Can We Have A Discussion About Releasing the Majority of the Guantánamo Prisoners?

13.4.13

With the prison-wide hunger strike at Guantánamo now entering its third month, conditions at the prison have come under sustained scrutiny for the first time in many years, and media outlets, both domestic and international, have learned, or have been reminded that 166 men remain at the prison.

These men remain imprisoned despite President Obama’s promise to close Guantánamo, which he made when he first took office in January 2009, and despite the fact that over half of them — 86 in total — were cleared for release from the prison in 2009 by an inter-agency Guantánamo Review Task Force, established by the President to decide who should be freed and who should continue to be held.

For those of us who understand that Guantánamo will poison America’s moral standing as long as it remains open, the awakening or reawakening of interest in the prison — and the prisoners — is progress, although there is still some way to go before President Obama or lawmakers understand that they need to release prisoners, or face the very real prospect that everyone still held at Guantánamo will remain there until they die, even though the overwhelming majority have never been charged with any crime, and never will be.

Two-thirds of the 86 prisoners cleared for release are Yemenis, but after a Nigerian man, recruited in Yemen, tried and failed to blow up a plane bound for the US on Christmas Day 2009, with a bomb in his underwear, President Obama imposed a blanket ban on releasing any of the cleared Yemenis, which still stands to this day. His reluctance was then reinforced and amplified by lawmakers, who passed legislation insisting that no prisoners should be released to any country they regarded as dangerous, or where there had been a claim that even a single prisoner had been a recidivist.

Alleged incidents of recidivism — returning to the battlefield — have become a rallying cry for mainly Republican lawmakers since President Obama took office, as a result of successive claims — primarily originating in the Pentagon and never adequately backed up by any information that can be independently verified as evidence — alleging that a significant proportion of released prisoners had become recidivists.

The perceived threat from Yemen — and the dubious claims about recidivism — need to be challenged if a case is to be made for releasing prisoners from Guantánamo, but mainstream commentators have persistently shied away from confronting the President or Congress on these obstacles to the closure of Guantánamo.

So it was somewhat heartening, last week, to see that Rosa Brooks, law professor and former policy advisor to the Obama administration, wrote an article for Foreign Policy entitled, “Let Them Go” — posted elsewhere as “Why not let Guantánamo prisoners go?” — which directly confronted these questions.

After noting, “The fear that detainees at Guantánamo or Afghanistan might ‘return to the battlefield’ if released remains an ongoing feature of debates about US detention policy,” Brooks conceded that this concern “isn’t entirely frivolous,” because some former prisoners “have taken up arms against the United States after gaining their freedom,” but then directly confronted the refusal to move beyond these concerns, by stating, “here’s my heretical thought: So what? Or, more precisely: Isn’t it time to recognize that the dangers associated with releasing detainees might be outweighed by the dangers of continuing to hold them?”

This is a hugely important point, reinforced by Brooks when she writes, “we should weigh the dangers of releasing detainees against the long-term threat posed by our own detention policies. There’s ample reason to believe that US detention policies have incited anti-American sentiment around the globe.”

To be fair to the Obama administration, this is the position that the President and his advisors have always maintained, but Brooks, crucially, ties it specifically to the actions needed to make it mean anything at all beyond empty posturing — the need to release prisoners, and the need to challenge the claims about recidivism that have been so damaging.

She writes that “fears about detainee recidivism are overblown,” because “most previously released Guantánamo detainees have not ‘returned to the battlefield’ — and of those who have, few appear to have posed a direct or severe threat to the United States.”

Brooks is to be congratulated for puncturing the hysteria about recidivism that has been manufactured by those who want to keep Guantánamo open for their own malignant reasons, and her comments should also be regarded as extending to President Obama’s unacceptable, fear-filled ban on releasing Yemenis whose release was recommended by his own task force, on the basis of the actions of one man, a failed plane bomber, thereby consigning them to indefinite detention on the basis of their nationality alone.

