A Hollow Inauguration


On January 11, the 11th anniversary of the opening of the “war on terror” prison at Guantánamo, I was in Washington D.C., with various human rights groups, lawyers, mainly religious anti-torture groups, and other concerned individuals, calling on President Obama to fulfill the promise he made to close the prison when he took office in 2009.

It was my third Guantánamo anniversary in the nation’s capital, but unlike in previous years, we were not allowed to protest in front of the White House, as preparations were being made for President Obama’s Inauguration, and, instead, we spoke in the middle of President’s Park South, with the White House in the distance.

It was only after the official event ended that activists with Witness Against Torture, in orange jumpsuits and hoods, dared to make their way to the fence at the back of the White House, to tie 166 orange ribbons to the railings — one for each of the men still held in Guantánamo — and to stage a peaceful sit-in. The activists only narrowly avoided arrest, which would have been particularly ironic, given that they were only reminding President Obama of his failed promise.

Four years ago, lest we forget, the closure of Guantánamo took pride of place in President Obama’s concerns at his Inauguration. Now, four years on, there was not a word about Guantánamo at his second Inauguration on Monday, and those who are not seduced by fine-sounding rhetoric were left to reflect on how, four years ago, candidate Obama’s fine words turned to ash almost as soon as he had issued his executive order promising to close Guantánamo within a year.

Instead, in May 2009, President Obama scuppered a plan, initiated by his senior lawyer Greg Craig, to bring a handful of innocent and wrongly detained prisoners to the U.S. who could not be safely repatriated (the Uighurs, oppressed Muslims from Xinjiang province), and, in January 2010, imposed a ban on releasing any cleared Yemeni prisoners, after it was revealed that the failed underwear bomb plot of Christmas 2009 was hatched in Yemen, even though the deeply insulting rationale for the ban is that Yemenis, although cleared for release, can instead be imprisoned for life on the basis of “guilt by nationality.”

The failure to close Guantánamo also involved Congress, where lawmakers passed legislation imposing severe restrictions on the administration’s ability to release prisoners, and the courts — and specifically the D.C. Circuit Court and the Supreme Court. Judges in the Circuit Court rewrote the rules on detention, gutting habeas corpus of all meaning for the prisoners by demanding that anything produced by the government as evidence, however wildly implausible, should be regarded as accurate, and the Supreme Court refused to get involved, turning down appeals in 2011 and again last year, including one from a Yemeni, Adnan Latif, whose successful habeas corpus petition had been overturned by the D.C. Circuit.

Latif died at Guantánamo in September, under dubious circumstances, and despite having been cleared for release under President Bush, and again under President Obama. The blame for his death therefore lies with President Obama, with Congress, with the D.C. Circuit Court and with the Supreme Court, and yet, to listen to the rhetoric on the Inauguration, in which the prison was not mentioned, you would think that Guantánamo no longer exists, or that, if it does, it is a lawful and humane environment keeping US citizens safe from terrorists — the very same lie that Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld used when it opened eleven years ago.

In his second and final term, President Obama knows that his legacy will be decided by what he accomplishes — or fails to accomplish — in the next four years, and he must also know that the history books will not condone his failure to close Guantánamo, however much he claims that it was politically inconvenient to fulfill his promise.

To salvage something of his reputation, as well as to bring, belatedly, something resembling justice to the men still held at Guantánamo — and, in particular, the 86 men cleared for release by his own interagency Task Force, of whom two-thirds are Yemenis — President Obama needs to stand up to Congress, and to point out that it is unfair to keep holding cleared Yemenis forever because of one foiled terrorist plot three years ago, just as it is unjust to keep holding men judged as eligible for release by a 60-strong panel of careful government officials and lawyers from all the relevant departments, as well as the intelligence agencies.

