There are steps President Barack Obama could take right now to expedite the closing of Guantanamo Bay prison camps, where prisoners currently engaged in a major hunger strike continue to be held in detention. Yet, Obama and his defenders insist Congress is solely responsible for why the prison continues to be open and why prisoners cleared for release have not been freed.
During a press conference, Obama was asked about the ongoing hunger strike at Guantanamo by a CBS News reporter, who properly hinted at the macabre reality of their continued detention.
Here’s the full exchange transcribed from this video:
REPORTER: There’s a growing hunger strike at Guantanamo Bay among prisoners there. Is it any surprise really that they would prefer death rather than have no end in sight to their confinement?
OBAMA: Well, when I was campaigning in 2007 and 2008 and when I was elected in 2008, I said we need to close Guantanamo. I continue to believe that we got to close Guantanamo. I think it is critical for us to understand that Guantanamo is not necessary to keep America safe. 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.
Now, Congress determined that they would not let us close it and, despite the fact that there are a number of folks who are currently in Guantanamo, who the courts have said could be returned to their country of origin or potentially a third country, I am going to go back at this. I’ve asked my team to review everything that is currently being done in Guantanamo, everything that we can do administratively and I am going to re-engage with Congress to make the case that this is not something that’s in the best interest of the American people. And, it’s not sustainable.
I mean, the notion that we’re going to continue to keep over 100 individuals in a no man’s land in perpetuity. Even at a time when we’ve wound down the war in Iraq, we’re winding down the war in Afghanistan, we’re having success defeating Al Qaeda core, we’ve kept the pressure up on all these trans-national terrorist networks, when we transfer detention authority in Afghanistan, the idea that we would still maintain forever a group of individuals, who have not been tried, that is contrary to who we are. That is contrary to our interests and it needs to stop.
Now, it’s a hard case to make because I think for a lot of Americans the notion is out of sight, out of mind. And, it is easy to demagogue the issue. That’s what happened the first time this came up. I’m going to go back at it because I think it is important.
REPORTER: Are you going to continue to force feed these folks?
OBAMA: I don’t want these individuals to die. Obviously, the Pentagon is trying to manage the situation as best they can. I think all of us should reflect on why exactly are we doing this. Why are we doing this? We’ve got a whole bunch of individuals who have been tried who are currently in maximum security prisons around the country. Nothing’s happened to them. Justice has been served. It’s been done in a way that is consistent with the Constitution, consistent with due process, consistent with the rule of law, consistent with our traditions.
The individual who attempted to bomb Times Square—in prison serving a life sentence. Individual who tried to blow up a plane on the way to Detroit—in prison serving a life sentence. A Somali who was part of Al Shabaab who we captured—in prison. So, we can handle this.
And I understand in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 with the immediate trauma that had taken place, why for a lot of Americans the notion was somehow that we had to create a special facility like Guantanamo and we couldn’t handle this in a normal, conventional fashion. I understand that reaction, but we’re now over a decade out.
We should be wiser. We should have more experience in how we prosecute terrorists. And this is a lingering problem that is not going to get better. It’s going to get worse. It’s going to fester. So, I’m going to, as I said before, examine every option that we have administratively to try to deal with this issue, but, ultimately, we’re also going to need some help from Congress and I’m going to ask some folks over there who care about fighting terrorism but also care about who we are as a people to step up and help me on it.
First, the decision to transport captured individuals in the Global War on Terrorism (GWOT) to Guantanamo did not happen because of some popular fear or anxiety amongst Americans after 9/11. That may have insulated the administration of President George W. Bush from immediate criticism, but, as Mark Mazzetti shows in his book, The Way of the Knife: The CIA, a Secret Army and a War at the Ends of the Earth, it was torture tapes destroyer and torture advocate, former CIA Counterterrorism Center head, Jose Rodriguez, who suggested holding individuals at Guantanamo Bay.
During a CIA meeting, where Rodriguez and then-director George Tenet were present:
…Everyone around the table laughed, thinking about how much it would anger Fidel Castro if the United States were to jail the prisoners of its new war on the American military base in Cuba. But the more they thought about the prospect, the more everyone thought Guantanamo actually made sense. It was an American facility, and the fate of the prison would not be jeopardized there as it could be in another country if the government changed leadership and decided to kick the United States’ prisoners out. And, the CIA officials figured, a prison at Guantanamo Bay would be outside the jurisdiction of American courts. A perfect location, it seemed…
CIA officers dubbed it “Strawberry Fields” because “prisoners presumably would be there, as the Beatles sang, ‘forever.’”
Second, the points made about the efficiency of federal courts in prosecuting and convicting terrorists would have far more meaning if it were not for the fact that, in March 2011, he did a complete reversal and decided to permit military tribunals for Guantanamo prisoners. He effectively buckled in the face of pressure from politicians in Congress, who did not want to see anyone in Guantanamo tried in federal courts.
The Wall Street Journal, in an editorial, “Obama Ratifies Bush,” cheered, “No one has done more to revive the reputation of Bush-era antiterror policies than the Obama Administration. In its latest policy reversal, yesterday Mr. Obama said the U.S. would resume the military tribunals for Guantanamo terrorists that he unilaterally suspended two years ago, and he may even begin referring new charges to military commissions within days or weeks.”
