Guantanamo transfers: an empty gesture?

The transfer of 70 detainees to Illinois simply passes on the problem

So, what are we to make of the Obama administration's decision to transfer about 70 of the remaining 250 or so Guantanamo detainees to the US mainland?

The White House yesterday released a memorandum directing the federal government to purchase the prison, in order to "facilitate the closure" of detention facilities at the Guantanamo Bay naval base by securing the transfer of roughly 70 inmates (according to Senator Dick Durbin, D-Illinois) to the correctional centre in the town of Thomson, Carroll County, Illinois.

The decision to move the detainees to the facility at Thomson (population 559) is an interesting choice, on all sorts of levels.

In part, Barack Obama is doubtless being a touch wily and seeking to stall the barrage of criticism he will be in for, come 22 January and the passing of the year in which he said that he would have Guantanamo closed. It will also provide a good number of jobs -- some sources say up to 2,000 -- and $1bn of federal funding in an area feeling the economic downturn acutely.

But he will take considerable flak from the Republicans, some of whom are already talking of the "risks" the move poses to the American public. In an expensive pre-emptive pandering to such cynically stoked fears, the prison -- which already features cells built of precast, reinforced cement, will now be retrofitted to exceed even "super-max" security standards, according to a letter sent to the governor of Illinois, Pat Quinn, by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. But this is hardly going to quell Republican concerns that Guantanamo detainees just shouldn't be in America, period.

A more serious question the Republicans might have addressed is whether the move will defuse Guantanamo as the terrorist recruiting station it has come to be viewed as around the world. The answer here is, of course, no. The question was never about the "where" of Guantanamo itself; it was always about the "how" of detainee treatment and the United States' commitment to international law. And unless steps are taken to expedite detainees' passage through open and transparent legal processes, nothing about the world's indignation against it will change.

Indeed, the use of the term "detainee management purposes" in Obama's order yesterday was chillingly reminiscent of the neoliberalist jargon deployed to such horrid effect during the Bush era. Moreover, as at the "old" Guantanamo, the "new" Guantanamo will be run not by the Federal Bureau of Prisons, but by the defence department, yet another way that these detainees are cleaved from the legal system.

But amid all the brouhaha about the decision, there are three important things to remember.

First, this is a response to the real difficulty the White House has encountered in finding other places to take the detainees. For all the love-in surrounding Obama's trip to Norway last week, for example, even the Norwegian foreign minister Jonas Gahr Støre has declined to take them, and in no uncertain terms. "Guantanamo is the United States' responsibility," he said last month.

Second, it takes some of the heat (and we ought not to be distracted by this) away from the fact that the move does nothing to resolve the fate of the detainees among this number who will continue to be held indefinitely. Nor does it deal with the question of the treatment of detainees slated for transfer elsewhere -- those whose transfer to Yemen is actively being discussed in particular.

Third, it reminds us that the real problems of Guantanamo still have not been addressed by the present administration. Obama was very good on the symbolism of closing the base at the beginning of this year. He has been less good at addressing the broader legal quagmire of Guantanamo (including the policy of rendition). Moving those who are to be tried by refangled military commission (which the Obama administration could have dropped, but has chosen to continue with) does not address that problem; it simply passes it on.

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Why Barack Obama was right to release Chelsea Manning

A Presidential act of mercy is good for Manning, but also for the US.

In early 2010, a young US military intelligence analyst on an army base near Baghdad slipped a Lady Gaga CD into a computer and sang along to the music. In fact, the soldier's apparently upbeat mood hid two facts. 

First, the soldier later known as Chelsea Manning was completely alienated from army culture, and the callous way she believed it treated civilians in Iraq. And second, she was quietly erasing the music on her CDs and replacing it with files holding explosive military data, which she would release to the world via Wikileaks. 

To some, Manning is a free speech hero. To others, she is a traitor. President Barack Obama’s decision to commute her 35-year sentence before leaving office has been blasted as “outrageous” by leading Republican Paul Ryan. Other Republican critics argue Obama is rewarding an act that endangered the lives of soldiers and intelligence operatives while giving ammunition to Russia. 

They have a point. Liberals banging the drum against Russia’s leak offensive during the US election cannot simultaneously argue leaks are inherently good. 

But even if you think Manning was deeply misguided in her use of Lady Gaga CDs, there are strong reasons why we should celebrate her release. 

1. She was not judged on the public interest

Manning was motivated by what she believed to be human rights abuses in Iraq, but her public interest defence has never been tested. 

The leaks were undoubtedly of public interest. As Manning said in the podcast she recorded with Amnesty International: “When we made mistakes, planning operations, innocent people died.” 

Thanks to Manning’s leak, we also know about the Vatican hiding sex abuse scandals in Ireland, plus the UK promising to protect US interests during the Chilcot Inquiry. 

In countries such as Germany, Canada and Denmark, whistle blowers in sensitive areas can use a public interest defence. In the US, however, such a defence does not exist – meaning it is impossible for Manning to legally argue her actions were in the public good. 

2. She was deemed worse than rapists and murderers

Her sentence was out of proportion to her crime. Compare her 35-year sentence to that received by William Millay, a young police officer, also in 2013. Caught in the act of trying to sell classified documents to someone he believed was a Russian intelligence officer, he was given 16 years

According to Amnesty International: “Manning’s sentence was much longer than other members of the military convicted of charges such as murder, rape and war crimes, as well as any others who were convicted of leaking classified materials to the public.”

3. Her time in jail was particularly miserable 

Manning’s conditions in jail do nothing to dispel the idea she has been treated extraordinarily harshly. When initially placed in solitary confinement, she needed permission to do anything in her cell, even walking around to exercise. 

When she requested treatment for her gender dysphoria, the military prison’s initial response was a blanket refusal – despite the fact many civilian prisons accept the idea that trans inmates are entitled to hormones. Manning has attempted suicide several times. She finally received permission to receive gender transition surgery in 2016 after a hunger strike

4. Julian Assange can stop acting like a martyr

Internationally, Manning’s continued incarceration was likely to do more harm than good. She has said she is sorry “for hurting the US”. Her worldwide following has turned her into an icon of US hypocrisy on free speech.

Then there's the fact Wikileaks said its founder Julian Assange would agree to be extradited to the US if Manning was released. Now that Manning is months away from freedom, his excuses for staying in the Equadorian London Embassy to avoid Swedish rape allegations are somewhat feebler.  

As for the President - under whose watch Manning was prosecuted - he may be leaving his office with his legacy in peril, but with one stroke of his pen, he has changed a life. Manning, now 29, could have expected to leave prison in her late 50s. Instead, she'll be free before her 30th birthday. And perhaps the Equadorian ambassador will finally get his room back. 

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.