Gitmo Clock Marks 600 Days Since President Obama’s Promise to Resume Releasing Prisoners from Guantánamo; 59 Cleared Prisoners Remain


Campaigners calling for the closure of Guantanamo outside the White House on January 11, 2015, the 13th anniversary of the opening of the prison (Photo: Andy Worthington).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.

Remember President Obama’s promise to close Guantánamo within a year, which he made on his second day in office in January 2009?

So do we, and on Sunday, at the rally outside the White House, on the 13th anniversary of the opening of Guantánamo, we remembered that promise again, almost six years since it was made.

For many years now, these anniversaries have been cheerless occasions, as Congress sought to prevent the release of prisoners through the imposition of cynical and onerous legislation, and the president largely complied.

Then, almost two years ago, the prisoners took matters into their own hands. In despair at ever being released or being given justice, they embarked on a prison-wide hunger strike, which attracted so much criticism of the Obama administration’s inaction, both domestically and internationally, that President Obama promised, in a major speech on national security issues on May 23, 2013, to resume releasing prisoners from Guantánamo, after a period of nearly three years in which just five men had been released.

At the time of President Obama’s speech, 86 of the remaining 166 prisoners had been cleared for release by the high-level, inter-agency Guantánamo Review Task Force that the president had established shortly after taking office to review the cases of all the men he had inherited from George W. Bush, and in light of the promise, here at “Close Guantánamo,” we established the Gitmo Clock to record how long it was since the promise and how many prisoners had been released — and yesterday the Gitmo Clock marked 600 days since President Obama’s fine words.

By the anniversary of the opening of Guantánamo last January, eleven men had been freed, which provided grounds for cautious optimism, but in the year since 28 more men have been released, bringing the total number of men released since the promise to 39.

Outside the White House on Sunday, we and other groups largely celebrated this progress, although we also noted that much remains to be done. Of the 127 men still held, 59 have been approved for release — 55 in 2009 by the Guantánamo Review Task Force, and four in the last year by a newly established review process, the Periodic Review Boards, established to look at the cases of everyone not cleared for release.

These men — who include Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in the prison, and 52 Yemenis — must be released as swiftly as possible if the very real progress towards the closure of Guantánamo is to be maintained. This will not be easy, because of the entire US establishment’s refusal to repatriate Yemenis, a refusal based on fears about the security situation in their home country, which necessitates the finding of third countries prepared to offer the men new homes.

And when these men are freed, so too should be the majority of the other 68 men. Just ten are facing trials, but the rest were designated as too dangerous to release by the task force, even though its members — and President Obama, who endorsed their findings — conceded that there was insufficient evidence to put any of these men on trial.

That, of course, means that it is not evidence at all, but a collection of dubious information — multiple layers of hearsay, for example, produced by the prisoners themselves or their fellow prisoners, under torture or other forms of abuse, or through bribery or exhaustion. It is fundamentally unreliable, but the administration — or its representatives in the Periodic Review Boards — will have to accept this to enable these men also to be released.

While we wait to see whether this will happen — or perhaps how quickly or slowly it will happen — the Gitmo Clock remains a useful tool to keep track of developments — or, the worst case scenario, the lack of them. We hope that you find it useful, and that, if you haven’t done so already, you will visit it, like it, share it and tweet it.

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer and film-maker. He is the co-founder of the “Close Guantánamo” campaign, the director of “We Stand With Shaker,” calling for the immediate release from Guantánamo of Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in the prison, 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 six-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, the full military commissions 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. James Sunderland says...

    You do realize that some of these prisoners can NEVER be released. KSM, Abu Faraj al Libi, Abu Zubaydah (confirmed to be an independent terrorist by former agent Ali Soufan), Hambali, Ali Bahlul, and Mohammed Qahtani wouldn’t hesitate to kill us once released. I do agree that the 59 approved for transfer should be freed.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, of course, James. No one is suggesting that the handful of prisoners genuinely accused of involvement in terrorism should be released, but I do hope that, one day, they will actually be tried – and I would say in federal court – rather than endlessly being caught in the pre-trial hearings of the broken military commission system.

