Obama Commutes Chelsea Manning’s 35-Year Sentence; Whistleblower Who Leaked Hugely Important Guantánamo Files Will Be Freed in May 2017, Not 2045

Protestors holding signs calling for the release of Chelsea Manning during a gay pride parade in San Francisco in 2015 (Photo: Elijah Nouvelage/Reuters via ZUMA Press).Please support my work! I’m currently trying to raise $2500 (£2000) to support my writing and campaigning on Guantánamo and related issues over the next two months.

 

Great news from the White House, as, in the dying days of his presidency, Barack Obama has commuted the 35-year sentence of Chelsea Manning (formerly Bradley Manning), the former Army intelligence analyst responsible for the largest ever leak of classified documents, including the “Collateral Murder” video, featuring US personnel indiscriminately killing civilians and two Reuters reporters in Iraq, 500,000 army reports (the Afghan War logs and the Iraq War logs), 250,000 US diplomatic cables, and the Guantánamo files, released by WikiLeaks in April 2011, on which I worked as a media partner.

I regard the Guantánamo files as a hugely significant resource, which, unfortunately, have been used by right-wing, Islamophobic magazines and websites in an effort to justify the continued existence of Guantánamo. Like Biblical fundamentalists, who swear that everything in the Bible is true (and who, as a result, are unable to recognize its many contradictions), the right-wing defenders of Guantánamo fail to recognize the huge number of contradictions in the files.

Any intelligent analysis of the files instead reveals the extent to which they lay bare the cruelty and incompetence of the authorities at Guantánamo, providing the names of the many unreliable witnesses, who, as a result of torture for other forms of abuse, or being bribed with better living conditions, or simply through exhaustion after seemingly endless — and pointless — interrogations, told their interrogators what they wanted to hear. And the interrogators, of course, wanted whatever information would make the prisoners appear significant, when, in truth, they had been rounded up in a largely random manner, or had been bought for bounty payments from the Americans’ Afghan or Pakistani allies, and very few — a maximum of 3% of the 779 men held, I estimate — genuinely had any kind of meaningful connection with al-Qaeda, the leadership of the Taliban, or any related groups. Most were either foot soldiers or civilians in the wrong place at the wrong time, dressed up as “terrorists” to justify a dragnet, from September 2001 to November 2003 (when the transfers to Guantánamo largely ended) that is primarily remarkable because of its stunning incompetence.

I began a detailed study of the Guantánamo files leaked by Manning after their release in 2011, but exhaustion, and a lack of funding, prevented me from analyzing more than the 422 files I covered in detail in 34 articles totaling over half a million words, which are available here, although I do believe that my work on the files constitutes important research. One day I hope to complete the project, but even if I don’t, the files Manning released will provide historians with an unparalleled opportunity to understand the extent to which the so-called intelligence at Guantánamo is a house of cards built on torture and lies, and we should all be grateful to her for leaking them in the first place — just as there are reasons to be grateful for all the other documents she leaked.

Reporting the commuting of Manning’s sentence, Charlie Savage in the New York Times described how Obama’s decision “rescued Ms. Manning, who twice tried to kill herself last year, from an uncertain future as a transgender woman incarcerated at the men’s military prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kan.,” adding “She has been jailed for nearly seven years, and her 35-year sentence was by far the longest punishment ever imposed in the United States for a leak conviction.”

Savage also noted how this, and a pardon for Gen. James E. Cartwright, “the former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who pleaded guilty to lying about his conversations with reporters to FBI agents investigating a leak of classified information about cyberattacks on Iran’s nuclear program,” were “a remarkable final step for a president whose administration carried out an unprecedented criminal crackdown on leaks of government secrets. Depending on how they are counted, the Obama administration has prosecuted either nine or 10 such cases, more than were charged under all previous presidencies combined.”

