Civil Liberties

Five New Reasons (and One Old One) Why We Must Close Guantanamo Now

A surprising poll shows that by wide margins, Americans don't want to see Gitmo shut down -- here's why it should be closed forever.

Splashed on the front page of USA Today this week were the surprising results of a poll finding that a wide majority of Americans now oppose the closing of the prison camp at Guantánamo Bay. "By more than 2-1, those surveyed say Guantánamo shouldn't be closed. By more than 3-1, they oppose moving some of the accused terrorists housed there to prisons in their own states,"USA Today reported.

USA Today's poll results present a major political challenge to President Barack Obama, who has repeatedly vowed to close the detention camp by early next year, and who already faces a battle over Gitmo with Congress.

How could it be that after such an endlessly devastating era of high-profile lawlessness, torture, rigged trials, and prisoner deaths -- and years after Bush officials themselves acknowledged the need to shutter the prison camp -- a majority of Americans want to keep it open?

It is a testament to the ageless power of political fearmongering. In the months since Obama vowed to close Guantánamo in an executive order that was met with relief and praise by human rights advocates worldwide, the debate over how and when to do so has been hijacked and utterly skewed.

Despite all we have learned about the prisoners held there -- the fact, for starters, that only a fraction of them are actually self-avowed terrorists who have plotted anti-American acts -- much of the political establishment has stuck with the argument that Guantánamo might just be the only place for these "terrorists," promising that under no circumstances will they allow them to be brought onto U.S. soil.

Apparently the fearmongering is working. "Coming up on eight years after Sept. 11, fear remains, and fear is politically potent," political scientist Paul Freedman of the University of Virginia, who studies public opinion, told USA Today. "When it comes to the issue of terrorism ... people are inclined to err on the side of that fear."

"I feel like all the ground we gained over the past five years has been lost in the last five weeks," says activist Matthew Daloisio, a member of Witness Against Torture, which has advocated relentlessly for the closure of the prison camp.

This cannot stand. There's too much at stake when it comes to human rights, American democracy and the perception of the United States abroad. It's time to cut through the noise of political rhetoric and cable news and set the record straight. Below are five new reasons -- and at least one old one -- why closing Guantánamo Bay cannot wait.

Reason #1: The Torture Continues

So Obama was inaugurated, and that means no more torture, right?

Not quite.

In an interview with former CBS news anchor Dan Rather revealed this week, former Guantánamo prisoner Lakhdar Boumediene -- the plaintiff in the landmark Supreme Court ruling grating habeas corpus rights to prisoners at Gitmo -- claimed that torture is still going on under Obama. “Nothing change in Guantánamo,” he said. “They torture me in the Obama time more than Bush.”

Boudemiene described being force-fed at Guantánamo using methods that were deliberately made "as painful and uncomfortable as possible." The claim echoes the treatment of prisoners described in an in-depth article published by AlterNet last month by investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill, who documented the existence of brutal thug squads known as "Immediate Reaction Force" (IRF) teams that have routinely terrorized prisoners since day one.

The tactics used by these forces -- nicknamed the "Extreme Repression Force" by some -- include gang-beating prisoners, breaking their bones, gouging their eyes and dousing them with chemicals at the slightest sign of resistance or simple failure to follow protocol. It also includes force feeding prisoners who refuse to eat.

According to attorney Julia Tarver, one of her clients, Yousef al-Shehri, had a tube inserted with "one [IRF member] holding his chin while the other held him back by his hair, and a medical staff member forcibly inserted the tube in his nose and down his throat" and into his stomach. "No anesthesia or sedative was provided to alleviate the obvious trauma of the procedure." Tarver said this method caused al-Shehri and others to vomit "substantial amounts of blood."
This was painful enough, but al-Shehri, described the removal of the tubes as "unbearable," causing him to pass out from the pain.

The IRF teams are "the Black Shirts of Guantánamo," Michael Ratner, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, told Scahill -- and they are illegal to boot.

For Boudemiene, the torture continued right until he cleared for release. He told Rather that it seemed to be a chance for guards to "take their last shots.” This also echoes claims by another attorney who represents prisoners at Guatanamo, Ahmed Ghappour, who told reporters earlier this year that, rather than ending torture, his clients reported "a ramping up in abuse" after Obama was elected, including "beatings, the dislocation of limbs, spraying of pepper spray into closed cells, applying pepper spray to toilet paper and over-force-feeding detainees who are on hunger strike."

"If one was to use one's imagination, (one) could say that these traumatized, and for lack of a better word barbaric, guards were just basically trying to get their kicks in right now for fear that they won't be able to later," Ghappour said.

