Still Waiting

One of Barack Obama’s pledges when he first ran for the presidency, you may recall, was to close down Guantanamo Bay prison where a large number of political prisoners were being held after the attacks on the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001. Many of these men were later found to be innocent and released and others who might have been involved in the attacks but were no longer deemed a threat to the nation were released or sent to other countries who were willing to take a chance on their innocence. But in the interim they were held without the benefit of a trial and subjected to inhumane treatment, even torture, according to reports that leaked out later on. And 112 of them remain in prison at Guantanamo Bay to this day. Obama was on the moral high ground when he pledged to close down that place.

But his first attempt during his first term was met with screams of execration from frightened citizens and especially the Republicans in Congress who had pledged to fight Obama every step of the way during his presidency and were certainly not going to stand by idly while he transferred terrorists to this country where they might commit unknown atrocities because of their proximity to old ladies with gray hair and innocent children. Emotions ran high and the president backed down, sad to say. Well, as he approaches the end of his tenure as president, apparently he is now ready to give it another try. In the wake of rejecting the Keystone XL Pipeline recently he announced his determination once again to fulfill his campaign promise to close down the prison at Guantanamo Bay. As a recent Yahoo News story tells us, in part:

The new closure proposal, drafted by Obama’s top counterterror advisor, Lisa Monaco, and Defense Secretary Ash Carter would lift congressional restrictions on transferring detainees to the United States.

Inmates who cannot be released or transferred abroad would be housed at a US facility like Fort Leavenworth, Kansas or the Navy Brig in Charleston, South Carolina.

But that plan looks increasingly unlikely to pass muster in the Republican controlled Congress, raising the prospect of executive action, which would ignite a political firestorm.

In 2009 Obama issued an executive order to close the camp, prompting a furious Congress to pass rules that made the transfer of detainees to US soil all but impossible.

The White House has long said those rules are unconstitutional as they impinge on executive power. But it has tried to have them overturned rather than engage in a damaging political fight.

He has apparently decided to evoke executive privilege once again and risk the political firestorm that is sure to follow because he wants his legacy to read that he is a man of his word. Or so the story goes. He has certainly shown courage and deserves our applause in refusing to buckle down to the crazies in Congress on the Keystone Pipeline. I choose to believe he is thinking of his legacy and sincerely hope he gives Congress the finger once again before fading into the sunset. Heaven knows he hasn’t shown much moral courage to this point in his presidency.

But the fact remains that there are still 112 men incarcerated in that prison who have been there, subjected to inhumane treatment for nearly fourteen years and they have never even been tried. And this in a country whose legal system prides itself on the right to a trial by a jury of one’s peers. It remains a fact that even if these men are transferred to prisons in this country they will remain men who are incarcerated without the benefit of that trial.

There is a political issue here, to be sure, but there is also the larger moral issue. Transferring the prisoners will raise hell in Congress and across the nation by people who are afraid of their own shadow and think every person with dark skin is a terrorist. But continuing to hold them without trial, wherever they are held, does not solve the moral issue, even though closing down Guantanamo prison might seem to have done so. It’s a good first step. But it is only a first step — if we are to pride ourselves on doing the right thing.

Just Plain Wrong!

A recent NBC News story is a grim reminder of a chapter in this nation’s history that we prefer not to read. It tells about a recent death at the Guantanamo detention center where more than 200 prisoners remain 10 years after their capture as suspected (but not proven) terrorists. The story begins:

A Guantanamo detainee who died Saturday was a former hunger striker who had recently been placed in a disciplinary cell after splashing a guard with a “cocktail”– typically containing urine, a U.S. military official tells NBC News.

In itself the news is grim, especially since it was reported only because guards at the facility were concerned that word would leak out and their eyes would be even blacker. But not only their eyes but this nation’s eyes are blackened by the very existence of this facility where men are kept in stark conditions and denied the fundamental right of every human being to trail by jury.

We recall that President Obama promised that he would close the facility. It was a promise made, I dare say, without knowledge of the implications of such a step. Once elected he quickly came to realize that the closing of the facility and moving the prisoners to a secure facility in the United States and trying them in a civil court would prove difficult at best — especially with a Congress that was only interested in resisting every step the new President attempted to take.

But the fact remains that the prison remains open and men are still held in captivity (excuse me, “detained”) even though they have not been tried and found guilty. A brief look at Obama’s attempts to close the facility is instructive (as quoted from Wikipedia):

On January 22, 2009, President Barack Obama signed an order to suspend the proceedings of the Guantanamo military commission for 120 days and that the detention facility would be shut down within the year. On January 29, 2009, a military judge at Guantanamo rejected the White House request in the case of Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, creating an unexpected challenge for the administration as it reviews how America puts Guantanamo detainees on trial On May 20, 2009, the United States Senate passed an amendment to the Supplemental Appropriations Act of 2009 (H.R. 2346) by a 90-6 vote to block funds needed for the transfer or release of prisoners held at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp. President Obama issued a Presidential memorandum dated December 15, 2009, ordering the preparation of the Thomson Correctional Center, Thomson, Illinois so as to enable the transfer of Guantanamo prisoners there. The Final Report of the Guantanamo Review Task Force dated January 22, 2010 published the results for the 240 detainees subject to the Review: 36 were the subject of active cases or investigations; 30 detainees from Yemen were designated for ‘conditional detention’ due to the security environment in Yemen; 126 detainees were approved for transfer; 48 detainees were determined ‘too dangerous to transfer but not feasible for prosecution’.

[Footnotes in the original article]

Needless to say, the detainees were never transferred to a facility in this country as the Congress simply will not allow it. The United Nations has sought to have the facility closed to no avail. And other nations have been harsh in their judgment of our treatment of these men, calling it a form of “torture” and a violation of human rights — pointing out that we are in violation of the Geneva Conventions regarding the treatment of prisoners of war. Whether we agree with these criticisms or not, we must agree that this entire venture is something we cannot be proud of and would rather it had never happened — though “In a February 2012 poll 70% of Americans (53% liberal Democrats and 67% moderate or conservative Democrats) replied they approve the continued operation of Guantanamo.” If the poll is to be believed, it is even more embarrassing than the fact that the facility remains open.