Senators Leahy, Feinstein and Durbin Tell Obama to Free 57 Cleared Guantánamo Prisoners “As Quickly As Possible”


Campaigners from organizations including Witness Against Torture, Amnesty International and Close Guantanamo call for the closure of the prison outside the White House on January 11, 2011.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.

It’s now nearly five months since the last prisoners were released from Guantánamo, even though 57 of the 122 men still held have been approved for release from the prison, the majority since President Obama’s high-level, inter-agency Guantánamo Review Task Force issued its recommendations about the disposition of the remaining prisoners in January 2010.

As any decent person would agree, still holding men five years after you said you no longer wanted to hold them is a particularly offensive betrayal of any notion that you believe in justice and fairness.

President Obama released dozens of prisoners — 66 in total — from when he took office in January 2009 until September 2010, at which point restrictions on the release of prisoners, which were cynically imposed by Congress, made it more difficult. This was not because the administration was unable to release prisoners, but because the process of certifying to Congress that it was safe to do so, which were the conditions imposed by lawmakers, made the release of prisoners much more politically sensitive than it should have been.

In 2013, in despair at ever being released, or being delivered any sort of justice, the majority of the prisoners embarked on a prison-wide hunger strike, which finally awoke widespread domestic and international criticism of the president ‘s inertia.

In response, President Obama delivered a major speech on national security issues in which he promised to resume releasing prisoners from Guantánamo, and since that time 44 men have been freed, but since January, as I noted at the start of this article, no one has been released.

On April 22, the Washington Post published a detailed article suggesting that ten men would be released by summer — including Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in the prison — and that the administration was hoping to release the rest of the prisoners approved for release by the end of the year, and closing the prison before the end of the Obama presidency by, if necessary, unilaterally moving the remaining prisoners to the US mainland.

As I explained at the time, however, “Realistically … it might be wisest to view these suggestions as the administration stating its best-case scenario,” although here at “Close Guantánamo” we remain hopeful that the first of these ams — the release of ten men by summer — will still happen. This involves the new defense secretary Ashton Carter authorizing the release of the first prisoners under his watch, but that should not really be difficult, because all the men approved for release have only been approved for release after a rigorous inter-agency process.

Here at “Close Guantánamo” we also note with approval that, last week, three prominent Democratic Senators — Patrick Leahy, Dianne Feinstein and Dick Durbin — sent a letter to President Obama urging him to resume releasing prisoners, and calling the failure to do so “an especially troubling lapse in light of how little time is left in your administration,” adding, “Transferring the 57 cleared detainees as quickly as possible will be a momentous step toward closing Guantánamo.”

The Senators also urge the president to speed up the Periodic Review Board process — the process for looking at whether it is safe to release the 55 other prisoners who have not already been recommended for release, but who are not amongst the ten facing trials. We agree, and have said so frequently during our in-depth coverage of the PRBs (see our most recent articles about the PRBs).

The Senators also note how claims relating to the alleged recidivism of former prisoners reflect favorably on the Obama administration, and reported incidences of released prisoners “returning to the battlefield” have “dramatically decreased since you took office.” Here at “Close Guantánamo” we are deeply suspicious of the unsubstantiated claims about prisoner recidivism that emerge from the office of the Director of National Intelligence twice a year, but we agree that releases under President Obama have been less problematical than some of those under President Bush.

And finally, we agree with the Senators that the cost of housing men at Guantánamo ought not to be considered tolerable, as it now costs up to $3.3 million a year to hold each prisoner, compared to $79,000 per prisoner per year in a federal Supermax prison. The $188 million it costs every year to hold men at Guantánamo who have been cleared for release is a particularly unjustifiable expense, but even for those not cleared for release the cost of imprisonment at Guantánamo ought to be considered absurdly expensive by anyone capable of examining the situation objectively.

In their closing words, the Senators also note, correctly, how they “have worked to ease unduly burdensome detainee transfer restrictions,” and ask the president to “utilise current authorities to expedite the transfer of all cleared detainees and accelerate the Periodic Review Board process to determine if additional detainees can be transferred.” In conclusion they state, “These are two commonsense steps that you can take immediately to bring America closer to our shared aim of shuttering this unnecessary prison, a goal you articulated on your second day in office.”

The letter is cross-posted below, and if you would be so kind as to add your voice to those of Senators Leahy, Feinstein and Durbin, you can phone the White House on 202-456-1111 or 202-456-1414 or submit a comment online.

Letter to President Obama Calling for the Release of Prisoners from Guantánamo

May 4, 2015

President Barack Obama
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, D.C. 20500

Dear President Obama:

On January 22, 2009, you signed a historic executive order to restore America’s role as a leader on human rights by requiring the detention facility at Guantánamo Bay to be closed within one year. Unfortunately, more than six years later, it remains open at great financial cost and harm to the national security of the United States. At an event earlier this year in Cleveland, you stated that if you could go back to your first day in office, you would immediately close the detention facility at Guantánamo. Although onerous restrictions imposed by Congress have hindered efforts to close the detention facility, we urge you to immediately take meaningful action in order to end this unfortunate chapter in our nation’s history before you leave office. With only 20 months remaining in your Presidency, time is of the essence.

