Bradley Manning Sentencing Begins

Early yesterday, the sentencing phase of the trial of Bradley Manning, the source of the Wikileaks scandal, began at Fort Meade.  As I said yesterday, Manning was acquitted of aiding the enemy, the most serious charge against him.  Still, Bradley Manning was convicted on 20 of 22 counts, including charges of violating the Espionage Act of 1917.  The prosecution and defense both agreed with Col. Denise Lind that Manning faces a total of 136 years in a military prison for his crimes.

On top of the potential 136-year prison sentence, the parties also agreed that Bradley Manning will be demoted to the rank of enlisted private, dishonorably discharged from the Army, and stripped of all pay and benefits that he would have otherwise received.

The star witness of yesterday’s sentencing hearing was Brig. Gen. Robert A. Carr (ret.), who is now an executive at defense contractor Northrop Grumman.  General Carr’s expertise on the matter comes from a long career overseeing the Army’s intelligence gathering operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Bosnia.  His last assignment as a member of the Army was to gather information and assess the extent to which information released by Wikileaks harmed soldiers in the field and jeopardized American national security.

Now that the bulk of Bradley Manning’s sentence has already been settled, all that remains is to determine how much of the potential 136-year sentence he will actually serve and what monetary fines the court will impose on him.  I find it hard to believe at this point that Manning, who is just 25 years old, will ever be a free man.  I guess that’s just what 20 separate convictions for espionage will get you.  But now that he has been stripped of all benefits and pay and will probably spend most or all of his life behind bars, arguing about monetary fines is basically just a formality.  It’s probably not very realistic to expect him to pay up.

Anyways, General Carr’s testimony centered around whether or not Bradley Manning’s crimes actually led to any deaths in the field.  General Carr claimed that exactly one death, an Afghani national with ties to the U.S. government, occurred as a result of the Wikileaks scandal.  The Taliban reportedly killed him after obtaining the information.  However, when pressed by the defense, General Carr admitted that the man was never named in war logs released by Julian Assange and any mention of the death was stricken from the official record.  General Carr still insisted that Bradley Manning’s crimes had put U.S. soldiers and Afghani allies at risk by detailing the relationship between certain Afghani forces and the U.S. military.

It’s interesting that not even General Carr, the prosecution’s authority on the supposed damage caused by Bradley Manning, could not point to a single instance where the leaks led to even one casualty.  The only such accusation was quickly stricken from the record.  To me, this shows just how desperate the government was to make an example out of Manning with the aiding the enemy charge.  There’s really no other explanation for moving forward with that charge with only one precarious piece of evidence.

The trial still has a long way go.  The defense is still days, maybe weeks away from presenting evidence of mitigating circumstances that could soften the blow of Bradley Manning’s 20 convictions.  Like I said before, Manning isn’t going to be a free man any time soon.  But if today was any indication, he might not be looking at a 136-year sentence after all.

Chris Whitten, Research Fellow
Center for Policy and Research

Senate Panel Debates the Close of Guantanamo

Yesterday afternoon, for the first time since 2009, a Senate committee took to the issue of closing the Guantanamo detention center. The hearing was called by Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Illinois), the Senate’s No. 2 Democrat and chairman of the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on the Constitution, and Civil and Human Rights. In his opening remarks, Sen. Durbin referred to the prison as a sad chapter in American history, a place he had “never imagined in 2013… would still be open.”

“Every day it remains open, Guantanamo prison weakens our alliances, inspires our enemies, and calls into question our commitment to human rights.” – Sen. Durbin

Sen. Durbin has long been critical of Guantanamo Bay. In 2009 he stated that he would be OK with accepting detainees into the Illinois supermax facility. Earlier this month, along with California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Sen. Durbin asked President Obama to order the Pentagon to stop routinely force-feeding the hunger strikers, challenging the military claim that the enteral feedings were humane and modeled after the federal Bureau of Prisons.

