By Andy Worthington
Today the GTMO Clock, an initiative launched by the "Close Guantánamo" campaign last August, marks a particular anniversary. It is 250 days since, stung by criticism caused by the Guantánamo prisoners embarking on a prison-wide hunger strike, President Obama delivered a major speech on national security issues in which he promised to resume releasing prisoners from Guantánamo. This came after two and a half years in which the release of prisoners had almost ground to halt as a result of Congressional opposition, and the president's own refusal to spend political capital overcoming those obstacles.
At the time of his promise, 86 of the remaining 166 prisoners had been cleared for release by the high-level, inter-agency Guantánamo Review Task Force that he appointed when he took office in 2009. in the last 250 days, eleven prisoners have been freed, which is progress, but 77 cleared prisoners remain (including the first prisoner to have his case reviewed by a Periodic Review Board), and at this rate it will take another 1,750 days -- or nearly five years -- for the remaining cleared prisoners to be freed.
The GTMO Clock was set up to mark how many days it has been since President Obama's promise, and how many men have been freed, so please visit the GTMO Clock, like it, share it and tweet it if you regard the painfully slow release of prisoners as unacceptable.
In his State of the Union address just two days ago, President Obama made a point of mentioning Guantánamo. This was the first time he has mentioned the prison in a State of the Union address, although, notoriously, he issued an executive order promising to close Guantánamo on his second day in office, in January 2009, a promise that, of course, he failed to keep.
In his State of the Union address, President Obama said, “With the Afghan war ending, this needs to be the year Congress lifts the remaining restrictions on detainee transfers and we close the prison at Guantánamo Bay -- because we counter terrorism not just through intelligence and military action, but by remaining true to our Constitutional ideals, and setting an example for the rest of the world.”
It is certainly true that closing Guantánamo will be made easier if lawmakers -- primarily in the House of Representatives -- can be persuaded to drop their ban on bringing prisoners to the US mainland for any reason -- to be put on trial, to be detained (at least until new legal challenges are raised) so that the prison can be closed, or for urgent medical treatment. These provisions were put forward by the Senate Armed Services Committee last year, under the leadership of Sen. Carl Levin, but although they were passed by the Senate, the House refused to back them.
They need to be brought back to the table this year, but President Obama must be prepared to bypass Congress, before his Presidency ends in two years' time, if lawmakers continue to thwart him in his plans to close Guantánamo. In the meantime, however, the ball is in his court when it comes to releasing prisoners.
What he didn't mention in his State of the Union address is that, in the negotiations between the Senate and the House regarding Guantánamo, the trade-off for the House maintaining a ban on bringing prisoners to the US mainland was Representatives' acceptance of other provisions easing restrictions on the release of prisoners imposed in the previous two years.
These restrictions had required the president to certify that released prisoners would be unable to engage in terrorist activities against the US (an impossible promise to make), and had led to the number of released prisoners almost grinding to a halt. President Obama could have bypassed Congress, using a waiver in the legislation that allowed him to do so if he regarded it as being "in the national security interests of the United States," but he chose not to do so to avoid conflict with Republicans.
Now, however, with those restrictions eased, he has no more excuses, and he needs to immediately release as many of the 77 cleared prisoners as possible, including, in particular, the 56 Yemenis whose release continues to be put off because of endless murmurings about unrest in their home country.
President Obama needs to realize that he only has two courses of action: continuing to hold men who have been cleared for release but have not been freed -- as is the case with 76 of the cleared prisoners, who were told four years ago that the US no longer wanted to hold them -- or letting them go.
Anyone not blinded by the cruel rhetoric of the "war on terror" knows that the damage to the US's reputation in continuing to hold these men is worse than anything that can happen if they are freed, and at "Close Guantánamo" we believe, from a close examination of his words, that President Obama knows this too.
It is time to free the Yemenis.
Call the White House and ask President Obama to release all the men cleared for release. Call 202-456-1111 or 202-456-1414 or submit a comment online.
Please also feel free to write to the prisoners at Guantánamo.
Note: This article was published simultaneously here and on Andy Worthington's website.