President Barack Obama announced on Monday that he has chosen a special envoy to reopen the U.S. State Department’s Office of Guantanamo Closure. This will be the third time the president has attempted to fulfill his campaign promise of closing the infamous military prison.
In January, under massive amounts of congressional pressure, the president was forced to close the Guantanamo Closure office and fold it into the State Department legal adviser’s office. The move to reopen the office is seen as part of the president’s pledge last month to close the terrorist detention center. The president lifted the ban on transferring Guantanamo detainees to Yemen in late May. This is seen as a first step at allowing detainees to be judged and punished in the nations where they were accused of committing atrocities.
Fifty-six of the 166 prisoners currently at Guantanamo are originally from Yemen.
“There is no justification beyond politics for Congress to prevent us from closing a facility that should never have been opened,” Obama said.
To reopen the office, the president has tapped Clifford Sloan, a high-powered Washington lawyer who has served in senior positions in both Democratic and Republican administrations and is now a partner with Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher and Flom LLP. He has served as a casual advisor to Secretary of State John Kerry for the past several years.
“I appreciate his willingness to take on this challenge,” Kerry said in a statement. “Cliff and I share the president’s conviction that Guantanamo’s continued operation isn’t in our security interests.”
“The gulag of our times”
In recent months, running the prison has been difficult, in light of budget cuts imposed by sequestration. Currently, the longest hunger strike in Guantanamo’s history is underway, with more than 100 detainees refusing food. Thirty-six are being tube-fed and five have been hospitalized. The prisoners are protesting their indefinite detention and living conditions in the prison. Since the beginning of the Iraq War, reports have been rampant of systematic abuse and cultural insensitivity toward the detainees not only in Guantanamo, but throughout the nation’s terrorist prison network.
As reported by Amnesty International in May 2005, “In the US, almost a year after the Supreme Court decided that detainees in Guantanamo should have access to judicial review, not one single case from among the 500 or so detained has reached the courts because of stonewalling by the Administration. Under this agenda some people are above the law and others are clearly outside it. Guantanamo has become the gulag of our times, entrenching the notion that people can be detained without any recourse to the law. “
In addition, the administration has found the prison cost-prohibitive at a rate of $1.6 million per inmate per year, concluding that the funds dedicated to the prison’s operation would be more useful elsewhere. The administration also fears that the prison is being used as a de facto recruitment tool for extremists, as anger over the camp is driving many to take militant action against the U.S. and its allies.
The Republicans on terrorism
The administration’s plans to close Guantanamo are complicated by congressional Republicans, who — in the House — added an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act of 2014 that would prohibit the transfer of any prisoners to Yemen until after December 31, 2014.
“The Defense Department should not transfer detainees to Yemen because they represent some of the most dangerous terrorists known in the world,” said Rep. Jackie Walorski (R-Ind.).
This amendment was passed despite the fact that the intelligence community has determined the Yemeni detainees to be no threat to national security.
“Not everybody that we rounded up and took to Guantanamo, unfortunately, turned out to be the very dangerous terrorists that we thought they were,” said Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), who proposed an amendment to the Authorization Act that would have closed the detention camp. “Determining that if there is any minimal threat whatsoever we’re simply going to hold them forever is, well, quite frankly, un-American.”
“That is contrary to our values to say we’re going to hold somebody indefinitely — I gather forever — because we think there might possibly be some risk,” Smith continued. “That’s not the way the Constitution is supposed to work.”
Smith’s amendment failed, 174 to 249, under Republicans’ solid opposition.
“These terrorist detainees pose a very real danger to our security in America. They mean us real harm,” said Rep. Brad Wenstrup (R-Ohio).
Opposition from the Republicans, however, is not unanimous. Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) are currently negotiating with the Obama administration over plans that would allow Guantanamo detainees to be relocated to a maximum-security prison in Illinois.
“There’s renewed impetus. And I think that most Americans are more ready,” McCain said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “We’re going to have to look at the whole issue, including giving [the detainees] more periodic review of their cases.”
“It never ceases to amaze me that individuals continue to try and close Guantanamo Bay,” Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in response to the Graham-McCain plan. “It would be extremely unwise to allow the most dangerous terrorists and members of al Qaeda, including those who planned the 2001 9/11 attacks to be transferred to the U.S. These terrorists certainly cannot be allowed to infiltrate our federal prison system where they could continue to spread violent extremism from within our borders. Former FBI Director Robert Mueller said as much when it was reported that the New York synagogue bombers were recruited from within our federal prison system.”
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has taken a moderate position between Walorski’s position of leaving things as they are and McCain’s position of allowing fair access — or fairer access — to due process.
Paul feels that “it’s become a symbol of something … and I think things should change,” he said in May to ABC’s “This Week.” “For example, I think the people being held there are bad people. What I would do though is accuse them, charge them and try them in military commissions, or trials, or tribunals. And I think that would go a long way toward showing the world that we’re not going to hold them without charge forever.”
In 2009, the president issued an executive order to close the detention center. The executive order required the detention center to be closed within a year; this went hand-in-hand with a previous order to suspend detainee prosecutions for 120 days while the detainees’ cases were reviewed and a prosecutorial plan was drawn up. A lack of comprehensive paperwork from the Bush administration on the detainees derailed the set timeline for the center’s closure, and the passage of an amendment to the 2009 Supplemental Appropriations Act — by a vote of 90-6 in the Senate — denied funding for prisoner transfers.
Ultimately, the president signed the 2011 Defense Authorization Bill, which formally overrode the president’s 2009 executive order and ended any attempts to close the prison by requiring the Secretary of Defense to first certify to Congress that a country meets “strict security criteria” and by prohibiting any spending to facilitate housing of Guantanamo detainees on the American mainland.
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