This article was last modified on November 15, 2012.


Empire Strikes First: Guantanamo Forever?

In August 2007, then-candidate Obama promised, “I will close Guantanamo, reject the Military Commissions Act and adhere to the Geneva Conventions. Our Constitution and our Uniform Code of Military Justice provide a framework for dealing with the terrorists.” He also called the detention camp a “sad chapter in American history”. Three days after taking office he signed an executive order that the camp would be closed by January 2010. The sad chapter was over!

Just kidding. Guantanamo Bay detention camp still exists with no signs of shutting down. What went wrong?

The first hurdle presented itself immediately. Obama’s legal advisers and national security experts found that the files compiled by the previous administration were incomplete, and that no single government agency was responsible for for their completion. The paperwork suggested that the men who had been scooped up and held in Guantamano were done so without any effort to ever get them back out. Who were they? What crimes had they allegedly committed? These were mysteries, with most of those captured having committed no crime at all. (And the further question could be asked: what right does America have to imprison anyone in a foreign country? But that is a whole other topic.)

By May of 2009, Obama reversed course. Having pledged to either release the 240 detainees remaining or try them in federal courts, he now announced that he would continue President Bush’s policy of giving the men military tribunals. This was seen by civil and human rights attorneys as a step backwards, and they pointed out that before taking office, Obama had called the tribunals “an enormous failure”. This adoption of the status quo was praised by Senator John McCain and Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer. And by November, the president admitted his goal of January 2010 was not going to happen, but he assured the country that the closure would still happen at some point later in 2010.

Just kidding. The next hurdle presented itself: where were these prisoners going to go? The first choice was the federal prison at Leavenworth, Kansas, which could accommodate them easily. However, Kansas Senators Sam Brownback and Pat Roberts objected to having “terrorists” be kept in their state. Further, the governments of Jordan, Pakistan and Egypt said they would not send trainees to the attached Fort Leavenworth for military training if the suspects were housed there. (Again, we could ask why these countries were training men on American soil, but that is another topic.)

As the original deadline loomed, President Obama issued a declaration on December 15, 2009, formally closing the Guantanamo detention center and ordering the transfer of prisoners to the Thomson Correctional Center in western Illinois. Problem solved? Not really, and it turned out that such a transfer might be illegal. Attorney General Eric Holder announced, “I have committed that no Guantanamo detainees will be transferred to Thomson… any such transfer would violate express legal statutory prohibitions.” Oops!

When Obama accepted his Nobel Peace Prize in December 2009 — a prize he accepted despite being involved in two wars and countless covert actions, as well as drone strikes — he said that “America must remain a standard bearer in the conduct of war”, and cited his order to close Guantanamo. You won your prize through promises you could not keep, Mr. President. Not unlike Lance Armstrong, you are honored for things you did not do.

On May 28, 2010, the Guantanamo Review Task Force (headed by Justice Department attorney Matthew G. Olsen, now director of the National Counterterrorism Center) released their evaluation of the remaining prisoners. The report advised the immediate release of 126 detainees who were considered to be no threat, leaving 36 to be prosecuted, and 48 to be held indefinitely as prisoners of war. (With Congress never legally declaring war, it is unclear which war they were prisoners of, but that is another topic.) Furthermore, 30 Yemenis were cleared to be sent home as soon as conditions in Yemen improved, which is like saying when the Sun turns cold. This proposal would have effectively cut the number of detainees in half… if it had been followed.

The Defense Authorization Bill arrived on President Obama’s desk in January 2011, and contained clauses that placed restrictions on the transfer of Guantanamo detainees to the United States or to other countries. It further prohibits the construction of a prison within the US for the purpose of housing detainees, or the modification of a prison — such as Thomson — for these purposes. Obama released a statement opposing these conditions, saying he had a “strong objection to these provisions” and that the bill “undermines our Nation’s counter-terrorism efforts”. But then he signed it anyway.

Two months later, locked into this restricted course, Obama resumed the military trials at Guantanamo. More heinously, he signed an order continuing the draconian Bush era policy of holding detainees indefinitely without charge. Ironically, he made a public statement professing his desire to close the prison while signing the orders to do just the opposite. The 126 men who sat in prison without charge for a year after they were declared to be harmless were now going to be sitting much, much longer. One can only imagine the mix of sadness and anger from their families who no longer had a father, son, brother, husband and breadwinner.

Marine Corps Generals Charles C. Krulak and Joseph P. Hoar spoke out in December 2011, saying that the ongoing process was “ensuring that this morally and financially expensive symbol of detainee abuse will remain open well into the future. Not only would this bolster Al Qaeda’s recruiting efforts, it also would make it nearly impossible to transfer 88 men (of the 171 held there) who have been cleared for release… We should be moving to shut Guantanamo, not extend it.” Two weeks later, President Obama signed the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2012, reiterating the provisions of the Defense Authorization Bill that denied the transfer of detainees. Again, saying one thing while doing another, he claimed to oppose these restrictions and even added that they “violate constitutional separation of powers principles”. But it is the actions, not the words, that matter.

Most recently, in July 2012, word got out that the government was spending an estimated $40 million on a communications upgrade for Guantanamo. While promising to close the prison, the president is simultaneously building on to it? Lt. Col. Todd Breasseale stressed that the funds were going towards the naval camp and not the prison. But even so, why do we have a military base within a country that is officially an enemy and does not want us there? Is it even legal? But that is another topic…

In the words of attorney Zachary Katznelson, “President Obama has enough control and power that he can get these men out today if he has the political will to do so.” Clearly, he does not.

Also try another article under Political
or another one of the writings of Gavin.

Leave a Reply