Who’s Running Guantánamo?


On January 20, the answer to that question seemed obvious. In his inaugural speech, with George W. Bush standing just behind him, President Obama pointedly pledged to “reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals” — a clear indication that, as he promised in a speech in August 2007, he would dismantle the extra-legal aberrations of the Bush administration’s “War on Terror”:

When I am President, America will reject torture without exception. America is the country that stood against that kind of behavior, and we will do so again … As President, I will close Guantánamo, reject the Military Commissions Act, and adhere to the Geneva Conventions … We will again set an example to the world that the law is not subject to the whims of stubborn rulers, and that justice is not arbitrary.

The next day, President Obama requested the military judges at Guantánamo to call a halt for four months to all proceedings in the Military Commissions at Guantánamo (the terror trials conceived by Dick Cheney and his close advisers in November 2001), to give the new administration time to review the system and to decide how best to progress with possible prosecutions.

The day after, he signed his first executive orders, stating that Guantánamo would be closed within a year, upholding the absolute ban on torture, ordering the CIA to close all secret prisons, establishing an immediate review of the cases of the remaining 242 prisoners in Guantánamo, and requiring defense secretary Robert Gates to ensure, within 30 days, that the conditions at Guantánamo conformed to the Geneva Conventions.

At first, everything seemed to be going well. Two judges immediately halted pre-trial hearings in the cases of the Canadian Omar Khadr and the five co-defendants accused of involvement in the 9/11 attacks, and the President even secured an extra PR victory when Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the self-confessed architect of 9/11, who had been seeking a swift trial and martyrdom in the discredited Commission system, expressed his dissatisfaction to the judge. “We should continue so we don’t go backward, we go forward,” he said.

The first sign of dissent from the Pentagon

However, on January 29, the Commissions’ recently appointed chief judge, Army Col. James M. Pohl, provided the first challenge to the President’s plans, when he refused to suspend the arraignment of the Saudi Prisoner Abdul Rahim al-Nashiri, scheduled for today, February 9, stating that “he found the prosecutors’ arguments, including the assertion that the Obama administration needed time to review its options, to ‘be an unpersuasive basis to delay the arraignment.’”

Suddenly, urgent questions were raised about who was running Guantánamo, as it transpired that, although Barack Obama could request what he wanted, the Commissions, as Col. Pohl pointed out, had been mandated when “Congress passed the Military Commissions Act, which remains in effect.” He added, “The Commission is bound by the law as it currently exists, not as it may change in the future.”

Moreover, the only official empowered to call off al-Nashiri’s arraignment was Susan Crawford, the Commissions’ Convening Authority, who retains her position as the senior Pentagon official overseeing the trials, even though she is a protégée of former Vice President Dick Cheney, and a close friend of Cheney’s Chief of Staff, David Addington, the two individuals who, more than any others, established the “arbitrary justice” that Barack Obama pledged to bring to an end.

After a few fraught days, Crawford was evidently prevailed upon to call off the arraignment, which she did on February 5, dismissing the charges without prejudice (meaning that they can be reinstated at a later date). She refused to comment on her decision, and in fact has only spoken out publicly on one occasion since being appointed in February 2007, when she admitted, in the week before Obama’s inauguration, that the treatment to which Saudi prisoner Mohammed al-Qahtani was subjected amounted to torture. Instead, a Pentagon spokesman stepped forward to state, “It was her decision, but it reflects the fact that the President has issued an executive order which mandates that the Military Commissions be halted, pending the outcome of several reviews of our operations down at Guantánamo.”

This was hardly sufficient to assuage doubts about why a Cheney protégée was still in charge of the Commissions, and these doubts were amplified when the Associated Press announced that two more Bush political appointees — Sandra Hodgkinson, the former deputy assistant defense secretary for detainee affairs, and special assistant Tara Jones — had been moved to civil service jobs within the Pentagon. Hodgkinson had spent several years defending the Bush administration’s detention policies, and Jones, as the AP explained, worked for a Pentagon public affairs program “aimed at persuading military analysts to generate favorable news coverage on the war in Iraq, conditions at Guantánamo and other efforts to combat terrorism,” which was “shut down amid fierce Capitol Hill criticism and investigations into whether it violated Pentagon ethics and Federal Communications Commission policy.”

The mass hunger strike

However, while Col. Pohl’s dissent and the continuing presence of Susan Crawford raise serious doubts about the Pentagon’s ability — or willingness — to embrace President Obama’s post-Bush world, the most troubling developments are at Guantánamo itself. Although Robert Gates, the only senior Bush administration official specifically retained by Obama, has shown a willingness to adjust to the new conditions (which is, presumably, what encouraged Obama to retain him in the first place), it seems unlikely that, even with the best will in the world, he can address the problems currently plaguing Guantánamo in the remaining twelve days of the time allotted to him to review the conditions at the prison.

