The media is suddenly buzzing with the suggestion, first aired in the Washington Post, that all the men approved for release in Guantánamo — 57 out of the 122 men still held — will be freed by the end of the year, and, if Congress proves obstructive, the Obama administration might close the facility before the end of Obama’s presidency by unilaterally moving the remaining prisoners to the US mainland.
Realistically, however, it might be wisest to view these suggestions as the administration stating its best-case scenario.
It is certainly true that the release of prisoners is likely to resume soon, with willingness on the part of the administration, and with the new defense secretary, Ashton Carter, imminently to be presented with a number of cases to sign off on. According to US law, implemented in the last few years, Congress must be notified of intended releases 30 days before they happen, but this is not a process that involves significant roadblocks.
More problematic, for the administration, is finding new homes for the majority of the released prisoners, who, for the most part, cannot be safely repatriated. 49 of the 57 men approved for release are Yemenis, and the entire US establishment is unwilling to repatriate them, because of the unstable security situation in Yemen.
However, as the officials who spoke to the Washington Post made clear, other prisoners — and a handful of the Yemenis — can probably be released within the next few months. The article stated, “As a first step, officials plan to send up to 10 prisoners overseas, possibly in June.”
The release of Shaker Aamer?
One of these men is Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in the prison, who has been the subject of formidable campaigning in the UK, by activists and by MPs. A long-standing campaign I have been involved in is the Save Shaker Aamer Campaign, and in November I co-founded another campaign, We Stand With Shaker, with the activist Joanne MacInnes, which concentrated on securing high-level support from celebrities and MPs, with significant success. Of huge importance has been the work of MPs in the Shaker Aamer Parliamentary Group, chaired by John McDonnell MP, a tireless campaigner for justice, who pushed for a Parliamentary debate last month that ended up with the government endorsing the call for Shaker’s return to his family in the UK.
Murmurs over the years have suggested that elements within the US establishments — and perhaps the UK too — wanted Shaker sent to Saudi Arabia, the country of his birth, where he would not be at liberty to talk about all he has seen and knows about after 13 years as one of the most vocal opponents of Guantánamo inside the prison. That, however, was never a practical option — although it may well have contributed to his ongoing imprisonment — because vocal and often influential campaigners, lawyers, MPs and journalists in the UK have long been aware that the British government has an inescapable responsibility to secure his return to the UK, and not to allow him to be sent elsewhere.
In its article, the Washington Post noted that Shaker “may be resettled as early as this summer.” It was also noted that he was “an accused al-Qaeda plotter,” whom British officials “have lobbied Washington to release,” although it is unhelpful to air claims about his alleged actions when, to be blunt, they have proven groundless. Guantánamo, essentially, is a place where lies told by prisoners subjected to torture or other forms of abuse, or bribed or worn down, are brandished as “evidence,” when they are no such thing, and, as with so many other prisoners, the allegations against Shaker have proven to be groundless.
In its most important paragraph, with regard to Shaker, the Post noted, “A decision to send Aamer, one of the highest profile prisoners who could be moved out of Guantánamo Bay, to Britain would be an important signal that the White House is willing to go ahead with transfers despite some officials’ fears about detainees’ future actions.”
The article proceeded to note that some US officials have expressed concerns about Shaker because he was “described in military files as an experienced al-Qaeda operative,” and fear what he “might do once he is released.” However, I find these claims to be both weak — and indicative of a tendency to exaggeration and fearfulness in the defense community — as well as a transparent effort to hide the real truth: that Shaker has a lot of knowledge that could embarrass his former captors.
The Post also explained how, “after Prime Minister David Cameron pressed Obama to release Aamer during a visit to Washington in January, Obama promised to prioritize the review of his case,” and quoted a spokesperson for the British Embassy in Washington, who said, “We are confident that the US government understands the seriousness of the UK’s request for Mr. Aamer’s release.”
Other imminent releases?
In addition, the Post noted that administration officials had explained to them that Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, “who has not approved any transfers since he took office in February, will sign off in coming weeks on the repatriation of inmates to Morocco and Mauritania, and the transfer of six Yemeni prisoners to a third country.”
This, the Post added, “will pose a test for Carter,” a longtime Pentagon official who replaced Chuck Hagel, “whose reluctance to approve” releases “caused friction with the White House before he abruptly announced his resignation last year.”
At his confirmation hearing, Carter promised that he would play it “absolutely straight” in assessing the Guantánamo cases, but he “must navigate eagerness at the White House to reduce the prison’s population, worries among many uniformed officers about militants returning to the fight and opposition from many lawmakers to freeing inmates,” as the Post described it.
As one official put it, “He understands that he has to transfer people and that he wants to do ‘safe transfers.’ So he’s trying to define what a safe transfer is.”
