Guantánamo and the Politics of Fear

Out of the nearly 800 people who have been imprisoned at Guantánamo over the last fourteen years, only 8 have been convicted of a crime — that’s just 1%. Yet, Republicans, eager to keep the prison open, continue to fuel the false narrative that the men at Guantánamo are the worst of the worst. Though far from reality, it’s an incredibly powerful claim that has harmful effects on the lives of real people. It is a central reason that that Guantánamo continues to operate more than a decade after it opened; that an unlawful regime of indefinite and arbitrary detention continues with no end in sight; and that men who have been living peacefully for years after release still suffer hardships and the stigma of their detention.

This narrative is part of a craven political agenda to hurt President Obama’s credibility and derail his policy objectives. These politicians oppose the release of prisoners and the closure of the prison, just as they are fighting to prevent President Obama from filling the vacant Supreme Court seat. Guantánamo has always been about partisan politics.

The idea that the men detained at Guantánamo were all sent there after being captured on “the battlefield” by US forces because they posed a threat couldn’t be further from the truth. Eighty-six percent of individuals were arrested by foreign forces, not by the US military. Most Guantánamo detainees were ensnared in a slipshod bounty-system in which the US paid handsome cash rewards to locals for turning over anyone who seemed out-of-place. Many of the men who arrived in Gitmo were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time — fleeing from, not fighting in, the erupting conflict in Afghanistan.

Over the course of six years and, notably, without strong opposition from either party, the Bush administration transferred over 500 men out of Guantánamo. Since 2002, hundreds of men have been released from Gitmo and the overwhelming majority of them worked hard to try to rebuild their lives (though with no help from the US). Former prisoners have gone on to study at universities, written books, taken up jobs, and started families of their own. Republicans do not want the public to hear the stories of Muslim men, once falsely deemed dangerous, living peacefully. Nor do they want the public to hear of the torment and suffering of individuals who have spent over a third of their lives imprisoned without charge. Those stories do not advance the political agenda of keeping Guantánamo open.

Snapshot: Who Remains?

As for those who remain detained, “political scapegoats”, “too tortured for release” and “Yemeni” are more adequate descriptors than “worst of the worst.” We know this because 37 of the 91 men are cleared for release, and many have been for more than six years.

The clearance process requires that every government agency with a stake in our national security has reviewed an individual and unanimously agreed that he no longer poses a threat and needs to be detained at Guantánamo. When Republicans dismiss the process and advocate that these men (and those cleared men who have been released under President Obama) should have never been cleared, they are discounting the judgment of a panel of senior officials in the Department of Defense, State Department, Justice Department, Department of Homeland Security, Office of the Director of National Intelligence, and Joint Chiefs of Staff.

There’s little to nothing that differentiates the individuals in this group from the cleared men that were transferred last month, last year, over a decade ago — except maybe their citizenship.

It should come as little surprise that prisoners with direct ties to European countries and US allies in the Middle East — Germany, the United Kingdom, Sweden, France, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain were amongst the first to leave during the Bush administration. Guantánamo has become a prison for Yemeni citizens who now make up half of the current prison population. More than three quarters (81%) of cleared men are from Yemen. Because of their citizenship and the fact that the US has refused to repatriate anyone to Yemen since 2010, their release is dependent on State Department securing a resettlement country.

Forty-four of the 91 men are currently slated for continued indefinite detention, because, the government purports, there is not enough evidence to charge them with a crime but they are “too dangerous to release.” However, the Periodic Review process has shed light on just how arbitrary this category is.

In March 2011, President Obama established Periodic Review Boards (PRB) to evaluate the continued detention of Guantánamo detainees designated for indefinite detention. Executive Order 13567 held that the initial review for each detainee in this category “shall commence as soon as possible but no later than 1 year from the date of this order.” However, the first review took place in November 2013, and the pace of hearings has continued at a glacial speed. This is hardly because these cases are the “difficult ones.” Instead, bureaucratic delays and the Obama administration’s failure to prioritize and resource the process adequately has prolonged the review of men in this category. In two and a half years only 25 men have been reviewed, but strikingly, 20 of those have been cleared, and some even released. The fact that the PRB process has reduced the number of individuals in this category shows just how problematic the category is at its core. It is more accurate to categorize this group as “awaiting clearance” rather than being stuck in an intractable limbo.Twenty-two of these individuals were referred for prosecution by the Obama Taskforce in 2009, but, 7 years later, the US government still has not brought any charges against them.

Just ten individuals have active cases in the military commissions system. A separate, second-class system of justice created to hide evidence of torture, the commissions have been deemed a failure substantively and procedurally. Only 8 men have been convicted since 2002 — all but two by guilty pleas — and most of those convictions have been overturned on appeal.

It is time to abandon the status quo. There simply is not a group of people that the government cannot release safely or try, and those that have charges brought against them should be given fair, transparent, humane trials. More men (9) have died at Guantánamo than have ever been convicted (8). Yet, rather than abandoning the commissions system in favor of fair trials in the US or transferring some of these individuals to foreign countries for prosecutions, both the Obama administration and its opponents, advocate for the continuance of the commissions because it is political convenient, not because the federal system isn’t better equipped to handle these cases.

Unfortunately, the vitriol surrounding Guantánamo is likely to continue to dominate the headlines. Proponents of the prison’s operation will continue to emphasize the possible, but not probable, “return to the battlefield” as a reason to keep men held without charge or trial indefinitely. But we cannot have guilt by association, Muslim-until-proven-innocent, determine the future of Guantánamo. Such racist rhetoric and blatant disregard for due process is the real danger to this country.