On Terrorism, America Has Lost Its Way

Last week at Guantánamo, a farcical dance played out, as it does every six months or so. Representatives of the US mainstream media — and other reporters from around the world — flew to the US naval base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, to witness the latest round of the seemingly interminable pre-trial hearings in the cases of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four other men accused of masterminding, or otherwise facilitating the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 on New York and Washington D.C.

The farce of the Guantánamo trials is, by now, well established, although last week’s hearings introduced the novelty of a hidden hand, unknown even to the judge, flicking an invisible switch to silence potentially embarrassing testimony, and the proceedings also took place against the backdrop of two courtroom appeals that have dealt savage blows to the claimed legitimacy of the commissions.

In the case of the 9/11 trial, a permanent feature is the seemingly insoluble tussle between the prosecution and the defense. On the one hand are the attorneys for the accused, whose job is to try and ensure that their clients do not receive unfair trials. This involves attempting, incessantly, to point out the elephant in the room — the fact that all the men were held for many years in “black sites” run by the CIA, where they were subjected to torture, approved at the highest levels of the government during the Bush administration, even though torture is a crime. On the other hand are the prosecutors, whose job, above all, appears to be to hide all mention of torture. In the middle is the judge — in the case of the “high-value detainees,” Army Col. James L. Pohl, who replaced Marine Col. Ralph Kohlmann as the Chief Presiding Officer for the Military Commissions on January 6, 2009. Read the rest of this entry »

Conservative Judges Demolish the False Legitimacy of Guantánamo’s Terror Trials

When is a war crime not a war crime? When it is invented by the executive branch and Congress, and implemented for six years until a profoundly Conservative appeals court strikes it down.

The invented war crime is “providing material support to terrorism,” and on October 16, 2012, a panel of three judges in the D.C. Circuit Court (the Court of Appeals in Washington D.C.) threw out the conviction of Salim Hamdan, a driver for Osama bin Laden, who had received a five and a half year sentence for “providing material support to terrorism” at the end of his trial by military commission in August 2008 (although he was freed just five months later, as his sentence included time already served).

In its ruling, the court stated, “When Hamdan committed the conduct in question, the international law of war proscribed a variety of war crimes, including forms of terrorism. At that time, however, the international law of war did not proscribe material support for terrorism as a war crime.”

For anyone who has followed the history of the military commissions in any depth, the result was not completely unexpected. Revived by the Bush administration in November 2001, specifically for trying prisoners seized in the “war on terror,” the commissions were struck down by the Supreme Court in June 2006, but were then revived by Congress, when “providing material support to terrorism” and “conspiracy” were included as war crimes, even though there was no precedent for doing so. Read the rest of this entry »

Deranged Senate Votes for Military Detention of All Terror Suspects and a Permanent Guantánamo

Yesterday the shameful dinosaurs of the Senate — hopelessly out of touch with reality, for the most part, and haunted by specters of their own making — approved, by 93 votes to 7, the passage of the National Defense Authorization Act (PDF), which contains a number of astonishingly alarming provisions — Sections 1031 and 1032, designed to make mandatory the indefinite military detention of terror suspects until the end of hostilities in a “war on terror” that seems to have no end (if they are identified as a member of al-Qaeda or an alleged affiliate, or have planned or carried out an attack on the United States), ending a long and entirely appropriate tradition of trying terror suspects in federal court for their alleged crimes, and Sections 1033 and 1034, which seek to prevent the closure of Guantánamo by imposing onerous restrictions on the release of prisoners, and banning the use of funds to purchase an alternative prison anywhere else. I have previously remarked on these depressing developments in articles in July and October, as they have had a horribly long period of gestation, in which no one with a grip on reality — and admiration for the law — has been able to wipe them out.

The four sections are connected, as cheerleaders for the mandatory military detention of terror suspects want them to be sent to Guantánamo, and have done, if I recall correctly, at least since Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the failed Christmas plane bomber in 2009, was arrested, read his Miranda rights, and interrogated by the FBI. Recently, Abdulmutallab, who told his interrogators all they wanted to know without being held in military custody — and, for that matter, without being tortured, which is what the hardcore cheerleaders for military detention also want — was tried and convicted in a federal court.

