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Closing Guantanamo

It is the most potent symbol of the abuses of the Bush era: Obama's swift decision to shut down Guan

Before the place closes, I might have a couple more opportunities to get down to Guantanamo Bay. Nothing very much has changed. Some of the ­soldiers have become disillusioned, knowing that their orders place them on the wrong side of history. They talk more, they try to make life a little easier on the prisoners. Their commanders have become more dogmatic, if that were possible, like terriers who refuse to give up a bone.

In a way, I am going to miss Guantanamo. It's an odd ­notion, but I've been there more than 20 times, more than six months in all. Sometimes, the true joy of tilting at windmills comes when there is an ogre in the White House. Now they are gone, George W Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, the entire Axis of Evil.

Only a few days ago, on 20 January, Americans welcomed in the new year with the inauguration of Barack Obama. The new president immediately demonstrated that he means business, taking a break between dances at his ten inaugural balls to start issuing executive orders. The first 24 hours saw four decrees: the closure of Guantanamo Bay (within a year), a review of US detention policies (including the closure of CIA "black sites"), a review of US "transfer" policies (the euphemism for extraordinary rendition), and an evaluation of what position the administration should take in the case of Ali al-Marri, the only person held in extrajudicial detention on US soil for more than seven years in the "war on terror". Obama did more for the rule of law in one day than George W Bush did in eight years.

However, while this may herald a new dawn, we are very far from the end of the day. If there is one lesson that must be learned from Bush's catalogue of mistakes it is that we should not go hanging up the "Mission Accomplished" banner in too much of a hurry. Bush made his infamous announcement on the USS Abraham Lincoln on 1 May 2003, only 41 days after the invasion of Iraq. Almost six years later, it is sobering to note that more than 96 per cent of the US and coalition casualties came after Bush claimed that it was all over.

The battle for human rights is no more easily won. It is folly to think that Obama can sign four orders and fix an entire era of human rights abuses. A president, no matter how well-intentioned, can only achieve his goals if he has the necessary information and political support. In terms of information, Obama's limited sources have to be a concern. With each policy review that he has ordered, he has named the players who will issue the report: the attorney general, the secretary of defence, the secretary of state, the secretary of homeland security, the director of national intelligence and the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff. For the most part, these are the very institutions that created the problem in the first place. Nowhere does this take into account those who have struggled for change. There are plenty of interest groups opposed to a close analysis of the recent past; others remain convinced that al-Qaeda presents a different paradigm to anything previously encountered, one where the rule of law must give way.

Closing Guantanamo Bay will be a challenge, not least in terms of determining what will be done with the 240 prisoners detained there. The first group is the easiest – the 140 or so prisoners who can just be repatriated. Ninety-seven are from Yemen, and they would be home already if only the Bush administration had talked to President Saleh.

The second group are refugees who need resettlement: there are around 60, most of whom were picked up in Pakistan for bounties. Here, Obama needs help from his allies to offer them sanctuary, and it is sad that the British Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, announced a few days ago that Britain felt it had done enough already. A country that played so integral a part in supporting the mess created by Bush might feel a greater obligation to clean it up.

Last, there is the group of prisoners who will be tried, perhaps 40 of them. President Obama has ordered that the Guantanamo military commissions be suspended. Now looms the struggle over the formulation of a process to replace them. Even liberals in the US are talking about a security court, a ­notion that would sound Orwellian were it not for the fact that Britain already has such a body - SIAC, the Special Immigration Appeals Commission, with all its secrecy and its special advocates, all beyond the public eye.

Obama has also ordered the closure of CIA prisons. This is an interesting comment on his predecessor's candour, since Bush assured us in September 2006 that there were no more prisoners in CIA detention. Indeed, there is no definition of what a CIA prison is: none has ever been designated as such. The overwhelming majority (more than 99 per cent) of the, roughly, 20,000 prisoners still held in US custody, beyond the rule of law, have never been in a "CIA prison". Guantanamo is not a CIA prison. Bagram air base is not a CIA prison, yet the US military continues to hold 680 prisoners without any due process.

