the annual cost of keeping Guantánamo open amount to a lot of money that could be used to save jobs and services being cut as a result of the so-called sequester. And the costs of keeping Guantánamo open probably will increase. The military has said its Cuban base is in dire need of upgrades and has requested nearly $200 million for capital improvements to keep Guantánamo functioning as a prison. Where is the congressional concern with those costs?
But the cost to our nation is more than economic. Many who have been charged with protecting our national security, including former defense secretary Robert Gates, former national security adviser Dennis Blair, former CIA director David Petraeus and former secretary of state Colin Powell, have pointed out that Guantánamo actually hurts U.S. security. As Sen. John McCain emphasized during his bid for the White House, when he “strongly” favored closing Guantánamo, the prison is a negative symbol that serves as an important recruiting tool for terrorists. President Obama himself has said that Guantánamo has probably “created more terrorists around the world than it ever detained.”
“There is also no question,” Obama said in a May 2009 speech, that Guantánamo has undermined “America’s strongest currency in the world” — our “moral authority.”
It is time to get serious about closing Guantánamo. The president should appoint someone in the White House responsible for coordinating efforts to close this prison, and that person should work closely with the congressional leadership of both parties to get the job done. Pandering to fear for political expediency should no longer be tolerated. As Thomas Jefferson wrote, our government’s policies must be based not “on fears and follies” but on “reason.”
In February, we published an article, “The Relentless Importance of Closing Guantánamo,” in which we issued three demands for President Obama, one of which was the need to appoint someone within the administration to deal specifically with the closure of Guantánamo, as Tom specifically pointed out in his opinion piece.
Below are our demands, and we encourage you to write to the President, and to Secretary of State John Kerry, to demand immediate action before any of the hunger strikers at Guantánamo die.
1: Lift the ban on releasing any of the 56 cleared Yemenis from Guantánamo, imposed in January 2010.
2: Appoint a new person to deal specifically with closing Guantánamo, to find new homes for the cleared prisoners in need of assistance.
3: Take the fight to Congress to stop treating the cleared prisoners as pawns in a cynical game of political maneuvering, and to clear the way for all 86 cleared prisoners to be repatriated or safely rehoused in other countries.
Please help us by writing to President Obama, and to Secretary of State John Kerry:
President Barack Obama
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20500
or email the President.
Secretary of State John Kerry
US Department of State
2201 C Street NW
Washington, DC 20520
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, 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.
On Facebook, Mark Matthews wrote:
Well, more like the President of the United States who has tied his own hands, Mark. He can undo them if he wants. Nothing outrageous, of course, but releasing prisoners cleared for release by his own task force is perfectly possible.
Norbert Kaysser wrote:
Give it back to the Cubans.
Canada started a boycott that ended the official apartheid in South Africa. Maybe it’s time for another boycott? Budweiser and Fritos?
Yes, that would be appropriate, Norbert. The very premise of having permanently stolen Cuba’s easternmost bay is thoroughly disgraceful.
Norbert Kaysser wrote:
England eventually gave Hong Kong back to China, surely America can give Guantanamo back to the Cubans?
If the will was there, yes, Norbert. I suppose it depends on the American people reaching a point where they find ways to effectively demand that their insane military budget is massively reduced.
Monique D’hooghe wrote:
aren’t the americans paying cuba something to have that disgraceful prison there? i thought i had read something of the sorts… Andy?
Yes, there’s a few thousand dollars a year payment from the US, I believe, Monique. The story is that Castro never cashed it – except once, by accident, but the real problem is the lease, which can only end if both parties agree to it.
Monique D’hooghe wrote:
thanks for explaining… you are a champ )
If the US had the sense to just go after KSM and the 4 or 5 other genuine terrorists they are holding instead of ruining the lives of a lot of random people, would you still want Gitmo shut down? I think I would, as the terrorists could face trial in a US district court.
Yes, Thomas, there should be federal court trials for those accused of acts of international terrorism – KSM and a few others – and the rest should be freed, unless the US wants to hold them as prisoners of war, and then to objectively try to justify holding them, and to claim that its war is genuinely endless. As it is, we’re stuck waiting for the military commissions to collapse, for the President to decide that clearing men for release and then not clearing them is unacceptable, and for the President also to accept that specifically holding 46 men without charge or trial, on the basis of an executive order that he issued, in which he promised them periodic reviews of their cases, but has failed to implement those reviews, is also unacceptable.
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