Obama, Guantánamo, and the Enduring National Shame
One of the most powerful Op-eds ever published in the NYT, by a Yemeni detainee, underscores the president's role in this travesty
The New York Times this morning deserves credit for publishing one of the most powerful Op-Eds you will ever read. I urge you to read it in its entirety: it's by Samir Naji al Hasan Moqbel, a Yemeni national who has been imprisoned at Guantánamo without charges of any kind for more than 11 years. He's one of the detainees participating in the escalating hunger strike to protest both horrible conditions and, particularly, the supreme injustice of being locked in a cage indefinitely without any evidence of wrongdoing presented or any opportunity to contest the accusations that have been made. The hunger strike escalated over the weekend when guards shot rubber bullets at some of the detainees and forced them into single cells. Moqbel "wrote" the Op-ed through an interpreter and a telephone conversation with his lawyers at the human rights group Repreive:
"I've been on a hunger strike since Feb. 10 and have lost well over 30 pounds. I will not eat until they restore my dignity.
"I've been detained at Guantánamo for 11 years and three months. I have never been charged with any crime. I have never received a trial.
"I could have been home years ago — no one seriously thinks I am a threat — but still I am here. Years ago the military said I was a 'guard' for Osama bin Laden, but this was nonsense, like something out of the American movies I used to watch. They don't even seem to believe it anymore. But they don't seem to care how long I sit here, either. . . .
"The only reason I am still here is that President Obama refuses to send any detainees back to Yemen. This makes no sense. I am a human being, not a passport, and I deserve to be treated like one.
"I do not want to die here, but until President Obama and Yemen's president do something, that is what I risk every day.
"Where is my government? I will submit to any 'security measures' they want in order to go home, even though they are totally unnecessary.
"I will agree to whatever it takes in order to be free. I am now 35. All I want is to see my family again and to start a family of my own.
"The situation is desperate now. All of the detainees here are suffering deeply. At least 40 people here are on a hunger strike. People are fainting with exhaustion every day. I have vomited blood.
"And there is no end in sight to our imprisonment. Denying ourselves food and risking death every day is the choice we have made.
"I just hope that because of the pain we are suffering, the eyes of the world will once again look to Guantánamo before it is too late."
Read the entire Op-ed, as he also details the brutality to which he is subjected every day when he is force-fed by camp guards.
The instant Guantánamo is mentioned, the people in the faction who spent years denouncing it as a Great Evil now instead rush to exonerate President Obama for any responsibility or blame. They insist that the fault rests with Congress for preventing Obama from fulfilling his pledge to close the camp.
I've written many times before why this claim, though grounded in some truth, is misleading in the extreme. I won't repeat all of that here; click the links and read the documentation proving its truth. In sum, Obama sought not to close Guantánamo but simply to re-locate it to Illinois, and in doing so, to preserve what makes it such a travesty of justice: its system of indefinite detention. The detainees there are not protesting in desperation because of their geographical location: we want to be in Illinois rather than a Cuban island. They are sacrificing their health and their lives in response to being locked in a cage for more than a decade without charges: a system Obama, independent of what Congress did, intended to preserve. Obama's task force in early 2010 decreed that "48 detainees were determined to be too dangerous to transfer but not feasible for prosecution" and will thus "remain in detention": i.e. indefinitely imprisoned with no charges. Given these facts, one cannot denounce the disgrace of Guantánamo's indefinite detention system while pretending that Obama sought to end it, at least not cogently or honestly.
But Obama's responsibility for the Guantánamo disgrace extends beyond that. Moqbel, the author of this Op-Ed, is Yemeni. More than half of the remaining 166 detainees at the camp are Yemeni. Dozens of those Yemenis (along with dozens of other detainees) have long ago been cleared for release by the US government on the ground that there is no evidence to believe they are a threat to anyone. A total of 87 of the remaining detainees - roughly half - have been cleared for release, of which 58 are Yemeni. Not even the US government at this point claims they are guilty or pose a threat to anyone.
The Yemeni government not only is willing to take them, but is now demanding their release, using language notably harsh for a US puppet regime:
"Even Yemen's president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who generally enjoys close relations with the United States, has directed rare criticism at the Obama administration.
"'We believe that keeping someone in prison for over 10 years without due process is clear-cut tyranny,' Hadi said in a recent interview broadcast over the Arabic language channel of Russia Today. '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.'"
