Tag Archives: Guantanamo

Obama Under Fire over Guantanamo Closure Plans

At least in the area of human rights, Obama’s ‘honeymoon preiod’ seems to have come to an end.  Sadly, more and more it is by his own doing, rather than the Bush administration’s actions.  All of which  is extremely unfortunate, since it didn’t need to happen this way and so many of Obama’s supporters never expected him to maintain so many different Bush policies and precedents.  Obama inherited a tremendous range of problems, which gave him more room to maneuver than most incoming presidents, but that seems to be changing.

In the last few days, there have been a range of articles calling Obama out on his current predicament.  The NY Times’ David Kirkpatrick and David Herszenhorn focused (here) on how Obama has handed the Republicans a wedge issue when they desperately needed one.   Der Speigel (here) focuses more on the NIMBY (Not In My BackYard) nature of what it would mean to close Gitmo.  While Salon published a long response to Obama’s speech on Sunday and reactions to it by Glenn Greenwald (here), which in particular highlights Senator Russ Feingold’s response to the idea of preventative detention (here).  All of it points to the fact that Obama now has his own mess to clean up and that if he doesn’t do it soon he is likely to be smeared by  Bush’s legacy far more than he would have ever wanted to be.

In general, the Democrats have been terrible at taking control of public discourse that deals with national security and the threat of another 9/11.  During the campaign Obama did a masterful job of controlling his message and use his immense speaking abilities to convince middle America to vote for change from the Bush policies, but lately his team has been getting schooled.  Now that being said, I think that Obama won his mandate on his merits; a strong desire to put the Bush legacy in the dustbin of history as quickly as possible; and the fact that McCain ran a horrible, horrible campaign.  However, the time has come for him to deliver.

Obama has largely been given the benefit of the doubt for the last five months on the major topics of the day – the financial crisis; fixing America’s banks; repairing America’s standing internationally; and bringing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to an end.  But the issue of torture and the closure of Guantanamo has refused to go away, no matter how much he has tried to push it off the front page.  Nor should it.  The public as been more willing to buy Obama’s rhetorical approach to that fact that the other problems will require a careful measured approach that will hopefully yield long term solutions, but dealing with the crimes of the Bush administration has been a different story.

Bush’s popularity for much of his presidency rested on his ability to take oversimplified stands that reduced complex issues to black and white talking points.  Good versus evil, us versus them, etc. etc.  Now I don’t want to see the public discourse return to this, but Obama needs to understand that in order for his rhetoric to stand up regarding human rights, torture and Guantanamo, someone will need to be held accountable.  Who that is may be subject to debate, but simply appealing towards a desire to look forward or to be forgiving is not going to work.

Guantanamo must be closed.  Each of the 240 remaining detainees must be allowed to go through a legal process, which will determine their guilt or innocence, and subsequent sentencing.  If Obama goes through with his idea for ‘preventative detention’ then this issue will continue to linger and his credibility will suffer as a result.  It may not suffer so much that he won’t win re-election in 2012, but his desire to restore America’s reputation and standing in the world will largely be lost.


The president is having trouble straightening out his position on torture

Over the last week there have been a downpour of analysis about the potential political implications and impact of Obama releasing four memos (here) that explicitly discussed the use of torture in the fight against terrorism during the Bush administration.  Those on the left feel Obama didn’t go far enough – in that he has stated that he will not seek criminal charges against the CIA agents and their proxies – and those on the right, like Cheney, feel that he went too far – in that it exposes America’s dirty laundry for the world to judge and doesn’t discuss the (alleged) valuable intelligence that these tactics produced.  In many ways none of this need be so complicated – crimes against humanity were committed by those who engaged in terrorism and those who tortured the suspected terrorists in Guantanamo, Bagram Airbase, Abu Ghraib and any number of CIA black sites.  So why has Obama struggled so much with his handling of this?

I found John Dickerson’s piece at Slate (here) particularly useful, in that Obama has done this several times since assuming the presidency.  In particular, the problems that emerged after the AIG bonus scandal became a populist phenom overnight and sent people crawling through the Connecticut suburbs looking for vengeance.   In both instances, what becomes clear is that Obama wants to try and put the messes of the Bush administration behind him without having to fully explain himself, at least not initially.

