President Obama has again drawn the ire of human rights groups by signing a defense appropriation that restricts his ability to repatriate Guantanamo detainees or transfer them to the U.S. for trial, making it virtually impossible to close the infamous prison.
Jim Lobe, last updated: January 04, 2013
Inter Press Service
Human rights groups are denouncing President Barack Obama’s failure to veto a defence bill that will make it far more difficult for him to fulfill his four-year-old pledge to close the Guantanamo detention facility this year.
Obama had threatened to veto the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) precisely because it renewed, among other things, Congressional restrictions which he said were intended to “foreclose” his ability to shut down the notorious prison, which has been used for the past 11 years to detain suspected foreign terrorists.
But, for the second year in a row, he failed to follow through on his threat and instead signed the underlying bill, which was passed by both houses of Congress last month and authorises the Pentagon to spend 633 billion dollars on its operations in 2013.
“President Obama has utterly failed the first test of his second term, even before Inauguration Day,” said Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). “He has jeopardised his ability to close Guantanamo during his presidency.
“Scores of men who have already been held for nearly 11 years without being charged with a crime – including more than 80 who have been cleared for transfer – may very well be imprisoned unfairly for another year,” Romero added.
“The administration blames Congress for making it harder to close Guantanamo, yet for a second year, President Obama has signed damaging congressional restrictions into law,” noted Andrea Prasow, senior counter-terrorism counsel at Human Rights Watch (HRW). “The burden is on Obama to show he is serious about closing the prison.”
Obama’s signing of the law comes amid a growing debate – both within and outside the administration – about when and how to end the so-called Global War on Terror, especially its most controversial components, which Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, initiated shortly after the Al-Qaeda attacks on Sep. 11, 2001.
Last month, the Pentagon’s general counsel, Jeh Johnson, addressed precisely that topic in a speech to Britain’s Oxford Union, asking, “Now that the efforts by the U.S. military against Al-Qaeda are in their 12th year, we must also ask ourselves, how will this conflict end?”
While he didn’t offer any specific answers, he indicated that a “tipping point” could be reached when Washington concluded that the group and its affiliates were rendered incapable of launching “strategic attacks” against the U.S.
On taking office four years ago, Obama ordered an end to certain tactics, notably what the Bush administration referred to as “enhanced interrogation techniques” that rights groups called “torture”, and “extraordinary rendition” to third countries known to use torture. He has since relied to a much greater extent on drone strikes against “high-value” suspected terrorists from Afghanistan and Pakistan to Yemen and Somalia.
Some former Bush officials have raised the question whether Obama’s use of targeted killings – which Bush also used but not nearly as frequently – was morally or legally more justifiable than their use of “enhanced interrogation”. Some have even suggested that the administration has preferred killing suspects to capturing them, especially if their capture would require it to send more prisoners to Guantanamo, something Obama pledged not to do.
The administration has sought to justify that tactic – which a growing number of critics consider counter-productive at best, and illegal under international law if carried out far from the battlefield – in general terms but has shied away from spelling out the specific circumstances under which it is deployed.
Drone strikes are believed to have killed more than 1,500 people in Pakistan and more than 400 in Yemen since Obama took office, according to the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which claims that a not-insignificant proportion of the deaths have included civilians.
The administration is reportedly working to tighten rules regarding the use of drone strikes, particularly by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), which has enjoyed greater freedom in deciding when to attack suspects in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia than the U.S. military has had in Afghanistan.
Particularly controversial was the targeted killing of a U.S. citizen and alleged Al-Qaeda leader, Anwar al-Awlaki, in Yemen in 2011.
A federal judge in New York ruled Wednesday that she could not require the Justice Department to disclose an internal memorandum that provided the legal justification for that attack, but noted that such actions appeared on their face” to be “incompatible with our Constitution and laws”.
The ACLU, which brought the lawsuit under the Freedom of Information Act, denounced the ruling, insisting that “the public has a right to know more about the circumstances in which the government believes it can lawfully kill people, including U.S. citizens, who are from any battlefield and have never been charged with a crime.”
On the very first day of his presidency four years ago, Obama issued an executive order directing the closing of Guantanamo Bay, which he called a “sad chapter in American history”, within one year.
At the time, he ordered a review of the cases of the approximately 250 detainees who were still there – down from a high of around 800 shortly after it opened in January 2002 – to determine whether they could be prosecuted in civilian courts on U.S. soil or released.