Further demonstrating the sincerity of her intentions, Brooks notes ruefully that the government “seems generally averse to engaging in the serious cost-benefit analysis of our detention policies I have suggested,” but points out that “there is another potential basis for reconsidering our collective fear that released detainees will return to the battlefield: We have the ability to significantly mitigate the risk posed by released detainees. We can, for instance, closely monitor released detainees, using a wide range of surveillance technologies.”

Rather facetiously, it seems to me, she concludes by saying that all the remaining prisoners should be freed, each given $10,000 and thanked by John Brennan “for everything they’ve done to help the United States eliminate al-Qaida and its associates.”

That, however, fails to detract from the overall power of her message — that recidivism claims have been monstrously overblown, and that acknowledging the damage that Guantánamo does to America’s safety and reputation means nothing without prisoners actually being released.

It is also worth noting that the spur for her article seems to have been the latest news from Afghanistan, where, on March 25, the US formally transferred control of Afghanistan’s Parwan Detention Facility (formerly known as Bagram) to the government of Afghanistan.

As she explains, “The transfer of the facility, which holds some 4,000 people, had been delayed due to US fears that Afghan authorities would release many of the detainees — who would end up ‘returning to the battlefield.’ But as a US official told the New York Times, there’s ‘a shift that’s going on in how the US is looking at what’s important … We have to look at the larger picture: What’s the US strategic interest here?'”

In Afghanistan, therefore, the US has had to “weigh the potential costs associated with releasing Afghan prisoners against the potential costs of not releasing them,” and has largely concluded that the former is less costly, although there are a few exceptions. As Rosa Brooks describes it, “the fear of recidivism hasn’t fully receded,” because the US “continues to detain several dozen Afghan nationals deemed to pose ‘enduring security threats,’ along with a similar number of non-Afghan detainees.”

What will happen to these men is unknown, although the planned end of America’s combat presence in Afghanistan by December 2014 will presumably mean that some further explanation will be required at that point. At that date, the majority of the Guantánamo prisoners will also expect to be included in the discussions, unless, before that time, the government concludes that, at Guantánamo as at Parwan, the cost of not releasing prisoners is more damaging than the cost of releasing them.

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.

As published exclusively on the website of the Future of Freedom Foundation.

10 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    On Facebook, Lori Ninety-nine Percent Wallace wrote:

    Politico reported gun shots fired this a.m. while moving prisoners from communal cells to isolation cells, Andy. No one injured, but definitely stresses the importance and validity of your work, my friend.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Lori. Yes, I saw a report while posting this. The Guantanamo authorities have been trying to break the strike by moving prisoners to solitary, and claim the prisoners used “improvised weapons” to resist (as if they have access to anything that can be described as a weapon), leading to the authorities firing “four less-than-lethal rounds” in response. Jason Leopold spoke to Clive Stafford Smith, who said, “This kind of authoritarian escalation is why we have a problem, not a solution. You cannot take people who are involved in a justified, non-violent protest against the fact that they have been cleared for years, yet remain in prison without justice, and respond by punishing them. That is not just unwise, it is immoral.”

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Lori Ninety-nine Percent Wallace wrote:

    Well said. Thanks.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    You’re most welcome, Lori. Thanks again for your interest.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Evie McKnight wrote:

    War criminals IN the prisons, Political Prisoners an “Drug WAR” victims OUT!! It’d be a start

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, it certainly would, Evie. Thanks for the comments.

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Charmaine Dolan wrote:

    Beggars belief they are still being held.

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes indeed, Charmaine. However, the message is getting through. I had the BBC news on briefly tonight – a novelty, as I have generally stopped watching TV news entirely – and there were two guests discussing the newspapers. The Independent has a three-page feature on Guantanamo today, criticising Obama, and the show’s two guest reviewers were open in their criticism of him for failing to close the prison as he promised.

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Charmaine Dolan wrote:

    Thats certainly a good development Andy. Like you I rarely watch the beeb so pleased to hear they have given a someone a few minutes to criticise Obama. Thank you Andy we appreciate your work.

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks again, Charmaine. I certainly appreciate the supportive comments. The Independent’s main article is here, btw, with the story of Shaker Aamer featured prominently: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/guantanamo-bay–president-obamas-shame-the-forgotten-prisoners-of-americas-own-gulag-8572215.html

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