As Guantánamo’s 14th Year of Operations Begins, This Must Be the Year It Closes

11.1.15

Campaigners outside CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia on January 10, 2015 (Photo: Andy Worthington).As the prison at Guantánamo Bay begins its 14th year of operations, I am in the US for a short tour calling for the prison’s closure — and, specifically, in Washington D.C. for a protest outside the White House on the actual anniversary of the prison’s opening — January 11.

With 28 men freed in the last year, and just 127 men still held, there are reasons for cautious optimism that the end is now in sight for the prison, a reviled symbol of the Bush administration’s post-9/11 overreach and disdain for the law, and of President Obama’s difficulty in placing principles above political expediency.

Two good reviews of where we stand on Guantánamo’s 13th anniversary were published last week in the New York Times. In the first, “The Path to Closing Guantánamo,” Cliff Sloan, who has just resigned as the State Department’s envoy for closing Guantánamo (a role he has held since 2013), praised the progress made in the last 18 months — with 39 prisoners released, compared to four in the previous two years, when Congressional obstruction was at its most potent, and President Obama’s political will at its weakest.

In addition, as Cliff Sloan noted, “We also worked with Congress to remove unnecessary obstacles to foreign transfers,” and “began an administrative process to review the status of detainees not yet approved for transfer or formally charged with crimes” — the Periodic Review Boards, which have, to date, reviewed the cases of nine prisoners not already approved for release by a task force President Obama established in 2009, and recommended six for release.

As Cliff Sloan also noted, 59 of the 127 men still held have been “approved for transfer,” and as he proceeded to explain:

This means that six agencies — the Departments of Defense, Homeland Security, Justice and State, as well as the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the director of national intelligence — have unanimously approved the person for release based on everything known about the individual and the risk he presents. For most of those approved, this rigorous decision was made half a decade ago. Almost 90 percent of those approved are from Yemen, where the security situation is perilous. They are not “the worst of the worst,” but rather people with the worst luck. (We recently resettled several Yemenis in other countries, the first time any Yemeni had been transferred from Guantánamo in more than four years.)

Looking to the future, Cliff Sloan also noted that, although there has been “great progress” towards closing Guantánamo, it “will take intense and sustained action to finish the job.” As he explained, “The government must continue and accelerate the transfers of those approved for release. Administrative review of those not approved for transfer must be expedited.” Crucially, he added, “The absolute and irrational ban on transfers to the United States for any purpose, including detention and prosecution, must be changed as the population is reduced to a small core of detainees who cannot safely be transferred overseas.”

As Cliff Sloan also explained:

The reasons for closing Guantánamo are more compelling than ever. As a high-ranking security official from one of our staunchest allies on counterterrorism (not from Europe) once told me, “The greatest single action the United States can take to fight terrorism is to close Guantánamo.” I have seen firsthand the way in which Guantánamo frays and damages vitally important security relationships with countries around the world. The eye-popping cost — around $3 million per detainee last year, compared with roughly $75,000 at a “supermax” prison in the United States — drains vital resources.

Cliff Sloan’s op-ed ended with an important statement: “Imprisoning men without charges for this long — many of whom have been approved for transfer for almost half the period of their incarceration — is not in line with the country we aspire to be,” which is certainly the opinion of all Americans who respect the rule of law above the fearmongering that has eaten away at the country’s values since 9/11.

In another New York Times article last week, “Obama Nears Goal for Guantánamo With Faster Pace of Releases,” Helene Cooper looked in further detail at what might happen in the months to come. Firstly, she noted, the Pentagon is “ready to release two more groups of prisoners in the next two weeks,” although officials “will not provide a specific number.”

She added that President Obama’s goal, before leaving office, is “to deplete the Guantánamo prison to the point where it houses 60 to 80 people and keeping it open no longer makes economic sense.”

Officials explained that the president expects that Ashton B. Carter, nominated to be the next defense secretary, will “move more aggressively on emptying Guantánamo” than Chuck Hagel, whose caution evidently frustrated the White House, and ultimately led to his resignation. Carter’s colleagues told the Times that he is attuned to President Obama’s “desire to be part of the last chapter of the Guantánamo prison.”

