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.”

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[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).

President Trump’s Unsound Action Regarding the U.S. Prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba    

On January 30, just before leaving the White House for his State of the Union Address at the Capitol, President Donald Trump signed an executive order regarding the U.S. prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

The Guantanamo Bay Executive Order[1]

The Executive Order entitled “Presidential Executive Order on Protecting American Through Lawful Detention of Terrorists” started with these Findings:

  • “Consistent with long-standing law of war principles and applicable law, the United States may detain certain persons captured in connection with an armed conflict for the duration of the conflict” and that since 9/11 the U.S. “remains engaged in an armed conflict with al-Qa’ida, the Taliban, and associated forces, including the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.” (Section 1(a), (b).)
  • “The detention operations at the U.S. Naval Station Guantánamo Bay are legal, safe, humane, and conducted consistent with United States and international law.” (Section 1(c ).) “Those operations are continuing given that a number of the remaining individuals at the detention facility are being prosecuted in military commissions, while others must be detained to protect against continuing, significant threats to the security of the United States, as determined by periodic reviews.” (Section 1(d).)

The Order than addressed the Status of Detention Facilities at U.S. Naval Station Guantánamo Bay. After revoking President Obama’s January 22, 2009, executive order ordering the closure of those facilities (Section 2(a)),  it stated, “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.” (Section 2 (b), (c))

The Order also directed certain government officials to “recommend policies to the President regarding the disposition of individuals captured in connection with an armed conflict, including policies governing transfer of individuals to U.S. Naval Station Guantánamo Bay.” (Section 2 (d).)

There, however, were modest concessions to the plight of the detainees and other interests. It states, the detainees “shall [be] subject to the [previously established] procedures for periodic review . . . to determine whether continued law of war detention is necessary to protect against a significant threat to the security of the United States” (Section 2(e)); the order shall not “prevent the Secretary of Defense from transferring any individual away from the U.S. Naval Station Guantánamo Bay when appropriate, including to effectuate an order affecting the disposition of that individual issued by a court or competent tribunal of the United States having lawful jurisdiction” (Section 3(a); the order shall not “affect existing law or authorities relating to the detention of United States citizens, lawful permanent residents of the United States, or any persons who are captured or arrested in the United States” (Section 3(b); and the order shall not “prevent the Attorney General from, as appropriate, investigating, detaining, and prosecuting a terrorist subject to the criminal laws and jurisdiction of the United States” (Section 3 (c ).

The State of the Union Address[2]

The President announced that he had “just signed an order directing Secretary Mattis to reexamine our military detention policy and to keep open the detention facilities at Guantánamo Bay. I am also asking the Congress to ensure that, in the fight against ISIS and al-Qa’ida, we continue to have all necessary power to detain terrorists — wherever we chase them down.”

He also said, “My Administration has also imposed tough sanctions on the communist and socialist dictatorships in Cuba and Venezuela.”

Reactions

Roger Cohen, a New York Times columnist, said the prison at Guantanamo Bay “is widely viewed around the world as a facility incompatible with the American principles of fair trial, human rights and the rule of law.” Moreover, this decision “will be seen by many as a signal of an American return to the excesses of the war on terror — the use of torture, extraordinary renditions and C.I.A ‘black sites.’”[3]

Admiral Dennis Blair, the former Director of National Intelligence, said Cohen, once testified to Congress that the “detention center at Guantánamo has become a damaging symbol to the world and that it must be closed. It is a rallying cry for terrorist recruitment and harmful to our national security, so closing it is important for our national security.”

The Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) stated, “Trump’s planned executive order is not the last word on the fate of Guantánamo, any more than his attempted Muslim bans and arbitrary transgender military ban—struck down by the courts—were the last word on those matters. CCR has filed a new legal challenge to the illegality and racism driving Trump’s Guantánamo policy and demanding detainees’ release. It is the courts, not the authoritarian-in-chief, that will ultimately determine the fate of the men detained at Guantánamo.”[4]

The just mentioned CCR action on behalf of 11 Guantánamo detainees was filed on January 11, 2018, in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. It alleges that Trump’s proclamation against releasing anyone from Guantánamo, regardless of their circumstances is arbitrary and unlawful and amounts to “perpetual detention for detention’s sake.”  This move was supported by Muslim, Faith-Based and Civil Rights Community Organizations.[5] On January 18, the court ordered the federal government to provide information about its Guantánamo policy.[6]

