Closing Guantánamo: Obama Administration Responds to Calls for Action by Carl Levin, Harold Koh and 200,000 Concerned Citizens

15.5.13

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 prison-wide hunger strike continues at Guantánamo, one of the key demands of campaigners — including myself and Tom Wilner, here at “Close Guantánamo” — has been for President Obama to appoint an official to oversee the closure of the prison, to replace Daniel Fried, the State Department official who oversaw the release of dozens of prisoners in 2009 and 2010, before Congress — and the President himself — raised obstacles to the release of prisoners.

Fried was reassigned in January this year, and no one was appointed to take his place, a message that was easily interpreted as a sign that President Obama and his administration had decided that the closure of Guantánamo was no longer a priority.

Yesterday, however, Attorney General Eric Holder told a news conference that, as Reuters reported it, the government “intends to revive a vacant position coordinating policy” for the prison at Guantánamo Bay. “We’re in the process of working on that now. We’re looking at candidates,” Holder told a news conference.

However, as Reuters added, “he did not say who the candidates were to fill the position of coordinating Guantánamo, or whether the person eventually appointed would work at the State Department, the White House or elsewhere.” Nevertheless, he stated that the administration will make “a renewed effort to close Guantánamo,” and, as Reuters noted, he also cited “the prison’s high cost and the impact on US relations with other nations.”

This is excellent news, although, as with President Obama’s fine words two weeks ago, it must be followed up with action. It is, however, a vindication for the more than 200,000 people who, in the last two weeks, have signed a petition on Change.org, launched by Col. Morris Davis, the former chief prosecutor of the military commissions at Guantánamo, calling for the appointment of a new official to drive the closure of the prison.

In addition, it is clearly also a response to high-level criticism from friends of the administration.

Sen. Carl Levin’s letter to the White House

Last Thursday, for example, Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, sent a letter to the Obama administration in which he “urged the White House to appoint an official to spearhead an interagency effort to oversee the process of relocating detainees at Guantánamo Bay who have been cleared for transfer.” His press release also stated, “Levin fought for a national security waiver that provides for the transfer of detainees in appropriate cases. More than 80 detainees who have been cleared for transfer are still awaiting departure from Guantánamo. Expediting this process is critical to advancing the goal of closing GITMO, as the president has called for.”

The text of Levin’s letter to the White House — to Kathryn Ruemmler, Assistant to the President and Counsel to the President — was as follows:

Dear Ms. Ruemmler:

At a press conference last week, President Obama reaffirmed his commitment to close the detention facility at Guantánamo (GITMO) because, as he pointed out, it is expensive, inefficient, damaging to the United States’ international standing, reduces the cooperation of our allies in countering terrorism, and serves as a recruiting tool for extremists. The President said he had asked his staff to review all options for addressing the GITMO issue and expressed the desire to re-engage with Congress on this.

I recognize that Congress has made the process of relocating GITMO detainees to third countries more difficult by imposing certification requirements on such transfers. However, more than a year ago, I successfully fought for a national security waiver that provides a clear route for the transfer of detainees to third countries in appropriate cases, i.e., to make sure the certification requirements do not constitute an effective prohibition.

I urge the President to appoint an official inside the White House to spearhead an interagency effort to determine which of the more than eighty detainees who have already been cleared for transfer by the Guantánamo Detainee Review Task Force meet the certification (and waiver) requirements, and to actively work for their transfer. High level leadership on detainee transfers is critical to advancing the goal of closing GITMO.

Thank you for your assistance in this matter.

Sincerely,

Carl Levin
Chairman

Harold Koh’s speech at the Oxford Union

In addition, Harold Koh, former Legal Advisor to the State Department, delivered a speech at the Oxford Union on May 7, in which he also called for the appointment of a senior official to oversee the closure of the prison.

