It seemed obvious enough to me in 2006. When you included the CIA's "black sites" around the globe (where prisoners from the war on terror were being kept and regularly tortured), American military prisons like the shocking Abu Ghraib in Iraq, which had just then been emptied, and the huge military prison camps named Bucca and Cropper, which remained in use, as well as military prisons in Afghanistan, and the already infamous detention center at Guanta'namo Bay, Cuba, the United States had, by my calculation then, at least 15,000 prisoners, most "being held" most beyond the eyes of any system of justice, beyond the reach of any judges or juries." In other words, as I put it at the time, the Bush administration had established its very own offshore "Bermuda triangle of injustice" beyond the reach of any conception of American law. It was, put bluntly, an all-American mini-gulag, filled with grotesque acts, whose offshore "crown jewel" was, of course, Guanta'namo.
As I wrote then,
"Whatever the discussion may be, whatever issues may seem to be gripping Washington or the nation, whatever you're watching on TV or reading in the papers, elsewhere the continual constructing, enlarging, expanding, entrenching of a new global system of imprisonment, which bears no relation to any system of imprisonment Americans have previously imagined, continues non-stop, unchecked and unbalanced by Congress or the courts, unaffected by the Republic, but very distinctly under the flag 'for which it stands.'"
Six years later, in 2012, Karen Greenberg, director of the Center on National Security at Fordham Law, who had by then produced a grim and striking book on the first days of that prison camp at Guanta'namo Bay, arrived at TomDispatch. She soon began writing on American global torture practices and how, for instance, the "thou shalt nots" that Barack Obama had entered the Oval Office with, including thou shalt not keep Guanta'namo open, had sadly become thou shalts. Still, if you had asked either of us then whether, almost a decade later, that crown jewel in Cuba would still be open, we both would have doubted it. And yet here we are in May 2021, in the early months of the fourth administration since its establishment, and open it is. With that in mind, it seemed all too obvious and appropriate, as President Biden begins to deal with this country's never-ending war on terror, to call on Greenberg to consider the subject of the prison from hell's closure once again and hope that it doesn't outlive us all. Tom
Can Guanta'namo Ever Be Shut Down?
Dealing with the Forever Prison of America's Forever Wars
The Guanta'namo conundrum never seems to end.
Twelve years ago, I had other expectations. I envisioned a writing project that I had no doubt would be part of my future: an account of Guanta'namo's last 100 days. I expected to narrate in reverse, the episodes in a book I had just published, The Least Worst Place: Guanta'namo's First 100 Days, about well, the title makes it all too obvious the initial days at that grim offshore prison. They began on January 11, 2002, as the first hooded prisoners of the American war on terror were ushered off a plane at that American military base on the island of Cuba.
Needless to say, I never did write that book. Sadly enough, in the intervening years, there were few signs on the horizon of an imminent closing of that U.S. military prison. Weeks before my book was published in February 2009, President Barack Obama did, in fact, promise to close Guanta'namo by the end of his first year in the White House. That hope began to unravel with remarkable speed. By the end of his presidency, his administration had, in fact, managed to release 197 of the prisoners held there without charges many, including Mohamedou OuldSlahi, the subject of the film The Mauritanian, had also been tortured but 41 remained, including the five men accused but not yet tried for plotting the 9/11 attacks. Forty remain there to this very day.
Nearly 20 years after it began, the war in Afghanistan that launched this country's Global War on Terror and the indefinite detention of prisoners in that facility offshore of American justice is now actually slated to end. President Biden recently insisted that it is indeed "time to end America's longest war" and announced that all American troops would be withdrawn from that country by September 11th, the 20th anniversary of al-Qaeda's attack on the United States.
It makes sense, of course, that the conclusion of those hostilities would indeed be tied to the closure of the now-notorious Guanta'namo Bay detention facility. Unfortunately, for reasons that go back to the very origins of the war on terror, ending the Afghan part of this country's "forever wars" may not presage the release of those "forever prisoners," as New York Times reporter Carol Rosenberg so aptly labeled them years ago.
Biden and Guanta'namo
Just as President Biden has a history, dating back to his years as Obama's vice-president, of wanting to curtail the American presence in Afghanistan, so he called years ago for the closure of Guanta'namo. As early as June 2005, then-Senator Biden expressed his desire to shut that facility, seeing it as a stain on this country's reputation abroad.
At the time, he proposed that an independent commission take a look at Guanta'namo Bay and make recommendations as to its future. "But," he said then, "I think we should end up shutting it down, moving those prisoners. Those that we have reason to keep, keep. And those we don't, let go." Sixteen years later, he has indeed put in motion an interagency review to look into that detention facility's closing. Hopefully, once he receives its report, his administration can indeed begin to shut the notorious island prison down. (And this time, it could even work.)
It's true that, in 2021, the idea of shutting the gates on Guanta'namo has garnered some unprecedented mainstream support. As part of his confirmation process, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, for instance, signaled his support for its closure. And Congress, long unwilling to lend a hand, has offered some support as well. On April 16th, 24 Democratic senators signed a letter to the president calling that facility a "symbol of lawlessness and human rights abuses" that "continues to harm U.S. national security" and demanding that it be shut.
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