200 Days Left in the Countdown to Close Guantánamo: Please Send Photos Reminding President Obama on Independence Day

Close Guantanamo co-founder Andy Worthington's son Tyler holding up a poster reminding President Obama that, on July 3, 2016, he has just 200 days left to close Guantanamo, as he first promised when he took office in January 2009.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.

This Sunday, July 3, President Obama will have just 200 days left of his presidency; 200 days, in other words, to fulfill the promise he made, on his second day in office, to close the prison at Guantánamo Bay. On January 22, 2009, he actually promised to close Guantánamo within a year, but although it is now nearly seven and a half years since that promise, it remains important for President Obama’s legacy that he does all he can to fulfill his promise before he leaves office.

Send us your photos!

To mark the occasion, we are asking those who want to see Guantánamo closed to print off a poster reminding President Obama that he has just 200 days left to close Guantánamo, take a photo of yourself with it, and send it to us, to put up on the website here, and also on social media (see our Facebook and Twitter pages), and we will be making sure that we tie in publicity to the values of the US, as celebrated on Independence Day the day after.

We began the Countdown to Close Guantánamo in January, when I appeared on Democracy Now! with music legend Roger Waters, and we have been counting down every 50 days, supporting President Obama, who has stepped up his efforts to close the prison this year, promising to release the men approved for release (29 of the 79 men still held) by the end of summer, and to complete reviews for all the other men, except the ten facing trials, before the end of the year.

These reviews are the Periodic Review Boards, and since 2013 they have been reviewing the cases of all the men not already approved for release and not facing trials. 50 reviews have taken place to date, and just 14 other men are currently awaiting reviews. Of the 50 reviews to date, 36 decisions have been taken, and two-thirds of those — 24 in total— have resulted in prisoners being approved for release. This has been an indictment of the caution of the Guantánamo Review Task Force that reviewed their cases in 2009, and described them as “too dangerous to release,” or as candidates for prosecution.

Can President Obama close Guantánamo?

So with 50 men to deal with — a number that will undoubtedly be reduced as the PRBs continue their assessments — what is President Obama’s plan, with 200 days to go? In February, via the Pentagon, he delivered a plan to Congress, which we discussed here. Containing the promises to release cleared prisoners and to conclude the first round of PRBs, the plan also involved the administration stating, “We’re going to work with Congress to find a secure location in the United States to hold remaining detainees.”

Closing Guantánamo is impossible without some men being moved to the US mainland — those facing trials, and those the administration wants to continue holding under the laws of war — but Congress, which, for many years, has passed legislation preventing Guantánamo prisoners from being brought to US soil under any circumstances, remains unwilling to work with the president.

Some of President Obama’s advisors — including former White House counsel Greg Craig and Cliff Sloan, the former State Department envoy for Guantánamo closure — suggested that, if Congress refused to cooperate, he could close Guantánamo by executive order. However, just two weeks ago, Reuters reported that the Obama administration was “not pursuing the use of an executive order to shutter the Guantánamo Bay military prison after officials concluded that it would not be a viable strategy,” according to “sources familiar with the deliberations.” The sources added that President Obama “could still choose to use his commander-in-chief powers, but the option is not being actively pursued.”

A source familiar with the discussions explained that “White House lawyers and other officials studied the option of overriding the ban but did not develop a strong legal position or an effective political sales pitch in an election year,” as Reuters described it. The source said, “It was just deemed too difficult to get through all of the hurdles that they would need to get through, and the level of support they were likely to receive on it was thought to be too low to generate such controversy, particularly at a sensitive time in an election cycle.”

Reuters also explained that the administration was focusing on getting the number of prisoners down “to such a low number, perhaps 20, that the cost of keeping [the prison] open could prove unpalatable to Congress,” although Republican lawmakers “remain unswayed.” Nevertheless, the administration has a point. The prison cost$445 million to run last year — “more than $5.5 million a year for each of the 80 remaining prisoners.”

In the meantime, lawmakers are trying to make it even more difficult for Guantánamo to be closed, in the House and Senate’s versions of next year’s National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), passed on May 18 and June 14 respectively.

As Human Rights Watch explained, “Both versions of the bill contain problematic provisions on Guantánamo, including onerous transfer restrictions, bans on transferring detainees to the US for continued detention or trial, and complete bans on detainee transfers to Libya, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen. The Senate version adds a new provision that bans the transfer of detainees to countries where the State Department has issued travel warnings. The House version requires the administration to provide Congress with information on how it plans to handle current and future detainees.”

