Exactly four months ago, the United States marked the 10-year anniversary of the September 11th attacks – a day mixed with somber reflection, raging jingoism, and politicized commentary. Today we mark the 10-year anniversary of the opening of the Guantánamo Bay detention facility – a day of national shame. This is a prison rife with torture, trumped up charges, and hidden abuse. Guantánamo symbolizes the worst of America’s practices in the War on Terror: secretly caging alleged enemies miles away from the rule of law, a terrorizing warning to those who would question our foreign policy.
The ACLU has produced this excellent infographic (at right, click to enlarge) with some vital facts about the still-open prison. I also want to direct you to this New York Times Op-Ed, by Lakhdar Boumediene, “My Guantánamo Nightmare,” and Marcy Wheeler’s “This Gitmo Anniversary Needs to Be About Bagram, Too.”
Exactly eight months ago, I wrote a report on WikiLeaks’ ‘Guantánamo Files,’ what they revealed about the prison, and what the prison revealed about the United States. The whole paper, “Detention & Deception: The Guantánamo Files & American Human Rights Hypocrisy,” is here, but it’s rather long, so I’m re-printing some excerpts below:
On Obama’s Broken Promise
“The first step to reclaiming America’s standing in the world has to be closing” the Guantánamo Bay detention facility, President Obama declared in a 2008 campaign pamphlet, before promising to do just that. International leaders and an official United Nations report have called on the United States to close the prison, citing human rights abuses. Scores of GTMO detainees have been tortured, few made it to military tribunals, and almost none were awarded a civilian trial, let alone compensation after their eventual release.
Since its foundation in 2002, the Cuban-based detention camp has been an emblem of the War on Terror’s worst erosions of civil liberties, an icon of America’s moral degradation, and a crucial talking point for critics of American foreign policy around the world. So the international community generally lauded Obama’s election, and his promise to close the site, excited for a new era of justice and moral awakening. Three years later, however, the notorious prison is still open, still caging nearly 200 people who may never see a trial, and still a symbol of America’s disastrous disregard for human rights under the endless, sprawling War on Terror.
On Prisoners and Justification
The U.S. military has caged Arabs of all ages. The youngest is Naqib Ullah, a 14-year-old boy with Tuberculosis, who was kidnapped, raped, and held in a camp by 11 Afghani men. Then the U.S. raided the camp and detained Naqib for eight months, interrogating him about his captors but never about any potential risk he might pose. The oldest is 89-year-old Mohammad Sadiq, who was suffering dementia, major depression, and osteoarthritis while captive for nearly a year.
Guantánamo has held several others with mental disabilities, such as Abdul Houari, who has psychosis, slowed mobile functionality, and a blind right eye, and yet was deemed with the explicit coercion of the Criminal Investigative Task Force to pose a “medium risk” threat. Or Mishal Alhabiri a suicidal, mentally impaired detainee of “low intelligence value” who posed a “low risk,” but who was never given a trial despite his detention.
The reasoning provided for detaining many prisoners is illogical, contradictory, or merely that of a realist military tending to national interests instead of basic rights. For example, Sheikh Salman Al Khalifa, a member of the Bahraini royal family, was detained specifically to provide information on a select few “personalities” and alleged “Taliban safehouses,” but was then deemed himself a potential “threat to the US, its interests and allies.”
For others, the U.S. didn’t bother with a pretense of a real, potential threat, and instead decided that extremely tangential information justified indefinite imprisonment without trial. Sami al-Hajj, an al-Jazeera cameraman, was locked up for six years, solely so the U.S. could interrogate him about the news network. According to human-rights lawyer Clive Smith, the U.S. was “only interested in turning him into an informant against al-Jazeera.” Al-Hajj went on a hunger strike in protest of his treatment, claiming he was being denied vital medication, and demanding better conditions prison-wide. Hundreds more have fasted in protest similarly.
