Photo Credit: Jeremy Varon/Witness Against Torture
I remember, as if in a distant dream, repeating through sobs of joy and exhaustion, “It’s over. It’s over.” On live TV President Obama had just signed, as his first official act in January 2009, an executive order mandating the closure of the prison at Guantánamo. To Obama’s right stood a proud Vice President Biden, gently coaching his neophyte boss through the momentous ceremony.
As my tears began to drain away, so too did the sting of years of torture, wars based on lies, and the grotesque contortions of the law making up Bush’s War on Terror. All the work of Witness Against Torture and other anti-GTMO activists — the frigid White House rallies, the endless press releases, the many fasts, the arrests for civil disobedience — had borne fruit. Tortured men could now go home, or stand trial before a fair tribunal.
What should have been an end to the Guantánamo saga proved the beginning of more grueling chapters. The Obama administration dithered on its own policy and then cowered in the face of Republican obstruction. Putrid legal rulings all but wiped away the hard-won right of uncharged men to challenge their detention in federal courts. In 2012, desperate and defiant, the detainees launched another hunger strike, countered by brutal forced feedings. Their attorneys responded with new lawsuits, while activists worldwide engaged in solidarity fasts, some lasting many weeks.
Only by these protests did Obama restart in May 2013 his stalled efforts to empty the prison. Its population winnowed, in the last years of his presidency, from more than 200 to 41. Then came Trump, freezing Guantánamo in place by means of executive malice.
The fate of the prison again rests in a new president — the very man at Obama’s side when he ordered it closed 12 years ago. Behind Obama’s failed policy was the promise to restore the rule of law. Like an immovable rock, Guantánamo as a place of immutable lawlessness has long ago wrecked the ship of such intentions.
Biden’s work is now more basic and consequential, tethered to his campaign pledge to “restore the soul of America.” By at last closing the prison, he can tend to a small piece of it. At the heart of this challenge, elemental to America’s identity, lies something more immediately meaningful: the lives of 40 long-tormented souls, tossing amidst the sea of death already meeting Biden’s moment.
‘Not even dictatorships do that’
Months before the 2020 election, stalwarts of the anti-Guantánamo cause began meeting regularly on Zoom in anticipation of a change in administrations. Barely mentioned in election coverage, the position of the Biden campaign was to again seek Guantánamo’s closure. Nothing in years had stirred in us so much hope and advocacy.
“The Coalition,” our drab name for an extraordinary mix of groups and people, first formed 15 years ago, when Guantánamo burned in the headlines. This durable collection of allies includes the Center for Constitutional Rights, Amnesty International, Code Pink, September 11 Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, Veterans for Peace, the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, Witness Against Torture, the Justice for Muslims Collective, World Can’t Wait, and Andy Worthington, the UK’s indefatigable GTMO researcher.
Artists like the Peace Poets have helped to shape the moral language of our entire effort. Many others have passed through our work, whether individual attorneys of Guantánamo clients; or the former chief prosecutor at Guantánamo, Col. Morris Davis, turned GTMO critic; or the prison’s original Muslim chaplain, James Yee, himself persecuted by the U.S. government.
The Coalition’s persistence is itself a triumph of commitment. We can’t quit each other, because we can’t abandon the men still at Guantánamo, nor the principles still at stake. Our longevity also offers somber perspective on the offense. Since forming, our community has experienced numerous funerals, births, marriages, graduations and retirements — the very landmarks long denied the detainees, and a human way to measure their loss.
Our advocacy under Trump was no less earnest than in years past. But it had an aura of futility. Trump roared into the White House as a pro-torture candidate. As president, he quickly rescinded the Obama policy seeking Guantánamo’s closure. Worse, he issued the cheeky threat to “load up” the prison with “some bad dudes.” Early on, talk even swirled of permitting the restart of the CIA’s torture program. No one, Trump made clear, was to leave the prison.