Obama also “commuted the sentence of Oscar Lopez Rivera, who was part of a Puerto Rican nationalist group that carried out a string of bombings in the late 1970s and early 1980s,” who had been held long after the other members had been freed, and “also granted 63 other pardons and 207 other commutations, mostly for drug offenders.”

Manning will be freed on May 17, 2017 rather than in 2045, with a senior administration official explaining that the 120-day delay was “part of a standard transition period for commutations to time served, and was designed to allow for such steps as finding a place for Ms. Manning to live after her release.” Charlie Savage added that the commutation “also relieved the Defense Department of the difficult responsibility of Ms. Manning’s incarceration as she pushes for treatment for her gender dysphoria, including sex reassignment surgery, that the military has no experience providing.”

Several Republican lawmakers criticized the commutation, as did president elect Donald Trump, but Nancy Hollander and Vince Ward — lawyers representing Manning — were euphoric.

“Ms. Manning is the longest serving whistleblower in the history of the United States,” they stated. “Her 35-year sentence for disclosing information that served the public interest and never caused harm to the United States was always excessive, and we’re delighted that justice is being served in the form of this commutation.”

Unlike Manning, no pardon will be forthcoming for Edward Snowden. On Friday, White House spokesman Josh Earnest “discussed the ‘pretty stark difference’ between Ms. Manning’s case for mercy and Mr. Snowden’s,” as the Times put it, adding that, “While their offenses were similar, he said, there were ‘some important differences.’”

“Chelsea Manning is somebody who went through the military criminal justice process, was exposed to due process, was found guilty, was sentenced for her crimes, and she acknowledged wrongdoing,” Earnest said, whereas “Mr. Snowden fled into the arms of an adversary and has sought refuge in a country that most recently made a concerted effort to undermine confidence in our democracy.”

Mr. Earnest also noted that “while the documents Ms. Manning provided to WikiLeaks were ‘damaging to national security,’ the ones Mr. Snowden disclosed were ‘far more serious and far more dangerous.’”

When Manning decided to make public files she uncovered, as Pfc. Bradley Manning, on duty in Iraq, she wrote at the time that she hoped they would incite “worldwide discussion, debates and reforms.”

Charlie Savage noted that the disclosures “set off a frantic scramble as Obama administration officials sought to minimize any potential harm, including getting to safety some foreigners in dangerous countries who were identified as having helped American troops or diplomats,” adding that prosecutors, however, “presented no evidence that anyone had been killed because of the leaks.”

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’ and EP ‘Fighting Injustice’ are available here to download or on CD 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.

Emptying Guantánamo: Obama to Release 17 or 18 Prisoners Before Trump Takes Over

Muieen Abd al-Sattar, a stateless Rohingya Muslim, who is not one of the men who will be released before President Obama leaves office, despite having been approved for release in 2009. The photo is from the classified military files released by WikiLeaks in 2011.Please support my work! I’m currently trying to raise $3000 (£2400) to support my writing and campaigning on Guantánamo into the new year.

 

Excellent news from Guantánamo yesterday, as Charlie Savage, in the New York Times, confirmed what those of us seeking the prison’s closure had hoped — that the majority of the 22 men approved for release (out of the 59 men still held) will be freed before President Obama leaves office.

Because of requirements put in place over many years by a hostile Congress, the Pentagon must notify Congress 30 days before a release — a “transfer” — is to take place, and the deadline for securing releases before Obama leaves office was therefore this Monday, December 19. By late in the day, officials told the Times, the administration had secured homes for 17 or 18 of the remaining prisoners, who, crucially, will be sent to Italy, Oman, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

The Gulf countries have all taken prisoners in the last two years — almost all of them Yemenis, for whom third countries had to be found because the entire US establishment is unwilling to repatriate Yemenis based on fears about the security situation in their homeland. Four were sent to Oman in January 2015, another six in June 2015, and five were sent to the UAE in November 2015. Another ten were sent to Oman in January 2016, and another 12 were sent to the UAE in August 2016 (with three Afghans, whose repatriation had been prohibited by Congress, based on fears about them ending up taking up arms against US forces). In addition, another nine Yemenis were sent to Saudi Arabia in April 2016. Read the rest of this entry »

Donald Trump, Guantánamo and Torture: What Do We Need to Know?

