Former Obama Security Official Says Keeping Guantánamo Open “Damages Our National Security”

17.9.17

Photos of some of the campaigners who, throughout 2017, have been photographed with posters urging Donald Trump to close Guantanamo.Please support my work as a reader-funded journalist! I’m currently trying to raise $2500 (£2000) to support my writing and campaigning on Guantánamo and related issues over the next three months of the Trump administration.

 

I wrote the following article for the “Close Guantánamo” website, which I established in January 2012, on the 10th anniversary of the opening of Guantánamo, with the 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.

Eight months since Donald Trump became president, and 16 years after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, one unfortunate side-effect of 9/11 — the prison at Guantánamo Bay — briefly flickered back into the national consciousness last week.

That faraway facility, where 41 men are still held, was supposed to have been closed by President Obama, but that was a promise he failed to keep, despite having eight years to do. And now Donald Trump — childishly, petulantly, as usual — wants to treat the prison as his own plaything, somewhere to keep open forever, and to send new people to, whom he regards as his version of what Bush administration officials so memorably — and disproportionately — referred to as “the worst of the worst.”

“The worst of the worst” never were held at Guantánamo, as Larry Wilkerson, the former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell explained to me in an interview in 2009. He told me, “I laughed at this when I first heard it, but now I realize it was probably closer to the truth than anything the administration said — when Bush announced in September 2006, with some degree of trepidation, that he’d transferred these 14 to Guantánamo out of the secret prisons. Now I realize that they made that transfer principally so they could get some hardcore terrorists to Guantánamo.”

Wilkerson also told me that someone he had no reason to distrust, who knew about the inner workings of the Bush administration, gave “his estimate of the number of people — I think it was 741 or 742 that we suddenly had on a piece of paper somewhere — of any significance was as follows. He said, ‘I’ll tell you right now that 700 of them haven’t done a damn thing except get in the way of somebody capturing them.’”

In addition, in 2004 — before the 14 “high-value detainees” arrived at Guantánamo, the New York Times reported that, “In interviews, dozens of high-level military, intelligence and law-enforcement officials in the United States, Europe and the Middle East said that contrary to the repeated assertions of senior administration officials, none of the detainees at the United States Naval Base at Guantánamo Bay ranked as leaders or senior operatives of Al Qaeda. They said only a relative handful — some put the number at about a dozen, others more than two dozen — were sworn Qaeda members or other militants able to elucidate the organization’s inner workings.”

Despite this, cynical or misguided lawmakers — and the right-wing media — have persistently ignored these truths about Guantánamo, and have continued to tout it as somewhere necessary to America’s national security — as if the torture and abuse of prisoners, and their imprisonment without charge or trial (possibly for the rest of their lives in the cases of the men still held), were somehow essential, and not an affront to all the values the US claims to hold dear.

Here at “Close Guantánamo,” since our founding back in January 2012, on the 10th anniversary of the opening of the prison at Guantánamo Bay, we have endeavored to get this message across, but the black propaganda of the Bush administration has been durable, as have the ongoing lies and distortions of Republican lawmakers and their cheerleaders in the media. And since January, of course, an enthusiast for Guantánamo — as ill-informed as all those who have come before him — has been in the White House.

It is always useful, therefore, when other prominent voices emerge to support our message, and on the 16th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, one such voice spoke out in The Hill — Joshua Geltzer, who served as senior director for counterterrorism and deputy legal advisor at the National Security Council from 2015 to 2017. Seltzer is now executive director and visiting professor of the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection at Georgetown University and a fellow in the international security program at New America, and his timely and important article was entitled, “Keeping Guantánamo Bay open damages our national security.” We previously covered Joshua Geltzer’s writing about Guantánamo in July, in an article entitled, Six Months of Trump: Is Closing Guantánamo Still Possible?

We’re cross-posting his latest article below, and we every much hope you have time to read it, and to share it if you find it useful. Geltzer has an authoritative voice on these matters, when he explains how mistaken are the Trump administration’s proposals for Guantánamo — centered on “issuing an executive order formally rejecting existing U.S. policy to pursue the facility’s closure and instead declaring its indefinite operation, including the considerations that might lead new detainees to be brought to Guantánamo,” but also including stopping all releases from the prison (even though five men have been approved for release), and “eliminat[ing] the State Department office charged with seeking to identify receiving countries for those detainees cleared for transfer” — and monitoring them afterwards.

As Geltzer says, pulling no punches, Trump’s approach to Guantánamo is foolish, and, as he states, “the White House’s revived effort to stuff down the throat of national security professionals an unwanted backtracking on Guantánamo is bad for national security, bad for human rights, and ultimately yet another sign that the Trump administration is more interested in playing politics with national security than protecting it.”

Keeping Guantánamo Bay open damages our national security
By Joshua Geltzer, The Hill, September 11, 2017

The Trump administration has revived its push to maintain and even increase the number of terrorism suspects held at the detention facility at Guantánamo Bay, according to a recent report by the New York Times. Trump has already delivered on his campaign promise to halt all detainee transfers from Guantánamo, thus ensuring that the 41 detainees still held at the facility remain there despite government unanimous recommendations to transfer five of them.

Last month, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson provided bureaucratic insurance to that promise by pledging to eliminate the State Department office charged with seeking to identify receiving countries for those detainees cleared for transfer. The next step, according to the Times, would be to entrench Trump’s position as a matter of law by issuing an executive order formally rejecting existing U.S. policy to pursue the facility’s closure and instead declaring its indefinite operation, including the considerations that might lead new detainees to be brought to Guantánamo.

This is foolish, no matter how one looks at Guantánamo, whether from a national security perspective or a human rights perspective. I’ve had both. I was, until March, part of the White House team responsible for coordinating the government’s counterterrorism policies. Since April, I’ve helped to lead a legal advocacy organization.

