Guantánamo: Trump’s Order Re-Ignites Controversy

President Trump on January 30 issued an executive order regarding the prison at Guantánamo, Cuba entitled the “Presidential Executive Order on Protecting American Through Lawful Detention of Terrorists.” It stated, ion part, ““Detention operations at U.S. Naval Station Guantánamo Bay shall continue to be conducted consistent with all applicable United States and international law, including the Detainee Treatment Act of 2005” and the U.S. “may transport additional detainees to U.S. Naval Station Guantánamo Bay when lawful and necessary to protect the Nation.” [1]

Shortly thereafter in his State of the Union Address the President announced this action with an additional  ad-libbed remark: “”in many cases terrorism detainees who are captured in the future will now be sent there.”

However, also after the speech, State and Pentagon officials said there were no plans to send new detainees to Guantanamo, a continuation of the practice for nearly the last 10 years.  And John Bellinger, a legal adviser in the Bush White House, said he thought that, given past failures, there would be institutional resistance to refilling the camp. “I  suspect the Departments of Defense, Justice and State would oppose sending new detainees to Guantánamo.”

This action has re-ignited controversy over the U.S. prison at the eastern end  of the island of Cuba in addition to those criticisms mentioned in the prior post.[2]

                                                     Re-Ignited Controversy

According to Robert M. Chesney, a law professor at the University of Texas, Austin who on the U.S. Justice Department detention policy task force in 2009, “Nothing in the new executive order changes the various legal and policy obstacles that help explain why no one was brought there in 2017.” Those obstacles are the Islamic State, transfers and the military commissions trial system at the prison.

  1. Is the U.S. at war with Islamic State detainees?

The legal basis for detention of al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters in the prison is the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) Act that was enacted imIslamic mediately after the 9/11 attacks for military action against the perpetrators of those attacks.

But it is at best unclear, and at worst illegitimate, to claim that AUMF covers Islamic State or ISIS fighters. Thus, transferring any of these individuals to Guantánamo runs the risk of a U.S. federal court ruling that such transfers and detentions are illegal.

This legal risk could be eliminated if Congress passed a new law specifically authorizing the use of U.S. military force against ISIS of the Islamic State, but is it safe to assume Congress would do so.

2. Would the U.S. have legal authority to transfer Islamic State detainees from Guantánamo?

Although the new Executive Order says that Guantánamo detainees may be transferred to the U.S. for trial in U.S. federal courts, there are existing federal statues that forbid such transfers.

Again Congress could pass new laws abolishing those restrictions, but is it safe to assume Congress would do so.

3. Are the military commissions at Guantánamo effective ?

Professor Chesney observes that this system “has floundered in practice, with contested cases bogging down in years of pretrial hearings.” Indeed, President Trump himself this last November acknowledged this problem when he explained why he had decided token the New York truck-attack suspect in the civilian criminal justice system instead of transferring him to Guantánamo.

4. Is the operation of the Guantánamo prison too expensive?

According to the most recently available government figures, Guantanamo cost $445 million to run in fiscal year 2015—making its current costs about $11 million per inmate.

By contrast, the average cost per inmate in the federal prison system was $31,620, the federal Bureau of Prisons said in a 2016 filing.

5. Is the Guantánamo prison a tainted symbol that fuels anti-Americanism?

Indeed, the prison is such a symbol and enhances anti-American sentiment throughout the world. This was a major reason for a Washington Post editorial condemning the Trump executive order. Said the Post, the prison has “incited a storm of international criticism, handed a recruitment tool to al-Qaeda.” This cost of the prison, the Post adds,  is exacerbated by the “hopelessly bogged down” military commissions at the prison in contrast to the over 600 convictions in terrorism cases in U.S. federal courts since 2001.

Mark Fallon, a former chief investigator of the Defense Department’s Criminal Investigation Task Force, said, even if no more prisoners are sent there, Trump’s announcement itself had already caused damage. “Globally [Guantánamo] symbolizes injustice, oppression and torture. And so when you see the president out there talking about expanding upon it, I’m just afraid that that it puts our troops in greater danger overseas and it jeopardizes our national security.”

