Why We at “Close Guantánamo” Have Cautious Optimism Regarding President Obama’s Plans for the Prison


I wrote the following article for the “Close Guantánamo” website, which I established in January 2012 with 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.

Here at “Close Guantánamo,” we are cautiously optimistic about the release of prisoners in the months to come, following promises made by President Obama in a major speech on national security on Thursday.

On Guantánamo, the President made three particular promises.

He said, “I am appointing 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. I am lifting the moratorium on detainee transfers to Yemen, so we can review them on a case by case basis. To the greatest extent possible, we will transfer detainees who have been cleared to go to other countries.”

We’ve all heard fine words from the President before — when he was running for President, and when he took office in January 2009. On his second day in office, of course, he issued an executive order in which he promised to close Guantánamo within a year. Then, of course, uncomfortable realities arose. The President encountered political opposition, from Republicans and from members of his own party. His close advisers told him the effort to close the prison was not electorally worth the expenditure of political capital.

The President then blocked the release of cleared prisoners to the US, who could not be safely repatriated (a group of Uighur prisoners, wrongly imprisoned Muslims from China’s Xinjiang province), and then had to put up with humiliations in Congress — a ban on transferring prisoners to the US mainland, even to face trials, a ban on buying a facility on the US mainland to replace Guantánamo, and, in 2011 and 2012, bans on releasing prisoners to countries with any alleged “recidivists,” and a requirement that, if any prisoner was to be released, the Secretary of Defense would have to certify that he would not be able to engage in terrorism.

That, of course, was impossible, but the President had personally raised another huge obstacle to add to those introduced by lawmakers. In January 2010, after a Nigerian man, recruited in Yemen, tried and failed to blow up  a plane bound for the US with a bomb in his underwear, President Obama issued a moratorium on releasing any Yemeni prisoners from Guantánamo, even though an inter-agency task force that he had established when he took office had recommended releasing 58 Yemeni prisoners.

Of the 166 men currently held at Guantánamo, 86 were cleared for release by the task force, and 56 of those men are Yemenis. Just one Yemeni prisoner has been released since President Obama issued his moratorium, and one other died at Guantánamo last September, eight years after he was first told that the US government had no desire to continue holding him.

In his speech on Thursday, President Obama’s announcement that he has lifted his moratorium was hugely significant, as was his announcement that he is appointing a “a new, senior envoy” for Guantánamo, and will resume the release of cleared prisoners, both the Yemenis and those of other nationalities who are still held (see here for further details).

To do so, he may have to use, for the first time, a waiver in the legislation introduced by lawmakers to prevent the release of prisoners, which Sen. Carl Levin, the chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee recently reminded the President he had been instrumental in introducing.

As Sen. Levin explained in a letter to the President on May 9, “I successfully fought for a national security waiver that provides a clear route for the transfer of detainees to third countries in appropriate cases, i.e., to make sure the certification requirements do not constitute an effective prohibition.”

Given previous fine words from the President, followed by inaction, it is understandable that some people will think that, despite these developments, nothing will actually happen. However, we believe that the hunger strikers, by risking their lives, have woken the world to their plight, and that it cannot be brushed aside.

Across the world, the media has been paying attention to Guantánamo more than at any other time since President Bush’s second term, when he too was subjected to criticism that he could not ignore. In the last few months, in addition to the criticism from Sen. Levin, criticism has also come from Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, as well as from the United Nations, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and the European Parliament.

In addition, there have been critical editorials in the New York Times and the Washington Post, and op-eds written by prisoners in the New York Times and the Observer, and nearly a million people have signed petitions calling for the release of prisoners and the closure of the prison.

On Friday, a valuable perspective was provided for the long-running column “Washington Wire,” in the Wall Street Journal, by Gerald F. Seib. In the article, entitled, “Why Odds of Closing Guantánamo May Be Better Now,” Seib noted that, despite problems to date “stemming from a lack of good alternatives, resistance to conducting terror trials in the US and a wall of Republican opposition,” administration officials now believe that three particular factors “make it more likely the call for closure can succeed this time.”

The first, which is significant, is the “improved situation in Yemen.” Seib notes that the administration “stopped transfers to Yemen in its first term in part because the government of then-President Ali Abdullah Saleh was so shaky there was little reason to think Yemen could control suspect extremists sent back to its care. Now, though, Mr. Saleh has given way to President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, who seems to be strengthening his control of the country and its institutions.”