Opposing Sen. Durbin’s request to close the prison, Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) harped on the threat of detainee recidivism. Quoting from a recent study by the Director of National Intelligence which found that 28 percent of detainees previously released from Guantanamo were suspected or confirmed to have joined up with terrorist groups upon leaving US custody, Sen. Cruz emphasized the risk we face by releasing the detainees. In agreement, Center for Security Policy president Frank Gaffney stated that moving prisoners from Guantanamo to the U.S. could result in attacks on domestic prisons as well as the spread of radical Islam to other inmates.

As of now, little progress has been made on the closing of Guantanamo. Congress appears to be divided, even among its own factions. I tend to agree with Sen. Durbin and propose that we close Guantanamo. We give the detainee’s their day in court and either send them back to their country of origin if that country is willing to accept them, or we place them in supermax prisons within the United States. Mr. Gaffney’s concerns are ludicrous. We hold hundreds of terrorists in supermax facilities – to my knowledge, there have been no attacks or major issues stemming from the domestic detention of detainees. In fact, a detainee in the general population of a prison will probably have more to fear from us than we will of him. Furthermore, should we allow the detainees to return to their country of origin and something goes wrong – another Abu Ghraib-type escape or a detainee returning to a terrorist cell – just look at what happened to Saeed al-Shiri. While I am not proposing or endorsing the use of drones, I am pointing out that the Obama administration clearly has no problem finding more permanent solutions when it deems necessary. On top of that, the study Sen. Cruz referred to only took into account the number of detainees associated with militant groups, not the number who have actually engaged in violent activities themselves. If I were to guess, the majority of detainees that we saw fit for release were more concerned with starting families and their lives than plotting more attacks.

So what comes next? Most likely nothing. The Pentagon finally announced that they will be establishing Periodic Review Boards – two years after the Obama administration called for their creation (no official dates as of yet). Force feeding and genital searches are still a go. Another day, another story. Maybe next time there is a senate hearing, the Obama administration will actually show up.

Alexandra Kutner, Research Fellow
Center for Policy and Research

Bradley Manning’s Top Charge to Remain

Earlier today, a military court judge dismissed a motion by Bradley Manning’s defense team to drop “aiding the enemy” from the list of charges against him.  Manning, who is now definitely facing life in military prison without the possibility of parole, is the U.S. Army intelligence analyst accused of leaking the information that eventually ended up on Wikileaks.  He was arrested in 2010 in Iraq and charged with 22 separate counts related to the release of over 700,000 documents to Wikileaks.  Though he plead guilty to 10 of the 22 counts back in February, Manning’s trial did not start until early last month.

The decision was left up to Colonel Denise Lind, the judge presiding over the case at Fort Meade in Maryland.  She rejected the motion based on the “accused’s training and experience and preparation,” as well as Manning’s knowledge that terrorist organizations would have access to the leaked documents on the Internet.  The defense’s motion claimed that the government had failed to show that Manning possessed “actual knowledge” that he was providing information to the enemy, and could only show that he unintentionally or accidentally gave terrorist organizations access to the documents.

I think it’s worth noting that there’s a pretty sharp difference between “knowingly” and “intentionally” aiding the enemy, a difference that the defense seems to have overlooked.  I agree that Manning’s intent probably wasn’t to provide al-Qaeda with sensitive government documents. The way he went about releasing the information wouldn’t make any sense if that scenario were true.  But at the end of the day, his intent isn’t what matters if you read Article 104, the charge which Manning’s defense appealed:

Any person who—
(1) aids, or attempts to aid, the enemy with arms, ammunition, supplies, money, or other things; or
(2) without proper authority, knowingly harbors or protects or gives intelligence to, or communicates or corresponds with or holds any intercourse with the enemy, either directly or indirectly;
shall suffer death or such other punishment as a court-martial or military commission may direct. This section does not apply to a military commission established under chapter 47A of this title.

