CommunityThe Dissenter

Forget the Last Ten Years: What About the Next Ten Years of Guantanamo?

Witness Against Torture marches on the Supreme Court (photo: Shrieking Tree)

Wearing orange jumpsuits that have become a symbol of the cruel and inhumane punishment prisoners at Guantanamo have faced since it opened, hundreds of people formed a human chain in Washington, DC, to protest the reality that it still has yet to be closed. This was how concerned citizens and members of organizations uneasy about Guantanamo’s denial of justice and human rights for prisoners marked the tenth anniversary. In contrast, centrist think tanker Benjamin Wittes, who writes at the Lawfare blog, chose to look forward, not back (like President Barack Obama), and open up a discussion on “the next ten years of Guantanamo. “

Now, if you are wondering if you read that correctly, yes, you did. Wittes concedes in an op-ed for the Washington Post that there will be ten more years and that would be perfectly acceptable:

In a decade of policy experimentation at Guantanamo, some efforts have succeeded, some have failed tragically and some are still in process. But far more interesting than the past 10 years is what the next 10 will look like. And that subject seems oddly absent from the current conversation.

Why is it so easy for Wittes to move forward? Because to Wittes, the past ten years of detainees like Mohammed al-Qahtani or Mehdi Gezali being tortured, of sexual degradation, forced drugging and religious persecution, of prisoners being force-fed with tubes for hunger striking and of individuals being held for a decade in arbitrary and indefinite detention—Those past ten years amount to “policy experimentation,” a term that deserves a place in George Orwell’s Newspeak dictionary.

Wittes, who serves on the Hoover Institution’s National Security and Law Task Force, a conservative think tank, continues by saying, “Make no mistake: There will be another 10 years of Guantanamo. (Even if Guantanamo itself miraculously closes, we’ll have to build it somewhere else.)” This, Wittes claims, is because America has more detainees than the US can safely release and America can be expected to continue to wage war against “non-state actors” so Guantanamo should remain open as a site for putting people away that are captured.

To someone whose job it is to come up with ideas that can be promoted to power, he effectively condones America’s expanding role as the world’s police force. Instead of questioning the Authorized Use of Military Force (AUMF) or the recently signed National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which expands military power to detain people, including US citizens, indefinitely, Wittes finds Guantanamo can be accepted if America is going to wage perpetual war.

That is why Wittes proposes three principles for “Guantanamo’s next decade.” Those principles break down to the following: (1) President Barack Obama must admit he failed to close Guantanamo, (2) the model of due process at Guantanamo should be replicated and used for a “wider array of long-term counterterrorism detentions, and (3) detainees must be able to be transferred or freed from the facility.

There is nothing truly awful about Wittes’ “third principle,” save for the fact that he uses nauseating jargon and introduces it by writing, “non-criminal detention is a fluid business that requires flexibility.” For people with souls, that translates into those indefinitely held without charge must accept the fact that there are many moving parts in the world of Guantanamo military commissions and, if one is calm and patient, he can usually get some chance to challenge being held in the facility. And so, as Wittes writes, the concerned public should understand “Guantanamo has not usually meant detention forever.” Which, to be quite honest, is incredibly disingenuous because there are 171 prisoners still being held at Guantanamo and 89 of the prisoners cleared for release are still being held in detention.

But, those still who have yet to be released and those 171 prisoners who will continue to have “periodic reviews” on whether they pose a threat to US security or not should understand, as Wittes’ second proposed principle for the next ten years reads, “detention at Guantanamo has become rich with due process.” But Wittes does not think it is the kind of “due process” designed by the Executive Branch to help players in government agencies and the military get away with abuse, torture and misconduct. He does not appear to be bothered by the fact that judicial opinions often look like mad libs.

Wittes does not appear to care that, for example, detainees like Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri have endured a process that calls into question the military commissions system. According to Laura Pitter, a counterterrorism advisor for Human Rights Watch, Nashiri was held in pre-trial detention for a long time and allegations that he committed “war crimes” stemmed “from events that took place in Yemen in 2000, long before any recognized armed conflict between the United States and al Qaeda.” Nashiri was also tortured and held at a secret CIA black site. The CIA recorded “some of the waterboarding,” Pitter details, but then destroyed the tapes in 2005.

