What Obama's Speech Means for Guantanamo

Without clear follow-through, lawyers and advocates say the president's rhetoric means little

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President Barack Obama speaks at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C.
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In a major speech Thursday at the National Defense University, President Barack Obama described in broad terms what his administration has framed as a new, more limited approach to waging what's known as the war against al Qaeda and associated forces. The speech covered many topics, including the role of drones and a potential repeal of the congressional Authorization for the Use of Military Force at some point in the future. It also marked the most extensive comment Obama has made publicly about Guantanamo Bay since an ongoing hunger strike brought renewed attention to the prison there. Many human rights groups praised his decision to lift a self-imposed ban on transferring cleared detainees to Yemen, and some are hopeful that the speech signals an important shift. Yet others feel that Obama didn't address the mounting crisis at Guantanamo with the urgency it deserves.

"The speech was deeply disappointing," says David Remes, a lawyer who has represented a number of Yemenis held at Guantanamo – adding that Obama only "created the illusion of forward momentum." He notes that although Obama pledged to review detainees for transfer, reviews have in fact already happened. Of the 166 men still held at the island prison, 86 have been cleared for transfer by a review panel that consisted of officials from all relevant law enforcement, diplomatic, military and intelligence agencies. Of those cleared, 56 are from Yemen – men who could potentially be transferred now that the moratorium has been lifted. Remes' impression, however, was that Obama continued to shift the blame to Congress instead of taking steps on his own, and worries that Americans "may come away with the misimpression Obama put the issue to bed."

Pardiss Kebriaei, senior staff attorney at the Center For Constitutional Rights, agrees. "We needed to hear the president say today that transfers would begin tomorrow," she says. The president has the power to issue national security waivers and direct the Secretary of Defense to certify detainee transfer if they are deemed not a national security threat – something human rights groups have been advocating. "The only reason we're talking about Guantanamo again after years of silence and inaction," adds Kebriaei, "is because over 100 men are starving themselves to death."

She says that appointing an envoy to close the prison and lifting a self-imposed moratorium on transferring detainees to Yemen – put in place after the failed 2009 Christmas Day underwear bomb plot – are "necessary steps, but we needed to hear the president say that his administration has existing authority to transfer men starting now, and that it will begin doing so immediately."

Ramzi Kassem, a law professor at the City University of New York who represents a number of prisoners at Guantánamo and Bagram, Afghanistan, echoes this point. "Obama already has the legal authority to release prisoners," says Kassem. "He must now take action – speeches do not suffice."

As for immediate steps the administration could take, Yemen isn't the only place to look. Army Captain Jason Wright, a military lawyer for self-proclaimed 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed, notes that Obama can "fulfill the request of the sovereign Government of Afghanistan and return their citizens right now, and reduce the population of Guantanamo by more than 10 percent . . . Besides being the right thing to do morally and ethically, returning the Afghan citizens could save the U.S. $17 million over the course of the next year."

Others criticized Obama's call to bring the alternate legal system known as military commissions to the United States. "President Obama was right not to endorse the concept of indefinite detention, but his proposal to restart unfair military commissions in the mainland U.S. should be rejected as both unlawful and unnecessary," said Zeke Johnson of Amnesty International USA in a statement. Anthony Romero, executive director of the ACLU, echoed that concern in his own statement, saying, "The unconstitutional military commissions must be shuttered, not brought to the United States."

103 Guantanamo detainees are now officially listed as being on hunger strike, 32 of whom are being force-fed through a tube snaked up their nose and down their throat. The practice has been widely condemned by the medical community, though the Pentagon defends the practice. The hunger strike began in early February, after a search of detainees' Korans that the men's lawyers say was disrespectful. 

Remes, the attorney for several Yemeni detainees, recently visited three former clients who have been repatriated back to Yemen after being held without charge for eight years each in Guantanamo. Two work in a honey shop, and another returned to his job at the state oil company. "The main challenge for them," Remes says, "is putting their lives back together."

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