An image made by supporters of Donald Trump based on his comments about Guantanamo.I wrote the following article (as “Donald Trump and Guantánamo: What Do We Need to Know?) 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.

So the bad news, on Guantánamo, torture, Islamophobia and war, is that, as Charlie Savage explained in the New York Times this week, “As a presidential candidate, Donald J. Trump vowed to refill the cells of the Guantánamo Bay prison and said American terrorism suspects should be sent there for military prosecution. He called for targeting mosques for surveillance, escalating airstrikes aimed at terrorists and taking out their civilian family members, and bringing back waterboarding and a ‘hell of a lot worse’ — not only because ‘torture works,’ but because even ‘if it doesn’t work, they deserve it anyway.’”

As Savage also noted, “It is hard to know how much of this stark vision for throwing off constraints on the exercise of national security power was merely tough campaign talk,” but it is a disturbing position for Americans — and the rest of the world — to be in, particularly with respect to the noticeable differences between Trump and Barack Obama.

The outgoing president has some significant failures against his name, which will be discussed in detail below, but America’s first black president did not, of course, appoint a white supremacist to be his chief strategist and Senior Counselor, as Trump has done with Steve Bannon, the executive chairman of Breitbart News, an alarming far-right US website. Nor did he call for a “total and complete shutdown” of America’s borders to Muslims, as Trump did last December, and nor did he suggest that there should be a registry of all Muslims, as Trump did last November. Read the rest of this entry »

In Contentious Split Decision, Appeals Court Upholds Guantánamo Prisoner Ali Hamza Al-Bahlul’s Conspiracy Conviction

Ali Hamza al-Bahlul, in a photo included in the classified military files released by WikiLeaks in April 2011.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, in the latest development in a long-running court case related to Guantánamo, the court of appeals in Washington, D.C. (the D.C. Circuit) upheld Ali Hamza al-Bahlul’s November 2008 conviction for conspiracy in his trial by military commission, but in a divided decision that means the case will almost certainly now make its way to the Supreme Court.

Al-Bahlul, a Yemeni, was seized in Afghanistan in December 2001, and taken to Guantánamo, where, in June 2004, he was charged in the first version of the military commissions that were ill-advisedly dragged out of the history books by the Bush administration in November 2001, primarily on the basis that he had made a promotional video for al-Qaeda.

Two years later, the commissions were scrapped after the Supreme Court ruled that they were illegal, but they were subsequently revived by Congress, and in February 2008 he was charged again, and convicted in November 2008, after a trial in which he refused to mount a defense, on “17 counts of conspiracy, eight counts of solicitation to commit murder and 10 counts of providing material support for terrorism,” as I described it at the time. Read the rest of this entry »

Torture Victim Abu Zubaydah, Seen For the First Time in 14 Years, Seeks Release from Guantánamo

Abu Zubaydah: illustration by Brigid Barrett from an article in Wired in July 2013. The photo used is from the classified military files released by WikiLeaks in 2011.On August 23, 2016, the most notorious torture victim in Guantánamo, Zayn al-Abidin Muhammad Husayn, better known as Abu Zubaydah, became the 61st prisoner to face a Periodic Review Board, and was seen for the first time by anyone outside of the US military and intelligence agencies, apart from representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross, his attorneys and translators, since his capture 14 years and five months ago.

