The New Yorker’s Hendrik Hertzberg Criticizes Obama for Failure to Close Guantánamo, or to Call for Accountability for Torture


In case readers missed it, I’m cross-posting below (wth my own links) an article about Guantánamo — and accountability for torture — written by Hendrik Hertzberg, a senior editor at the New Yorker, and a man described, on Wikipedia, as the New Yorker‘s “principal political commentator,” and by Forbes, in a survey of the 25 Most Influential Liberals In The US Media in 2009, as having been “[f]oremost among a tribe of opinion writers that waged a form of moral war against the Bush administration.”

This is an important article, in which Hertzberg contrasts Guantánamo unfavorably with how the United States treated prisoners of war in the Second World War, describing how a “relative handful of shackled, isolated prisoners has somehow been permitted to engender a miasma of popular fear and political cowardice that contrasts shamefully with the matter-of-fact courage of an earlier and simpler time.” In addition, when writing about how Obama’s promise to close Guantánamo has not come to pass, he correctly identifies the reasons as “a combination of political nihilism on the part of Republicans, political ineptitude on the part of his own Administration, and political fecklessness on the part of the people’s representatives on Capitol Hill.”

Crucially, however, Hertzberg recommends that Obama could, and should address “the lack of any official accountability for the abuses of the past, especially the embrace of torture,” noting, “Perhaps there are good, prudential reasons for stopping short of prosecuting those who authorized this vile offense to elementary morality for the crimes against American and international law that it entailed,” but adding, “No such reasons forbid the appointment of a truth commission,” which “would be a healthy act of atonement.”

By Hendrik Hertzberg, The New Yorker, April 18, 2011

On May 13, 1943, Axis forces in North Africa surrendered. The Allies suddenly found themselves saddled with nearly three hundred thousand prisoners of war, including the bulk of General Erwin Rommel’s famed Afrika Korps. Unable to feed or house their share, the British asked their American comrades to relieve them of the burden. And so, by the tens of thousands, German soldiers were loaded aboard Liberty Ships, which had carried American troops across the Atlantic. Eventually, some five hundred P.O.W. camps, scattered across forty-five of the forty-eight United States, housed some four hundred thousand men. In every one of those camps, the Geneva conventions were adhered to so scrupulously that, after the war, not a few of the inmates decided to stick around and become Americans themselves. That was extraordinary rendition, Greatest Generation style.

The “war on terror” is a very different kind of war, and the prisoners thereof are very different, too. It’s not just that a higher proportion of them appear to have been truly dedicated to the ideology in whose name they were fighting, or that they were unaffiliated with a government. It’s also that their numbers are small — a hamlet compared to the city-size P.O.W. population of 1945. In the nine years since the creation of the purpose-built prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, a grand total of seven hundred and seventy-nine men (and boys — the youngest was fifteen years old when he was captured) have been sent there. It currently holds a hundred and seventy-two. Yet this relative handful of shackled, isolated prisoners has somehow been permitted to engender a miasma of popular fear and political cowardice that contrasts shamefully with the matter-of-fact courage of an earlier and simpler time.

A week ago, on the same day that President Obama officially launched his campaign for reelection, his Attorney General, Eric Holder, announced that Guantánamo’s most notorious inmate, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, along with four others accused of direct involvement in the 9/11 attacks, will at last be brought to trial — but on Cuban, not American, soil, and before a panel of military officers, not a civilian judge and jury. You may recall that the last time Barack Obama was a candidate he promised that, if elected, he would shut Guantánamo down (by then a fairly uncontroversial position, one that even President Bush and his would-be Republican successor had come around to) and that he would see to it that accused terrorists were prosecuted in civilian courts rather than by military commissions. He promised, too, that his Administration would not continue indefinite detention without indictment or trial and, of course, that it would put a definitive end to the use of torture. He has been able to keep only the last of these promises fully. The rest have been undone by a combination of political nihilism on the part of Republicans, political ineptitude on the part of his own Administration, and political fecklessness on the part of the people’s representatives on Capitol Hill.