What matters in regard to this charge is that Manning knowingly released classified government documents that he knew could indirectly reach terrorist organizations.  You can argue all day about whether or not Manning actually deserves to be charged under Section 104.  But if we’re going by the book, Judge Lind made the right call.

Putting aside the technical aspects of the case, journalists are all in a tizzy about what this means for investigative journalism.  Many are claiming that the Obama administration is trying to make an example of Manning by bringing the hammer down on a highly visible whistleblower.  They are concerned that the threat of life in prison without the possibility of parole will prevent others like Manning to come forward when they believe the government is doing something unethical or shady.  These are valid concerns.  There is a reason why freedom of the press is a cornerstone of our democracy.  If we aren’t aware of what our representatives are doing, how can we vote them out of office if we disagree with their policies?

Still, I think the government has a legitimate concern as well.  Sure, we over-classify and give security clearances to far too many people, but that doesn’t mean it should be a free-for-all.  There is plenty of classified information that I’m sure I wouldn’t want to go public, and the government has a right to protect that information in the name of national security..  But the solution isn’t to throw Manning into prison for the rest of his life; it’s to fix the system.  Because of the aforementioned over-classification, the government has created a climate in which someone almost HAS to leak classified information to get to the bottom of any real stories.  Since we seemingly classify everything nowadays, what should be public and what should be classified gets lumped together and we see exactly what happened in Manning’s case.  And when we have an estimated 4 million people with top-secret security clearance, let’s not act too surprised when that happens.

Did Bradley Manning do something stupid?  I think he did.  Did terrorist organizations gain access to classified government documents because of his actions?  Undoubtedly.  But the government needs to realize that the guilt doesn’t lie solely with Manning.  If we’re really worried about protecting classified information, we need to start being selective in regard to what we classify and who we give clearance to.

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

This Message is UNCLASSIFIED: FISA Explained

The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court was created by Congress in
1978 to review applications for warrants related to national security
investigations.  According to the Federal Judicial Center website, initially the court
was created in part as a response to allegations that the executive
branch was abusing its authority in conducting domestic electronic
surveillance in the interest of national security. (Sounds familiar,
doesn’t it?) Presumably the goals of the court have been to preserve
an air of fairness in relation to what are otherwise sensitive issues of
national security dominated by the executive branch.

But, it’s fairly disconcerting to have a court creating a body of law
that is essentially kept a secret from the public. So in February,
Senator Diane Feinstein sent a letter to presiding judge of FISA,
requesting that “important rulings of law” be declassified by FISA
to inform the public about FISA.

In 2010, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the
Department of Justice established a process to declassify opinions that
are “assessed to contain a significant interpretation of law,” but the
policy never really took hold. The court’s presiding judge Reggie
Walton, wrote in response to Feinstein’s letter that, “While
classification determinations are made by the Executive Branch in the
first instance, the facts presented in applications to [FISA] always
or almost always involve classified intelligence activities, the
disclosure of which could be harmful to the nation’s security.”

So it seems that while FISA was originally formed as a response to
the Executive branch’s abuse of authority, it really just serves as a
mechanism by which that same branch can maintain an authoritative
stranglehold on national security practices through the language of
“classification.” As a result, the power of FISA is as great as the
executive branch’s power to classify, which is always growing.

Perhaps there are highly sensitive issues that FISA is protecting,
but a judicial policy to protect information “classified” by the
government is especially problematic when the government is known to
over-classify. The real question is, are the the “classified intelligence activities” that
Reggie Walton claims FISA’s secrecy protects truly of a sensitive
and detrimental nature to our nation’s security, or just more instances of the
government classifying information to protect itself from public scrutiny?

Alison Frimmel, Research Fellow
Center for Policy and Research

Judge Claims No Jurisdiction Over Force-Feeding at Guantanamo

Yesterday, multiple news outlets reported that despite efforts by defense attorneys for Guantanamo Bay detainees, federal courts do not have the power to stop Guantanamo personnel from force-feeding the detainees.  U.S. District Court Judge Gladys Kessler handed down a quick decision stating that federal courts simply do not have the jurisdiction or authority to order the military to stop using force-feeding tactics in response to hunger strikes implemented by detainees to protest their detention status at Gitmo.