For the detainees, this meant the near-certainty of four more dismal years at Guantánamo. (According to Amnesty International, two of the current 40 arrived on Day One in January 2002; 15 others were brought to Guantánamo later that year, and all have been there for at least 12 years. The cost of imprisoning them is now a staggering $13 million per prisoner, per year.) This prospect was especially cruel for the four men already cleared for release by an interagency review before Trump took office. “Let it sink in,” Andy Worthington takes every chance to say, “The United States imprisons people whom the government itself does not want to hold. Not even dictatorships do that.”
Where is Guantánamo?
Mostly dead as a political issue in the Trump years, Guantánamo trudged on, zombie-like, as if a relic of another era. At the same time, it felt terribly alive as a metaphor, a precursor and even a model.
Propelling Trump’s “Muslim Ban” was the same Islamophobia and racism underwriting Guantánamo, whose inmates have only ever been Muslim men. The great bogeyman of the War on Terror — the foreign, brown-skinned, Muslim terrorist — seamlessly morphed into a new menace: the foreign, brown-skinned migrant rapist and murderer. Conjoining the two threats, some on the right bellowed that the southern border might also be a conduit for ISIS monsters.
Family separation and the prisons housing the sundered children made again a spectacle of ghastly, penal abuses. Guantánamo, as a system of violent othering at the boundary of the law and accepted morality, seemed a shadow force in the newly seething nativism.
Those Americans who authorized or committed torture have never been held to legal account. This failing finds easy echo in the historic impunity with which police have brutalized people of color, brought to glaring light by Black Lives Matter protests. Trump’s lame duck pardon of the private mercenaries who massacred Iraqi civilians brought home the rough justice of the double standard, which makes victims of the victimizers.
The torture saga, finally, has seemed a giant pedagogy in gaslighting, greasing the slide towards authoritarianism. If a critical mass of Americans could believe that torture was not torture, as the Bush administration insisted, how else might they be manipulated?
Toxic partisanship is part of the legacy as well. With the notable exception of torture survivor John McCain, the Republican Party for years denied, excused or accepted the commission of grave crimes. (Democrats generally expressed sincere but toothless laments over past abuses.) What other violence and constitutional crimes would it abide when back in power?
Puzzling over the prison’s vexed legal and territorial status, scholar Amy Kaplan years ago titled an iconic essay “Where is Guantánamo?” The answer, even as the prison has faded from attention, is lots of places.
As to the prison itself, advocates adopted during the Trump presidency a “no news is good news” outlook, in which maintaining the status quo seemed likely the best outcome. Restraint and fortune obliged. With his clumsy effort to end “stupid wars,” Trump took distance from the War on Terror and his loathed predecessor, George Bush. Despite ominous preparations at the prison, no new men were brought there — not even ISIS captives credibly accused of gruesome crimes. With some controversy, in 2018, Trump named Gina Haspel, who oversaw an early CIA torture site, as agency head. Yet her confirmation hearing made clear that there was no appetite in establishment Washington for restarting torture.
Perhaps generals and government attorneys, behind the scenes, talked Trump out of frightful ideas. But Guantánamo, so far as we know, never quite captured his dark imagination. Last, no one under Trump’s watch died at the prison to add to the nine who already perished there. One man, convicted under the military commissions, was even released, if only to finish his sentence in Saudi Arabia.
‘We cannot repeat this policy fiasco and moral disaster’
Asked in recent years what it would take to close Guantánamo, the answer was simple: a change in presidents. Vital for a thousand reasons, a Biden win would mean — much like in the early days of Obama — helping an administration fulfill its stated policy.
Step one in the Coalition’s fall 2020 push was to let the Biden campaign know that there were people still passionate about the issue, who would hold him to his word. Through a high-level connection, the Coalition delivered organizational letters to the Biden-Harris team conveying just that. “The Obama administration did not work hard enough to secure its own goal,” insisted one. “We cannot repeat this policy fiasco and moral disaster.” Vigilance, not optimism, was the watchword.
