Today, at the National Defense University at Fort McNair, President Obama delivered a major speech on national security issues. I leave it to some of my esteemed colleagues to analyze everything apart from the final section of the speech, in which the President spoke about “the detention of terrorist suspects,” with specific reference to my particular area of expertise, the lamentable “war on terror” prison that still exists at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.
166 men are still held at Guantánamo, even though 86 of them were cleared for release over three years ago by an interagency task force established by President Obama when he took office in 2009. Failed by all three branches of the US government, the prisoners embarked on a prison-wide hunger strike on February 6, 2013, and it is the unprecedented global response to this hunger strike — domestically and globally — that provoked President Obama to rouse himself from his indifference — or, at best, his refusal to expend political capital on an issue that was not a vote-winner — and make concrete plans for revisiting his failed promise to close the prison, which he made on his first day in office.
Eloquent as ever, he called the prison at Guantánamo Bay “a facility that should never have been opened,” and responded to the tsunami of complaints over the last few months — from Sen. Carl Levin, Sen. Dianne Fenstein, the UN, the ICRC, the European Parliament, the liberal and establishment US media, the more than 215,000 signatories to a Change.org petition, and the more than 560,000 signatories to an Avaaz petition that was launched just yesterday — by apparently meeting two key demands, and hinting at action on a third.
The first involves the President lifting his own ban on releasing cleared Yemenis, which he imposed in January 2010, in the wake of the failed airline bomb plot on Christmas Day 2009. “I am lifting the moratorium on detainee transfers to Yemen, so we can review them on a case by case basis,” the President said, and this is important, because 56 of the 86 prisoners cleared for release but still held are Yemenis.
The second is the appointment of a senior official to oversee Guantánamo-related issues. President Obama said, “I am appointing a new, senior envoy at the State Department and Defense Department whose sole responsibility will be to achieve the transfer of detainees to third countries,” which is not as good as it could have been, as it would have been preferable to have someone in the White House, with a mandate to close the prison, rather than someone at the State Department and Defense Department concerned only with transfers to third countries — especially if some cleared men who cannot be safely repatriated need to be settled in the US instead. It is, however, progress, after the last envoy on Guantánamo, Daniel Fried, was reassigned at the start of the year and no one was appointed to replace him.
The third complaint concerns the pressing need to release the 86 cleared prisoners, and although the news that the President is lifting his own moratorium on releasing Yemenis is a start, he still needs to persuade Congress to drop its own restrictions (which are so onerous that they appear to be impossible to fulfill), or be prepared to use the waiver in the existing legislation to bypass lawmakers if they refuse to cooperate.
For the 80 other men, the President’s speech was rather non-committal. 46 were designated for indefinite detention without charge or trial in an executive order issued by the President two years ago, following the advice of the task force, on the basis that they are too dangerous to release but that insufficient evidence exists to put them on trial. This is distinctly dubious, as my own research indicates that the task force’s conclusions were the result of unwarranted caution and insufficient skepticism regarding the validity of the so-called evidence, much of which was extracted from the prisoners, or from their fellow prisoners, in circumstances which were not conducive to telling the truth.
Two years ago, President Obama promised reviews for these 46 men, but these reviews have never materialized, and need to be initiated a soon as possible. In addition, the majority of the 34 other prisoners — who were recommended for trial by the task force — are also in doubt, after the Conservative court of appeals in Washington D.C. threw out the charges of material support for terrorism and conspiracy on which many of these trials depended. As a result, the majority of these men also need to receive objective reviews of their cases.
Instead of firm promises, however, President Obama stated, “Where appropriate, we will bring terrorists to justice in our courts and military justice system. And we will insist that judicial review be available for every detainee.” He added, “Even after we take these steps, one issue will remain: how to deal with those GTMO detainees who we know have participated in dangerous plots or attacks, but who cannot be prosecuted – for example because the evidence against them has been compromised or is inadmissible in a court of law.” He concluded that “once we commit to a process of closing GTMO, I am confident that this legacy problem can be resolved, consistent with our commitment to the rule of law,” but the vagueness of his words remains troubling, as does his claim that these are all men “who we know have participated in dangerous plots or attacks,” when that is simply not the case.