Third, a bipartisan task force organized by The Constitution Project, as part of a two-year study of US torture and abuse of detainees, reviewed the military use of forced feeding at Guantanamo. It recommended forced feeding come to an end because it is abusive. Dr. Gerald Thomson, a professor of medicine emeritus at Columbia University and former president of the American College of Physicians, stated, at a press conference on the report, “We do not believe that force-feeding should be an approach to the hunger strike,” and, “Your dignity is taken away. The World Medical Association and international officials have clearly identified that process as cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. And whatever the—given the level of brutality, it could extend to torture.”
Fourth, there were politicians like Rep. Frank Wolf, who were “demagoguing” the issue. That made it hard to close the prison, but what made it even harder was former Democratic congressman and then-Chief of Staff, Rahm Emanuel.
In 2009, according to Daniel Klaidman’s book, Kill or Capture, Obama was constantly playing for time “in the ever-diminished hope that the politics might eventually turn his way.” He took a “tepid approach” to opposition to Guantanamo from Republicans in Congress. He was passive and only wanted to take the “path of least resistance.” Emanuel also found Obama’s commitment to close Guantanamo to be more of a liability than something that could help Obama politically.
Emanuel went behind Obama’s back and stoked opposition to his effort not only to close the facility but to also allow Attorney General Eric Holder to fully investigate torture that had taken place under Bush. He told then-White House Counsel Gregory Craig, “Guantanamo [is] just a pain-in-the-ass distraction,” and, “It’s not a move forward issue. It’s a clean up the last guy’s mess issue.” This impeded the effort to have detainees resettled. As Craig reacted, the failure was a demonstration that “the administration did not really have the political will to deal with Guantanamo.”
Fifth, which is worse for “international cooperation”: the fact that Guantanamo Bay remains open or US drone operations?
Sixth, it is true Congress has fought the administration on the closure. President Obama has also signed National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) legislation twice that constrains the administration’s options for closing the facility. Empty threats to veto the legislation have been made. Signing statements that will not get the facility any closer to being closed or help the prisoners be freed have been written. In January, it was reported the administration had shuttered the office in the State Department, where officials were working to repatriate or resettle Guantanamo prisoners.
“Why do we have to do this?” Because President Obama has not had the political will or refused to properly challenge the “demagogues.”
At any moment in the past months, Obama could have, according to Human Rights First, appointed ”a high-level White House official with responsibility to ensure timely and effective implementation of the president’s plan to close Guantanamo.” It has not been done. Obama could have directed the secretary of defense, in “concurrence with the secretary of state and in consultation with the director of national intelligence, to certify detainee transfers and issue national security waivers, to the fullest extent possible consistent with applicable law.” To the public’s knowledge, that has not been attempted.
Obama tied his hand behind his back when the executive branch issued a moratorium on releasing Yemeni prisoners. Ninety of the 166 prisoners in Guantanamo are Yemeni. Twenty-five of the Yemeni prisoners have been cleared for release by Obama’s own review task force he had setup by executive order in 2009.
The Yemen government is demanding Yemeni prisoners be returned to Yemen. Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, president of Yemen, has said, “We believe that keeping someone in prison for over 10 years without due process is clear-cut tyranny. The United States is fond of talking democracy and human rights. But when we were discussing the prisoner issue with the American attorney general, he had nothing to say.”
Obama could direct the secretary of defense to initiate Periodic Review Board (PRB) hearings that were supposed to take place to determine if prisoners no longer posed a threat. As HRF described, “The executive order mandated that each detainee shall have an initial review, consisting of a PRB hearing, no later than March 7, 2012. Yet, nearly nine months after the deadline, not even a single PRB hearing is known to have been completed.”
When assessing Obama’s record, the president’s blustering on Guantanamo in a public show of frustration today is breathtaking. Carlos Warner, a public defender who represents multiple prisoners, said yesterday on “Democracy Now!”, “As much as I would like to cast blame on the right, can’t do it here. We have to cast blame on the president.”
These were the first comments from President Obama on the hunger strike since it began in early February. How appalling is it that it takes one hundred prisoners willing to starve themselves to death, who have created an escalating crisis for the Pentagon, in order for President Obama to finally restate much of the rhetoric he stated back in 2009, when it looked like the administration might close Guantanamo? How reprehensible that it takes force-feeding horror stories and Pentagon sending reinforcements to the facility to get him to address the ongoing atrocity human beings are experiencing?
Unfortunately, this will have to continue. Progressives and defenders of the president are far too willing to excuse his failure by arguing it is all Congress’ fault. Human rights and civil liberties organizations correctly understand how his administration has contributed to the continued detention of prisoners, but he is not listening to them. So, if the prisoners, including completely innocent prisoners cleared for transfer, want to see their families or homes again, they will have to keep up their hunger strike. It is working and, if anything is going to truly disrupt the status quo and the president’s record of inaction and shut down this hellhole established by the national security state, it will be this hunger strike.