With closing Guantánamo given up as a lost cause, Obama’s policy has moved onto assassination rather than detention
A detainee at Guantánamo was found dead in his cell on Saturday, according to camp officials. He is the ninth person to die at the camp since it was opened more than ten years ago. As former Gitmo guard Brandon Neely pointed out Monday, more detainees have died at the camp (nine) than have been convicted of wrongdoing by its military commissions (six). This is the fourth detainee who has died at the camp since Obama’s inauguration.
Although the detainee’s identity has not been disclosed, a camp spokesman acknowledged that he “had not been charged and had not been designated for prosecution”. In other words, he has been kept by the US government in a cage for many years without any opportunity to contest the accusations against him, and had no hope of leaving the camp except by death.
Indeed, dying in due process-free captivity now appears to be the only way for many of these detainees to leave. The last person to leave the camp via death was a 48-year-old Afghan citizen, Awal Gul, who died in February 2011 of an apparent heart attack. Gul, the father of 18 children, was accused by the US of being a Taliban commander – a charge he vehemently denied because, as his lawyer put it, “he was disgusted by the Taliban’s growing penchant for corruption and abuse.” But the due process-free indefinite detention policy still in place at the camp meant that those conflicting claims were never resolved, and he died after more than nine years in captivity – thousands of miles from his family, in the middle of a foreign ocean – despite never having been convicted of anything.
In the hierarchy of evil, consigning someone who has been convicted of nothing to a cage year after year after year, until they die, is high up on the list. And in that regard, this latest episode demonstrates not only the ongoing travesty of the US’s war on terror policies, but also the dishonesty of the attempt to exonerate Obama for those policies.
What has always made Guantánamo such an assault on basic notions of justice, and what still makes it so, is not its physical location in the Carribean sea. Its defining evil is its system of indefinite detention: that human beings are imprisoned indefinitely, sometimes for life, without the obligation to prove they are guilty of anything. Notwithstanding the authoritarian eagerness on the part of many to blissfully assume that people in Gitmo must be guilty terrorists because the US government says so, punishing people without trials or charges is as tyrannical as it gets, and it continues in full.
To the extent they ever address any of this at all any more, Obama defenders love to point out that he tried to fulfill his promise to “close Gitmo”, but was thwarted by congressional opposition from both parties. That claim is true as far as it goes, but it does not go very far at all.
That’s because Obama’s plan was not so much to “close Gitmo” as it was simply to relocate it a few thousand miles north onto US soil, with its system of indefinite detention – which makes the camp so odious – fully preserved. That is why civil liberties groups such as the ACLU harshly denounced Obama’s plan as “Gitmo North”. As the ACLU explained, long before Congress obstructed what Obama wanted to do, “the administration plans to continue its predecessor’s policy of indefinite detention without charge or trial for some detainees, with only a change of location.”
Indeed, as I documented several months ago, the system of indefinite detention from the start has been central to Obama’s plan for these detainees. Put another way, even if Congress had given Obama everything he wanted, the system that means that death is the only way out for many detainees would have been fully preserved. The excuse-making for Obama – “oh, he tried to close the camp but Congress would not let him” – is simply a deceitful tactic Democrats have concocted to justify their total silence about a grave injustice they once pretended to find so appalling and their raucous swooning for a president who supports it.
There is, however, one significant difference in this regard between Bush’s and Obama’s policies. Whereas Bush preferred to detain people without due process or judicial review, Obama simply kills them. Bush’s former NSA and CIA director, General Michael Hayden, spoke this week at the University of Michigan and, as he (yet again) heaped praise on Obama for continuing the crux of the Bush/Cheney approach to terrorism, he made this precise point, as reported by Wired [my emphasis]:
“President Barack Obama has closely followed the policy of his predecessor, President George W Bush, when it comes to tactics used in the ‘war on terror’ – from rendition, targeted killings, state secrets, Guantánamo Bay to domestic spying, according to Michael Hayden, Bush’s former director of the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency.
“‘But let me repeat my hypothesis: Despite the frequent drama at the political level, America and Americans have found a comfortable center line in what it is they want their government to do and what it is they accept their government doing. It is that practical consensus that has fostered such powerful continuity between two vastly different presidents, George W Bush and Barack Obama, when it comes, when it comes to this conflict,’ Hayden said Friday while speaking at the University of Michigan …
“‘And so, we’ve seen all of these continuities between two very different human beings, President Bush and President Obama. We are at war, targeted killings have continued; in fact, if you look at the statistics, targeted killings have increased under Obama.’
“He said that was the case because, in one differing path between the two presidents, Obama in 2009 closed CIA ‘black sites’ and ratcheted down on torturing detainees. But instead of capturing so-called ‘enemy combatants’, President Obama kills them instead, Hayden said.
“‘We have made it so politically dangerous and so legally difficult that we don’t capture anyone anymore,’ Hayden said. ‘We take another option, we kill them. Now. I don’t morally oppose that'”.
Of all the pretzels of hypocrisy Democratic partisans have twisted themselves into, in order to defend their leader, this has to be the most extraordinary. They spent years screaming bloody murder because Bush and Cheney merely wanted to eavesdrop on and detain people, including Americans, without any judicial review: a shredding of our constitution, an assault on our values, a blight on our nation, they bellowed. During the Bush years, I echoed those same sentiments.
Yet now, when their own party’s leader seizes the power to target people (including their own fellow citizens), with no judicial review, not for mere eavesdropping or detention, but for assassination, they have nothing to say – except to express their approval and even admiration for his “toughness”.
Identically, that Obama sought to continue the wretched system of indefinite detention that causes people like this latest detainee to spend his entire life in a prison camp with no charges could not be less of an issue to them and, therefore, continues with little opposition.
This article originally appeared on the Guardian UK.