A month ago — inspired, in particular, by the seventh anniversary of the prison’s opening, and by the change of administration — at least 42 prisoners at Guantánamo embarked on a hunger strike. According to guidelines laid down by medical practitioners, force-feeding mentally competent prisoners who embark on a hunger strike is prohibited, but at Guantánamo this obligation has never carried any weight. Force-feeding has been part of the regime throughout its history, and was vigorously embraced in January 2006, in response to an intense and long-running mass hunger strike, when a number of special restraint chairs were brought to Guantánamo, which were used to “break” the strike.

As I reported last week, the force-feeding, which involves strapping prisoners into the chairs using 16 separate straps and forcing a tube through their nose and into their stomach twice a day, is clearly a world away from the humane treatment required by the Geneva Conventions, as are the “forced cell extractions” used to take unwilling prisoners to be force-fed.

Now, however, Lt. Col. Yvonne Bradley, the military defense attorney for the British resident Binyam Mohamed (whose “extraordinary rendition” and torture set off a Transatlantic scandal last week), has reported that conditions inside the prison have deteriorated still further. In an article in yesterday’s Observer, Lt. Col. Bradley, who indicated that her client was “dying in his Guantánamo cell,” reported on a visit to the prison last week, and stated,

At least 50 people are on hunger strike, with 20 on the critical list, according to Binyam. The JTF [Joint Task Force] are not commenting because they do not want the public to know what is going on. Binyam has witnessed people being forcibly extracted from their cell. Swat teams in police gear come in and take the person out; if they resist, they are force-fed and then beaten. Binyam has seen this and has not witnessed this before. Guantánamo Bay is in the grip of a mass hunger strike and the numbers are growing; things are worsening.

It is so bad that there are not enough chairs to strap them down and force-feed them for a two- or three-hour period to digest food through a feeding tube. Because there are not enough chairs the guards are having to force-feed them in shifts. After Binyam saw a nearby inmate being beaten it scared him and he decided he was not going to resist. He thought, “I don’t want to be beat, injured or killed.” Given his health situation, one good blow could be fatal.

Lt. Col. Bradley added that Mohamed’s account of the “savage beating” endured by a fellow prisoner was the “first account [she had] personally received of a detainee being physically assaulted at Guantánamo.”

And yet, although Lt. Col. Bradley’s account indicates that the crisis in Guantánamo is such that ongoing discussions about implementing the Geneva Conventions should be replaced by urgent intervention to address the prisoners’ complaints (and alleviating the chronic isolation in which most of the prisoners are held would be a start), the conditions in Guantánamo have been met with a resolute silence from the Pentagon and the White House.

Will it really take another death in Guantánamo — the sixth — to provoke an immediate response?

Andy Worthington is 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). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed.

As published on the Huffington Post, CounterPunch, ZNet and Antiwar.com.

For a sequence of articles dealing with the hunger strikes at Guantánamo, see Shaker Aamer, A South London Man in Guantánamo: The Children Speak (July 2007), Guantánamo: al-Jazeera cameraman Sami al-Haj fears that he will die (September 2007), The long suffering of Mohammed al-Amin, a Mauritanian teenager sent home from Guantánamo (October 2007), Guantánamo suicides: so who’s telling the truth? (October 2007), Innocents and Foot Soldiers: The Stories of the 14 Saudis Just Released From Guantánamo (Yousef al-Shehri and Murtadha Makram) (November 2007), A letter from Guantánamo (by Al-Jazeera cameraman Sami al-Haj) (January 2008), A Chinese Muslim’s desperate plea from Guantánamo (March 2008), Sami al-Haj: the banned torture pictures of a journalist in Guantánamo (April 2008), The forgotten anniversary of a Guantánamo suicide (May 2008), Binyam Mohamed embarks on hunger strike to protest Guantánamo charges (June 2008), Second anniversary of triple suicide at Guantánamo (June 2008), Guantánamo Suicide Report: Truth or Travesty? (August 2008), Seven Years Of Guantánamo, And A Call For Justice At Bagram (January 2009), British torture victim Binyam Mohamed to be released from Guantánamo (January 2009), Don’t Forget Guantánamo (February 2009), Obama’s “Humane” Guantánamo Is A Bitter Joke (February 2009), Forgotten in Guantánamo: British resident Shaker Aamer (March 2009), Guantánamo’s Long-Term Hunger Striker Should Be Sent Home (March 2009). Also see the following online chapters of The Guantánamo Files: Website Extras 2 (Ahmed Kuman, Mohammed Haidel), Website Extras 3 (Abdullah al-Yafi, Abdul Rahman Shalabi), Website Extras 4 (Bakri al-Samiri, Murtadha Makram), Website Extras 5 (Ali Mohsen Salih, Ali Yahya al-Raimi, Abu Bakr Alahdal, Tarek Baada, Abdul al-Razzaq Salih).

6 Responses

  1. Frances Madeson says...

    I can honestly say, from the depths of my being, I am as terrified for the men in Guantanamo as I am for my nation’s soul. Technicalities, administrative procedures, or even misunderstandings among good people as the basis for delay in this U.S. sponsored human rights catastrophe and emergency, are no less murderous than if we would lead the hapless (and soon, headless) prisoners on a cart through the Washington mall, where X marks the spot with a towering guillotine, and cheer every drop of blood spilled when the gruesome blade–sharp or dull, glistening or besmirched–drops on their necks and heads futilely twisting out of harm’s way.

