Pentagon thwarts Obama’s effort to close Guantanamo

Reuters reports: In September, U.S. State Department officials invited a foreign delegation to the Guantanamo Bay detention center to persuade the group to take detainee Tariq Ba Odah to their country. If they succeeded, the transfer would mark a small step toward realizing President Barack Obama’s goal of closing the prison before he leaves office.

The foreign officials told the administration they would first need to review Ba Odah’s medical records, according to U.S. officials with knowledge of the episode. The Yemeni has been on a hunger strike for seven years, dropping to 74 pounds from 148, and the foreign officials wanted to make sure they could care for him.

For the next six weeks, Pentagon officials declined to release the records, citing patient privacy concerns, according to the U.S. officials. The delegation, from a country administration officials declined to identify, canceled its visit. After the administration promised to deliver the records, the delegation traveled to Guantanamo and appeared set to take the prisoner off U.S. hands, the officials said. The Pentagon again withheld Ba Odah’s full medical file.

Today, nearly 14 years since he was placed in the prison and five years since he was cleared for release by U.S. military, intelligence and diplomatic officials, Ba Odah remains in Guantanamo. [Continue reading…]

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Guantánamo Bay lawyers call bluff on Obama’s promise to close prison

The Guardian reports: Lawyers representing Guantánamo Bay detainees who have been held at the camp in Cuba for up to 14 years without charge or trial have accused President Obama of stalling on his promise to close the military prison.

As the US president enters his final year in office, pressure is mounting on him to stand by his pledge to shut down the detention center by the time he leaves the White House. Numerous defense lawyers working directly with Guantánamo detainees have told the Guardian that they hold Obama and his senior officials personally responsible for the lack of action.

Obama made his vow to close Guantánamo within a year on his second day in the White House in 2009. In recent months, he has stepped up the rhetoric, promising to redouble efforts to close the prison while also heavily criticising the Republican-controlled Congress for blocking moves to transfer prisoners out of the prison to the US mainland. [Continue reading…]

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‘I have become a body without a soul’: 14 years detained in Guantánamo

Pardiss Kebriaei writes: I feel like there is a heavy weight on my chest – it’s as if I’m breathing through a needle hole. And then I ask myself, “If I write or say something, is anybody going to listen to me? Is it really going to make any difference?”

Zaher Hamdoun is a 36-year-old Yemeni man who has been detained in Guantánamo without charge since he was 22, one of 116 prisoners still detained there six years after Obama promised to close the facility. After I visited him earlier this summer, he followed up with a letter filled with questions.

Will there be a day when I will live like others live? Like a person who has freedom, dignity, a home, a family, a job, a wife and children?

Hamdoun is not among the 52 men approved for transfer from Guantánamo, nor is he in a dwindling group of detainees the government plans to charge. He is in a nebulous middle category of people the Obama administration has determined it is not going to charge but doesn’t know if it is ever going to release. [Continue reading…]

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Only three of 116 Guantánamo detainees were captured by U.S. forces

The Guardian reports: Only three of the 116 men still detained at Guantánamo Bay were apprehended by US forces, a Guardian review of military documents has uncovered.

The foundations of the guilt of the remaining 113, whom US politicians often refer to as the “worst of the worst” terrorists, involves a degree of faith in the Pakistani and Afghan spies, warlords and security services who initially captured 98 of the remaining Guantánamo population.

According to an analysis of long-neglected US military capture information, 68 of the residual Guantánamo detainees were captured by Pakistani security forces or apparent informants. Another 30 were sent to the notorious wartime facility by forces from Afghanistan – mostly warlords and affiliates of early US efforts to topple the Taliban after 9/11. [Continue reading…]

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The Pentagon ignores Obama’s order to release Shaker Aamer from Guantánamo

Clive Stafford Smith writes: Recent history demonstrates that if President Barack Obama, arguably the most powerful person on planet Earth, wants to prioritize almost anything – from pardoning 46 convicted drug felons to bombing a foreign country without the consent of Congress – little can stand in his way. Why, then, is Shaker Aamer not home in London with his wife and four children?

Aamer is the last British resident to be detained without trial in Guantánamo Bay and he has never been charged with a single offense. In 2007, he was cleared for release by the Bush Administration; in 2009, six US intelligence agencies unanimously agreed that Shaker should be released. In January 2015, British Prime Minster David Cameron personally raised Shaker’s plight with President Obama, who promised that he would “prioritize” the case.