After noting that “debates about the safety of releasing detainees have held up transfers for years,” the Post pointed out that one of the men intended for imminent release, Ahmed Ould Abdel Aziz, a Mauritanian who is “expected to be repatriated as early as June,” is a case in point. Although he was “scheduled for release in late 2009,” just last year Chuck Hagel refused to approve his release, even though all the other relevant US agencies had “concurred that he should be transferred.”
One official, speaking anonymously, said, “Everybody said he should go back to Mauritania, including the intelligence community. The Pentagon has sat on it. The Pentagon raised concerns already addressed in an effort to forestall transfers.”
“Sometimes,” the Post noted, “officials raise flags about potential transfers during final evaluations that take place once a country has agreed to take in a prisoner. Aziz may have been one of those cases.” Paul Lewis, the special envoy for closing Guantánamo, appointed by President Obama in 2013, said, “We take very seriously the responsibility to ensure transfers are conducted safely and responsibly.”
John Holland, one of Aziz’s attorneys, told the Post that “news of his client’s release was long awaited,” as the newspaper described it “We hope to God it is true,” Holland said.
Another prisoner, who, according to the Post, is “expected to be repatriated in June,” is Younis Abdurrahman Chekkouri (aka Younus Chekhouri), a Moroccan who, like Aziz, was cleared for release in January 2010 by the high-level, inter-agency Guantánamo Review Task Force that President Obama established shortly after taking office in 2009. The Post noted how Chekhouri was described by US officials as “a close associate of Osama bin Laden and a co-founder of the Moroccan Islamic Fighting Group,” in the classified military files released by WikiLeaks in 2011. These claims have long been discredited by his lawyers — and by writers like myself, and it has also long been evident that the US authorities eventually concluded that their supposed evidence was untrustworthy. However, it was, nevertheless, reassuring to see the Post reporting that “officials have said that much of the information in some detainees’ files was inaccurate.”
It is troubling that the administration seems intent on repatriating Chekkouri to Morocco, where, he has said, he “would be tortured by the security services,” but his release is certainly long overdue, and it looks, unfortunately, as though it can only be hoped that his fears are unfounded.
The longer view
As for whether all 57 prisoners approved for release “will be resettled by the end of 2015,” as the officials who spoke to the Post suggested, those same officials also acknowledged that it “would require ‘large muscle movements’ by at least two countries.” The officials said they hope these two countries “will each agree to take in 10 to 20 Yemeni detainees.”
A defense official said, “I am aware of the clock ticking. It’s going to take high-level leadership, and it’s going to take some big asks to some countries.”
As for the other prisoners — ten facing trials, and 55 others, all scheduled to have their cases reviewed by Periodic Review Boards — the question of what to do with them “looms over a White House that is facing the end of Obama’s second term in 2017.” The 55 were either regarded as “too dangerous to release” by Obama’s task force, even though the task force also acknowledged that insufficient evidence existed to put them on trial, or were recommended for prosecution, but saw those proposals crumble as judges delivered a series of devastating rulings undermining the claimed legitimacy of the military commissions.
As the Post noted, “The biggest challenge to Obama’s plan lies in Congress, where skeptical lawmakers are moving to tighten restrictions on sending prisoners overseas. In the Senate, Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) is sponsoring a bill that would extend the ban on bringing detainees to the United States and would effectively bar future transfers to third countries.”
In response, the White House is “drafting a plan that officials hope will receive the support of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, as an alternate to Ayotte’s measure,” on the basis that McCain “has previously expressed openness to shutting the prison.” Even if McCain can be persuaded, however, it’s “far from certain” that “lawmakers would fall in behind the White House’s plan, which would allow detainees to be brought to the United States for trial or detention and would enable the continued transfer of others to foreign nations,” as the Post described it.
Rep. Adam Smith (Wash.), the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, and, as the Post described it, “a leading advocate for allowing prisoners to be brought to the United States,” said, “It’s looking very difficult. I don’t see what changes minds or persuades people at this point, but that’s what [the White House] is attempting to do.”
However, if Congress “does pass legislation that would freeze Guantánamo Bay’s population,” White House officials are “exploring options for the unilateral closure of the prison and moving detainees into the United States,” as the Post put it, adding, accurately, that this is “an action that Congress has opposed from the president’s first months in office.”
For now, the safest course of action for those who seek the closure of Guantánamo is to focus on the proposed releases in the near future, including Shaker Aamer, Ahmed Ould Abdel Aziz and Younus Chekhouri. As a journalist friend told me on Wednesday, after speaking to a contact within the administration, there is “cautious optimism” that they can secure the releases planned for June. I hope that leads to further releases, and eventually to the closure of the prison, before the end of Obama’s presidency, but with Guantánamo it is wise, after 13 years, not to get too many hopes up all at once.
Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer, film-maker and singer-songwriter. He is the co-founder of the “Close Guantánamo” campaign, the co-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 the University of Chicago Press in the US, and available from Amazon, including a Kindle edition — 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 six-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, the full military commissions list, and the chronological list of all Andy’s articles.
On Facebook, my friend Marisa Egerstrom shared this, and wrote:
Andy Worthington says we can be “cautiously optimistic “
Yes, I’m hearing that there’s a determination in the administration to see this through, Marisa. I really can’t tell you how much I hope it all works out – as I’m sure you know!
It is Priya again with RT America News. I’ve been trying to get you in for an interview for some time now. But now especially with these latest developments about prisoner transfers we most definetly want to proceed with your interview at your earliest possible convenience. Given the time difference, with us being in Washington, and you being in the U.K we would probably do a Skype interview in the morning (our time) which is in the evening (your time). Will try to do it at a reasonable hour. It is brief – under 10 minutes. It would not impact your schedule too much I hope.
We would like to do it Monday if possible.Your work and your analysis should definetly be broadcast on national news in America to inform the public about these serious and ongoing human rights abuses.
Please reply to my email: Preddy@rtmamerica.tv
with your availibility and Skype name. Thanks very much Andy!
woops… sorry for the misspelling. My email is PReddy@RTamerica.tv
Email on its way, Priya. Thanks.
It should be noted, in the midst of the cautious optimism about Shaker’s release, that Carol Rosenberg reported yesterday for the Miami Herald that Shaker’s “potentially pending transfer … has yet to clear a Principals Committee of Cabinet-level national security and intelligence secretaries, a hurdle that would come before it reaches Carter for his signature … Only once the Principals Committee agrees to change his status from eligible for Saudi repatriation to approved for UK resettlement could Carter then evaluate whether to sign off on it, according to people familiar with the process.”
Alka Pradham of Reprieve responded by stating, “The news of yet another pointless review of Shaker Aamer’s file is stunning; a ridiculous waste of time and resources. The United States has already cleared Shaker for release not once, but twice – under both the Obama and the Bush administrations. The gruelling clearance process involves unanimous agreement by six federal agencies, from the Department of Justice to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. If President Obama wants Guantánamo closed, he must fix this bureaucratic dysfunction and stop the senseless stalling. Shaker has suffered 13 years of the most terrible abuses, without a single charge or any trial, and must be returned home to London and his British wife and children immediately. Any further delay in his release is unconscionable.”
My hope is that the process of changing Shaker’s designation ought to be straightforward, given the fact that the UK government endorsed the Parliamentary motion calling for his return last month – which was significant.
When my friend Jan Strain shared this on Facebook, she wrote:
More from my brother in activism, Andy Worthington….
For my thoughts…
So what does it take for an elected Democratic president, claiming to be “liberal” as well as “transparent and accountable” claiming to be disgusted by black sites, torture and Guantanamo Bay “Detention” center (POW camp) and denial of habeas corpus rights – promising they would immediately be stopped – to genuinely be any of those things?
6 years on and in the middle of a 2nd term, WTF is he waiting for? (I know bad grammar).
President Obama had chances to stop torture (except it was still happening on his watch), close Black Sites (except he still used some), respect and demand habeas corpus rights for prisoners, suspected “terrorists” and even whistleblowers but failed them all (his DOJ has sued to prevent Guantanamo prisoners from having some of the most basic rights; Bradley Manning was tortured in prison) and close Guantanamo (No, he never actually tried that hard, preferring instead, to write directives to form committees to investigate and research the potential of closing Guantanamo then never actually seemed to really try after that – Procrastinating until it became increasingly harder to do…I won’t go into his signature on the NDAA that calls for continuing to maintain the facility for future use).
Today, it appears the president is “seriously” considering letting more men out of Guantanamo – pressure from human rights organizations and the international community has been relentless. Even the president pays lip service to the impact of such a place on the word community, especially its use as a recruitment tool for extremists, fomenting anger and hate, and diminishing the reputation of the nation….
At 13 years and counting, it is well time to shut ‘er down.
Thanks for your thoughts, Jan!
Hanan Baghdadi wrote:
You’re great Andy ! Bless you.
Thanks for the supportive words, Hanan.
Pete Johnson wrote:
Hope this happens finally.
Yes, it’s so long overdue, isn’t it, Pete? I’ve been writing arrticles about Shaker for nearly eight years. This was my first, an event at which his daughter spoke: http://www.andyworthington.co.uk/2007/07/11/shaker-aamer-a-south-london-man-in-guantanamo-the-children-speak/
Cliff Jones wrote:
I really do not expect even the best of politicians to fulfill all of their promises….but closing Guantanamo Bay was a big one….it would have ensured a great legacy for Obama
Cliff, there are definitely parts of the administration that want to fulfill that promise. The question is going to be whether that wins out, or the demands of political manoeuvring.