Seib also notes that the hunger strike has “changed attitudes,” and that, as well as increasing pressure on the administration, it has also “had an impact on members of Congress who had been satisfied with the status quo.”

Related is the third point, which Seib described as a “growing recognition among Republican senators that the situation isn’t sustainable in the long run.” He noted that Sen. John McCain had “pushed hard at an Armed Services Committee hearing this week for a plan to close the detention center,” arguing that it represents “an image problem, a reputation problem” for the US around the world.

Crucially, Seib added, “Others feel the same way and argue in private that holding detainees for an indeterminate period without formal judicial proceedings violates American principles, though they are less vocal about it.”

The change of attitudes alone won’t close Guantánamo, of course, but it does provide reasons for our cautious optimism. All of us who want to see Guantánamo closed need to keep working to make sure that the administration knows we are watching, and that we need prisoners to be released as soon as possible.

Beyond releasing the 86 cleared prisoners, there are obviously much bigger problems in addressing what is appropriate for the 80 other prisoners.

46 of them were designated for indefinite detention without charge or trial by President Obama in an executive order issued two years ago, on the basis that they are “too dangerous to release,” but that the evidence against them cannot be used in a court. That makes the supposed evidence worthless, but the men have no chance to prove it. Periodic reviews promised by the President two years ago have not taken place, but they need to do so, and they also need to encompass the 30 or so other men who were recommended for trials by the task force. Only seven men currently face changes, and we believe that only around two dozen of the remaining 166 prisoners can ever be charged.

The rest need to be released, and if the review process is the best way to achieve this, then, as we have stated before, we are happy to offer our services to provide detailed, objective information about why the evidence is, in general, fundamentally untrustworthy. We will also happily join with other parties to point out that the very rationale for the wartime detentions at Guantánamo is no longer justifiable, and how the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan next year will make the ongoing detention of prisoners absolutely untenable.

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.

45 Responses

  1. Tom says...

    “The situation isn’t sustainable in the long run”. While like everyone else here I want Guantanamo to be shut down and innocent people freed, I have to disagree with him on this for several reasons.

    Every sane and rational person who’s concerned about this issue knows it isn’t sustainable. However, does McCain have the political sway over other conservatives that he had say three or four years ago? No, he doesn’t. John Boehner can barely control the Tea Party majority in the House and do anything credible. Key Republicans (Hatch, McConnell and the Tea Partiers) have spun Guantanamo for all it’s worth to block it and to make Obama look bad. In addition, many powerful Democrats are doing the same thing. Why? Because of how “terrorism” is sold to the public. Al Qaeda (the brand, for lack of a better word) is everywhere. We can’t let our guard down for a second. Obama never says there are different factions of Al Qaeda, because many people have no idea what they are. Make it an easier sell. If the politicians do anything that’s considered “weak” in any way, they lose their jobs. Even if they show many people proof that the majority of detainees are innocent, what’s the reaction? I don’t believe anything the govt. tells me. I don’t want any trial in my neighborhood. And I don’t care what Obama says about nobody’s ever escaped from supermax prisons.

    How many years now has it been since this govt. passed a federal budget? Why wouldn’t the conservatives continue to block Obama for the rest of his term on Guantanamo (and everything else)? Yes, it’s an intl. disgrace. Yes, innocent people might die. Then again, since when has actual facts mattered to this conservative mentality?

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Maybe, Tom, although I think we will have progress not just because senior figures in both parties have spoken out – inc. Carl levin and Dianne Fe stein as well as John McCain, but because there will be an ongoing effort to make the case that the current situation has to change. I simply don’t believe that it’s possible any longer for the President to make endless excuses because there are 86 cleared prisoners, and he has a waiver provision in the NDAA that he must use. I could be wrong, of course, but I don’t think I’ve made a habit of having too much delusional optimism about Guantanamo …

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    On Facebook, Laura Geraghty wrote:

    Do you know if there was any response to the NYT ad on Thursday?

