On January 11, the 11th anniversary of the opening of the “war on terror” prison at Guantánamo, I was in Washington D.C., with human rights groups, lawyers, anti-torture groups (mostly religious), and other concerned persons, calling on Barack Obama to fulfill the promise he made to close the prison when he took office in 2009.
It was my fourth Guantánamo anniversary in the nation’s capital, but this year, unlike previous years, we were not allowed to protest in front of the White House, because preparations were being made for Obama’s inauguration. Instead, we spoke in the middle of President’s Park South, with the White House in the distance.
It was only after the official event ended that activists with Witness Against Torture, in orange jumpsuits and hoods, dared to make their way to the fence at the back of the White House to tie 166 orange ribbons to the railings — one for each of the men still held in Guantánamo — and to stage a peaceful sit-in. The activists only narrowly avoided arrest, which would have been particularly ironic, given that they were only reminding Obama of his failed promise.
Four years ago, lest we forget, the closure of Guantánamo took pride of place in Obama’s concerns at his Inauguration. Now, four years on, there was not a word about Guantánamo at his second Inauguration on Monday. Those who are not seduced by fine-sounding rhetoric were left to reflect on how, four years ago, candidate Obama’s fine words turned to ash almost as soon as he had issued his executive order promising to close Guantánamo within a year.
Instead, in May 2009, he scuppered a plan, initiated by his senior lawyer Greg Craig, to bring a handful of innocent and wrongly detained prisoners to the United States who could not be safely repatriated (the Uighurs, oppressed Muslims from Xinjiang province). In January 2010, he imposed a ban on releasing any cleared Yemeni prisoners, after it was revealed that the failed underwear bomb plot of Christmas 2009 was hatched in Yemen, even though the deeply insulting rationale for the ban is that Yemenis, although cleared for release, can instead be imprisoned for life on the basis of “guilt by nationality.”
The failure to close Guantánamo also involved Congress, where lawmakers passed legislation imposing severe restrictions on the administration’s ability to release prisoners, and the courts — specifically the D.C. Circuit Court and the Supreme Court. Judges in the Circuit Court rewrote the rules on detention, gutting habeas corpus of all meaning for the prisoners by demanding that anything produced by the government as evidence, however wildly implausible, should be regarded as accurate; and the Supreme Court refused to get involved, turning down appeals in 2011 and again last year, including one from a Yemeni, Adnan Latif, whose successful habeas corpus petition had been overturned by the D.C. Circuit.
Latif died at Guantánamo in September under dubious circumstances and despite having been cleared for release under George W. Bush and again under Obama. The blame for his death therefore lies with Obama, with Congress, with the D.C. Circuit Court, and with the Supreme Court. Yet, to listen to the rhetoric on the Inauguration, in which the prison was not mentioned, you would think that Guantánamo no longer exists or that, if it does, it is a lawful and humane environment keeping U.S. citizens safe from terrorists — the very same lie that Bush, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld used when it opened eleven years ago.
In his second and final term, Obama knows that his legacy will be decided by what he accomplishes — or fails to accomplish — in the next four years; he must also know that the history books will not condone his failure to close Guantánamo, however much he claims that it was politically inconvenient to fulfill his promise.
To salvage something of his reputation, as well as to bring, belatedly, something resembling justice to the men still held at Guantánamo — and, in particular, the 86 men cleared for release by his own interagency Task Force, of whom two-thirds are Yemenis — Obama needs to stand up to Congress. He must point out that it is unfair to keep holding cleared Yemenis forever because of one foiled terrorist plot three years ago, just as it is unjust to keep holding men judged as eligible for release by a 60-strong panel of careful government officials and lawyers from all the relevant departments, as well as the intelligence agencies.
The president is fond of saying, as he did when, bizarrely, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, “We lose ourselves when we compromise the very ideals that we fight to defend. And we honor those ideals by upholding them not when it’s easy, but when it is hard.” He is also fond of saying that the ongoing existence of Guantánamo is counterproductive for America’s interests. In January 2010, for example, he stated, “We will close Guantánamo prison, which has damaged our national security interests and become a tremendous recruiting tool for al-Qaeda.” He now needs to put his money where his mouth is and not cement his existing reputation as someone whose actions suggest that, behind the fine words, he is shallow, cowardly, and lazy.
I will be working with lawyers, activists, and academics to try to exert constructive pressure on the administration to move forward on closing Guantánamo over the next four years, although I have no illusions that it will be anything but an uphill struggle. This, after all, is a president who had the nerve, on Monday, to claim that “a decade of war is now ending,” when that is so patently untrue that it is something of a marvel that he dared to utter the words at all.
As Salon.com explained, “Mere hours earlier, a U.S. drone dropped missiles over Yemen, killing two [supposed] al-Qaeda militants as part of an intensified airstrike campaign which began last month.” The article added, “It has been well-established in reports (like those from the Washington Post’s Greg Miller) that the Obama administration has set up a national security apparatus ensuring, contra the president’s words Monday, a perpetual war.”
But then again, Obama’s is a modern political success story — one based on spin rather than substance. On Guantánamo — as on other topics of concern when it comes to national security, including the use of drones — the president needs to be told that spin will not secure a meaningful legacy when what is being spun is illegal, unjust, or both.