On Thursday, we came a little closer to understanding the reason that Aamer’s youngest child, Faris – who was born on Valentine’s Day 2002, the day that Aamer was rendered to the detention center at Guantánamo Bay – has never even met his father. The Guardian revealed that “the Pentagon [is] blocking Guantánamo deals to return Shaker Aamer and other cleared detainees.” President Obama, it seems, has personally ordered Aamer’s release, and his subordinates have ignored and thwarted his order. [Continue reading…]

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The Pentagon is keeping half of Gitmo locked up — against the White House’s wishes

The Daily Beast reports: The White House wants to quickly cut the number of detainees at Guantánamo Bay. One man is standing in the way: President Obama’s Defense Secretary, Ash Carter.

Carter and the White House are increasingly at odds about how to whittle down the number of detainees held in Guantánamo Bay, hampering the administration’s push to close the detention center by the end of its term.

The White House believes that Carter is unwilling to be accountable for the transfer of Guantánamo detainees and their conduct post-release, even to the point of defying the president’s policy on the detention facility, a White House source told The Daily Beast. [Continue reading…]

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Obama’s plan for Guantánamo is seen faltering

The New York Times reports: President Obama is enjoying a winning streak lately, with the Supreme Court reaffirming his signature health care law and Iran agreeing to curbs on its nuclear program. But one longstanding goal continues to bedevil him: closing the wartime prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

The administration’s fitful effort to shut down the prison is collapsing again. Ashton B. Carter, in his first six months as defense secretary, has yet to make a decision on any newly proposed deals to transfer individual detainees. His delay, which echoes a pattern last year by his predecessor, Chuck Hagel, is generating mounting concern in the White House and State Department, officials say.

Last week, Mr. Obama’s national security adviser, Susan E. Rice, convened a cabinet-level “principals committee” meeting on how to close the prison before the president leaves office in 18 months. At that meeting, Mr. Carter was presented with an unsigned National Security Council memo stating that he would have 30 days to make decisions on newly proposed transfers, according to several officials familiar with the internal deliberations. [Continue reading…]

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CIA photos of ‘black sites’ could complicate Gitmo trials

The Washington Post reports: Military prosecutors this year learned about a massive cache of CIA photographs of its former overseas “black sites” while reviewing material collected for the Senate investigation of the agency’s interrogation program, U.S. officials said.

The existence of the approximately 14,000 photographs will probably cause yet another delay in the military commissions at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, as attorneys for the defendants demand that all the images be turned over and the government wades through the material to decide what it thinks is relevant to the proceedings.

Defense attorneys said they have not yet been informed about the photographs and said it is unacceptable that they should come to light now, more than three years after the arraignment of Khalid Sheik Mohammed and four other defendants accused of planning the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. [Continue reading…]

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A rebuke to military tribunals

An editorial in the New York Times says: In 2008, Ali al-Bahlul, a propagandist for Al Qaeda who has been held at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, since early 2002, was convicted by the military tribunal there and sentenced to life in prison. But officials had no evidence that Mr. Bahlul was involved in any war crimes, so they charged him instead with domestic crimes, including conspiracy and material support of terrorism.

Last Friday, a panel of the federal appeals court in Washington, D.C., reversed Mr. Bahlul’s conspiracy conviction because, it said, the Constitution only permits military tribunals to handle prosecutions of war crimes, like intentionally targeting civilians. (The court previously threw out the other charges on narrower grounds.)

The 2-1 decision, by Circuit Judge Judith Rogers, was a major rebuke to the government’s persistent and misguided reliance on the tribunals, which operate in a legal no man’s land, unconstrained by standard constitutional guarantees and rules of evidence that define the functioning of the nation’s civilian courts. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. government starts to unmuzzle the CIA’s torture victims

Huffington Post reports: For years, Guantanamo Bay prisoners’ memories of their time in CIA custody have been considered classified state secrets. Abu Zubaydah’s lawyers can’t talk publicly about how he lost his left eye. Lawyers for Mustafa al Hawsawi, who can now only sit on a pillow, can’t tell the press or the public about anal feedings that left him with a rectal prolapse. And until recently, Majid Khan’s lawyers couldn’t bring up the time he was hung from a pole for two days, naked and hooded, while interrogators threw ice water on him.

The government argued that by talking about what had happened to them, the CIA’s former prisoners, who are now detained at the Guantanamo Bay prison facility, would risk revealing classified information about the agency’s torture program.

But as James Connell, a lawyer who represents detainee Ammar al Baluchi, wrote more than three years ago in a motion to declassify the prisoners’ accounts, “A person’s own experiences — whether the smell of a rose or the click of a gun near one’s head — are what make them a person, and the government can never own or control them.”

The notion that a torture survivor’s memories can be classified, Connell wrote, “contravenes the most basic principles of human rights.” He added that detainees “were exposed to classified interrogation techniques only in the sense that Hiroshima was exposed to the classified Manhattan Project.”