Koh stated, “What the President’s team should recognize is that he does not need a new policy to close Guantánamo. He just needs to put the full weight of his office behind the sensible policy that he first announced in January 2009, reiterated at the National Archives in 2010, and reaffirmed in March 2011 … First, and foremost, he must appoint a senior White House official with the clout and commitment to actually make Guantánamo closure happen. There has not been such a person at the White House since Greg Craig left as White House Counsel in early 2010. There must be someone close to the President, with a broad enough mandate and directly answerable to him, who wakes up each morning thinking about how to shrink the Guantánamo population and close the camp.”

Koh proceeded to explain that this new Special Envoy “should work on the diplomatic steps needed to transfer either individually or en bloc some 86 detainees who were identified three years ago as eligible for repatriation to their home countries or resettlement elsewhere by an administration task force that exhaustively reviewed each prisoner’s file.”

He added, “The President should send the Envoy to Yemen to negotiate the block transfer, to a local rehabilitation facility, of those Yemeni detainees who were cleared for transfer, before those transfers were put on hold because of instability in that country” — echoing Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s recent call for renewed action to free the 86, who were cleared for release over three years ago by President Obama’s own inter-agency task force — and to resume transfers to Yemen of the 56 cleared prisoners who are Yemeni, and who, since President Obama imposed a ban on their release in the wake of the failed Christmas 2009 bomb plot, have been imprisoned on the basis of their nationality.

Providing further guidance, Koh stated, “Starting in 2010, Congress has used authorization bills to impose a series of counterproductive restrictions on the transfer of Guantánamo prisoners. But some of those restrictions are subject to waiver requirements and all must be construed in light of the President’s authority as commander-in- chief to regulate the movement of law-of-war detainees, as diplomat-in-chief to arrange diplomatic transfers, and as prosecutor-in-chief to determine who should be prosecuted and where. If Congress insists on passing such onerous and arguably unconstitutional conditions in the next National Defense Authorization Act, the President should call its bluff and forthrightly veto that legislation.”

Koh’s speech is also interesting for his thoughts on prosecutions and on the need for “periodic reviews” to be initiated for the 46 men who I recently described as the “forgotten prisoners” — those who, as Koh put it, the task force “concluded should remain held under rules of war that allow detention without charge for the duration of hostilities.”

*****

I urge those who are interested in the closure of Guantánamo to read Koh’s full speech, but for now the focus must be on finding an official to lead the closure of the prison, and not to allow the administration to take its eye off the ball, and on the need to release cleared prisoners as soon as possible.

As Tom Wilner, the co-founder of “Close Guantánamo,” who represented the Guantánamo prisoners in their cases before the Supreme Court in 2004 and 2008, stated in response to the news:

What is happening at Guantanamo today is both a terrible human tragedy and a continuing outrage to our values as Americans. These few Arab men, many of whom have long been cleared of any wrongdoing, have been deprived of their liberty and of any opportunity to see their families for more than 11 years. They are stranded at an island prison and largely ignored because they have no US constituency to speak on their behalf.

He added:

That is no longer tolerable. The president has the authority under existing law to transfer these men from Guantánamo and to close this prison. He must exercise that authority and, as the critical first step, he must appoint someone in the White House with the responsibility for getting the job done.

We look forward to hearing that someone has been appointed to this critically important position, and encourage you to maintain the pressure on the administration by signing Col. Davis’s petition.

Note: For other perspectives on the need to appoint a senior official to oversee the closure of Guantánamo and for President Obama to act urgently to secure the release of cleared prisoners, please watch “Guantánamo: From Crisis to Solution,” a panel discussion put together by the Constitution Project,  the National Religious Campaign Against Torture and the New America Foundation, which took place in Washington D.C. on May 10, 2013, and was broadcast by C-SPAN.

