Obama Oversimplifies Terror Cases in Renewed Call to Close Gitmo

Guantanamo Bay detention facility remains politically charged at home and abroad.


Part of the Guantanamo detention facility on the U.S. Naval Base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in 2008.

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"Although many detainees have now been established through the civilian judicial process of habeas to be lawfully held as members of al-Qaida or the Taliban who are engaged in armed conflict, many of the nearly 800 detainees brought at some point to Guantanamo were released as captured without sufficient grounds or as not posing a threat."

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Defense counselor Ruiz points to inconsistencies from the Obama administration's commitment to this point, most notably through its decision to close a State Department office in January dedicated solely to examining how to shut down the Gitmo detention facility.

Daniel Fried, special envoy for closing the Guantanamo Bay prison, resigned on Jan. 28, reported the New York Times. The administration appointed no replacement and closed the office.

"Our actions speak louder than words," Ruiz says of what he sees as political pressures that forced the president to reverse his decisions. "The problem remains what it has always been, that this case was hijacked a long time ago by the political process."

Deborah Pearlstein, a professor at Yeshiva University's Cardozo Law School, says there is a solution for prosecuting detainees, whether they are foreign accused terrorists arrested in the U.S., or masterminds snatched from foreign countries.

"U.S. federal courts have time and again proven to be the most efficient, effective method for securing the long term detention of terrorist suspects, whether those suspects are picked up here in the United States or overseas," she says.

The benefit of hindsight has helped change the American mindset, says Cindy Panuco, lawyer for a detainee known only as Obaidullah who is participating in the ongoing hunger strike.

"We are able to reflect on that, the condemnation of the notion of Guantanamo by the international community, and we realize this is not the American way," she says.

The challenge remains, as the Pentagon's Breasseale says, finding a country that will take these detainees with the guarantee they will not be tortured, or wind up back on a battlefield.

"We can handle this," Obama said, pointing to the trials in civilian courts that successfully prosecuted the so-called "Underwear Bomber" who attempted to blow up an airplane in Detroit, and "Times Square Bomber." These could be applied to those at Guantanamo Bay, he said.

"The very practical difference is that the U.S. government didn't torture those others," says Marine Corps Maj. Derek Poteet, a lawyer for Mohammed. "The U.S. government tortured and disappeared Khalid Shaikh Mohammad and some of his family members and is taking extraordinary measures to hide the sordid details."

Poteet references an instance at a pre-trial hearing in Guantanamo Bay in February where a yet-unnamed government office shut down the live feed to a proceeding because it thought classified information was being discussed.

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"Pre-trial proceedings in Mr. Mohammad's case are happening in a war court, set up during a time of panic and fear," attorney Panuco says. "The ongoing pre-trial proceedings in Mr. Mohammad's case have demonstrated that in the military commissions, our usual notions of fairness and process go out the window."

Panuco says the two cases Obama cited show justice is "better served when our courts provide fair due process to every person regardless of their crime."

Chief prosecutor Martins says all governments are limited by what they didn't know.

"Looking back across the past decade, we might have hoped to get the balance of executive branch authorities and accountability mechanisms right in the first place, before a major attack came, in order to prevent both the attack and any ill-taken countermeasures," he said in September. "But all governments are limited by imperfect information, by uncertainty, and by the psychological reaction that terror induces when cooler heads are unable to assuage that reaction."

Governments and their leaders sometimes make "hasty decisions," he added, based upon fear more than foresight to maintain a sense of safety.