As we noted in an article in May, the Senate version of the bill also contains a provision that allows prisoners to be temporarily moved to the US mainland for emergency medical treatment, which is commendable, and a proposal to allow some prisoners to “plead guilty to criminal charges in civilian court via video teleconference,” which would also allow them to be “transferred to other countries to serve their sentences,” as the New York Times explained.

Reuters also explained:

The Obama administration has threatened to veto both versions of the bill. It has expressed particularly strong objections to the Guantánamo provisions in the Senate version, noting that State Department travel warnings are designed to “[convey] information to individual tourists and other travelers,” and do not “reflect a country’s ability to mitigate potential risk with regard to transferred [Guantánamo] detainees.”

However, as Reuters also noted, the Obama administration “has repeatedly failed to follow through on threats to veto previous Defense Authorization bills over Guantánamo restrictions. Though Obama did veto the 2016 NDAA last year, he ultimately signed an amended bill into law with no changes to the Guantánamo provisions.”

The Justice Department opposes plea deals

And finally, adding to the pressure on President Obama, last week Reuters reported how, for the last three months, Attorney General Loretta Lynch has been opposing the proposal to allow prisoners to make guilty pleas in federal court by video conference, and “has twice intervened to block administration proposals on the issue, objecting that they would violate longstanding rules of criminal-justice procedure.”

As Reuters proceeded to explain, “In the first case, her last-minute opposition derailed a White House-initiated legislative proposal to allow video guilty pleas after nearly two months of interagency negotiations and law drafting. In the second case, Lynch blocked the administration from publicly supporting a Senate proposal to legalize video guilty pleas.” A senior Obama administration official, who “supports the proposal and asked not to be identified,” as Reuters put it, said, “It’s been a fierce inter-agency tussle.”

Administration officials told Reuters that they were particularly focused on the 30 or so men expected to still be held after the conclusion of the PRBs, and said that “allowing video feeds could reduce that number to somewhere between 10 and 20.” A senior administration official said, “This is the group that gives the president the most heartburn.”

Reuters also noted that Lynch and her deputies at the Justice Department “argued that the laws of criminal procedure do not allow defendants to plead guilty remotely by video conference,” adding, “Even if Congress were to pass the law, Lynch and her aides have told the White House that federal judges may rule that such pleas are in effect involuntary,” because the Guantánamo prisoners “would not have the option of standing trial in a US courtroom.”

Reuters also stated, “A defendant in federal court usually has the option to plead guilty or face a trial by jury,” but in the case of the Guantánamo prisoners, “the only option they would likely face is to plead guilty or remain in indefinite detention.” A person familiar with Lynch’s concerns about the proposal said, “How would a judge assure himself that the plea is truly voluntary when if the plea is not entered, the alternative is you’re still in Gitmo? That’s the wrinkle.”

Conclusion

As all of the above makes clear, closing Guantánamo remains an uphill struggle, but those of us who care about the need for it to be closed — to bring to an end this disgraceful chapter in US history — must not give up on exerting pressure to get it closed once and for all.

We look forward to seeing your photos!

If you want to do more, please feel free to call the White House on 202-456-1111 or 202-456-1414 or submit a comment online.

You can also encourage your Senators and Representatives to support President Obama’s efforts to close the prison. Find your Senators here, and your Representatives here.

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,’ is available for download or on CD via Bandcamp — also see here). 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.

Obama Officials Confirm That Nearly 24 Guantánamo Prisoners Will Be Freed By the End of July

Cleared for release: a photo by Debra Sweet of the World Can't Wait.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.

Last week there was confirmation that the Obama administration is still intent on working towards the closure of the prison at Guantánamo Bay before President Obama leaves office, when officials told Spencer Ackerman of the Guardian that there is an “expectation” within the administration that 22 or 23 prisoners will be released by the end of July “to about half a dozen countries.”

80 men are currently held, so the release of these men will reduce the prison’s population to 57 or 58 prisoners, the lowest it has been since the first few weeks of its existence back in 2002.

As the Guardian explained, however, the officials who informed them about the planned releases spoke on condition of anonymity, because “not all of the foreign destination countries are ready to be identified.” In addition, “some of the transfer approvals have yet to receive certification by Ashton Carter, the defense secretary, as required by law, ahead of a notification to Congress.” Read the rest of this entry »

Plea Deals in Federal Court Mooted for Guantánamo Prisoners in Next Year’s National Defense Authorization Act

A campaigner wearing a President Obama mask calls for the closure of Guantanamo in London (Photo: AP/Kirsty Wigglesworth).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.

