Ignoring President Obama, the Pentagon Blocks Shaker Aamer’s Release from Guantánamo

23.8.15

The launch of the We Stand With Shaker campaign outside the Houses of Parliament on November 24, 2014, featuring, from L to R: Roger Waters, Clive Stafford Smith, Andy Worthington, Joanne MacInnes and Caroline Lucas.I’m just back from a fortnight’s family holiday in Turkey (in Bodrum and Dalyan, for those interested in this wonderful country, with its great hospitality, history and sights), and catching up on what I missed, with relation to Guantánamo, while I was away. My apologies if any of you were confused by my sudden disappearance. I was working so hard up until my departure that I didn’t have time to put up an “on holiday” sign here before heading off.

Those of you who are my friends on Facebook or who follow me there will know that I managed to leave a brief message there, announcing my intention to be offline for most of the two-week period — and encouraging you all to take time off from the internet and your mobile devices for the sake of your health!). While away, my Facebook friends will also know that I touched on one of the most significant Guantánamo stories to take place during my absence — the disgraceful revelation that, despite having been approved for release in 2010 by a thorough, multi-agency US government review process (the Guantánamo Review Task Force, established by President Obama shortly after taking office in January 2009), Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in the prison, is still being held because of obstruction by the Pentagon, and, moreover, that the Pentagon has specifically been blocking his release since October 2013.

The story appeared in the Guardian on August 13, following a Washington Post article three days earlier, in which, during a discussion about the Obama administration’s quest for a prison on the US mainland that could be used to hold Guantánamo prisoners, it was noted that, in a meeting last month with President Obama’s top national security officials, defense secretary Ashton Carter “indicated he was inclined to transfer Shaker ­Aamer.” By law, the defense secretary must certify that steps have been taken to mitigate any possible risk posed by released prisoners, and provide Congress with 30 days’ notice of any planned releases.

The Post article stated out that, since he took over in February, Carter “has approved the resettlement of six inmates in Oman,” although that transfer “was the second part of a larger deal that had been in the works for over a year to resettle 10 Yemeni citizens in the Persian Gulf sultanate.” It was also noted that administration officials said that Carter “recently approved the transfer of another detainee who has yet to be released.” According to the officials, “a deal was reached two years ago with the country that has agreed to accept that detainee,” who was not named.

In the Guardian‘s follow-up article, Spencer Ackerman cut through the rather more upbeat tone of the Post‘s article by stating that “US officials said they reached a deal with their British counterparts on transferring Aamer at a meeting in Washington in October 2013, subject to final approval from senior officials. The Pentagon has been the holdout.” Ackerman added that, “even as the White House pledged to make his case a priority after a personal plea from David Cameron, Barack Obama’s defense secretaries have played what one official called ‘foot-dragging and process games’ to let the deals languish.”

Ackerman explained that this opposition by the Pentagon “helps explain why Aamer has remained at Guantánamo despite bipartisan anger from the United States’ closest international ally.” One “frustrated” British official said, “A slap in the face is right,” agreeing with the description of the appalling treatment of Shaker Aamer in an op-ed in the New York Times by the delegation of British MPs — the Labour MPs Jeremy Corbyn and Andy Slaughter and the Tory MPs David Davis and Andrew Mitchell — who visited Washington D.C. in May to call for his release.

The Guardian explained correctly that, “In the UK, Aamer’s continued detention is a cause célèbre. In addition to the June ‘slap in the face‘ article, last month a politically diverse coalition of signatories ranging from London mayor Boris Johnson to Sting urged Obama to release Aamer as a method of restoring ‘America’s notion of itself and its international standing.'” That was the letter I wrote for the We Stand With Shaker campaign, which I co-founded with the activist Joanne MacInnes last November.

The Guardian also noted that two other men are awaiting release, one of whom was first mentioned in April in a Washington Post article, which I wrote about here, and which suggested that his release– and that of Shaker Aamer — was imminent. That man is Ahmed Ould Abdel Aziz, a Mauritanian, and the Guardian noted that “US diplomats reached an agreement to transfer Abdel Aziz in fall 2013.” The third man apparently awaiting approval for release is Abdul Rahman Shalabi, a Saudi and a long-term  hunger striker, who was approved for release on June 15 by a Periodic Review Board, a review process established in 20123 to review the cases of the majority of the rinsers not already approved for release by Obama’s task force in 2010.