Currently, of the 122 detainees who remain at Guantánamo, nearly half have been unanimously cleared for transfer to either their home countries or third countries, through a rigorous process that requires the unanimous agreement of the Secretary of State, Secretary of Homeland Security, Director of National Intelligence, Attorney General, Secretary of Defense, and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. Many of these detainees were approved for transfer years ago and their continued indefinite detention serves as a propaganda tool for terrorists and harms our national security. There have been no transfers of Guantánamo detainees since January 15, an especially troubling lapse in light of how little time is left in your administration. Transferring the 57 cleared detainees as quickly as possible will be a momentous step toward closing Guantánamo.

For those detainees who have not been cleared for transfer or charged with a crime, we urge you to expedite and prioritize hearings before the Periodic Review Board (PRB), as required by Executive Order 13567. It is important that all eligible detainees receive a review by this interagency panel as soon as possible to determine if their continued law of war detention is necessary. Of the 14 PRB determinations that have been made public, nine detainees have had their status changed to become eligible for transfer. At the current pace, PRBs for all remaining eligible detainees will not take place until the end of the decade. Accelerating the PRB process will help to determine whether additional detainees can be transferred from Guantánamo.

While entirely eliminating the risk of detainee recidivism is impossible, the enhanced review process your administration instituted has helped to mitigate the risk that detainees will re-engage in terrorist activities. Statistics released by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence in March confirm that instances of confirmed and suspected detainee recidivism have both dramatically decreased since you took office. As a result of this more rigorous process, less than six percent of detainees transferred since 2009 have been confirmed of re-engaging and less than one percent of detainees have been suspected of re-engaging in terrorist activities. This marked improvement over the record of the prior administration demonstrates that it is possible to transfer detainees while also protecting our national security.

Maintaining the status quo at Guantánamo is reckless fiscal policy. At a time when budgets are tight, the detention facility is costing our country billions of dollars. Each detainee held at Guantánamo costs the government as much as $3.3 million annually and that figure will only continue to rise as the detainee population ages. By comparison, it costs approximately $79,000 to house a person in the most secure federal Supermax prison in America. We should not squander precious manpower and resources holding detainees who have been approved for transfer.

At the request of your administration, we have worked to ease unduly burdensome detainee transfer restrictions, and we ask that you utilize current authorities to expedite the transfer of all cleared detainees and accelerate the Periodic Review Board process to determine if additional detainees can be transferred. These are two commonsense steps that you can take immediately to bring America closer to our shared aim of shuttering this unnecessary prison, a goal you articulated on your second day in office.

Patrick Leahy
United States Senator

Dianne Feinstein
United States Senator

Richard Durbin
United States Senator

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer, film-maker and singer-songwriter (the lead singer and main songwriter for the London-based band The Four Fathers). He is the co-founder of the “Close Guantánamo” campaign, the co-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 the University of Chicago Press in the US, and available from Amazon, including a Kindle edition — 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.

15 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Here, cross-posted from, is my latest article, in which I publish – and provide analysis of – a letter to President Obama from three prominent Democratic Senators, Patrick Leahy, Dianne Feinstein and Dick Durbin, calling for the release from ‪Guantanamo‬ of the 57 prisoners who have been approved for release. The 57 include Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in the prison. It’s good to see that not everyone in Congress has forgotten about Guantanamo or wants to keep it open.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    On the Close Guantanamo page, I also wrote:

    Thanks to everyone reading this. Delighted to see that it reached nearly 2,300 people.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Don Alexander wrote:

    What??!! You mean Feinstein is actually doing something positive?!!! It’s gotta be a ruse.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Actually, Don, she’s been quite good at pestering the administration on Guantanamo – and I’m permanently grateful that she was the driver of the CIA torture report, whose executive summary we finally got to see in December.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Carol Anne Grayson wrote:

    Excellent article… glad these senators are giving Obama a push… what a crazy situation… praying that there will be some movement on Shaker… thanks again Andy for your determination and hard work for prisoner release

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Carol. Good to hear from you. I hope you’re surviving the post-election doldrums. There are a lot of fights ahead – and, sadly, no guarantee that we can beat the powerful wrecking crew in charge; for our concerns in particular, on human rights and the law, which I haven’t discussed much recently with reference to the UK domestically, but which I will be looking at soon.
    As you say, hopefully there will be good news on Shaker in the coming months. We’ll be organising soon to try and get some of the new MPs on board.

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    David Knopfler wrote:

    “As any decent person would agree, still holding men five years after you said you no longer wanted to hold them is a particularly offensive betrayal of any notion that you believe in justice and fairness.” Quite

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Talat Gilani Hamdani wrote:

    About time!

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, David. It was an important paragraph!

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    Good to hear from you, Talat. I hope the administration is paying attention. It’s time we found a way to put pressure on Obama again.

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    Jamal Ajouaou wrote:

    “We Shall Overcome” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    Jamal Ajouaou wrote:

    Diana Ross – We Shall Overcome

  13. Andy Worthington says...

    Jamal Ajouaou wrote:

    deep im my heart Indeed I do believe , the truth will set us free , only that day , We will take down the prison walls here you have it we shall over come one day soon we walk hand in hand inchallah
    Roger Waters – We Shall Overcome

  14. Andy Worthington says...

    Jamal Ajouaou wrote:

    here you have it we shall over come one day soon we walk hand in hand inchallah

  15. Andy Worthington says...

    Jamal, thank you for these clips. It’s such a powerful song! And it’s always amazing to hear Martin Luther King speak.

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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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