  3. Anna says...

    Mr Sunderland, you amaze me.

    I won’t go into details of the other prisoners you mention, but you comment concerning Abu Zubaidah seems utterly off the mark. Apart from the question whether he ever was any kind of terrorist, do you seriously believe that once released, a person so destroyed both physically and mentally would ever be capable of harming anyone beyond a fly, let alone the ‘biggest superpower on earth’?
    He’ll be lucky if after he gets out – which he must and will – he will be able to spend the remaining shreds of his life in some sanatorium, with kind people looking after him.

    But as we’re on the subject anyhow, maybe you’d care to properly define the term ‘terrorist’, as there seems to be plenty of confusion, including now your newly minted ‘independent terrorist’, whatever that may be. Do you maybe have in mind persons like Norwegian Breyvik and some of the Americans who went on shooting sprees in schools and theatres, killing scores including children? Or do you just at any price want to continue labeling Abu Zubaidah as a any kind of ‘terrorist’ in spite of all the counter evidence presented? Including that in the recent Senate torture report?
    Or does – early in time – the assessment of one single former agent wipe out all the other – later – evidence?

  4. James Sunderland says...

    Former FBI agent Ali Soufan interrogated Abu Zubaydah after his capture. Zubaydah was an independent (meaning working on his own and not as a member of al-Qaeda as the far-right insist) terrorist who was the external emir of the Khaldan camp. Soufan did not torture Zubaydah. The CIA did. Soufan got his information before the torture happened. Soufan confirmed this in his book “The Black Banners” and in interviews. He used the phrase “independent”, not me.

    Zubaydah’s diary details how he personally planned to wage jihad against the United States by instigating racial wars, and by attacking gas stations and fuel trucks and starting timed fires. He also planned to attack the Brooklyn Bridge.

    Here’s the links to what I mentioned.

    As for whether Zubaydah, once released, can harm a fly, ask AQAP leaders and former Guantanamo detainees Ibrahim Rubaysh and Othman Ghamdi.

  5. James Sunderland says...

    Anyway, I’m just saying we need to be careful about who we release. Former Guantanamo detainee and now deceased AQAP deputy emir Said Shihri returning to terrorism at such a high rank was an embarrassment. We need to be sure that the prisoners we release will not return to terrorism and the prisoners who can’t be released (Hambali, Abu Faraj al-Libi, and Mohammed Qahtani) should be prosecuted.

  6. James Sunderland says...

    My apologies if I offended anyone.

  7. arcticredriver says...

    Andy, can I address James Sunderland’s comment above?

    James, the BBC dubbed the cohort of former Guantanamo captives returned to Saudi Arabia that included Said Shihri as “block10”, because it was the tenth group of Saudis to be repatriated. The BBC, in its coverage, pointed out that almost all of the individuals in that cohort — 13 of the 17 men were repatriated even though all the annual OARDEC hearings charged with recommending whether it was safe to repatriate them had recommended their continued detention.

    So, why were these men repatriated in spite of recommendations to hold them? Was it the deep ties the Bush family had to the Saudi leadership, to Saudis who bailed out George Junior when he was a lousy businessman, and who had been extremely generous donors to all members of the Bush family who ran for office?

    Has President Obama released anyone in spite of a recommendation for continued detention? Andy, am I correct that the only individuals the Obama administration might have released or transferred in spite would have been the Qatar Five?

    Personally, I am afraid that I think the USA really has no choice, and must release all former captives except thouse who can be charged and would stand a reasonable chance of conviction in a fair trial. Fair trial? Not a Guantanamo military commission, one where only unclassified evidence is used, and no confessions tainted by torture were admitted.

    How would the USA protect itself from those individuals who are feared to be dangerous, but who couldn’t be convicted of already committing a crime, once they were released?

