Editorials Call for the Closure of Guantánamo in the New York Times, Washington Post and Guardian

2.5.13

As the prison-wide hunger strike in Guantánamo continues (sign the petition calling for its closure here!), nearly three months since the majority of the 166 prisoners still held began refusing food, it is abundantly clear that, after several years in which, frankly, almost everyone had forgotten about Guantánamo or had given up on it, the prison — and the remaining 166 prisoners — are now back in the news and showing no signs of being as easily dismissed as they were three years ago, when everyone went silent after President Obama’s promise to close the prison within a year fizzled out dismally.

The need to exert concerted pressure on the Obama administration is more important than ever, because, until the prisoners appealed to the world by putting their lives on the line, President Obama had been content to abandon them, and had been encouraged to do so by Congress, where lawmakers had blocked all his attempts to close the prison, and had ended up imposing restrictions, in the National Defense Authorization Acts passed at the end of 2011 and 2012, that made it almost impossible to release any prisoners.

In the last week, the editors of the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Guardian have all published powerful editorials calling for the closure of Guantánamo, which I’m cross-posting below. The first, on April 26, was the New York Times editorial, which delivered crushing words to President Bush as he sought to reclaim his legacy with the opening of the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum about his prison which “should never have been opened,” and which “became the embodiment of his dangerous expansion of executive power and the lawless detentions, secret prisons and torture that went along with them.”

The Times was rather lenient towards President Obama’s role in keeping the prison open, but the same could not be said of the Washington Post‘s editorial on May 1, just after President Obama finally broke his silence on the hunger strike at a news conference. Check out the opening paragraph for the Post‘s refusal to allow the President to evade responsibility for the fact that Guantánamo is still open, and 86 prisoners, cleared by his own inter-agency task force over three years ago, are still held:

President Obama was eloquent Tuesday in describing why the situation at the Guantánamo Bay prison is “unsustainable.” He was justified in blaming Congress for frustrating his effort to close the facility. But he was disingenuous in failing to acknowledge that his own actions — or his own inaction — have substantially contributed to an impasse that has prompted more than half of Guantánamo’s inmates to undertake a hunger strike.

The Post‘s editorial specifically noted President Obama’s own ban on releasing Yemenis, and his disdainful failure to initiate reviews for the 46 men he consigned to indefinite detention without charge or trial in a executive order two years ago, as well as spelling out succinctly how one option he has, which he failed to mention, is a waiver in the legislation passed by Congress (which, it must be remembered, he signed into law) that makes it all but impossible to free any prisoners. As the Post put it, “Congress granted the Defense Department waiver authority that could have allowed transfers to resume, but the administration has not followed through.” The editors also called on President Obama to free prisoners whose release could and should be straightforward — one clear example being Shaker Aamer, the last British resident.

Finally, the Guardian, also on May 1, called on both the President and Congress to wake up from their slumber — whether one fired by laziness or malevolence — and work to close the prison once and for all. The Guardian‘s closing words, I thought,  were particularly powerful:

A country that fails to try those accused of planning or committing terrorists acts in its civilian courts is a society that admits defeat. A country that detains people without charge because it knows that any charges would be thrown out of a proper court is no different, in its behaviour to these inmates, from dictatorships which scorn the rule of law.

It has taken a mass hunger strike and the arrival of 40 navy nurses to bring this issue to a head. The situation inside the prison is unsustainable, and it is long past time for all of America’s politicians to admit it.

The Guantánamo Stain
New York Times editorial, April 26, 2013

All five living presidents gathered in Texas Thursday for a feel-good moment at the opening of the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum, which is supposed to symbolize the legacy that Mr. Bush has been trying to polish. President Obama called it a “special day for our democracy.” Mr. Bush spoke about having made “the tough decisions” to protect America. They all had a nice chuckle when President Bill Clinton joked about former presidents using their libraries to rewrite history.

But there is another building, far from Dallas on land leased from Cuba, that symbolizes Mr. Bush’s legacy in a darker, truer way: the military penal complex at Guantánamo Bay where Mr. Bush imprisoned hundreds of men after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, a vast majority guilty of no crime.

