Obama’s Counterterrorism Speech: Guantanamo Bay Detention Center

Crash Course: Gitmo

In addition to the drone program and targeted killings, the other key focal point of President Obama’s counterterrorism speech on Thursday was the fate of the prisoners still being held at Guantanamo Bay Detention Center, or Gitmo.

There are currently 166 prisoners being held at Gitmo. Of those, 86, or slightly over half, have been cleared by military courts of all wrongdoing and should therefore be released and probably paid some kind of restitution for the wrong done to them. According to the U.S. government itself has stated that 92% of the people held at Guantanamo were never actually Al Qaeda fighters.

That all runs counter to the common narrative we hear about Guantanamo: that closing it is impossible because it is simply too dangerous; that the people being held there are the worst of the worst, who will stop at nothing to kill Americans.

On top of that, over 200 FBI agents have reported witnessing abuse of detainees in Gitmo. Even if that were an effective way of getting information (which all actual credible reports indicate it is not and instead has been found counterproductive,) 92% of the people who have been held at Guantanamo wouldn’t have had information to give anyway.

And 86% of the prisoners at Gitmo were not captured by troops on the battlefield, as defenders of the prison might have you believe. They were turned over to American troops in order to collect a bounty. So it seems that bribing villagers to give us Al Qaeda fighters just gets us a bunch of confused, innocent men instead.

So now that we’ve got those basics out of the way, what is Obama going to do about it?

Previous Policy

As some of you may remember, closing Gitmo was one of the major campaign promises Obama made running up to the first election. Obviously, that didn’t pan out.

Part of the blame for that, as Obama has repeatedly insisted, does go to Congress. In 2009, shortly after Obama announced that the prison should close within a year, Congress passed legislation blocking funding to transfer prisoners to the U.S. for trial and detainment.

However, Obama himself has also been part of the problem. After the “underwear bomber” who attempted to blow up a plane to Detroit proved to have been trained in Yemen, Obama imposed a moratorium on releasing any detainees to Yemen, despite the fact that 50 Yemeni prisoners had already been judged innocent and approved for release.

Moving Forward

Right now, over 100 of the detainees left at Guantanamo are on a hunger strike to protest their prolonged imprisonment without trial, and in some cases without any cause. 34 of those are being force-fed, a practice that many human rights groups and the United Nations call torture.

On Thursday, Obama pledged to lift his self-imposed moratorium on transferring prisoners to Yemen, which is certainly a step in the right direction. However, that will still only account for less than half of the prisoners still being held at Gitmo.

And the speech did not address a number of other potential steps that the president has the authority to take. Specifically, if he instructed the Secretary of Defense to certify transfers for detainees who have been found to not be a threat, he could issue national security waivers to release them. Some critics say that his announced plan to launch reviews of the detainee cases at Gitmo is redundant and a stalling tactic, since many cases have been already been reviewed: that’s how we know 86 prisoners have been cleared for release.

Other major questions have also not been addressed. For one thing, Obama stated that he would have a Defense Department envoy start planning for a place to hold military commissions in the United States – so it would seem he still plans to use a trial system that has proved largely ineffective.

For one thing, military commissions can only try people accused of war crimes. That doesn’t cover detainees suspected of conspiring with or providing material support to terrorist groups. So the use of military commissions severely limits the charges that can be brought against even detainees who have acted in some way against the U.S. And that should be the opposite of what even the biggest defense hawks want.

And then there is the fact that our civilian courts have a much stronger track record of convicting terrorism suspects. In fact, the Justice department reports 403 successful terrorism-related convictions. In contrast, the system of military commissions at Guantanamo has resulted in a grand total of 7 successful prosecutions so far. Of those, only 3 are still in prison.

So again, even for the biggest hawks, the military commissions system of justice should not be the goal.

And finally, there is the question of the 44 men at Guantanamo whom the administration claims are too dangerous to release, but whom they do not have the proper evidence to prosecute in a court of law. Obama alluded to them in his speech, but it still isn’t clear what he plans to do with them.

So it seems that we are expected to continue taking the administration’s word that the secret evidence is both compelling enough to condemn them and too dangerous to release to us, and that while their indefinite detention is a stain on America’s honor, it is one we can’t afford to wash out.

In other words: a good speech, but not the policy game-changer we might have hoped for.

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