The President is fond of saying, as he did when, bizarrely, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010, “We lose ourselves when we compromise the very ideals that we fight to defend. And we honor those ideals by upholding them not when it’s easy, but when it is hard.” He is also fond of saying that the ongoing existence of Guantánamo is counter-productive for America’s interests. In January 2010, for example, he stated, “We will close Guantanamo prison, which has damaged our national security interests and become a tremendous recruiting tool for al-Qaeda.” He now needs to put his money where his mouth is, and not cement his existing reputation as someone whose actions suggest that, behind the fine words, he is shallow, cowardly and lazy.

I will be working with lawyers, activists and academics to try and exert constructive pressure on the administration to move forward on closing Guantánamo over the next four years, although I have no illusions that it will be anything but an uphill struggle. This, after all, is a President who had the nerve, on Monday, to claim that “a decade of war is now ending,” when that is so patently untrue that it is something of a marvel that he dared to utter the words at all.

As Salon.com explained, “Mere hours earlier, a US drone dropped missiles over Yemen, killing two [alleged] al-Qaeda militants as part of an intensified airstrike campaign which began last month.” The article added, “It has been well-established in reports (like those from the Washington Post‘s Greg Miller) that the Obama administration has set up a national security apparatus ensuring, contra the president’s words Monday, a perpetual war.”

But then again, Obama’s is a modern political success story — one based on spin rather than substance. On Guantánamo, as on other topics of concern when it comes to national security, including the use of drones — the President needs to be told that spin will not secure a meaningful legacy when what is being spun is illegal, unjust, or both.

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, Flickr (my photos) and YouTube. Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in April 2012, “The Complete Guantánamo Files,” a 70-part, million-word series drawing on files released by WikiLeaks in April 2011, and details about the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, and available on DVD here — or here for the US). Also see my definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all my articles, and please also consider joining the new “Close Guantánamo campaign,” and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

As published exclusively on the website of the Future of Freedom Foundation.

7 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    On Facebook, Angela Godfrey-Goldstein wrote:

    Andy, one of the US Consulate staff here was on the team to close Guantanamo. She and the team were all 150% committed to the mission. They were, apparently, totally fazed to discover the problems were so huge. No countries wanted to take back or take on those still inside. (If I remember the conversation from two years ago or more well…) The most that can and has been said since by others to me is that Guantanamo isn’t anywhere near the hell it used to be. No comfort to those 86 cleared men, obviously. But if you want me to try to make contact for you with that foreign service diplomat, I will try, because she told me that no one realised, at the outset, it would prove to be virtually impossible. They all wanted it, and were in no way being shallow or idle. I don’t know if it was yet another case where civil society didn’t exert enough pressure to help Obama fulfil policy promises, but that was also a huge problem. And still is… For Guantanamo, I don’t know if that’s the key, though.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Angela. I would very much like to talk to the foreign service diplomat you mention, but the problem was not particularly with those resettlement issues they were dealing with, however difficult they proved to be. Dozens of cleared men were taken in by third countries, but President Obama blocked another key move which would have helped enormously – allowing Greg Craig, White House Counsel, to resettle some men (the Uighurs) who couldn’t be safely repatriated in the US.
    He then banned the release of any Yemenis, even though two-thirds of the 86 cleared men are Yemenis, and he also accepted a recommendation by his own task Force that 46 of the remaining 166 men are too dangerous to release even though insufficient evidence exists to put them on trial. Those assertions need to be checked rigorously and objectively, as they rely far too heavily – and in may case, almost exclusively – on statements made by provably unreliable witnesses.
    All of these issues can be addressed, but courage is required. My intent is not to damn the administration so much as to provoke. I should probably use more subtle language, as I want, with colleagues, to consult with anyone in the administration who still gives a damn about this poisonous legacy, and work out how to break the deadlock that is now maintained by Congress and the courts as well, to free men who should not be held, secure trials for others, and finally move towards fulfilling the promise to close Guantanamo.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Afifah Kuddah wrote:

    He’s probably the best Republican President the US has had in a long time! Bush et al get away with their atrocities and this psuedo ‘blackman’ drips insincerity and hypocrisy from every pore of his being! What needs to change is the system and until that is seriously attended to, it will be the ‘same old same old’!