The New York Times in an editorial supported this challenge to the continued detention of individuals at the U.S. prison in Cuba. The editorial stated, “the men make a straightforward case for their release. The Supreme Court has ruled that prisoners at Guantánamo must have a “meaningful opportunity” to challenge the legal and factual grounds for their detention, which means that the federal courts have the power to review those claims and grant any appropriate relief. If the Constitution stands for anything, the plaintiffs argue . . ., it must stand for the proposition that the government cannot detain someone for 16 years without charge.”[7]

Conclusion

The U.S. prison at Guantánamo Bay has long been a major source of legitimate complaints against the U.S. and should be closed as soon as possible, not potentially expanded as this Executive Order would permit. In addition, this prison provides Cuba with its strongest argument that the U.S. has breached its 1905 lease of the site of the prison from Cuba.[8]

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[1] White House, Presidential Executive Order on Protecting American Through Lawful Detention of Terrorists (Jan. 30, 2018).

[2]   White House, President Donald J. Trump’s State of the Union Address (Jan. 30, 2018).

[3] Cohen, Trump’s Volk and Vaterland, N.Y. Times (Jan. 31, 2018).

 

[4] Center for Const’l Rts, Guantánamo Attorneys blast Trump “Keep Gitmo Open” Order (Jan. 30, 2018).

[5]  Brief of Amici Curiae Muslim, Faith-Based, and Civil Rights Community Organizations in Support of Petitioners’’ Motion for Order Granting Writ of Habeas Corpus, Awad al Bihani v. Trump, Case No, 1:09-cv-00745-RCL (D.D.C. Jan. 22,  2018).

[6] Center Const’l Rts, Court Orders Government to Clarify Guantánamo Policy, Attorneys React (Jan. 18, 2018); Order, Awad al Bihani v. Trump, Case No, 1:09-cv-00745-RCL (D.D.C.J an. 18, 2018).

[7] Editorial, Donald Trump vs. Guantánamo’s Forever Prisoners, N.Y. Times (Jan. 16, 2018).

[8]  See these posts to dwkcommentaries.com: Resolution of Issues Regarding Cuba Lease of Guantánamo Bay (April 4, 2015); Resolution of U.S. and Cuba’s Damage Claims  (April 6, 2016); Does Cuba Have the Right To Terminate the U.S. Lease of Guantánamo Bay? (April 26, 2015)

 

New York Times Recommends U.S.-Cuba Prisoner Exchange

U.S. citizen Alan Gross is being held in a Cuban prison after having been tried and convicted by a Cuban court for violating Cuban law while three Cuban citizens are being held in U.S. federal prisons after having been tried and convicted by U.S. federal courts for violating U.S. law. There has been much public and governmental desire in both countries to have their respective citizens released from prisons and returned to their home countries.[1]

On November 3, 2014, a New York Times editorial recommended that the two countries negotiate a prisoner exchange. The editorial first set forth the following lengthy summary of the two sets of prisoners:

  • “Under the direction of Development Alternatives Inc.,which had a contract with the United States Agency for International Development, Mr. Gross traveled to Havana five times in 2009, posing as a tourist, to smuggle communications equipment as part of an effort to provide more Cubans with Internet access. The Cuban government, which has long protested Washington’s covert pro-democracy initiatives on the island, tried and convicted Mr. Gross in 2011, sentencing him to 15 years in prison for acts against the integrity of the state.”
  • “While in prison, Gross has lost more than 100 pounds. He is losing vision in his right eye. His hips are failing. This June, Mr. Gross’s elderly mother died. After he turned 65 in May, Mr. Gross told his loved ones that this year would be his last in captivity, warning that he intends to kill himself if he is not released soon. His relatives and supporters regard that as a serious threat from a desperate, broken man.”
  • Five Cuban men (the so-called “Cuban five”) had “infiltrated Cuban exile groups in Florida” that had “dropped leaflets over the island urging Cubans to rise up against their government.” Four of them “were convicted of non-violent crimes,” and two of these four “have been released and returned home” while the other two of these four who “remain imprisoned are due for release relatively soon.”
  • The remaining U.S. prisoner and the one “who matters the most to the Cuban government, Gerardo Hernández, is serving two life sentences.” He was the leader of the Five and “was convicted of conspiracy to commit murder” in connection with the Cuban military’s shooting down of a civilian plane operated by one of the Cuban exile groups over the unmarked border between Cuban and international waters.
  • “A three-judge panel on the United States Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit overturned the convictions [of all five Cubans] in August 2005, ruling that a ‘perfect storm’ of factors deprived the five defendants of a fair trial. The judges found that widespread hostility toward the Cuban government in Miami and pretrial publicity that vilified the [Cuban]spies made it impossible to impanel an impartial jury.”
  • “The full [11th Circuit] court later reversed the panel’s finding, reinstating the verdict. But the judges raised other concerns about the case that led to a reduction of three of the sentences.” One of the Circuit’s judges, “Phyllis Kravitch, wrote a dissenting opinion arguing that Mr. Hernández’s murder-conspiracy conviction was unfounded. Prosecutors, she argued, failed to establish that Mr. Hernández, who provided Havana with information about the flights, had entered into an agreement to shoot down the planes in international, as opposed to Cuban, airspace. Downing the planes over Cuban airspace, which the exiles had penetrated before, would not constitute murder under American law.”

