After Gitmo
January 29, 2009   By:    Abd al-Rahman al-Zahri, Book Review, Bush Legacy, Mohamed al-Qahtani   Comments are off   //   426 Views

Guantanamo Bay

The day Franklin Roosevelt died, one reporter turned to another and said: “Now we’ll have to grow up.” The same might be said with the departure of George W. Bush. The era of Bush-bashing is over, and now we’ll have to grow up and start thinking seriously about a whole set of issues that don’t lend themselves to easy or even morally coherent solutions.

Take the detainee base at Guantánamo. Last Thursday Barack Obama signed an executive order that will close the prison within a year. Approval was worldwide — hardly a surprise since the Bush administration’s treatment of prisoners at Gitmo and elsewhere has been subjected to a steady barrage of (deserved) criticism for several years now. Here, for example, is a list of only some of the books reviewed in the Book Review that have reported on the Bush-Cheney excesses:

By prodding the nation’s conscience, these books, and many, many newspaper and magazine stories as well, have been in the finest tradition of American journalism. And yet, oddly, for the most part they weren’t wholly satisfying. They tended to be long on reporting, short on analysis. They relied on an implicit agreement between writer and reader that the rights and wrongs of Guantánamo were clear, so that all readers needed were the facts the writers offered. The horrors spoke for themselves.

But did they? What if the Bush administration provided brutal and clumsy answers to questions that still needed to be resolved? What if Gitmo’s closing is merely symbolic, not a policy but a temporary substitute for a policy?

Indeed, what we’ve been learning over the past week — if we didn’t know it before — is that closing Guantánamo won’t be easy. Here are the facts insofar as we know them. Approximately 250 detainees remain at Guantánamo. Of these, about 60 can be released without serious reservations. Another 80 or so could be tried. But that leaves around 100-110 who present the Obama administration with a grave problem. Those prisoners can’t be tried because the evidence against them is classified, or was obtained through torture. Yet they can’t readily be released because they are too dangerous.

Consider, for example, the case of the “20th hijacker,” Mohammed al-Qahtani. Recently, Judge Susan J. Crawford, the senior official for the Pentagon’s military commissions, ruled that he had been tortured and therefore could not be prosecuted. But she added that he is still “a very dangerous man. … I would be hesitant to say ‘Let him go.’ ” There is also Abd al-Rahman al-Zahri, who says he remains ready to kill himself for Osama bin Laden “and will also give my family and all of my money to him.” Last week The Times reported that a prisoner released in 2007 is now the deputy leader of Al Qaeda’s Yemeni branch.

“We’re inheriting a very difficult situation,” Joe Biden has declared. “Not all of it is clear cut.”

It’s precisely because the answers aren’t clear cut that the post-Gitmo discussion is so fascinating, and why surfing the Net these days is both rewarding and surprising. The conservative Ross Douthat says that “the Bush administration’s broader record on detainee policy looks like a moral fiasco.” Yet Evan Thomas and Stuart Taylor write in a cover story for Newsweek that “the flaw of the Bush-Cheney administration may have been less in what it did than in the way it did it.” In a post on, Taylor goes on to argue for a new “national security court” for the hard cases. But National Interest’s website, in providing a useful summary of recent editorial opinion, points to The Wall Street Journal’s observation that such a court would be “almost identical” to Bush’s military tribunals. The New York Times’s own blog Room for Debate has some excellent comments by a group of experts — among them one arguing that if Obama continues holding the most dangerous prisoners, then “the closure of Guantánamo will be something of a sham.”

The Times reports that Obama’s national security team is riven by disagreement over the issue (a refreshing change from the lockstep monolith of the Bush White House). After a quick survey of Net commentary, I’d say the best guess is that the Obama administration will eventually recommend some kind of national security court, even if it does resemble Bush’s military tribunals, and that dangerous prisoners will continue to be held. Many human rights groups won’t be pleased. At least one has already begun to grumble.

There’s more. Obama’s order last Thursday left open the possibility that harsh and secret interrogation techniques could be reintroduced if, for instance, some top leader of Al Qaeda were captured. Torture? Who can know? In their Newsweek article, Thomas and Taylor write: “The issue of torture is more complicated than it seems.” And they point out that “Obama has already shown a prudent willingness to bend or abandon his more sweeping campaign rhetoric.”

Print pagePDF pageEmail page
Enter title here...
Enter content here...

Comments are closed.