According to the Guardian, “The state department has deals in place with the three detainees’ home countries that still await Carter’s signature.”

In Shaker Aamer’s case, as the Guardian put it, Carter, “backed by powerful US military officers, has withheld support for sending Aamer back to the UK,” obstruction that “has left current and former US officials who consider the detainees a minimal threat seething, as they see it undermining relations with Britain and other foreign partners while subverting from the inside Obama’s long-stifled goal of closing the infamous detention facility.”

The Guardian added that Obama administration officials were careful to point out that the Pentagon “has never formally opposed the transfers,” which would be “an act of outright resistance to a high-profile presidential commitment that risks reprisal.” Ackerman noted that the transfers “have the backing of the US Justice Department, the State Department, the Department of Homeland Security and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence,” but added that, “since White House rules depend on full administration consensus, Aamer remains at Guantánamo until Carter and the Pentagon say otherwise.”

Discussing Ashton Carter’s reluctance to sign off on any prisoners releases, the Guardian explained that “Chuck Hagel’s reluctance to closing Guantánamo contributed to his firing last year, but successor Carter has not proven any more pliable.” An official who “spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss a topic of significant internal acrimony within the Obama administration,” delivered a blunt assessment: “Carter is worse.”

Writing of the defense secretary’s alleged inclination to release Shaker Aamer, Spencer Ackerman noted that “the high-level meeting last month at which Carter expressed that sentiment was supposed to have been a forum to finalize decisions on transferring extant detainees, leaving other officials with the impression that Carter was continuing to stall while appearing cooperative.”

Ackerman also noted, “The well of opposition to the transfers does not end with the defense secretary. Carter is supported by the staff of the outgoing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, as well as the powerful General John Kelly, head of US southern command, which oversees Guantánamo.”

Ackerman also claimed that Paul Lewis, appointed by President Obama as the envoy for Guantánamo closure in the Pentagon in 2013, was “seen as marginalized and ineffective,” with one official calling him a “non-factor.” Referring to the Pentagon, the official said, “The building doesn’t want to do it.” However, Brian McKeon, a senior Pentagon policy official, defended Lewis, calling him “integral to the process of ending detention operations at Guantánamo Bay,” and stating, “He works closely with the secretary and other high-level leaders in the defense department and throughout the interagency, as well as with our international partners and members of Congress,” and adding that Lewis has “enabled President Obama and Secretary Carter to achieve significant progress towards their shared goal of closing the detention facility at Guantánamo Bay in a responsible manner”.

In his article, Spencer Ackerman also revealed that, for years, the Pentagon “has forced the other US agencies through a laborious process of requiring additional information about how the transfers of Aamer and Abdel Aziz will work, something officials outside the Pentagon consider a delaying tactic.” He added that concern was mounting that the delays would “make it harder for US diplomats to convince other countries to accept Guantánamo detainees.”

Describing a White House that “is considered irresolute on Guantánamo, lacking the force or the desire to impose a coherent policy upon the bureaucracy,” Ackerman noted the “longstanding bipartisan hostility in Congress to closing Guantánamo,” but pointed out that “transferring the 52 remaining detainees whom the 2010 government review deemed minimal risks” (a number that actually includes eight men approved for release by Periodic Review Boards) “is the least controversial aspect” of plans for dealing with the remaining 116 prisoners (ten others are facing, or have faced trials, and the remaining 54 are awaiting Periodic Review Boards — or are awaiting the outcomes of those reviews).

Cliff Sloan, the State Department’s envoy for Guantánamo closure from 2013-14, said, “For those who are approved for transfer, the laws passed by Congress permit it and we should be moving forward with those promptly. Any month where we’re not seeing significant numbers of transfers undermines the president’s policy and is unfair to the individuals affected.”

