Tom Wilner: President Obama Could Close Guantánamo Tomorrow If He Wanted To


The following article was published yesterday on 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 sad to report that, since the release of two Algerian prisoners two weeks ago, no further prisoners have yet been freed, even though 84 of the remaining 164 prisoners were cleared for release in January 2010 by an inter-agency Guantánamo Review Task Force established by President Obama when he first took office.

Moreover, some of these men were cleared for release many years before, by military review boards under the Bush administration, and yet they are all still held, because of Congressional obstruction, and because President Obama is unwilling to spend political capital to overcome those obstacles, and do what is necessary to show that America can still believe in justice.

Guantánamo has been back in the news this year, because the prisoners, risking their lives, embarked on a prison-wide hunger strike to show their despair at ever being released or given any form of justice, and the world’s media picked up on it. The pressure forced President Obama to promise, in a major speech on national security issues on May 23, to resume releasing prisoners from Guantánamo, but, as is shown by the GTMO Clock we established to show how long it is since the promise, and how many men have been freed, it is now 114 days, and just two men have been released. In Guantánamo, meanwhile, seven months after the hunger strike began, 18 men are still being force-fed.

As we begin to formulate our campaigns for the fall and winter, in the run-up to the 12th anniversary of the prison’s opening on January 11, 2014, we’re delighted to be posting below a powerful op-ed by the attorney Tom Wilner, who was counsel of record for the Guantánamo prisoners in the case establishing their right to counsel, and in the two Supreme Court decisions confirming their right to habeas corpus. Tom is on the steering committee of “Close Guantánamo,” and he and I established the campaign and website on the 10th anniversary of the prison’s opening, in January 2012.

Tom’s article was published in the Huffington Post, and the version below is slightly edited, to expand a few of his points. Its main message, however, rings out clearly. As Tom notes, “Guantánamo continues to burden U.S. foreign policy, undermining our credibility and providing an excuse for every foreign dictator who abuses human rights.” He points out that President Obama stated in May that Guantánamo “needs to be closed,” and tells the president that he “must have the courage to follow-up his words with action. Further delay is not tolerable.”
– Andy Worthington

Guantánamo: The President Could Close It Tomorrow If He Really Wants to
By Tom Wilner

Guantánamo continues to burden US foreign policy, undermining our credibility and providing an excuse for every foreign dictator who abuses human rights. As the president has said: “GTMO has become a symbol around the world for an America that flouts the rule of law.” He has also said exactly what must be done: “We’ve got to close Guantánamo … It is expensive. It is inefficient. It hurts us in terms of our international standing. It lessens cooperation with our allies on counterterrorism efforts. It is a recruitment tool for extremists. It needs to be closed.”

Great words — but very little action.

There is a myth circulating that, because the president says he wants to close Guantánamo, he would if he could, but he can’t because Congress has stopped him. That is not so. The president has the authority right now in existing legislation to achieve that result by transferring detainees out of Guantánamo.

Congress did amend the National Defense Authorization Act three years ago to prohibit funding for the transfer of any Guantánamo detainee to the U.S. It also prohibited funding for transfers to other countries, unless the Defense Secretary personally certified that the transferred detainee would never engage in terrorist activity. Because no one can give such a personal assurance, that provision effectively blocked transfers. But Congress then amended the law to allow the Secretary to waive that requirement and to transfer detainees to other countries if he finds (1) that the receiving country will take steps to “substantially mitigate” the risk that the detainee will engage in terrorist activity, and (2) that the transfer is in US national security interests.

Those are quite makeable findings. The president has already stated publicly that it is in the US national security interest to transfer all the detainees from Guantánamo. Moreover, many countries have expressed a willingness to accept detainees and have offered to undertake the steps necessary to “substantially mitigate” the risk that the detainee could ever engage in terrorist activity. As Carl Levin, the Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has pointed out, that provision “provides a clear route for the transfer of detainees to third countries.” This week’s announcement of the transfer of two prisoners from Guantánamo to Algeria is welcome news and proves Senator Levin’s point. It can be done.

The president also has another route available. The law allows the administration to transfer detainees pursuant to a court order. Simply by consenting to court orders for the release, for example, of detainees who have already been cleared, the Justice Department could authorize their transfer free from congressional restrictions. Yet, it has never done so.

There is a great cost to this inaction. The Pentagon recently reported that the Guantánamo prison costs US taxpayers almost a half-billion dollars a year — an incredible $3 million-plus per prisoner per year, about 40 times the cost of a US Supermax prison. And we are paying that even though most of these men — 84 of the 164 detainees still there — were cleared for release more than three and a half years ago by a special task force made up of top US security and law enforcement officials. Yet, they remain imprisoned, and we continue to pay. Why?

Beyond its expense and the harm it causes to our reputation and security, Guantánamo is a terrible human tragedy. During my visits there, I have had to inform prisoners that one of their parents or grandparents or a brother or sister had died, and then sit and watch them cry knowing that they had missed their last chance to say goodbye. Even the worst convicted prisoner in the US is allowed family visits. These men are not. And they have never been convicted, or even tried, and most have been cleared.