The decision was handed down quickly in part because the court and attorneys on both sides wanted an answer before the beginning of Ramadan, the traditional Muslim holy month that requires Muslims to fast during daylight hours.  One of the main concerns was that force-feeding detainees during fasting hours would violate this core tenant of the Islamic religion.  As I noted when I first wrote about this lawsuit, in the past the military has agreed not to force-feed detainees during these hours so that detainees could observe their holy month.  In fact, in the response to the suit filed by the pentagon, the government stated that barring any emergency situations, they would agree to only force-feed detainees after sunset.  So even though we’re going to keep shoving tubes into detainees’ (that we have already admitted are not being charged with crimes) orifices while they are strapped down to chairs, we’re at least going to let them maintain the last shred of religious dignity they might have left.  Take from that what you will.

The basis for the lawsuit was not just religious.  Detainees and human rights advocates have long claimed that force-feeding is akin to torture, especially when implemented on detainees who are of sound mind and have made conscious decisions to partake in the hunger strikes.  The legal brief submitted by defense attorneys called the process “dishonorable” and “degrading.”

Although Judge Kessler admitted that the courts could not rule on the issue, she made her personal opinion known in her decision by echoing many of the above concerns, calling the force-feeding process “painful” and “degrading.”  She not-so-subtly called on the Obama administration to take action where the courts could not and shut down force-feeding itself.  Judge Kessler singled out President Obama for a speech given back on May 23rd, which some of you may recall:

“Look at the current situation, where we are force-feeding detainees who are holding a hunger strike.  Is that who we are?  Is that something that our founders foresaw?  Is that the America we want to leave to our children?  Our sense of justice is stronger than that.”

This coming from the same president that promised to close down Guantanamo Bay when he was first elected, and yet here we are.  I understand that it’s not that simple and that there’s a lot of politics behind the decision to keep it open.  There are a lot of politicians (and members of the public) who want to keep Guantanamo open and it’s not exactly President Obama’s unilateral decision to make.  But his administration has a chance to make a statement here and restore some level of civility to a system that’s drawn an awful lot of criticism for alleged human rights violations in recent years.  Shutting down force-feeding isn’t going to erase those incidents, but it could go a long way toward easing the tension surrounding Guantanamo Bay, at least in the short-term.  Most importantly, it would show the world that we DO respect human rights.  And as of late the world has plenty of reasons to question whether we actually do.

Sidenote – My blogging compatriots have gone into detail on what exactly the force-feeding process entails, and you can read about it here.  Seeing it in print is disturbing enough, but if you still want a better picture of the process, you’re in luck.  Over the weekend, Yasiin Bey, better known as hip-hop artist Mos Def, took the plunge and agreed to undergo the force-feeding procedure in London.  I don’t recommend clicking that link if you’re squeamish.  Keep in mind that there are 106 prisoners partaking in the hunger strikes at the moment, and 45 of them undergo this 2-hour process twice a day.

Chris Whitten, Research Fellow
Center for Policy and Research

NSA Received Help from FISA for Surveillance Authorization

Just as many predicted from the beginning, it looks like the NSA surveillance scandal has reached beyond the NSA to other branches of government.  On Saturday the New York Times reported that over the past few years, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, or FISA, has basically created an entire new category of law pertaining to surveillance for the NSA and CIA.  FISA has reportedly handed down over a dozen classified rulings on everything from espionage to nuclear proliferation to cyber attacks.  It appears that FISA has quietly taken over the Supreme Court’s role in all matters pertaining to surveillance.

