In a sharply-worded open letter to President Obama, 42 prominent figures in the legal community in Illinois — retired lawmakers and judges, as well as working lawyers — have criticized the president for his failure to close the “war on terror” prison at Guantánamo, as he promised to do on his second day in office in January 2009.
In an article for Yahoo News, the reporter Liz Goodwin explained how the signatories’ words carried particular weight because they included “[o]ne-time mentors and fundraisers” for the president. Goodwin explain that, in the letter, posted below, “a bipartisan group of Chicago lawyers — many who know Obama personally — argue that the president has all the authority he needs now to transfer prisoners out and has no excuse for inaction.”
Goodwin added, “Signatories include Chicago civil rights attorney Judson Miner, who gave Obama his first job out of law school, and Steven Cohen, a top bundler who raised more than $650,000 for the president during his two campaigns. Judge Abner Mikva, who offered a young Obama a clerkship and later became his mentor, also signed the letter. Some Republicans also joined, including former Illinois Gov. Jim Thompson.”
In the letter, the lawmakers, judges and lawyers point out that almost half the prisoners still held at Guantánamo were cleared for release by the high-level, inter-agency Guantánamo Review Task Force that President Obama appointed shortly after taking office. The task force published its recommendations in January 2010. Since that time, 80 cleared prisoners have been released, but 76 remain, out of the 155 men still held.
55 of these men are Yemenis, but, in response to an airline bomb plot on Christmas Day 2009 that was hatched in Yemen, President Obama issued a moratorium on releasing Yemeni prisoners in January 2010, “due to fears that jihadi groups were taking hold in the country and that it would be an unstable environment,” as Liz Goodwin explained.
A 77th man, another Yemeni, was recently cleared for release by a Periodic Review Board, convened to assess the cases of 46 prisoners who were recommended for indefinite detention by the task force, on the basis that they are allegedly too dangerous to release, even though insufficient evidence exists to put them on trial (which means, of course, that the supposed evidence itself is profoundly untrustworthy). The PRBs will also look at the cases of 25 other men who had been recommended for prosecution, but who will not now be tried because of court rulings determining that most of the charges were not internationally recognized war crimes, and had, in fact, been invented by Congress.
The signatories to the letter call for these 77 men to be released immediately. For the last few years, onerous restrictions imposed by Congress led to a situation whereby very few prisoners were released. President Obama had the power to bypass Congress, through a waiver in the legislation, but chose not to use it. However, in December, Congress eased its restrictions on releasing prisoners, and, with President Obama having ended his moratorium on releasing Yemenis, in a major speech on national security last May, there are now no more obstacles preventing the prisoners’ release.
The signatories to the letter told the president, “As you know, half of the prisoners still at Guantánamo … were cleared for transfer over four years ago by your Joint Task Force, yet they remain at Guantanamo Bay!”
They added, “They should be returned to their homes and families immediately.” They also called for the Periodic Review Boards to be held as swiftly as possible (just two have taken place since they began in November) and stated, “Those cleared at these hearings should be promptly released. Those not cleared should be charged and tried as soon as possible, and dealt with appropriately. Our country does not condone indefinite detention without trial.”
One of the signatories to the letter, Tom Sullivan, a prominent attorney in Chicago — and an Obama supporter — said, as Yahoo News put it, that he “became ‘bitterly disappointed’ with how little action Obama took to close the prison.”
“We want him to take the action that he keeps — in his beautiful speeches — insisting he’s going to take,” Sullivan said. “After a while you listen to enough of these speeches, and they’re so wonderful and you see no action — you begin to wonder what the heck is going on.”
The letter is posted below:
An Open Letter to President Obama: Close Guantánamo Bay
VIA US MAIL AND E-MAIL
President Barack Obama
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue
NW Washington, DC 20500
Dear Mr. President:
Some of us are Democrats, some Republicans, and some independents. Like you, we are Illinois lawyers who believe strongly that adherence to the Rule of Law is critical to our national reputation and values, and that we can effectively combat terrorism and, at the same time, maintain fidelity to the Rule of Law. As you have stated, it is particularly important that we adhere to our principles not only when it is easy, but when it is most difficult to do so.
January 11 marked the twelfth anniversary of the opening of the Guantánamo prison. There should be no thirteenth anniversary. All steps must be taken to close that prison as soon as possible. That is not a partisan goal; Colin Powell, Henry Kissinger, Robert Gates, John McCain and Richard Lugar, as well as many other prominent Republicans, have called for the closing of Guantánamo. As you have said: “GITMO has become a symbol around the world for an America that flouts the Rule of Law.”
You have stated exactly what must be done: “[W]e’ve got to close Guantánamo … It is expensive. It is inefficient. It hurts us in terms of our international standing. It lessens cooperation with our allies on counterterrorism efforts. It is a recruitment tool for extremists. It needs to be closed.” We strongly support your commitment to close the Guantánamo prison, and we are encouraged by the news that seven prisoners have been released over the past several months.
Mr. President, Congress has passed the legislation you requested easing the former restrictions on transferring detainees to other countries; you now have all the authority you need to close Guantánamo. As Senator Carl Levin stated, the legislation “provides a clear route for the transfer of detainees to third countries.” Many countries have already offered to take them. The legislation also allows the administration, without congressional restrictions, to transfer prisoners by consenting to court orders authorizing their transfer, a clear and simple route for the many who have already been cleared.
