100 days after the majority of the remaining 166 prisoners in Guantánamo embarked on a hunger strike, and after a weekend of actions in the US, the UK and elsewhere to highlight the continuing injustice of the prison, the world is waiting — again — to hear from President Obama.
As news of the hunger strike filtered out of the prison in late February, and, throughout March, spread like wildfire throughout the world’s media, attracting criticism of the administration from the International Committee of the Red Cross and the United Nations, as well as critical coverage in the US, President Obama remained silent.
Three weeks ago, President Obama finally broke his silence, delivering a speech at a news conference in which, as I explained here, he eloquently explained why Guantánamo is such an abomination, but failed to accept his own responsibility for the prison’s continued existence, blaming Congress and claiming that all he could do was to go back to lawmakers to seek their cooperation.
Whilst it is certainly true that lawmakers have raised huge obstacles to prevent the release of prisoners and the closure of the prison, it is also true that President Obama personally imposed a ban on releasing any of the cleared Yemenis who make up 56 of the 86 men still held whose release was recommended by the President’s own inter-agency task force back in January 2010, following a failed airline bomb plot on Christmas Day 2009, which was hatched in Yemen. Read the rest of this entry »
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.
As the prison-wide hunger strike continues at Guantánamo, one of the key demands of campaigners — including myself and Tom Wilner, here at “Close Guantánamo” — has been for President Obama to appoint an official to oversee the closure of the prison, to replace Daniel Fried, the State Department official who oversaw the release of dozens of prisoners in 2009 and 2010, before Congress — and the President himself — raised obstacles to the release of prisoners.
Fried was reassigned in January this year, and no one was appointed to take his place, a message that was easily interpreted as a sign that President Obama and his administration had decided that the closure of Guantánamo was no longer a priority.
Yesterday, however, Attorney General Eric Holder told a news conference that, as Reuters reported it, the government “intends to revive a vacant position coordinating policy” for the prison at Guantánamo Bay. “We’re in the process of working on that now. We’re looking at candidates,” Holder told a news conference.
However, as Reuters added, “he did not say who the candidates were to fill the position of coordinating Guantánamo, or whether the person eventually appointed would work at the State Department, the White House or elsewhere.” Nevertheless, he stated that the administration will make “a renewed effort to close Guantánamo,” and, as Reuters noted, he also cited “the prison’s high cost and the impact on US relations with other nations.”
This is excellent news, although, as with President Obama’s fine words two weeks ago, it must be followed up with action. It is, however, a vindication for the more than 200,000 people who, in the last two weeks, have signed a petition on Change.org, launched by Col. Morris Davis, the former chief prosecutor of the military commissions at Guantánamo, calling for the appointment of a new official to drive the closure of the prison.
In addition, it is clearly also a response to high-level criticism from friends of the administration.
Last Thursday, for example, Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, sent a letter to the Obama administration in which he “urged the White House to appoint an official to spearhead an interagency effort to oversee the process of relocating detainees at Guantánamo Bay who have been cleared for transfer.” His press release also stated, “Levin fought for a national security waiver that provides for the transfer of detainees in appropriate cases. More than 80 detainees who have been cleared for transfer are still awaiting departure from Guantánamo. Expediting this process is critical to advancing the goal of closing GITMO, as the president has called for.”
The text of Levin’s letter to the White House — to Kathryn Ruemmler, Assistant to the President and Counsel to the President — was as follows:
Dear Ms. Ruemmler:
At a press conference last week, President Obama reaffirmed his commitment to close the detention facility at Guantánamo (GITMO) because, as he pointed out, it is expensive, inefficient, damaging to the United States’ international standing, reduces the cooperation of our allies in countering terrorism, and serves as a recruiting tool for extremists. The President said he had asked his staff to review all options for addressing the GITMO issue and expressed the desire to re-engage with Congress on this.
I recognize that Congress has made the process of relocating GITMO detainees to third countries more difficult by imposing certification requirements on such transfers. However, more than a year ago, I successfully fought for a national security waiver that provides a clear route for the transfer of detainees to third countries in appropriate cases, i.e., to make sure the certification requirements do not constitute an effective prohibition.
