Will the End of War in Afghanistan Spur Obama to Close Guantánamo?

7.11.13

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.

The short answer to the question, “Will the End of War in Afghanistan Spur Obama to Close Guantánamo?” is probably no, for reasons I will explain below, although it is, of course, significant to numerous interested parties that the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan next year provides an opportunity for new discussions about the ongoing detention of 164 prisoners at Guantánamo, and, probably, new legal challenges on their behalf.

On October 18, the Washington Post discussed these issues in an article entitled, “Afghan war’s approaching end throws legal status of Guantánamo detainees into doubt,” in which Karen DeYoung suggested, “The approaching end of the US war in Afghanistan could help President Obama move toward what he has said he wanted to do since his first day in office: close the US prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.”

The article described how officials in the Obama administration were “examining whether the withdrawal of US troops at the end of 2014 could open the door” for some of the remaining 164 prisoners “to challenge the legal authority of the United States to continue to imprison them.”

In September, one prisoner, Fawzi al-Odah, who is one of the last two Kuwaiti prisoners still held in Guantánamo, filed a petition with the District Court in Washington D.C. As Lyle Denniston described it for SCOTUSblog, al-Odah “is making a new plea for his release — just as soon as the US completes its withdrawal from the war in Afghanistan.” At that point, the lawyers for al-Odah argued, “the US government will no longer have a legal basis for holding him.”

Al-Odah’s habeas petition “contended that the Supreme Court has allowed detention of prisoners captured in Afghanistan or Pakistan only as long as ‘armed hostilities’ continue for US forces in that region,” as the Supreme Court affirmed in Hamdi v. Rumsfeld in June 2004. Denniston added, “With the Obama administration’s planned end of those operations by the end of December 2014, the document contended, al-Odah must be sent home to Kuwait.”

In the Washington Post, meanwhile, Karen DeYoung noted that, in particular, officials “believe the war’s declared end could force a reckoning” over the fate of the 17 Afghan prisoners who are still held, and quoted Brig. Gen. Mark Martins, the chief prosecutor for the military commissions at Guantánamo, who recently stated in an interview, “In the words of the Supreme Court, the authority to detain — if you’re detaining based on someone being a belligerent — can unravel as hot wars end. And I think that’s a real question.”

The Washington Post correctly noted that the justification for holding men at Guantánamo is the Authorization for Use of Military Force against those who “planned, authorized, committed or aided” the 9/11 attacks, and those who “might launch new attacks,” as the Post put it, which was passed by Congress in the days following the attacks. The Post also noted that, in a major speech on national security issues in May, President Obama stated that he “would like to do away with the Authorization for the Use of Military Force,” as the Post described it, “and replace it with more targeted versions to allow action against new al-Qaeda related groups in the Middle East and Africa and other threats as they arise.” In May, he specifically spoke of his goal being to ”refine, and ultimately repeal” the existing authority.

As the Post noted, repealing the 2001 AUMF “could allow other detainees imprisoned under its terms to re-file habeas corpus petitions that the government had successfully quashed.” One senior administration official, speaking anonymously, explained, “If that were to go away, you really don’t have that legal hook for continued detention. I think you would have some very interesting constitutional questions.”

Why it is not true that Congress is preventing the president from releasing Guantánamo prisoners

These are interesting points, but here at “Close Guantánamo” we are concerned by some of the inaccuracies in DeYoung’s article. In particular, when discussing the 164 men still held, she wrote that President Obama has been “[b]locked by Congress from releasing or transferring many of the remaining 164 detainees.”

As my colleague Tom Wilner explains, this is a myth. As he describes it, in “Missing the Point at Guantánamo,” an article published this week on the Warscapes website:

Congress had passed legislation effectively blocking the president from transferring detainees to their home or other countries, but it then amended the law two years ago allowing the president to waive those restrictions. As Carl Levin, the Chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, pointed out, that amendment “provides a clear route for the transfer of detainees to third countries.” The president has simply not used it.