Most notably, the court used a particular case to expand a little-known doctrine called the “special needs” doctrine that allows authorities to sidestep the Fourth Amendment by performing search and seizure operations without the need for a warrant.  The government claims that this expansion of the special needs doctrine is only applicable in terrorism-related cases.  The exception is typically used only for things like airport screenings and DUI checkpoints.  Professor William C. Banks of Syracuse University stated that the use of this doctrine is just “another way of tipping the scales toward the government in its access to all this data.”

So how can FISA justify the expansion of this doctrine, essentially abandoning the use of the Fourth Amendment’s protection from arbitrary searches and seizures?  It looks like it came down to the interpretation of one word:  Relevant.  Instead of interpreting the word in the narrow sense used in most criminal cases, the court elected to broaden its scope, allowing the NSA to collect any records that could possibly be relevant to national security concerns.  This interpretation has drawn sharp criticism in the past few days.  A senior partner at Perkins Cole LLP, the Justice Department’s go-to firm on federal surveillance law, claims that FISA has destroyed the meaning of “relevant” altogether, essentially changing it to mean “everything.”  He also mentioned that a typical federal or state court would laugh the prosecution out of the courtroom if it tried to argue for this new interpretation.

But what does this mean for the average American?  Probably not much.  As I’ve said before, I don’t think the NSA has the time or resources to rifle though billions of pages of records that they know are not “relevant” to national security.  I have a hard time believing that our government is reading all our “LOL’s” and “IDK’s” when there is so much at stake.  In fact, it’s come out that even though the NSA has the power to collect the records, they still needed a warrant to actually access them.  Sure, the government still has plenty of egg on its face and has sufficiently embarrassed itself on a global scale.  But now, roughly a month after Edward Snowden first released information on this scandal, we still have yet to hear of any connection between the NSA’s programs and any non-terrorism-related arrests.

With that said, it’s hard not to be concerned when courts hand down secret rulings that essentially throw away our Constitutional protections.  At least for now the traditional law requiring warrants for searches and seizures still applies to normal cases, but that won’t make to many people feel better about the fact that we have a highly secretive court handing down classified decisions that have the potential wipe out our most basic freedoms.  I’m usually willing to give the government a pass when it comes to protecting our national security, but this has to stop somewhere.  I think it’s safe to say that the American government has officially pole-vaulted over that fine line between protecting our freedom and trampling on it.

Chris Whitten, Research Fellow
Center for Policy and Research

Detainees Turn to Courts to Stop Force-Feeding

Despite prior rulings that federal courts have no jurisdiction over the treatment of detainees at Guantanamo Bay, attorneys for detainees at the detention center have now turned to the court system for help in putting a stop to force-feeding at the GTMO Detention Camp.  Over the weekend, defense attorneys filed a motion with a federal district court in Washington DC requesting an immediate hearing on the legality of tactics used by military personnel at Guantanamo to keep hunger-striking prisoners alive.  In the 30-page motion, defense attorney Jon B. Eisenberg stated, “There cannot be a legitimate penological interest in force-feeding petitioners (detainees) to prolong their indefinite detention.”

The military continues to defend the use of force-feeding as a necessary step to maintain order at Guantanamo, but the defense attorneys and detainees argue that it is a direct violation of human rights.  Detainee Nabil Hadjarab claims that he is taking part in the hunger strikes to protest his detention despite the fact that no formal charges have been lodged against him.  Hadjarab stated, “I am doing this because I want to know my destiny.  I cannot abide not knowing anymore.”  Force-feeding at Guantanamo has been criticized for months now but this is one of the first instances where the detainee’s defense counsel has turned to the courts for relief.

The motion specifically names four detainees, and there might be a reason for its timing.  The Islamic holy month of Ramadan starts next week, and any force-feeding that might occur during daytime hours could violate detainees’ religious beliefs.  Even if the motion is not presented to the court by next week, the detainees are seeking a temporary order that would prohibit guards from force-feeding them from sunup to sundown.  This would probably be granted as guards at Guantanamo have agreed in the past to only force-feed detainees after sundown in observance with Ramadan.