Jessy Mumpo wrote:
Very good to read your analysis Andy, thank you so much for all the work you put into keeping us informed.
You’re welcome, Jessy. Good to hear from you, and thanks for the kind words.
Lilia Patterson wrote:
My own belief is that even if Obama had originally wanted to close Guantanamo Bay he was probably opposed from those within the CIA and the contractors who profit from torture prisons from doing so. I also believe that people like Shaker were probably prevented from being released up until now because of the evidence they would have provided of false testimonies produced under torture used to justify the illegal invasion of Iraq. I guess some kind of deal will be made before him and prisoners like him can be released. I also agree with Andy’s statement above that the US administration is divided in relation to its policies. Even the CIA is divided. I believe the whole of the US government and policy is divided due to vested interests, corruption, and agendas of different interests from within the establishment, but there still remain those that are opposed to the status quo. Who will be able to change and re-align the US policy and governance in the modern age, who can tell.
Thanks for your thoughts, Lilia. When you realize that there are so many divisions in so many parts of the administration, it does make you wonder who’s in charge, or if, in many ways, our countries are rather like giant ships with no one at the wheel.
Sarah Kay wrote:
On that WaPo article on Pentagon claims that 57 Guantanamo detainees could be released before the summer, Andy provides much insight, detail and background information that make those claims, indeed, “the administration’s best case scenario”. Any similar piece must be taken with the necessary grain of salt, but luckily Andy’s efforts to lobby for Shaker Aamer’s release back home to the UK (as opposed to “British officials”, as the article claims) has found an increasingly supportive collective voice in Westminster, as well as a parliamentary committee this year. We should be hopeful, but never stop fighting.
Thanks for sharing, Sarah. Your comments are very much appreciated.
Lilia Patterson wrote, in response to 18, above:
Andy I think those that are in control behind the wheel are those who profit from the war machine industry, whether that’s Halliburton profitting from construction contracts of torture prisons, or BAE or Lockheed Martin or others profitting from weapons and other associated military contracts.
Yes, that’s certainly a large part of it, Lilia – although I think it was more so under Cheney – sorry, Bush and Cheney – than under Obama, whose party is much more connected with Wall Street than the warmongers – although they all love making money without the impediment of a conscience, of course!
Lilia Patterson wrote:
For sure, Cheney and also the Clintons are major shareholders of Halliburton and subsidiaries such as KBR who had vested contracts in Guantanamo Bay from my understanding.
A dirty business all of it, Lilia. We need honest politicians who work for the people!
Lilia Patterson wrote:
I don’t know if you saw this article, or others, similar, because I remember Lockheed Martin were also involved in attempting to tender for the bid. Not sure what happened since to be honest. Just remember being horrified at the time.
Yes, I wrote about it here, Lilia: http://www.andyworthington.co.uk/2012/05/04/us-company-that-built-guantanamo-hopes-to-win-tender-to-run-police-services-in-uk/
It didn’t happen, I’m pretty sure, although that doesn’t mean further ghoulish privatisation plans aren’t in the pipeline. The Tories have only a few broken, corrupt ideas left: privatize everything (or almost everything – not their wages, of course!), and lower taxes for the rich.
Gary Spedding wrote:
If we don’t get a result post-May 7th I’ll happily step up the pressure on MPs under advisement from Sarah Kay of course
A parliamentary delegation will be visiting the US after the election, Gary, featuring Labour, Tory and LibDem representatives from the Shaker Aamer Parliamentary Group. That should keep up awareness of the important message from the UK to Obama – that the British government backed the motion last month calling for Shaker’s return to the UK.
Lilia Patterson wrote, in response to 26, above:
Do you know what happened since Andy?
I just did a quick search, Lilia. It’s not good news. From May 2013:
Kellogg Brown and Root (KBR) has won a contract for FM services to the Metropolitan Police for an undisclosed amount.
The contract, awarded through the London Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime, was awarded after a competitive bidding process.
KBR will be responsible for procurement and managing and auditing the facilities management supply chain for the Metropolitan Police Service.
KBR will also design and manage a building management system to cut overall maintenance costs for the Met and will establish an FM call centre.
The contract will be done by KBR’s services division, that includes construction, construction management, fabrication, operations and maintenance as well as commissioning, start-up and turnaround services.
Lilia Patterson wrote:
We live in a corporate world.
Yes, we do, Lilia – and I want ownership of it back in the hands of people and organisations who put our needs before the profits of shareholders (who, of course, are mostly corporations). We are at a very dangerous time in our history, when all the battles for our rights won by the people from the late 19th century onwards are severely endangered, close to extinction or wiped out, and, in terms of our rights, we are once more the serfs of the middle ages.
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.
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