Now, the government is starting to change course. A Senate Intelligence Committee report, which began to pull back the curtain on the CIA’s use of torture in secret prisons known as “black sites,” compelled the government to change its rules about keeping former CIA prisoners’ memories secret. Khan became the first to successfully test the new rules by going public with his account of his imprisonment, which included details not previously disclosed in the Senate report. Citing the success of Khan’s team, defense attorneys for other Guantanamo detainees are now cautiously optimistic that they can bring their clients’ memories of their time in CIA black sites to light. [Continue reading…]

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Guantánamo Diary

Christian Lorentzen reviews Guantánamo Diary by Mohamedou Ould Slahi: In the autumn of 2001 Mohamedou Ould Slahi was working in Nouakchott, the capital of Mauritania, setting up computer networks. He was born in the hinterlands, son of a nomadic camel trader, and had picked up the trade in Germany; he went to the University of Duisberg on a scholarship in 1988, at the age of 17. He’d long been a fan of the German national football team. He was also devout and had memorised the Koran as a teenager. In 1991 he went to Afghanistan to train with the mujahedin and pledged an oath to al-Qaida. He made another trip the next year, but saw little action fighting Muhammad Najibullah’s communist government before it fell. When the fighting disintegrated into factional struggles, he went back to Germany. He tried once to join the war in Bosnia, but couldn’t get through Slovenia. He worked in Duisberg until 1999, when his visa expired and pressure was coming down from the immigration office. He applied for permanent residency in Canada and went to Montreal, where he led prayers at a mosque attended by an Algerian called Ahmed Ressam. On 14 December 1999, Ressam was arrested at the US border with explosives and timing devices in his rented car. This was the Millennium Plot to blow up Los Angeles International Airport, and though Ressam was a stranger to him it was the start of Slahi’s troubles.

In Montreal he believed he was being watched, possibly through a small hole drilled through his bedroom wall from his neighbour’s flat. (He called the police about it and they told him to fill the hole with caulk.) He was questioned by Canadian intelligence, but let go. Still, he was spooked, and in January 2000 he set off to return to Mauritania, via Dakar; on landing he was picked up by Senegalese special forces. He was rendered to Nouakchott, held for weeks, threatened with torture, and interrogated by Mauritanian intelligence and the FBI. Here was the start of the American authorities’ four-year fixation on two words, ‘tea’ and ‘sugar’, picked up on a tapped phone conversation and presumed to be code. They released him to return to his family. On his way out, the director of Mauritanian intelligence told him: ‘Those guys have no evidence whatsoever.’ [Continue reading…]

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Guantánamo Diary: torture and detention without charge

Listen to more extracts from Mohamedou Ould Slahi’s Guantánamo Diary here.

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From Gitmo to an American supermax, the horrors of solitary confinement

Ted Conover writes: I first visited the prison camp at Guantánamo Bay in April 2003. The “war on terror” prisoners, most of them captured in Afghanistan, had begun to arrive 15 months earlier. They were first locked up in Camp X-Ray, an outdoor prison that looked like a kennel complex for very large dogs. (The police dogs at Camp X-Ray, in fact, had their own cages—the ones without a funnel in the corner for urine.) By the time I arrived, Camp X-Ray had been replaced by Camp Delta; the wire cages had given way to what looked like a heavy-duty, high-security trailer park. The prison cells at Camp Delta were made of shipping containers, sliced in half the long way so that a corridor could be added down the middle, then re-assembled into a kind of grim double-wide. Windows were cut out and fitted with heavy mesh; bugs could penetrate, but not the ubiquitous banana rats, and at least the prisoners didn’t get soaked when it rained.

The prison population peaked that year at 684. But even as the count began to decline, a feeling of permanence took hold. By 2006, Camps 5 and 6 had been built. These were the real thing, copies of high-security facilities in Indiana and Michigan, with electronically controlled gates, central video monitoring of each cell, one-way glass everywhere, and cramped exercise pens. Camps 5 and 6 are where almost all of the remaining prisoners are now kept.

Throughout modern history, governments have used islands for imprisonment or exile. South Africa had Robben Island. Russia had Sakhalin Island. France had Devil’s Island. Guantánamo’s location does not set it apart—nor does the use of physical torture, or the prevalence of hunger strikes, or the nefarious reputation. What is new about Guantánamo has become clear only recently. Rear Admiral Richard W. Butler, who headed up the prison camp until last July, unwittingly alluded to it during my most recent visit earlier in the year. “Twelve years ago,” he said, gesturing to his desk chair, “none of us thought that anybody would still be sitting here today.”