With the issue finally relevant again, human rights experts published on either side of the election roadmaps that explained how Guantánamo could, as a practical matter, be closed. With varying detail, such proposals call on the executive branch to: 1. immediately send detainees already cleared for release to their home countries or to safe alternatives; 2. eliminate the category of “forever prisoners” (men judged too dangerous to release but incapable of being tried for reasons of a lack of evidence, or the taint of evidence by torture); 3. authorize their transfer and release them as well; and 4. scrap the unjust military commissions, moving the accused into federal courts.
The most immediate step in all of this is to re-establish the State Department and Pentagon offices, eliminated by Trump, that negotiate and implement the transfers. The new Congress has a role as well. Chiefly, it must lift odious restrictions on who can be transferred and where they can be sent. Any such progress, the policy briefs stress, depends on an iron-clad commitment from the new administration to get the job done.
‘Guantánamo entrenches racial divisions and racism more broadly’
If the vision of how Guantánamo can close has long been static, the sense among advocates of why it must close has evolved, reflected in recent campaigning. For the prison’s first decade, Coalition groups focused on the injury to somewhat abstract ideas of human rights and the rule of law. So much of the work, in the courts and in the streets, was to make the detained men subjects before the law — secure in the dignity of certain rights and able to plead their cases in court.
The disappointments of this approach, as well as the rise of anti-racist activism, caused a shift in emphasis. Advocates increasingly understood Guantánamo as part of a nexus of state violence powerfully rooted in white supremacy. Making connections, they have devoted themselves to a host of adjacent causes. Among these are efforts to eliminate solitary confinement — a common abuse at Guantánamo — from the domestic prison system. So too, they have opposed the militarization of U.S. immigration policy, while allying with the Black Lives Matter movement to counter police predation.
In addition, Muslim voices — chiefly Dr. Maha Hilal of the Justice for Muslims Collective —have grown more prominent in anti-Guantánamo work. She and her colleagues have educated the entire Coalition about the pernicious role of Islamophobia in the War on Terror, while extending a special solidarity as Muslims to the detainees, past and current.
The Center for Constitutional Rights, or CCR, has long addressed both foreign and domestic issues, while taking on more and more the feel of a “people’s” law collective. A primary litigant in Guantánamo cases, it has brought landmark lawsuits challenging solitary confinement in California, stop-and-frisk in New York City and national security surveillance prejudicially targeting Muslims.
So it was CCR that sent a sign-on letter to the newly installed Biden administration condemning Guantánamo within a critique of racism. Since “the September 11, 2001 attacks,” the letter asserts, “the United States government has viewed communities of color — citizens and non-citizens alike — through a security lens … Guantánamo continues to cause escalating and profound damage to the men who still languish there, and the approach it exemplifies continues to fuel and justify bigotry, stereotyping and stigma. Guantánamo entrenches racial divisions and racism more broadly.”
More than 100 groups endorsed the letter. Signatories include human rights mainstays but also immigrant rights, Muslim advocacy and anti-racist organizations. The clear hope is that the Biden-Harris administration, pledged to combatting systemic racism, will be moved by such a message and the impressive variety of messengers. If the administration is serious about racial justice, it has to be serious about Guantánamo too.
‘Don’t forget us here’
January has long been peak season for public calls to close Guantánamo. The first War on Terror captives were brought to the prison on Jan. 11, 2002. Since 2007, a couple hundred activists and human rights professionals have gathered in Washington each year to mark the grim anniversary. Activities typically include a White House rally on Jan. 11, surrounded by lobby visits, public symposia, arts events, a lengthy fast sponsored by Witness Against Torture and an arrest action at some federal building. Though with declining frequency, global media use Jan. 11 as a prompt for “Whither Guantánamo?” stories, often adorned with images of our protests.
This Jan. 11 was like none other. COVID moved all Coalition activities online. More profoundly, it plunged the United States into sickness and suffering, against which all worthy causes compete for attention. (At the pandemic’s worst in America, COVID claimed, in a single day, one-hundred times the number of lives as the remaining population at Guantánamo.) The country, moreover, was still dazed from the frightful Jan. 6 insurrection. Difficult in normal times, making Americans care about Guantánamo amid this trauma was harder still. Just keeping our own focus was a challenge.