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Broadly speaking, that’s true, Afifah, and we do need fundamental political change, or the future looks very bleak indeed. On Guantanamo, however, there are specific policies that can be challenged and overcome.

  5. arcticredriver says...

    What I am afraid of is that the continued indefinite detention, without charge, of those four dozen men, or at least some of them, is a decision based on mind-reading — and that those on the review task force accept that these men were innocent by-standers, who represented no danger to the USA, when they were sent to Guantanamo, but who have subsequently given indications that their treatment, while in US detention, had made them dangerous.

    I am afraid the men they fear releasing include those who have been driven mad in captivity, who psychologists see as at risk of committing suicide, who they think now hate the USA, are all potentially suicide bombers.

    I remember, as I ploughed through the transcripts from the 2005 annual status reviews, first being struck by how unfair those proceedings were. The 2004 Combatant Status Review Tribunals had really counted, more than the later annual reviews, because they had the authority to determine a captive had not after all been an enemy combatant, and the 2005 reviews lacked that authority. And yet the allegation memos drafted for the 2005 review were much longer, and contained many allegations that the captives couldn’t have refuted in 2004, when those top secret accusations weren’t shared with the captives.

    But, just as shocking was the record, in many of those transcripts, that the reviewing officers had reached the same conclusion as I had — that the captive had effectively refuted all the allegations against him. In the transcripts where the officers had no followup questions I assumed that they too had concluded the captive had refuted the allegations — that the captive had, after all, been an innocent man, when apprehended.

    I remember how shocked I was the first time I read the Presiding Officer chew out one of these innocent men. At first I thought the transcript was recording the rantings of an officer who was drunk, or on drugs. This Presiding Officer chewed out the innocent man because the report from JTF guards recorded that, at some point during his years of (unjust) detention, he had made “anti-American statements”.

    Maybe, like me, you thought you could detect from the anonymous record, the personality traits of some of the Tribunal Presidents and Presiding Officers? I thought I saw other transcripts where this abusive Presiding Officer was in charge.

    Other officers made the same point to the captives whose ongoing detention was being reviewed. If they concluded the captive was an innocent man it would not be enough to win a recommendation that they should be released. Rather, they were supposed to recommend the continued detention of all innocent men who could not convince them years of unjust detention, under brutal conditions, where they were closely exposed to genuine jihadists, had not turned them into individuals who hated America, and could pose a danger, if released.

    Additionally, I am afraid that they may have been prepared to continue to hold men who were innocent, when they arrived, and are not at risk of taking up arms with jihadists, or serving as a spokesman for jihadists, when those captives are apt to help make known, or make more widely known, some of the information they consider “classified”.

    I suspect that this is the real reason why Shaker Aamer is not being released — not because they believe he is a potential enemy — merely because he is an articulate speaker, in both English and Arabic, and people will believe him when he truthfully recounts how torture was actively used at Guantanamo years after the Detainee Treatment Act reinforced its illegality.

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Very interesting as ever, arcticredriver. I can’t quite tell what the rationale is for the 46, because we don’t, for the most part, know who they are, just as we don’t, for the most part, know who are the 30 or so men recommended for trials. Being able to identify them would help us to analyze what criteria were used to make the determinations. Often, I think, there appears to be evidence suggesting that someone is somehow involved with al-Qaeda, but no testimony that is not uncontaminated by torture or other forms of duress. However, in some cases I do know of, there’s really just not very much to go on at all in any way, and never has been. What there is, however, as you’ve noted, are prisoners regarded as significant – like Shaker – because they are able to speak out about what happened to them and others. I also agree that there are probably others regarded as “radicalized” and others driven insane by their experiences.

  7. A Hollow Inauguration – Andy Worthington | maraahmed.com says...

    […] But then again, Obama’s is a modern political success story — one based on spin rather than substance. On Guantánamo, as on other topics of concern when it comes to national security, including the use of drones — the President needs to be told that spin will not secure a meaningful legacy when what is being spun is illegal, unjust, or both. (Andy Worthington) More here. […]

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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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