The fact is that only a small number of the detainees now at Guantánamo are considered to pose a significant threat. Most were picked up soon after 9/11 in and around Afghanistan and sold into captivity by local tribes people for bounties. They were not the leaders, who are known to have escaped, but at most low level foot soldiers, as well as a lot of innocent people swept up by mistake. It was generally recognized by the summer of 2004 that none of the detainees then at Guantánamo was a significant player. As a June 21, 2004 article in the New York Times reported: “In interviews, dozens of high-level military, intelligence and law-enforcement officials in the United States, Europe and the Middle East said that contrary to the repeated assertions of senior administration officials, none of the detainees at the United States Naval Base at Guantánamo Bay ranked as leaders or senior operatives of al-Qaeda.”

It was only after the summer of 2004 that the Bush administration began sending more significant prisoners to Guantánamo from “black sites” far from the conflict in Afghanistan. Ten were sent in September 2004, 14 more — the “high-value detainees,” including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed etc. — in September 2006, and five more in 2007-08, two of whom are regarded as “high-value detainees.” In total, 29 prisoners were transferred to Guantánamo after August 2004. Some have actually been released. One was convicted in US court and is now incarcerated here, and one pled guilty in his trial by military commission. 22 of them are considered potentially as significant threats. These, along with a Saudi who was sent to Guantánamo late in 2003 from a “black site” and has charges filed against him, and three men who have been convicted in trials by military commission — 26 men in total — represent the universe of potentially significant dangerous detainees at Guantánamo. They should be tried and, if convicted, incarcerated. The others should be transferred out.

The president should do this immediately, exercising his existing authority to transfer the 84 men who have already been cleared, and then continue with the majority of the others.

There is always a risk, of course, that a released prisoner will do something bad. Every judge and governor faces that risk in releasing a prisoner. And, if that happens, the person or political party authorizing the release may well face criticism. But fear of criticism cannot stop us from doing what is right. How do you explain to the 84 cleared men that they must remain in prison because it is politically inconvenient to let them out? How do you explain to the world that we must keep Guantánamo open, even though it stains our reputation and compromises our ability to combat terrorism, because we fear political criticism? The president must have the courage to follow-up his words with action. Further delay is not tolerable.

Photo credit: Shrieking Tree / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA.

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, and “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.

11 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    On Facebook, Dessie Harris wrote:

    Andy, kudos to you for all your efforts and work to bring awareness to this very important issue. I am so very sad though, that children as young as 10 -12 are held in Guantanamo Bay and suffering so much. I still don’t understand why it is situated in Cuba, when at the same time, USA does not allow ordinary Cubans to enter it’s country? Perhaps President Obama will turn his attention to Guantanamo instead of wanting to become involved in yet another country namely Syria, and in the process deploy thousands of Americans to yet another war!

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Dessie. It is disgraceful, isn’t it, that children were held at Guantanamo? My research indicates that there were at least 22 prisoners who were juveniles (under 18) at the time of their capture. Almost all have now been freed, but there are many prisoners who were only a little older (19, 20, 21) who have now lost over a third of their lives in Guantanamo.
    Sadly, I doubt that President Obama will do much without serious pressure being once more exerted upon him. But I agree that not embarking on another war – or another set of bombing raids that only kills civilians – would be a good start.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Dessie Harris wrote:

    Thanks Andy for your reply, and keep up with all your hard work! You are an amazing man,xx

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    J.d. Gordon wrote:

    President Obama’s modus operandi is to “speak loudly and carry a small stick.” He has trouble backing promises. Thus, he would be well advised to stop making them.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks again, Dessie, and J.d., yes, Obama is poor at keeping his promises, but he needs to keep them rather than refusing to address the issues in the first place.

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    When my friend Pauline Kiernan shared this on Facebook, I wrote:

    As ever, thanks to you for sharing, Pauline.

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Pauline Kiernan wrote:

    Not at all. It’s beyond belief that you are even having to keep up this struggle. It’s heart-breaking. Px

  8. Kai says...

    As always, your persistence and very civil clarity are appreciated and inspiring.
    The letter by Tom Wilner pulls so many of the pieces together that it should be read by all… And, it should be answered by Obama.
    While Guantanamo and other sites are our great shame and stain, they are the very real nightmares of those lost within them…. and this is the key to caring and acting.

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Kai, for the very supportive words, both for Tom and myself. I am sure Tom will enjoy your message.
    A longer and more detailed version of Tom’s article was submitted to the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights, when they held a meeting on Guantanamo in July. It was lawmakers’ first meeting on Guantanamo for many years, so it’s on the record. There’s no sign of any response from President Obama, though …

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    Willy Bach wrote:

    Thanks Andy. Shared.

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    You’re welcome, Willy. Tom presented a longer version of this in July to the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights when they held their first meeting on Guantanamo for many years. There were a lot of good submissions, and a lot of sense talked by Democratic Senators Dick Durbin and Adam Smith, but it’s difficult to break any deadlock when the Republican-controlled House refuses to give up on its hysteria regarding Guantanamo. There’s an AP report 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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