Equally baffling is the fact that the U.S. considered the basic, cheap, and globally available Casio F91W wristwatch to be a ‘sign of al-Qaeda,’ and frequently listed it as a “suspicious item,” purportedly because an al-Qaeda training camp purportedly distributed that model to several students. At least 50 GTMO detainees wear the watch, though no direct link between that model and a terror threat has been made.
Kafka would marvel at what some of the documents reveal: merely having information on other detainees, i.e. cooperating and informing on who could be threatening, was officially considered a suspicious sign that warranted further detention. There is no way out in a system with rules like that.
On Alleged Efforts to Close GTMO
Obama Administration officials complain that the GTMO debate “became suffused with fear — fear that transferring detainees to American soil would create a genuine security threat, fear that closing Guantánamo would be electoral suicide.” Some congressional Democrats, they said, even pleaded with the Administration to back off of the issue. Congress, in turn, put the blame back in Obama’s hands – an aide said “vulnerable senators weren’t going out on a limb…when the White House, with the most to lose, wasn’t even twisting arms.”
Others asked to speak on the matter claimed even more fundamental obstacles, as a Republican staffer said those seeking to close GTMO “could never figure out…who was in charge” of the effort, while another White House counsel Gregory Craig said “no one was coordinating.” More officials observed repeated backtracking from both Congress and the Administration.
These, to be sure, do not sound like people genuinely interested in closing the facility. How could the lawmakers of the world’s greatest superpower appear so feeble and uninterested to solve such a glaring human rights debacle? The idea of “electoral suicide” likely points in the right direction. More and more often, presidents and congressmen choose to fight not for what they feel is righteous and in their citizens’ interest, but instead for what will get them reelected. Human rights tend to lose these battles frequently in America, as the lack of a real stand to close Guantánamo demonstrates all too clearly.
On the U.S.’s Record on Human Rights
Despite the well-documented abuses of the Guantánamo Bay prison, not to mention hundreds more human rights problems, the U.S. frequently holds itself out as both an arbiter of human-rights morality and an exemplary model for lawful practices, as part of a larger theme of American Exceptionalism. The State Department annually publishes a thorough report on human rights abuses on every single country – except the U.S. This year, the Obama Administration made a special point to criticize China on that country’s various human rights deficiencies. Assistant Secretary of State Michael Posner declared the U.S. has “seen a serious backsliding on human rights” in China, specifically disparaging China’s detention practices, saying, “We have been and are very concerned over recent months by reports that dozens of people, including public interest lawyers, writers, artists like Ai Weiwei, and others, have been arrested, detained, or in some cases, disappeared, with no regard to legal measures.” While some would argue there is a difference between imprisoning ones own citizens and detaining prisoners of war abroad, there is an obvious irony in Posner’s remarks.
On Torture and Hypocrisy
Throughout the Guantánamo Files, though, the word torture is never used. We know that some detainees were waterboarded and that too many others were subjected to physical and psychological torture, yet officials who wrote the files repeatedly referred to “interrogation” and “questioning.” Publicly, as well, U.S. diplomats are careful to discuss “enhanced interrogation techniques,” or other deceptive phrases, when referring to their own country’s tactics, no matter how often they accuse another nation of torture.
This type of hypocrisy emphasizes the U.S. as a ‘realist’ country, or one that bases nearly all decisions on its own national interests, and one whose interests routinely trump any human rights concerns. Unfortunately, American policies at the Guantánamo Bay prison camp emblematize this dynamic all too well. There is insufficient evidence to prosecute most of the remaining prisoners, and it’s too difficult to transport them safely and wisely elsewhere, so the site remains open. After years of intense international and domestic criticism, officials have cleaned up GTMO practices, no longer torturing detainees and abiding by somewhat higher standards. But this only came after heavy pressure, and when it became the United States’ interest to improve their international standing on human rights. Yet nearly 200 still sit caged without charge or trial, potentially for the rest of their lives, and criticism has largely died down, at least before WikiLeaks released the Guantánamo Files. Without significant pressure, it’s simply not in America’s national interest to close the prison down. For the United States, human rights only seem to matter when respecting them suits other interests, and when doing so fits the Exceptional narrative that we have written.