Wednesday was the 10th anniversary of the arrival of the first prisoners at the military prison at Guantanamo Bay. I’ve given Obama a pass on his promise to close it down because he has been stymied by Congress, though I don’t think he’s put any real effort into overcoming their recalcitrance. But the things that have gone on there and continue to go on there are a stain on the country and are continuing to undermine — not help, but hurt — our ability to fight terrorism.
A few facts. There are 171 men still held at Gitmo; exactly one faces actual charges. 36 more are expected to face charges, but they will do so under a system of military tribunals that is so unjust that no fewer than five JAG prosecutors, all of them decorated military officers, have resigned in protest rather than take part in them. 46 of them will likely never face a trial of any kind because the government says they are too dangerous to be released but impossible to prosecute because much of the evidence against them was obtained through torture.
And 57 of them — one third — have already been deemed to be innocent by the government but continue to be held in prison. 537 prisoners were released by the Bush administration, but as soon as Obama took office Congress decided that releasing detainees should be far more difficult, no matter how innocent they may be.
Congress imposed a requirement that the Defense Department certify a prisoner did not pose a threat if released, a guarantee that officials said was nearly impossible to grant. The law Obama signed Dec. 31 softened the language, but it’s been a year since a single man has been transferred out.
“These are men who were in their early 20s when they were picked up and now they are in their early 30s and a significant amount of their lives has slipped away while this debate has gone on and on and on,” said Cori Crider, a lawyer for the British human rights group Reprieve who represents several Guantanamo prisoners.
Zachary Katznelson, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union, said Congress was more interested in scoring political points, and should listen to security experts.
“We are not talking about releasing anyone who is dangerous. We’re talking about releasing people who the intelligence and military communities have unanimously agreed should be released,” Katznelson said.
Congress also has prohibited moving any Guantanamo prisoners to the U.S. for detention or trial, which effectively blocked Obama’s goal of closing the prison by January 2009 and trying the self-proclaimed mastermind of the Sept. 11 attack, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and others accused of war crimes in a civilian court. Mohammed is expected to be arraigned at the base later this year.
This has been an incredible stain on the United States and has destroyed our credibility when we say we support human rights and the rule of law.