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    I don’t imagine there will have been any official response to the ad, Laura, although it’s still getting signatories, and World Can’t Wait are still looking for backing to get it published elsewhere.
    See it here if you missed it: http://org.salsalabs.com/o/1170/p/dia/action/public/?action_KEY=13340

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Willy Bach wrote:

    Andy, we are now aware that Obama has heard the flood of voices telling him it is time to close Guantanamo. If we are now reaching cautious optimism, as I hope, then it is time to double the pressure. Thanks again, a lot of this has been due to your work too.

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, Willy, it’s certainly true that it’s hugely important to keep the pressure on. Myself and other campaigners are working out the best way to do that, and I hope we’ll have something very soon.

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Xtoph Clubbers wrote:

    Sadly, this might be the most important line: “We’ve all heard fine words from the President before…”

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    That’s understandable, Xtoph, but I don’t believe that procrastination or indifference can be endless.

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Xtoph Clubbers wrote:

    Andy – Yes, but it doesn’t have to be endless. If he can put if off four more years, it’s someone else’s problem.

    I hope Obama will do something, and I hope everyone keeps up the pressure whether we get no change, pocket change, or substantial change, but given Obama’s (and Congress’s) record, I’m probably closer to “barely-hopeful skepticism” than “cautious optimism.”

    In any case, I thank you for your work. Without this sort of pressure on top of the hunger strike, Obama wouldn’t even be talking about Gitmo.

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Xtoph. Your position is understandable. I worry what will happen – i.e. nothing – if the criticism stops. It took a lot of people amplifying what was happening with the hunger strike to get to this point, and I certainly have no faith in Obama or his advisers if they think everyone’s stopped paying attention again.
    Thanks for the support of my work. It’s appreciated.

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    Waris Ali wrote:

    Will you be sharing the starving for Justice video Andy? > http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AONNMwej8Yk
    There’s also this one specifically on Adnan Latif which is excellent > http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IO2gwKLKHOo&feature=youtu.be

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Waris. Just watched it now. Yes, it’s very good. Glad to see that nearly 4,000 people have watched it to date. I’ll post a link. I only just recalled that my friend Sara made it, and that she sent me an email about it.

  13. Andy Worthington says...

    Waris Ali wrote:

    Have been sharing it via our facebook page and twitter numerous times, which btw you are still not following lol. It’s here > http://www.twitter.com/saveshaker
    Things are certainly moving in the right direction it seems

  14. Andy Worthington says...

    David Knopfler wrote:

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-22649506 – last sentence sums up my feelings

  15. Andy Worthington says...

    “But he [Obama] cannot point to any reason the old promise might now become a reality after five years of failure.”
    Hard to argue with, David. I think there is a reason, though – which is that he got more criticism over Guantanamo in the last few months than ever before. The key will be keeping interested parties – lawmakers in the US, the media and the general public – on board sufficiently for the issue to remain too prominent to be brushed under the carpet. I do think that’s possible.

  16. Andy Worthington says...

    David Knopfler wrote:

    Andy – Politicians caught between two different forms of cowardice can sometimes do the right thing, yes

  17. arcticredriver says...

    Thanks Andy!

    I share with you, and your respondents above, that all the truly innocent civilian bystanders held in Guantanamo, and all individuals who would have been cleared for release, should be released as soon as possible — and given an apology, compensation, and a pension.

    Thanks for letting me repeat the suggestion that these releases are not only in the interests of fundamental justice — but I think a very strong case can be made that releasing these men with appropriate compensation would increase public safety.

    For what it is worth releasing these men will save money too, as Guantanamo is the most expensive prison in history, and has camp authorities wanting $450 million to replace the temporary buildings built to house, feed and entertain the thousands of guards, interrogators working there. Those temporary buildings are worn out because no one ever thought the camp would remain open for over ten years.

    I don’t think any of us is arguing for the release of the handful of captives who would have had their POW status taken away, if the USA had complied with its Geneva Conventions. In my experience torture apologists do argue this.

    Anyhow — about Yemen, back in 2005 or 2006, I read about these three Yemenis who had been held by the CIA in its network of secret torture centers, who after years of torture had been sent home to Yemen. As with the Guantanamo captives the USA had returned these men with conditions attached. They expected Yemen to continue to hold them. At the time I read the article these three men had been held without charge in Yemen for something like a year and a half.