The editorial then noted that early “in Mr. Gross’s detention, Cuban officials suggested they might be willing to free him if Washington put an end to initiatives designed to overthrow the Cuban government. After those talks sputtered, the Cuban position hardened and it has become clear to American officials that the only realistic deal to get Mr. Gross back would involve releasing [the remaining] three Cuban spies convicted of federal crimes in Miami in 2001.”

Thus, according to the editorial, the key issue now is whether the U.S. Government will agree to such a prisoner exchange, and the editorial argues that the U.S. should do so for the following reasons:

  1. Gross’ “arrest was the result of a reckless strategy in which U.S.A.I.D. has deployed private contractors to perform stealthy missions in a police state vehemently opposed to Washington’s pro-democracy crusade.”
  2. “If Alan Gross died in Cuban custody, the prospect of establishing a healthier relationship with Cuba would be set back for years.
  3. A “prisoner exchange could pave the way toward re-establishing formal diplomatic ties, positioning the United States to encourage positive change in Cuba through expanded trade, travel opportunities and greater contact between Americans and Cubans. Failing to act would maintain a 50-year cycle of mistrust and acts of sabotage by both sides.
  4. “In order to swap prisoners, President Obama would need to commute the [three Cuban] men’s sentences. Doing so would be justified considering the lengthy time they have served, the troubling questions about the fairness of their trial, and the potential diplomatic payoff in clearing the way toward a new bilateral relationship.”

“Officials at the White House are understandably anxious about the political fallout of a deal with Havana, given the criticism they faced in May [of 2014] after five Taliban prisoners were exchanged for [one] American soldier kidnapped in Afghanistan. The American government, sensibly, is averse to negotiating with terrorists or governments that hold United States citizens for ransom or political leverage. But in exceptional circumstances, it makes sense to do so. The Alan Gross case meets that [criterion].”

This editorial is the latest in what the Times itself states is an editorial series on “Cuba: A New Start.” The first editorial was titled “Obama Should End the Embargo on Cuba.” The next in the series actually was “Editorial Observer: Still Pondering U.S.-Cuba Relations, Fidel Castro Responds,” by Ernesto Londoño of the newspaper’s Editorial Board; it noted Fidel Castro’s favorable reaction to the first Times editorial. The second editorial, “Cuba’s Impressive Role on Ebola” (Oct. 19, 2014). The third editorial, “The Shifting Politics of Cuba Policy.” The fourth, also published on November 3rd with Ernesto Londoño’s byline, “Editorial, Alan Gross and the Cuban Five: A Timeline.[2]

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[1] This blog previously has discussed the Alan Gross case and the Cuban Five case and urged a prisoner exchange: The U.S. Should Pursue Reconciliation with Cuba (May 21, 2011); Commutation and Release of Convicted Spies (Sept. 24, 2011); Roots of Hope for U.S.-Cuba Relations (Sept. 27, 2011); U.S. and Cuba Discuss Exchange of Prisoners (Oct. 14, 2011); Letter to President Obama Regarding Cuba (Aug. 17, 2012).

[2] This blog previously has commented on three of these editorials: New York Times Urges Normalization of U.S.-Cuba Relations (Oct. 13, 2014); New York Times Commends Cuba for Fighting Ebola in West Africa and Again Urges U.S.-Cuba Normalization (Oct. 19, 2014); New York Times Again Urges Normalization of U.S.-Cuba Relations (Oct. 26, 2014). Another post cited Londoño’s article about the U. N. General Assembly ‘s recent vote on the U.S. embargo: U.N. General Assembly Again Condemns U.S. Embargo of Cuba (Oct. 30, 2014). Londoño joined the Times’ Editorial Board in September 2014 after a distinguished career at the Washington Post and the Dallas Morning News. Mr. Londoño , who was born and raised in Bogotá, Colombia, moved to the U.S. in 1999 to study journalism and Latin American studies at the University of Miami.