Officials also told the Times that they “hope to keep up the current pace,” although they acknowledged that, “after the planned two groups of transfers, the releases may slow down,” because officials at the Pentagon and the State Department have to find countries prepared to take in the Yemenis approved for release, who make up 52 of the 59 men approved for release, in the absence of any confidence that the security situation in Yemen is sufficiently secure to allow any prisoners to be repatriated.

Ian Moss, the State Department’s spokesman for Guantánamo issues, said, “I can tell you that in the world of Gitmo transfers and our conversations with foreign governments, momentum matters.” He added, “We are aggressively reaching out to a wide variety of countries. This language was echoed by Paul Lewis, the Pentagon’s special envoy for the closure of Guantánamo, who said that “the Defense Department continues to aggressively pursue the transfer” of low-level prisoners who have been declared eligible for release. He added, “we take our obligation to assess the potential threat of detainees seriously prior to transfers,” but he also stated that in 2015 there could be “an increase of detainees eligible to transfer” — presumably through the Periodic Review Board process.

All decent people can only hope that, as 2015 — and the 14th year of Guantánamo’s operations — unfolds, the 59 men approved for release — including Shaker Aamer, the last British resident and the focus of my most recent campaign, We Stand With Shaker — will be freed, and serious efforts made to approve others for release through the Periodic Review Boards (because few of the 68 others genuinely pose any kind of threat, and only ten are facing trials), and to persuade Congress that the remaining prisoners must be transferred to the US mainland so that Guantánamo can be closed for good.

This is because, as I never tire of saying (although I look forward to the day I no longer have to say it), the prison at Guantánamo is a legal, moral and ethical abomination, and every day it remains open — with its arbitrary system of indefinite detention, its prisoners cleared for release but still held, its brutal force-feeding, and its essential nature as a prison built on torture — ought to be a source of profound shame for all decent Americans.

Some opponents of Guantánamo fear that such a move will enshrine the indefinite detention policies of Guantánamo on the mainland, but I don’t agree. I think there would be new legal challenges, and ones with real teeth, because, to be blunt, far more rights exist on the US mainland than in Guantánamo, and, although sentencing rules and prison conditions are punitive and disgraceful, there is no precedent for imprisoning people without charge or trial, as at Guantánamo, and, I believe, any effort to establish a precedent would attract fierce and, I am sure, successful opposition by lawyers and judges.

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer and film-maker. He is the co-founder of the “Close Guantánamo” campaign, the director of “We Stand With Shaker,” calling for the immediate release from Guantánamo of Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in the prison, 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).

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6 Responses

  1. arcticredriver says...

    Thanks Andy!

    Can I comment on something you quoted Cliff Sloan as saying?

    “The absolute and irrational ban on transfers to the United States for any purpose, including detention and prosecution, must be changed as the population is reduced to a small core of detainees who cannot safely be transferred overseas.”

    One problem I have with the part I put in bold is that there is no legal justification for holding individuals because someone thinks they cannot safely be released. The justification can’t be the Geneva Conventions, which does allow a war power to hold some individuals, without charge — but only those individuals it classes as POWs. Notoriously the Bush Presidency (wrongly) ruled the Geneva Conventions was “quaint” and “inapplicable”. Yet it was only under the Geneva Conventions that the USA had a justification for holding the men without charge.

    If they can’t face charges in a fair court of law I think they must be released, without regard to whether someone fears they represent a danger to the USA after their release.

    I think one of the dirty secrets of Guantanamo is that some Guantanamo analysts realized, years ago, that many of the captives had been innocent civilian bystanders, who weren’t dangers to the USA, before they were captured, but they had been turned into potential threats to the USA by the brutal and unfair treatment they received.

    Life is risky. Modern life has new risks that weren’t faced by our forefathers. Death in a terrorist attack is one. Death in a vehicle accident was unknown before we invented vehicles. Sloan is correct, that America is still under a kind of hysteria about terrorist attacks. Decision makers make crazy decisions, based on the notion that after the failures of intelligence that allowed the attacks on 9-11, the USA cannot allow even one more death through terrorism.

    I am old enough to remember years of debate over whether car manufacturers should be forced to change the installation of seatbelts from optional to mandatory. Statistically, we know this saved many lives per year. Similarly we know that if every car had a built-in unit to confirm the driver’s breath showed he or she wasn’t drunk, this too would save many lives per year.

