Re-visiting Mefloquine Use at Guantanamo: A Guest Post by Dr. Remington Nevin

Dr. Remington Nevin is a consulting physician epidemiologist board certified in Public Health and General Preventive Medicine by the American Board of Preventive Medicine. Dr. Nevin specializes in the evaluation and diagnosis of adverse reactions to antimalarial medications, particularly the neurotoxic quinoline derivative mefloquine. A long-time advisor to the Center for Policy & Research, he advised us on our report exploring the government’s use of mefloquine at Guantanamo, Drug Abuse: An Exploration of the Government’s Use of Mefloquine at Guantanamo. Continue reading

Dispatch from Guantanamo Bay: US v. Mohammed

“It’s a Mixture of Kafka, Machiavelli, Catch 22, and George Orwell’s 1984.  It just depends on the day” – Major Jason Wright Defense Counsel for K.S.M.

            Last week, I had the opportunity to travel to Guantanamo from October 22nd through 25th to observe the Military Commission proceedings for United States v. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed et. al. Perhaps the most appropriate word to describe my observations is frustration.  Regularly during the week, the observable liberties afforded to each of the accused, including prayer time in the courtroom, freedom of attire, and remaining unshackled were only contradicted by the accusations of intentional sleep deprivation, confiscated attorney-client privileged material, and force-feeding. Furthermore, the interpretation of the Military Commissions’ rules and their applications were consistently debated, particularly with regards to how they should be implemented when other laws, such as international laws, hold inconsistent stances. Continue reading

Al-Liby Pleads Not Guilty in NY Federal Court

Abu Anas al-Liby, the Libyan man and suspected al-Qaeda leader accused of aiding the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in East Africa, appeared in a New York federal court for the first time yesterday.  Al-Liby pleaded not guilty to charges linking him to the bombings, as well as charges that allege that he plotted with Osama bin Laden to attack American troops across the Middle East.  Reports from inside the court stated that al-Liby appeared weak and in poor health, most likely due to his decision to stop eating while aboard a U.S. ship as well as an ongoing bout with hepatitis.  Al-Liby was captured earlier this month after he was found by American special forces in Tripoli. Continue reading

Lawyers for Obese Guantanamo Detainee Advocate for Medical Release

Lawyers for Guantanamo detainee Tarek El-Sawah, an admitted al-Qaeda explosives trainer held at the facility for over 11 years, are arguing that he should be released because of his serious obesity-related ailments. While at Guantanamo, the 55 year-old El-Sawah nearly doubled his weight, at one point reaching 420 pounds. His lawyers argue that he could die at any time; he is diabetic, has trouble breathing and walking, and has difficulty staying alert during meetings. They maintain that he faces the very real possibility of not making it out of Guantanamo alive. Continue reading

Pentagon Appoints Guantanamo “Closer”

Earlier this week, the Pentagon announced that it has appointed a special envoy in a renewed effort to close the Guantanamo Bay Detention Center.  Paul M. Lewis, a former Judge Advocate General in the Marine Corps and current Democratic lawyer for the House Armed Services Committee, will take over the position on November 1.  He will be working alongside fellow Capitol Hill attorney Clifford Sloan, who was appointed in June as the State Department’s envoy for Guantanamo. Continue reading

Trial of Five Guantanamo Prisoners Charged in September 11th Attacks Will Move Forward

Judge Pohl, Chief Presiding Officer for the Guantanamo Military Commissions, ruled yesterday that pretrial hearings will move forward for the five Guantanamo prisoners charged in the September 11th attacks.  In doing so, he denied a request by the detainees’ lawyers to pause the case until the Pentagon resolves concerns about the security of their computer system. Continue reading

Inside the SJC’s Guantanamo Debate

Last week, we wrote about the Senate Judiciary Committee’s hearing on Guantanamo Bay.  The debate, entitled “Closing Guantanamo: The National Security, Fiscal, and Human Rights Implications,” brought together members of Congress from both sides of the aisle, including Chairman Dick Durbin (D, IL); Chairman of the Full Committee Patrick Leahy (D, VT); Ranking-Member Ted Cruz (R, TX); and Rep. Mike Pompeio (R, KS-4), among others.  Testifying were top-ranking members of our armed forces and members of international human rights organizations, including Major General Paul Eaton, U.S. Army (Ret.); Brigadier General Stephen Xenakis, M.D., U.S. Army (Ret.); Lieutenant Joshua Fryday, Judge Advocate General’s Corps., U.S. Navy; Frank Gaffney, Founder and President, Center for Security Policy; and Elisa Massimino, President and Chief Executive Officer, Human Rights First.

