While Americans were celebrating the Fourth of July holiday with fireworks and beach vacations, some prominent Brits were noting a certain irony.
"[W]hile the US is celebrating its freedom, and its foundation under the rule of law, the continuing detention of men at Guantánamo -- largely without charge or trial -- continues to undermine America's notion of itself and its international standing," wrote more than 90 UK politicians, celebrities and activists in an open letter to President Obama seeking the return of former British resident and current Guantanamo detainee Shaker Aamer. The Saudi-born 48-year-old has been imprisoned at the U.S. detention center in Cuba for the past 13 years. The signatories, which include six former cabinet ministers, a former attorney general and the comedian Russell Brand, note that Aamer has twice been approved for release from Guantanamo, first under President Bush and again by President Obama's interagency task force.
British Prime Minister David Cameron has requested Aamer's release, as did a parliamentary motion supported by the British government in March. A cross-party delegation of MPs also visited Washington, D.C., in May to establish a timeline for Aamer's transfer. Nonetheless, the U.S. has failed to say when he will be released or why it hasn't transferred him home already.
"It is difficult for us to shake off the depressing notion that the Obama administration is indifferent to the repeated requests of the British government," the letter reads. "It is a slap in the face for America's staunchest friend."
Critics of the Guantanamo Bay detention center have long been saying that its continued existence hurts U.S. relations with its allies. This may be the most public demonstration of that negative impact so far.
So why hasn't Aamer been released yet?
British officials have told The Guardian that there are "extreme 'sensitivities' surrounding the case," which may relate to the fact that Aamer has accused British security officials of intentionally feeding false information about him to the Americans. Aamer says he was detained in Afghanistan while working for an Islamic charity. He was handed to the U.S. military in exchange for a payment and subsequently tortured at a secret CIA prison in the presence of British soldiers and M15 agents, he says.
For some undisclosed reason, the Obama administration has approved his transfer to Saudi Arabia, but so far not to the UK.
Of course, Aamer is only one of 52 prisoners still stuck at the Guantanamo prison despite having been approved for release or transfer. Although President Obama has claimed he wants to close the notorious detention center since taking office, he's made little effort to actually do that. Just last week he finally appointed a new State Department envoy to facilitate transfers to other countries of the cleared detainees, after leaving that position vacant for six months.
The Obama administration has repeatedly blamed Congress for obstructing its ability to transfer more prisoners, including to the United States, which current law forbids. But there's a lot more it can do to create momentum toward the prison's closure, including transferring detainees like Aamer, whose continued detention appears completely unjustifiable.
There are only 116 prisoners remaining at Guantanamo, at a cost of more than $3 million per detainee annually. If all those already cleared were transferred, that would leave just 64 prisoners in the facility, at a cost of more than $6 million per prisoner each year. As the detainee population and the base itself ages, these costs would likely increase. The cost of detention in a high-security facility in the United States, by contrast, is less than $35,000.
The appointment of the new envoy, Lee Wolosky, a highly respected national security expert, is a good step toward eliminating the absurd national security, diplomatic and financial costs of keeping Guantanamo open. The administration now needs to do everything in its power to support Wolosky to do his job.