What we do know is that, while in US custody, prisoners disappear. Reprieve, together with other human rights organisations, drafted a report called Off the Recordwhich featured 39 people who have vanished in US custody. Only two have surfaced; 37 remain ghosts. The story of Ibn Sheikh al-Libi is an example of how the osmotic pressure of politics can result in prisoners being shuffled quietly off to a terrible fate. Al-Libi was seized in November 2001 and soon rendered by the CIA to Egypt, where torture elicited the "fact" that al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein were in league over weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Bush cited this as a reason to invade Iraq; the then secretary of state Colin Powell repeated it in the UN. When 14 "high-value detainees" appeared in Guantanamo Bay in September 2006, Ibn al-Libi was not among them; what he might say to a lawyer was just too embarrassing for the administration. So he was rendered to disappear in Libya, where Reprieve has now tracked him down. His story must be told - both to expose the consequences of torture and how Libya is being used to spare Bush's blushes.

Notwithstanding such important individual stories, the directive to close CIA prisons is only of passing relevance. There is also the question of the proxy prisons. The outsourcing of torture and imprisonment was one of the greatest horrors of the Bush years, and there are proxy prisons that have never been part of the public debate, including a particularly unpleasant one in Uzbekistan. Other countries – most notably Jordan and Egypt – continue to serve secret American interests.

It would also be unwise to assume that Obama's policy review is going to eliminate the practice of rendition. This was not a Bush brainchild; as far back as Ronald Reagan, suspects had been "snatched" - the preferred term - from abroad. There was enthusiasm for rendition during the Clinton era. Richard Clarke, counter-terrorism tsar to both Democrats and Republicans, relates an infamous story in his book Against All Enemies:

The first time I had proposed a snatch, in 1993, the White House counsel, Lloyd Cutler, demanded a meeting with the president to explain how it violated international law. Clinton seemed to be siding with Cutler until Al Gore belatedly joined the meeting, having just flown overnight from South Africa. Clinton recapped the argument on both sides for Gore: Lloyd says this. Dick says that. Gore laughed and said, "That's a no-brainer. Of course it's a violation of international law, that's why it's a covert action. The guy is a terrorist. Go grab his ass."

The euphemisms - "rendition to justice" is a favourite one, when someone is "snatched" and brought to face trial in the US - cannot disguise the fact that there is no legal distinction that sets it apart from kidnapping.

President Obama has ordered an end to torture, requiring that all interrogations abide by the Army Field Manual. Yet the ink was barely dry on his directive before talk of adding more coercive techniques to the manual began to surface even from within the Obama administration itself, possibly as a sop to right-wing critics. Obama also said nothing about accountability. With a wink and a nod, before his inauguration, there were signs that he had already come under pressure from both sides of the aisle not to look too carefully at the criminal practices of the Bush administration. Nobody in Congress seems to have the stomach for a bloody inquest, and I believe the Senate leadership have indicated that inquiries are not on their list of priorities. Obama's reticence is understandable enough. He is embarking on a daunting mission, and he must seek allies where he can find them. Digging up the skeletons of the past might have suited the Democrats in the run-up to the election, but if they want Republican co-operation now, the prospect is less appealing.

The setting up of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, to ensure that the truth comes to light, both for the peace of mind of the victims and so that history can record the mistakes, would be one option open to the new president, and there is no legitimate argument against it. But such a commission will not easily be born. A systematic structure of secrecy - couched in national security terms - may be the most dangerous and long-lasting legacy of Bush and Tony Blair. I have a US security clearance, and while I obviously cannot reveal classified material, I can state without hesitation that the overwhelming majority of it would not remain hidden in a sane world.

Looking to the future, it is enormously exciting to have a US president who is so powerfully in favour of human rights. But it is unclear whether he could sustain his approach in the face of (for example) a further terror attack on US soil. Unfortunately we should not discount the possibility of such an attack. Al- Qaeda must realise that a decent president is a danger to their cause, just as Bush's policies provided the most effective recruiting sergeant to their banner that they could imagine.