One the one hand, I can understand why Obama doesn’t want to have his first term consumed with something like a Truth Commission, since the Republicans and Fox would turn it into a media spectacle that would make the OJ trial look like an afterschool mini-series.  But, on the other hand, these issues are not going to disappear and the truth must come out if America is to regain its moral standing – whether it deserved it in the first place is also debatable.  So here is my humble opinion on what should happen –

1) Debar the individuals from the Office of Legal Council that provided the legal cover for torture to occur, namely, Jay Bybee (who would need to be impeached from his Federal Court seat and summarily disbarred), John Yoo, and Steven Bradbury.

2) Establish a Truth Commission with subeona power and call Dick Cheney, David Addington, Donald Rumsfeld and Alberto Gonzalez, along with any other high level officials to testify about everything they knew, approved of and requested.

3) Reveal the companies that were contracted out by the CIA to conduct this work and conduct a thorough investigation about who approved these acts and make them pay damages in some form that can be used to either prevent acts of torture from happening again, compensates victims of torture in general, and strip them of their licenses for doing any future work with the US government.

Naturally, this simplifies matters, but it is what I believe needs to happen.   As impressed as I was that Obama released these memos (see Marc Ambinder article here), he really does seem to have lost the threat on being able to follow through on the implications of releasing such information.  I still in my heart of heart am convinced that Obama wants to do the right thing on this issue, but I just wish that he would do it then, rather than continually trying to hedge his bets.  As vocal as the Republicans and ex-VP Cheney have been about Obama’s betrayal of the nation and its security, he knows that they have no chance of regaining power through such antics alone.  Time will tell.

US Torture: Voices from the Black Sites

Today’s NY Times op-ed page has an excellent piece by Mark Danner (here) that summarizes some of the most alarming findings about the ‘alternate set of procedures’ used to extract actionable intelligence from 14 of the most high level suspects picked up in the ‘War on Terror.’  The editorial is based on a longer article that Mr. Danner wrote for the NY Review of Books (here) that gives even greater amounts of detail and commentary on what was happening at the various ‘black sites’ around the world and interrogations rooms at Guantanamo.

The accounts are based on testimonies gathered by the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) when they were given permission to interview each of these high value detainees in late 2006.  Their findings were supposed to only reach the upper echelons of the Bush administration and US intelligence community.  However, it is clear that the 43 page report has been leaked or deliberately passed on to members of the media in hopes of bolstering Patrick Leahy’s call for a Truth Commission or War Crimes Tribunal based on the clear human rights violations and instances of torture that occurred between October 2001 and 2006.  Thankfully, Mark Danner’s longer article also provides a link to Patrick Leahy’s speech at Georgetown in February 2009 (here) in which he spells out the reasons why such a body needs to be created:

“One path to that goal would be a reconciliation process and truth commission.  We could develop and authorize a person or group of people universally recognized as fair minded, and without axes to grind.  Their straightforward mission would be to find the truth.  People would be invited to come forward and share their knowledge and experiences, not for purposes of constructing criminal indictments, but to assemble the facts.  If needed, such a process could involve subpoena powers, and even the authority to obtain immunity from prosecutions in order to get to the whole truth.  Congress has already granted immunity, over my objection, to those who facilitated warrantless wiretaps and those who conducted cruel interrogations.  It would be far better to use that authority to learn the truth.

During the past several years, this country has been divided as deeply as it has been at any time in our history since the Civil War.  It has made our government less productive and our society less civil.  President Obama is right that we cannot afford extreme partisanship and debilitating divisions.  In this week when we begin commemorating the Lincoln bicentennial, there is need, again, “to bind up the nation’s wounds.”  President Lincoln urged that course in his second inaugural address some seven score and four years ago.

Rather than vengeance, we need a fair-minded pursuit of what actually happened.  Sometimes the best way to move forward is getting to the truth, finding out what happened, so we can make sure it does not happen again.  When I came to the Senate, the Church Committee was working to expose the excesses of an earlier era.  Its work helped ensure that in years to come, we did not repeat the mistakes of the past.  We need to think about whether we have arrived at such a time, again. We need to come to a shared understanding of the failures of the recent past.”

