End 22 Years Of Injustice

On the 13th Anniversary of 9/11, It's Time for Guantánamo to Close

Guantanamo protestors outside the White House.

Campaigners call for the closure of Guantánamo outside the White House on January 11, 2013. Photo: Andy Worthington via Flickr.

By Andy Worthington, September 11, 2014

It's 13 years since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, but while it remains important to remember all those who died on that dreadful day, it is also important to acknowledge the terrible mistakes made by the Bush administration in response to the attacks.

First came the invasion of Afghanistan, to overthrow the Taliban and defeat Al-Qaeda, in which, as Anand Gopal, the author of No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War through Afghan Eyes, told me, the U.S. vastly overstayed its welcome, snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Then there was the illegal invasion of Iraq, and the blowback from that conflict that is evident in the rise of ISIS/ISIL in Iraq and Syria, as well as the hundreds of thousands of civilians killed in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

In addition, the U.S. also embarked, after 9/11, on a program of extraordinary rendition and torture, in defiance of domestic and international laws, as documented in the still-unreleased Senate Intelligence Committee report, and established, at Guantánamo, a prison where those held have been held neither as criminal suspects, nor as prisoners of war protected by the Geneva Conventions, but as "enemy combatants," indefinitely imprisoned without charge or trial. For the first two and a half years of their imprisonment, they had no rights at all, and even though they eventually secured habeas corpus rights, the legal avenue to their release has been cynically cut off by appeals court judges.

At the weekend -- in other words, just a few days before the 9/11 anniversary -- the New York Times focused on the ongoing injustice at Guantánamo in an editorial, "Limbo and Cruelty at Guantánamo," in which the editors wrote about the 149 men still held, out of the 779 men held throughout the prison's 12 year and eight month history, describing the prison as a "nightmarish American outpost," and noting that they "remain adrift in a limbo of justice denied," in which they are "trapped as much by the tooth-and-claw politics of Washington as by the legal dilemmas rooted in bungled government policy." The Times' editors added, "Their de facto sentence, without benefit of trial, is to wait and wait for some far-fetched resolution to their open-ended imprisonment."

The Times' editors also noted that 79 of the remaining prisoners -- over half of the men still held -- "are officially rated as low-level detainees -- nonstrategic Taliban foot soldiers and others already recommended for release to other countries under a resettlement policy." 75 of these men were recommended for release by the high-level, inter-agency Guantánamo Review Task Force that President Obama established shortly after first taking office, but they remain held because of obstacles raised by Congress, and because of President Obama's unwillingness to spend political capital bypassing Congress, using a waiver in the legislation relating to the Guantánamo prisoners. Four other men have had their release approved in recent months by Periodic Review Boards, established to review the cases of the majority of the men not approved for release by the task force.

Citing Charlie Savage's recent detailed report about Guantánamo, which I covered here, the editors noted that the resettlement policy "has presented huge hurdles," and specifically mentioned six men, who cannot be safely repatriated and who were meant to be flown to new lives in Uruguay last month, until, as Charlie Savage reported, based on discussions with U.S. officials, "the agreement fell apart at the last minute when the Uruguayan president, José Mujica, feared it could prove politically risky at home."

A spokesperson for the Uruguayan government disputed the claim that the deal "fell apart," but this will provide no comfort to the six men. In addition, even a cursory examination of the 79 men approved for release reveals that the majority of them -- 58 men in total -- are Yemenis. In January 2010, President Obama imposed a ban on releasing any Yemenis, following a failed airline bomb plot in December 2009 that was hatched in Yemen. That ban was always an unacceptable imposition of what I call "guilt by nationality," but it was finally dropped by the president in a major speech on Guantánamo last May, although since then no Yemenis have been freed.

The Times' editors also wrote about the remaining 70 prisoners, claiming that they "are considered higher-level suspects," and noting that they "includ[e] some alleged 9/11 principals whose potential prosecutions have been blotted by earlier policies of official torture." It is reassuring to see the Times finally referring to torture by name, but unfortunately, overall, the description of the remaining 70 men should acknowledge that those who consider them as "higher-level suspects," based on the task force's deliberations, have not objectively established that they are guilty of anything or that they are genuinely a threat to the U.S. Just a handful of men are facing trials, and the rest of the 70, as noted above, are scheduled to face Periodic Review Boards, which have already approved four men for release.

The Times' editors also wrote about how the obstacles to the prison's closure have meant that the prison itself is now decaying, while the men still held are aging, and, increasingly, need more medical treatment. However, because of what the editors call "Congress’s ban on the sensible Guantánamo solution -- transferring high-level detainees to better equipped, secure prisons in the United States -- [which] also includes a ban on sending extremely ill prisoners to the mainland for treatment … doctors and expensive equipment must be flown in to Guantánamo Bay when needed."

That ban on transferring prisoners to the mainland for any reason is the one that particularly needs to be overcome if Guantánamo is ever to be closed, but last year lawmakers refused to drop their ban, and they will probably be unwilling to do so this year after the manufactured hysteria that followed a prisoner exchange in May, when the administration released five Taliban leaders in exchange for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the sole U.S. prisoner of war in Afghanistan.

In addition, as the Times' editors noted, Charlie Savage's article also reported a split "between State Department officials eager to see low-level detainees transferred to other countries and Pentagon officials who are more cautious about potential risks." The editors also wrote about how the ongoing existence of Guantánamo inspires terrorism, describing how the recent "hideous beheadings of two American journalists," in which "the Islamist killers dressed their victims in bright orange prison garb," was "widely taken as an allusion to the prison at Guantánamo Bay."

In conclusion, whatever obstacles have been raised to prevent the closure of Guantánamo, it remains clear that the status quo is unacceptable. As the Times' editors noted, "Congress remains determined to keep the prison open, if only as a symbol of vengeance." And yet, they added, the prison at Guantánamo "should have been closed years ago."

They concluded their editorial by declaring, "It endures now as a symbol of injustice."

It does indeed -- and, as we have been saying since we started this website in January 2012, the 10th anniversary of the opening of the Guantánamo prison, it needs to be closed as soon as possible.