On his second day in office back in January 2009, President Obama ordered the Pentagon to sort through the files of captives at the prison in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and then shut the place down.
Thanks to a series of congressional roadblocks, mostly by Republicans, the facility remains open.
It currently holds 91 detainees and in all likelihood will still be open when a new president is inaugurated 10 months from now. None of this may seem surprising given how Congress has turned Guantánamo into a political football, but here’s something that is bewildering:
In March of 2011, President Obama ordered his administration to create inter-agency reviews for all the detainees not charged with a crime yet not cleared for release. They were all supposed to get a hearing within a year as part of an incipient process to gradually reduce the prison population by discharging captives who should no longer be kept locked up there.
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But today, a full five years later, 40 captives have yet to get their first hearings.
The Miami Herald this weekend unveiled a new online feature that put a spotlight on these captives and on President Obama’s failed effort in 2011 to get something done about all those prisoners at Gitmo who were in limbo.
And here’s another surprise about these detainees, who at one time were among those labeled the “worst of the worst:” Of the 24 detainees who have managed to receive full board hearings, 20 have been approved for release, providing there are proper security arrangements in the country that accepts them.
In other words, they apparently weren’t so dangerous after all.
Take, for example, Mustafa al Shamiri, now in his 14th year under detention by the U.S. military. He was described as an al Qaida trainer when he arrived, a man of consequence in the terrorist organization and thus a high-value captive — until he finally got a hearing before the Periodic Review Board.
That hearing “discredited” the government’s original assessment and the most damning parts of his prison dossier — the bureaucratic equivalent of “oops!”
The hearing concluded that he was a low-level fighter, not a trainer, and he was cleared to leave Guantánamo, preferably to an Arabic-speaking country.
With cases like his, is it any wonder that most of the world sees Guantánamo as a symbol of unfairness, the heart of a dysfunctional legal process that gives the lie to Western ideas of superior systems of justice?
Today, al Shamiri is still waiting for a country to take him, and there are many others like him.
As Herald reporter Carol Rosenberg noted in a news article earlier this week, some Guantánamo critics blame “internal resistance and obstructionism” by bureaucrats who don’t want to close the prison for the failure to heed President Obama’s order on hearings for the detainees.
The bigger question is not why, but what can be done about it. At this point, the Pentagon must make good on a promise that everyone entitled to a hearing will get one by Dec. 20. Even so, chances are that President Obama will leave office with some of the detainees who were at Guantánamo on his first day in office still there without benefit of a hearing.
Opening Guantánamo was justified as necessary in fighting a new kind of war. More than 14 years later, it has become a stain on this country’s ideal of justice.