Clive Stafford Smith is the director of Reprieve, the UK legal action charity that uses the law to enforce the human rights of prisoners, from death row to Guantanamo Bay. For more information, see, or contact Reprieve, PO Box 52742, London EC4P 4WS. Tel: 020 7353 4640

Road to closure

2002, January First group of 20 prisoners arrive at Guantanamo, deemed not entitled to habeas corpus.
President Bush rules that their standing as "enemy combatants" disqualifies them from PoW status
February Detainees go on hunger strike to protest the ban on turbans
2004, March UK prisoners dubbed the "Tipton Three" are released without charge
June Supreme Court rules that prisoners can use federal courts to challenge their imprisonment
July In response, the Pentagon creates special military commissions to determine detainees "enemy combatant" status
2005, May Riots erupt around the world after allegations of abuse of the Koran at Guantanamo
2006, June US Supreme Court rules that military commissions used to try prisoners are illegal and that the Geneva Conventions apply to detainees
2008, June Supreme Court rules that prisoners are entitled to habeas corpus
July Reports that US military based an interrogation class on study of Chinese torture techniques
July Guantanamo war crimes trial begins against Osama Bin Laden's former driver
2009, January Barack Obama announces Guantanamo to close within a year and suspends all ongoing military tribunals

Kate Ferguson

Inside guantanamo/Bisher Al-Rawi

was arrested in November 2002 during a business trip to the Gambia, along with a colleague. He was first taken to Bagram air base, then on to Guantanamo.

We were flown to Guantanamo shackled, cuffed, blindfolded. We had protectors on our ears. It was extremely uncomfortable. If you wanted to use the toilet, someone had to pull your trousers down for you. It was extremely degrading.
When we got there we were put in solitary confinement. To be thrown into a dimly lit cell, just a small box, life is really very alien. You feel hopeless, like this is your grave. We stayed in solitary confinement for a month, then went out into the general population [of the camp]. You were still in individual cells but you could see people. Really, the day was full of nothingness. It revolved around when they brought us food and the nothingness in between. The leisure time was a big thing - to be let outside - but even when you were there you were just by yourself in a fenced area, 10ft by 15ft. There really was no information about what was going on - there was just interrogation.
Something happened which made me realise it was a game to people. Before my lawyer had visited, he sent me a letter explaining I was not to take part in the tribunal process, because it was illegal. Before I received the letter, they came to us. We were told a couple of weeks before that we'd have a tribunal. We had to prepare our own defence - but without access to pen and paper.
Then the day after my tribunal I received my lawyer's letter saying not to take part. The letter had been postmarked two months before. That's when I knew they were not trying to do the right thing, and then I lost faith.

Inside Guantanamo/Moazzam Begg

Moazzam Begg was detained by Pakistani police and CIA officers in January 2002 while he was living in Islamabad.

I was never arrested, I was kidnapped at gunpoint. Nobody ever questioned me until I was handed over into custody. It happened because the US offered bounties of thousands of pounds for each person. There was no justice system, absolutely none. They didn't even pretend there was. You were simply in custody and that's it.
I was held for three years - 11 months in Bagram and two years, one month in Guantanamo. Most of my time was in solitary confinement - it was monotonous and dreary, with nothing to look forward to. There was no window in my cell, and it was impossible to take more than three steps in any direction. They had recreation three times a day in a caged area that was about three times the size of my cell. By the end, they had increased each time to an hour.
We welcome news of the closure - it's seven years too late, but it's better late than never. But we're still concerned about the ghost prisons, where conditions are even worse than in Guantanamo. Obama has said that he's going to shut Guantanamo but he's also said that he's going to increase the numbers of troops in Afghanistan. So there are likely to be more people imprisoned there. I'm particularly concerned because I was held in Bagram myself for almost a year, and I saw some people killed there.

Clive Stafford Smith is legal director of the charity Reprieve and has spent more than 20 years representing prisoners on Death Row in the United States. More recently he has represented many of the prisoners in Guantanamo Bay.