Such words have widely resonated with the American public and the international community that want to see justice served and the truth revealed.  A USA Today/Gallup poll taken in February (here) clearly showed “finds majorities in favor of investigating some of the thorniest unfinished business from the Bush administration:  Whether its tactics in the “war on terror” broke the law.”

As pressure continues to mount on the Obama administration to take some type of action I am getting more optimistic that it might actually happen.  In many ways, it is possible that Obama has had to take a stance of “wanting to look forward, not backward” and on wanting to focus on the economy so that it can not be claimed that his administration gave the green light on this out of vengeance and/or partisanship.  To me it is beside the point.  The simple matter is that laws have been broken and the reputation of the US was tattered by the Bush administration, now the historical record must be set straight and a Truth Commission would be a good place to start addressing the events references in Mark Danner’s articles.

‘Combatant’ Case to Move From Tribunal To U.S. Court

Both the Washington Post (here) and the NY Times (here) have articles that look at the significance of yesterday’s decision to give Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri his day in court sooner rather later.  It is unclear what ramifications this move will have on the fate of the 245 detainees in Guantanamo or the hundreds in Afghanistan and Iraq, due to the particulars of Al Marri’s case.

Al Marri was picked up in December 2001 while he was a legal resident of the US studying at Bradley University in Illinois and has been detained since 2003  in a Navy brig in South Carolina.  In spite of his legal status as a resident of the US, Al Marri has not been sentenced with anything and has been held as an ‘illegal enemy combatant’ and alleged supporter of terrorism for the last seven plus years.  So why has his case moved forward suddenly?

Primarily, Obama and his team is trying to buy as much time as possible without setting a broad legal precedent.   As the NY Times reported:

“The Justice Department faced a March 23 deadline to file a brief with the Supreme Court declaring whether it was continuing to hold to the Bush administration’s position that the government had the authority to detain legal residents like Mr. Marri indefinitely, without charges.  The decision to move Mr. Marri to a civilian court should give the Obama administration time to sidestep that issue for now as it sets about a large-scale review of detention policies that would affect those prisoners being held at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and those who may later be captured on suspicion of involvement with terrorism.”

Regardless of Obama’s wish to not have this case advance to the Supreme Court in April, the Al Marri case will be a major step towards deciding how to handle the prisoners in Guantanamo.  Issue ranging from whether or not the US has the president’s authority to hold terrorism suspects indefinitely to potential human rights and Geneva Convention violations are sure to come up.  Al Marri’s lawyer have stated that “he was subjected to painful stress positions, extreme sensory deprivation and violent threats while he was denied access to lawyers,” even though his treatment has supposedly improved over time.

Let the games begin.  At least it would seem to be the first step towards proving that the civilian court system is capable of handling such cases and the need to honor the rule of law regardless of whom is being charged.

Binyam Mohamed leaves Guantánamo on way back to UK

The NY Times (here), Guardian (here) and other media outlets have reported that Binyam Mohamed is on his way back to the UK.  It is really more of a beginning than an end, since both the UK and the US have refused to release information about his rendition and alleged torture while in their custody.

The NY Times offers particular horrowing details of his experience, such as:

“One night, three men in black masks and military trousers came in, he told his lawyer. “One stood on each of my shoulders and the third punched me in the stomach,” Mr. Mohamed said.

Other times, he said, they tied him to a wall, his feet just off the floor. They brought in women, “naked or part naked,” he said.

On one occasion, while tied to the wall, his clothes were taken off, he said. Then a man took a scalpel and made cuts on his chest. Then they cut his genitals, Mr. Mohamed said.

“I suffered the razor treatment about once a month,” Mr. Mohamed said, according to Mr. Stafford Smith’s declassified notes of the interview.

In January 2004, five soldiers wearing face masks and Timberland boots dragged him from his cell and stripped him. He heard an American accent. There was a woman in the group. She took pictures of his wounds with a digital camera, he said. He was taken to the American-run Bargam Air Base in Afghanistan, his lawyer said, where more photographs were taken. One of the soldiers told him it was “to show Washington it’s healing,” Mr. Mohamed told his lawyer.”

