Schatz: Guantanamo Bay Force-Feeding Methods ‘Shock the Conscience’
November 20, 2014   By:    Forced Feedings, Guantanamo   Comments are off   //   486 Views

U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz says Guantanamo Bay should be closed. How it’s operated, he said, creates ethical dilemmas.

The senator from Hawaii recently joined a fact-finding mission to the infamous prison facility, which has downsized but still holds 148 military detainees.

U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz stepped inside Guantanamo Bay Prison last week on a bipartisan fact-finding mission with several of his senatorial colleagues.

On Wednesday, he took 10 minutes from his schedule in Washington, D.C., to talk with Civil Beat about his visit and what he believes it will take to close down the facility, which today is home to 148 detainees who were captured as part of the “Global War on Terror.”

Schatz said he couldn’t specifically describe what he saw at Gitmo, saying it was “top secret.” But he did make clear that he has serious misgivings about keeping the prison operational, especially when it costs taxpayers $150 million a year.

The senator also discussed the controversial practice of force-feeding detainees and what to do about the 79 inmates who have been cleared for release yet are still being held at the prison.

CIVIL BEAT: You went to Guantanamo Bay last week for a fact-finding mission that your office said was to ensure that the government is doing everything possible to protect Americans and make certain that tax dollars are spent appropriately. What did you see on your visit?

BRIAN SCHATZ: I remain convinced that we have to close the detention facility at Guantanamo. It is expensive. It’s bad for America’s reputation abroad when it comes to human rights. It has become unfortunately a recruiting technique for global jihad. And although we’ve made progress there are still 148 detainees there.

On force feeding: “I think it’s as tough as a moral and ethical call as I can find. It is an awful process. But allowing people to commit slow suicide is also awful.”

Some of them are being tried in the American judicial system in capital cases. Others the Department of Defense is negotiating their release back into home countries. So there are a number of logistical, safety and legal issues related to eventually closing this detention facility, but I think we have to redouble our efforts.

The other thing that makes this difficult is there’s a federal law that the Congress passed that prohibits moving these detainees into federal facilities on the United States mainland, and that was I think a political decision but it was not wise and it ties our hands in terms of being able to shut down this facility and reposition the United States as we need to be repositioned.

What did you actually see when you were on your tour with the other lawmakers?

U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz’s office

Brian Schatz at Guantanamo Bay

U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz, far right, was one of several senators who went on a fact-finding mission to Guantanamo Bay.

I have to be a little careful because a lot of what I saw was top secret, but we had briefings from the Department of Defense and we visited the various detention facilities. It is similar to a federal or state maximum security prison and I can confirm that the personnel that worked there are highly professional.

The issue is really a policy decision and the Congress needs to move forward in lifting the ban on moving Gitmo detainees to the United States.

Did you have a chance to talk to any of the detainees?

No.

West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin has called on Congress to debate the future of Guantanamo. What’s that debate going to look like given the current state of affairs in Congress?

We had a good bipartisan group of senators in the conversation on Friday. I think there’s a recognition that this is going to take some doing. It’s going to take some legislative changes and it’s going to take the collective work of the Department of Defense and Department of Justice to eventually close the detention facility.

“I remain convinced that we have to close the detention facility at Guantanamo. It is expensive. It’s bad for America’s reputation abroad when it comes to human rights.”

I think that the possibility of a revoking of the original authorization of the use of military force under which these detainees are at Gitmo is probably the right vehicle and the right moment to have this debate. I don’t have any doubt that we ought to revoke the original AUMF and tailor something more narrow to reflect what is happening in the Middle East now and also to make sure that Congress exercises its authorities under the Constitution in terms of declaring war.

There are nearly 80 Guantanamo detainees who have been cleared for release from the prison yet remain in U.S. custody. What should be done to release those prisoners?

