By Stanley Kutler
The U.S. government’s failure to close the Guantanamo Bay detention center for alleged terrorists continues to haunt and color our standing in the world. Barack Obama and John McCain both endorsed closing the facility. Even President George W. Bush has been known to utter such a heretical idea, and some of his top aides have expressed similar sentiments. In 2006, Bush said, “I’d like to close Guantanamo, but I also recognize that we’re holding some people that are darn dangerous, and that we better have a plan to deal with them in our courts.” As the old Kentucky political prescription says, watch the way he acts, not the way he talks.
Whatever he meant, Bush now clearly has reversed himself and has chosen to do nothing. Guantanamo prison will not close on his watch; there are no plans “to deal” with the detainees “in our courts.”
As to his “war on terror,” Bush concedes nothing. Some brave or disgusted soul somewhere in the bureaucratic maze has leaked the fact that the president ignored numerous options for closing the prison. On Oct. 17, 2008, the Financial Times reported that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates pushed the idea, but the Justice Department reportedly opposed moving the prisoners to American bases or prisons. You would have to be on another planet to be unaware of the not-so-subtle hands of Vice President Dick Cheney and his staff in all this. According to The New York Times, Cheney and his staff successfully argued that maintaining Guantanamo’s active status is necessary to validate the administration’s policy on terrorists.
In any event, the effect is to maintain the status quo—in this case, maintaining a facility that has earned us only international enmity.
Criticism from “Old Europe” is to be expected, but now that Tony Blair is gone, our British allies have rejected “the Guantanamo model.” Stella Rimington, the former director general of England’s domestic intelligence agency, voiced hope that the next American president would ratchet down the talk of a “war on terror,” even expressing the sacrilegious notion that there has been a huge overreaction to 9/11. One official who has prosecuted terrorism trials for several years rejected any notion of a “British Guantanamo” where defendants’ rights would be totally absent. Imagine—our British cousins maintain their faith in the Magna Carta.
The Justice Department (and Cheney) wants us to believe that the prisoners cannot be moved for fear they would require a different set of rights once on American soil. The Supreme Court ruled in Boumediene v. Bush in June 2008 that the Guantanamo prisoners had a right to habeas corpus, but the government mainly has ignored the decision, which has had no discernible impact. A number of members of Congress have opposed moving the prisoners to bases or prisons in their districts.
After the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, we demonstrated that our legal system could proceed properly under existing laws and constitutional practice. Four conspirators were convicted a year later, and two more followed in 1997. Ramzi Mohammed Yousef, the alleged ringleader, and the others received life sentences, with no chance for parole. The system worked. Why has there been such resistance for the Guantanamo detainees? Does the military have a vested interest in conducting military trials?
The loathsome tales of torture, abuse, sodomy and murder that emerged from the Abu Ghraib prison in 2004 resulted in convictions of low-level Army guards. Those who ordered or condoned such policies never have been charged. In the case of Guantanamo, the president, his chief Cabinet officers and their underlings, and the military, from the Joint Chiefs to the actual warders on the ground, unquestionably bear responsibility for the abuse—the physical and mental abuse of prisoners and the abuse against our constitutional system. The Bush administration and the military initiated the situation, and they willingly, even enthusiastically, provided ideas and machinery that continue to keep the prison running. Reports of Guantanamo’s conditions have circulated widely on the Internet; again, we are informed with little thanks to the “mainstream” media. Our supposedly ever-vigilant media simply have allowed the news to fade into the mists of history.
Bureaucratic drift and inertia grip the problem of resolving Guantanamo’s status. According to The New York Times, the perennial anonymous “senior administration official” (Gates or Rice?) could see little if any prospect of closing the prison. He/she said that the victorious presidential candidate would find it hard to fulfill his campaign promise to close the base. “This may not be the ideal answer, but what we are trying to do is work with the system we’ve got,” the official said. Passivity with a vengeance, it seems.
George W. Bush is apparently confident that history will vindicate him. He will be gone in three months, and he has decided to pass the buck in time-honored fashion and saddle his successor with cleaning up his mess. He will not retreat, and he obviously will not make any decisions that might correct his policies or support criticism of them. His inaction on Guantanamo is emblematic. He fiddles while the global banking system cries for vigorous governmental action and an end to free-market nonsense. He fiddles while our international prestige—not to mention our reputation—goes up in smoke.
AP photo / Brennan Linsley, pool