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Context of 'January 22, 2009: Law Professor Recommends Legislation to Prohibit Guantanamo from Use as Detention Facility Forever'

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Responding to speculation that his administration will continue the policies of torture and indefinite detention, President-elect Barack Obama says flatly that he will shut down the Guantanamo detention center as part of his administration’s new policy towards terror suspects. CBS interviewer Steve Kroft asks: “There are a number of different things that you could do early pertaining to executive orders. One of them is to shut down Guantanamo Bay. Another is to change interrogation methods that are used by US troops. Are those things that you plan to take early action on?” Obama responds: “Yes. I have said repeatedly that I intend to close Guantanamo, and I will follow through on that. I have said repeatedly that America doesn’t torture. And I’m gonna make sure that we don’t torture. Those are part and parcel of an effort to regain America’s moral stature in the world.” [Wall Street Journal, 11/11/2008; CBS News, 11/16/2008] Two days into his administration, Obama orders that the Guantanamo detention facility be closed (see January 22, 2009).

Entity Tags: Barack Obama, Steve Kroft, Bush administration (43)

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Civil Liberties

Law professor Brandt Goldstein recommends that President Obama not rely on an executive order to shut down the Guantanamo detention facility, as he has ordered (see January 22, 2009), but work with Congress to pass a federal statute that will forever outlaw the use of the base as a prison. Goldstein notes that Guantanamo was used to house Haitian refugees in the early 1990s, when President George H. W. Bush used it to detain around 300 HIV-positive dissidents who were fleeing Haiti after a military coup. The Justice Department created the legal rationale that Guantanamo, because it is not within the US territorial boundaries, does not fall under Constitutional restrictions, even though the prison is on a US naval base. President Bill Clinton released the last of the Haitians in June 1993, but his administration managed to overturn a court decision that prohibited the federal government from housing detainees at Guantanamo indefinitely. President George W. Bush used the detention facility to house hundreds of terror suspects from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and elsewhere in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks and the US invasion of Afghanistan. Goldstein writes: “[T]wice in recent times, the temptation to use Guantanamo as an offshore, extralegal prison camp has mired a presidential administration in legal and moral muck. It’s high time we cut off Guantanamo as an option for this sort of mess—forever. An executive order won’t do that.” Such an order can be vacated by the next president, or even Obama himself should he choose to change his mind. “If Congress passes such legislation,” Goldstein writes, “and Obama signs it into law, then not only will he be bound by its prohibitions, but future presidents will be bound by it as well. The political will is there to deal with this issue. Now is the time to do it.” Goldstein adds, “Some conservative policy scholars won’t like this idea. They’ll wring their hands about closing off options regarding situations we cannot foresee. The answer to that is simple: Some options should be off the table, and experience indicates that using Guantanamo as a prison camp is one of them. Of course, if a future president believes that new circumstances make it truly necessary to use Guantanamo as a detention facility, that future president can go to Capitol Hill and try to convince the House and Senate to change their minds on the matter.” [Huffington Post, 1/22/2009]

Entity Tags: Brandt Goldstein, Barack Obama, William Jefferson (“Bill”) Clinton, George Herbert Walker Bush, US Department of Justice

