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Closing Guantánamo: A Primer for the President

If the president is serious about wanting to close the prison, and I hope he is, here are some helpful suggestions.
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President Obama recently told a crowd in Cleveland that he regrets his failure to close Guantánamo on Day 1 of his presidency. Since Day 1, politically motivated scare-mongering along with legislation aimed at keeping men in the prison have made the challenge of closing Guantánamo and ending indefinite detention without charge or trial even harder.

If the president is serious about wanting to close the prison, and I hope he is, here are some helpful suggestions.

First, exert better control over the agencies under his jurisdiction that are standing in the way of his goal by hiding the truth from the public. Not all departments under the president's control share his goal. Untruths, exaggerations, and cover-ups by the Pentagon, the CIA, and other agencies permit scare-mongering about Guantánamo to flourish. For example, the so-called "re-engagement" report published annually by the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) is routinely used to justify keeping the prison open. However, the report's accuracy is in dispute for several reasons:

  1. Even its title, "re-engagement," disguises the fact that the vast majority of Guantánamo prisoners were not on the "battlefield" but were sold to the U.S. military by other parties in exchange for advertised bounties. Obviously the men cannot "re-engage" if they were never engaged.
  • Prior to the published reports, which contain only numbers, the Department of Defense reported numbers of "recidivists," sometimes with associated names, which allowed readers to uncover errors and exaggerations, including the names of men who never were at Guantánamo and others who had merely exercised their free speech rights. For example, the Guantánamo Uighurs who were transferred to Tirana, Albania, were listed after one of their number, Abu Bakker Qassim, had an opinion editorial, "The View from Guantánamo," published in the New York Times on September 17, 2006. The so-called "Tipton Three" (Shafiq Rasul, Asif Iqbal, and Ruhal Ahmed) were also listed after their experiences at Guantánamo were turned into the film The Road to Guantánamo.
  • To avoid exaggerations that fuel calls for retaining the prison, President Obama should demand that the DNI publish the names so that readers of the report can identify any errors.

    Second, champion the truth and demand all agencies to do the same. The Obama administration was responsible for redacting words, phrases, and entire segments of Mohamedou Ould Slahi's best-selling Guantánamo Diary, the first book by a detainee who is still in the prison. At least one, and possibly two, of the longest redacted segments cover the polygraph examination(s) to which Slahi was subjected. Though the questions Slahi was asked, his answers, and the analysis of his truthfulness are completely redacted from Slahi's book, at least partial information supporting Slahi's innocence can be found in Jess Bravin's book, The Terror Courts. The agency responsible for redacting the segments in Slahi's book may have been motivated by a desire to hide exculpatory information that supports his innocence and his case for being released.

    Third, release men whose habeas corpus petitions have been granted by judges. Several men continue to be held years after federal judges granted their petitions for habeas corpus. After painstakingly reviewing the government's evidence against Mohamedou Ould Slahi, Ravil Mingazov, and others, federal district judges have determined that the administration lacked sufficient evidence to justify holding them and ordered their immediate release. In each case, the Obama administration appealed the judges' rulings to the US Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, which nearly always supports continued detention. In Mingazov's case, the court of appeals has never reviewed the case, yet he remains in Guantánamo nevertheless, nearly five years after Judge Anthony Kennedy ordered that he be released, on the president's say-so alone.

    If the president wants to close the prison, he must support the centuries-old intent of the Great Writ, which is to have a neutral third party review the evidence, thereby preventing the king, the president, or another authority from locking someone away indefinitely without sufficient cause. The president must not have the last word.

    Fourth, lift the moratoria. Obama has slowed the release of cleared prisoners by (a) preventing any men from being released into the United States and (b) from barring Yemenis (the overwhelming majority of cleared prisoners awaiting release) from returning home.

    Regarding the first moratorium, diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks in 2010 revealed that political leaders in other countries whom the U.S. asked to take the men formerly labeled "terrorists" off the U.S. government's hands were less than pleased by the prospect after hearing their constituents' understandable concerns about the costs, the dangers, and the glaring fact that the United States--the country that had caused the problem-- refused to be part of the solution.

    The moratorium against sending Yemenis home due to the expectation that security would be lax to nonexistent, the remaining men and their families who await their release should not be punished for the flaws of their home country's government, nor should the cleared men continue to be held at all.

    Finally, admit mistakes and help the men rebuild their lives. To end this sad chapter in our history, our government leaders need to explain to the American people that 'mistakes were made' in creating the prison: mistakes we will not repeat. Currently our government admits to none, makes no apologies to current and former detainees, and provides no restitution or return of assets stolen from the men upon capture. No matter their innocence, men who are released are transported to their destinations in shackles and informed that they are 'no longer an enemy combatant.' (They were 'enemy combatants' while at Guantánamo simply because they were designated as such by the president. The term has no other meaning.)

    This is hardly a prescription for success in the men's new lives. Men who are released from Guantánamo face a steep climb back to normal lives, yet the U.S. government provides no help. For example, former Uruguayan president Mujica at first criticized the five men his country had accepted as refugees for not accepting jobs they were offered. Later he attributed their lethargy to their treatment at Guantánamo, which he claimed had turned them "halfway into vegetables."

    Restitution and apologies to former inmates for wrongful detention and treatment may also reduce animosity toward the U.S. by groups that use the existence of Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib as recruiting tools. Specialized treatment for torture victims exists, but it is not available everywhere. Many former Guantánamo inmates have been transferred to countries where no such help is available, such as the small island of Palau, where six Guantánamo Uighurs were transferred in 2009, and they have no visas with which to travel and obtain medical and mental health care. The Obama administration could provide meaningful assistance to all the released men at a fraction of the exorbitant cost of retaining the prison.

    President Obama has less than two years of his final term during which to fulfill his promise to close the world's most notorious prison. He has had limited success taking small, unobtrusive steps, without sharing the truth about the prison with the American people. It is past time for him to take a giant step and to employ the truth in order to close the prison and all of America's 'Guantánamos' forever.

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