The News Is What the New Gitmo Hearings Don't Tell Us

You probably won't hear much about the new hearings taking place for many of the remaining 155 detainees at Guantanamo Bay, even though, starting Tuesday, they were supposed to be made "public." That's not just because the president's State of the Union speech will eclipse much of the Washington news coverage. It's because despite the government "transparency" these hearings were supposed to represent by allowing media and human rights groups to observe them, there was nothing "heard" at the meeting that hadn't already been said, screened and posted online.

That's right, what the Defense Department calls Periodic Review Board hearings, designed to determine whether the men indefinitely imprisoned for the last decade or so at Guantanamo still pose a security threat or should be allowed to leave, were nothing more than recitations of government-vetted statements that had already been written up and posted on a government web site the night before. To be sure, that's better than having no information about why the U.S. government is continuing to imprison these detainees at all. President Obama's Detainee Task Force, which decided which of them to keep holding back in 2009, never released any of the evidence or reasoning upon which its decisions were based. That's helped perpetuate the widely-held global view that Guantanamo Bay is a black hole where law and justice simply don't apply.

Even President George W. Bush's hearings were less secretive in some ways than these are. For example, although select observers were allowed to watch, on a 40-second delay, the hearing on a closed-circuit TV screen in an office in Crystal City, Virginia, we could hear only a government representative and the detainee's representatives read their prepared statements. We were not allowed to watch or hear the detainee speak on his own behalf. We also were not allowed to hear any of the questions from the six-member review board. In fact, we weren't even allowed to see the board. The board is composed of unnamed senior officials from six different government agencies.

Under the Bush administration, members of the media, at least, were allowed to enter the hearing room at Guantanamo and watch and hear the detainees speak and answer questions from members of what was then called an Administrative Review Board. Even at the Bagram detention center in Afghanistan, observers were allowed to be in the room, watch and listen to the detainee speak and answer questions. Not so now at Gitmo.

The current review process is an improvement over the old one, in that the detainee is now assigned two "personal representatives" to help him. But as in Afghanistan, neither is a lawyer or trained advocate. And neither has a budget to do any real investigation of the case.

In the case heard Tuesday morning, the detainee, Abdel Malik Ahmed Abdel Wahab Al Rahabi, was luckier than many of his fellow inmates will be. That's because Abdel Malik has an excellent private lawyer, backed by a wealthy private law firm, to represent him.

David Remes has represented Malik since 2004, when he began working on his petition for habeas corpus in the U.S. federal court system. Remes has traveled repeatedly to Yemen and come to know Malik's family, community and personal circumstances. He was in a strong position to claim that after 12 years at Guantanamo, his client is not a security threat to the United States and should be returned home, allowed to join his wife, help raise his daughter, and start a business to support his family. Remes even submitted videotaped interviews of Malik's family members explaining the life Malik would return to and ensuring they'll make every effort to keep him on a peaceful, law-abiding path.

That doesn't mean that Malik, allegedly a former guard for Osama bin Laden, will necessarily be released. But he will have had the best case made on his behalf that he could get under the circumstances.

Many other longtime detainees at Guantanamo won't have that. That's unfortunate not only for them, but for President Obama's own hope to finally fulfill his promise, made five years ago, to close the Guantanamo Bay detention center. Not until each detainee can convince all the relevant government agencies that it's safe to send him home or elsewhere will that important national security goal be realized. And given that many of them have now been detained at the prison camp for more than a decade, they're going to need all the help making that case they can get.