==========================================

[2] President Trump’s Unsound Action Regarding the U.S. Prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, dwkcommentaries.com (Jan. 31, 2018).

[2] Savage. Ordering Guantánamo to Stay Open Is One Thing, But Refilling It Is Another, N.Y. Times (Jan. 31, 2018); Editorial, Trump says he wants to refill Guantánamo. Bad Idea, Wash. Post (Feb. 1, 2018); Schwartz & Lubold, Trump’s Guantaanamo Move Keeps Prison and Detainees n Limbo, W.S.J. (Feb. 1, 2018);Borger & Smith, Guantánamo: Bush-era officials warn keeping prison open may be $6bn error, Guardian (Feb. 1, 2018).

New York Times Criticizes USAID’s Efforts To Promote Regime Change in Cuba

On November 10, 2014, the New York Times published its latest editorial in its series “Cuba: A New Start.”[1] Under the title, “In Cuba, Misadventures in Regime Change,” this editorial focuses on criticizing the efforts by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to promote regime change in Cuba and recommending “stronger [U.S.] diplomatic relations” with Cuba as a more productive way to try “to positively influence Cuba’s evolution toward a more open society.”

The editorial also recommends that the U.S. “should find ways to empower ordinary Cubans by expanding study-abroad programs, professional exchanges and investment in the new small businesses cropping up around the island. [The U.S.] should continue to promote Internet connectivity, but realize that accomplishing that goal on a large scale will require coordination with the Cuban government.”

The editorial’s foundation is the following set of documented factual assertions:

  • In 1996, the U.S. enacted the Helms-Burton Act that spelled out “a strategy to overthrow the government in Havana and ‘assist the Cuban people in regaining their freedom.’”This statute “has served as the foundation for the $264 million the United States has spent in the last 18 years trying to instigate democratic reforms on the island.”
  • “During the final years of the Clinton administration, the [U.S.] spent relatively little on programs in Cuba under . . . [this statute].”
  • That changed when George W. Bush came to power in 2001 with an ambitious aim to bring freedom to oppressed people around the world.” USAID, “better known for its humanitarian work than cloak-and-dagger missions, became the primary vehicle for pro-democracy work in Cuba, where it is illegal.”
  • “In the early years of the [George W.] Bush administration, spending on initiatives to oust the [Cuban]government surged from a few million a year to more than $20 million in 2004. Most contracts were awarded, without much oversight, to newly formed Cuban-American groups. One used funds on a legally questionable global lobbying effort to persuade foreign governments to support America’s unpopular embargo. Other grantees sent loads of comic books to the American diplomatic mission in Havana, bewildering officials there. The money was also used to buy food and clothes, but there was no way to track how much reached relatives of political prisoners, the intended recipients.”
  • “According to a November 2006 report by the Government Accountability Office, one contractor used the pro-democracy money to buy ‘a gas chain saw, computer gaming equipment and software (including Nintendo Game Boys and Sony PlayStations), a mountain bike, leather coats, cashmere sweaters, crab meat and Godiva chocolates,’ purchases . . . [the contractor] was unable to justify to auditors.”
  • “The G.A.O. probe led . . . [USAID] to start awarding more funds to established development organizations, including some that pitched bold initiatives. In 2008, Congress appropriated $45 million for the programs, a record amount.”
  • In December 2009 Alan Gross, a U.S. citizen, went on his fifth trip to the island posing as a tourist but acting on behalf of an USAID contractor to smuggle communications equipment to Jewish groups in Cuba. Gross was arrested, charged and convicted by a Cuban court for violating Cuban law and sentenced to 15 years of imprisonment.[2]
  • “At the time [of Gross’ arrest], many senior State Department officials were not fully aware of the scope and nature of the covert programs, . . . and some argued that the covert programs were counterproductive and should be stopped. But Cuban-American lawmakers fought vigorously to keep them alive.”
  • “After Mr. Gross’s arrest, [USAID] . . . stopped sending American [citizens] into Cuba, but it allowed its contractors to recruit Latin Americans for secret missions that were sometimes detected by the Cuban intelligence services.”
  • “An investigation by The Associated Press published in April [2014] revealed . . . [that between] 2009 and 2012, Creative Associates International, a Washington firm, built a rudimentary text messaging system similar to Twitter, known as ZunZuneo, Cuban slang for a hummingbird’s tweet. It was supposed to provide Cubans with a platform to share messages with a mass audience, and ultimately be used to assemble ‘smart mobs.’” Although the contractor paid “text-messaging fees to the Cuban telecommunications company, [the contractor] never found a way to make the platform self-sustaining.”[3]
  • A second A.P. report revealed in August [2014] that U.S.A.I.D. had been sending young Latin Americans to Cuba to identify ‘potential social change actors,’ under the pretext of organizing gatherings like an H.I.V. prevention workshop. The contractors, also hired by Creative Associates, received quick pointers on how to evade Cuban intelligence and were paid as little as $5.41 an hour for work that could have easily landed them in prison.”[4]
  • Although the “American money has provided food and comfort to some relatives of political prisoners, and been used to build limited access to satellite-based Internet connections, . . . it has done more to stigmatize than to help dissidents.”
  • “Far from accomplishing . . . the goal [of instigating democratic reforms on the island], the initiatives have been largely counterproductive. The funds have been a magnet for charlatans, swindlers and good intentions gone awry. The stealthy programs have increased hostility between the two nations, provided Cuba with a trove of propaganda fodder and stymied opportunities to cooperate in areas of mutual interest.”

