On Guantánamo, the Three Steps Obama Needs to Take Now


Late on Friday evening, RT published an article I had been commissioned to write for them, entitled, “In Guantánamo, fine words are no substitute for freedom.” In it, I examined in detail the parts of President Obama’s national security speech on Thursday that dealt with the prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, where a prison-wide hunger strike has been raging for nearly four months.

The 166 men still held are expressing their despair at having been abandoned by all three branches of the US government — by President Obama and his administration, by Congress and by the judiciary, and for good reason — 86 of these men were cleared for release three years ago by an inter-agency task force that President Obama established when he took office in 2009, and most of the 80 others would be entirely justified in concluding that, in their cases, justice has gone AWOL.

A month ago, President Obama finally broke his silence on Guantánamo to deliver an eloquent speech at a news conference in which he explained why Guantánamo is such an abomination, but shied away from acknowledging his own part in the failure to close the prison, as he promised when he took office in 2009, and put the blame solely on Congress.

Lawmakers have indeed raised considerable obstacles to prevent the release of prisoners and the closure of the prison, insisting, in the two most recent versions of the National Defense Authorization Act, which funds the military, that the Secretary of Defense must certify that any prisoner that the administration wants to release cannot engage in terrorism (an impossible promise, of course), and preventing prisoners from being released to any country regarded as having harbored even a single “recidivist” (someone who has allegedly “returned to the battlefield”).

However, President Obama can bypass Congress through a waiver in the legislation that allows him to free prisoners if he and the Secretary of Defense believe it to be “in the national security interests of the United States.” Doing so, if Congress refuses to cooperate, has been a key complaint over the last few months from those calling for progress on Guantánamo, as has the need for the President to appoint a senior official to oversee the closure of Guantánamo, and also to drop his own ban on releasing cleared Yemenis, which he imposed in January 2010, following a failed airline bomb plot involving a Nigerian man recruited in Yemen.

As I explained in the article, on Thursday, President Obama made a number of promises — firstly, to appoint “a new, senior envoy at the State Department and Defense Department whose sole responsibility will be to achieve the transfer of detainees to third countries”; secondly, to lift his ban on releasing Yemenis; and thirdly, to “transfer detainees who have been cleared to go to other countries” (“to the greatest extent possible”) — which, as I described it, “appear to show the way forward — and to bring hope to the men at Guantánamo for the first time since 2009 — but they will need close monitoring, and relentless pressure, to make sure they lead to meaningful action.”

In more detailed analysis, I explained:

On the first point … What needs to happen now is for this individual to be named as swiftly as possible, and for he or she to begin to transfer the 30 cleared prisoners who are not Yemenis. If Congress remains obstructive, the President and the Secretary of Defense must use a waiver provision that exists in the NDAA, which allows them to bypass Congress if they regard it as being “in the national security interests of the United States.”

On the second point, lifting the ban on releasing Yemenis is crucial, but there now needs to be immediate action to facilitate the men’s release. Again, the waiver will be needed if Congress refuses to cooperate, but otherwise there should be no obstacles to the successful release of the 56 men. Prior to President Obama’s speech, current and former administration officials told the Wall Street Journal that the transfers to Yemen “would begin slowly, starting with two or three detainees, to ensure Yemen can keep track of the detainees and prevent them from joining militant groups.” The beginning of this process, the official said, “could still be months away.”

I also explained:

The Wall Street Journal also noted that “US and Yemeni officials have held negotiations in recent weeks about restarting the transfers, including promising to share information about former detainees. The Yemeni government has said multiple ministries will monitor the ex-detainees to guard against activities that are potentially threatening to the US and to ensure they receive counseling, job training and other aid to help their reintegration into society.”

On the third point, plans to free the 30 non-Yemeni prisoners cleared for release need to begin immediately, involving the President’s new envoy and, if necessary, the waiver mentioned above. The first to be released should be Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in the prison, but there are also five Tunisians, a Saudi, four Afghans and others whose release should not be a complicated matter.

The cases of others — including the last three Uighurs (Muslims from China’s Xinjiang province), four Syrians, the last Tajik and the last Palestinian — are more complicated, because it is unsafe for them to be repatriated, and new homes need to be found for them. This is also the case with most, if not all of the last five Algerians. The plight of these men is complicated by the fact that the US refuses to resettle any of these men, but it is anticipated that third countries can be found if the Obama administration provides full backing to the President’s new envoy.

There is more in my article — about the 80 other men, and how they need to have their cases reviewed, and to be tried or released — but I urge you to read the full article on RT to find out more about them. For now, please bear these three points in mind, as, with other campaigners, I am currently working out how best to keep exerting pressure on President  Obama and his administration to make sure that these promises are kept.

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer and film-maker. He is the co-founder of the “Close Guantánamo” campaign, and 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. 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 four-part definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, “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 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.