    I think I read this article in the Washington Post, and the reporter had spoken to a Yemeni justice official about the mens’ detention. He promised that the men would be charged — just as soon as the USA provided evidence to upon which a prosecution could be based.

    The cruel joke of course is that the Yemeni Justice officials waiting for the US to provide evidence were waiting in vain. The CIA had no evidence these men were guilty. They had no evidence most of there men were guilty. The real reason the CIA didn’t want the men released is so they wouldn’t reveal the CIA’s top secret interrogation techniques.

    Is it possible that, at some point after the publication of that article, Yemen realized the USA would never provide the promised evidence because they never had evidence?

    Bensayah Belkacem, the last of the Algerian Six, remained in Guantanamo — probably because Judge Leon accepted at face value the claim that US security officials had proof that Belkacem made dozens of calls to Abu Zubaydah in the weeks following 9-11. Bosnia imprisoned the Algerian Six, because they too accepted at face value the claim that the USA had proof the Belkacem made these calls to Abu Zubaydah. Bosnian journalists who looked into the US claim found that Belkacem was so broke he didn’t even have a phone. His landlord, who lived downstairs, would allow him to make the occasional call on the landlord’s phone in the landlord’s kitchen — not really the place to plot to bomb the US embassy in Sarajevo.

    The Bosnian justice system let the Algerian Six have the Bosnian equivalent of habeas corpus. The USA was asked to make that evidence of intercepted phone calls available to the Bosnian Supreme Court. The USA didn’t produce the evidence — I strongly suspect because no evidence existed.

    If the USA told the Bosnia justice system they couldn’t trust that Bosnian officials couldn’t keep their secrets they would have no such justification for keeping those secrets from the US District Court judges hearing the habeas cases. Those judges have been authorized to see secret evidence, and none of them have leaked any of those secrets.

  18. arcticredriver says...

    About the claim that the USA can’t talk about its use of torture, because doing so would aid al Qaeda by revealing important and useful interrogation techniques…

    This is the same claim that Colonel James Pohl accepted, when he agreed that testimony about torture wouldn’t be allowed during the Military Commissions. He accepted the premise that the CIA’s torture techniques were important national security secrets.

    One problem with this theory is that if those torture techniques really were valuable secrets then the CIA interrogators never should have bragged to the Guantanamo interrogators; and those Guantanamo interrogators never should have bragged to the Guantanamo captives they were interrogating.

    Andy, you have allowed me to be repetitive about the 2004 CSR Tribunal of Ibrahim al Zeidan. From al Zeidan we know that the Guantanamo interrogators not only bragged to the captives about all the CIA’s secret torture techniques — but they showed some of the captives the supposedly top secret “training videos” made during the torture of Abu Zubaydah.

    After all that bragging, those secrets are no longer secret.

    If I had been a member of either the House or the Senate Intelligence Committee, and I learned that while the existence of the torture tapes was being withheld from me, because the CIA considered them too top secret even for the oversight committees, I would be furious to learn that the CIA let the Guantanamo captives hear about this top secret.

    Given that the CIA let this valuable secret leak to the Guantanamo captives, how can there be any justification for keeping testimony about these techniques out of the Military Commissions?

    Second, wouldn’t these secret techniques only be valuable secrets, worth keeping secret — If the techniques actually worked? I think we know they didn’t work. And — aren’t those techniques now prohibited?

  19. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, arcticredriver, for another fascinating analysis. I recall the case of the Yemenis who were kidnapped and imprisoned in “black sites” until being returned home – very evidently because they had no useful information, and had, I suspect, been seized by mistake. I’m not sure if it was explicitly to prevent information being revealed about torture that the US was trying to have them detained indefinitely without charge or trial – or evidence – by their own government. I think at some level it is tied into the entire basis of detention policy after 9/11, which is that it was US policy to hold as many people as the US wanted, for as long as it desired, because they might provide little bits of a bigger intelligence mosaic. Allied to that is depriving people of their liberty whether or not they were an actual threat, on the basis that they might be. To me this is the key to understanding the mentality. Once the US broke with the tradition of requiring proof to deprive someone of their liberty, people became pawns – to be rendered, tortured, indefinitely detained on a whim.

  20. Andy Worthington says...

    Very interesting points, arcticredriver. My recollection was that interrogators had only talked to Zeidan about Zubaydah, but I may not be recalling it correctly. It’s been a long time since I researched his case!
    I do agree though about challenging the necessity for secrecy, and I think you’re onto something here!