JTF-PAO-GTMO

GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba – A Soldier with the Rhode Island National Guard’s 115th Military Police Co. mans an observation tower at Camp Delta, Joint Task Force Guantanamo, July 7, 2010. The 115th MP Co. provides a portion of the guard force at JTF Guantanamo. JTF Guantanamo provides safe, humane, legal and transparent care and custody of detainees, including those convicted by military commission and those ordered released by a court. The JTF conducts intelligence collection, analysis and dissemination for the protection of detainees and personnel working in JTF Guantanamo facilities and in support of the War on Terror. JTF Guantanamo provides support to the Office of Military Commissions, to law enforcement and to war crimes investigations. The JTF conducts planning for and, on order, responds to Caribbean mass migration operations. (JTF Guantanamo photo by U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Michael R. Holzworth) UNCLASSIFIED – Cleared for public release. For additional information contact JTF Guantanamo PAO 011-5399-3589; DSN 660-3589 www.jtfgtmo.southcom.mil

President Barack Obama has struggled to follow through on his promise to close Guantanamo Bay.

The Department of Defense is doing everything it can but the practical problem is that the home countries for a lot of these detainees are not stable. And so you’ve got, I believe it’s 55 Yemeni, and to release these detainees back to Yemen without some understanding of what exactly would happen in terms of whether or not they would rejoin the fight against the United States I think is the most difficult question in front of us.

We know that the administration is working very hard to ensure that when these detainees are released — and we expect that they will be — that they’re released into circumstances that are stable enough where they have a low likelihood of rejoining the fight.

Are there any other interim options for them considering they are being held although there’s no real reason to hold them anymore?

No. The two options are we repeal the statute that prohibits moving them to the United States or we move with some pace to make sure that where they’re released that it’s safe not just for them but for the United States’ interest. And I think we will get there in a relatively short period of time. We are now down to roughly 150 detainees from a high of just less than 700 so progress is being made. But as you can imagine the last 150 is the most difficult batch.

There have been many complaints about force-feeding inmates at Guantanamo, which some detainees have said amounts to torture. What is your take on the practice, and should it continue?

Well, force-feeding shocks the conscience. And I think that medical personnel have an obligation to prevent self harm. So the difficult moral and ethical challenge for the medical personnel is to determine whether the intentional starvation of one’s self is considered self harm and would require medical personnel to intervene to stop it. That’s the moral question.

The issue is really a policy decision and the Congress needs to move forward in lifting the ban on moving Gitmo detainees to the United States.

I think it’s as tough of a moral and ethical call as I can find. It is an awful process. But allowing people to commit slow suicide is also awful. So I don’t want to pretend that these are easy declarations to make in terms of what’s the right thing to do. I still struggle with it.

The president has been saying he’s wanted to close Guantanamo for a long time. Do you think he could have done more to follow through on that promise?

Navy Mass Communication Speciali

GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba – A detainee receives new linens in the communal area of Camp Six at Joint Task Force Guantanamo, Oct. 28, 2010. JTF Guantanamo provides safe, humane, legal and transparent care and custody of detainees, including those convicted by military commission and those ordered released by a court. The JTF conducts intelligence collection, analysis and dissemination for the protection of detainees and personnel working in JTF Guantanamo facilities and in support of the War on Terror. JTF Guantanamo provides support to the Office of Military Commissions, to law enforcement and to war crimes investigations. The JTF conducts planning for and, on order, responds to Caribbean mass migration operations. (JTF Guantanamo photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Elisha Dawkins) UNCLASSIFIED – Cleared for public release. For additional information contact JTF Guantanamo PAO 011-5399-3589; DSN 660-3589 www.jtfgtmo.southcom.mil

Seventy-nine detainees at Guantanamo have been cleared from release yet remain in U.S. custody.

I think that his determination to close Guantanamo and yet the problem of there still being around 150 detainees tells you that this is not simple. This is not easy. It’s very difficult to execute on that policy declaration. We are getting there, but there are legal, logistical and safety challenges that require that this be done not instantaneously.

Anything else you want to tell us about your trip?

The other ancillary benefit of trips like that are that I got a chance to spend seven, eight hours with members on the Republican side, and that’s how you develop the kind of friendships that enable you to collaborate going forward and that’s going to be especially important in a Republican Congress.

About the Author

Civil Beat Staff

Nick Grube

Nick Grube is a reporter for Civil Beat. You can reach him by email at or follow him on Twitter at @nickgrube.

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