The panel discussion featured Rep. Jim Moran (D-VA), a longtime advocate for the closure of the prison, General David R. Irvine, USA (Ret.), a former intelligence officer and expert in prisoner-of-war interrogation with the Sixth Army Intelligence School, and a member of the Constitution Project’s Task Force on Detainee Treatment; Colonel Lawrence B. Wilkerson, USA (Ret.), former Chief of Staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell, and a member of the Constitution Project’s Liberty and Security Committee; Dr. George Hunsinger, Hazel Thompson McCord Professor of Systematic Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary and a founder of The National Religious Campaign Against Torture; Pardiss Kebriaei, senior staff attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights; and Morris Davis, USA (Ret.), a former Air Force Colonel and the former Chief Prosecutor at the Office of Military Commissions at Guantánamo Bay. TCP Board member Kristine Huskey moderated the panel.

As the Constitution Project described it, Rep. Jim Moran “hosted a standing only briefing on Capitol Hill for Members of Congress and their staff,” in which the panel of experts “examined the ongoing hunger strike at Guantánamo Bay — which as of May 10 involved 100 of the 166 remaining detainees, 27 of whom were being force fed — and explored steps that can be taken to mitigate the current crisis, in particular by reducing the detainee population. All panelists agreed that President Obama must immediately begin transferring cleared detainees by exercising authority he has under current law.”

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer and film-maker. He is the co-founder of the “Close Guantánamo” campaign, and 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. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here – or here for the US).

To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to Andy’s RSS feed — and he can also be found on Facebook (and here), Twitter, Flickr and YouTube. Also see the four-part definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, “The Complete Guantánamo Files,” an ongoing, 70-part, million-word series drawing on files released by WikiLeaks in April 2011. Also see the definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all Andy’s articles.

Please also consider joining the “Close Guantánamo” campaign, and, if you appreciate Andy’s work, feel free to make a donation.

34 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted the original version of this on Facebook last night, I wrote:

    After a letter to the White House from Sen. Carl Levin and an Oxford Union speech by Harold Koh, both putting pressure on the administration about Guantanamo, plus the 200,000 of us who have signed Col. Morris Davis’s petition, Eric Holder announced today that the administration is actively looking for a senior official to be in charge of releasing prisoners from Guantanamo and working towards the prison’s closure. Keep the pressure on!

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Josh Meyer wrote:

    I nominate Moe (Col. Morris Davis) to be the senior official in charge!

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Now there’s an idea, Josh!

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    J. D. Gordon (Executive Director at Protect America Today) wrote:

    I nominate Andy Worthington! He’s just as qualified as anyone in the Obama administration on this subject… and he can host the opening night reception for ex-Gitmo detainees at his house!

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, happy to oblige, J.D. Bring the 86 cleared prisoners round to mine – the ones that the president’s sober and responsible task force of government officials and representatives of the intelligence agencies concluded over three years ago should no longer be detained because they didn’t pose a threat to the US.

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    I’m also happy to host some of the 80 others as well, J.D., but let’s get the 86 out first, and then we can try and decide objectively how dangerous the others are. You may have missed the important messages over the years, from intelligence officials and others with real and detailed knowledge of those held in Guantanamo, that no more than a few dozen of the 779 men held were actually involved in international terrorism.

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    J. D. Gordon wrote:

    Excellent, now we’re talking! Though the Obama administration’s review panel might have ruled the 86 don’t pose a threat to the U.S. — the million dollar question now is — do they pose a threat to Andy Worthington?

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    I very much doubt it, J.D.

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Andy Moss wrote:

    The President appears to be a “senior official.”

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, but he has demonstrated that he lacks the willingness to fight, Andy. This needs someone prepared to shout back, and I’ve never seen Obama do that.

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    Andy Moss wrote:

    I was expressing some facetiousness for exactly the reason you describe!

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    I know, Andy. And my answer wasn’t meant to sound so serious!

  13. Andy Worthington says...

    This evening (UK time), when I posted my cross-post, above, I wrote:

    Here’s my article about the latest positive developments regarding Guantanamo – Sen. Carl Levin’s call for the President to appoint a senior official to take charge of the release of prisoners and the closure of the prison, plus comments by Harold Koh and the 200,000+ signatures on the petition to close Guantanamo, which yesterday prompted Eric Holder to announce that the administration is seeking to appoint someone to take charge of dealing with Guantanamo.