Why the remaining Afghan prisoners are not all “Taliban members captured on the battlefield”

Another error concerns the Afghan prisoners, described, casually, as being “Afghan Taliban members captured on the battlefield,” when this is clearly not the case. Although just 17 Afghans remain at Guantánamo, out of the 218 or so held in total since the prison opened, not all of these men can fairly be described as being “Afghan Taliban members” or as having been “captured on the battlefield,” as I have discussed in a number of prisoner profiles — see here (Abdul Ghani) and here (Obaidullah), and also here (Shawali Khan). Also see my overviews of the remaining Afghan prisoners, “US in Talks to Return the 17 Afghan Prisoners in Guantánamo,” and “Close Guantánamo, Free the Afghans.”

Why it is not true that there are prisoners at Guantánamo who cannot be tried in federal court, and others who are “too dangerous to release” but are “ineligible for trial”

Another problem with the Post‘s article concerns the claim that, even if the end of the war assists the release of prisoners, the administration “would still need a place to hold those being tried in military commissions, including the alleged 9/11 plotters, and potentially some of the four dozen men deemed too dangerous to release but who are ineligible for trial because evidence against them is inadmissible.”

The point regarding trials is, on the surface, accurate, although it remains to be seen whether the commissions can survive their mauling by appeals court judges last October and in January this year, when conservative judges overturned two of the only convictions in the commissions’ wretched history, ruling that they involved war crimes that were not regarded as war crimes when the legislation approving the commissions was passed. In fact, as anyone paying close attention has known for years, the war crimes were invented by Congress in 2006 after the Supreme Court ruled that the first incarnation of the commissions was illegal, and the Obama administration knew of the problems in 2009, but failed to talk Congress out of passing a third version of the commissions that summer.

This huge blow to the commissions’ credibility led Brig. Gen. Martins to concede, in June this year, that only a maximum of 13 of the prisoners still held would ever face trials, and on November 4 Eric Holder, who had announced in November 2009 that the men accused of involvement in the 9/11 attacks would be tried in New York, but had then been obliged to drop the trial in the face of cynical political opposition, made a speech in which he made a point of saying that he had been right all along.

Holder said, “I think that what we have seen over these past four years, not to be egocentric about this, but that I was right. I had access to documents, files, recommendations by the military, US attorneys offices in the Eastern District of Virginia as well as the Southern District of New York, and I think the decision that I announced that day was the right one. I think that the facts and events that have occurred since then demonstrate that.”

He added, “We unfortunately did not go down that road for reasons other than those connected to the litigation, I think reasons largely political, I think the opposition was largely political in nature, and I think this is an example of what happens when politics gets into matters that ought to simply be decided by lawyers and by national security experts.”

The bigger problem with the Post‘s claim that the Obama administration “would still need a place to hold those being tried in military commissions … and potentially some of the four dozen men deemed too dangerous to release but who are ineligible for trial because evidence against them is inadmissible,” concerns those four dozen men — or, to be strictly accurate, the 46 men still alive out of the 48 designated for ongoing imprisonment by President Obama’s inter-agency Guantánamo Review Task Force, two of whom are Fawzi al-Odah and his compatriot, Fayiz al-Kandari, both of whom are not the dangerous prisoners they have been made out to be.

As Tom Wilner also notes:

That line [about prisoners being "too dangerous to release" but "ineligible for trial"] has been repeated time and again by the press, and never examined. It is simply not true. The government’s basis for detaining each of the men at Guantánamo is now publicly available on WikiLeaks. Members of the press can examine the evidence themselves. There are clearly some bad guys down there — generally acknowledged now as fewer than 20. These men can all be tried. The only thing preventing their conviction is the military commission system itself, which is totally untested and ineffective. They would all have been convicted long ago in our federal courts.

An examination of the government’s basis for detaining the other men at Guantánamo shows that the reason they can’t be tried is not because the evidence against them is inadmissible, but simply because it is so flimsy and speculative that it would be laughed out of any federal court in the country. It would be a good thing if the press examined that evidence. And it would be a good thing if it would pay more attention to the continuing injustice at Guantánamo which is so contrary to our nation’s fundamental values and remains such a blemish on our reputation around the world.