Most of the usual Guantanamo-related topics were discussed, including arguments for and against the closure of Gitmo, what that closure might mean for American national security, and how we might go about transferring current detainees to domestic prisons or foreign countries for continued detention or release.  As we’ve come to expect, testimony from Congressional representatives was fairly predictable based on party membership.  Chairman Durbin opened the hearing by calling for the closure of Guantanamo Bay, stated that Gitmo had become an “international eyesore” and that “the Administration could be doing more to close (GTMO)…, [but] the President’s authority has been limited by Congress.”  Nothing too groundbreaking there, but it’s always nice to see someone in a position of authority acknowledging that this isn’t all President Obama’s fault.  Like I’ve said before, this isn’t a unilateral decision for the President to make.  It’s going to take a level of bipartisan cooperation that’s been completely absent in Congress in recent history.

But even if President Obama can’t single-handedly close Guantanamo, Chairman Durbin noted that through the FY14 Defense Bill, passed by the House Armed Services Committee in early June, he has an expanded ability to dispose of prisoners (calm down, disposing means releasing or transferring in this context) as he sees fit.  But we’ve seen problems with this as well.  First, where do we release or transfer these detainees?  Just a few days ago we saw Senator Saxby Chambliss voice concerns about releasing detainees to their home countries where they may attempt to join or re-join al-Qaeda.  Our European allies have a history of rejecting transfers of Guantanamo detainees.  And we certainly aren’t going to give them asylum here.  So even if the President’s powers to release or transfer detainees have been expanded, it’s still a delicate situation.

Ranking-Member Cruz was one of the few speakers to advocate for keeping Guantanamo Bay open, bashing the Obama administration for it’s policy and saying that we “continue to apologize for continuing the policy.”  Senator Cruz’s main argument was that we can’t embrace a “utopian fiction” where released detainees embrace global peace and pledge not to take up arms against the United States.  I could understand that concern if we were talking about releasing KSM.  I can understand that concern if we’re talking about releasing any detainee that we know was involved in attacks against the United States.  But I’m pretty sure nobody is calling for those detainees to be released.  So what about the detainees with no formal charges or evidence against them?  Are we going to hold them for the rest of their lives just because there’s a chance they could join al-Qaeda if we release them?  Apparently Senator Cruz would say yes.

Major General Eaton and Brigadier General Xenakis also testified in front of the panel, both advocating for the closure of the detention center.  Major General Eaton stated clearly that “[t]here is no national security reason to keep Guantanamo open,” and even went so far as to say the keeping it open this long has undermined national security by damaging our “moral leadership, political leadership, military power and economic power.”  Brigadier General Xenakis attacked the much-covered force-feeding policy, stating that it violates not only the basic ethics of the medical field, but also the Geneva Convention.

Rep. Pompeio joined Senator Cruz’s position, making the bold claim that “there are no human rights violations occurring at [GTMO].”  He also voiced concerns that foreign nations would torture detainees if we were to transfer them.  Now, I’m not saying I can’t see any reason behind the force-feeding policy.  I get that we don’t want upwards of 40 detainees dying of malnutrition on our watch.  But to say shoving a rubber tube through the nose and into the stomach of a fully conscious human being in an extremely painful fashion is not a human rights violation is borderline ludicrous.