    What I think Americans who fear retaliation from individuals who were tortured by the USA have to realize is that the decision that resulted in the eventual release of innocent men who the USA tortured was made by short-sighted President George W. Bush in 2001 or 2002. The USA rounded up thousands of men in 2001 and 2002, men who intelligence officials were suspicious of on purely circumstantial evidence. It is painfully obvious now, and should have been obvious then that this large group of men (and boys) included a substantial fraction who were either completely innocent bystanders, or who were technically “combatants”, but who knew nothing about terrorist plans, or who were genuine combatants, but combatants who knew nothing about terrorist plans.

    I think that even using John Yoo’s infamous narrow definition of torture in his infamous torture memos the USA tortured all its captives, because they all underwent a “softening up” procedure that had killed several men. The USA tortured all its captives, even though, in the end, it only captured a couple of dozen genuine terrorists.

    Anyhow, James, the release of Said al Shihri, and these other men, was not due to a failure of analysis, it was due to a failure of leadership.

    All those men went through a rehabilitation program. They were confined there, during their rehabilitation, but it was not a traditional Saudi prison, it was more like a halfway house. There was shuffle-board, and other resort like amenities. A couple of hours a day clerics appointed by the Saudi government explained to them why the beliefs of jihadists like al Qaeda were theologically incorrect. Rehabilitees were given education grants, help paying dowries, so they could get married, help with mortgage payments. A lot of stuff former convicts in the US don’t get. Presumably this was intended to help the rehabilitees feel like regular citizens, with an investment in the status quo, that would prevent their defection back to militant, anti-American jihadism.

    Up until Said al Shihri’s defection something like 100 former Guantanamo captives had gone through the rehabilitation program, and it had been praised as a great success.

    After his defection its reputation for success was clouded. It probably should have been even more clouded, if one accepts that a substantial fraction of the Saudis had never been jihadists, had been innocent bystanders.

    There were some charities operating in Afghanistan, who US intelligence analysts were convinced were merely al Qaeda fronts. After reading the OARDEC transcripts however I think the more likely connection between charities like al Wafa and al Qaeda was merely that they had both tried to solicit funds from the same relatively small pool of ultra-rich saudis. The al Wafa members had testified as to how Osama bin Laden resented them.

    I think US intelligence analysts failed to realize that one of Osama bin Laden’s frustrations was that most of his donors were fickle — they donated to other causes. I think another of his frustrations was that many of his donors were not as ideologically committed as he was. I suspect OBL resented every Dinar donated to this legitimate charity, for the construction of schools, orphanages, irrigation canals and hospitals, seeing it as a dollar robbed from funding his jihadist camps.

    I think US intelligence analysts, following the money trail, seeing that Prince XYZ donated to both al Wafa and al Qaeda incorrectly concluded there was an organizational link between the two.

  8. arcticredriver says...

    Andy, James provided links to three pages of Ali Soufan’s book. I think I am going to have to buy a copy, and read it. I am afraid those links are to a site that may be violating Mr Soufan’s copyright.

    A picture of Abu Zubaydah has been published, one that was supposed to have been taken of him lying, wounded, in the back of a pickup truck, minutes after his capture. Soufan writes that when he first sees AZ he requested the sack over his head to be removed, and found one eye was notably infected. That picture, from the time of his capture, showed no sign of any injury to his face. So I think it must be assumed that eye injury came from his captors roughing him up.

    Soufan describes AZ almost dying on his captors within the first couple of days after his capture. He implies the life-saving efforts made on AZ’s behalf as almost miraculous.

    Later, we know, he woke up from an interrogation to find he only had one eye. I had assumed that, during one of his interrogations, his interrogators threatened to pluck his healthy eye out of his head, unless he “quit lying”. I assumed that his interrogators theory that he was lying was based on their belief in one of their false narratives, and when he repeated the truth they carried out their threat because the truth didn’t fit in their false narrative.

    I assumed his torture was so painful he didn’t remember the threat, or the removal. I saw it as strong evidence of how ineffective torture can be.