The Bush Doctrine redefined war as something that might go on forever. It created a permanent state of exception, in which extraordinary means were permitted to pursue terrorists (wherever they may be) and to detain suspects (for any length of time). What this has meant for prisoners at Guantánamo is, on one level, well known: without prospect of trial or tribunal, their sentences are effectively open-ended. On another level, what this has meant has never been fully acknowledged. Many of the Guantánamo prisoners are being held in solitary confinement, a difficult condition under the best of circumstances, and psychologically excruciating when no concluding point is specified. Two centuries ago, America was a pioneer in the use of punitive isolation. Now it is pioneering a refinement: the use of solitary without end. [Continue reading…]

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My last day in Yemen — escaping from kidnappers

Gregory D. Johnsen writes: [E]arlier this spring I decided to go back one more time. I pitched it to my editors as a three-story trip. But in my mind, it was a final farewell. I was getting married in a few months, and I wanted to move on and write about other things. I’d quit smoking years earlier and my twenties had slipped into my thirties. I was ready for a change. On March 6, I boarded the plane for my last trip to Yemen.

Sixteen days later I was done. I had my three stories, or at least the notes and interviews to write them. But I didn’t want to leave, not yet. Something was still missing. Instead of flying home early, I compromised: One more story.

I already knew the one I’d do. The ghost story every writer has, the one they obsess over and worry about; always researching, never writing. Mine was a tragedy that started with a Guantanamo interrogation.

Detainee: I am from Urday City in Yemen, not a city in al-Qaeda… My city is very far from the city of al-Qaeda… That is not my name and I am not from that city…

Tribunal President: al-Qaeda is not a city. It is the name of an organization.

Detainee: Whether it is a city or an organization, I am not from al-Qaeda. I am from Urday City.

Tribunal President: Are you from Yemen?

Detainee: Yes, I am from Urday.

Tribunal President: Did you travel from Yemen to Afghanistan?

Detainee: I went from Yemen to Afghanistan.

Tribunal President: Did you do that in the year 2000?

Detainee: I don’t know the time.

Tribunal President: Was it the year 1421?

Detainee: I am from a village, I cannot tell time.

The detainee, Adnan Abd al-Latif, was a mentally unstable man who had suffered severe brain damage as a result of a car crash in 1994. Twice he had been cleared for release, but each time something went wrong and he remained locked in his cell, counting the days until there was nothing left to count. On Sept. 10, 2012, he committed suicide. He had been in Guantanamo Bay for more than a decade.

Latif’s case seemed to get at all the horrors of that lost decade: a handicapped man who confused al-Qaeda with a Yemeni village of the same name, locked up as the worst of the worst. For 10 years, while Latif befriended the iguanas and banana rats that wandered into his cell, the U.S. and Yemen fought for custody. Neither side would give in. The U.S. had him but wouldn’t let him go; Yemen wanted him but couldn’t get him.

Then Latif killed himself with a fistful of pills and positions changed. Now neither country wanted him. The U.S. needed him gone, but Yemen wouldn’t take him. In death, just as in life, he was in legal limbo — neither here nor there. Instead of Guantanamo, Latif was sent to Germany, where his body was frozen and stored at Ramstein Air Base while the two countries argued over who had to take the corpse.

Latif’s story was sad, but mostly it was just human. He wasn’t nameless or faceless, an abstract stand-in for our fears. He was a man with a history and a family, and I wanted to write about them, to tell his story. In my mind it was less about Guantanamo Bay than it was about the withering of hope and how a single man had been ground down to nothing by a pair of bureaucracies. But no one else seemed to see it this way. Obama had already ordered the prison closed. He just hadn’t succeeded. Guantanamo was still open, and indefinite detention was still the law of the land. But the country had moved on; a collective forgetting that let us pretend everything had changed when nothing had. [Continue reading…]

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America can’t handle the truth – about Guantánamo, torture or a man now free from both

Cori Crider writes: He was wan, but he smiled. At a hospital here in Montevideo on Monday, my Guantánamo client Abu Wa’el Dhiab and I sat together for the first time without a shackle bolting him to the floor. My client grimaced in pain a lot – he has been on a hunger strike for the better part of the last two years, and it has gnawed at his spirit and his health. But he smiled: On Sunday, Abu Wa’el was finally released from the military prison at Guantánamo Bay, where he had been held for 12 years without ever being charged for a crime, despite the US government having cleared him in 2009.

As pale and thin as this man was, laying there in the hospital bed, a spark has returned to his eyes.

His ordeal may be over now, but there is much about Abu Wa’el’s health and mistreatment I still can’t tell you. The US military balked when I asked for the lab work it conducted just after our doctors saw him – the Pentagon would not so much as give me an official weight in those final days at Gitmo. Instead, the Defense Department moved up the date of his flight to Uruguay at the last minute, in an attempt to evade a damaging photo-op: an emaciated hunger-striker being carried off a US military plane. And in an ongoing court dispute, the Obama administration is still fighting a federal judge’s order to release video tapes showing the abusive force-feedings that Abu Wa’el suffered – over 10 unvarnished hours of his daily reality. [Continue reading…]

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