Last week there was an interesting development in relation to President Obama’s hopes of closing Guantánamo, when the Senate Armed Services Committee announced that it had included a provision in its version of next year’s National Defense Authorization Act, which, as Charlie Savage reported for the New York Times, would allow Guantánamo prisoners to “plead guilty to criminal charges in civilian court via video teleconference,” and would also allow them to be “transferred to other countries to serve their sentences.”

Last November, a number of lawyers sent a letter to the Justice Department, which the New York Times discussed here, in which they “express[ed] interest in exploring plea deals by video teleconference — but only in civilian court, not military commissions.”

Lawyers for six prisoners said that they “may wish” to negotiate plea deals — Abu Zubaydah, the “high-value detainee” for whom the CIA’s torture program was developed, Abu Faraj al-Libi, another “high-value detainee,” Sanad al-Kazimi, a Yemeni who recently went before a Periodic Review Board, Abd al-Rahim Ghulam Rabbani, a Pakistani, Abdul Latif Nasser, the last Moroccan in the prison, and Soufian Barhoumi (aka Sufyian Barhoumi), an Algerian whose PRB is taking place on May 24. As Savage described it, the letter also “said several others are interested, and that Majid Khan, who has pleaded guilty in the [military] commissions system but has not been sentenced, would like to plead again, in civilian court.” Read the rest of this entry »

Playing Politics with the Closure of Guantánamo

A campaigner reminds President Obama of his promise to close Guantanamo on January 11, 2013, the 11th anniversary of the opening of the prison (Photo: Andy Worthington).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.

Supporters of the “Close Guantánamo” campaign have long been aware that the very existence of the “war on terror” prison at the US naval base in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba is an affront to all notions that the United States respects justice and the rule of law, and we remember that as the closure of the prison becomes, yet again, an undignified game of political football, with Congress continuing to erect obstacles to the release of prisoners and the transfer of anyone to the US mainland for any reason, and the Obama administration trying to come up with a workable plan for the prison’s closure.

Although Congress, the week after the 9/11 attacks, passed a law — the Authorization for Use of Military Force — that purports to justify the detention of prisoners without charge or trial at Guantánamo, and the Supreme Court ruled in June 2004 that the government can hold them until the end of hostilities, this thin legal veneer has persistently failed to disguise the fact that everything about Guantánamo is wrong.

The Bush administration established the prison to be beyond the reach of the US courts, and for nearly two and a half years the men — and boys — held there had no rights whatsoever. In a second decision delivered in June 2004, the Supreme Court ruled that they had habeas corpus rights, a decision that allowed lawyers into the prison, breaking the veil of secrecy that had shrouded the prison for all that time, enabling torture and other forms of abuse to take place. Even so, it was not until June 2006 that the Supreme Court, in another ruling, reminded the administration that no one can be held without rights, and that Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, which prohibits torture and “humiliating and degrading treatment,” applied to everyone in US custody. Read the rest of this entry »

Finally, President Obama Vetoes Defense Bill That Contains Onerous Guantánamo Restrictions

President Obama and Guantanamo: a photo collage from Slate, in June 2014.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.

Last week, for only the fifth time in his Presidency, Barack Obama vetoed a bill sent for his approval by Congress. The bill in question was the draft of next year’s National Defense Authorization Act, which provides funding for the military, but which, for several years now, has also been used by Republicans to impose restrictions on the president’s ability to release prisoners from Guantánamo — as well as an absolute ban on bringing any prisoner to the US mainland for any reason.

In a Veto Message on October 22, President Obama wrote, “I am returning herewith without my approval H.R. 1735, the ‘National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2016.'” He added that “the bill would, among other things, constrain the ability of the Department of Defense to conduct multi-year defense planning and align military capabilities and force structure with our national defense strategy, impede the closure of the detention facility at Guantánamo Bay, and prevent the implementation of essential defense reforms.”

On Guantánamo, President Obama wrote, in further detail: Read the rest of this entry »

The Path to Closing Guantánamo

Campaigners with the group Witness Against Torture occupy the national Museum of American History on january 11, 2014, the 12th anniversary of the opening of Guantanamo (Photo: Andy Worthington).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.

On Saturday, six Yemenis were freed from Guantánamo, and resettled in Oman, bringing the prison’s population down to 116 men, the lowest total it has been since the first few months of the prison’s operation back in 2002. I wrote about the release of the men here, and amended the details of our prisoner list here, and, in response to the releases, I thought it would also be useful to follow up by looking at where we stand with President Obama’s long-promised mission to close the prison.

President Obama made his promise to close Guantánamo on his second day in office, pledging to close it within a year. Since failing to keep the promise, he has sporadically stated again his desire to see the prison closed — most notably two years ago, when a prison-wide hunger strike prompted him to promise to resume releasing prisoners, after a period of nearly three years in which releases had almost ground to a halt, because of opposition in Congress and the president ‘s refusal to expend political capital overcoming those obstacles.

