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Mitt Romney and the shame of Guantanamo

Posted by Carol Rose, On Liberty  January 11, 2012 11:20 AM

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One way that Republican presidential contenders could go after President Obama is by criticizing his record on civil liberties, such as his yet-to-be fulfilled pledge to close Guantanamo--but, with only a few exceptions (Ron Paul, Jon Huntsman), they can't, because their stance on indefinite detention without charge or trial is worse than the President's. ACLU of Massachusetts education director Nancy Murray wrote the following guest blog.

It is fitting that Mitt Romney consolidated his lead to be the Republican nominee for president on the day that Guantanamo Bay marked its tenth anniversary: January 11, 2012. Back on April 21, 2006, the Massachusetts governor spent a few hours touring Guantanamo to buttress his presidential ambitions.

"Some people have said we ought to close Guantanamo. My view is we ought to double Guantanamo," he proclaimed as he hit the campaign trail. Brandishing his strong-on-national-security credentials, he declared that Guantanamo was "a symbol of American resolve."

One way of telling the story of Guantanamo is through the numbers. No amount of "tough on terrorism" posturing by Romney and other politicians can disguise the profound injustice that these numbers represent.

By the government's own data, a full 92 percent of the 779 imprisoned in Guantanamo over the past decade never were al Qaeda fighters. More than 86 percent had been turned over to Coalition forces in exchange for hefty cash bounties at a time when capturing "terrorists" was a profitable business. Twenty-one children spent time at Guantanamo, the youngest aged 13. Yasser Talal al-Zahrani, who came to Guantanamo as a 17-year-old, was one of eight men who died there. He was an apparent suicide at age 22, but according to an article in Harper's Magazine, may have died (along with three other detainees) while under interrogation.

Then there are the "living dead". Among the 171 men still marooned at the prison are dozens who were ordered released by the courts that reviewed their habeas corpus petitions and cleared for transfer to their own or other countries. They are now indefinitely stranded by the impossible-to-satisfy provisions added by Congress to the National Defense Authorization Acts of 2011 and 2012.

A further 48 detainees who are considered too dangerous to release will never have the opportunity to challenge their caged existence. There is either insufficient evidence to prosecute them before Obama's military commissions, or the evidence that does exist is inadmissible because it was extracted through torture. Since when does the fact that we tortured someone give us the right to imprison that person indefinitely?

Behind many of the numbers are human beings who were known to be innocent by Bush, Rumsfeld, Cheney and other American officials. That's what Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, Secretary of State Colin Powell's chief of staff during the first Bush term, stated under oath during a hearing on a lawsuit brought by Guantanamo detainee Adel Hassan Hamad, a Sudanese aid worker who was subjected to extraordinary rendition and torture.

"Their view," he told the court about the Bush Administration, "was that innocent people languishing in Guantanamo for years was justified by the broader war on terror and the capture of the small number of terrorists who were responsible for the September 11 attacks, or other acts of terrorism. Moreover, their detention was deemed acceptable if it led to a more complete and satisfactory intelligence picture with regard to Iraq, thus justifying the Administration's plans for war with that country."

Col. Wilkerson's testimony was confirmed by the government's Detainee Assessment Briefs leaked by WikiLeaks. These documents reveal that only about 220 of the detainees were ever assessed to be dangerous terrorists. Some 280 were found to be low-level foot soldiers. As many as 150 others were known to have been wrongly swept up into the prison, often as cases of mistaken identity. One Sudanese journalist, Sami al-Hajj, was detained for six years in an effort to find out more about Al Jazeera's "training program, telecommunications equipment and newsgathering operations."

In 2003, while incoming detainees were being described as the "worst of the worst," former Defense Secretary Rumsfeld wrote a memo complaining that "we need to stop populating Guantanamo Bay with low-level enemy combatants." Even the once 'high value' detainee Abu Zubayda, who was described as al-Qaeda's 'chief of operations' by President Bush and waterboarded 83 times, was later acknowledged by the CIA to be neither a 'member' of al-Qaeda nor 'formally' identified with it.

The shame of Guantanamo is not just that it remains open three years after President Obama signed an executive order vowing to close it within a year's time. The shame is that in spite of all we now know about Guantanamo, too many Members of Congress are doing everything they can to ensure it will never be closed, and with very few exceptions, Romney and most other presidential candidates are cheering them on.

The shame is that over the past decade, no one has ever been held accountable for the crime of torture and the lawless acts that Guantanamo represents. The shame is that the US courts have thrown out all of the lawsuits brought by people who were unjustly confined there and in many cases tortured.

The shame is that a new Guantanamo has taken shape at Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan, where nameless detainees--some captured far from any war zone--are facing indefinite detention. And thanks to the National Defense Authorization Act of 2012, the practice of detaining 'suspects' indefinitely in military detention will long continue to be business as usual, possibly even in the 'Homeland.'

It did not have to be that way. According to Ken Macdonald, the top prosecutor for England and Wales, "You can have the Guantanamo model. You can have the model which says that we cannot afford to give people their rights, that rights are too expensive because of the nature of the threats. Or you can say, as I prefer to, that our rights are priceless. That the best way to face down those threats is to strengthen our institutions rather than to degrade them."

The shame is not just that our elected officials have chosen to degrade our institutions and the values enshrined in our founding documents in the name of fighting a vaguely defined 'war on terror.' It is that we, the people, have permitted them to do so.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Carol Rose is executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts. A lawyer and journalist, Carol has spent her career working for and writing about human rights and civil liberties, both in the United States and abroad. More »

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