Recent reports about the Guantánamo Bay military prison have documented and confirmed the torture of detainees, and offered new insight into the wobbly legality of military commissions.
Scores of prisoners remain there and according to a Seton Hall report an elaborate system has been installed to eavesdrop on attorneys meeting with the prisoners, thereby undermining the legitimacy of the military tribunals. The Constitution Project also released an exhaustive report confirming what has been known for years – that torture of prisoners did occur at Guantánamo. Many of the prisoners are on hunger strikes, they see no escape from a place where they are being indefinitely held. “The situation is desperate now,” prisoner Samir Najl al Hasan Moqbel wrote in a recent column for The New York Times.
Today, President Obama, during a White House news briefing, said he still would like to see Gitmo shuttered. Obama promised to close the prison during his first term, but failed. Some reporting said the administration did not have much of a strategy in place for closing the prison.
Obama said, “I continue to believe that we need to close Guantánamo. I think it is critical for us to understand that Guantánamo is not necessary to keep us safe. 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,” The Huffington Post’s Ryan J. Reilly reports.
He continued, “The notion that we’re going to continue to keep over 100 individuals in a no-man’s land in perpetuity – even at a time when we’ve wound down the war in Iraq, we’re winding down the war in Afghanistan, we’re having success defeating al Qaeda, we’ve kept pressure up on all these transnational terrorist networks, when we’ve transferred detention authority to Afghanistan – the idea that we would still maintain, forever, a group of individuals who have not been tried, that is contrary to who we are, it’s contrary to our interests, and it needs to stop.”
The Center for Constitutional Rights, which has long represented some of the prisoners, lauded Obama’s comments, but noted the president should not place the entire onus on Congress to close the prison.
For instance, CCR said that Obama “still has the power to transfer the men right now. He should use the certification/waiver process created by Congress to transfer detainees with the 86 men who have been cleared for release, including our client Djamel Ameziane.”
President Obama promised but failed to shutter the Guantánamo Bay military prison and has refused to launch an investigation into the use of torture at the prison and other unknown or “black sites.” But groups like Human Rights Watch and many others, including inmates at the prison, strive to highlight the injustices and atrocities of the prison, rendition and military commissions.
It’s not an easy endeavor in a nation where polls suggest that many people are not terribly concerned about the rights of people who the American government has labeled terrorist suspects. In a piece for The New York Times op-ed page that garnered notice, Samir Najl al Hasan Moqbel, a prisoner at Guantánamo for more than 10 years, explained his reasons for going on a hunger strike. He’s never been charged with a crime, he has been left to languish in a dark hole, where prison officials brutally force-feed him. “The situation is desperate now,” he writes. “All of the detainees are suffering deeply. At least 40 people are on a hunger strike. People are fainting with exhaustion every day. I have vomited blood.”
It has been widely documented that military detainees have been tortured at Guantánamo and other unknown or “black” sites overseas, with the knowledge of top administration officials in the administration of George W. Bush. In 2011, Human Rights Watch issued a report documenting evidence that top Bush administration officials, including the president, approved of torture. (Office of Legal Counsel memoranda were eventually made public reveling the lengths attorneys took to justify torture.) The Constitution Project, as reported by The New York Times’ Scott Shane, has released an exhaustive report, more like a book, that adds “considerable detail” to the treatment of military detainees. See the group’s Task Force on Detainee Treatment.
Another report from Seton Hall School of Law provides more evidence that the Guantánamo military tribunals are a sham.
Law Professor Mark Denbeaux, director of the law school’s policy and research center, said government surveillance of conversations between attorneys and military detainees greatly undermines the already wobbly legitimacy of the military commissions.
Though then-presidential candidate Barack Obama often blasted President George W. Bush’s expansion of presidential powers to fight terrorism, once in the White House he quickly embraced those powers which have only swelled during his tenure.
“Our actions in defense of our liberty will be just as our costs, and that ‘We the People,’ will uphold our fundamental values as vigilantly as we protect our security,” Obama said. “Once again, America’s moral example must be the bedrock and the beacon of our global leadership.”