The way I see it, the only semi-logical argument for keeping Guantanamo Bay open came from Mr. Gaffney.  Mr. Gaffney argued that Gitmo should remain open until a safe and effective alternative is pinpointed.  That much I can get on board with.  I already pointed out that there are some holes in the current plan.  But Mr. Gaffney’s seems to be worried about detainees escaping from super-max prisons on U.S. soil and rejoining al-Qaeda or remaining in the U.S. to plan attacks.  Is this what we’re really concerned about?  We already trust maximum security penitentiaries to hold our most notorious murderers, so why does it matter what their nationality is?  According to documents from the New York State Department of Corrections, there were a total of 10 escapes from detention facilities of any kind between 2006 and 2010.  That equates to a rate of .03 escapes per 1,000 inmates during that time period, and includes statistics from ALL New York state penitentiaries.  I, for one, am no too worried about detainees, who will probably have additional monitoring in place, escaping from super-max prisons.  Again, I agree that we need a rock-solid plan in place before we close Guantanamo, but the concerns cited by Mr. Gaffney are simply not realistic.

That’s probably a good thing since the plan proposed by Democrats involved transferring detainees to the same super-max facilities that Mr. Gaffney is so worried about.  Senator Dianne Feinstein (D, CA) pointed out that it will cost tax payers roughly $551 million to operate Guantanamo Bay in 2013, and roughly $2.1 million per detainee.  According to her estimates, it would cost only $287,000 to house a detainee in a super-max facility here in the U.S.  Especially since the sequester hit the federal government, this would obviously be a much more cost-effective model.  So on top of potentially eradicating human rights violations, we might be able to take a step towards a balanced defense budget.

All in all, we are still in a stalemate.  The hearing was essentially a summary of all the arguments we’ve heard about Guantanamo Bay over the past 5 years.  Democrats and members of the military are still pushing for its closure while Republicans are standing firm on keeping it open.  I don’t know that we’re any closer to actually closing Gitmo after the hearing, but it’s good to see that we haven’t given up the fight.

***Special thanks to Mr. Rick Erkel for reporting on the hearing

Chris Whitten, Research Fellow
Center for Policy and Research

SJC to Hold Hearing on Guantanamo

At 2:00PM today, the Senate Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing entitled “Closing Guantanamo: The National Security, Fiscal, and Human Rights implications.”  Speaking at the hearing will be several current and retired high-ranking members of the military, two members of the House of Representatives, and Elisa Massimino, the president of and CEO of Human Rights First.

In addition to pushing for closure of the Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp, the speakers are expected to outline a plan for transferring current detainees to other locations for continued detention, and also the release of 86 prisoners that have been cleared for release.  The ongoing hunger strikes are bound to come up as well.  There are currently 69 detainees participating in the hunger strikes, a significant drop the 106 participants earlier this month.  However, the numbers may rise again one Ramadan has ended and there are still 45 detainees being force-fed.

We’ll be covering this in detail over the next few days, but you can check it out via webcast here if you’re interested.

Chris Whitten, Research Fellow
Center for Policy and Research

Gov’t Appeals Stop of Guantanamo Gential Searches

Thursday, in response to the May 22nd emergency motion requesting an end to the newly instituted groin searches, Federal District Chief Judge Royce C. Lamberth ordered the government to stop genital searches of Guantanamo Bay detainees prior to meeting with their lawyers. In his strongly-worded 35 page opinion, Judge Lamberth ordered prison commanders to return to an earlier search method described in a 2009 Defense Department task force review, which limited guards to grasping the waistband of a detainee’s trousers and shaking their pants to dislodge any contraband. The current search method at Guantanamo, referred to as an exaggerated response to unpersuasive security concerns, involves the touching and holding of detainees’ genital and anal areas “flagrant[ly] disregard[ing] the need for a light touch on religious and cultural matters” and dissuades detainees from gaining access to their lawyers.  The order stated in part that:

“… the choice between submitting to a search procedure that is religiously and culturally abhorrent or forgoing counsel effectively presents no choice for devout Muslims like petitioners.”

While the government made justifications for the invasive searches at Guantanamo, i.e.the finding of homemade weapons and prohibited electronic devices in April, Judge Lamberth felt that the record failed to indicate “that the detainees have received any contraband from their attorney or that detainees have attempted to pass contraband to each other during phone calls or meetings with attorneys.”