It became the embodiment of his dangerous expansion of executive power and the lawless detentions, secret prisons and torture that went along with them. It is now also a reminder of Mr. Obama’s failure to close the prison as he promised when he took office, and of the malicious interference by Congress in any effort to justly try and punish the Guantánamo inmates.

There are still 166 men there — virtually all of them held without charges, some for more than a decade. More than half have been cleared for release but are still imprisoned because of a law that requires individual Pentagon waivers. The administration eliminated the State Department post charged with working with other countries to transfer the prisoners so those waivers might be issued.

Of the rest, some are said to have committed serious crimes, including terrorism, but the military tribunals created by Mr. Bush are dysfunctional and not credible, despite Mr. Obama’s improvements. Congress long ago banned the transfer of prisoners to the federal criminal justice system where they belong and are far more likely to receive fair trials and long sentences if convicted.

Only six are facing active charges. Nearly 50 more are deemed too dangerous for release but not suitable for trial because they are not linked to any specific attack or because the evidence against them is tainted by torture.

The result of this purgatory of isolation was inevitable. Charlie Savage wrote in The Times on Thursday about a protest that ended in a raid on Camp Six, where the most cooperative prisoners are held. A hunger strike in its third month includes an estimated 93 prisoners, twice as many as were participating before the raid. American soldiers have been reduced to force-feeding prisoners who are strapped to chairs with a tube down their throats.

That prison should never have been opened. It was nothing more than Mr. Bush’s attempt to evade accountability by placing prisoners in another country. The courts rejected that ploy, but Mr. Bush never bothered to fix the problem. Now, shockingly, the Pentagon is actually considering spending $200 million for improvements and expansions clearly aimed at a permanent operation.

Polls show that Americans are increasingly indifferent to the prison. We received a fair amount of criticism recently for publishing on our Op-Ed page a first-person account from one of the Guantánamo hunger strikers.

But whatever Mr. Bush says about how comfortable he is with his “tough” choices, the country must recognize the steep price being paid for what is essentially a political prison. Just as hunger strikes at the infamous Maze Prison in Northern Ireland indelibly stained Britain’s human rights record, so Guantánamo stains America’s.

President Obama must make closing Guantánamo a priority
Washington Post editorial, May 1, 2013

President Obama was eloquent Tuesday in describing why the situation at the Guantánamo Bay prison is “unsustainable.” He was justified in blaming Congress for frustrating his effort to close the facility. But he was disingenuous in failing to acknowledge that his own actions — or his own inaction — have substantially contributed to an impasse that has prompted more than half of Guantánamo’s inmates to undertake a hunger strike.

One hundred and sixty-six terrorism suspects remain at Guantánamo, of whom 86 have been cleared for transfer to their home nations. After overseeing more than 70 repatriations or other prisoner transfers during the first years of his administration, Mr. Obama suspended those to Yemen after the attempted Christmas Day bombing of an airliner in 2010; in 2011 and 2012 he signed defense bills imposing all-but-unmeetable conditions on any other transfers.

This year, Congress granted the Defense Department waiver authority that could have allowed transfers to resume, but the administration has not followed through. Instead, the State Department reassigned the senior ambassador who had been seeking to arrange repatriations.

Moreover, the Pentagon has failed to set up a promised new system for reviewing the cases of prisoners that Mr. Obama ordered established more than a year ago — which means that Guantánamo inmates are receiving less review of their cases than they did during the Bush administration. It’s little wonder that many have grown desperate enough to try starving themselves to death.

At his press conference, Mr. Obama promised to “go back at” the Guantanamo issue and said he would seek help from Congress. For the prison to close, lawmakers would have to lift a ban on transferring prisoners to the United States. But it was good that Mr. Obama also pledged to “examine every option that we have administratively” — because there are steps he could take without Congress.