25 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted the link to the RT article on Facebook, Breeze Edwards wrote:

    Dear Andy, Obama is now trying to run, like the lame duck he is. He has deceived the US, and the world, by saying” I’ll get this done”. He may WANT to, but doesn’t. He has the power of the President, why doesn’t he use it? Could it be that he is afraid to? Is there Really that much money involved?

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    I don’t believe the problem involves money, Breeze. It involves the fear that anyone released from Guantanamo will engage in terrorist activities and that will impact negatively on Obama and the Democrats, whose sole reason for existence, apparently, is to stay in power, regardless of how that power is exercised.
    We’ve reached this sad position, in which even prisoners cleared for release over three years ago by a task force that Obama established are not released, because this fear has been manipulated by Republicans and has not been challenged and refuted by the President and his advisers.
    It may be that someone freed from Guantanamo will bear a grudge against his former captors, and may try to strike back in some way, but if so, the numbers are very small, it cannot involve anything major, like 9/11, and – perhaps most importantly – you can’t imprison people because of what they might do, especially after your own task force has approved them for release.
    Following Obama’s speech, we now need to keep focused on making him honor his promises. We need to see prisoners released, and we need to see it happen soon. I’m already working with other campaigners to work out the best way to keep the pressure on the President and to start the release of the 86 cleared prisoners.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Toia Tutta Jung wrote:

    I thought the same, he is very convincing when he says that “this is not the America they ( Americans) want to leave for their children”. What´s stopping him? What´s the meaning of having a place like Guantanamo?

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Good questions, Toia. I hope my comments above provide answers. Next week we should have a new campaign to keep the pressure on the President, and to demand a timescale for the release of prisoners and the establishment of periodic reviews for the prisoners who are not cleared for release.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Dejanka Bryant wrote:

    Thank you, Andy. Sharing and quoting your first two paragraphs. Very moving, indeed. I am ever so grateful to you for your endless fight for those who are mostly forgotten in that American legal hell hole. If more Americans are engaged in understanding the tragedy of it it would be a completely different story. Carry on with petitions, Andy. When I was at Jeremy Scahill’s lecture the Reprive lawyer said it was so important to carry on signing the petition for the release of Shaker Aamer. If we didn’t do it his case wouldn’t be discussed in our Parliament. I am honoured to be your friend, Andy. People are still so scared in the UK to even think about the gross injustice that GTMO prisoners endured, let alone being severely tortured.

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Thank you, Dejanka, for the kind words. I am pleased to know you too, and sorry we keep missing each other at events. I was at a preview screening of “Dirty Wars” with Jeremy two days before the talk you went to. I was busy that evening, or I’d have been there too!
    As for petitions, yes, I think it’s certainly true that the pressure exerted by nearly a million people in petitions over the last month have made a difference – and also that Shaker’s petition was significant here in the UK. Mainly I’m glad that there’s been so much interest. Over the last few years it was incredibly difficult to interest more than a few thousand people in the plight of the prisoners and the ongoing horror of Guantanamo. Finally, it seems, outrage has won out over indifference and misinformation.

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Dejanka Bryant wrote:

    Yes, Andy, I was half-half until I got in touch with you on FB. Social networking is so important. As a curious person I bought your book that I went through in less than a week. It was a turning point in my life. After that, being much more informed and educated, I attended one of your lectures in London when I saw the documentary you directed with Polly Nash, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo”. The rest is the history. I will always support your work.

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    You’ve just made my day, Dejanka. Thank you again. And I agree about social networking. It can be a very powerful way for us to share information amongst each other – often with a broad reach – without having to wait to be told what the corporate media want to tell us. And we can campaign too – something that the liberal media fails to understand the importance of.

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Waris Ali wrote:

    Can you please share this short video on Guantanamo, help it to go viral? This is a very powerful, informative and moving video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AONNMwej8Yk

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    Ruth Gilburt wrote:

    Sharing the video Waris, it is very powerful and deserves to be seen widely.

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    Waris, sorry, haven’t had the chance to look at the video yet. I’ll watch it soon.

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    Elizabeth Ferrari wrote:

    Go, Andy!

  13. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Elizabeth. We need to keep up the pressure, but we can do it.

  14. Andy Worthington says...

    Pauline Kiernan wrote:

    Sad to see offensive comments from one commentator on this thread. Sharing your post, Andy. Thank you for all your efforts.

  15. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Pauline. Much appreciated!

  16. Thomas says...

    Maybe they fear a murder like the one happened in the UK recently, where a soldier was stabbed to death, might happen if they let the prisoners go?

  17. Andy Worthington says...

    It’s rather ore abstract than that, Thomas, although the murder in Woolwich will not be helping matters when it comes to explaining why it is not acceptable to indefinitely detain people without charge or trial when they are Muslims. The fear is that they’ll return home and then engage in terrorist activities. There have, over the years, been wild and unjustifiable claims about the incidences of “recidivism” – mainly, it seems, produced by black propagandists in the Pentagon – as the actually number of “recidivists” is quite small. Practically, of course, zero recidivism is impossible, but it would be helpful if people realized that no one released from Guantanamo is going to mount another 9/11 – or, I believe, any major terrorist attack – and it would also be immensely helpful if people realized that holding Muslim men in Guantanamo forever, without charge or trial, on the basis of what they might do in future, is severely counter-productive, as it creates the conditions in which people around the world may well wish to do harm to the US, as well as appalling everyone concerned with human rights and justice.