This article first appeared in the 02 February 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Interview: Alistair Darling

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When it comes to responding to Islamic State, there is no middle ground

If Britain has a declared interest in curtailing Islamic State and stabilising Syria, it is neither honourable nor viable to let others intervene on our behalf.

Even before the brutal terrorist attacks in Paris, British foreign policy was approaching a crossroads. Now it is time, in the words of Barack Obama, addressing his fellow leaders at the G20 Summit in Turkey on 16 November, “to step up with the resources that this fight demands”, or stand down.

The jihadist threat metastasises, and international order continues to unravel at an alarming rate. A Russian civilian charter plane is blown out of the sky over the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt, killing 224 people, most of them returning from holiday, and the various offshoots of Islamic State bare their teeth in a succession of brutal attacks in France, Lebanon, Tunisia, Turkey and further afield. Our enemies are emboldened and our friends want to know to what extent we stand with them. The UK can no longer afford to postpone decisions that it has evaded since the Commons vote of August 2013, in which the government was defeated over the question of joining US-led air strikes against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime following a chemical weapons attack on Syrian civilians. MPs’ continued introspection is on the verge of becoming both irresponsible and morally questionable. There is no fence left to sit on.

On Sunday night, two days after the Paris attacks, the French – with US support – launched a series of bombing raids against Islamic State targets in Raqqa. With much more to come, the choice facing this country may not be easier but it is certainly clearer. Britain must determine whether it wants to be a viable and genuine partner in the fight against Islamic State, and in the long-term efforts to bring an end to the assorted evils of the Syrian civil war; or whether we are content to sit on the sidelines and cheer on former team-mates without getting our knees dirty. We can join our two most important allies – France and the United States, at the head of a coalition involving a number of Arab and other European states – in confronting a threat that potentially is as grave to us as it is to France, and certainly more dangerous than it is to the US. Alternatively, we can gamble that others will do the work for us, keep our borders tighter than ever, double down on surveillance (because that will certainly be one of the prices to pay) and hope that the Channel and the security services keep us comparatively safe. There is no fantasy middle ground, where we can shirk our share of the burden on the security front while leading the rest of the world in some sort of diplomatic breakthrough in Syria; or win a reprieve from the jihadists for staying out of Syria (yet hit them in Iraq), through our benevolence in opening the door to tens of thousands of refugees, or by distancing ourselves from the ills of Western foreign policy.

That the international community – or what is left of it – has not got its act together on Syria over the past three years has afforded Britain some space to indulge its scruples. Nonetheless, even before the Paris attacks, the matter was coming to the boil again. A vote on the expansion of air operations against Islamic State has been mooted since the start of this year, but was put on the back burner because of the May general election. The government has treated parliament with caution since its much-discussed defeat in the House in summer 2013. The existing policy – of supporting coalition air strikes against Islamic State in Iraq but not Syria – is itself an outgrowth of an awkward compromise between David Cameron and Ed Miliband, an attempt to reverse some of the damage done by the 2013 vote in parliament.

The Conservatives have waited to see where the ground lies in a Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour Party before attempting to take the issue back before the Commons. Labour pleaded for more time when Corbyn was elected, but there is no sign that the Labour leader is willing to shift in his hostility to any form of intervention. More significantly, he has now ruled out Labour holding a free vote on the matter.

If anything, the coalition of Little Englanders, anti-interventionists and anti-Americans in the House of Commons seems to have dug its trenches deeper. This leaves the Prime Minister with few options. One is to use the Royal Prerogative to announce that an ally has been attacked, and that we will stand with her in joining attacks against Islamic State in Syria. The moment for this has probably already passed, though the prerogative might still be invoked if Isis scores a direct hit against the UK. Yet even then, there would be problems with this line. A striking aspect of the killing of 30 Britons in the June attacks in Sousse, Tunisia, is just how little domestic political impact it seems to have made.