Hundreds of other terror suspects have been successfully prosecuted in federal court, throughout the Bush years, and under Obama, but supporters of military custody like to forget this, as it conflicts with their notions, held since the aftermath of 9/11 and the Bush administration’s horrendous flight from the law, that terrorists are warriors. Underpinning it all is the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), the founding document of the “war on terror,” passed the week after the 9/11 attacks. This authorizes the President to pursue anyone, anywhere who he thinks was involved in the 9/11 attacks, and it is a dreadfully open-ended excuse for endless war whose repeal I have long encouraged, but which some lawmakers have been itching to renew, even after the death of Osama bin Laden, and the obvious incentives for the winding-down of the ruinous, decade-long “war on terror.” Read the rest of this entry »

It Costs $72 Million A Year to Hold Cleared Prisoners at Guantánamo

Last week, the exorbitant expense of maintaining the Bush administration’s “war on terror” prison at Guantánamo was revealed in the Miami Herald, where Carol Rosenberg explained that Congress provided $139 million to operate the prison last year, which, with 171 prisoners still held, works out at $812,865 per prisoner, nearly 30 times as much as it costs to keep a prisoner in a Federal Bureau of Prisons facility, where the cost per prisoner is $28,284 a year.

In a detailed explanation of the “expensive” and “inefficient” system at Guantánamo, retired Army Brig. Gen. Greg Zanetti, who was the prison’s deputy commander in 2008, said, “It’s a slow-motion Berlin Airlift — that’s been going on for 10 years.” While stationed at Guantánamo, the Herald noted, “he wrote a secret study that compared the operation to Alcatraz, noting that Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy had closed it in 1963 because it was too expensive.”

Zanetti, who is now a Seattle-based money manager, pointed out that everything “from paper clips to bulldozers” has to be flown in, or brought in by boat, and argued that the cost of running the prison “deserves a cost-benefit analysis.” He told Carol Rosenberg, “What complicates the overall command further is you have the lawyers, interrogators and guards all operating under separate budgets and command structures. It’s like combining the corporate cultures and budgets of Goldman, Apple and Coke. Business schools would have a field day dissecting the structure of Guantánamo.” Read the rest of this entry »

Don’t Forget the Guantánamo Prisoners Cleared for Release But Still Held

Last week, Guantánamo briefly resurfaced in the news when one of the remaining 171 prisoners, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, was arraigned for his planned trial by Military Commission, for his alleged role in the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000.

Al-Nashiri’s trial will not begin for a least a year, and his fleeting appearance was not sufficient to keep attention focused on Guantánamo, especially as the 24-hour news cycle — and people’s addiction to it — now barely allows stories to survive for a day before they are swept aside for the latest breaking news.

As a result, the opportunity to ask bigger questions, such as, “Who is still at Guantánamo?” and “Why are they still held?” was largely missed. These are topics I have been discussing all year, but they are rarely mentioned in the mainstream media, so it was refreshing, last week, to see Peter Finn in the Washington Post address these questions.

In “Guantánamo detainees cleared for release but left in limbo,” Finn, with assistance from Julie Tate, began by revisiting the final report of the Guantánamo Review Task Force, the 60 or so officials and lawyers from government departments and the intelligence agencies who reviewed the cases of all the prisoners throughout 2009, and who, as Finn noted, cleared 126 prisoners for transfer out of Guantánamo (PDF) — and also recommended 36 for trials, and 48 for indefinite detention without charge or trial. Read the rest of this entry »

Obama vs. Congress: The Struggle to Close Guantánamo, and to Prevent the Military Detention of Terror Suspects

It’s a sign of how skewed America is today that assassinating the world’s most wanted terrorist (Osama bin Laden), assassinating an American citizen working in Yemen as an anti-American propagandist (Anwar al-Awlaki), and being involved in a number of wars — covert or otherwise — that involve the targeted killings of alleged terrorists and insurgents through attacks by remote-controlled drones has not transformed Barack Obama into a hero for supporters of America’s brutal, decade-long “war on terrorism.”

Despite all this, to many Republicans in Congress — and even members of his own party — Obama is still not tough enough on national security issues. Time and again, lawmakers have acted to tie his hands, inserting provisions into a defense bill last December and an omnibus spending bill in April that prevented the administration from moving any prisoner from Guantánamo to the US mainland for any reason, even to face a trial, that prevented the purchase, construction or modification of any prison on the US mainland to hold Guantánamo prisoners, and that also required the defense secretary to notify Congress before releasing a single prisoner from Guantánamo.

Not content with this, lawmakers are pushing for further restrictions on the President’s authority and the administration’s policies, and are pushing so far that, finally, senior officials have responded. The problems for the administration, as the Associated Press explained two weeks ago, are with two provisions in a defense bill passed by the House of Representatives in May, and another provision in a bill that emerged from the Senate Armed Services Committee in June. Read the rest of this entry »

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, filmmaker, photographer and Guantanamo expert
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