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Civil Liberties

John Yoo, the former Bush administration legal adviser who authored numerous opinions on the legality of torture, detentions without legal representation, and warrantless wiretapping (see November 6-10, 2001, December 28, 2001, January 9, 2002, August 1, 2002, and August 1, 2002, among others), writes an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal opposing the Obama administration’s intent to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility (see January 20, 2009 and January 22, 2009)) and restrict the CIA’s ability to torture detainees (see January 22, 2009). Yoo, now a law professor and a member of the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute, writes that while President Obama’s decision “will please his base” and ease the objections to the Bush “imperial presidency,” it will “also seriously handicap our intelligence agencies from preventing future terrorist attacks.” Yoo writes that the Obama decisions mark a return “to the failed law enforcement approach to fighting terrorism that prevailed before Sept. 11, 2001.” Yoo recommends that Obama stay with what he calls “the Bush system” of handling terror suspects. Yoo fails to note that the US law enforcement system prevented, among others, the “millennium bombing” plot (see December 14, 1999), the plot to bomb New York City’s Lincoln and Holland Tunnels (see June 24, 1993), and Operation Bojinka (see January 6, 1995).
Obama Needs to be Able to Torture Prisoners Just as Bush Did, Yoo Declares - And by eschewing torture, Obama is giving up any chance on forcing information from “the most valuable sources of intelligence on al-Qaeda” currently in American custody. The Bush administration policies prevented subsequent terrorist attacks on the US, Yoo contends, and Obama will need the same widespread latitude to interrogate and torture prisoners that Bush employed: “What is needed are the tools to gain vital intelligence, which is why, under President George W. Bush, the CIA could hold and interrogate high-value al-Qaeda leaders. On the advice of his intelligence advisers, the president could have authorized coercive interrogation methods like those used by Israel and Great Britain in their antiterrorism campaigns. (He could even authorize waterboarding, which he did three times in the years after 9/11.)” It is noteworthy that Yoo refused to confirm that Bush ordered waterboarding of suspects during his previous Congressional hearings (see June 26, 2008).
Interrogations Must be 'Polite' - According to Yoo, in forcing the CIA and other US interrogators to follow the procedures outlined in the Army Field Manual, they can no longer use “coercive techniques, threats and promises, and the good-cop bad-cop routines used in police stations throughout America.… His new order amounts to requiring—on penalty of prosecution—that CIA interrogators be polite. Coercive measures are unwisely banned with no exceptions, regardless of the danger confronting the country.” [Wall Street Journal, 1/29/2009] Yoo is incorrect in this assertion. The Army Field Manual explicitly countenances many of the “coercive techniques, threats and promises, and the good-cop bad-cop routines” Yoo says it bans. Further, the Field Manual says nothing about requiring interrogators to be “polite.” [Army, 9/2006] And actual field interrogators such as the Army’s Matthew Alexander have repeatedly said that torturing prisoners is ineffective and counterproductive, while building relationships and treating prisoners with dignity during interrogations produces usable, reliable intelligence (see November 30, 2008).
Shutting Down Military Commissions - Obama’s order to stay all military commission trials and to review the case of “enemy combatant” Ali Saleh al-Marri (see June 23, 2003) is also mistaken, Yoo writes. Yoo fears that Obama will shut down the military commissions in their entirety and instead transfer detainees charged with terrorist acts into the US civilian court system. He also objects to Obama’s apparent intent to declare terrorists to be prisoners of war under the Geneva Conventions, instead of following the Bush precedent of classifying terrorists “like pirates, illegal combatants who do not fight on behalf of a nation and refuse to obey the laws of war.” To allow terror suspects to have rights under Geneva and the US legal system, Yoo asserts, will stop any possibility of obtaining information from those suspects. Instead, those suspects will begin using the legal system to their own advantage—refusing to talk, insisting on legal representation and speedy trials instead of cooperating with their interrogators. “Our soldiers and agents in the field will have to run more risks as they must secure physical evidence at the point of capture and maintain a chain of custody that will stand up to the standards of a civilian court,” Yoo writes. [Wall Street Journal, 1/29/2009] In reality, the Supreme Court’s ruling in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld (see June 30, 2006), as well as the Detainee Treatment Act (see December 15, 2005) and the Military Commissions Act (see October 17, 2006), all mandate that detainees must be handled according to the Geneva Conventions.
Risk to Americans - Another effect of transferring detainees into the civilian justice system, Yoo claims, is to allow “our enemies to obtain intelligence on us.” Defense lawyers will insist on revealing US intelligence—information and methods—in open court, and will no doubt force prosecutors to accept plea bargains “rather than risk disclosure of intelligence secrets.”
Obama 'Open[ed] the Door to Further Terrorist Acts on US Soil' - Obama said in his inaugural speech that the US must “reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals.” Yoo calls that statement “naive,” and writes, “That high-flying rhetoric means that we must give al-Qaeda—a hardened enemy committed to our destruction—the same rights as garden-variety criminals at the cost of losing critical intelligence about real, future threats.” By making his choices, Yoo writes, “Mr. Obama may have opened the door to further terrorist acts on US soil by shattering some of the nation’s most critical defenses.” [Wall Street Journal, 1/29/2009]

