On Jan. 20, the answer to that question seemed
obvious. In his inaugural
speech, with George W. Bush standing just behind him, President Obama pointedly
pledged to "reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals"
– a clear indication that, as he promised in a speech
in August 2007, he would dismantle the extralegal aberrations of the Bush
administration's "War on Terror":
"When I am president, America will reject torture without exception.
America is the country that stood against that kind of behavior, and we will
do so again. … As president, I will close Guantánamo, reject the Military
Commissions Act, and adhere to the Geneva Conventions. … We will again set
an example to the world that the law is not subject to the whims of stubborn
rulers, and that justice is not arbitrary."
The next day, President Obama requested
the military judges at Guantánamo to call a halt for four months
to all proceedings in the military commissions at Guantánamo (the terror
trials conceived by Dick
Cheney and his close advisers in November 2001), to give the new administration
time to review the system and to decide how best to progress with possible
The day after, he signed
his first executive orders, stating that Guantánamo would be closed
within a year, upholding the absolute ban on torture, ordering the CIA to close
all secret prisons, establishing an immediate review of the cases of the remaining
242 prisoners in Guantánamo, and requiring Defense Secretary Robert
Gates to ensure, within 30 days, that the conditions at Guantánamo conformed
to the Geneva Conventions.
At first, everything seemed to be going well. Two judges immediately halted
pre-trial hearings in the cases of the Canadian Omar
Khadr and the five
co-defendants accused of involvement in the 9/11 attacks, and the president
even secured an extra PR victory when Khalid
Sheikh Mohammed, the self-confessed architect of 9/11, who had been seeking
swift trial and martyrdom in the discredited commission system, expressed
his dissatisfaction to the judge. "We should continue so we don't
go backward, we go forward," he said.
The First Sign of Dissent From the Pentagon
However, on Jan. 29, the commissions' recently
appointed chief judge, Army Col. James M. Pohl, provided the first challenge
to the president's plans, when he refused
to suspend the arraignment of the Saudi prisoner Abdul
Rahim al-Nashiri, scheduled for Feb. 9, stating that "he found the
prosecutors' arguments, including the assertion that the Obama administration
needed time to review its options, to 'be an unpersuasive basis to delay the
Suddenly, urgent questions were raised about who was running Guantánamo,
as it transpired that, although Barack Obama could request what he wanted,
the commissions, as Pohl pointed out, had been mandated when "Congress
passed the Military Commissions Act, which remains in effect." He added,
"The commission is bound by the law as it currently exists, not as it
may change in the future."
Moreover, the only official empowered to call off Nashiri's arraignment was
Crawford, the commissions' convening authority, who retains her position
as the senior Pentagon official overseeing the trials, even though she is a
protégé of former Vice President Dick Cheney and a close friend
of Cheney's chief of staff, David Addington, the two individuals who, more
than any others, established the "arbitrary justice" that Barack
Obama pledged to bring to an end.
After a few fraught days, Crawford was evidently
prevailed upon to call off the arraignment, which she did on Feb. 5, dismissing
the charges without prejudice (meaning that they can be reinstated at a later
date). She refused to comment on her decision and in fact has only spoken out
publicly on one occasion since being appointed in February 2007, when she admitted,
in the week before Obama's inauguration, that the treatment to which Saudi
prisoner Mohammed al-Qahtani was subjected amounted
to torture. Instead, a Pentagon spokesman stepped forward to state, "It
was her decision, but it reflects the fact that the president has issued an
executive order which mandates that the military commissions be halted, pending
the outcome of several reviews of our operations down at Guantánamo."
This was hardly sufficient to assuage doubts about why a Cheney protégé
was still in charge of the commissions, and these doubts were amplified when
Press announced that two more Bush political appointees – Sandra Hodgkinson,
the former deputy assistant defense secretary for detainee affairs, and special
assistant Tara Jones – had been moved to civil service jobs within the Pentagon.
Hodgkinson had spent several years defending the Bush administration's detention
policies, and Jones, as the AP explained, worked for a Pentagon public affairs
program "aimed at persuading military analysts to generate favorable news
coverage on the war in Iraq, conditions at Guantánamo, and other efforts
to combat terrorism," which was "shut down amid fierce Capitol Hill
criticism and investigations into whether it violated Pentagon ethics and Federal
Communications Commission policy."
The Mass Hunger Strike
However, while Pohl's dissent and the continuing
presence of Susan Crawford raise serious doubts about the Pentagon's ability
– or willingness – to embrace President Obama's post-Bush world, the most troubling
developments are at Guantánamo itself. Although Robert Gates, the only
senior Bush administration official specifically retained by Obama, has shown
a willingness to adjust to the new conditions (which is, presumably, what encouraged
Obama to retain him in the first place), it seems unlikely that, even with
the best will in the world, he can address the problems currently plaguing
Guantánamo in the remaining time allotted to him to review the conditions
at the prison.
A month ago – inspired, in particular, by the seventh
anniversary of the prison's opening, and by the change of administration
– at least 42 prisoners at Guantánamo embarked on a hunger strike. According
to guidelines laid down by medical practitioners, force-feeding mentally competent
prisoners who embark on a hunger strike is prohibited, but at Guantánamo
this obligation has never carried any weight. Force-feeding has been part of
the regime throughout its history and was vigorously embraced in January 2006,
in response to an intense and long-running mass hunger strike, when a number
of special restraint chairs were brought to Guantánamo, which were used
to "break" the strike.
As I reported
last week, the force-feeding, which involves strapping a prisoner into
the chair using 16 separate straps and forcing a tube through his nose and
into his stomach twice a day, is clearly a world away from the humane treatment
required by the Geneva Conventions, as are the "forced cell extractions"
used to take unwilling prisoners to be force-fed.
Now, however, Lt. Col. Yvonne Bradley, the military defense attorney for
British resident Binyam
Mohamed (whose "extraordinary rendition" and torture set off
scandal last week), has reported that conditions inside the prison have
deteriorated still further. In an article in Sunday's Observer,
Bradley, who indicated that her client was "dying in his Guantánamo
cell," reported on a visit to the prison last week, and stated,
"At least 50 people are on hunger strike, with 20 on the critical
list, according to Binyam. The JTF [Joint Task Force] are not commenting because
they do not want the public to know what is going on. Binyam has witnessed
people being forcibly extracted from their cell. Swat teams in police gear
come in and take the person out; if they resist, they are force-fed and then
beaten. Binyam has seen this and has not witnessed this before. Guantánamo
Bay is in the grip of a mass hunger strike and the numbers are growing; things
"It is so bad that there are not enough chairs to strap them down
and force-feed them for a two- or three-hour period to digest food through
a feeding tube. Because there are not enough chairs the guards are having to
force-feed them in shifts. After Binyam saw a nearby inmate being beaten it
scared him and he decided he was not going to resist. He thought, 'I don't
want to be beat, injured or killed.' Given his health situation, one good blow
could be fatal."
Bradley added that Mohamed's account of the "savage beating" endured
by a fellow prisoner was the "first account [she had] personally received
of a detainee being physically assaulted at Guantánamo."
And yet, although Bradley's account indicates that the crisis in Guantánamo
is such that ongoing discussions about implementing the Geneva Conventions
should be replaced by urgent intervention to address the prisoners' complaints
(and alleviating the chronic isolation in which most of the prisoners are held
would be a start), the conditions in Guantánamo have been met with a
resolute silence from the Pentagon and the White House.
Will it really take another death in Guantánamo – the sixth – to provoke