Another option for Cameron is to try to make one final effort to win a parliamentary majority, but this is something that Tory whips are not confident of achieving. The most likely scenario is that he will be forced to accept a further loss of the UK’s leverage and its standing among allies. Co-operation will certainly come on the intelligence front but this is nothing new. Meanwhile, the government will be forced to dress up its position in as much grand diplomatic verbiage as possible, to obfuscate the reality of the UK’s diminishing influence.

Already, speaking at the G20 Summit, the Prime Minister emphasised the need to show MPs a “whole plan for the future of Syria, the future of the region, because it is perfectly right to say that a few extra bombs and missiles won’t transform the situation”. In principle, it is hard to argue with this. But no such plan will emerge in the short term. The insistence that Assad must go may be right but it is the equivalent of ordering the bill at a restaurant before you have taken your seat. In practice, it means subcontracting out British national security to allies (such as the US, France and Australia) who are growing tired of our inability to pull our weight, and false friends or enemies (such as Russia and Iran), who have their own interests in Syria which do not necessarily converge with our own.

One feature of the 2013 Syria vote was the government’s failure to do the required groundwork in building a parliamentary consensus. Whips have spent the summer scouting the ground but to no avail. “The Labour Party is a different organisation to that which we faced before the summer,” Philip Hammond, the Foreign Secretary, has said. It is ironic, then, that the Prime Minister has faced strongest criticism from the Labour benches. “Everyone wants to see nations planning for increased stability in the region beyond the military defeat of the extremists,” says John Woodcock, the chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party defence committee, “but after two years of pussy-footing around, this just smacks of David Cameron playing for time when he should be showing leadership.”

The real story is not the distance between the two front benches but the divisions within both parties. There are as many as 30 Conservative MPs said to be willing to rebel if parliament is asked to vote for joining the coalition against Islamic State in Syria. It seems that the scale of the Paris attacks has not changed their position. A larger split in the Labour ranks also seems likely. Even before Paris, there were rumoured to be roughly 50 MPs ready to defy their leader on this question.


At first, in the wake of last week’s attacks, it seemed as if the Prime Minister might force the issue. To this end, he began the G20 in Turkey with a bilateral meeting with President Putin. His carefully chosen words before and after that discussion, in which he was much more emollient about Moscow’s role, showed the extent to which he was prepared to adapt to the changing situation. Cameron hoped that if he could show progress in building an international coalition on the diplomatic front, that might just give him enough to get over the line in a parliamentary vote.

This new approach has not had the desired effect. At the time of writing, the government believes it is too risky to call another vote in the short term. It calculates another defeat would hugely diminish Britain’s standing in the world. In truth, the government was already swimming upstream. On 29 October, the Conservative-
dominated Commons foreign affairs select committee, chaired by Crispin Blunt, released a report on the extension of British military operations into Syria, in anticipation of government bringing forward a parliamentary vote on the question. The report recommended that Britain should avoid further involvement unless a series of questions could be answered about exit strategy and long-term goals. The bar was set deliberately high, to guard against any further involvement (even the limited option of joining the existing coalition undertaking air strikes against IS in Syria).

The most flimsy of the five objections to further intervention in the report was that it will somehow diminish the UK’s leverage as an impartial arbiter and potential peacemaker. This is based on an absurd overestimation of the UK as some sort of soft-power saviour, valued by all parties for its impartiality in Middle Eastern affairs. Britain cannot hope to have any influence on policy if it is always last to sign up while others put their lives on the line. As so often in the past, what masquerades as tough-minded “realpolitik” is nothing of the sort. It is just another post-facto rationale for inaction.

Although it is sometimes said that Britain has yet to recover from the consequences of the invasion of Iraq, the committee report had a retro, 1990s feel. Many of the objections raised to burden-sharing in Syria were the same as those raised against humanitarian intervention in the Balkans two decades ago, when Blunt was working as special adviser to Michael Rifkind as defence and foreign secretary, and the UK was at the forefront of non-intervention. Likewise, two of the committee’s Labour members, Ann Clwyd and Mike Gapes, were veterans of the other side of that debate, and strong supporters of the Nato intervention in Kosovo in 1999. They expressed their dissent from the report’s conclusions but were voted down by their Conservative and SNP fellow committee members. “Non-intervention also has consequences,” said Gapes when he broke rank. “We should not be washing our hands and saying, ‘It’s too difficult.’”

