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Four More Gitmo Prisoners Released, But Obama Has Dark Plans For Many Who Remain

The Obama administration released four more prisoners from Guantanamo this past weekend in a "secret transfer," according to a report in the Miami Herald today. Three unidentified men have been sent to Slovakia -- a "gesture of solidarity'' according to the Slovak Foreign Ministry -- and a fourth to Switzerland. ("He has promised to respect Swiss law, learn the French language and find a job.") None of them was ever found guilty of anything. The move reduces the current official prisoner population at Gitmo to 192.

So what about the rest? A large number remain in a nebulous legal limbo. Last week it was announced that a special Department of Justice task force, led by Attorney General Eric Holder, had concluded that some 50 prisoners at Guantanamo will continue to be held indefinitely, without charge or trial. (In fact, it is likely to be more, given the large number of Yemeni prisoners, who, in the wake of the Christmas Day plot, will no longer be allowed to return to their home country.)

"The task force's findings represent the first time that the administration has clarified how many detainees it considers too dangerous to release but unprosecutable, because officials fear trials could compromise intelligence-gathering and because detainees could challenge evidence obtained through coercion," according to the Washington Post.

"Coercion," of course, is another word for torture.

This alarming justification aside, the fact that indefinite or "prolonged" detention is now official U.S. policy under President Barack Obama should come as no more of a surprise than the fact that his administration missed its self-imposed deadline for closing Guantanamo last week. From the early months of Obama's presidency, it was clear that even if Guantanamo were closed, the policies that gave the prison camp such notoriety would remain intact.

This was especially clear during Attorney General Holder's confirmation hearing, more than a year ago, on January 15, 2009. As AlterNet noted at the time: "When asked whether prisoners at Guantanamo who might not be convicted could nevertheless be kept in U.S. custody due to the belief that they still pose a threat to the United States, Holder left the possibility open. 'There are possibly many other people who are not going to be able to be tried but who nevertheless are dangerous to this country,' Holder said. 'We're going to have to try to figure out what we do with them.'"

Now, it appears the administration has figured it out.

It is hard to overstate just how disturbing the implications are for American democracy that the Obama administration has so fully adopted what used to be immensely controversial policies under Bush and Cheney. As Glenn Greenwald reminded readers last week, the Bush-era consensus among progressives and Democrats on this issue was "absolute":

Liberal editorial pages routinely cited the refusal to charge the detainees -- not the interrogation practices there -- in order to brand the camp a "dungeon," a "gulag," a "tropical purgatory," and a "black-hole embarrassment." As late as 2007, Democratic Senators like Pat Leahy, on the floor of the Senate, cited the due-process-free imprisonments to rail against Guantanamo as "a national disgrace, an international embarrassment to us and to our ideals, and a festering threat to our security," as well as "a legal black hole that dishonors our principles."

Today, many of the Democrats who condemned the Bush administration for its stomping on habeas corpus -- not the least of whom was then-Senator Obama himself -- are conspicuously silent. Obama has long supported indefinite detention at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. As things stand, there seems to be little stopping the U.S. government from fully embracing a practice that is fundamentally at odds with the Constitution.

Last week the ACLU condemned the attempt by a group of Senators -- Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., Susan Collins, R-Maine, Robert Bennett, R-Utah and John Ensign, R-Nevada -- to pass legislation that would officially suspend the Constitutional rights of foreign terror suspects if intelligence officials deemed it necessary. "It is extremely disturbing that members of the U.S. Congress are essentially calling for Obama administration officials to discard the Constitution when a terrorist suspect is apprehended," said executive director Anthony Romero, "as if the Constitution should be applied on a case by case basis."

Of course, as the ACLU knows all too well, in practice this has been happening for years. What we are seeing now is the legitimacy it enjoys in the eyes of our elected officials. This is extremely dangerous. As Glenn Greenwald warned last week in the wake of the Obama administration's announcement about indefinite detention:

Once that rationale is accepted, it necessarily applies not only to past detainees but future ones as well: the administration is claiming the power to imprison whomever it wants without charges whenever it believes that -- even in the face of the horrendously broad "material support for terrorism" laws the Congress has enacted -- it cannot prove in any tribunal that the individual has actually done anything wrong. They are simply decreed by presidential fiat to be "too dangerous to release."

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