As previous posts to this blog have discussed, I concur in this editorial’s criticisms of the USAID covert efforts to promote regime change in Cuba and the editorial’s recommendations for changes in U.S. policies regarding the island nation.

I take exception, however, to the editorial’s unexamined assertion that Cuba has “one of the most repressive governments in the world.” Although I am confident that Cuba ideally should have a more open society and hope that it continues to move in that direction, all of us in the U.S. should try to put ourselves in the shoes of the Cubans.

For decades the immensely more powerful U.S. has openly engaged in hostile policies and actions against the small, poor and militarily weak island. This includes the U.S.-supported and unsuccessful 1961 “Bay of Pigs” invasion of Cuba; the threatened U.S. bombing and invasion of Cuba in the 1962 Cuban missile crisis; the recently revealed 1976 military plans to “clobber” Cuba that were being prepared by U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger; the half-century U.S. embargo of Cuba; and the very USAID covert efforts to promote regime change in Cuba that are discussed in this editorial. If we in the U.S. were in this situation, we too would, I am confident, impose restrictions on an open society. Have we not done this very thing in our response to the 9/11 attacks and the threats of international terrorism?

As I said in an earlier post about U.S. policies regarding Cuba, all of us should remember that when the scribes and Pharisees confronted Jesus with a woman who had been caught in the act of adultery and asked Jesus what he had to say when the law of Moses said stone her, Jesus responded, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” (John 8:3-7)

Likewise, the President and all of us should also remember these other words of Jesus (Matthew 7:1-5):

  • “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?  Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.”

======================================================

[1] Prior posts have discussed the recent Times’ editorials urging U.S.-Cuba reconciliation, commending Cuba’s efforts to combat Ebola in West Africa, recognizing changes in U.S. public opinion about Cuba and recommending an U.S.-Cuba prisoner exchange.

[2] An earlier Times editorial urged the U.S. and Cuba negotiate an exchange of Mr. Gross for three Cubans in U.S. prisons.

[3] Prior posts to this blog on April 4,  9 and 9, 2014, discussed the AP investigation of the USAID social media program.

[4] Prior posts (August 12, 13 and 14, 2014) examined the AP investigation of the USAID “use” of Latin Americans to open HIV-AIDS clinics in Cuba.