Polling figures have shown majority public support for air strikes against IS since the spate of gruesome public executions that began last year, but nothing seems to change the calculus of the rump of anti-interventionist MPs.

All this promises an uncertain future for British foreign policy. On 6 November, the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, suggested that the UK’s existing position, of joining the coalition in Iraq but stopping at the borders of Syria, is “morally indefensible”. The killing of Mohammed Emwazi, aka “Jihadi John”, by a US predator drone on 12 November demonstrates what he meant. Emwazi was a Briton who was responsible for the beheading of British and American citizens, as well as countless Syrians. While the UK government was closely involved in that operation – and has previously used the justification of “self-defence” to “take out” targets in Syria – such are the restrictions placed upon it that we are forced to ask our allies to conduct potentially lethal operations (which are in our core national interests) on our behalf. The very act of “self-defence” is subcontracted out once again.

How long can this last when Islamic State poses a much greater threat to the UK than it does to the US? There is an issue of responsibility, too, with hundreds of British citizens fighting for and with Islamic State who clearly pose a grave danger to other states.


The very notion that Britain should play an expansive international role is under attack from a pincer movement from both the left and the right. There are two forms of “Little Englanderism” that have made a resurgence in recent years. On the left, this is apparent in the outgrowth of a world-view that sees no role for the military, and holds that the UK is more often than not on the wrong side in matters of international security, whether its opponent is Russia, Iran, the IRA or Islamic State. The second, and arguably just as influential, is the Little Englanderism of the right, which encompasses a rump of Tory backbenchers and Ukip. This is a form of neo-mercantilism, a foreign policy based on trade deals and the free movement of goods that regards multilateralism, international institutions and any foreign military intervention with great suspicion, as a costly distraction from the business of filling our pockets.

The time is ripe for long-term, hard-headed and unsentimental thinking about Britain’s global role. The country is not served well by the impression of British “decline” and “retreat” that has gained ground in recent times; and it is no safer for it, either. Given how quickly the security and foreign policy environment is changing, the publication of the Strategic Defence and Security Review in the coming week, alongside an update of the National Security Strategy, is likely to raise more questions than it answers. The officials responsible for its drafting do not have an easy brief, and news forecasting is a thankless task. Strategic vision and leadership must come from our elected politicians.

For all the talk of British decline, we are still one of the five wealthiest nations in the world. What we do matters, particularly at moments when our friends are under attack. However, until a new broad consensus emerges between the mainstream Labour and Conservative positions on foreign policy, the Little England coalition will continue to have the casting vote.

Syria continues to bleed profusely and the blood seeps deeper into different countries. There will be no political solution to the civil war there for the foreseeable future; to pretend that there is a hidden diplomatic solution is to wish to turn the clock back to 2011, when that might have been possible. Nor is the security situation any easier to deal with. A few hours before the attacks in Paris began, President Obama gave an interview in which he argued that he had successfully “contained” Islamic State. For the wider Middle East and Europe, that is simply not the case. Now, France will escalate its campaign, and the US will do more. Russia already has troops on the ground and will most likely send reinforcements.

The war in Syria is becoming more complicated and even more dangerous. The best that can be hoped for is that the Syrian ulcer can be cauterised. This will be achieved through the blunting of Islamic State, simultaneous pressure on Assad, and the creation of more safe places for Syrians. All roads are littered with difficulties and dangers. Yet, in the face of this ugly reality, is Britain to signal its intention to do less as every other major actor – friend and foe alike – does more? If we have a declared national interest in curtailing Islamic State and stabilising Syria – both because of the growing terrorist threat and because of the huge flow of refugees – then it is neither honourable nor viable to let others take care of it on our behalf.

John Bew is an NS contributing writer. His new book, “Realpolitik: a History”, is newly published by Oxford University Press

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The age of terror