In lieu of a White House rally the Coalition gathered for a “virtual vigil.” Its grace note signaled what made this year special also in a positive sense: the unprecedented involvement of former detainees in public advocacy.
For the first time ever a former detainee participated in our annual protest. It was Mansoor Adayfi, joining from Serbia via Zoom. Adayfi was brought at age 19 to Guantánamo, where he spent 14 years without charge. Starting at the prison, he became an accomplished artist and writer; he now has his own website and a newly published memoir about his captivity, “Don’t Forget Us Here.”
For years at the White House we had said the names of the detained men, held their pictures, told their stories and recited their poems — all to humanize them and their plight at the doorstep of their ultimate jailer. Learning of these efforts from their attorneys, the men at Guantánamo have been deeply moved, in turn extending their gratitude to us.
It was so satisfying, then, to hear directly from Adayfi the prisoners’ appreciation that they had not been forgotten, that good people cared through the years about their fate. Equally powerful was our chance to express our shame over what the U.S. government had done to them and our admiration of their resilience in the face of it. The encounter was also a reminder that injustice and loss, no matter their scale, are experienced at the level of individuals and their communities. Guantánamo remains part of the tragedy of our times, not a distraction from it.
‘Justice is not only divine, but timeless’
Like Adayfi, other former detainees have made a mission of speaking out against Guantánamo. Both their persecution and their freedom, it seems, compels them to educate the world about the prison and seek justice for those still there.
This year, seven of them wrote an “Open Letter to President Biden About Guantánamo,” published by The New York Review of Books just after the inauguration. Among the authors are Adayfi; the UK’s Moazzam Begg, who in 2003 founded the organization CAGE to support War on Terror victims; and Mohammed Ouid Slahi, author of the best-selling “Guantánamo Diary” and subject of the current Hollywood film “The Mauritanian.”
Unthinkable as a message to Trump, the letter exudes both conviction and savvy. Above all, the authors address Biden as a man with a “vision of social justice” grounded in faith. “During our incarceration,” they write, “we often reflected on the story of the Prophet Joseph (Yusuf) in the Quran and his years of wrongful imprisonment. It’s the same story in the Bible and one that reminds us that justice is not only divine, but timeless.” What they mean by justice is clear: closing Guantánamo by the steps others have recommended as well. Describing Guantánamo as a “bi-partisan project,” they call on Biden to at last turn America away from its “dark side” and find “another way” than persecution and war.
Most visible among ex-detainees has been Slahi. Since his release in late 2016, he has ceaselessly given his time for media interviews and virtual appearances at human rights gatherings around the world. Such encounters reveal him as a man of uncommon intelligence, facility with language, humor, charm and grace. The victim of unspeakable abuse, his unerring focus is the defense of human rights for everyone. At times he seems more stung by America’s tragic abdication of its capacity to help lead the world than bitter about his mistreatment and America’s hypocrisy.
Once upon a time, the film adaptation of his memoir might have been a game changer with respect to the politics of Guantánamo. Released in February, “The Mauritanian” surely humanizes Slahi, verifies his torture, and troubles the viewer with matters of law and conscience. Mostly praised by film critics, it earned its excellent lead, Tahar Rahim, a Golden Globe nomination, and Jody Foster the award itself for her depiction of Slahi’s attorney, Nancy Hollander.
Yet its digital release, given COVID, has blunted its impact, as has the intensity of America’s current moment. Even so, Coalition groups have held numerous screenings of the films as part of their campaigns, sometimes followed by online dialogue with Slahi himself.
As never before, the survivors of Guantánamo are part of the American conversation. The question — as always with Guantánamo and torture — is who is truly listening.
‘No torture apologist can be named as CIA director’
Encouraging signs suggest that the Biden administration has its ears open. Even before the inauguration, human rights groups met with transition team officials to quickly pitch their priorities. Among the groups was September 11 Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, or PT. Founded in early 2002, it has opposed the violence committed in their family members’ names, including at Guantánamo. The PT member, who likened the session to “policy speed dating,” conveyed the core demand to close the prison and honor the 9/11 dead with true justice for the alleged perpetrators.