If this is true, then how many others suffered even worse fates?  It seems pretty clear that Binyam Mohamed was a low level foot soldier at best, but if such tactics were used against him, then perhaps far worse was used against others that might have actually had actionable intelligence.

Does Patrick Leahy’s call for a truth commission really seem so far fetched when you read something like this?  I think not.  I just hope that it gets subpoena powers and can actually charge the individuals that are found guilty of having committed such obvious atrocities.

A ‘Ticking Time Bomb’ Goes Off

The Washington Post ran a compelling article about Abdallah Al-Ajmi, a released detainee from Guantanamo that died in a suicide bombing in March 2008.  Unlike the other stories in the MSM about released prisoners from Guantanamo emerging as part of a rejuvenated Al Qaeda, this story focuses more on how Al-Ajmi’s experience in Guantanamo is what most likely turned him into a terrorist and led him to drive a truck full of explosives into an Iraqi military base in Mosul.

The WaPo article, A Ticking Time Bomb’ Goes off, is hopefully the first of a series of exposes on how the tactics used at Guantanamo and Bagram are directly responsible for the ongoing appeal of Al Qaeda and other Islamic extremist groups.  I don’t doubt that there are individuals that were dangerous and committed to violent jihad prior to being detained by the US, but has invading two Muslim countries, launching a bunch of military strikes against Islamists in various parts of Africa and Asia, and becoming a widely recognized human rights  violator certainly hasn’t helped.

I feel like the piece offered a very humane portrait about how the ‘war on terror’ has often done more to push people into the ranks of those willing people to blow themselves up.  It is unclear how Obama will manage to un-do the amount of damage that has been done to many of those swept up in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere, but hopefully he will start seeing them as human rather than as some type of super criminal.

Obama’s War on Terror and the Bush Legacy

Charlie Savage has a timely follow up to last week’s articles about the ways in which Obama’s War on Terror May Resemble Bush’s in Some Areas.  There is certainly a growing body of evidence that Obama and his team are following Bush in certain ways, but to me the more compelling reasons are based on why he may be doing so.

As upset as I have been about Obama’s decision to keep the door open on extraordinary rendition, his invoking state secrets to avoid having to deal with the Mohamed et al. v. Jeppesen Dataplan and the sticky issues around his possible torture in third countries, his vote on FISA, and his inability to definitively end the military commissions established by Bush, I do think that his approach to the War on Terror will be different.  Or at least that is what I hope.  So far Obama has seemed as if he mainly wants to call a time-out, rather than really take control of the game, which may be disappointing, but understandable.

The Bush Administration took great care in constructing the legal defense for stripping Guantanamo’s detainees of their rights.  The Office of Legal Council, the Department of Justice, the Federal Courts and the office of the Vice Presidency were made subservient to these ends.  These moves were made to make it nearly impossible for anyone in the Bush Administration to be indicted for their crimes, but they also were done to expand executive privilege.   Whether Obama will curtail these expanded powers so quickly is less than clear, I think that he wants to figure out how they can be used to further his overall vision.

In addition, Obama has inherited a large bureaucracy that includes any number of people hired by Bush that refuse to go anywhere.   The lawyer for the Jeppesen case, who has argued that revealing more facts of the case would endanger state secrets is Douglas N. Letter, who was the same lawyer who did so under the Bush Administration.  The judge who refused to put an end to the military commissions was Susan Crawford, another Bush hire.  Not to mention that the current Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, John Roberts, was the DC Circuit judge who tried to keep the Hamdan case from going forward.

I remember many many years ago when someone tried to explain that when the communist governments in Central and Eastern Europe fell that they were going to leave a large legacy behind in the form of the low level functionaries that dominated the entire public sector.  The lesson, getting rid of the boss is easy enough, its cleaning up the rest of the firm that is so hard.  I think that people need to take into consideration how many people have burrowed into the justice system, the US intelligence agencies and the federal government that are willing to stop these changes from happening.

So, perhaps Obama is guilty of not using as much force as possible to change the way in which the war on terror is being fought, but there are many reasons why this might be so.  I think that Obama might actually be following more in Bill Clinton’s footsteps, in that he is trying to triangulate the best way to minimize the political fall out from cleaning up this particular aspect of Bush’s legacy.