Reason #2: Prisoners Are Still Committing Suicide

This week brought news that a Yemeni prisoner, who once starved himself to 86 pounds to protest his detention, was found dead in his cell on Monday in an "apparent suicide," more than seven years after being brought to Guantánamo in February 2002.

According to the Associated Press, authorities found "31-year-old Muhammad Ahmad Abdallah Salih unresponsive and not breathing in his cell Monday night."

"In a Tuesday statement, the military says the detainee was pronounced dead by a doctor after 'extensive lifesaving measures had been exhausted.' "

"Like the other prisoners who died of 'apparent suicides' at Guantánamo," wrote Guantánamo expert Andy Worthington, "Salih had been a long-term hunger striker, refusing food as the only method available to protest his long imprisonment without charge or trial.

"According to weight records issued by the Pentagon in 2007, he weighed 124 pounds on his arrival at Guantánamo, but at one point in December 2005, during the largest hunger strike in the prison's history, his weight dropped to just 86 pounds."

Prisoner suicides at Guantánamo were treated as PR problems by the Bush administration -- a former camp commander, Rear Adm. Harry Harris, famously said in 2006 following the suicide of three prisoners, "I believe this was not an act of desperation, but an act of warfare waged against us." Will the Obama administration respond differently? Will it respond at all?

Reason #3: The Surreal Plight of Guantánamo's Uighurs

When the history of injustice at Guantánamo Bay is written, a whole section will be reserved for the truly unbelievable story of Guantánamo's Uighurs, 17 Chinese Muslims who have been held at Guantánamo since 2002.

Perhaps the most important thing to know about the Uighurs is that they are innocent -- and for a long time now, nobody has argued otherwise; not the Bush administration, not the Obama administration. So why do they remain imprisoned at Guantánamo? Officially, the reason is that if they were to be sent to China, they would likely face political persecution.

This might be a fine reason not to send the Uighurs to China. But it's hardly a good reason to keep them locked up when they have long been declared not guilty, which is exactly what the Obama administration is doing.

Things were looking up for the Uighurs last October, when a federal judge ordered that they be released from Guantánamo and resettled in the United States. Indeed, there are even communities here that have offered to take them in, outside Washington as well as in Tallahassee, Fla. But a federal court reversed that decision in February, and now the Obama administration is engaged in fresh attempts to block their release.

Last Friday, according to Worthington, the Obama Department of Justice delivered "33 pages of unconstitutional hogwash directed at the Supreme Court … in which no stone of dubious legality was left unturned in the administration's desperate and unprincipled attempts to mimic its predecessors by preventing 17 Uighurs at Guantánamo from being resettled in the United States."

Unbelievably, according to the government, the Uighurs "are not really being detained any longer." Their "continued presence at Guantánamo Bay is not unlawful detention, but rather the consequence of their lawful exclusion from the United States, under the constitutional exercise of authority by the political branches, coupled with the unavailability of another country willing to accept them."

That's right, lawful exclusion.

Nevertheless, whatever the Obama administration calls it, the Uighurs -- who, according to McClatchy, get weekly phone calls, fast food and soon, laptops -- certainly seem to think they are being unlawfully imprisoned. This week, the Miami Herald reported that a group of Uighur prisoners "staged a self-styled protest inside their prison camp Monday, waving signs demanding their freedom written in crayon on their Pentagon-issued art supplies."

''We are the Uighurs,'' said one sign. "We are being oppressed in prison though we had been announced innocent.'"
Another: "We need to freedom."

The "polite protest," the Herald reported, lasted "for about five minutes for visiting reporters before guards hustled the journalists away."

''As you can see, they are pretty much free men,'' a Navy chief told reporters, with no sense of irony.

Reason #4: U.S. Federal Courts -- and U.S. Prisons -- Are Perfectly Equipped to Handle Terrorism Suspects

So what about those prisoners who aren't innocent? Surely of the 239 "detainees" still held at Guantánamo at least some need to be kept locked up, right?

Sure. And like terrorism suspects that came before them, these men should be tried in a court of law -- a real, legitimate court of law, not the kangaroo courts cobbled together by then-Vice President Dick Cheney and his chief of staff David Addington in the weeks after Sept. 11.

As many have been pointing out for months, U.S. courts have put plenty of terrorism suspects on trial in recent years. "Supermax Prisons in U.S. Already Hold Terrorists," the Washington Post reported last month (a headline that might be read less as news than a sorely needed reminder).