The human rights community also scored an early victory with respect to the torture legacy. In December, beltway talk pegged Michael Morell, an acting CIA director under Obama, as Biden’s pick to lead the agency. Yet Morell had defended the CIA’s “Enhanced Interrogation Program,” as well as the CIA’s destruction of videotapes of torture sessions.
Marcy Winograd of Code Pink and Progressive Democrats of America led a fast-moving campaign to block the nomination. It included calls to Congress, media stories exposing Morell’s record and a pointed sign-on letter declaring Morell unfit. Endorsers included Lt. Col. Larry Wilkerson, Colin Powell’s Chief of Staff under Bush, CIA whistleblower John Kiriakou, torture survivors from many global conflicts and a handful of former Guantánamo detainees.
The campaign was aided by allies in high places. “No torture apologist can be named as CIA director,” said Senate Intelligence Committee member Ron Wyden of Morell to CNN. “It’s a non-starter.” Just before Christmas, the Biden team relented to the pushback, withdrawing Morell from consideration for the nomination.
A second, more modest victory was also won. In early February it was revealed that one of the CIA officers delivering Biden his presidential daily briefs was similarly compromised. It was Morgan Muir, who had helped lead the agency’s attack on the 2013 Senate Intelligence Committee report detailing CIA torture. The report’s chief author, Daniel Jones, admonished Muir, insisting that, “there’s no room for you in senior positions anymore.” Muir, the media soon reported, was removed as a briefer to the president and instead now oversees the briefing process.
During Bush’s War on Terror, torture infected great swaths of institutional Washington. Fully purging the toxin lies beyond Biden’s means, if also likely his will. Any effort to purge just the greatest poison requires addressing torture’s most durable legacy: Guantánamo.
‘That is certainly our goal and intention’
After months of renewed campaigning, the news finally broke: Biden aides, as first reported by Reuters on Feb. 12, had launched a review of the Guantánamo prison. Its apparent aim is to revive the push to close it down. “That is certainly our goal and intention,” confirmed White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki. The process remains murky, though clearer signs, like the re-naming of a State Department envoy to facilitate transfers, could come soon.
The news item was hardly the stuff of cathartic tears, like Obama’s executive order 12 years ago. But it is a start, suggesting that vigilance and pressure have their rewards.
Limiting genuine optimism are the massive barriers to closing the prison anytime soon, or even at all. Three of the now six men cleared for release require resettlement elsewhere than their countries of origin, given the political turmoil there. (One, a Rohingya Muslim, is literally stateless.) Transfer diplomacy draws in part on the strength of America’s alliances, badly damaged under Trump.
The “forever prisoners,” long-judged too dangerous to free, remain lawfully detained under prevailing interpretations of executive power. Releasing all of them would doubtless prompt howling outrage on the right. A tough-on-terror guise still plays well among congressional Republicans, eager to paint Biden as weak. Even the Democrats’ current majority may not be enough for Congress to lift legislative barriers to Guantánamo’s closure.
Likely most difficult is the issue of the military commissions and its notorious indictee Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the alleged 9/11 mastermind. For years, his and other prosecutions have been stuck in pre-trial motions. Many of these address the insoluble dilemma of how to deal with America’s torture of the accused.
Scrapping the commissions all these years in and starting over in federal courts seems almost beyond imagining. Perhaps the accused could be moved into the continental United States for their commission trials, but that too would mean a huge political fight.
Even the most ardent Guantánamo critic must concede the long odds of shuttering the prison. Indeed, one may fairly suspect that the Biden administration can more easily vaccinate the whole of America than settle the fate of 40 men in a prison it does not even want.
The chances are zero if the administration fails even to try. A small but vocal community has delivered the message that this failure — as a matter of law, morality, 40 lives and America’s soul — cannot be an option.
Jeremy Varon is an organizer with Witness Against Torture and a professor of history at The New School.
This article was originally published by Waging Nonviolence.