The president’s rhetoric, however, does not mesh with what we are discovering about the ramped up use of Reaper and Predator drones to target suspected terrorists. Reporting by Mark Mazzetti for The New York Times provides insight into the “origins of a covert drone war that began under the Bush administration, was embraced and expanded by President Obama, and is now the subject of fierce debate.”
Part of the debate includes whether the Obama administration has tossed aside some of the fundamental values the nation cherishes, such as due process and being a defender of human rights globally.
A “white paper,” leaked earlier this year and made public by NBC is apparently a summary of a lengthier document prepared by a few attorneys in the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC). The white paper makes the argument that a high-ranking government official, like the president, can order the killing of a U.S. citizen integral to or associated with al Qaeda abroad if the person poses an “imminent threat of violent attack” against America, the person is unlikely to be captured and that the killing operation would be conducted in accordance with laws governing war.” The OLC white paper also asserts that no court oversight of the administration’s targeted killing regime is required.
The Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights chaired by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) will conduct a hearing on April 16* to explore the “constitutional and counterterrorism implications of targeted killings.” According to a statement announcing the hearing, senators will “also explore proposals to increase transparency regarding U.S. drone policy and establish a legal architecture to regulate drone strikes.”
The administration has endeavored to shroud its policy on drone warfare in secrecy, but release of the OLC white paper and the mounting numbers of civilians killed in drone strikes are making it more difficult to keep the policy under wraps. The ACLU has lodged a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit to force the administration to release the entire memo, for instance.
The escalation of drone warfare is likely also not helping Obama’s desire for America to remain a beacon of “global leadership.” As The Times’ Scott Shane reports, since taking office the CIA and military “have killed about 3,000 people in counterterrorist strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, mostly using drones.”
Damien Corsetti was an interrogator at the Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan in 2002, where, according to The New York Times, he was known as the “King of Torture.” In 2006, he was prosecuted for alleged abusive treatment he committed while an interrogator, but was acquitted. Nevertheless, he told our Witness to Guantanamo project that he had mistreated his prisoners.
When he began working in summer 2002, Corsetti believed in what he was doing. He thought they were all guilty and, like most Americans, he was angry. He explained how he had obtained information regarding several alleged plots through his interrogations in time for the U.S. to intervene and prevent the incidents from occurring. He saved American lives.
In the months that followed, however, he and other interrogators began to have doubts about their work. They asked a Judge Advocate General, or JAG lawyer, for advice. The JAG attorney assured them that their actions were legal because the Bush administration had decided not to adhere to the Geneva Conventions. After hearing the JAG assessment, Corsetti felt obligated to follow orders.
Corsetti told us how he would hood prisoners, tighten the cord at the neck, and then pour water over the hood. The process wasn’t quite the same as “waterboarding,” but the detainees did experience the sensation of drowning or suffocating.
He forced prisoners into extremely uncomfortable and awkward “stress positions” for hours. He noted how the military later renamed the term “stress positions” to “safety positions,” explaining that the safety positions were for the safety of the interrogators and the military personnel on the base, not the detainees.
by Stephen Vladeck, Professor of Law and Associate Dean for Scholarship, Washington College of Law, American University
The more that I grapple with the so-called “white paper” prepared by the Department of Justice to provide at least some overview of the legal rationale behind the targeted killing of U.S. citizen terrorism suspects such as Anwar al-Awlaki, the more I’m reminded of Justice Robert Jackson’s dissenting opinion in the Mezei case -- decided in March 1953 at the height of the Cold War. As Jackson there explained:
Only the untaught layman or the charlatan lawyer can answer that procedures matter not. Procedural fairness and regularity are of the indispensable essence of liberty. Severe substantive laws can be endured if they are fairly and impartially applied. Indeed, if put to the choice, one might well prefer to live under Soviet substantive law applied in good faith by our common-law procedures than under our substantive law enforced by Soviet procedural practices.
Although Jackson lost in Mezei, his understanding of due process eventually became hard-wired into the Supreme Court’s due process jurisprudence, culminating in a number of decisions in the 1970s in which the Court recognized that the heart of the Due Process Clause was an individual’s entitlement to a hearing before a neutral decision maker.