I urge the President to appoint an official inside the White House to spearhead an interagency effort to determine which of the more than eighty detainees who have already been cleared for transfer by the Guantánamo Detainee Review Task Force meet the certification (and waiver) requirements, and to actively work for their transfer. High level leadership on detainee transfers is critical to advancing the goal of closing GITMO.
Thank you for your assistance in this matter.
In addition, Harold Koh, former Legal Advisor to the State Department, delivered a speech at the Oxford Union on May 7, in which he also called for the appointment of a senior official to oversee the closure of the prison.
Koh stated, “What the President’s team should recognize is that he does not need a new policy to close Guantánamo. He just needs to put the full weight of his office behind the sensible policy that he first announced in January 2009, reiterated at the National Archives in 2010, and reaffirmed in March 2011 … First, and foremost, he must appoint a senior White House official with the clout and commitment to actually make Guantánamo closure happen. There has not been such a person at the White House since Greg Craig left as White House Counsel in early 2010. There must be someone close to the President, with a broad enough mandate and directly answerable to him, who wakes up each morning thinking about how to shrink the Guantánamo population and close the camp.”
Koh proceeded to explain that this new Special Envoy “should work on the diplomatic steps needed to transfer either individually or en bloc some 86 detainees who were identified three years ago as eligible for repatriation to their home countries or resettlement elsewhere by an administration task force that exhaustively reviewed each prisoner’s file.”
He added, “The President should send the Envoy to Yemen to negotiate the block transfer, to a local rehabilitation facility, of those Yemeni detainees who were cleared for transfer, before those transfers were put on hold because of instability in that country” — echoing Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s recent call for renewed action to free the 86, who were cleared for release over three years ago by President Obama’s own inter-agency task force — and to resume transfers to Yemen of the 56 cleared prisoners who are Yemeni, and who, since President Obama imposed a ban on their release in the wake of the failed Christmas 2009 bomb plot, have been imprisoned on the basis of their nationality.
Providing further guidance, Koh stated, “Starting in 2010, Congress has used authorization bills to impose a series of counterproductive restrictions on the transfer of Guantánamo prisoners. But some of those restrictions are subject to waiver requirements and all must be construed in light of the President’s authority as commander-in- chief to regulate the movement of law-of-war detainees, as diplomat-in-chief to arrange diplomatic transfers, and as prosecutor-in-chief to determine who should be prosecuted and where. If Congress insists on passing such onerous and arguably unconstitutional conditions in the next National Defense Authorization Act, the President should call its bluff and forthrightly veto that legislation.”
Koh’s speech is also interesting for his thoughts on prosecutions and on the need for “periodic reviews” to be initiated for the 46 men who I recently described as the “forgotten prisoners” — those who, as Koh put it, the task force “concluded should remain held under rules of war that allow detention without charge for the duration of hostilities.”
I urge those who are interested in the closure of Guantánamo to read Koh’s full speech, but for now the focus must be on finding an official to lead the closure of the prison, and not to allow the administration to take its eye off the ball, and on the need to release cleared prisoners as soon as possible.
As Tom Wilner, the co-founder of “Close Guantánamo,” who represented the Guantánamo prisoners in their cases before the Supreme Court in 2004 and 2008, stated in response to the news:
What is happening at Guantanamo today is both a terrible human tragedy and a continuing outrage to our values as Americans. These few Arab men, many of whom have long been cleared of any wrongdoing, have been deprived of their liberty and of any opportunity to see their families for more than 11 years. They are stranded at an island prison and largely ignored because they have no US constituency to speak on their behalf.
That is no longer tolerable. The president has the authority under existing law to transfer these men from Guantánamo and to close this prison. He must exercise that authority and, as the critical first step, he must appoint someone in the White House with the responsibility for getting the job done.
We look forward to hearing that someone has been appointed to this critically important position, and encourage you to maintain the pressure on the administration by signing Col. Davis’s petition.
Note: For other perspectives on the need to appoint a senior official to oversee the closure of Guantánamo and for President Obama to act urgently to secure the release of cleared prisoners, please watch “Guantánamo: From Crisis to Solution,” a panel discussion put together by the Constitution Project, the National Religious Campaign Against Torture and the New America Foundation, which took place in Washington D.C. on May 10, 2013, and was broadcast by C-SPAN.