Detained in the Supermax facility in Colorado are Ramzi Yousef, who headed the group that carried out the first bombing of the World Trade Center in February 1993; Zacarias Moussaoui, convicted of conspiring in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001; Ahmed Ressam, of the Dec. 31, 1999, Los Angeles airport millennium attack plots; Ahmed Omar Abu Ali, conspirator in several plots, including one to assassinate President George W. Bush; and Wadih el-Hage, convicted of the 1998 bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Kenya.
... "We have a vast amount of experience in how to judge the continued incarceration of highly dangerous prisoners, since we do this with thousands of prisoners every month, all over the United States, including some really quite dangerous people," Philip D. Zelikow, who was counselor to Bush administration Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and executive director of the 9/11 Commission, told the Senate Judiciary Committee last week.

Yet Democrats and Republicans alike are tripping over each other to insist that the "terrorists" housed at Guantánamo Bay are of another breed of monster altogether and can only be handled outside the country, in secret. This argument has advanced, not just the need to come up with a new, improved version of the military commissions -- dubbed "con-missions" by former prisoner Binyam Mohamed -- but the need for indefinite detention as well. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., told MSNBC correspondent Andrea Mitchell that "if somebody is judged to be an unlawful combatant, and they remain a threat to our national security, what needs to be evolved is a process whereby their detention is periodically reviewed, either by a court, which I would prefer, or by a military panel, and a determination made as to whether the threat still continues."

"Now this would happen, I would think, annually, in a lengthy detention, but there is no question in my mind that somebody who is classified as an unlawful combatant can, in fact, be kept in detention until the end of this conflict, which means terrorism, against the United States, against her allies, and in the world abates."

(Apparently, Feinstein never got Obama's memo that there are no more "enemy combatants.")

The Democrats' -- and Obama's -- embrace of indefinite detention is disturbing. Keeping prisoners imprisoned without trial indefinitely is no more just under this president than it was under Bush. It is a disturbing testament to political double standards that the military commissions process and the notion of indefinite detention that were so abhorrent to so many under Bush are now going largely unquestioned when they become the policies of the Obama administration.

"That's the most harmful part of this," Glenn Greenwald wrote last month. "It trains the other half of the citizenry to now become fervent admirers and defenders of some rather extreme presidential 'war powers.'"

If the USA Today/Gallup poll numbers are to be believed, it's more than half now.

Reason #5: Put an End to the Dems' Dilemma of the Politics Surrounding Gitmo

OK, as reasons for closing Guantánamo go, the political careers of Democratic politicians are not high on the priority list. But it cannot go unsaid that those Democrats (many who spent the past eight years criticizing Bush over the violations at Guantánamo Bay) who are suddenly finding reasons to keep the prison camp open are doing so based on public opinion and the fear of landing on the wrong side of a national security issues. There may be little political reward for taking a (now) unpopular position on a national security matter and pushing to close Guantánamo. But for anyone who cares about this country's supposed values, there is more at stake than 2010. It is simply a moral imperative. As Matt Taibbi recently argued, "It’s one thing to change your mind or play both sides of the fence on matters that don’t involve human lives, on theoretical/hypothetical campaign issues, but another thing to do it with actual incarcerated human beings as the key variable in the political equation."

Conveniently for the Dems, however, the prisoners at Guantánamo remain abstract and far away to the average American, and it seems most would like to keep it that way. Thus, last month, Senate Democrats pulled $80 million worth of funding that was meant to be used to enable the closing of Guantánamo, a maneuver that "raised the possibility that Mr. Obama's order to close the camp by Jan. 22, 2010, might have to be changed or delayed," as the New York Times reported on May 19.

"This is neither the time nor the bill to deal with this," Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., announced. "Democrats under no circumstances will move forward without a comprehensive, responsible plan from the president. We will never allow terrorists to be released into the United States."

Reid's posturing met with predictable approval from politicians on the other side of the aisle. "Guantánamo is the perfect place for these terrorists," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said. "However, if the president ends up sticking with this decision to close it next January, obviously they need a place to be. It ought not to be the United States of America."

As Matthew Daloisio points out: "Everyone who wanted to close Gitmo when it was popular to hold that position, has already gotten all of the political mileage they could from it. Now it is simply a political liability. No one gains anything at this point from pushing for Gitmo to close … It's the only bipartisan issue going."

The Republicans did a good job of playing on the fears of the American public, and the Democrats and the administration not only did not fight back, but ended up mostly agreeing. The notion that "if you ended up at Gitmo, you must have done something wrong," is a prevailing one, which does not make it in any way true.
The Democrats should learn a lesson from what many say happened to the Republicans: That they sacrificed their core principals over the last eight years. The Democrats are in the process of doing the same thing.

Reason #6: Seven years after the first prisoners in the rebranded "war on terror," Guantánamo is still a legal netherworld, a stain on our democracy, a rallying cry for actual terrorists, and a violation of Cuba’s sovereignty.

Does any of this really need explaining?

Liliana Segura is an AlterNet staff writer.