Clive Stafford Smith, the founder of the legal action charity Reprieve, and one of Shaker Aamer’s lawyers, , said, “it is time for the secretary of defense to stop playing these furtive games and put up or shut up. If there is one thing that is worse than indefinite, arbitrary detention without trial, it is indefinite, arbitrary detention without trial when 99% of the people on both sides think you should be released but one percent vetoes fairness secretly, without giving reasons, either to Shaker or to the prime minister of Great Britain.”

Below I’m also delighted to post an op-ed that Clive wrote for the Guardian on the day after this distressing news about the Pentagon’s anti-democratic obstruction of justice at Guantánamo was revealed,  in which, quite correctly, he stated, “President Obama, it seems, has personally ordered Aamer’s release, and his subordinates have ignored and thwarted his order,” adding, “the contravention of the president’s orders indicates that there is a profound problem with the state of democracy in America. The military is not a democratic institution; a soldier takes an oath to follow orders. When a military officer simply chooses not to follow the clear order of the president, it is a slap in the face for the American system of government.”

The military ignores Obama’s order to release Shaker Aamer from Guantánamo
By Clive Stafford Smith, The Guardian, August 14, 2015

Recent history demonstrates that if President Barack Obama, arguably the most powerful person on planet Earth, wants to prioritize almost anything – from pardoning 46 convicted drug felons to bombing a foreign country without the consent of Congress – little can stand in his way. Why, then, is Shaker Aamer not home in London with his wife and four children?

Aamer is the last British resident to be detained without trial in Guantánamo Bay and he has never been charged with a single offense. In 2007, he was cleared for release by the Bush Administration; in 2009, six US intelligence agencies unanimously agreed that Shaker should be released. In January 2015, British Prime Minster David Cameron personally raised Shaker’s plight with President Obama, who promised that he would “prioritize” the case.

On Thursday, we came a little closer to understanding the reason that Aamer’s youngest child, Faris – who was born on Valentine’s Day 2002, the day that Aamer was rendered to the detention center at Guantánamo Bay – has never even met his father. The Guardian revealed that “the Pentagon [is] blocking Guantánamo deals to return Shaker Aamer and other cleared detainees.” President Obama, it seems, has personally ordered Aamer’s release, and his subordinates have ignored and thwarted his order.

However, Article II, Section 2 of the US Constitution provides that the “President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States”. Under Article 90 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, to disobey an order in peacetime is punishable by life in prison. If we believe the Pentagon theory that we are involved in a “Global War on Terror”, then there is an ongoing war, and the punishment for disobeying orders is death.

I certainly don’t advocate that General Martin Dempsey, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff named by the Guardian as an opponent of President Obama’s order, be shot at dawn. However, the contravention of the president’s orders indicates that there is a profound problem with the state of democracy in America. The military is not a democratic institution; a soldier takes an oath to follow orders. When a military officer simply chooses not to follow the clear order of the president, it is a slap in the face for the American system of government.

What makes General Dempsey qualified to be the ultimate arbiter of due process? It is certainly not his intimate knowledge of the prisoners who he has blackballed. I am not sure General Dempsey has ever even been to Guantánamo; I have, some 35 times. Certainly, he has never met Shaker Aamer; I have, some 35 times. If General Dempsey took the time to learn the facts, he would discover that Aamer is no more a terrorist than the general himself is. Aamer loudly protests his detention without trial; all he wants is to be back with his children in London.

I also represent the second detainee whose release Dempsey is blocking, Ahmed Abdul Aziz. He was cleared five years ago, and his transfer to Mauritania was agreed by the State Department in 2013. Aziz, too, merely wants to be back with his wife and his son.

In addition to being General Dempsey’s commander-in-chief, President Obama is a lawyer: he knows that the legal black hole that is Guantánamo is a blot on America’s record; he recognizes that the very word “Guantánamo” now acts as a recruiting sergeant for the extremists around the world. In 2004, a “Senior Defense Intelligence Agency Official” told journalist David Rose that for every detainee in Guantánamo Bay, we had spawned 10 new supporters of terrorism. More than 11 years later, sadly the multiplier is far larger.

One of the reasons that Guantánamo is such a blot on America’s reputation and such a good recruiting tool is the un-American and arbitrary detention of detainees without trial. And it is even more offensive to the rule of law for the US to to clear a prisoner for release twice, and then continue to hold him for year upon year because some military officer decides that he knows best but will not come clean in public and explain himself.

