November 20, 2013
Once again we hear calls to close Guantánamo’s prison camp. Every once in a while, Americans see reminders of this detention facility in the news cycle. Months ago, we heard about the hunger strike, yet it was scarcely in the national headlines early in Obama’s presidency, when I first read about it, and today we hear much less about it, although it continues.
The president is taking steps, five years into his administration, toward the promise he had made to close the facility by the end of his first year. But what does that actually mean? In practice, it means transferring the inmates to another prison. Indeed, this was Obama’s idea all along. Several years ago he floated the idea of a Gitmo Lite somewhere in the Midwest, much to the horror of those who think any superficial change toward leniency in the war on terror is a victory for al Qaeda.
But here’s one of the most troubling things, which Americans don’t seem to want to confront: Most of those Guantánamo detainees are totally innocent of terrorism. This was always true. Of the nearly eight-hundred detainees in total, about three-fourths have already been released, mostly through executive decision, and mostly because there was no evidence they were terrorists.
Of the initial number, most were rounded up by the Northern Alliance or Pakistani warlords. In Pakistan, the U.S. government dropped leaflets that encouraged the round up of as many poor schmucks as possible. They read
You can receive millions of dollars for helping the anti-Taliban force catch al Qaeda and the Taliban murderers. This is enough money to take care of your family, your village, your tribe for the rest of your life—pay for livestock and doctors and school books and housing for all your people.
As late as October 2007, 370 detainees at Guantánamo had been turned over to U.S. forces for rewards—$5,000 each for alleged Taliban and $25,000 each for alleged al Qaeda.
Today, a lot of innocent people remain because the administration simply finds it inconvenient to let them go. As of last year, 87 out of 169 remaining detainees had been cleared for release by the administration’s own task force. Forty of them were cleared for release over five years before, mostly under the Bush administration.
After the 2008 Boumediene v. Bush decision, in which the Supreme Court ruled that habeas corpus extended as a matter of constitutional right to the Guantánamo prison camp, there were a few years that historian Andy Worthington has called “a golden period for accountability, as, between October 2008 to July 2010, 38 out of 52 prisoners won their habeas corpus petitions.”