Who's Running Guantanamo?

On January 20, the answer to that question seemed obvious. In his inaugural speech, with George W. Bush standing just behind him, President Obama pointedly pledged to "reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals" -- a clear indication that, as he promised in a speech in August 2007, he would dismantle the extra-legal aberrations of the Bush administration's "War on Terror":

When I am President, America will reject torture without exception. America is the country that stood against that kind of behavior, and we will do so again ... As President, I will close Guantánamo, reject the Military Commissions Act, and adhere to the Geneva Conventions ... We will again set an example to the world that the law is not subject to the whims of stubborn rulers, and that justice is not arbitrary.

The next day, President Obama requested the military judges at Guantánamo to call a halt for four months to all proceedings in the Military Commissions at Guantánamo (the terror trials conceived by Dick Cheney and his close advisers in November 2001), to give the new administration time to review the system and to decide how best to progress with possible prosecutions.

The day after, he signed his first executive orders, stating that Guantánamo would be closed within a year, upholding the absolute ban on torture, ordering the CIA to close all secret prisons, establishing an immediate review of the cases of the remaining 242 prisoners in Guantánamo, and requiring defense secretary Robert Gates to ensure, within 30 days, that the conditions at Guantánamo conformed to the Geneva Conventions.

At first, everything seemed to be going well. Two judges immediately halted pre-trial hearings in the cases of the Canadian Omar Khadr and the five co-defendants accused of involvement in the 9/11 attacks, and the President even secured an extra PR victory when Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the self-confessed architect of 9/11, who had been seeking a swift trial and martyrdom in the discredited Commission system, expressed his dissatisfaction to the judge. "We should continue so we don't go backward, we go forward," he said.

The first sign of dissent from the Pentagon

However, on January 29, the Commissions' recently appointed chief judge, Army Col. James M. Pohl, provided the first challenge to the President's plans, when he refused to suspend the arraignment of the Saudi Prisoner Abdul Rahim al-Nashiri, scheduled for today, February 9, stating that "he found the prosecutors' arguments, including the assertion that the Obama administration needed time to review its options, to 'be an unpersuasive basis to delay the arraignment.'"

Suddenly, urgent questions were raised about who was running Guantánamo, as it transpired that, although Barack Obama could request what he wanted, the Commissions, as Col. Pohl pointed out, had been mandated when "Congress passed the Military Commissions Act, which remains in effect." He added, "The Commission is bound by the law as it currently exists, not as it may change in the future."

Moreover, the only official empowered to call off al-Nashiri's arraignment was Susan Crawford, the Commissions' Convening Authority, who retains her position as the senior Pentagon official overseeing the trials, even though she is a protégée of former Vice President Dick Cheney, and a close friend of Cheney's Chief of Staff, David Addington, the two individuals who, more than any others, established the "arbitrary justice" that Barack Obama pledged to bring to an end.

After a few fraught days, Crawford was evidently prevailed upon to call off the arraignment, which she did on February 5, dismissing the charges without prejudice (meaning that they can be reinstated at a later date). She refused to comment on her decision, and in fact has only spoken out publicly on one occasion since being appointed in February 2007, when she admitted, in the week before Obama's inauguration, that the treatment to which Saudi prisoner Mohammed al-Qahtani was subjected amounted to torture. Instead, a Pentagon spokesman stepped forward to state, "It was her decision, but it reflects the fact that the President has issued an executive order which mandates that the Military Commissions be halted, pending the outcome of several reviews of our operations down at Guantánamo."

This was hardly sufficient to assuage doubts about why a Cheney protégée was still in charge of the Commissions, and these doubts were amplified when the Associated Press announced that two more Bush political appointees -- Sandra Hodgkinson, the former deputy assistant defense secretary for detainee affairs, and special assistant Tara Jones -- had been moved to civil service jobs within the Pentagon. Hodgkinson had spent several years defending the Bush administration's detention policies, and Jones, as the AP explained, worked for a Pentagon public affairs program "aimed at persuading military analysts to generate favorable news coverage on the war in Iraq, conditions at Guantánamo and other efforts to combat terrorism," which was "shut down amid fierce Capitol Hill criticism and investigations into whether it violated Pentagon ethics and Federal Communications Commission policy."

The mass hunger strike

However, while Col. Pohl's dissent and the continuing presence of Susan Crawford raise serious doubts about the Pentagon's ability -- or willingness -- to embrace President Obama's post-Bush world, the most troubling developments are at Guantánamo itself. Although Robert Gates, the only senior Bush administration official specifically retained by Obama, has shown a willingness to adjust to the new conditions (which is, presumably, what encouraged Obama to retain him in the first place), it seems unlikely that, even with the best will in the world, he can address the problems currently plaguing Guantánamo in the remaining twelve days of the time allotted to him to review the conditions at the prison.

A month ago -- inspired, in particular, by the seventh anniversary of the prison's opening, and by the change of administration -- at least 42 prisoners at Guantánamo embarked on a hunger strike. According to guidelines laid down by medical practitioners, force-feeding mentally competent prisoners who embark on a hunger strike is prohibited, but at Guantánamo this obligation has never carried any weight. Force-feeding has been part of the regime throughout its history, and was vigorously embraced in January 2006, in response to an intense and long-running mass hunger strike, when a number of special restraint chairs were brought to Guantánamo, which were used to "break" the strike.

As I reported last week, the force-feeding, which involves strapping prisoners into the chairs using 16 separate straps and forcing a tube through their nose and into their stomach twice a day, is clearly a world away from the humane treatment required by the Geneva Conventions, as are the "forced cell extractions" used to take unwilling prisoners to be force-fed.

Now, however, Lt. Col. Yvonne Bradley, the military defense attorney for the British resident Binyam Mohamed (whose "extraordinary rendition" and torture set off a Transatlantic scandal last week), has reported that conditions inside the prison have deteriorated still further. In an article in yesterday's Observer, Lt. Col. Bradley, who indicated that her client was "dying in his Guantánamo cell," reported on a visit to the prison last week, and stated,

At least 50 people are on hunger strike, with 20 on the critical list, according to Binyam. The JTF [Joint Task Force] are not commenting because they do not want the public to know what is going on. Binyam has witnessed people being forcibly extracted from their cell. Swat teams in police gear come in and take the person out; if they resist, they are force-fed and then beaten. Binyam has seen this and has not witnessed this before. Guantánamo Bay is in the grip of a mass hunger strike and the numbers are growing; things are worsening.

It is so bad that there are not enough chairs to strap them down and force-feed them for a two- or three-hour period to digest food through a feeding tube. Because there are not enough chairs the guards are having to force-feed them in shifts. After Binyam saw a nearby inmate being beaten it scared him and he decided he was not going to resist. He thought, "I don't want to be beat, injured or killed." Given his health situation, one good blow could be fatal.

Lt. Col. Bradley added that Mohamed's account of the "savage beating" endured by a fellow prisoner was the "first account [she had] personally received of a detainee being physically assaulted at Guantánamo."

And yet, although Lt. Col. Bradley's account indicates that the crisis in Guantánamo is such that ongoing discussions about implementing the Geneva Conventions should be replaced by urgent intervention to address the prisoners' complaints (and alleviating the chronic isolation in which most of the prisoners are held would be a start), the conditions in Guantánamo have been met with a resolute silence from the Pentagon and the White House.

Will it really take another death in Guantánamo -- the sixth -- to provoke an immediate response?

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America's Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press), and maintains a blog here.