The Father of Guantanamo

The strategic exposition of the “newness” theme during Barack Obama’s first presidential trip abroad reached its apogee in Turkey. Obama conducted a campaign-style “town hall” meeting with students in Istanbul, and toured the historic Blue Mosque, a masterpiece of Turkey’s multicultural history and architecture.

When he addressed the Turkish parliament, Obama pointedly referred to his own family’s Muslim roots and his upbringing in Indonesia to draw the obvious point that the United States will no longer accept the intolerance that marked so much of our cultural and political response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. He implored the Turks to embrace “an enduring commitment to the rule of law” as the “only way to achieve the security that comes from justice for all people.”

Now that he is home, Obama has to show that his words have meaning.

He must immediately reverse his own inexplicable support for the Bush administration’s policy of indefinite and secret detention as the fate for more than 600 detainees now held at the U.S. air base in Bagram, Afghanistan.

Bagram is the father of Guantanamo.

When U.S. operatives under the Bush administration’s “war on terror” seized people around the globe on suspicion of terrorist ties, the prisoners often were sent first to Bagram, where, according to accounts by former detainees and human rights groups, many were brutalized before being shackled and shipped to what would become the notorious prison for alleged terrorists at the U.S. naval facility in Cuba.

The symbol of Guantanamo — an offshore penal colony where hundreds of men have been incarcerated without charge, without access to any court and initially without access to lawyers — became such a blight on America’s reputation that during last year’s presidential campaign both Obama and Republican John McCain vowed to close it. Days after taking office, Obama ordered that Guantanamo be shut down within a year, and his administration began a case-by-case review to determine how to handle the detainees who remain there.

But closing Guantanamo was a political promise, while Bagram went unnoticed during the long campaign.

And just a month after the president — with some fanfare — ordered the Guantanamo closing, his administration embraced the Bush administration’s position that the Bagram detainees should properly be held in what is effectively a legal no man’s land, barred from having a court hear their cases.

That premise, which the Supreme Court in several cases involving terrorism detainees already has rejected, now has been cast off by a federal judge hearing the claims of a handful of prisoners who were captured outside of Afghanistan — in Dubai and Thailand, for example — and taken to Bagram for detention. These prisoners, U.S. District Judge John D. Bates ruled last week, are “virtually identical” to the Guantanamo detainees in whose favor the Supreme Court already has ruled.

“They are noncitizens who were (as alleged here) apprehended in foreign lands far from the United States and brought to yet another country for detention,” Bates wrote. Yet the administration, he added, advocates different treatment depending on whether it “ship[s] otherwise identically situated detainees to Guantanamo or instead to Bagram.”

Arguing that Bagram detainees are different from those at Guantanamo because they are held in a “theater of war” seemed particularly galling to Bates. The U.S. government itself is responsible for taking these detainees into the combat zone. “Such rendition resurrects the same specter of limitless executive power” that the Supreme Court has rejected and reinvigorates the concern that the president can move detainees “physically beyond the reach of the Constitution and detain them indefinitely.”

This was a fundamental breach of justice and morality when the Bush administration did it. It is precisely the same breach — made worse by the stench of hypocrisy — when the Obama administration does it.

The Justice Department says it is reviewing the Bates decision and hasn’t decided whether to appeal. It shouldn’t. The first step is to determine — because after all these years we still haven’t — which Bagram detainees were taken there from third countries, and are not citizens of Afghanistan who could conceivably be turned over to Afghan authorities.

The Obama administration cannot decry the injustice of Guantanamo while continuing it in Bagram. Not even this president possesses rhetorical gifts so substantial they can bridge this chasm between words and deeds.

Marie Cocco’s e-mail address is mariecocco(at)

© 2009, Washington Post Writers Group

Marie Cocco
Marie Cocco is Executive Director Strategic Communications for BlueCross BlueShield Association in Washington DC. Cocco was among the first journalists to report the emergence of a business-backed movement…
Marie Cocco

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