In April, as I wrote about here, the Washington Post reported, as I paraphrased it,  that all the men approved for release in Guantánamo — at the time 57 out of the 122 men still held — would 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.” I added, however, that, realistically, “it might be wisest to view these suggestions as the administration stating its best-case scenario.” Read the rest of this entry »

Four Insignificant Afghan Prisoners Released from Guantánamo

Shawali Khan, in a photo included in the classified military files released by WikiLeaks in April 2011.More good news regarding Guantánamo, as four Afghans have been released, and returned to Afghanistan in what US officials, who spoke to the New York Times, “are citing as a sign of their confidence in new Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.”

The Times added, “Obama administration officials said they worked quickly to fulfil the request from Ghani, in office just three months, to return the four — long cleared for release — as a kind of reconciliation and mark of improved US-Afghan relations.”

The Times also noted that there is “no requirement that the Afghan government further detain the men” — Shawali Khan, 51 (ISN 899), Abdul Ghani, 42 (ISN 934), Khi Ali Gul, 51 (ISN 928) and Mohammed Zahir, 61 (ISN 1103) — adding that Afghanistan’s government-appointed High Peace Council also “requested the repatriation of the eight Afghans who are among the 132 detainees remaining at Guantánamo,” 63 of whom have been cleared for release. Read the rest of this entry »

More Guantánamo Releases Planned Despite Hostility in Congress

"President and Congress: Close Guantanamo" - a banner from the protest calling for the closure of Guantanamo outside the White House on January 11, 2012, the 10th anniversary of the opening of the prison.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.

In a hopeful sign of ongoing progress on Guantánamo, following the recent release of six prisoners, Julian Barnes of the Wall Street Journal reported on Thursday that defense and congressional officials had told him that the Pentagon was “preparing to transfer additional detainees” from Guantánamo “in the coming weeks.”

After four Yemenis and a Tunisian were given new homes in Georgia and Slovakia, and a Saudi was repatriated, defense officials “said there would be more transfers in December, but declined to detail their numbers or nationalities.”

Laura Pitter, the senior national security counsel for Human Rights Watch, said in response, “There does seem to be a renewed effort to make the transfers happen,” which, she added, seems to indicate a desire on the president’s part to continue working towards closing the prison, as he promised when he took office in January 2009, before Republicans raised obstacles that he has, in general, not wished to spend political will overcoming. Read the rest of this entry »

Is President Obama Planning an Executive Order for the Closure of Guantánamo?

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.

Last Thursday, out of the blue, Carol E. Lee and Jess Bravin of the Wall Street Journal reported that senior Obama administration officials had told them that the White House was drafting options that would allow President Obama to close the “war on terror” prison established by President Bush at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, through the use of an executive order.

Such an order would bypass lawmakers in Congress, who have imposed a ban on bringing prisoners to the US mainland since 2010, in response to President Obama’s proposal to transfer prisoners from Guantánamo to a maximum-security prison in Thomson, Illinois. Lawmakers have also passed legislation designed to make it difficult to release prisoners to other countries.

Reading on, it became apparent that this was only an option being considered. As the article explained, the officials said that President Obama “strongly prefers a legislative solution over going around Congress.” However, because, as one official said, the president is “unwavering in his commitment” to closing the prison, which he promised to close on his second day in office, he “wants to have all potential options available on an issue he sees as part of his legacy.” Read the rest of this entry »

Senate Passes Bill to Help Close Guantánamo; Now President Obama Must Act

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.

It’s rare that there is good news about Guantánamo, and even rarer that the good news involves Congress. However, on Tuesday, the Senate accepted a version of the annual National Defense Authorization Act, which originated in the Senate Armed Services Committee, and was put forward by the chair, Sen. Carl Levin, along with Sen. John McCain.

The Levin-McCain version of the NDAA is intended to make it much easier than it has been for the last three years for President Obama to release cleared prisoners from Guantánamo, and to seriously revisit his failed promise to close the prison once and for all, and we note, with thanks, the efforts of Senators and officials in the Obama administration to secure this victory.

This important version of the NDAA contains provisions relating to Guantánamo which allow President Obama to release prisoners to other countries without the onerous restrictions imposed by Congress for the last three years. These restrictions have led to the number of released prisoners dwindling to almost zero, even though 84 of the remaining 164 prisoners were cleared for release from the prison in January 2010 by a high-level, inter-agency task force appointed by President Obama shortly after he took office in 2009. Read the rest of this entry »

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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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