Two days after the inauguration, Obama, in the dazzling dawn of his Presidency, issued an executive order directing that the Guantánamo detention camps “be closed as soon as practicable, and no later than one year from the date of this order.” The slippage began less than a month later, with a complicated legal tussle over seventeen Gitmo prisoners. Even though they were Chinese Uighurs who had had nothing to do with anti-American violence, the mere possibility that they might set foot on the United States mainland was enough to ignite a brushfire of not-in-my-back-yard hysteria. By May of 2009, it had reached the point where the Senate voted, 90–6, not only to keep Gitmo open indefinitely but also to block the transfer of any of its detainees to U.S. soil, where the civilian courts are. (Though all six dissenters were Democrats, the rest of the caucus voted with the Republicans.) At times, Administration bungling has enabled local grandstanding. Later in 2009, the Justice Department neglected to prepare New York’s City Hall for the impact of its original plan for Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, which was to try him in a Manhattan civilian court. Mayor Bloomberg, Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly, and Senator Charles Schumer quickly turned tail, and so did Obama.

A dispiriting series of tactical retreats from civil-liberties principles has followed. In January of this year, the President signed a politically veto-proof defense-appropriation bill that had been amended to again block funding for any transfer of detainees from Guantánamo to the home of the brave. In March, Obama issued another executive order. While it establishes twice-yearly reviews of the status of current detainees, confirms their habeas-corpus rights, and permits them to be represented by outside lawyers as well as by government-appointed defenders, the order also allows trials by military commissions to go forward, and at Guantánamo to boot. Now, in April, we learn that one such trial will be the case that, a year ago, Holder said (to this magazine’s Jane Mayer) would be “the defining event of my time as Attorney General.” It appears that Holder’s prediction will come true, though not in the way he intended. He was sure that he had an overwhelming case against Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, one that would not have relied on evidence obtained through torture. (Mohammed was waterboarded a hundred and eighty-three times.) But he lost the bureaucratic battle. His anger last week as he announced the decision could not quite mask the Administration’s shame.

The collapse of Obama’s effort to close Guantánamo is the kind of failure that, in our atomized, increasingly dysfunctional political system, has a thousand deadbeat dads. But it has always been within the President’s power to remedy one aspect of the moral morass that Guantánamo symbolizes: the lack of any official accountability for the abuses of the past, especially the embrace of torture. There is no dispute that there was torture, that it was systematic, and that it was encouraged at the highest levels — George W. Bush, in his memoir, currently adorning the best-seller lists, practically boasts of approving it. Perhaps there are good, prudential reasons for stopping short of prosecuting those who authorized this vile offense to elementary morality for the crimes against American and international law that it entailed. No such reasons forbid the appointment of a truth commission. The work of such a commission, charged with compiling the record, affixing responsibility, and formally acknowledging what was done, would be a healthy act of atonement.

Obama has said more than once that he prefers to look forward, not backward. Not everyone feels that way. As soon as the Khalid Sheikh Mohammed reversal was announced, Peter King, the New York Republican who heads the House Committee on Homeland Security, called it “yet another vindication of President Bush’s detention policies.” It is no such thing. Even with all the failings of the current Administration, the difference between its approach and its predecessor’s is the difference between night and day, albeit a rainy, miserable day, overcast with dark clouds. But, by elevating amnesia to official policy, the President has put himself in a poor position to make even that argument.

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) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed (and I can also be found on Facebook, Twitter, Digg and YouTube). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in July 2010, details about the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, on tour in the UK throughout 2011, and available on DVD here — or here for the US), my definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all my articles, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

19 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    On Facebook, Tamanna Muna Layylah wrote:

    Thanks for bringing this to my attention. Very important topic.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    You’re welcome, Tamanna. Thanks for commenting, and thanks to all the people who have shared this on Facebook.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Sylvia P. Coley wrote:


  4. Andy Worthington says...

    My pleasure, Sylvia. Thanks for dropping by.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    George Kenneth Berger wrote:

    I am sharing this now.

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Susan Hall wrote:

    Thank you – reposted last night, but will add to digg this evening.

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Susan Hall wrote:

    Great info about the prisoners in the U.S. in past generation as compared to the shamefully cowardly and misinformed and/or uninformed U.S. citizens of today.

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    George Kenneth Berger wrote:

    I’ll digg it now. I knew nothing about this.