The first would be to arrange for the transfer of some of the 27 non-Yemeni prisoners who have been cleared for transfer; there are also three Uighurs who have been cleared but who cannot be returned to China. One Saudi citizen, Shaker Aamer, is a former British resident whose return Britain has requested; there are also Algerians and Moroccans. While there are legitimate concerns that detainees could return to terrorist activity, in many cases the risk is reasonable. Mr. Obama should also insist on implementation of his plan for periodic review boards for inmates not yet cleared for transfer.

The administration, meanwhile, should begin working with Yemen’s new president on creating conditions for the return of the 56 Yemenis cleared for transfer, a step called for last week by Senate intelligence committee chairman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.). Even with good will, this would take time and resources; Yemen remains an active base for al-Qaeda. But a start should be made at identifying or constructing secure facilities and creating programs to manage Yemeni repatriates.

What is needed above all is genuine political commitment from Mr. Obama. Having vowed to close Guantanamo, he backed away from the project in the face of political resistance. That resistance may be, as he argued yesterday, unreasonable; but it won’t be overcome if the president doesn’t make it a priority.

Guantánamo Bay: an indelible stain
The Guardian editorial, May 1, 2013

Of all the victims of the political dysfunction in Washington, of a Congress determined to thwart the White House at all costs, the 166 inmates of Guantánamo Bay are surely the most ill-treated. The reason they are still there, four years after Barack Obama first promised to close the prison, has little to do with problems over their release or transfer, although those still exist. They are there largely because Congress has cut off the funds to move those accused to detention in the US and imposed conditions which make transfer out of the US all the more difficult — a hurdle signed into law, it also has to be remembered, by Mr Obama earlier this year. This means that 86 of the 166 still detained, who have been approved for transfer out of US custody, have been stuck in this hellhole for the last two and a half years.

These decisions have human consequences. There is growing desperation among the camp’s inmates, 100 of whom are now on hunger strike. As the Observer revealed in a recent interview, the British resident Shaker Aamer does not now think he will make it out of the prison alive. Britain has officially maintained that it is committed to extracting Mr Aamer. His lawyers fear that darker motives are at work, as Mr Aamer is alone in having been cleared for release to one country — Saudi Arabia, where he faces an unsafe trial and long imprisonment. Britain might be less than keen on seeking Mr Aamer’s return, as he alleges that a UK intelligence agent was present while he was being beaten. His case exemplifies the huge ambivalence which all of America’s allies still share in closing this chapter in the dirty war on terror. The only damage that a free Mr Aamer can cause is reputational. He is already suing MI5 and MI6 for defamation.

In the process, public confidence in all these institutions continues to suffer. Even though his own standing has taken several knocks as a result of bending in the political wind, Mr Obama was right yesterday to say that he will try, again, to close the prison. Guantánamo still stains every country that colludes in its continued existence, including the UK and its security services. Indeed it weakens co-operation with allies. And it still serves as a recruitment tool for extremists. A country that fails to try those accused of planning or committing terrorists acts in its civilian courts is a society that admits defeat. A country that detains people without charge because it knows that any charges would be thrown out of a proper court is no different, in its behaviour to these inmates, from dictatorships which scorn the rule of law.

It has taken a mass hunger strike and the arrival of 40 navy nurses to bring this issue to a head. The situation inside the prison is unsustainable, and it is long past time for all of America’s politicians to admit it.

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 “Close Guantánamo campaign”, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

11 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    On Facebook, Dejanka Bryant wrote:

    Thank you, Andy. This article is indeed needed because many people do not understand the legal reasons why GITMO prisoners released to be transferred are still kept in this hellhole. Include me among them too. After Parliamentary debate I learnt for the first time that Shaker Aamer is not released to be free but released to be transferred which is an extremely complicated issue since he is only a resident in the UK, without British citizenship.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    My way of looking at this, Dejanka, is to understand that lawyers are also involved, and that their purpose is to help their employers avoid accountability. In 2004, when Bush introduced superficial reviews of the prisoners’ cases (the Combatant Status Review Tribunals), there was a brief period – perhaps only a few weeks – when a handful of prisoners were designated as “Not Enemy Combatants.” That was swiftly changed to “No Longer Enemy Combatants,” a designation that has lawyers’ fingerprints all over it – no accountability, you see.
    The cleared prisoners in Guantanamo are technically “approved for transfer” on the same kind of basis, as far as I can see. Beyond shielding officials from accountability, the “transfer” status also allows the authorities to fudge the issue of who the prisoners are, and what they may or may not have done. They don’t have to address issues of innocence and guilt, because, in fact, they don’t know. What they’re doing is saying that these men no longer pose a sufficient threat to the US and/or no longer have sufficient intelligence value to be held indefinitely or put forward for a trial, and can therefore be released – with “release” meaning, possibly, freedom or possibly continued detention. The distinction isn’t spelled out. The authorities, from the beginning, wanted released prisoners to be imprisoned in their home countries, most of whom refused, not least because their citizens’ rights had been so brutally trampled on by the US, and because there was generally no evidence of any wrongdoing on the part of these men.
    So I think the talk of wanting to “transfer” Shaker to Saudi Arabia is part of the same charade. The UK government keeps stating that it wants Shaker back, which is good, of course, but my feeling is that, if it wasn’t for the fact that it would be bad PR in the UK to let him go to Saudi Arabia, they would in fact allow it, to shut him up. As far as I can see, there’s no evidence that the US is entitled to want to send him only to Saudi and not to return him to his family.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Amy Phillips wrote:

    thank you for posting this and the related articles. thank God for your persistance. thank God for the prisoners who are also not willing to even nourish themselves on food until they taste justice.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Thank you, Amy, for your comments. We – the prisoners and all of us supporting them – all have right and justice on our side.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    David Knopfler wrote:

    The Economist leads with this story as well. The hunger strike seems to finally be making the sweeping under the carpet impossible. Tom Tomorrow has nailed it too

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, David, I was browsing through the many articles, op-eds and editorials this morning, and saw that the Economist was one. It’s very good: http://www.economist.com/news/united-states/21577061-desperate-protest-prisoners-guant-namo-has-shamed-barack-obama-oubliette

  7. Andy Worthington says...

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Dejanka Bryant wrote, in response to 2, above:

    Again, great post, Andy. You see, I woke up this morning and after my first coffee I started talking to my husband about my rights as a permanent resident in this country, as his wife in a marriage that last for more than 16 years. He is like you, an Oxford graduate, with his so liberal mind. He listened to me carefully and agreed that I really need to do something about getting the British citizenship. I was so frightened when I went to Gaza on my Montenegrin passport because after that I was aware that no one would really fight for my rights. Is Shaker Aamer the only one without British citizenship among the other British already released from that hellhole? I read transcripts you posted from our Parliamentary debate, with great interest. Not to great to read the response by our Minister who clearly do not want to interfere with the intelligence that are so involved in case of Shaker Aamer release. It seems that Shaker Aamer knows too much about our complicity in torture of detainees. It seems his indefinite remain to live in the UK is a passport to be used deliberately by our Government.

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Hi Dejanka,
    Shaker’s not the only British resident. Five others were released – Bisher al-Rawi in March 2007, three others in December 2007, including my friend Omar Deghayes, and Binyam Mohamed in February 2009. So Shaker is being played with, either by America alone, or by America and Britain, because of the Saudi angle, and because of what he knows. It’s hugely disappointing.

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    Waris Ali wrote:

    From everything i’m reading and hearing about in the UK and USA, the momentum is certainly with us Andy. The coming weeks and months are going to be very interesting indeed. Let’s just hope this all leads to the further release of detainees, starting with Shaker Aamer!

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    Hoping so, Waris. The momentum is such that it looks unstoppable, but politicians know that if they hold out, everyone gives up and goes home. It’s how the world works now we are all pawns to manipulate rather than people they really care about. That said, the solution if Obama holds out on dealing with it is no good in the long run. He simply can’t make it to November 2016 without doing something – and I agree, as you know: releasing Shaker is the most obvious way forward.

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