Nashiri admitted to bombings when he was being tortured. The evidence was obtained from torture. Commissions are not to admit evidence obtained through torture but have a flexibility that federal courts do not have. It could be possible for the government to find some way to admit evidence obtained by torture or other forms of coercion. Also, military personnel read attorney-client mail, which could mean details are being shared with the prosecution on the defense’s strategy.

The system is a “second-class justice system.” And yet Wittes would like to see it replicated because, ultimately, closure of Guantanamo “isn’t going to happen anyway” and, by keeping Guantanamo open, detainees can at least have a place better than jails in Afghanistan or navy ships. Plus, the commissions system now has legitimacy with judges “willing to sign-off for detentions that had once been executive-only affairs.” In other words, this system, which perverts the rule of law, has become more and more integrated into society and judges have adapted to it so why push back?

That brings us to Wittes’ first principle, which rests on the cynical pragmatic political beliefs that provide the limits for Wittes’ ideology on national security and the law. It would “actually [be] a rational calculation on Obama’s part” to not try and close Guantanamo because there would only be “marginal political gain” since he would ultimately close it and build a site that would serve the same purpose. That site would “acquire” the same “infamy.” He goes on: “What’s more, much of the president’s political base — not being stupid — has figured out that closure doesn’t mean all that much if detainees are moved rather than freed. So why not stop pretending that Guantanamo’s closure is still meaningfully part of the plan?”

Trying to do the moral and just thing by closing Guantanamo could cost Obama re-election. This is Wittes’ rationale. Again, as discussed above, Wittes finds it acceptable that some facility is necessary for housing prisoners from the endless war against “terrorists.” Because he believes there is no realist future where such a facility would not persist, President Obama is wrong to push for such a future.

Fortunately for Wittes, he is likely parroting views of individuals, who hold the most power to influence policy on Guantanamo. If former chief prosecutor Morris Davis’ frustrations are any indication, Obama has spent his first term letting political calculations set the confines of how much he does on Guantanamo. In that sense, Wittes is the personification of the indifferent politics of compromise or the apathetic politics of the possible that has become characteristic of the Obama Administration.

Finally, Wittes ends with these words:

Put these three principles together and you get something — process-rich, flexible detention at Guantanamo Bay — that looks like a detention policy for the coming decade. Working toward such a policy, not endlessly picking at the scab of the past 10 years, should be the focus of today’s discussion.

Yes, former prisoners whose future in life will be tormented by the treatment endured in Guantanamo, stop “picking at the scab of the past.” Stop sharing stories of being beaten during interrogations. Stop promoting your story of solitary confinement where you were subjected to sleep deprivation. Stop detailing how you have nightmares and wake up in the middle of night with cold sweats as a result. Stop campaigning with human rights groups like Amnesty International to close Guantanamo. And, stop trying to turn citizens of the world on to the injustice of Guantanamo during the past decade because that is all a part of some “scab” so picking it will only make it bleed. It will prevent us all, especially people like Mr. Wittes from being able to move forward.

Isn’t that why Wittes started off the day of the tenth anniversary with this blog post?

I was certain that today, being the tenth anniversary of the opening of the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, I would awaken to a big, fat New York Times editorial, rife with factual errors for me to correct and analytical misfires for me to mock. And yet there is nothing–just this oped arguing for the return of Guantanamo itself to Cuba. Guys, you’re killing me here! What about my needs?

Wittes, like the Obama Administration, wants to move forward. He wants to move forward because he lacks the moral courage, fortitude and spirit to campaign for an American society where it is unacceptable for the government and politicians to further establish and sew into the fabric a parallel second-class justice system. He does not want to advocate for a future that would involve the Executive Branch’s operations being complicated by current and former detainees seeking accountability for torture or abuse experienced.

He wants us to, jokingly or seriously, be concerned with his needs. And quite frankly, he can rationalize the horrors that have gone on at Guantanamo and put them behind him. He can easily write another op-ed on expanding “due process” or giving prisoners the “right amount” of “justice” that is loaded with jargon or newspeak that the average American will read without thinking twice about.

He also won’t wake up screaming at night because he was held in solitary confinement arbitrarily for a long period of time. So, he can write op-eds like this, which are so vacuous and repulsive, especially since they can be perceived as rational and not reactionary.

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof Press. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."