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Tashi Farmilo-Marouf wrote:

    I just wonder what would be so wrong with the prisoners stepping foot on American soil? It seems to me that the States goes to a lot of trouble to extradite other criminals to bring them back to the States to face trial. If these are truly criminals that they are holding in Guantanamo, wouldn’t they want the satisfaction of forcing them to face the ‘justice system’? My thought is that they are innocent, and the only way to cover up this injustice and keep people from figuring it out, is to keep them hidden and far from view – out of sight, out of mind.

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    Robert Palmer wrote:

    Thank you Andy. I agree with Susan that the contrast with the WWII prisoners is stark. It puzzles me that no one prior has brought this up and reminds me that when Bush I ran for office no political opponents bothered to point out that his father Prescott Bush had been involved with a bank in New York that was helping to finance Hitler and the United States government had even shut it down. How can such important information be left unexposed when opponents are supposedly trying to discredit their opponent and the general populace is trying to make an informed intelligent decision?

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks for the comments, my friends. So the prevailing theme seems to be selective amnesia and how it happens, and I’m with you entirely: how can it be that (i) so few people know that America held 400,000 PoWs according to the Geneva Conventions in World War II, that (ii) George Bush’s father, and George W. Bush’s grandfather Prescott Bush made a fortune as a pro-Nazi war profiteer, and (iii) that Guantanamo, which should be a source of undying shame to Americans today, every moment that this monstrously oversold aberration remains open, is not a source of undying shame, and has largely been forgotten, or is upheld as a valid model of detention? And the answer is: partly the lamentable omissions of the mainstream media, but partly the laziness of ordinary Americans, who, even in an era when reliable information about almost everything is available online, are content to be ignorant. What a great pity.

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    Michael Ratner wrote:

    As I recall this piece, he lets Obama off lightly. Before there were any cong. restrictions Obama could have let a federal judge’s order stand then brought the Uighurs into the U.S. Instead he backed off at the first whiff of opposition. Likewise as to the trial in NY — had he just started the trial and not let cong. get into the act months later, all would be different. Hertzberg is over protective of Obama.

  13. Andy Worthington says...

    Hard to argue with that analysis, Michael.

    Obama certainly gave up with the Uighurs without a fight, first allowing the Justice Dept to argue for their exclusion from the US in Feb. 09 (before the rightwing D.C. Circuit Court) and then ditching White House Counsel Greg Craig’s plan to bring two Uighurs to live in the US in May 2009 (and then ditching Craig as well).

    And as for the 9/11 trial, the indictment unsealed when Holder capitulated two weeks ago shows that the trial could indeed have proceeded shortly after its announcement in November 2009.

    Nevertheless, I think Hertzberg did a decent job, especially with his WWII analogy, and also through his focus on accountability for torture. Then again, Michael, maybe I’m just happy when any mainstream commentator remembers Guantanamo and torture, and sees fit to devote any time at all to criticizing this ongoing disgrace.

  14. Andy Worthington says...

    Kent Spriggs wrote:

    Michael Ratner’s point merits restatement. If in the first week Obama had allowed the Uighurs to come to the States, which was his right under the existing habeas decision of the Ct of Appeals, European countries would have snapped up the rest of the non refoulement (can’t be sent back home because of bad treatment) group and GTMO would have lost circa 80 of its population in a few weeks.

    Instead he messed around and Congress got into the act and the rest is a tragic history.

    Then there is the failure to send home many who were cleared by the rather stingy Pentagon review panel. They stopped sending home Afghans in December 2009 which stopped the repatriation of my client [Shawali] Khan.

    Then there is the little problem of endorsing the principle of detention without trial thus trashing 1000 years of Anglo-American jurisprudence and so it goes.

    Obama should get totally trashed for GTMO — and he campaigned on an abolition plank!

  15. Andy Worthington says...

    Great to hear from you, Kent, and thanks for your sharp and accurate comments.
    And you’re right, of course, Obama does deserve to get trashed for his failures — although so too do numerous representatives of his own party, the Republicans, the D.C. Circuit Court, the post-Stevens Supreme Court, and most parts of the mainstream media.

  16. Andy Worthington says...

    Mara Ahmed wrote:

    andy, thank u as always. am sharing article along with ur comments on collective amnesia 🙂

  17. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Mara. Great to hear from you.

  18. Andy Worthington says...

    Steve Peace wrote:

    You’ve really kept us informed on this, thank you again!

  19. Andy Worthington says...

    You’re welcome, Steve!

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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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