In 'Obama's Guantanamo,' Detainees' Lawyers Share Stories Of Disappointment
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
President Obama says he wants to close the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay during his final year in office, just as he said he wanted to close it his first year, too. The president and his supporters say Republicans in Congress prevented him from doing that. But a new book presents original essays from 14 lawyers who represented some of the detainees, and many of those attorneys hold the Obama administration responsible, too.
They say that once in power, the administration found it convenient to have a place in which to park people it suspects of being terrorists without charge or trial. Reportedly, there are now about 80 detainees in Guantanamo. The book is "Obama's Guantanamo: Stories From An Enduring Prison." It's edited by Jonathan Hafetz associate professor of law at Seton Hall. He joins us from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.
JONATHAN HAFETZ: Great to be here.
SIMON: Seems to be a lot of disappointment and even some anger in this book.
HAFETZ: Well, I think that's fair to say. When Obama said he was going to close Guantanamo, he did not abandon the essential premise that Guantanamo was built on, which is that the United States could hold individuals suspected of terrorism indefinitely without charge. Rather, he endorsed that policy from the Bush administration and continued it through his administration - his support of indefinite detention and his adoption of military commissions, albeit with reforms, which have been an abject failure.
SIMON: When you say the military tribunals have been an abject failure, what - in what way, as far as you're concerned?
HAFETZ: Well, I think in every metric, they failed. They failed to - from a security perspective, they failed to prosecute individuals effectively. There have been a total of eight convictions since the commission started. Four have been overturned. The trial of the mastermind of 9-11, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who's effectively admitted his guilt, is still languishing in pretrial phase. Had the administration followed through on its initial promise to bring Khalid Sheikh Mohammed to United States and try him in federal court, he would've been convicted. The case would be over. Instead, this - what really is the most important terrorism trial emerging out of 9-11 and probably in the country's history - is still in legal limbo.
And there's really - was no endgame when Guantanamo was created. And as a result, you have individuals who have been held there now over 14 years. Many of them still have been cleared for release by the administration, yet they continue to languish at Guantanamo. And what the great tragedy of all this is that we already have a system. We have one of the best criminal justice systems in the world - the federal criminal justice system. And it's been incredibly effective at prosecuting terrorism suspects. There have been over 400 or 500 terrorism-related prosecutions since 9-11, but the problem with Guantanamo was that it tried to sidestep this system.
SIMON: Let me ask you about some of the specific cases that were cited in this book. An attorney named Pardiss Kebriaei, who's a staff attorney at the Center of Constitutional Rights, has an essay in here about their client Ghaleb Al-Bihani, who was, I guess, classified as unchargeable, but also unreleasable. What does that mean?
HAFETZ: Essentially, what it means is that these are individuals that the United States feels are too dangerous to release, but too difficult to try, either because there are no charges that could be brought against them, or there is no admissible evidence that could be used to sustain a conviction. And so they've essentially created this class of forever prisoners.
SIMON: You refer to this as a problem, but I wonder - I mean, certainly you're familiar with The Washington Post article last week. The Post reported that at least 12 detainees that had been released from Guantanamo have launched attacks against Americans or American allies in Afghanistan. To some people, this is going to suggest that Guantanamo not only needs to be kept in operation, but the people who were there should stay there.
HAFETZ: First of all, some of the individuals who have so-called returned to the fight have been - were individuals who were released by the Bush administration without any type of review procedures. The Obama administration put into place a much more stringent review process. And second of all, the numbers are significantly low, and they're lower than most people seem to recognize. The National Intelligence estimate is that fewer than 5 percent of the detainees have re-engaged in so-called terrorism or insurgent activities.
SIMON: But you would understand why to Americans - and I don't mind saying Americans this week - 5 percent is still unacceptable.
HAFETZ: Well, I think in any - in any system, there's never going to be a hundred percent guarantees with anything. And what President Obama recognized and what a number of individuals within the administration recognize is that Guantanamo has created and continues to create more terrorists than it ever held. And so you have to step back and look at the big picture and say, look, is this prison - is this - is continuing to hold individuals at this island prison serving our security interests or not? I think the Obama administration rightly recognized that the answer is it's not serving the U.S. interests, that the problem is that it has not, you know, been effective and has not taken the necessary steps when it had the opportunity to close the prison.
SIMON: Jonathan Hafetz of the Seton Hall Law School. He's edited "Obama's Guantanamo: Stories From An Enduring Prison." Thanks so much for being with us.
HAFETZ: Thank you.
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