"Clear-cut tyranny", says Yemen's president. But in January, 2010, Obama - not Congress, but Obama - announced a moratorium on the release of any Yemeni detainees, even ones cleared for release. As Amnesty International put it at the beginning of this year:
"But President Obama adopted the USA's unilateral and flawed 'global war' paradigm and accepted indefinite detentions under this framework.
"Then, in 2010, his administration announced that it had decided that four dozen of the Guantánamo detainees could neither be prosecuted nor released, but should remain in indefinite military detention without charge or criminal trial. The administration also imposed a moratorium on repatriation of Yemeni detainees. and said that 30 such detainees would be held in 'conditional' detention based on 'current security conditions in Yemen'. This moratorium is still in place."
Earlier this month, as news of the hunger strike at the camp emerged, the Boston Globe's editorial page explained precisely what responsibility Obama bears for what is happening and what he could and should do to end it:
"Obama himself has made transfers more difficult. After one terrorist plot, he issued a blanket moratorium on sending detainees to Yemen, where more than half of the detainees are from . . . .
"That sweeping language [enacted by Congress to restrict detainee release] has had a chilling effect. No one can give an absolute guarantee that detainees won't go back to fighting, just as no one can ensure that criminals released from US prisons won't go back to crime. As Charles Stimson, who headed detainee affairs under George W. Bush, points out: 'You have to tolerate some kind of risk.'
"That's why Obama ultimately deserves the blame for the failure to make more progress at closing Guantánamo. He seems unwilling to tolerate any risk at all. Even Shaker Aamer, a British resident cleared for release years ago, remains at Guantánamo, despite the British government's public and repeated requests that he be sent home.
"Obama should muster the political courage to stand up to Congress on Guantánamo. If his secretary of defense is unable to certify a transfer under the tough provisions, Obama retains the ability to transfer prisoners with a 'national security waiver' — a power he has never used. . . .
"About a third of the 88 men from Yemen have already been cleared for release. Keeping them at Guantánamo just because of their nationality flies in the face of justice. . . .
"Instead, Obama appears to have thrown in the towel on Guantánamo. In January, he closed the office of the envoy who led the effort to close the facility. Now, the US military is investing in a fiber optic cable to the base and planning for specialized medical care for 'aging detainees.' That suggests that some will be held there for the rest of their natural lives.
The last detainee to die at the camp, Adnan Farhan Abdul Latif, who allegedly killed himself in September, was a Yemeni who had never been charged with a crime and had been cleared for release, but, when it was apparent he was going nowhere, "had regularly gone on hunger strikes and been sedated or placed on suicide watch". Independently, the worsening conditions at the camp that the detainees are protesting are under the exclusive province of Obama as Commander-in-chief.
The question of blame and responsibility is not about whose legacy will be stained by this. That's an abstract question of less urgency, which will be resolved in the future. The issue is who is empowered to end, or at least mitigate, the enduring national disgrace that is taking place at this camp. There is no doubt that Congress - both parties - played a significant role in the ongoing travesty by limiting Obama's options, and it deserves much of the blame. But for the reasons documented here, Obama deserves his own share of the blame, and it is substantial. He can take several steps to alleviate this injustice, as outlined by the Boston Globe, but simply refuses to do so. Having Democratic partisans reflexively claim every time Guantánamo is mentioned that it is all the fault of Congress is not only deceitful, but much worse, prevents pressure points being applied where they can be effective and closes off the most promising avenue for some positive reform.
When Obama, in early 2010, issued an Executive Order to preserve Guantánamo' system of indefinite detention, GOP Rep. Peter King lavished Obama with praise: "I commend the Obama Administration for issuing this Executive Order. The bottom line is that it affirms the Bush Administration policy that our government has the right to detain dangerous terrorists until the cessation of hostilities." Peter King, widely regarded as a national security extremist and anti-Muslim bigot, has continuously praised Obama's policies in the "War on Terror" generally. At some point, it may be worth thinking about what this convergence tells us.
The Guardian's Matt Williams this weekend reported on Shaker Aamer, the last UK detainee at the camp who has also never been charged with a crime and has been long ago cleared for release. Aamer, who has been kept in a cage for 11 years, is participating in the hunger strike. He describes "the deteriorating conditions of inmates" and "fears that he and others will soon die as a result of what he described as 'systematic torture'".
© 2013 Guardian News and Media