  18. harpie says...

    The fear and indoctrination begin early:

    Closing Guantanamo only helps terrorists; Dorie Cameron, Teen Panelist; Great Falls [Montana] Tribune; 5/26/13
    [Dorie Cameron is an eighth-grader at North Middle School and a member of the Tribune’s Teen Panel.]

    That’s pretty scary. Are there any adults in Dorie’s life who think it’s actually important to base an opinion on facts? OY!

  19. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, that’s rather sad, Harpie. Fortunately, I think that this kind of fact-free scaremongering is becoming less generally prevalent as the long years drag by, and more people realize – genuinely, I think – that they have been oversold the “war on terror.”

  20. arcticredriver says...

    I weighed in on an online discussion following a newspaper article that was published prior to the woolwich incident, and, after the woolwich incident one of the hardline respondents there asked me if i wanted to release war criminals from guantanamo who were just like the woolwich perpetrators.

    I pointed out that the woolwich perpetrators couldn’t be war criminals because the crime was not committed in a war zone, and they weren’t “combatants”. I pointed out that there was no need for a special war crimes court as that crime was definitely illegal under the UK’s civilian justice system

  21. arcticredriver says...

    Andy, one take on the number of “recidivists” is that it is actually 0.0 percent. If I am not mistaken the textbook definition of a recidivist is someone who has been convicted of a crime, serves his or her time, and then re-offends, after release.

    Well, which former captives were convicted, and then released? Hamdan, Hicks, al Quso? Did i miss one? I believe their records have been spotless — not even a traffic offense.

    And, so far as i am concerned, it shouldn’t matter how dangerous Cheney, Rumsfeld, etc, said a captive was — if the USA skipped the steps of charging them, trying them, and convicting them, they are not recidivists, even if they are caught red-handed committing a war crime after their release.

  22. arcticredriver says...

    I know I have said this before, but i think it bears repeating. There are strong reasons to suspect that the third group of captives, those the Obama administration says can’t be charged, but are “too dangerous” to release, includes many captives who were innocent civilian bystanders, when sent to Guantanamo. I think there are strong reasons to believe US analysts are prepared to recommend holding men when they think they were radicalized and turned into enemies by their long years of torture and abuse in US custody.

    I think continuing to detain those men, based on those guesses, is both unfair, and a disservice to public safety.

    A recent former Director of National Intelligence went on record this week that he thought that it was a mistake to hold the captives classified as “too dangerous to release”. He thought the USA should bite the bullet, and release them too. He thought if some of those men did turn to attacking the USA the USA should address that, after their release.

    This course of action would be counter to the approach of doing everything possible to prevent all deaths. Preventing all deaths is simply not practical, as the Boston and Woolwich attacks show — and there are hidden costs in trying to prevent all deaths, which I suggest are unacceptably high.

    Allowing security services the curtain of secrecy we have allowed them has permitted them to claim a record of competence that is wildly at odds with their actual competence. Yet there is strong pressure to allow them far greater powers, and to strip the rest of us of much or even all our traditional rights and freedoms.

    It used to be said “if you have done nothing wrong you have nothing to fear [from having your life lived in a fishbowl]”. But the cases of individuals like Maher Arar show how wrong this is.

  23. Andy Worthington says...

    Very well argued, arcticredriver. How sad, though, that the “war on terror” has been so influential that people regard acts of terrorism not as crimes but as acts of war, and terrorists as people with no rights.

  24. Andy Worthington says...

    Ha! Very well put, arcticredriver.
    I do genuinely despise the malevolent individuals responsible for producing the recidivism claims, and the lazy media outlets who have pumped out the information as though it was real. Even looking only at those wrongly described as recidivists – those who have returned to some sort of battlefield, or the wrongly detained men who were so damaged by their experiences in US custody that they took up arms against the US for the first time – the lies, distortions and exaggerations have caused enormous damage to the plans to close Guantanamo – more damage than any other factor.
    Just one v. small correction, btw: al-Quso is al-Qosi.

  25. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, arcticredriver, for refusing to engage with the demands for zero blowback from Guantanamo, by those who fail to understand that their actions have other repercussions – for Guantanamo, I would say, by creating a focus for people – and especially Muslims around the world – to be enraged by US policies, and therefore to ramp up the possibility of future attacks,and secondly, through what it does to America itself. Countries that indefinitely detain people without charge or trial can’t be the kind of beacons of justice that America imagines itself to be.
    Thanks for the reference to the former Director of National Intelligence, Dennis Blair. I hadn’t heard his comments, on “This Week with George Stephanopoulos”:

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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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