Responding quickly to the order, the Justice Department filed an appeal late last night. The Justice Department has requested a hold to be placed on the stopping of genital searches, stating that Guantanamo detainees are able to gain access to weaponizable items which may result in suicide, harm to other detainees, or the guards becoming seriously injured. In addition to the appeal, the government submitted a sworn declaration from Marine General John Kelly, commander of United States Southern Command, who spoke strongly of the irreparable harm that would result with the discontinuance of genital searches at Guantanamo. The government claims that the newly implemented search methods have not deterred meetings nor have they impacted access to the prisoners. Furthermore, the government states Judge Lamberth’s order is barred by the Military Commissions Act, which “unequivocally bars conditions-of-confinement claims by Guantanamo detainees.”

“Because the full-frisk-search and visit-location policies with which Petitioners take issue both concern their conditions of confinement, the Court lacked jurisdiction to issue an order enjoining them.”

The appeal has resulted in great tension.  Guantanamo leadership is maintaining protocol, requiring their “standard” genital searches before and after visits with attorneys or phone calls, while lawyers have filed a motion asking Judge Lamberth to issue an order requiring the government to follow his ruling, arguing that the government is acting in contempt of court. In the upcoming weeks, it will be interesting to see whether the appeal moves forward, or if for the first time, a federal court can restrict a military commander from implementing certain security procedures at a detention facility.

Alexandra Kutner, Research Fellow
Center for Policy and Research

 

 

Force-Feeding Condemned by Top Congressmen

As the controversy surrounding force-feeding tactics at Guantanamo Bay continues, two top members of the U.S. Senate have spoken out in favor of ending the practice.  Senators Richard Durbin and Dianne Feinstein called on President Obama to stop force-feeding prisoners partaking in hunger strikes in protest of their status at Guantanamo.  This comes just days after a U.S. District Court Judge handed down a ruling stating that federal courts have no authority to shut down the force-feeding program, but agreeing with detainees and their attorneys that the practice is troubling and may violate human rights.  The decision put the burden solely on President Obama to address the situation, and it looks like he will be receiving pressure from Congress as well.

Senators Durbin and Feinstein did imply that there may be cases where force-feeding is medically necessary, but stated that the military does not observe proper guidelines and safeguards even in those cases.  This was not Senator Feinstein’s first attempt at convincing the government to stop force-feeding.  Last month she wrote a letter to Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel after a visit to Guantanamo in which she called hunger strikes a “long-known form of non-violent protest aimed at bringing attention to a cause, rather than an attempt of suicide.”  This seems to imply that Feinstein’s views are in line with others who believe that force-feeding is inhumane in instances where protests do not threaten Guantanamo personnel and involve mentally competent detainees.

The White House turned to its usual response, stating that it does not want any detainees to die of malnutrition while in detention.  So it’s ok to hold them indefinitely with no hope of release even though we lack the necessary evidence to press charges, but it’s not ok for them to protest a largely unreasonable policy in a manner that poses no threat to the United States or its military personnel.  Got it.

The Senators also called on President Obama to make good on his long overdue promise to close Guantanamo Bay altogether, which was just another drop in the proverbial ocean of similar requests made since Obama took office.  As sad as it is, it’s almost laughable at this point to think that another request to close Guantanamo will make a difference with so many members of Congress still in favor of keeping it open.  But I guess it’s nice to know that there are still politicians out there who believe that it can be accomplished.

Do I think this latest effort to stop force-feeding and close Guantanamo will make any difference?  Not really.  Like I’ve said before, closing Guantanamo will be a long, painful process and there are still too many people who want to keep it open.  It’s not a groundbreaking prediction but I don’t think Guantanamo Bay will be closed any time in the near future.  I think our short-term goal needs to be putting an end to force-feeding.  If you believe Monday’s decision, we should be able to sidestep much of the political process and leave it up to President Obama if we focus on that.  That doesn’t mean we should abandon efforts to close the base, but we need to focus on the immediate problems that we can fix right now.

In a related story, two hunger-strikers dropped out of the over 4 month-long protest for unspecified reasons, bringing the total number down to 104.  However, 45 are still being force-fed on a daily basis.

Chris Whitten, Research Fellow
Center for Policy and Research