Even so, guards at Guantanamo are unlikely to change their ways without a specific court order.  Army Colonel Greg Julian stated, “Until we are told to do differently the practice will not change.”  I can understand that guards at Guantanamo are simply following orders.  They aren’t exactly in the best position.  They don’t get to make the call on whether or not the detainees are charged or released.  As for the overarching policy, I agree that it isn’t a good look to have detainees dying from malnutrition at Guantanamo.  But it isn’t much better to shove tubes into detainees’ stomachs in response to a protest that has a perfectly legitimate aim.

We aren’t talking about detainees with high intelligence value or detainees that have been charged with crimes.  I can see a better argument for force-feeding detainees in that category, even if it might still be a human rights violation.  We could at least justify it since keeping them alive might save more lives if they have information on any impending attacks.  Instead, we’re talking about men who have been told by the government that there are no charges against them due to lack of evidence, but they are still not allowed to leave Guantanamo Bay.  These are men who have made a conscious decision to protest a policy that many Americans don’t even like.  And if the courts put a stop to force-feeding it might force the government’s hand into making a decision as to their fate.

Either way, this has turned into an issue that the courts will now have to address.  And with the total number of hunger-strikers at 106 and the number of detainees being force-fed at 45, it will be interesting to see how this plays out in the next week or so.

Chris Whitten
Center for Policy and Research

Senate Armed Services Committee Approves Guantanamo Transfer Bill

It now appears that the government is taking steps toward lightening the burden on Guantanamo Bay, and perhaps even closing it.  Yesterday, The New York Times reported that the Senate Armed Services Committee approved the National Defense Authorization Act for 2014.  The bill will lift a ban on the transfer of detainees to the United States for the purpose of prosecution.  The bill also pertains to transferring detainees for medical reasons, or even for continued detention in American prisons.

Since 2011, the U.S. Secretary of Defense has been required to certify that a list of conditions have been met before a detainee could be transferred.  Most of the conditions were extra security measures that essentially stopped the government from even attempting transfers, even for low-security risk detainees.  Under the new bill, the checklist would be done away with and the Secretary of Defense would only need to certify that the transfer would be in the best interest of national security.  This would be a much more flexible process that would probably lead to more transfers and possibly more trials for detainees.

Although the bill has been approved, it still has a long way to go before it becomes a law.  No actual vote has been held; members of the Committee have only agreed to debate the bill’s provisions on the Senate floor.  A rival bill has also been drafted by Republicans in the House of Representatives that would maintain the blanketed ban on transfers for any reason whatsoever.

So what are the benefits of the bill?  First of all, it might speed up the process for detainees who are actually being charged with crimes.  Military tribunals are notoriously slow, and we often have to wait years before we see a verdict in these trials.  If we opened up our traditional court system, we might see quicker results.  That’s not to say that our traditional system is lightning quick, but if we remove some of the barriers that prosecutors and defense attorneys face in military tribunals we would probably see a lot more efficiency.

Aside from that, the cost of providing medical treatment to detainees at Guantanamo can be astronomical.  Medical expenses are high as it is, but when you factor in transportation costs for medical personnel and equipment, they become ridiculous.  We would not only be able to cut our bottom line if we were able to provide quicker, better, and cheaper medical attention for detainees, but we would probably be able to quiet some of the human rights concerns that have stemmed from force-feeding detainees that have been on hunger strikes for months now.

Overall, there are a lot of positives to be found in the bill.  President Obama’s initial promise to close Guantanamo a year into his presidency has turned into a lengthy debacle and it doesn’t look like the government will be able to close it in one fell swoop.  If we make the decision to close it, it’s going to be a long process.  And even if this bill were voted into law it’s probably unlikely that high-value detainees would be transferred due to security issues.    So is this bill just a small step towards the slow phasing-out of Guantanamo Bay?  Yes.  But it’s a step nonetheless, and a step we can build on.

Chris Whitten, Research Fellow
Center for Policy and Research