Scrap the Authorization for Use of Military Force, yes, but don’t let President Obama off the hook

As the Periodic Review Board process gets underway, in which these 46 men, plus 25 others once deemed eligible for trials, will have their cases reviewed, to see if they should still be held, it remains apparent that the fate of the majority of the men is in the president’s hands. He needs to release the 84 men cleared for release in January 2010 by his task force, as he promised to resume doing in his major speech in May — although since that date just two men have been released. He also needs to make sure that the aim of the Periodic Review Board is to rigorously examine the so-called evidence against the prisoners, as Tom suggests, because so much of it is hearsay and innuendo, or false statements produced under torture or other forms of duress, or through prisoners being bribed with the promise of better living conditions.

It is apparent that the end of the war in Afghanistan provides an important opportunity for the AUMF to be scrapped. As the Post noted, the AUMF has provided the legal justification not only for military action in Afghanistan, but also for the global program of drone attacks. The Post also noted, correctly, “With no legislative or legal challenge, Obama has also adopted a more expanded interpretation of the law to use force against al-Qaeda ‘associates,’ including groups that did not exist when it was first enacted.”

“As currently interpreted,” the Post continued, “the AUMF has no geographic boundaries and can justify military action anywhere in the world where the administration determines it applies.” Under Obama, it has been used to justify drone strikes in Yemen (including lethal strikes against US citizens) and Somalia, and, just last month, it was cited as the legal authority for the kidnap by US Special Forces of Abu Anas al-Libi in Libya, and another failed operation in Somalia.

Reflecting on the use of the AUMF over the last 12 years, former Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.), who voted for it on September 14, 2001, said recently, “I never imagined that the AUMF would still be in effect today. Over time, some would assert, and I agree, that it has taken on a life of its own, and the executive branch has used it in ways that no one who voted for it envisioned.”

However, the Post also noted, “Others have been reluctant to do away with it or narrow its scope, in part because of the potential effect its demise could have on Guantánamo” — where, although the Post failed to explain it, dark forces, particularly amongst Republicans in Congress, are determined to keep the prison open, for misguided, and perhaps even malevolent reasons of their own.

Despite Obama’s fine words about the AUMF, the only proposal to do away with it –an amendment proposed by Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) to repeal it after troops leave Afghanistan in December 2014 — was defeated by 236 votes to 180. Rep. Schiff told the Post that ending the AUMF “forces the issue,” adding, “It doesn’t mean there would have to be some precipitous decision” on Guantánamo, “but the clock would very much be ticking.”

According to this scenario, the clock has not yet even begun ticking on Guantánamo, although after nearly 12 years of monstrous injustice, that is clearly ridiculous. It is good that bringing the AUMF to an end is being discussed, and that the withdrawal of troops will bring new legal challenges, but, as we have persistently made clear here at “Close Guantanamo,” the president has the authority to release the 84 cleared prisoners who are still held, and the majority of the other men need to have the supposed basis for their ongoing imprisonment examined in a very detailed and objective manner.

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, and “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.

16 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    On Facebook, Willy Bach wrote:

    Thanks Andy, this is an angle that Obama has not made clear yet – he should. Shared.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Willy. Yes, he should start talking about it now, as it’s certain the republicans and the right-wingers in his own party won’t like it. They want everyone in Guantanamo to die there.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Angela Gipple wrote:

    What has he been waiting for?

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, good question, Angela. He’s waiting for it to be politically advantageous – or, to be more accurate, not potentially politically damaging. So OK, righting a horrendous injustice doesn’t have any value in and of itself, then …

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Angela Gipple wrote:

    Exactly. Politicians worry about what is politically advantageous while people suffer.

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Thank you, Angela. Yes, that’s exactly right, and their cowardice covers a multitude of sins. Everywhere we look, politicians aren’t doing what is needed either (a) because they don’t care, or (b) they would care but it’s not “politically advantageous.” No wonder hardly anything good comes from politicians nowadays.