As you know, half of the prisoners still at Guantánamo — seventy-seven of the 155 there — were cleared for transfer over four years ago by your Joint Task Force, yet they remain at Guantánamo Bay!
They should be returned to their homes and families immediately. The others have been promised hearings before newly appointed boards, but few have been held. These hearings should proceed immediately. Those cleared at these hearings should be promptly released. Those not cleared should be charged and tried as soon as possible, and dealt with appropriately. Our country does not condone indefinite detention without trial.
To summarize: for more than eleven years, most of these men have been deprived of their liberty without trials. This is a tragedy for them and their loved ones and a rallying cry for our enemies.
We ask you to use your existing authority to close Guantánamo.
-Hon. Abner J. Mikva, Member of Congress (1969-1973, 1975-1979); Judge, United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia (1979-1994; Chief Judge, 1991-1994); Counsel to the President (1994-1995)
-Hon. James R. Thompson, United States Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois (1971- 1975); Governor of the State of Illinois (1977-1991); Winston & Strawn
-Hon. George N. Leighton, Judge of the Circuit Court of Cook County (1964-1969), Judge, Illinois Appellate Court (1969-1976); Judge, United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois (1976-1987)
-Hon. Benjamin K. Miller, Justice, Illinois Supreme Court (1984-2001); Jenner & Block LLP
-Dan K. Webb, United States Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois (1981-1985), Winston & Strawn
-Anton R. Valukas, United States Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois (1985-1989), Jenner & Block LLP
-Thomas P. Sullivan, United States Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois, (1977-1981); Jenner & Block LLP
-Tyrone C. Fahner, Attorney General of the State of Illinois (1980-1983); Mayer Brown LLP
-Hon. Adlai Stevenson III, United States Senator (1970-1981); Chairman, Adlai Stevenson Center on Democracy
-Hon. Carol Moseley Braun, United States Senator (1993-1999), Ambassador to New Zealand and Samoa (1999-2001); Founder, Good Foods Organic
-John R. Schmidt, Associate Attorney General of the United States Department of Justice (1994- 1997); Mayer Brown LLP
-Hon. Warren Wolfson, Judge, Circuit Court of Cook County (1975-1994); Judge, Illinois Appellate Court (1994-2009); DePaul Law School (Acting Dean 2009-2011)
-Martin J. Oberman, Member, Chicago City Council (1975-1987); Law Offices of Martin J. Oberman
-Judson H. Miner, Corporation Counsel of the City of Chicago (1986-1989); Miner Barnhill & Galland, PC
-Robert A. Helman, Mayer Brown LLP
-Scott Turow, author; Dentons
-Lowell E. Sachnoff, ReedSmith LLP
-Ronald S. Safer, Schiff Hardin LLP
-Todd A. Smith, Power Rogers & Smith, PC
-Daniel E. Reidy, Jones Day
-William F. Conlon, Sidley Austin LLP
-Vincent J. Connelly, Mayer Brown LLP
-Fay Clayton, Robinson Curley & Clayton, PC
-Ronald S. Miller, Miller Shakman & Beem LLP
-Randolph N. Stone, University of Chicago Law School
-Patricia A. Bronte, Stowell & Friedman, Ltd.
-Jeffrey D. Colman, Jenner & Block LLP
-Gary A. Isaac, Mayer Brown LLP
-Charles F. (Chuck) Smith, Skadden Arps LLP
-David J. Bradford, Jenner & Block LLP
-Kimball R. Anderson, Winston & Strawn
-Robert L. Graham, Jenner & Block LLP
-Sidney N. (Skip) Herman, Bartlit Beck Herman Palenchar & Scott LLP
-Steven H. Cohen, Cohen Law Offices
-Daniel M. Feeney, Miller Shakman & Beem LLP
-Charles H.R. Peters, Schiff Hardin LLP
-Jeffrey I. Cummings, Miner Barnhill & Galland, PC
-Cynthia A. (Cindy) Wilson, Northwestern University School of Law
-Matthew J. O’Hara, Hinshaw & Culbertson LLP
-J. Andrew Moss, ReedSmith LLP
-Leonard C. Goodman
-Nancy C. Loeb, Northwestern Law School
Note from senders: Institutional names are included to identify counsel and not to reflect that the institutions or law firms support the views in this letter. Responses may be made to Thomas P. Sullivan. Contact him by e-mail, by telephone on 312-923-2928, or send mail to Jenner & Block LLP, 353 North Clark Street, Chicago, IL 60654.
What you can do now
Call the White House and follow up on the letter. Ask President Obama to release all the cleared prisoners without further delay, and to use his existing authority to close Guantánamo. Call 202-456-1111 or 202-456-1414 or submit a comment online.
Note: The photo at the top of this article is from the occupation, by Witness Against Torture activists, of the National Museum of American History in Washington D.C. on January 11, 2014, the 12th anniversary of the opening of Guantánamo. Please see here for my photo set on Flickr of the day of action in the capital, outside the White House and in the museum.
Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer and film-maker. He is the co-founder of the “Close Guantánamo” campaign, and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison. This article originally appeared on andyworthington.co.uk on February 14, 2014.