Nevertheless, the speech for the most part suggests that President Obama and his administration have taken on board the torrent of completely justified criticism directed at them, however much the President and his advisers like to blame Congress alone for a problem that is also of their own making. The key now is to make sure that pressure is maintained, so that they cannot — again — blame political difficulties for their failure to sort out a stain on America’s reputation that only gets worse the longer it festers.
Below is the full text of those parts of President Obama’s speech that deal with Guantánamo and “the detention of terrorist suspects”:
And that brings me to my final topic: the detention of terrorist suspects.
To repeat, as a matter of policy, the preference of the United States is to capture terrorist suspects. When we do detain a suspect, we interrogate them. And if the suspect can be prosecuted, we decide whether to try him in a civilian court or a Military Commission. During the past decade, the vast majority of those detained by our military were captured on the battlefield. In Iraq, we turned over thousands of prisoners as we ended the war. In Afghanistan, we have transitioned detention facilities to the Afghans, as part of the process of restoring Afghan sovereignty. So we bring law of war detention to an end, and we are committed to prosecuting terrorists whenever we can.
The glaring exception to this time-tested approach is the detention center at Guantanamo Bay. The original premise for opening GTMO – that detainees would not be able to challenge their detention – was found unconstitutional five years ago. In the meantime, GTMO has become a symbol around the world for an America that flouts the rule of law. Our allies won’t cooperate with us if they think a terrorist will end up at GTMO. During a time of budget cuts, we spend $150 million each year to imprison 166 people –almost $1 million per prisoner. And the Department of Defense estimates that we must spend another $200 million to keep GTMO open at a time when we are cutting investments in education and research here at home.
As President, I have tried to close GTMO. I transferred 67 detainees to other countries before Congress imposed restrictions to effectively prevent us from either transferring detainees to other countries, or imprisoning them in the United States. These restrictions make no sense. After all, under President Bush, some 530 detainees were transferred from GTMO with Congress’s support. When I ran for President the first time, John McCain supported closing GTMO. No person has ever escaped from one of our super-max or military prisons in the United States. Our courts have convicted hundreds of people for terrorism-related offenses, including some who are more dangerous than most GTMO detainees. Given my Administration’s relentless pursuit of al Qaeda’s leadership, there is no justification beyond politics for Congress to prevent us from closing a facility that should never have been opened.
Today, I once again call on Congress to lift the restrictions on detainee transfers from GTMO. I have asked the Department of Defense to designate a site in the United States where we can hold military commissions. I am appointing a new, senior envoy at the State Department and Defense Department whose sole responsibility will be to achieve the transfer of detainees to third countries. I am lifting the moratorium on detainee transfers to Yemen, so we can review them on a case by case basis. To the greatest extent possible, we will transfer detainees who have been cleared to go to other countries. Where appropriate, we will bring terrorists to justice in our courts and military justice system. And we will insist that judicial review be available for every detainee.
Even after we take these steps, one issue will remain: how to deal with those GTMO detainees who we know have participated in dangerous plots or attacks, but who cannot be prosecuted – for example because the evidence against them has been compromised or is inadmissible in a court of law. But once we commit to a process of closing GTMO, I am confident that this legacy problem can be resolved, consistent with our commitment to the rule of law.
I know the politics are hard. But history will cast a harsh judgment on this aspect of our fight against terrorism, and those of us who fail to end it. Imagine a future – ten years from now, or twenty years from now – when the United States of America is still holding people who have been charged with no crime on a piece of land that is not a part of our country. Look at the current situation, where we are force-feeding detainees who are holding a hunger strike. Is that who we are? Is that something that our Founders foresaw? Is that the America we want to leave to our children?