  14. Andy Worthington says...

    Elizabeth Ferrari wrote:

    Thank you.

  15. Andy Worthington says...

    Amy Phillips wrote:

    Great news! Andy, I’m very proud of the prisoners for making a stand against their mistreatment but worry so much about their health, their lives! Have they determined when they may stop their hunger strike? Will conditions have to change, will there need to be release? Will Koran’s have to be handled with respect? What is the bottom line for them to go back to getting nourishment and to save their own lives?

  16. Andy Worthington says...

    You’re welcome, as ever, Elizabeth. And Amy, thanks for your concern for the prisoners, and your pertinent questions. I too worry about their health and their lives, and as far as I understand it, they’re now locked in a potentially deadly game with the authorities that can only end when significant moves are made to free the 86 cleared prisoners. I don’t see how else it can stop.
    As for the Korans, the prisoners have offered to hand in their copies to avoid the problems of manhandling that initially started the strike (or, to my mind, that provided a trigger for it, as I believe being held indefinitely with no prospect of release was the underlying reason), but the authorities have refused, as they apparently don’t want to be accused of blocking the men from practicing their religion.
    And that, of course, given the violence, the clampdown, the isolation, and the brutal force-feeding is just surreal – and in a very dark way indeed …

  17. Andy Worthington says...

    Sue Glenton wrote:

    Progress at last, daren’t believe this

  18. Andy Worthington says...

    I hesitate to get even remotely excited, Sue, as it always seems possible to me that the administration will drop it if we all stop paying attention, or that they’ll appoint someone and then that person will find it too hard to do anything about it … This government’s excuses are legion.
    Having said that, when Sen. Carl Levin, the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, heads the list of significant people pointing out that the status quo of not releasing anyone really isn’t on, then we’re definitely getting somewhere. But we need the absurd ban on releasing Yemenis previously cleared for release by Obama’s own task force to be lifted, and we need movement on the other 30 cleared prisoners, including Shaker Aamer’s release, and we need honest, objective reviews of most of the 80 others to take place, with the recognition that holding prisoners in a kind of parallel universe to the world of the Geneva Conventions also has to involve an acceptance that, at some point, the hostilities will come to an end and everyone will be released except those who posed a demonstrative terrorist threat, who need to be put on trial.

  19. HFA says...

    We petition the Obama administration to close the military detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. I just started a petition on the White House petitions site, We the People. Will you sign it? http://wh.gov/zY0O

  20. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, HFA. Good luck with that.

  21. Thomas says...

    All that money wasted on torturing innocent people, most of which would say anything to make it stop. :( How different it was after WW2,when the Nazi leaders were given a (relatively) fair trial instead of being held and tortured and beaten for ten years plus.

  22. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, Thomas. And here’s Justice Robert H. Jackson speaking on the second day of the Nuremberg Trials: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L50OZSeDXeA

  23. Andy Worthington says...

    Victor McAuley wrote:

    Due process has not been applied to these individuals – that a Government can hold without due legal process any individual is indicative of the tyrannical nature of such a government. Either due process is instituted – charges made and prosecution before a jury – or law and order is of no consequence in such a nation.

  24. Andy Worthington says...

    That’s partly true, Victor, although the majority of the men are being held as prisoners of war without rights – unable to ascertain when, if ever, the conflict in which they were seized will end, and if they will be released. All the rules were broken by the Bush administration, which failed to ascertain whether the people US forces seized (or, in most cases, those who were sold to US forces by their Afghan and Pakistani allies) were soldiers, and then refused to grant them prisoner of war status, and pretended that the “war on terror” was endless.
    This problem has never been addressed by Obama, and nor has the allied problem of trials. The military commissions have reached only seven verdicts in 11 years, and were recently found (by the Conservative DC Circuit court, no less) to have invented war crimes in two of those verdicts, making a mockery of the entire process.
    In fact, only a handful of those held are actually accused of terrorism. The rest need to be freed – the 86 cleared prisoners immediately, and the rest (with the exception of the handful to be tried) following the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan next year.

