End 22 Years Of Injustice

Senators Leahy, Feinstein and Durbin Tell Obama to Free 57 Cleared Guantánamo Prisoners "As Quickly As Possible"

Senators Leahy, Durbin and Feinstein.

Senators Patrick Leahy, Dianne Feinstein and Dick Durbin, who, on May 4, 2015, sent a letter to President Obama calling for the release of the 57 men still at Guantánamo who have been approved for release (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images).

By Andy Worthington, May 10, 2015

It's now nearly five months since the last prisoners were released from Guantánamo, even though 57 of the 122 men still held have been approved for release from the prison, the majority since President Obama's high-level, inter-agency Guantánamo Review Task Force issued its recommendations about the disposition of the remaining prisoners in January 2010.

As any decent person would agree, still holding men five years after you said you no longer wanted to hold them is a particularly offensive betrayal of any notion that you believe in justice and fairness.

President Obama released dozens of prisoners -- 66 in total -- from when he took office in January 2009 until September 2010, at which point restrictions on the release of prisoners, which were cynically imposed by Congress, made it more difficult. This was not because the administration was unable to release prisoners, but because the process of certifying to Congress that it was safe to do so, which were the conditions imposed by lawmakers, made the release of prisoners much more politically sensitive than it should have been.

In 2013, in despair at ever being released, or being delivered any sort of justice, the majority of the prisoners embarked on a prison-wide hunger strike, which finally awoke widespread domestic and international criticism of the president 's inertia.

In response, President Obama delivered a major speech on national security issues in which he promised to resume releasing prisoners from Guantánamo, and since that time 44 men have been freed, but since January, as I noted at the start of this article, no one has been released.

On April 22, the Washington Post published a detailed article suggesting that ten men would be released by summer -- including Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in the prison -- and that the administration was hoping to release the rest of the prisoners approved for release by the end of the year, and closing the prison before the end of the Obama presidency by, if necessary, unilaterally moving the remaining prisoners to the US mainland.

As I explained at the time, however, "Realistically … it might be wisest to view these suggestions as the administration stating its best-case scenario," although here at "Close Guantánamo" we remain hopeful that the first of these ams -- the release of ten men by summer -- will still happen. This involves the new defense secretary Ashton Carter authorizing the release of the first prisoners under his watch, but that should not really be difficult, because all the men approved for release have only been approved for release after a rigorous inter-agency process.

Here at "Close Guantánamo" we also note with approval that, last week, three prominent Democratic Senators -- Patrick Leahy, Dianne Feinstein and Dick Durbin -- sent a letter to President Obama urging him to resume releasing prisoners, and calling the failure to do so "an especially troubling lapse in light of how little time is left in your administration," adding, "Transferring the 57 cleared detainees as quickly as possible will be a momentous step toward closing Guantánamo."

The Senators also urge the president to speed up the Periodic Review Board process -- the process for looking at whether it is safe to release the 55 other prisoners who have not already been recommended for release, but who are not amongst the ten facing trials. We agree, and have said so frequently during our in-depth coverage of the PRBs (see our most recent articles about the PRBs).

The Senators also note how claims relating to the alleged recidivism of former prisoners reflect favorably on the Obama administration, and reported incidences of released prisoners "returning to the battlefield" have "dramatically decreased since you took office." Here at "Close Guantánamo" we are deeply suspicious of the unsubstantiated claims about prisoner recidivism that emerge from the office of the Director of National Intelligence twice a year, but we agree that releases under President Obama have been less problematical than some of those under President Bush.

And finally, we agree with the Senators that the cost of housing men at Guantánamo ought not to be considered tolerable, as it now costs up to $3.3 million a year to hold each prisoner, compared to $79,000 per prisoner per year in a federal Supermax prison. The $188 million it costs every year to hold men at Guantánamo who have been cleared for release is a particularly unjustifiable expense, but even for those not cleared for release the cost of imprisonment at Guantánamo ought to be considered absurdly expensive by anyone capable of examining the situation objectively.