Our sense of justice is stronger than that. We have prosecuted scores of terrorists in our courts. That includes Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who tried to blow up an airplane over Detroit; and Faisal Shahzad, who put a car bomb in Times Square. It is in a court of law that we will try Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who is accused of bombing the Boston Marathon. Richard Reid, the shoe bomber, is as we speak serving a life sentence in a maximum security prison here, in the United States. In sentencing Reid, Judge William Young told him, “the way we treat you…is the measure of our own liberties.” He went on to point to the American flag that flew in the courtroom – “That flag,” he said, “will fly there long after this is all forgotten. That flag still stands for freedom.”
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.
On Facebook, Monica Leavitt wrote:
People may not realize that this seeming improvement is because of petitions and demonstrations, and not something he might do, for whatever reason, without real public outcry.
I hope they do realize, Monica. I made a point of mentioning the nearly 1 million people who have signed petitions in the last month, as well as the many high-level critics whose role has also been crucial – Sen. Carl Levin, Dianne Feinstein, the UN, the ICRC, the European Parliament, the editorial boards of the New York Times and the Washington Post. I hope it’s obvious that Obama and his advisers were content to sit on their hands until the prisoners themselves risked their lives – and are still risking their lives – to demand an end to the government’s disgraceful indifference.
Monica Leavitt wrote:
Then there’s this part:
““Even after we take these steps, one issue will remain: how to deal with those GTMO detainees who we know have participated in dangerous plots or attacks, but who cannot be prosecuted – for example because the evidence against them has been compromised or is inadmissible in a court of law.” He concluded that “once we commit to a process of closing GTMO, I am confident that this legacy problem can be resolved, consistent with our commitment to the rule of law,” but the vagueness of his words remains troubling, as does his claim that these are all men “who we know have participated in dangerous plots or attacks,” when that is simply not the case.”
Dejanka Bryant wrote:
Ah, great, I waited for your analysis. Going to read it now.
Jay Becker wrote:
NONE of this would have happened without the courage of desperate men on hunger strike at Guantanamo, not one word. And nothing has happened because of a speech, which we have heard before. Please sign and support this statement that appeared today in NY Times – it must spread, widely! http://bit.ly/NYTad
As for your second comment, Monica, I highlighted my unease, and my reasons for it, but I will be working to try and persuade the administration that it has far less to worry about than it fears. The thing is, there’s a whole review process that hasn’t even taken place yet. Obviously it’s worrying that Obama felt the need to use such loaded language about a group of men detained without charge or trial, but I and others are pushing for them to receive the periodic reviews they were promised, and for those reviews to be fair and objective.
Monica Leavitt wrote:
One would hope but people are really good at fogging up our own minds and wearing blinders. (To avoid getting involved)
I agree about people’s ability to fog up their own minds, Monica, but a lot of people have woken up to what’s going on lately – and as Jay points out, and as I did, the men are still on hunger strike, and risking their lives. The speech provides no immediate solution to that, although I don’t believe it’s just words, Jay. I do believe that the time for action is here to stay, because of the what the prisoners started, because of the mobilization of hundreds of thousands of people, and because of all kinds of high-level criticism of Obama’s inertia, and I also believe that Obama and his advisers know that they can’t go back to burying their heads in the sand.
Jay Becker wrote:
But can he throw enuf sand in enuf people’s eyes to get over? It can also be too late for hunger strikers before any steps are taken. We can’t let ourselves be quieted by a few releases. Carlos Warner pointed out that his adviser on releasing prisoners will be situated in State Dept, not in the White House. Not good.
Yes, but two months ago we had nothing, Jay. I don’t want to encourage false optimism, but I do want to push for what’s achievable. He’s said he’ll drop the Yemeni ban – that’s huge. He’s said he’ll appoint someone to deal with resettlement. He’s said that other prisoners will be released. We can push on these issues. Two months ago we couldn’t push on anything. No one cared, neither the politicians nor the public. Now we have leverage. Al of these concessions arose because of the prisoners, because of us, and because of influential individuals and organizations deciding that the time for sitting on one’s hands was over.
Jay Becker wrote:
I agree that actually dropping the ban on resettling Yemenis would be huge but it hasn’t happened. I know you agree, but too many others are celebrating and that is so dangerous. Listening to “liberal” media, it is very disarming. One person on twitter commented that “it’s like 2008 again,” people wanting that old time religion of “hope and change” again. And then all that pressure you’re talking about disappears in the fog of hopium.