    I don’t have the figures handy, but I bet that if the trillions of dollars the USA spent invading Afghanistan and Iraq, had been spent installing the drunkard’s breath analysis unit into every US car it would have saved orders of magnitude more lives that were lost on 9-11.

    The USA didn’t spend those trilliions helping to prevent motor vehicle deaths, yet Americans still enter vehicles, without giving it a second thought.

    I would encourage Americans to see the risk they face of death or injury from a terrorist attack as similar to the risk of death in a vehicle accident.

    Might some of the men who were innocent when sent to Guantanamo attack America? Maybe. Will all the dozens of them? Vanishingly unlikely. But, I think Americans have to realize the decision was made in 2002. If the USA does release the dozens of remaining captives who are too innocent to charge, but considered “dangerous” to release, and some of them do engage in terrorist attacks, they should blame Bush’s decision to torture men, even if they might be innocent. They should think, “Did President Bush think the USA could hold all 779 men tortured in Guantanamo, for the rest of their lives?” He should have realized that torturing men in 2002, even if they might be innocent, would mean the USA would be releasing men it tortured at some time in the future, and that some of those torture victims might want revenge.

    With regard to former captives who want revenge, there have been dozens of former captives who tried to seek compensation for their lost years in unjustified and unjustifiable captivity, and the brutal treatment they lived through in that captivity. In every single case obsequious judges have ruled against them, unwisely deferring to the executive branch, and its “national security” mandate.

    If, for the sake of argument, some of the innocent captives, who are extremely angry over the mistreatment they lived through, could see other men had sued, and received meaningful compensatory payments, they would consider channeling their anger into their own lawsuit, instead of seeking out a radical anti-American militant group to join.

    With regard to hysteria over terrorist attacks, as the horrible events in Paris unfolded I compared the decisions made by French authorities to the US reaction to the Boston marathon bombings. The two incidents were of approximately equal scale. Each incident started with two armed and dangerous militants at large. US authorities in Boston ordered every business closed, and every citizen to stay in their home. Paris authorities did close every business and order citizens to stay in their homes, but not for days, and only in the small village only a few blocks in size, when the militants were found.

  2. arcticredriver says...

    The US spent trillions to invade Iraq, and yet it still doesn’t have a universal health care system comparable to that of Canada’s, or the UK’s NHS. If the USA had spent just a fraction of those trillions transferring US health care to a modern NHS style system, how many lives would that have saved?

    Are lives lost in a terrorist attack more significant than lives lost due to bad health care?

    If the USA changed over to an NHS style system, it would, in the long and medium term, save money, as even though its citizens’ average health care is worse than that in the UK, the US spends much more on health care, per capita than any other modern industrialized country, all of which have modern socialized health care.

  3. James Sunderland says...

    I do think the 59 eligible for transfer will be released by 2017 and Ahmed Darbi and Majid Khan will be released after serving 15 and 19 years respectively. But I doubt the Republican Congress will ever allow Guantanamo to be closed.

    http://www.azcentral.com/story/news/nation/politics/2015/01/14/gop-senators-restrict-obama-guantanamo/21754423/

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Hello, arcticredriver, from rural Massachusetts, where I am currently.
    Thank you for your thoughts, as ever. Cliff Sloan’s words unfortunately echo what has happened as a result of the lawlessness of Guantanamo, and the political opposition to its closure, which is that risk mitigation is now the primary argument the administration must use to justify releasing prisoners.
    Regarding the latest terrorist attacks, I have to say that what depresses me is how a crime is being turned into a “war” situation at the French end, despite the lessons that should have been learned after 9/11, and how reinforced this was by the presence of world leaders. Personally, I was glad to see that President Obama didn’t turn up for something that, whatever its stated aim, had such blatant racist (i.e. Islamophobic) undertones.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Agreed re: health care, arcticredriver, but the problem, of course, is that the military-industrial-inteligence complex in the US wants war, not health.

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    We shall see, James. If the population can be reduced to all those not approved for release, and Periodic Review Boards approve other men for release, the situation may be different if, say, just 50 men or less are still held – especially, I would think, if forceful arguments are made for those who can be tried to be tried in federal court rather than in the military commissions; in other words, moving them from Guantanamo to pre-trial imprisonment in federal prisons on the US mainland.

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo, co-director, We Stand With Shaker. Also, singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers) and photographer (The State of London).
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