In their closing words, the Senators also note, correctly, how they "have worked to ease unduly burdensome detainee transfer restrictions," and ask the president to "utilise current authorities to expedite the transfer of all cleared detainees and accelerate the Periodic Review Board process to determine if additional detainees can be transferred." In conclusion they state, "These are two commonsense steps that you can take immediately to bring America closer to our shared aim of shuttering this unnecessary prison, a goal you articulated on your second day in office."

The letter is cross-posted below, and if you would be so kind as to add your voice to those of Senators Leahy, Feinstein and Durbin, you can phone the White House on 202-456-1111 or 202-456-1414 or submit a comment online.

Letter to President Obama Calling for the Release of Prisoners from Guantánamo

May 4, 2015
President Barack Obama
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, D.C. 20500

Dear President Obama:

On January 22, 2009, you signed a historic executive order to restore America's role as a leader on human rights by requiring the detention facility at Guantánamo Bay to be closed within one year. Unfortunately, more than six years later, it remains open at great financial cost and harm to the national security of the United States. At an event earlier this year in Cleveland, you stated that if you could go back to your first day in office, you would immediately close the detention facility at Guantánamo. Although onerous restrictions imposed by Congress have hindered efforts to close the detention facility, we urge you to immediately take meaningful action in order to end this unfortunate chapter in our nation's history before you leave office. With only 20 months remaining in your Presidency, time is of the essence.

Currently, of the 122 detainees who remain at Guantánamo, nearly half have been unanimously cleared for transfer to either their home countries or third countries, through a rigorous process that requires the unanimous agreement of the Secretary of State, Secretary of Homeland Security, Director of National Intelligence, Attorney General, Secretary of Defense, and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. Many of these detainees were approved for transfer years ago and their continued indefinite detention serves as a propaganda tool for terrorists and harms our national security. There have been no transfers of Guantánamo detainees since January 15, an especially troubling lapse in light of how little time is left in your administration. Transferring the 57 cleared detainees as quickly as possible will be a momentous step toward closing Guantánamo.

For those detainees who have not been cleared for transfer or charged with a crime, we urge you to expedite and prioritize hearings before the Periodic Review Board (PRB), as required by Executive Order 13567. It is important that all eligible detainees receive a review by this interagency panel as soon as possible to determine if their continued law of war detention is necessary. Of the 14 PRB determinations that have been made public, nine detainees have had their status changed to become eligible for transfer. At the current pace, PRBs for all remaining eligible detainees will not take place until the end of the decade. Accelerating the PRB process will help to determine whether additional detainees can be transferred from Guantánamo.

While entirely eliminating the risk of detainee recidivism is impossible, the enhanced review process your administration instituted has helped to mitigate the risk that detainees will re-engage in terrorist activities. Statistics released by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence in March confirm that instances of confirmed and suspected detainee recidivism have both dramatically decreased since you took office. As a result of this more rigorous process, less than six percent of detainees transferred since 2009 have been confirmed of re-engaging and less than one percent of detainees have been suspected of re-engaging in terrorist activities. This marked improvement over the record of the prior administration demonstrates that it is possible to transfer detainees while also protecting our national security.

Maintaining the status quo at Guantánamo is reckless fiscal policy. At a time when budgets are tight, the detention facility is costing our country billions of dollars. Each detainee held at Guantánamo costs the government as much as $3.3 million annually and that figure will only continue to rise as the detainee population ages. By comparison, it costs approximately $79,000 to house a person in the most secure federal Supermax prison in America. We should not squander precious manpower and resources holding detainees who have been approved for transfer.

At the request of your administration, we have worked to ease unduly burdensome detainee transfer restrictions, and we ask that you utilize current authorities to expedite the transfer of all cleared detainees and accelerate the Periodic Review Board process to determine if additional detainees can be transferred. These are two commonsense steps that you can take immediately to bring America closer to our shared aim of shuttering this unnecessary prison, a goal you articulated on your second day in office.

Patrick Leahy
United States Senator

Dianne Feinstein
United States Senator

Richard Durbin
United States Senator