For the Guardian, David Smith wrote, “His dark hair was neat, his moustache and beard impeccably trimmed. His shirt was high-collared and spotlessly white. He sat at the head of the table with a calm, composed mien. It was the first time that the world has seen Zayn al-Abidin Muhammed Husayn, also known as Abu Zubaydah, since his capture in Pakistan 14 years ago.” He added that, “[a]fter a brief technical hitch, a TV screen showed a room with a plain white wall and black shiny table. Anyone walking in cold might have assumed that Abu Zubaydah, with the appearance of a doctor or lawyer, was chairing the meeting. To his left sat an interpreter, dressed casually in shirtsleeves, and to his right were two personal representatives in military uniform with papers before them. A counsel was unable to attend due to a family medical emergency.”

Smith also noted that he “sat impassive, expressionless and silent throughout, sometimes resting his head on his hand or putting a finger to his mouth or chin, and studying his detainee profile intently as it was read aloud by an unseen woman.” 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 »

Nine Yemenis Freed from Guantánamo to Saudi Arabia; 80 Prisoners Remain

Members of the campaigning group Witness Against Torture hold up a banner featuring an image of Tariq Ba Odah outside the White House in June 2015 (Photo: Matt Daloisio via Flickr).Good news from Guantánamo, as nine prisoners have been released, bringing the remaining number of prisoners down to 80. The nine men freed are all Yemeni citizens, but all have a connection with Saudi Arabia. Four were born there to Yemeni parents, while the other five have close family members who live in the country.

Only one of the nine is at all well-known: Tariq Ba Odah, a long-term hunger striker, who, last year, asked a judge to order his release, via a habeas corpus petition, because of the precarious state of his health. After more than eight years on a permanent hunger strike, he weighed just 74 pounds, and, according to medical experts and his lawyers, was at risk of death. Disgracefully, the Justice Department challenged his habeas petition, and, at the end of the year, Reuters revealed that the Pentagon had prevented representatives from an undisclosed foreign country that was prepared to offer him a new home from having access to his medical records, so that the country in question dropped its resettlement offer.

The New York Times also discussed the long history of how Saudi Arabia came to take in the Yemenis, revealing how the move completed “a long-sought diplomatic deal ahead of a planned visit to Riyadh by President Obama in the coming week.” Read the rest of this entry »

Haji Ghalib, the Afghan Freed from Guantánamo Who Is Now Fighting Isis and the Taliban

Former Guantanamo prisoner Haji Ghalib, photographed after his release from Guantanamo in February 2007.When it comes to reports about prisoners released from Guantánamo, there has, since President Obama took office, been an aggressive black propaganda policy — firstly from within the Pentagon and latterly from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence — painting a false picture of the alleged rate of “recidivism” amongst former prisoners, a trend that has also been echoed in the mainstream media, which has repeatedly published whatever nonsense it has been told without questioning it, or asking for anything resembling proof from those government departments that are responsible. For some background, see my articles here, here, here and here – and my appearance on Democracy Now! in January 2010.

The three outstanding problems with the supposed recidivism rate — beyond the lamentable truth that no information backing up the claims has been made publicly available since 2009, and that the media should therefore have been very wary of it — are, firstly, that lazy or cynical media outlets regular add up the numbers of former prisoners described as “confirmed” and “suspected” recidivists to reach an alarming grand total, which, in recent years, is over 25% of those released, when the numbers of those “suspected” of recidivism are based on unverified, single source reporting, and may very well be unreliable. Back in March 2012, for example, as I explained in my article, “Guantánamo and Recidivism: The Media’s Ongoing Failure to Question Official Statistics,” Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Todd Breasseale said, “Someone on the ‘suspected’ list could very possibly not be engaged in activities that are counter to our national security interests.” (emphasis added).