The ban on releasing Yemenis is being dropped, Jay. Now we need to be demanding releases – of Yemenis and others. Forget the woolly hopeheads who are content with fine words and nothing else. The campaigners can lead on this. We need timetables. A Release-o-meter would be good, for example. The clock started today, May 23. How many days until the first of the 86 cleared prisoners gets released? Keep remaining people that he has no excuse for delay. As Ramzi Kassem said today, “”Obama already has the legal authority to release prisoners. He must now take action – speeches do not suffice.”
While I always try to be optimistic, I’ll give you one opinion about what Obama’s really saying.
Yes, he wants to take what sound like specific steps to release the remaining detainees and try those he says need to be (the exact number I don’t know). Then again, consider what he’s been up against from Day 1, AND what he’s done to make his overall position weaker.
From his first day in office, the top Republicans gathered and said we must do everything we can to stop him. Bob Woodward and other Republican journalists can dispute that all they want to sell books. However, it’s obvious that that’s what’s been done.
Obama legally can’t run again. This means that he can continue the usual “bi-partisan approach” to make him and the Democrats look good. If there are any problems, don’t blame us. Blame the mean neocons. I’m the Nice Guy. He’s also a constitutional attorney who blatantly ignores intl. law and says that innocent and untried people (ex., Assange) are “terrorists”. While I didn’t go to law school, I took lots of undergrad law courses in university. And even I know that in the real world, if an attorney did that that’s called damaging the case before it even goes to trial. Most law firms would fire someone for doing that. However, because he’s the President that doesn’t apply to him?
He obviously waited and then was advised to speak out and spin this back to his advantage. Is anyone disputing that Obama’s violated intl. law (just like Bush did before him)? However, neither one will ever be prosecuted. Both are set for life, and can sit back and laugh at Code Pink and all the other protestors who gather and march in front of their post White House home.
I don’t know everything about how the House of Commons and Lords are perceived right now by the UK public. Here though, the last time I checked no state government wants anything to do with detainee trials on the US mainland. Why? Because they’re “terrorists”, that’s why. And we’ll fight Obama every step of the way before we give in.
No surprise. But what comes first with Obama? Party loyalty and maintaining party money and power. Also, let’s use Obama’s nice soundbite about looking ahead 10 to 20 years from now. Imagine that Guantanamo is still open. It is affecting how some other countries view the States. However, would any country be willing to go further (ex., cut off diplomatic relations to protest)? Cameron certainly wouldn’t. I can’t think of any other Western country that would either. Why? Because nobody wants to go up against the President. If they do, these leaders will be seen as being “soft” on terrorism. It doesn’t matter that almost all of these detainees are innocent and should be released. Instead, it’s spin this to save my job.
When was the last time an Obama appointee wasn’t blocked by the Republicans purely as a political stunt?
Thanks, Tom, for the depressing but true analysis of how politics works.
However, I do think we’ve reached a tipping point. The key is the 86 cleared prisoners. I will continue to encourage anyone capable of understanding to realize that Obama did two things wrong if he wants do nothing until the end of his 2nd term – he promised to close Guantanamo, and he established an inter-agency task force to work out what to do with the prisoners. That task force stated that it was not in America’s interests to indefinitely detain 86 of the 166 men still held. If they’re indefinitely detained anyway, simply because Congress made life difficult for the President, that’s worse than never reviewing their cases, and never telling them – and they were all told – that America didn’t want to hold them anymore. He has to act. And if Congress won’t play ball, he has to use his waiver.
So it seems all the nagging at Obama is finally starting to work.
Thanks Andy as always. Yes no time frame at all was mentioned – this is not good – innocent people are dying inside. Time is of the essence. Do u think some prisoners will stop hunger strike from this. The world is watching and waiting. What is your opinion of madea benjamin @codepink interruption & the innuendos on twitter of no coincidence of pink circle on invitation cards?? As always appreciate your great analysis. Hope you and yours are well.
aw geeze, 2008 revisited. Hollow promises, nothing concrete, Guantanamo will stay open as long until the lying lier calculates political advantage to closing it. Morality be damned.
