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

Alleged al Qaeda Member Extradited to the United States

The FBI issued a press release Thursday morning announcing that Nizar Trabelsi, a 43 year-old Tunisian and alleged member of al Qaeda, has been extradited to the United States from Belgium. After twelve years in custody, Trabelsi faces charges stemming from a plot to bomb an overseas NATO base and has been held in Washington D.C. since his arrival in the country.

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The Way Forward in the Drone War

About two weeks ago, I promised to outline a new approach to the US’s national security problems in Pakistan as a way to end or reduce the reliance on drone warfare. Here it is, at least in broad outlines: Continue reading

Critics Question Closed Embassies

A few days ago I wrote about the Obama administration’s decision to shut down 19 embassies in the Middle East and North Africa for the remainder of the week in response to what officials are calling a serious and credible threat.  The State Department has since reaffirmed that some embassies will remain closed until further notice while others will reopen on Monday.  We already know that the threat causing the shutdown came from al-Qaeda’s Yemeni branch, but we’re still in the dark in regard to what the threat actually entails. Continue reading

Lietzau Condemns Guantanamo & Detainee Status

A few days ago, a story came out in which William Lietzau, the Pentagon’s Deputy Assistant Defense Secretary for Detainee Affairs and point-man on Guantanamo Bay, admitted that he would argue against building Guantanamo.  This came following Lietzau’s announcement that he would be leaving his post to continue his career in the private sector.  He also gave President Obama a pointer on how to close Guantanamo; announce that the so-called war against al-Qaeda has come to an end.  Lietzau, who was key in getting Guantanamo built in the first place, was quoted as saying, “[a]rguably, if the war aim of diminishing Al Qaeda’s ability to mount a certain level of attack has been achieved, we could declare an end to hostilities and return to dealing with the threat as a law enforcement matter.” Continue reading

US Embassies Close in Wake of Terrorist Threat

Unless you live under a rock, you’ve probably heard about the State Department’s response to an alleged terrorist threat this past Friday.  The State Department issued a travel alert to all Americans traveling abroad and even went so far as to close 21 foreign embassies over the weekend, 19 of which will remain closed through this week.  Although the embassies that are now closed are located mostly in the Middle East and North Africa, the travel alert covers Americans traveling to all parts of the globe. Continue reading

Bradley Manning Acquitted of Aiding the Enemy

Yesterday, Col. Denise Lind, the military judge presiding over the Bradley Manning case at Fort Meade, acquitted Manning of the charge of aiding the enemy.  The charge was the most serious that Manning faced, and almost certainly would have led to life in a military prison.  For those of you unfamiliar with Bradley Manning, he is the Private First Class who was on trial for releasing the data published by Julian Assange on Wikileaks.  Because of that, the case has received a great deal of attention from both the media and human rights groups who are attempting to find a balance between government secrecy, transparency, and civil liberties.

Bradley Manning’s acquittal on this charge is not exactly surprising given that it was unprecedented for the government to bring such a charge in a leak case.  But still, the government’s argument made some sense if you look at the letter of the law.  Luckily, common sense seems to have prevailed.  I don’t believe (and I certainly don’t think the government could prove) that he intended to aid the enemy, and a vast majority of the information he leaked probably did not aid al-Qaeda or other terrorist groups in any way.  On top of that, there seems to be a lot of questions regarding whether or not most of the information should have been classified in the first place.

That’s not to say that Bradley Manning’s actions weren’t worthy of punishment.  Any way you look at it, it’s probably not a good policy to allow military personnel with security clearance to release classified information.  But that’s where the other charges come into play.  Manning is by no means off the hook.  Yes, he beat the most serious and highly publicized charge against him, but he was still convicted of a myriad of other charges.  Manning was still convicted of six violations of the Espionage Act of 1917, as well as most of the other 22 charges lodged against him (10 of which he has already plead guilty to).  He faces a maximum of 136 years in prison, although he probably won’t receive the maximum sentence due to the plea bargain I mentioned.  Regardless, it’ll probably be pretty hefty.

A statement put out by Reps. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) and C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md.), both members of the House Intelligence Committee, was cautiously optimistic but also a little confusing to me.  Here it is:

“Justice has been served today. PFC Manning harmed our national security, violated the public’s trust, and now stands convicted of multiple serious crimes. There is still much work to be done to reduce the ability of criminals like Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden to harm our national security. The House Intelligence Committee continues to work with the Intelligence Community to improve the security of classified information and to put in place better mechanisms to detect individuals who abuse their access to sensitive information.”

My confusion here comes from their claim that they are working hard toward securing classified information and our national security.  It seems to me like their plan is to bring the hammer down on anyone like Bradley Manning who leaks information to deter others from doing the same.  I know that leaking classified information is different than murder in that it’s usually a planned, calculated act.  The leaker usually knows there’s a good chance he might get caught, so I can see the logic behind a deterrence theory argument.  But I highly doubt anyone planning to pull a Bradley Manning-esque stunt doesn’t already know that the crime carries a serious penalty.

Maybe instead of throwing the book at Bradley Manning, who seems to have had serious concerns about the military’s policies, we should take a look at overhauling our classification systems.  And maybe we shouldn’t be handing out security clearances like candy.  Politicians should absolutely go after people like Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden.  Leaking government secrets should be punished.  But the politicians should at least own up to the fact that this is partially their fault.  If we start paying attention to what we classify and who we give security clearance to, we won’t find ourselves in these situations.

Chris Whitten, Research Fellow
Center for Policy and Research

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