The second huge problem with the reports is that even the “confirmed” rate is, very evidently, exaggerated, as it is, to be blunt, inconceivable that as many former prisoners as alleged can have been engaged in military or terrorist activities against the US. In the latest DNI report, for example, made available in September 2015, it is claimed that 117 former prisoners (17.9% of those released) are “Confirmed of Reengaging,” but no indication is given of how that can be possible. Claims can certainly be made for a few dozen “recidivists” — primarily in Afghanistan, and amongst those few former Gulf prisoners who apparently set up an Al-Qaeda offshoot in Yemen — but the figure of 117 is simply implausible. Read the rest of this entry »

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: Truth, Lies and Distortions in the Coverage of Shaker Aamer, Soon to be Freed from Guantánamo

Shaker Aamer, photographed at Guantanamo in 2012.In the week since it was announced that Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in Guantánamo, is to be released, to be returned to his family in the UK, there has been a huge sigh of relief from the many, many people who campaigned for his release — supporters of the long-standing Save Shaker Aamer Campaign, which I have been involved with for many years, attending protests and speaking at events, of We Stand With Shaker, the campaign I established with Joanne MacInnes last November, which drew huge support for photos of celebrities and MPs standing with a giant inflatable figure of Shaker, and supporters of the Shaker Aamer Parliamentary Group, established last November by John McDonnell MP, a persistent supporter of worthy causes and fighter against injustice, who, with Caroline Lucas (our sole Green MP), Jeremy Corbyn and Shaker’s constituency MP, Jane Ellison, has been the most consistent MP supporting Shaker’s cause.

My article celebrating the news of Shaker’s forthcoming release was liked and shared by over 1,500 people on Facebook. Posted on the Close Guantánamo page, it has reached over 21,000 people; on the We Stand With Shaker page it has reached over 11,000 people. Thank you to everyone who has supported the various campaigns to secure Shaker’s release, including the MPs who traveled to Washington D.C. in May to call for his release, meeting with Senators and Obama administration officials — David Davis and Andrew Mitchell of the Conservatives, and Jeremy Corbyn and Andy Slaughter of the Labour Party.

Now, of course, Jeremy is the leader of the Labour Party, and John McDonnell is the shadow chancellor — a wonderful development for those who care about tackling injustice. Jeremy was elected on an anti-austerity platform, and because of his honesty and decency, and all of the above was apparent in his speech as leader to the Labour Party Conference, when he specifically thanked Shaker’s supporters, and in particular the Save Shaker Aamer Campaign: Read the rest of this entry »

Tariq Ba Odah, Hunger Strikes, and Why the Obama Administration Must Stop Challenging Guantánamo Prisoners in Court

Members of the campaigning group Witness Against Torture hold up a banner featuring an image of Tariq Ba Odah outside the White House in June 2015 (Photo: Matt Daloisio via Flickr).In June, I wrote an article, “Skeletal, 75-Pound Guantánamo Hunger Striker Tariq Ba Odah Seeks Release; Medical Experts Fear For His Life,” about the desperate plight of Tariq Ba Odah, a Guantánamo prisoner who has been on a hunger strike since 2007 and is at risk of death. His weight has dropped to just 74.5 pounds, and yet the government does not even claim that it wants to continue holding him. Over five and a half years ago, in January 2010, the high-level, inter-agency Guantánamo Review Task Force that President Obama established when he took office in 2009 to review the cases of all the prisoners still held at that time, concluded that he should no longer be held.

The task force approved 156 men for release, although Tariq was one of 30 placed in a category invented by the task force — “conditional detention,” made dependent on a perception that the security situation in Yemen had improved or “an appropriate rehabilitation program or third- country resettlement option becomes available,” as his lawyers described it.

Collectively, the whole of the US establishment has — with one exception — refused to repatriate any Yemenis approved for release since January 2010 (after a foiled terror plot was revealed to have been hatched in Yemen), although, since last November, the administration has been finding third countries willing to offer new homes to Yemenis approve for transfer — in part became of persistent pressure from campaigning groups. 18 Yemenis have so far been found homes in third countries — in Georgia, Slovakia, Kazakhstan, Estonia and Oman — so all that now ought to prevent Tariq Ba Odah’s release is if the US government proves unable to find a third country prepared to offer him a new home. 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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