Yes, I believe that’s an accurate description, Thomas. And now we must continue to nag …
Thanks, Suze. Great to hear from you and thanks for the supportive words.
Time is of the essence indeed. Hence my plan for a Gitmo Release-o-Meter.
I don’t think this will stop the hunger strike. I think only a big program of prisoner releases will do that.
As for Medea, I admire her intervention. She showed up the mainstream journalists for the craven stenographers that most of them are.
I think we’re there, Curt. The political advantage isn’t against the Republicans, but it does involve world opinion, and to a certain extent – though not enough, obviously – the liberal establishment and Democrats. And although US Presidents like to claim they don’t care what the rest of the world thinks, they do, as Bush demonstrated in his second term.
We just have to keep fighting, Curt, and not give up. Hit the administration every day that a prisoner isn’t released. Obama gave us the ammo, in this speech and in his news conference three weeks ago.
Also, please keep up the pressure by signing and sharing the Avaaz petition, which currently has 596,595 signatures: http://www.avaaz.org/en/obama_shut_down_gitmo_us/
Jay Becker wrote, in response to 12, above:
Can’t agree more with Ramzi Kassem! We have to do the political work with the “hopeheads,” make the case to them too. I have a couple of websites I send them to – worldcantwait.net and this guy Andy Worthington’s
Jay Truman wrote:
I agree with you, “We still need to keep up the pressure on the President and his administration!” Or, we can wait till pigs fly!
Thanks again, Jay (Becker), and thanks also, Jay (Truman). So what do you think? Can we start the Gitmo Release-o-Meter? It’s Day One. How long until we get a prisoner released? How long should we give him? He can put Shaker Aamer on a plane this afternoon.
I hadn’t seen that before, Paul. Thanks.
Andy, thanks to you for initiating another important discussion today. Thanks to the other respondents here.
Andy I share your discomfort with President Obama’s announcement that he is going to appoint yet another diplomat to secretly negotiate secret bilateral release deals.
Some newspapers allow their readers to weigh in on some of their articles, and I participate in some of those discussions. There are still a lot of people out there who believe that all the captives are terrorists. As one of their proofs those who claim the captives are all terrorists claim: “Look — the USA is prepared to release a whole bunch of captives — but no one will take them! Not even their own countries will take them!”
The truth is the USA may have cleared men for release. But, as the formerly secret JTF-GTMO assessments WikiLeaks published made clear, most of those release recommendations were not unconditional.
Rather when those JTF-GTMO assessments recommended release, they recommended “release to the control of another country”.
What does that “control of another country” mean? Andy, I mentioned the UK negotiators who, frustrated by years of negotiation to get Bisher al Rawi repatriatted back to the UK, leaked some of the demands US negotiators were trying to impose. They said the US was trying to insist that if they agreed to repatriate al Rawi, the UK would have to be prepared to repatriate all the former UK residents.
Of course the remaining UK residents were also innocent men, who deserved repatriation. It was the second condition I found so disturbing, and which I assume disturbed the UK negotiators. They US wanted the UK to either imprison the men, once they arrived, or they wanted the UK to subject the men to draconian surveillance.
I think we know that the USA was willing to pay substantial funds to the governments of some of the countries that accepted former captives.
I think it was Carol Rosenberg who said the captives who President Obama’s Joint Review Task Force recommended for release were quietly divided into two subgroups — some recommended for “unconditional release” and other cleared only for “conditional release”.
Captives repatriated to Italy went straight to trial. So, I think we know what conditions Italy agreed to.
When OARDEC classified 38 captives as “no longer enemy combatants” most of them were transferred home within a month or so of the announcement. The remaining captives spent more than a year still held because they couldn’t be returned to China, or where-ever. The five Uyghurs captives’ habeas petition was days away from ordering their release into the Continental USA, when the USA suddenly announced that Albania had agreed to take them, as refugees.