  25. Tom says...

    One key reason why Obama refuses to use his power to close Guantanamo? Image. He (and his “political advisors”) really believe that he must NEVER look weak at any time. Always spin something and blame the Other Side for the problem. I’m not defending this, him or the entire system in any way. Having to live here, it’s just the opposite. I’m just pointing out what the corporate MSM won’t touch.

    Then again, I don’t work for any of them. So what are they going to do? Sack me?

  26. Thomas says...

    All that suffering to get…5 men. It would have been easier and less costly to just go after the 5. It’s like destroying a coral reef just to get 5 fish.

  27. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Tom. Yes, sometimes the maneuvering, rather than standing for principles, gets a bit much. To put it mildly. I’m glad I’m not a politician.

  28. Andy Worthington says...

    Good analogy, Thomas. Thanks.

  29. Leslie Scales says...

    Are there or have there been minors held at Guantanamo besides the 16-yr-old, Omar Khadr?

  30. Leslie Scales says...

    @RenieriArts: Found information: https://t.co/W8LRiF6i1r 2 of them where between 13-14 at the time of transfer

  31. Leslie Scales says...

    Guantanamo’s children–The Wikileaks testimonies http://t.co/zgwdXe4SBi

  32. Andy Worthington says...

    Hi Leslie,
    Also, my article, “WikiLeaks and the 22 Children of Guantanamo”: http://www.andyworthington.co.uk/2011/06/11/wikileaks-and-the-22-children-of-guantanamo/

  33. arcticredriver says...

    Andy, may I make some comments addressed to J.D. Gordon?

    I am afraid, Andy, that the comments you quoted were his bizarre idea of a joke. Commander Gordon, the detention of these men is not a joking matter!

    I exchanged some emails with Commander Gordon in May 2007, when he was involved in the release of three more names of Guantanamo captives (doubling the number explicitly named recidivists from 3 to 6). This announcement came a year after the DoD had complied with a court order and publiished was what supposed to be an official list of all captives held at Guantanamo. But five of the six names on the DIA list of recidivists were not listed as Guantanamo captives.

    Commander Gordon blamed the captives for this confusion.

    Later Commander Gordon tried to get the Miami Herald to punish Carol Rosenberg, the Dean of the reporters covering Guantanamo. He claimed she used bad language, and addressed comments to him that constituted sexual harassment.

    Ironically, after he retired from the Navy he became a senior member for Herman Kain, a quixotic candidate for the Republican Presidential campain. During that weird primary Kain was considered the front-runner for about two weeks. Shortly after that news broke that Kain was both a serial adulterer and a serial harasser of female subordinates, who had paid hush-money to former mistresses and to victims of harassment.

    Commander Gordon, a man who had very publicly accused a woman of sexual harassment, would go on record downplaying the seriousness of sexual harassment complaints.

    Anyhow, the main trigger for Commander Gordon’s own claim of sesual harassment seemed to have been a “joke” he made to Rosernberg as they sat in the press gallery. As you know suspects attending the military commissions have to undergo a potentially painful and intrusive rectal exam. Commander Gordon joked about Ibrahim al Qosi’s squiming in his seat. And Rosenberg, shocked by his insensitivity asked him how he would like to have something painful stuck up his ass.

    So, Andy I am afraid Commander Gordon’s comments about you billeting former captives was his idea of a joke. Commander Gordon, I too would be willing to temporarily billet a former captive.

  34. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, arcticredriver. I had realized that there was an attempt at a joke going on, because I saw that he was the founder of an organization called Protect America Today. I hadn’t realized, however, that he was the same man who had been at Guantanamo. Thanks for the information – and the anecdotes!

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