With just four months to go until the US Presidential Election, there is hope, in some quarters, that Donald Trump will lose to Joe Biden. The fact that this is not a foregone conclusion shows how broken American politics has become. Openly racist, Trump has been the most incoherent president imaginable, and is currently mired in a COVID-19 crisis of his own making, as the virus continues on its deadly path, largely unchecked, through swathes of the US population. And yet he retains a base of support that doesn’t make it certain that he will lose in November.
His opponent, Joe Biden, Barack Obama’s vice president for eight years, faces problems of his own. 77 years old, he is even older than Trump, and in terms of representing the people of the US, it is somewhat dispiriting that the choice is between two white men in their 70s. Nevertheless, on many fronts — not least on Guantánamo — it is inconceivable that Biden can do a worse job than Trump has over the excruciating three and a half years since he took office in January 2017.
On Guantánamo, Trump announced in a tweet, several weeks before his inauguration, that “there must be no more releases from Gitmo,” and he has been almost entirely true to his word. He inherited 41 prisoners from Obama, and only one of those men has been released — a Saudi citizen who was transferred back to Saudi Arabia for ongoing imprisonment in February 2018, to honor a plea deal agreed in his military commission trial in 2014.
Of the 40 men still held, five were approved for release by high-level government review processes under President Obama, but they weren’t released before he left office, and there is no legal mechanism that can force Donald Trump to release them. Just nine are facing, or have faced trials, while 26 others have been aptly described by the mainstream media as “forever prisoners.” Some of these men were recommended for ongoing imprisonment without charge or trial in 2009 by the Guantánamo Review Task Force, the first of two review processes established by Obama. The task force recommended others for prosecution, until a number of successful appeals against some of the few convictions secured in the military commission persuaded officials otherwise.
In total, 64 men who had either been recommended for prosecution or for ongoing imprisonment without charge or trial were put through a second review process, the Periodic Review Boards, from 2013 to 2016. This parole-type process led to 38 men being recommended for release (with all but two subsequently released), while the 26 “forever prisoners” still held were recommended for ongoing imprisonment. The Periodic Review Boards have continued under Trump, but have failed to deliver a single recommendation for release, and, as a result, the prisoners are now boycotting them.
For opponents of Guantánamo, as noted above, it is inconceivable that any president could be worse than Donald Trump, but that is not to say that Joe Biden, if elected, would fulfill campaigners’ wishes. After all, Barack Obama campaigned on a promise of closing the prison, and reiterated that promise on his second day in office in January 2009, when he said that it would be closed within a year. Eight years later, he left office without fulfilling that promise, although he did, in the end, release nearly 200 of the men held when he first took office.
Obama blamed Congress for thwarting his plans, but while there is considerable truth to that claim, because Republicans controlled Congress for the last six of his eight years in office, and repeatedly obstructed efforts to release prisoners or work towards fulfilling his promise to close the prison, he failed to take advantage of his control of Congress in his first two years in office, and, after that, refused to spend political capital overriding Congress as the commander-in-chief.
And so to Joe Biden. As Carol Rosenberg explained in a recent article for the New York Times, Biden’s position is that, “if elected president, he would support shutting down the military prison at Guantánamo Bay,” although he “has declined to specify how he would do it or what he would do with the 40 men held there as wartime prisoners, including the men accused of plotting the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.”
Questioned about his position on Guantánamo, Biden’s campaign team said in a statement that he “continues to support closing the detention center,” adding — as Barack Obama used to say — that the prison’s continued existence “undermines American national security by fueling terrorist recruitment and is at odds with our values as a country.”
However, as Carol Rosenberg also explained, Biden “rarely, if ever, brings up the topic” of Guantánamo, providing “evidence of how politically toxic it remains after intense Republican efforts to cast Mr. Obama’s [efforts to close the prison] as endangering Americans by transferring terrorists to US soil or sending them without adequate safeguards to other countries.”
In a primary debate in December, when asked about Guantánamo, Biden “blamed Congress for thwarting closure, but rather than suggest a path forward, he pivoted to another issue.”
As Rosenberg also explained, Biden’s foreign policy and national security advisers include “veterans of the failed effort by the Obama administration to close it — notably Tony Blinken, a former deputy secretary of state, and Brian P. McKeon, a former Pentagon policy official — who are almost certainly acutely aware of how painful it was to try to make good on Mr. Obama’s promise.”
As Rosenberg also suggested, “If there is any lesson from the previous administration’s inability to overcome opposition to closing Guantánamo, it may be to avoid drawing attention to the effort,” because, as Barack Obama discovered, once it became apparent that closing Guantánamo “meant moving some of the prisoners — notably former CIA prisoners, including five men accused of plotting the Sept. 11 attacks — to detention facilities in the United States, critics cast the plan as a symbol of weakness and the proposed relocation of the prisoners a potential national security threat.”
As Rosenberg proceeded to explain, “Like tampering with Social Security or suggesting locations for storing nuclear waste, closing Guantánamo became a third rail of political discourse” — a “third rail” being, as Wikipedia describes it, “a metaphor for any issue so controversial that any politician or public official who dares to broach the subject will invariably suffer politically.”
Roy Neel, a former Democratic campaigner told the Times that “one legacy of Mr. Obama’s failure was the danger of making promises,” as Rosenberg put it. “You’re not going to gain any votes because not many people are focusing on this issue, at least rank-and-file voters,” Neel said, adding that Obama was “burned” by his involvement in the issue.
As Neel also explained, “It doesn’t do anything politically to get into it. The worst thing that could happen is Biden is drawn out somehow to look indecisive or weak by going down that rabbit hole.”
In May, a number of organizations including Demand Progress, Code Pink, MoveOn and September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows sent a letter to Biden urging action on various foreign policy topics including the closure of Guantánamo, and repealing the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force, which is the legal basis for holding prisoners at Guantánamo.
As they stated, “The Guantánamo Bay Detention Center has been a stain on our nation’s conscience and the most effective recruitment tool used by violent extremists. We call on you to commit to using any and all options within existing authority to seek lawful disposition for the remaining individuals at the detention center and close Guantánamo once and for all.”
In addition, the letter stated, “The long-defunct CIA detention and interrogation program, and at minimum the Senate Intelligence Committee report on CIA torture, needs to be declassified, promulgated internally to reaffirm torture’s illegality, and made publicly available.”
As we wait for further news from the Biden campaign, our position, in closing, is that those who can be prosecuted should be transferred to the US for federal court trials, while everyone else should be released. It is shameful that the handful of men still held who are accused of serious crimes cannot be successfully prosecuted because the military commission trial system is so broken, while others — guilty of nothing more than having reacted against the circumstances of their imprisonment for the last 18 years — continue to be held without charge or trial, apparently for the rest of their lives.
I wrote the above article for the “Close Guantánamo” website, which I established in January 2012, on the 10th anniversary of the opening of Guantánamo, with the US attorney Tom Wilner. Please join us — just an email address is required to be counted amongst those opposed to the ongoing existence of Guantánamo, and to receive updates of our activities by email.