President Obama should certainly call General Dempsey into the Oval Office and read him the riot act. And though Obama is right to try to close Guantánamo Bay in general, the broader issue at stake is whether he is willing to allow the Pentagon to undermine the very essence of the US constitution. The president has given an order to the military; they need to obey it.

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer, film-maker and singer-songwriter (the lead singer and main songwriter for the London-based band The Four Fathers, whose debut album, ‘Love and War,’ was released in July 2015). 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.

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10 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Just back from two weeks’ holiday in Turkey, and taking the opportunity to post my my own analysis of the sad and frankly unforgivable news during my absence – that Shaker Aamer, despite being unanimously approved for release by President Obama’s high-level, inter-agency ‪Guantanamo‬ Review Task Force in 2010, is still held because of unilateral obstruction in the Pentagon, which has been specifically blocking his release since October 2013. Disgraceful!

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Shoubhik Bose wrote:

    Good to have you back, Andy. How was your vacation ?

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Wonderful, Shoubhik. It was the first time in Turkey for all of us (myself, my wife and our son) and we were bowled over by the beauty of the country and the wonderful Turkish people. I really can’t recommend it highly enough. The food was great, the weather relentlessly hot (what we want on holiday!) and yet the country still managed to be lush and green!

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Shoubhik Bose wrote:

    Great Andy – you should definitely put up some photos :-) I was there in Feb-March and it was super cold then.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, I hope to post some photos soon, Shoubhik!

  6. Maureen Callahan says...

    The Pentagon should have no say whatsoever in Aamer’s release. He was already deemed a non-threat 4 years ago. I think it has more to do with the excuses required to keep GITMO open, keep a foothold in Cuba, and the disappearing trillions of dollars they can’t tell us what they did with the money for “security reasons.” Also this out of sight illegal chamber of torture where the most unspeakable things since Nazi Germany has been happening with no accountability and a “do whatever we want mentality” in a foreign country who can’t kick them out. Huge money concealment/laundering? ( Why can’t we know CIA salaries? We are the one’s paying for it.) I know Florida is involved in this circus/scam. Complete bullshit. Dempsy doesn’t know what he’s talking about (as usual) and playing to people who really want Cuba to stay under occupation by animals known as Miami mafia/ U.S. military. There is more to this than meets the eye and Florida is on the take.

  7. anna says...

    Hi Andy, what depressing news – although the word ‘news’ is not really appropriate here. Add to that the umptiest refusal to free on humanitarian grounds Tariq Ba Odah who is on the verge of death.
    And it is again the Pentagon that is also behind this refusal, claiming that if they free this dying man, it might incite other prisoners to also adopt this ‘strategy’ to get out …
    The base callousness defies comment, but this also shows once more the utter lack of psychological insight of those supposedly educated and clever military.
    However, we won’t give up.

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Good to hear from you, Maureen. You’re right that it shouldn’t be the Pentagon’s business, but I think the primary reason Shaker’s still held is because of what he knows and his predilection for challenging his captors and speaking out. However, it is of course ridiculous that some people behind the scenes – unnamed and unaccountable – can prevent the task force’s decision from over five years ago from being carried out.
    That said, I agree that there are some in the Pentagon and elsewhere, as well as in Congress, who shamefully delight in keeping Guantanamo open, and want ti to stay open forever, and I’m sure you’re right to encourage people to follow the money. I’m also interested in your thoughts about Florida.

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    We certainly won’t give up, Anna. It’s simply not an option. I’ll be following up soon on the latest news about Tariq, which shows the Pentagon’s cruelty with revelatory clarity, to add to this disgraceful state of affairs regarding Shaker.

  10. freedetainees.org – Pentagon Blocks Prisoner Releases From Guantánamo Including 74-Pound Yemeni Hunger Striker – OpEd says...

    […] Ackerman noted for the Guardian in August, and as I wrote about here, in an article entitled, “Ignoring President Obama, the Pentagon Blocks Shaker Aamer’s Release from Guantánamo,” Ackerman wrote, “The well of opposition to the transfers does not end with the defense […]

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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.
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