Entity Tags: John C. Yoo, Barack Obama, American Enterprise Institute, Wall Street Journal, Obama administration

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Civil Liberties

Karen Greenberg, the executive director of the Center on Law and Security at the New York University School of Law, asks when the Obama administration intends on closing down the detention facility at Bagram Air Force Base (see October 2001). The facility has been the site of repeated torture and brutalization of prisoners (see January 2002, March 15, 2002, April-May 2002, Late May 2002, June 4, 2002-early August 2002, June 5, 2002, July 2002, August 22, 2002, Late 2002-February 2004, Late 2002 - March 15, 2004, December 2002, December 2002, December 1, 2002, December 5-9, 2002, December 8, 2002-March 2003, December 26, 2002, Beginning 2003, February 2003, Spring 2003, October 2004, and May 20, 2005). Greenberg calls it a “far grimmer and more important American detention facility” than Guantanamo.
Little Information on Prisoners - Greenberg is unable to elicit specific information about how many prisoners are currently incarcerated at Bagram, who they are, where they are from, how they are classified—prisoners of war, enemy combatants, “ghost” detainees—how they are being treated, what human rights organizations have access to them, or what, if any, legal proceedings they have been put through. “It turns out that we can say very little with precision or confidence about that prison facility or even the exact number of prisoners there,” she writes. “News sources had often reported approximately 500-600 prisoners in custody at Bagram, but an accurate count is not available. A federal judge recently asked for ‘the number of detainees held at Bagram Air Base; the number of Bagram detainees who were captured outside Afghanistan; and the number of Bagram detainees who are Afghan citizens,’ but the information the Obama administration offered the court in response remains classified and redacted from the public record. We don’t even know the exact size of the prison or much about the conditions there, although they have been described as more spartan and far cruder than Guantanamo’s in its worst days. The International Committee of the Red Cross has visited the prison, but it remains unclear whether they were able to inspect all of it. A confidential Red Cross report from 2008 supposedly highlighted overcrowding, the use of extreme isolation as a punishment technique, and various violations of the Geneva Convention.”
Plans to Expand Facility - Greenberg says that the government is planning a large expansion of the Bagram facility, which is envisioned as holding up to 1,100 prisoners. She recommends:
bullet The administration stop being secretive about Bagram and release complete information on the prisoners being held there, or at the very least admit why some information cannot be released. “Otherwise, the suspicion will always arise that such withheld information might be part of a cover-up of government incompetence or illegality.”
bullet The reclassification of all detainees as “prisoners of war” who are protected under the Geneva Conventions. “Currently, they are classified as enemy combatants, as are the prisoners at Guantanamo, and so, in the perverse universe of the Bush administration, free from any of the constraints of international law. The idea that the conventions are too ‘rigid’ for our moment and need to be put aside for this new extra-legal category has always been false and pernicious, primarily paving the way for the use of ‘enhanced interrogation techniques.’”
bullet The rejection of the idea of “ghost prisoners” at Bagram or anywhere else. “The International Committee of the Red Cross must be granted access to all of the prisons or prison areas at Bagram, while conditions of detention there should be brought into accordance with humane treatment and standards.”
bullet The re-establishment of a presumption of innocence. “The belief that there is a categorical difference between guilt and innocence, which went by the wayside in the last seven years, must be restored. All too often, the military brass still assumes that if you were rounded up by US forces, you are, by definition, guilty. It’s time to change this attitude and return to legal standards of guilt.”
Greenberg concludes: “In the Bush years, we taught the world a series of harmful lessons: Americans can be as cruel as others. Americans can turn their backs on law and reciprocity among nations as efficiently as any tribally organized dictatorship. Americans, relying on fear and the human impulse toward vengeance, can dehumanize other human beings with a fervor equal to that of others on this planet. It’s time for a change. It’s time, in fact, to face the first and last legacy of Bush detention era, our prison at Bagram Air Base, and deal with it.” [TomDispatch (.com), 3/5/2009]

Entity Tags: Bush administration (43), Geneva Conventions, Obama administration, Karen Greenberg

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives

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