Guantanamo Bay: Obama’s First Mistake? – Commentary by Gregory Hilton
WASHINGTON, D.C. – On his second full day in the White House, President Barack Obama signed three executive orders concerning the treatment of enemy combatants. The orders will close the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba within a year. In making the announcement the President said, “Under my administration, the United States does not torture. We will abide by the Geneva Conventions.” During the campaign he referred to the Guantanamo facility as a “sad chapter in American history,” and promised to close it. He has now taken the first step to fulfilling that promise.
Although exact figures have not been revealed, 779 detainees are known to have passed through the camp and about 530 have since been released. About 245 detainees are still held there.
The new executive orders also close the CIA’s overseas detention facilities and directs all future interrogations to follow the Army Field Manual. This last order in effect revokes the Bush administration legal re-interpretation of interrogation methods permitted under the 1949 Geneva Conventions.
President Obama has previously called these methods torture, and Attorney General-designate Eric Holder used the same term in Congressional testimony this week. The new National Intelligence Director, Admiral Dennis Blair, says Guantanamo needs to be closed “because it is a damaging symbol.” The National Religious Campaign Against Torture, a coalition of 240 religious groups, said the new orders “allow the United States to again find its moral bearing.”
The Obama Administration also suspended legal proceedings at Guantanamo until the end of May in order to complete a review of all cases. The previous policy involved trying the remaining 245 detainees in front of military commissions. The prisoners can not be tried in U.S. courts because the information against them is classified and too sensitive for public distribution. A considerable amount of the evidence comes from foreign intelligence services.
The President has not yet determined the fate of the Guantanamo prisoners. The Bush Administration claimed the prisoners were “enemy combatants” who were never part of a regular army and did not wear uniforms. The also maintained these prisoners were not subject to the guarantees of the Geneva Convention, but this viewpoint was reversed by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Two years ago in the wake of the Court ruling President Bush said he wanted to close the Guantanamo facility. However, Bush said it was not possible while the war on terrorism was continuing. Obama’s order also reverses all Justice Department legal memos written between September 11, 2001, and Jan. 20, 2009. These memos authorized waterboarding and many of them are still secret. All of the are now invalid.
The outgoing CIA Director, General Michael Hayden, and former Vice President Dick Cheney are in strong disagreement with the new Obama policy. “Those who allege that we’ve been involved in torture, or that somehow we violated the Constitution or laws with the Terrorist Surveillance Program, simply don’t know what they’re talking about,” Cheney said.
They both emphasized that waterboarding technique were only used on three suspects. One of them was Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, al-Qaeda’s chief of operational planning, who divulged vast amounts of information which saved hundreds of innocent lives. He revealed Al-Qaeda’s plans to blow up the American consulate in Karachi, Pakistan, to fly planes into the towers of Canary Wharf in London, and the Library Tower in Los Angeles. The outgoing Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell says flexibility is needed to use some interrogation methods not permitted by the military.
All of this advice was rejected, and there has been no waterboarding since 2003. In fact, the practice was banned in 2006. A law was also enacted in 2005 mandating that interrogators follow the Army Field Manual.
Cheney vigorously defended waterboarding, which was initially ruled not to be torture by the Bush Administration. “Did it produce the desired results? I think it did,” Cheney argued. “Khalid Sheikh Mohammed … provided us with a wealth of information. There was a period of time there, three or four years ago, when about half of everything we knew about al Qaeda came from that one source. So it’s been a remarkably successful effort,” he said. “I think the results speak for themselves. Cheney went on to note “What are you going to do with the prisoners held in Guantanamo? Nobody has solved that problem.”
Many critics claim torture does not work, but the evidence is on the other side. For example, it was through the use of torture Philippine agents were able to make Abdul Hakim Murad reveal a plot to blow up 11 American airliners over the Pacific and to send another plane loaded with nerve gas into CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia. Murad was to be the pilot of the Langley flight and he had completed 275 hours of flight time in preparation for the mission. He was caught after an accident in which a bomb he was making exploded in his home.
A very high percentage of the prisoners who have been released from Guantanamo have returned to terrorist activities. On January 13th the Pentagon revealed that 18 former Guantanamo detainees now have direct involvement in terrorist activities.
The group includes Said Ali al-Shihri, who was jailed in Guantanamo for six years, and has now resurfaced as a leader of a Yemeni branch of al-Qaida. He traveled to Afghanistan two weeks after the September 11 attacks, provided money to other fighters and trained in urban warfare at a camp north of Kabul. He was later wounded during a U.S. attack in Afghanistan and was captured in Pakistan. In 2007 Al-Shihri was released by the U.S. to the Saudi government for rehabilitation. The Saudi’s have been claiming great success with the rehabilitation program and over 700 radicals are now enrolled. They are all promised a house, car and job if they graduate.
According to Maggie Michael of the Associated Press, Al-Shihri was “an alleged travel coordinator for al-Qaida, he was also accused of meeting extremists in Mashad, Iran, and briefing them on how to enter Afghanistan. Al-Shihri, however, said he traveled to Iran to buy carpets for his store in Riyadh. He said he felt bin Laden had no business representing Islam, denied any links to terrorism, and expressed interest in rejoining his family in Saudi Arabia.”
His return to terrorism is not an uncommon development for the former detainees and the Saudi program. Al-Shihri is now with a group which has been implicated in several attacks on the U.S. Embassy in Yemen’s capital Sana. Yemen is rapidly reemerging as a terrorist battleground and potential base of operations for al-Qaida and is a main concern for U.S. counter-terrorism officials. Al-Qaida in Yemen conducted an “unprecedented number of attacks” in 2008 and is likely to be a launching pad for attacks against Saudi Arabia, outgoing CIA Director Michael Hayden said in November.
The most recent attack, in September, killed 16 people. It followed a March mortar attack, and two attacks against Yemen’s presidential compound in late April. Yemen was also the site of the 2000 USS Cole bombing that killed 17 American sailors. The Pentagon also said another 43 former detainees have “a plausible link with terrorist activities” according to its intelligence sources.