What Obama could learn from JFK

“No president should fear public scrutiny of his programme,” said JFK in a speech delivered 50 years

Two years have passed since Barack Obama ordered the closure of the US prison facility in Guantanamo Bay, yet 172 inmates continue to be held in Kafka-esque limbo, denied the rights supposedly guaranteed them by law. Just how redolent of Kafka the situation has become was stressed by the publication over Easter weekend of the Guantanamo Files by the New York Times and the Guardian.

These military dossiers, amounting to more than 750 separate documents, cast new and shaming light on that purgatory of careless injustice and cruelty, inflicted on confirmed innocents and suspected terrorists alike with little concern for right or wrong.

Such subjective terms as "right" and "wrong" may have little place in most political discourse. The latest revelations, however, are so far removed from the democratic principles publicly advocated by the west that this language feels not only appropriate but necessary.

Take the detention of a senile, 89-year-old man or that of a child of 14, who had been conscripted into insurgent forces against his will. Then there are the unjustifiable incarcerations of those cleared of wrongdoing, their release in some cases delayed for futile intelligence-gathering purposes. And what about the holding of a British resident on the basis of confessions obtained through torture, or the security briefing that instructed Guantanamo Bay analysts to consider a popular Casio wristwatch to be a marker of al-Qaeda membership?

Now is a time for contrition. Instead, the White House has criticised the disclosures, insisting that the documents, originally handed to WikiLeaks, paint an incomplete and outdated picture of life at the camp. This may well be true – but an adequate apology is what is needed, not more deflections or excuses.

Fifty years ago today, President John F Kennedy delivered a speech entitled "The President and the Press", in which he set out his hopes for stronger ties between government and the media. Though largely advocating a statist line when it came to leaked information, Kennedy acknowledged: "There is little value in ensuring the survival of our nation if our traditions do not survive with it."

His concern was to "prevent unauthorised disclosures to the enemy" in the interests of national security; but Kennedy was careful to balance the journalist's responsibility to make sure that no strategically dangerous information is handed over to the "enemy" (then the "monolithic and ruthless conspiracy" that was communism) with a "second obligation" to "inform and alert": "From that scrutiny comes understanding and from that understanding comes support or opposition. And both are necessary." He continued: "No president should fear public scrutiny of his programme."

Words that Obama should certainly consider. Should he be condemning leaks, or the wrong that leaks expose?

Video footage from a recent NS debate on the subject of leaks and whistleblowers can be found here, here and here, featuring Julian Assange, WikiLeaks editor-in-chief, Mehdi Hasan, NS senior editor (politics), and Douglas Murray, author and political commentator, respectively.

Yo Zushi is a sub-editor of the New Statesman. His work as a musician is released by Eidola Records.

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Everyone's forgotten the one issue that united the Labour party

There was a time when Ed Miliband spoke at Momentum rallies.

To label the row over the EU at Thursday’s Labour leadership hustings "fireworks" would be to endow it with more beauty than it deserves. Owen Smith’s dogged condemnation of John McDonnell’s absence from a Remain rally – only for Corbyn to point out that his absence was for medical reasons – ought to go down as a cringing new low point in the campaign. 

Not so long ago, we were all friends. In the course of the EU referendum, almost all of the protagonists in the current debacle spoke alongside each other and praised one another’s efforts. At a local level, party activists of all stripes joined forces. Two days before polling day, Momentum activists helped organise an impromptu rally. Ed Miliband was the headline speaker, and was cheered on. 

If you take the simple version of the debate, Labour’s schism on the EU appears as an aberration of the usual dynamics of left and right in the party. Labour's left is supposedly cheering a position which avoids advocating what it believes in (Remain), because it would lose votes. Meanwhile, the right claims to be dying in a ditch for its principles - no matter what the consequences for Labour’s support in Leave-voting heartlands.

Smith wants to oppose Brexit, even after the vote, on the basis of using every available procedural mechanism. He would whip MPs against the invocation of Article 50, refuse to implement it in government, and run on a manifesto of staying in the EU. For the die-hard Europhiles on the left – and I count myself among these, having run the Another Europe is Possible campaign during the referendum – there ought to be no contest as to who to support. On a result that is so damaging to people’s lives and so rooted in prejudice, how could we ever accept that there is such a thing as a "final word"? 

And yet, on the basic principles that lie behind a progressive version of EU membership, such as freedom of movement, Smith seems to contradict himself. Right at the outset of the Labour leadership, Smith took to Newsnight to express his view – typical of many politicians moulded in the era of New Labour – that Labour needed to “listen” to the views Leave voters by simply adopting them, regardless of whether or not they were right. There were, he said, “too many” immigrants in some parts of the country. 

Unlike Smith, Corbyn has not made his post-Brexit policy a headline feature of the campaign, and it is less widely understood. But it is clear, via the five "red lines" outlined by John McDonnell at the end of June:

  1. full access to the single market
  2. membership of the European investment bank
  3. access to trading rights for financial services sector
  4. full residency rights for all EU nationals in the UK and all UK nationals in the EU, and
  5. the enshrinement of EU protections for workers. 

Without these five conditions being met, Labour would presumably not support the invocation of Article 50. So if, as seems likely, a Conservative government would never meet these five conditions, would there be any real difference in how a Corbyn leadership would handle the situation? 

The fight over the legacy of the referendum is theatrical at times. The mutual mistrust last week played out on the stage in front of a mass televised audience. Some Corbyn supporters jeered Smith as he made the case for another referendum. Smith accused Corbyn of not even voting for Remain, and wouldn’t let it go. But, deep down, the division is really about a difference of emphasis. 

It speaks to a deeper truth about the future of Britain in Europe. During the referendum, the establishment case for Remain floundered because it refused to make the case that unemployment and declining public services were the result of austerity, not immigrants. Being spearheaded by Conservatives, it couldn’t. It fell to the left to offer the ideological counter attack that was needed – and we failed to reach enough people. 

As a result, what we got was a popular mandate for petty racism and a potentially long-term shift to the right in British politics, endangering a whole raft of workplace and legal protections along the way. Now that it has happened, anyone who really hopes to overcome either Brexit, or the meaning of Brexit, has to address the core attitudes and debates at their root. Then as now, it is only clear left-wing ideas – free from any attempt to triangulate towards anti-migrant sentiment– that can have any hope of success. 

The real dividing lines in Labour are not about the EU. If they were, the Eurosceptic Frank Field would not be backing Smith. For all that it may be convenient to deny it, Europe was once, briefly, the issue that united the Labour Party. One day, the issues at stake in the referendum may do so again – but only if Labour consolidates itself around a strategy for convincing people of ideas, rather than simply reaching for procedural levers.