  21. Paul says...


    Are you aware of this?

    ‘UK confirms extended detentions of up to 90 Afghans’


  22. Andy Worthington says...

    Just heard about it, Paul. It doesn’t surprise me, because Afghanistan is where the Geneva Conventions died, under Bush, and NATO never worked out, or was bothered to work out how to challenge that. Years ago, I met a former British officer who told me how difficult it was when they captured prisoners in Afghanistan, as they had no prison facilities themselves. He told me they had to either hand them over to the US, who tortured prisoners, or to the Afghans, who tortured prisoners.

  23. Andy Worthington says...

    Laura Geraghty wrote, in response to 4, above:

    Oh sure, i didn’t expect an official response, just wondered if it generated any talk of any kind 🙂

  24. Andy Worthington says...

    MSNBC did an article about the ad, Laura, which was good: http://tv.msnbc.com/2013/05/23/over-a-thousand-activists-sign-full-page-ad-to-close-guantanamo/
    Mostly I think it’s been doing the rounds on the ‘net, where so many refugees from the mainstream go to seek out real news!

  25. Andy Worthington says...

    Tommy Schmitz wrote:

    ty. shared.

  26. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Tommy. Good to hear from you.

  27. Andy Worthington says...

    Willy Bach wrote:

    Xtoph, now that we have the volume of dissent turned up this high I don’t think we can afford to risk letting it slide back down. For one thing hope is the only thin thread keeping many of the abductees alive. Take that away and they’ll just die. As bad a President as Obama is, I would not be gambling on who the next one might be and how much worse that could be. In an allegedly democratic society, a problem like this is not the Commander-in-Chief’s problem – it is our problem. We have to treat this as our problem, not some diplomatic historian’s abstraction.

  28. Andy Worthington says...

    And Willy, I only just saw your comment now, and I thoroughly agree. It is our problem, and we are not powerless. Imagine if no one had ever spoken out against Guantanamo, and everyone had concluded that it wasn’t worth saying or doing anything because the government is evil and has nothing but 100 percent disdain for the public, for activists, and for journalists.

  29. Andy Worthington says...

    David Knopfler wrote:

    Wondered if you saw Greenwald’s piece Andy? http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/may/27/obama-war-on-terror-speech?CMP=twt_gu

  30. Andy Worthington says...

    I did see Glenn Greenwald’s column, David, and I thought it was well argued, but I also think we need a campaigning spirit rather than fatalism, and I think it encourages the latter. I’d also prefer to look at the conflicts within Obama and his administration rather than creating the impression that it’s all spin put out by a master manipulator who loves nothing more than being at war as much as possible. I think the situation is more nuanced than that.

  31. Andy Worthington says...

    Laura Geraghty wrote:

    That is great, thank you so much for sharing it! And yes, we are all online looking for real news in the information jungle!

    The Simpsons:
    Excuse me, did you see the six o’clock news?
    No, I get my news from the internet, like a normal person under seventy. Farewell, dinosaur.

  32. Andy Worthington says...

    Excellent, Laura!

  33. arcticredriver says...

    Andy, when I read about the Afghan captives at the UK camp Bastion, I read there were 85 men there. I understand the difficulties your Army officer told you about. Some Canadian officers went on record with that difficulty, and the similar difficulty of handing them over to Afghan authorities. There was some talk of the UK, Denmark, the Netherlands and Canada establishing a jointly run POW camp, so that the NATO countries that honoured the obligations under the Geneva Conventions could share the costs of that camp.

    Nothing came of it, however.

    I believe keeping the detention of Afghan POWs secret was not compliant with the Geneva Conventions.

    If the NATO agreement with Afghanistan said Afghan captives had to be handed over Afghanistan, that might explain keeping their detention secret. But I think it would still be non-compliant with the Geneva Conventions.

  34. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, exactly, arcticredriver, and that’s the worry: that, behind the scenes – whether officially or not – the Geneva Conventions, killed by Bush, have deliberately not been brought back to life by NATO.

  35. Andy Worthington says...

    David Knopfler wrote, in response to 28, above:

    Andy… well said

  36. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, David. Just following up on Willy’s words of wisdom, really.

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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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