I think we can safely assume there was a last minute panic when the Bush administration realized they might have to release the Uyghurs to the USA. I’ll bet Albania was able to demand a big step up in the dowry they demanded for the Uyghurs.
The USA could (1) drop the idea that it had any right to impose conditions on the released men; (2) let other countries bid on how much they would require before they would agree to grant a path to citizenship to the captives.
I still think the USA should offer the captives an apology, a lump sum, a professionally designed and managed re-integration package, and a pension.
Thanks for the enlightening comments, as ever, arcticredriver. You’re correct to highlight the unacceptable conditions of release, or more specifically transfer, as follows: “They US wanted the UK to either imprison the men, once they arrived, or they wanted the UK to subject the men to draconian surveillance.” Most countries refused to do this, of course, and the Bush administration essentially backed down, but it infected the plans for releasing Yemenis, long before Obama imposed his ban, and it’s still an undercurrent to negotiations, or the lack of them.
I’m inclined to agree with your final words, but at the very least I want the US government to acknowledge that release should mean release – without conditions – and to act on it.
Beth Bailey-Kingdon wrote:
Love you, Andy – in an agape way, of course.
Ted Cartselos wrote:
Keep it up. Obama is very good at making speeches and then failing to follow up and do what he said he would do.
Tausif Khan wrote:
The things he said about Guantanamo were actually terrifying
1) he didn’t say anything about releasing the already cleared individuals he said that they would be transferred
2) he did not speak to ending the policy of ending indefinite detention but transferring the facility and the policy on to US soil.
That is terrifying
Thanks, Ted. Yes, that’s exactly why the pressure is needed. And Tausif, it’s hard to argue with what you say, but I think using the word “transfer” rather than “release” is a form of caution that is difficult if not impossible to enforce in reality (as happened under Bush from 2004-2008), and transferring the policy to US soil isn’t a good idea if Obama wants to preserve the policy, as I don’t believe it can, could or will survive the legal challenges that exist on the US mainland.
Tausif Khan wrote:
Andy I am a little confused as to the distinction that you are drawing between “transfer” and “release”. My understanding of what the president said is that the detainees from Yemen would not be “released” from their incarceration but instead be 2 x 2 “transferred” into Yemeni incarceration to be “rehabilitated” (to save the United States from blowback and growth of AQAP). I saw this as the opposite of what we were hoping in that 86 of the 166 prisoners have been cleared for release from incarceration altogether.
This is the kind of nonsense spawned by the “war on terror” and Guantanamo that is so damaging to notions of justice, Tausif. Prisoners the US no longer wants to hold indefinitely or put on trial ought to be freed outright, but because of all the hysteria about Muslim countries “creating” or “harboring” terrorists, another layer of obstruction is erected. So the men must be “transferred” rather than “released” and must be put through rehabilitation. If – when – this process begins, it will lead to the release of former prisoners, after a time period that the US will want to be involved in defining. The problem is that some officials’ caution is such that they only want prisoners transferred to ongoing detention, which is both unacceptable and generally difficult for the men’s home countries to enforce, as the US has no actual evidence to back up its claims that the men are dangerous and need to be detained.
What a mess.
Ted Cartselos wrote:
Politically it would be difficult to sustain suspension of Constitutional rights for these men. Guantanamo is a political expedient because Americans have a national blind spot about anything that happens off shore.
Ted Cartselos wrote:
The US Constitution is not bounded by national borders. The American government must abide by its provisions and its obligations under treaties signed by it, no matter where in the world we are.
Ted, your comments are very powerful. The facts you write about, which ought to be evident to Americans, need to be better known!
Ted Cartselos wrote:
You have a keen grasp of the obvious, Worthington.
And unfortunately, Ted, the necessary and obvious is largely out of fashion these days. Actually, it’s logic and empathy that I find to be most endangered.
Ted Cartselos wrote:
I wish you were here stateside so you could talk to some people I know. You have a very compelling story. It’s a big story.
Thanks, Ted. Happy to be put in touch with people who might be able to help.
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