In 2010, an administration task force recommended repatriating 126 detainees to their homelands or a third country, prosecuting 36 others in federal court or before military commissions (which have nonetheless been harshly criticised by human-rights groups for lack of due-process guarantees), and holding 48 others indefinitely pending the end of hostilities.
Some were indeed repatriated; 166 detainees remain at Guantanamo today.
But the administration’s plan encountered heavy resistance in Congress, particularly from lawmakers who strongly opposed the transfer of any suspected terrorists to detention facilities or prisons in their jurisdictions or their trial before civilian courts.
By 2011, Congress attached amendments to critical defence bills restricting Obama’s ability to repatriate detainees and banning their transfer to the U.S. mainland for any purpose, despite the fact that the yearly cost of holding a prisoner in a maximum-security U.S.-based facility would be a fraction of the estimated 800,000 dollars it costs to hold a detainee at Guantanamo.
Obama has taken the position that these restrictions encroach on his powers as commander-in-chief, but his signing of this most recent NDAA marks the second time that he has backed down from a veto threat.
“It’s not encouraging that the president continues to be willing to tie his own hands when it comes to closing Guantanamo,” said Dixon Osborn of Human Rights First. ”The injustice of Guantanamo continues to serve as a stain on American global leadership on human rights.”
The NDAA also imposes curbs on the administration’s ability to transfer or repatriate some 50 non-Afghan citizens who are currently being held by U.S. forces in Parwan prison at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan.
Unlike his more ideological peers, former CNN political analyst Bill Schneider seldom engages in straightforward issue advocacy, preferring instead to discuss policy issues in terms of their implications for electoral politics or Beltway political discourse. However, Schneider—a former fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and the Hoover Institution—occasionally betrays interventionist leanings on foreign policy, declaring in a recent op-ed that “if the U.S. doesn't do anything, nothing happens. … As in Kuwait, Kosovo and Libya, if the U.S. doesn't do something [in Syria], nothing will happen. The murderous bloodletting will go on.”
The Foreign Policy Initiative (FPI), a leading neoconservative think tank, claims to have a solution to the ongoing fallout from the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq: send more troops, bomb more targets, and get involved in Syria as well. Along with peddling an aggressive expansion of NATO along Russia’s borders and expounding on the virtues of nuclear weapons, FPI’s recent publications have urged the U.S. to send troops to Iraq and potentially Syria, launch an aggressive campaign of airstrikes against ISIS, and funnel arms to the Iraqi army (which previously handed over its weapons to ISIS), Sunni rebels in Syria (who could do the same), and Kurdish fighters in Iraq.
Retired Gen. Jack Keane is a frequent guest on Fox News and a contributor to the Wall Street Journal, where he is a reliable advocate for hawkish, aggressive U.S. foreign policies. Keane has been a vocal supporter of U.S. strikes in both Iraq and Syria on ISIS. However, left unmentioned in Keane's media appearances are his extensive ties to military contractors that might benefit from a protracted conflict in the Middle East—including Academi, the latest incarnation of the notorious Blackwater, which in 2012 hired Keane as a “strategic adviser.”
Ben Wattenberg is an author and demographer who was based at the American Enterprise Institute for many years. He was also the host of Think Tank, a PBS talk show that aired during 1994-2010. A veteran of the Coalition for a Democratic Majority and the Committee on the Present Danger, Wattenberg was part of a vanguard of neoconservative figures who in the 1970s drifted from the Democratic Party to the hawkish right. Alongside his foreign policy advocacy, Wattenberg has written numerous alarmist tracts on social issues, including worrying about declining birth rates in the U.S., Europe, and Asia, and warning that “Divorce, legalized abortion, and easy-to-use contraceptives have all contributed to the numbers of ‘never-born babies,’” creating a “social deficit’ that plagues nations across the world.”
Brigette Gabriel, a Lebanese-born anti-Islamic activist and founder of the right-wing group ACT! for America, is notorious for making fear-mongering claims about terrorism and Islam. She has called the Islamic faith “not compatible with Western civilization” and insisted that a practicing Muslim “cannot be a loyal citizen of the United States.” At a Heritage Foundation event earlier this year, Gabriel drew scrutiny after she verbally attacked a Muslim American law student, questioning whether the student was an American. More recently, capitalizing on right-wing hysteria over immigration and extremist groups in the Middle East, Gabriel alleged that ISIS members were crossing into the U.S. from Mexico, citing reports from unnamed “members of the Department of Homeland Security.”
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