Yet, whichever perspective one emphasizes, the White House’s revived effort to stuff down the throat of national security professionals an unwanted backtracking on Guantánamo is bad for national security, bad for human rights, and ultimately yet another sign that the Trump administration is more interested in playing politics with national security than protecting it.

From a counterterrorism perspective, the proposed executive order reported in the Times would do nothing except strain relations with allies and partners that have already signaled that a resurgent Guantánamo would make it harder for them to cooperate with the United States, including as part of the critical counter-ISIS coalition. The order would, it seems, state what’s already a set of facts in the world: that the Trump administration doesn’t intend to close the Guantánamo facility and might consider bringing additional detainees there.

To go further still and actually bring new detainees there, especially ones detained for their association with ISIS, would be an unwanted source of risk in the eyes of any U.S. Justice Department lawyer, who’d quickly face the undesirable scenario of having to defend before a federal judge the entire theory of the executive branch’s authority for using military force against ISIS.

Meanwhile, counterterrorism officials would immediately need to do damage control with partners suddenly constrained in their ability even to consider handing custody of detainees over to the United States, much as one U.S. partner is reported to have reneged already on the intended transfer of a Sudanese terrorism suspect known as Abu Khaybar.

This is, in short, a set of distractions and detractions that national security lawyers and policymakers would dread, not welcome. And all without any actual problem to be solved, as the United States has been doing just fine using short-term detention for especially high-value detainees, such as Umm Sayyaf, who was captured in a U.S. raid in Syria in May 2015, and then relying on U.S. criminal prosecution or foreign partners for longer-term disposition.

From a human rights perspective, Trump’s approach to Guantánamo revives old questions about indefinite detention in a counterterrorism conflict whose end regrettably appears nowhere in sight. Whatever one’s view of the legal theories based on which detainees remain at Guantánamo, the sheer fact of such detainees being held, in some cases, for a decade and a half without either facing some form of prosecution or being released raises the type of concerns emphasized by human rights organizations.

In addition to indefinite detention, Guantánamo is associated with past detainee treatment that the International Committee of the Red Cross has decried as “tantamount to torture.” That history is inseparable from Guantánamo’s legacy, as is its deliberate construction as a site for detention “beyond the reach of U.S. courts,” in the words of a former U.S. Defense Department detainee affairs official.

So, if the Trump administration’s revived Guantánamo effort is bad for national security and bad for human rights, why do it? There’s only one answer, and sadly one all too familiar for this White House: playing politics. Issuing an unnecessary and indeed unhelpful executive order on Guantánamo plays to that small streak of American politics in which embracing Guantánamo means endorsing a symbolically belligerent approach to counterterrorism, and to hell with the actual consequences.

This is the same tactic taken by this administration on other aspects of national security and law enforcement, such as imposing an anti-Muslim travel ban that responded to no actual threat but damaged relations with critical counterterrorism partners, and threatening to punish sanctuary cities in a move framed as “restoring law and order” but in fact, is certain to make it harder for law enforcement officials to learn about, investigate and punish crimes in certain communities.

The decision to eliminate the U.S. State Department’s Guantánamo office is yet another step that may be viewed as politically symbolic but is actually counterproductive to national security, as that office has played a critical role in working with foreign partners to ensure that former Guantánamo detainees do not reengage in terrorist activities.

Central to Trump’s campaign and early presidency has been his promise to “make America safe again” by “putting America first” and “protecting national security.” But his renewed vigor for pursuing a counterproductive executive order on Guantánamo Bay reveals, yet again, that he’s less interested in putting America first and protecting national security than putting politics above protecting national security. That’s the opposite of making America safe.

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 music is available via Bandcamp). He is the co-founder of the Close Guantánamo campaign (and the Countdown to Close Guantánamo initiative, launched in January 2016), the co-director of We Stand With Shaker, which called for the release from Guantánamo of Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in the prison (finally freed on October 30, 2015), 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.

Please also consider joining the Close Guantánamo campaign, and, if you appreciate Andy’s work, feel free to make a donation.

4 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    On Day 240 of the Trump presidency, here’s my latest article, a cross-post, with my own commentary, of a powerful article in The Hill by Joshua Geltzer, senior director for counterterrorism and deputy legal advisor at the National Security Council from 2015 to 2017, who is highly critical of Donald Trump’s intention to keep Guantanamo open, and to send new prisoners there, his refusal to release any prisoners (even though five of the 41 men still held have been approved for release), and his intention of getting rid of the role of Guantanamo envoy in the State Department.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Check out the latest photo in the Close Guantanamo poster campaign urging Donald Trump to close the prison – and please take a photo and get involved! https://www.facebook.com/CloseGuantanamo/photos/a.324861667536287.76215.323624254326695/1586364494719325/?type=3

  3. Tom says...

    What the Powers that be are counting on is pushing the idea that these prisoners are “enemy combatants”. The assorted regulations are so vaguely written that it’s like saying “terrorists”, as if they’re all one group when they’re not. It’s just easier to push this propaganda on the public who naturally has a short attention span and no clue. What’s the difference between Shia and Sunni? No clue. Just do whatever you have to to keep them off the mainland. I don’t want THOSE ______ terrorists in my neighborhood.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, that’s right, Tom. People have been encouraged to trust their leaders, as thought they are children and our leaders are benevolent father figures, and, of course, we have all been encouraged to have shorter and shorter attention spans.
    It remains apparent that Obama’s biggest failure regarding Guantanamo may have been his refusal to bring some of the Uighurs to live in the US, as that would have punctured the hysteria bubble necessary to keep Americans thinking that everyone at Guantanamo is a terrorist hell-bent on their destruction.

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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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