The panel discussion featured Rep. Jim Moran (D-VA), a longtime advocate for the closure of the prison, General David R. Irvine, USA (Ret.), a former intelligence officer and expert in prisoner-of-war interrogation with the Sixth Army Intelligence School, and a member of the Constitution Project’s Task Force on Detainee Treatment; Colonel Lawrence B. Wilkerson, USA (Ret.), former Chief of Staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell, and a member of the Constitution Project’s Liberty and Security Committee; Dr. George Hunsinger, Hazel Thompson McCord Professor of Systematic Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary and a founder of The National Religious Campaign Against Torture; Pardiss Kebriaei, senior staff attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights; and Morris Davis, USA (Ret.), a former Air Force Colonel and the former Chief Prosecutor at the Office of Military Commissions at Guantánamo Bay. TCP Board member Kristine Huskey moderated the panel.
As the Constitution Project described it, Rep. Jim Moran “hosted a standing only briefing on Capitol Hill for Members of Congress and their staff,” in which the panel of experts “examined the ongoing hunger strike at Guantánamo Bay — which as of May 10 involved 100 of the 166 remaining detainees, 27 of whom were being force fed — and explored steps that can be taken to mitigate the current crisis, in particular by reducing the detainee population. All panelists agreed that President Obama must immediately begin transferring cleared detainees by exercising authority he has under current law.”
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, “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.
Eleven years since the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, the majority of the remaining 168 men in Guantánamo are not held because they constitute an active threat to the United States, but because of inertia, political opportunism and an institutional desire to hide evidence of torture by US forces, sanctioned at the highest levels of government. That they are still held, mostly without charge or trial, is a disgrace that continues to eat away at any notion that the US believes in justice.
It seems like an eternity since there was the briefest of hopes that George W. Bush’s “war on terror” prison at Guantánamo would be shut down. That was in January 2009, but although Barack Obama issued an executive order promising to close Guantánamo within a year, he soon reneged on that promise, failing to stand up to Republican critics, who seized on the fear of terrorism to attack him, and failing to stand up to members of his own party, who were also fearful of the power of black propaganda regarding Guantánamo and the alleged but unsubstantiated dangerousness of its inmates.
The President himself also became fearful when, in January 2010, the Guantánamo Review Task Force, which he himself had appointed, and which consisted of career officials and lawyers from government departments and the intelligence agencies, issued its report based on an analysis of the cases of the 240 prisoners inherited from George W. Bush (PDF). The Task Force recommended that, of the 240 men held when he came to power, only 36 could be prosecuted, but 48 others were regarded as being too dangerous to release, even though insufficient evidence existed to put them on trial. Read the rest of this entry »
Yesterday, in New York, the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a lawsuit (PDF) accusing US defense secretary Leon Panetta, CIA director David Petraeus, and William McRaven and Joseph Votel, the commanders of Special Operations Command (SOCOM) and Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), of violating the Constitution and international law when they authorized and directed drone strikes that resulted in the deaths of three US citizens in Yemen last year — Anwar al-Aulaqi (aka al-Awlaki) and Samir Khan in a strike on September 30, 2011, which I wrote about here, and al-Aulaqi’s 16-year old son, Abdulrahman al-Aulaqi, in another strike on October 14, 2011, at an open-air restaurant (a strike that killed at least seven people, including another child, Abdulrahman’s 17-year old cousin).
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Nasser Al-Aulaqi, the father and grandfather of Anwar and Abdulrahman Al-Aulaqi, and Sarah Khan, the mother of Samir Khan, and please see below a heart-breaking video of Nasser al-Aulaqi speaking about his grandson, in which he explains, “I want Americans to know about my grandson. He was a very nice boy he was very caring boy … I never thought that one day this boy, this nice boy, will be killed by his own government for no wrong he did certainly.” Abdulrahman had no connection to terrorism, and had merely been trying to find his father, who he missed, having last seen him before he went into hiding in 2009. Read the rest of this entry »
In the last few weeks, Guantánamo has been under the spotlight as, for the first time since President Obama took office, the military commission trial system — the government’s preferred method for trying terror suspects held in Guantánamo — has been readied for trying “high-value detainees”; those who, as well as being held in Guantánamo, were previously held in “black sites” run by the CIA, where the use of torture was widespread.
