President Obama gave an address at the National Defense University on the future of U.S. anti-terrorism policy on Thursday. The much-anticipated speech focused on the administration’s legal justification for its use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV’s or drones), the Department of Justice’s surveillance of the Associated Press’ phone lines, and the status of the prisoners in Guantanamo Bay.
In the run-up to the speech, media outlets reported that the speech would center on drones and Guantanamo prison; however, President Obama saved the issue of the 166 detainees for the end of his speech;
I once again call on Congress to lift the restrictions on detainee transfers from Gitmo. I have asked the Department of Defense to designate a site in the United States where we can hold military commissions. I am appointing a new, senior envoy at the State Department and Defense Department whose sole responsibility will be to achieve the transfer of detainees to third countries. I am lifting the moratorium on detainee transfers to Yemen, so we can review them on a case by case basis. To the greatest extent possible, we will transfer detainees who have been cleared to go to other countries. Where appropriate, we will bring terrorists to justice in our courts and military justice system. And we will insist that judicial review be available for every detainee.
President Obama’s statements were contradictory. He blamed Congress for halting transfers, but announced he would be lifting the ban on transfers to Yemen, which is a self-imposed policy. “The idea that he has lifted the ban on returning Yemenis to Yemen is something you can’t give him too much credit for because he’s the one who put that in place,” said attorney David Remes, who represents 17 of the current prisoners at Gitmo, 14 of whom are Yemeni. “It’s a meaningless statement. At the same time he’s saying Congress has tied his hands,” added Remes. In an earlier conversation with msnbc, Remes spoke of the needed action regarding the 56 cleared Yemeni detainees; “[Obama] cannot make meaningful progress without sending the Yemenis home…they all want to reunite with their families and rebuild their lives.”
While the appointment of a new envoy to oversee transfers is a step forward, it is mostly a symbolic one until prisoners start leaving Guantanamo. That announcement also comes close on the heels of the closure of the State Department’s office that served the same purpose, suggesting that the renewed spotlight due to the hunger strike may have forced the administration to retrace steps. The president’s remarks echoed much of what he said in 2009 when he called for the closing of the prison, citing its expenses, damage to the country’s reputation, and unjust practices. “This is what he did in 2009 and everybody thought that the Guantanamo issue was over. Everybody thought Guantanamo was closing and had been closed and simply fell out of public consciousness for four years or more and then it took this horrible hunger strike,” added Remes. “And now he’s put it away again.” Back in 2009, Obama announced he was ordering a review of all 240 Gitmo cases, 69% of those prisoners remain in Guantanamo.
The president concluded his statement on the detention facility by saying,
Even after we take these steps, one issue will remain: how to deal with those Gitmo detainees who we know have participated in dangerous plots or attacks, but who cannot be prosecuted–for example because the evidence against them has been compromised or is inadmissible in a court of law. But once we commit to a process of closing Gitmo, I am confident that this legacy problem can be resolved, consistent with our commitment to the rule of law.
Those words are another endorsement of indefinite detention. In spite of the president’s calls for judicial process, he couched what is being hailed as a resumption of transfers with the option to continue holding prisoners regardless of evidence. “We needed to hear [Obama] also make the case under the existing authority he has under the NDAA,” said Pardiss Kebriaei, of the Center for Constitutional Rights, on All in w/ Chris Hayes. President Obama “said transfers will resume under the extent possible, we needed to hear him say now,” she continued. “He has said the right thing before.”
While the president referred to the ongoing hunger strike, he made no mention of the Joint Detention Group’s (JDG) treatment of prisoners. Since the start of the hunger strike in February, guards at Guantanamo have removed prisoners’ basic necessities, interfered with sleep and prayer, and have recently begun conducting invasive searches whenever prisoners leave their cells in Camp 5 or Camp 6 to receive phone calls or meet with their attorneys in Camp Echo or Camp Delta.
Wednesday evening attorneys for Saeed Mohammed Saleh Hatim filed an emergency motion, with more than 10 addition legal teams joining, concerning prisoners’ access to counsel. The motion contends that these intrusive searches “which involves touching and holding a detainee’s genitals and buttocks” prevent legal counsel and that the “government had previously recognized that such searches offend and humiliate Islamic detainees and had banned them at Guantanamo.”
The president’s statements echoed 2009. Will his actions be different?