    Again I ask–What have these innocent men ever done to us that we would allow this insanity to continue for another day? In the name of God, anything that’s decent, love (capital or small L) we, for our own sakes, if not theirs, must momentarily put aside our pleasure seeking, our technologically induced over stimulation, our ongoing and disastrous indifference to human life to immediately stop the hurt, harm, and damage.

    We chant ohm, we listen to love songs, we watch sporting contests and bet on their outcomes (as if they actually mattered, even as we suspect the fix has long been in), we shop till we drop, we chase every kind of illusion of ego, while in reality, today, right now, as our hearts beat in our chests and the clock tick tocks in every time zone, these prisoners continue to suffer, and make no mistake about it, approach their own extinction.

    Blithely–while clipping coupons, saving receipts, finding that perfect pair of shoes, and on and on in all of our mundane human pursuits–we, by our inertia, via our collective and willful unconsciousness, decimate their bodies and despoil the last shreds of belief we can ever hope to have in America. For me, this is too high a price to bear. I cannot live, much less hope to flourish, in an unjustifiable and permanent state of irony, a place where there is no there. “Hope,” “Change,” “Yes we can!,” “Yes we did!” What are these words going to even mean if we let this go on?

    To my President, a brilliant man in whom I have placed my trust (no small matter) with my sacred vote, a man demonstrably eloquent in word and deed, I say this. There will come a day when Malia and Sasha will no longer be girls–innocent of life, trusting and adoring. They will take the excellent education they are now receiving from home, school and church, and hold it up against the silhouette of their father, the one man among all others, who could have actually turned the page on this squalid and immoral state of affairs, and who, in fact, promised in a thousand ways to do just that.

    If we do not change course, eventually, by virtue of their own humanity, Malia and Sasha will be forced to ask, “Father, why? Why didn’t you do more for the hunger striking prisoners in your care, who you knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, had been wrongly captured, detained, tortured and ill treated, and who pursued American justice through all available legal and rational means, and when that failed, begged you, their ultimate protector, with their words and finally their bodies, to show mercy? How can we reconcile our experience of you, ordinarily so loving, wise and tender-hearted, with this foulness? We loved you, we trusted you, and believed in your fairness and goodness. We still do. Were we wrong? Even now, are we mistaken?”

    Mr. Obama, in the name of everything you and Michelle hold dear, consider this carefully. When this moment inevitably comes, and it, the questioning, has already been written and foretold (just now by me) will you be able look in their shining eyes? What legal and historical record (scrupulously documented here by Andy) will you have to point to? And what, sir, will you be in a position to answer them?

    I posit that this will be your life’s and your legacy’s defining moment. As a citizen of the country you are charged with leading, and as a fellow traveler in your own time and space, and as a woman who loves the shimmering dream of America that you embody, I ask you, no, I beg you, to define it with goodness and care, qualities I am certain you possess, live and breathe in every fiber of your being.

  2. Kimmo says...

    I’d say Frances’ superbly eloquent and heartfelt response is pretty much all that should need to be said.

    Perhaps, by some lucky chance, the President will actually happen to read it.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    So Valtin, indefatigable blogger and campaigner for justice, just sent me the following message:

    Hi Andy, I diaried re the Guardian article on Clive’s letter [a letter to Obama from Clive Stafford Smith, director of the legal charity Reprieve, in which Clive’s account of Binyam’s torture was censored before it reached the President] and worked in your excellent column re Guantánamo. My thoughts, sometimes woven via questions asked, are that the Obama administration, which is trying to placate the right, is certainly not in control, or at least complete control, of the military and intelligence agencies. I can’t tell how weak he is, vs. how complacent, or how complicit. But something is going on. The diary at Daily Kos got huge play:
    And thank you for all your work. Should you speak to Binyam’s legal team, or to folks at Reprieve in general, please let them know how much many people over here in the U.S. appreciate their incredible work.

    More Valtin on his blog: http://valtinsblog.blogspot.com/
    Clive’s letter: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/feb/11/binyam-mohamed-release-torture-letter
    Reprieve: http://www.reprieve.org.uk/

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Valtin. Glad to see that the big question of who’s running the show is energizing the Daily Kos readers, many of whom no doubt voted for Obama.
    My favorite response to the crisis at Guantanamo is from Frances Madeson, available here:

  5. Obama’s First 100 Days: A Start On Guantánamo, But Not Enough « Dandelion Salad says...

    […] in February, I complained that the Pentagon, under defense secretary Robert Gates (still, unnervingly, the same man employed […]

  6. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed Profile « Emptysuit says...

    […] response to the Military Commissions, see: Don’t Forget Guantánamo (February 2009), Who’s Running Guantánamo? (February 2009), The Talking Dog interviews Darrel Vandeveld, former Guantánamo prosecutor […]

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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 and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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