This has always been a problem for the government — under George W. Bush as well as under Obama — because the use of torture is not only illegal, but information derived through its use cannot be used in US courts. To get around the first inconvenience, President Bush’s lawyers arranged for torture to be redefined, and, to overcome the second, the Bush administration initially brought the military commissions out of retirement with the intention that the prohibition on torture could be ignored.
When the first incarnation of the commissions was felled by the Supreme Court in June 2006, and Congress then dutifully brought the trial system back to life a few months later, the use of information derived through torture was banned, although gray areas were acceptable at the discretion of the military judges. To get around this, the Bush administration tried, at one point, to send in “clean teams” of FBI agents and military interrogators to try and persuade those who had been tortured to repeat their tortured confessions voluntarily. Presumably, there was as little concern about the accuracy of the confessions as there was when the men were first being tortured, because, as any expert can confirm, torture is not a useful method for extracting reliable information, but is very good for producing false confessions. Read the rest of this entry »
Last Thursday, February 16, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the so-called “underwear bomber,” received a life sentence in a courtroom in Detroit. Abdulmutallab, a Nigerian, had tried and failed to blow up a plane bound for Detroit on Christmas Day 2009, receiving serious burns when the bomb failed to detonate.
After he was apprehended, he was read his Miranda rights, and interrogated non-coercively by the FBI, but this was not acceptable to supporters of torture, who proceeded to demonstrate that a new phase of fearmongering and paranoia was opening up in what should, by then, have been the dying days of the “war on terror.”
In this new spirit of hysteria, the discovery that he had been recruited for his failed mission in Yemen led to a chorus of demands that no more Guantánamo prisoners should be released to Yemen — from Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT), Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R-Mich.), Rep. Peter King (R-NY), and even Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), the Chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, who told Politico, “In terms of sending more of them to return to Yemen, it would be a bit of a reach. I’d, at a minimum, say that whatever we were about to do we’d at least have to scrub it again from top to bottom.” Read the rest of this entry »
“Some issues,” the New York Times declared in an editorial on June 25, “require an unwavering stand. Preserving the role of law enforcement agencies in stopping and punishing terrorists is one of them. This country is not and should never be a place where the military dispenses justice, other than to its own.”
Fine words, indeed, although the Times itself has, over the last ten years, in common with most, if not all of the American establishment, failed to thoroughly and repeatedly condemn efforts, first by George W. Bush, and then by the Obama administration, to hold military trials for the mixed bag of soldiers and terrorist suspects held at Guantánamo.
This is where the rot set in, for which everyone in a position of authority, whether in politics or the media, bears responsibility. However, the failure to stem the poison flowing from this wound to the established order — in which terrorists are criminals, and soldiers are not terrorists — has led to an outrageous situation in which lawmakers (both Republicans and Democrats) have decided that the aberrations introduced by the Bush administration, which should, by now, have been thoroughly discredited, were, instead, just the first steps in the creation of an all-encompassing military state.
In this dystopian future, coming to America within months, if lawmakers are successful, anyone regarded as a terrorist must be held in military detention, where, it is planned, they may be subjected to abuse with impunity, and, if required, held forever without a trial and without any rights. Read the rest of this entry »
How convenient is it that a door shuts on the Bush administration’s global program of extraordinary rendition and torture, just as America’s military-industrial complex plays musical chairs — with Republican holdover Robert Gates leaving as defense secretary, to be replaced by Leon Panetta, who has spent the last two years as the director of the CIA, while Gen. David Petraeus, the military commander in Afghanistan, takes over Panetta’s role at the CIA?
The answer has to be that it would be hard to conceive of a neater example of how the military and the intelligence agencies — or the CIA, at least — are at the very heart of government.
The door that is shutting is the one that involves accountability for the many prisoners subjected to “extraordinary rendition,” torture, and, in some cases, murder, in the Bush administration’s “high-value detainee” program. This involved the creation of secret torture prisons in Thailand, Poland, Romania and Lithuania, and, for a while, in Guantánamo, as well as others in Afghanistan and Iraq, the rendition of prisoners between these facilities, and also to the dungeons of allies in Jordan, Egypt, Syria and Morocco. Read the rest of this entry »
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