THE BLOG

Sen. Cotton May Think Guantanamo and Hell Are Different. My Client Does Not.

02/06/2015 12:36 pm ET | Updated Apr 08, 2015
Tom Williams via Getty Images

"As far I'm concerned, every last one of them can rot in hell. But as long as they don't do that, they can rot in Guantanamo Bay," concluded Senator Tom Cotton in a combative line of questioning yesterday at the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Guantanamo. Other than his reflexive hatred of my clients, the Arkansas Senator's remark made something else abundantly clear -- he has never met any of them. If he had met Tariq Ba Odah, for example, Mr. Cotton would know there is little difference between hell and Tariq's isolation cell at Guantanamo's Camp 5.

Tariq arrived at Guantanamo in 2002 when Mr. Cotton was a 25-year-old law student. While Mr. Cotton was an associate at prestigious law firms, while he was a management-consultant, during his tenure in the House, and as he won election to the Senate, Tariq has been, as Mr. Cotton put it so well, "rotting" at Guantanamo. As of this month, Tariq has been on a hunger strike for eight years. Guantanamo prison staff force-feeds him every day. Tariq also goes on "no wash" protests, refusing to leave his cell, shower, or cut his nails for months in order to manifest the horror he is living.

Tariq protests in this manner precisely because Guantanamo is hell. At the island prison, he is subjected to solitary confinement, daily tube feedings through his nose, and violent cell extractions, all without ever having been charged with a crime, tried, or allowed the mercy of knowing the length of his sentence. Tariq has survived 13 years at Guantanamo. Whether he must survive another 13 weeks, months or years -- an eternity under his present circumstances -- no one knows. Whether his cell one day becomes his coffin, as Mr. Cotton's would prefer, is anyone's guess. The anguish this uncertainty produces is hellish indeed. It is also entirely unwarranted.

Between 2009 and 2010, six agencies -- the Departments of Defense, Homeland Security, State, and Justice, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff -- undertook a meticulous review of Tariq's record and declared by unanimous consent that he can be released from Guantanamo. Most Guantanamo prisoners, including another of my clients, Fahd Ghazy, who was imprisoned at the age of 17, were cleared in the same way. Others, like my colleague's client, Ghaleb al-Bihani, were cleared after an equally rigorous review performed by the government's Periodic Review Boards. For someone so concerned with the safety of this country, Mr. Cotton's mistrust of the judgment of every prominent national security and intelligence agency in the U.S. government is peculiar. What could the freshman senator possibly know that they do not?

Not a thing. When it comes to Tariq, Fahd, Ghaleb, or any individual actually imprisoned at Guantanamo, the answer is nothing. But that matters little to Mr. Cotton. Trafficking in tired myths about Guantanamo has always been smart politics. Today, Senators Ayotte, McCain, and others are seizing on the recent tragedy in Paris and ISIL's blood-thirst as a new justification for an old plan to undercut the administration, halt long overdue prisoner releases, and keep Guantanamo open indefinitely. That plan is too costly to go unchecked by President Obama, whether it is measured in dollars and cents, damage to U.S. reputation, or the risk perceived by so many in his national security establishment that Guantanamo is a propaganda windfall that motivates, rather than prevents, terrorism. In any event, the cost in human suffering is incalculable, and that is undoubtedly the measure by which history will judge the president if he fails, yet again, to make good on his promise to shutter the prison.

Senator Cotton may prefer hell to Guantanamo for my clients, but what does he really know about either? What he knows is how to play politics -- a game where one thing is certain: the prisoners at Guantanamo always lose.