    Soufan’s book opens the possibility that the American doctors who saved his life by treating his life threatening abdominal wounds did not lick the eye infection, and that that it got worse, after they left, and culpable medical neglect made its removal necessary.

    The Nazis are described as having kept meticulous records of some or all of their war crimes. The details of AZ’s capture are probably supposed to remain classified for 35 years. So I don’t expect to ever see them published. There is a very good chance rogue offcials will succeed in destroying this record. But maybe your children will be able to update the record, in 2037.

    Soufan seems to genuinely believe that, even though AZ was not a member of al Qaeda, that he aided al Qaeda members, with passports. However, this does not seem consistent with AZ’s 2007 CSRT testimony.

    John Kirikaou, and others, have stated that AZ was nuts, had multiple personality disorder. Soufan, who knew AZ from a couple of days of interrogation, disputes this interpretation. Soufan said AZ’s head wound had made him lose all his memories. Soufan wrote that AZ’s diary was written in different voices, so AZ could later differentiate between what he knew about his life because others were telling him about his past, and what he knew from his own memories. More recent reports say AZ is losing his memory. I wonder whether his captor’s seizure or his diaries caused this memory loss?

  9. anna says...

    Thanks for your answer and I certainly was not offended – nor were you I hope – just tired having Abu Zubaidah ranked among dangerous terrorists once more. I know about his diaries – I even read some of it – but they are deemed to be the ramblings of a mentally ill person, who also detailed what he had for breakfast and apparently had a particular fancy for telephone calls.
    I don’t mean to discredit Ali Soufan, but is there any proof of the claims that A.Z. was an ‘independent terrorist’, or is it just what he himself told A.S. for whatever reason, possibly to be taken seriously as someone important? The Senate report does not seem to have found any evidence of actual misdeeds and even many years before that, terrorism charges had been dropped.

    If we were to lock up, torture and be afraid of anyone who sooner or later expressed a wish to chop off someone’s head – and were to take such wishful thinking seriously – prisons would be even more overloaded than they are right now.

    One basic problem is that when ‘one of us’ writes equally agressive things on internet (e.g. about chopping of the heads of muslims or hanging them from the nearest tree), no one seems to think anything of it. I don’t know whether you have followed the Charlie Hebdo case and whether you know what they are like?
    They were tasteless to say the least some 50 yrs ago. Since then they have become outright racist and not by any measure ‘defenders of free speech’ or satirists who speak truth to power, but callous attackers of the downtrodden and particularly the coloured downtrodden. Yet not only that does not seem to bother anyone, they are made heroes because of it!
    No matter how callous someone is, it should never be an excuse to kill him, that is obvious. But I honestly wonder who is a bigger threat to our society & humankind in general?
    A mentally disturbed person who keeps a private diary in which he fantasizes about killing ‘some folks’, or persons who – while claiming an unconditional right to free speech, including senseless provocations and humiliating victims of crimes (such as African women raped by Boko Haram)- deliberately stoke an already dangerous fire and incite racism and islamophobia? I would think the latter, by a long way.
    Chances are, their stubborn recidivism will invite more attacks, in which persons who do not even agree with them will get killed as ‘collateral damage’. CH will not be the one which personally pulls the trigger or throws the grenade, but their provocations will certainly carry part of the responsibility.

    And what’s more,last Sunday they de facto have been legitimized by the world’s ‘crowned heads’, so racial slurs are now acceptable and even admired. Yet their ‘satire’ is of the same level as pre-war anti-semitic cartoons. And we all know how that ended …
    By the way, I’m a christian European :-).

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, arcticredriver, for those comments. You have a lively discussion going on, and I’ll leave you to it, as I’m in NYC at the end of my recent US tour, it’s late and I’m tired. You make interesting points about Abu Zubaydah, and whether Ali Soufan was correct in his assessment of his mental health. It seems to me that it may be that it was the CIA’s torture that very particularly damaged him, much more than his previous head wound.

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks for your comments, Anna. Greetings from Brooklyn, where I am about to get a good night’s sleep after a tiring but rewarding US tour!

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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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