  7. the talking dog says...

    Will the End of War in Afghanistan Spur Obama to Close Guantánamo?

    Why would it? GTMO was set up as a legal black hole and demonstration project. I see no reason for Obama to shut it down for any reason (other than, of course, the actual reason it will ultimately be shut down, to wit, the financial bankruptcy of the American empire.)

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Ah, TD, how very nice to hear from you. I hope you are well, and, if the usual border passage issues don’t present me with any problems, I will be crossing the pond in early January, and very much hope to see you, in your neck of the woods if not outside the White House where I shall, I suppose, do my usual turn of giving vent to our indignation.
    As for Guantanamo being a legal back hole, yes indeed – and certainly for some people it’s also a demonstration project. For others, though, I see it as somewhere that engenders a certain amount of embarrassment and confusion, and that includes some people in the Obama administration – but unfortunately I also see how it’s not politically important to actually do much about it.
    I try to remember that patience is a hugely important part of campaigning against profound injustices that last far longer than they should …

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks to everyone who has liked and shared this. As we approach the 12th anniversary of the opening of Guantanamo, it’s important that those of us who want to see Guantanamo closed understand all the issues. The legal issues surrounding the end of the Afghan war and the status of the Guantanamo prisoners – connected to the Authorization for Use of Military Force – are certainly something we can rally behind, but we need to remember that we must also keep pushing President Obama to use the powers he already has to release the 84 men cleared for release by his own Guantanamo Review Task Force.
    You can phone or email the White House to ask President Obama to act. Details are on the GTMO Clock website, which now marks 168 days since Obama promised to resume releasing prisoners from Guantanamo, and yet only two men have been released: http://gtmoclock.com/

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    Meena B Sharma wrote:

    Shared! Thanks Andy for the info.

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    You’re welcome, Meena. It’s very good to hear from you.

  12. Thomas says...

    If torture had not been used and fair trials had been allowed, about 5 men would be on federal Death Row by now, 15 more in federal prison and the rest would most likely be free. 9/11 was a horrible thing, and the US was right to go after the people who set it up, but they’ve gone crazy. They lock up, torture and force feed innocent people, then send them back to horrible regimes, treat all airline passengers like terrorists, ect. There is a middle way between doing nothing and going totally over the top and they missed it.

  13. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, exactly, Thomas. Very well put indeed. Thanks.

  14. Torture on Tape, Anti-Empire Report, Kanye West, Black Popular Culture… » Clearing the FOG Radio says...

    […] existence of Guantánamo, and to receive updates of our activities by email. – See more at: http://www.andyworthington.co.uk/2013/11/07/will-the-end-of-war-in-afghanistan-spur-obama-to-close-g… I wrote the following article for the “Close Guantánamo” website, which I established in […]

  15. Cosmic Surfer (Jan) says...

    Hi, Andy!

    I suspect the “War in Afghanistan” (the continued war on those not American and white) will never really end. After all, we still have our section of Bagram for illegal detention, abuse and denial of human and civil rights, we will still have “advisers” as we do in 150 nations around the world, and we still have a crony government, we put in and maintain in office, that is more corrupt than nearly any other “sovereign nation.”

    I suspect the end of the war on anyone not us and removal of all troops from any nation not us will happen when pigs fly and we land a ship at the edge of the Universe..

    Guantanamo should never have opened and, I suspect, Obama is making sure it will never really close..

    Your fan and friend from Denver,
    Cosmic Surfer (Jan)

  16. Andy Worthington says...

    Hard to disagree, Jan, with most of what you say. I’m sure the end of the Afghan war will be the same as the end of the Iraq war; in other words, a significant number of troops and contractors will remain, doing whatever it is they do that’s supposed to make any sort of sense (although it doesn’t) – keeping the empire’s interests going, making money for the arms industry …
    The American people need to wake up and take on the military-industrial-intelligence complex before it sucks the whole economy dry, but like far too many of my fellow citizens, they’re watching reality TV instead, and bitching about someone less fortunate than themselves.

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