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Civil Liberties Issues

Guantánamo Bay Detention Center

In 2002, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld announced that Guantánamo Bay would be used to hold “the worst of the worst,” dangerous prisoners from the "war on terror." The administration has alleged that the detainees are “dangerous terrorists” who are “determined to harm innocent civilians.” Americans were assured that “America does not torture” and that the detainees are being given fair trials. In the years since, the Guantánamo Bay detention center has been revealed to be something quite different.

The detainees

According to a 2006 report by Seton Hall Law School, the detainees are not, actually, the worst of the worst. The report profiles 517 of these detainees using information gained from the Department of Defense. Of the detainees dubbed “worst of the worst,” 55 percent were not included in the government’s summaries of evidence as having committed” hostile acts” against US or coalition forces. Of the remaining 45 percent, some are, at best, low level al Qaeda personnel, including a training camp cook’s assistant. Only 8 percent of the detainees were characterized as al Qaeda fighters, 40 percent had no definitive link to al Qaeda, and 18 percent had no link to either.

Amnesty International, too, has uncovered evidence that a majority of the detainees are, at worst, minor members of the Taliban and al Qaeda who pose no risk to the US or were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Amnesty International cites interviews with detainees, who recount being picked up and detained despite a total lack of involvement with the Taliban or al Qaeda. They also cite evidence that only 5 percent of the Guantánamo detainees were captured by US forces. The rest were captured by Northern Alliance fighters, often for rewards of thousands of dollars.

Military commissions

In 2001, President Bush issued an executive order authorizing the detention of non-citizen “enemy combatants.” In January of 2002, the first prisoners arrived at Guantánamo. Since then, the administration has engaged in a systematic effort to deprive these detainees of even the most basic legal rights, and strand them in permanent legal no-man’s land. A series of Supreme Court cases, Rasul v. Bush, Hamdi v. Rumsfeld, and Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, undermined Bush’s strategy.

In late 2006, legal proceedings at Guantánamo came to a standstill, because Congress passed the Military Commissions Act of 2006, under intense pressure from the White House, following the Hamdan decision. The act essentially undermines the habeas corpus rights of the detainees, allows the use of evidence obtained through torture, and does not come close to satisfying fundamental due process requirements. These unconstitutional trials continue today.

Torture at Guantánamo

Despite claims from the Bush administration that no torture was taking place at Guantánamo and that all prisoners are treated humanely, Amnesty International issued a report in April 2007 taht disputes this. Many detainees are subjected to conditions which are tantamount to torture: they are kept in small cells lacking any natural light and given very little time for exercise or activity. Most prisoners are in solitary confinement and rarely interact with other people.

Another aspect of detainee maltreatment is the government’s policy of force-feeding hunger strikers. Detainees began hunger strikes in August of 2005 in an effort to protest their open-ended confinement. The number of detainees involved in the hunger strikes eventually grew to 131; however, the US military began using restraint chairs and feeding tubes to force-feed strikers. During the feeding, prisoners are strapped into restraint chairs to prevent them from vomiting or resisting. The tubes are then inserted through a prisoner’s nose and nutrients are pumped into their stomachs. More information can be found here and here.

The treatment of the detainees at Guantánamo is in violation not only of US and international law, but also basic human rights.

Obama’s unfulfilled promise to close Guantánamo

On January 22, 2009, President Obama ordered the Guantánamo Bay detention center closed within one year. He also directed prosecutors there to request that military tribunals be halted until his administration could determine how to try the remaining detainees.

In the face of insurmountable opposition from Congress, President Obama has apparently given up on his campaign promise to close the prison at Guantánamo Bay. The Washington Post explained the legal, political, and popular obstacles, quoting Obama as saying, “Obviously I haven’t been able to make the case right now, and without Congress’s cooperation, we can’t do it.” However, after having interviewed more than 30 officials close to the issue, the Washington Post concluded that “the one theme that repeatedly emerged in interviews was a belief that the White House never pressed hard enough on what was supposed to be a signature goal.”

And in March 2011, the Obama administration announced it would restart the controversial military commissions—reversing their previous plans to try detainees in federal court.

Wikileaks Guantánamo Bay files

In April 2011, Wikileaks released thousands of pages of classified documents regarding the status of the almost 800 detainees, ranging from ages 14 to 89, that have passed through or remain at Guantánamo Bay detention center. The US military dossiers, obtained by the New York Times and The Guardian, reveal how, alongside the so-called "worst of the worst," many prisoners were flown to Guantánamo and held captive for years on the flimsiest grounds or on the basis of lurid confessions extracted by maltreatment. Perhaps the most damning of these documents are the corroborative evidence of the use of torture, the fact that more than 150 of the detainees were innocent, and details on the seven men that have died while in US custody. The files also contain detailed explanations of the reasons used to justify the prisoners’ detention. In several cases, the detainees were being held not because they were dangerous, but because they were believed to have useful information.

Bin Laden’s death and the use of torture

In the wake of Osama Bin Laden's death, some have claimed that the information that led to the raid on his home was obtained from two detainees at Guantánamo Bay: Khalid Sheik Muhammad and Abu Faraj al-Libi, both of whom were subjected to torture during interrogations. According to The Guardian, John Yoo, the former Justice Department official in the Bush White House who helped provide the legal basis for torture techniques, said Bin Laden's death justified such decisions. Others, such as Deputy National Security Adviser John Brennan and Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Dianne Feinstein, believe that there is no link between torture and the discovery of Bin Laden's whereabouts. In fact, shortly after the killing of Bin Laden, a group of former national security officials sent a letter to President Obama urging him “to make an unequivocal statement that torture is illegal, immoral, and un-American.”

Take action

See our legislation page for information about specific bills related to Guantánamo. Contact your members of Congress about Guantánamo. Contact President Obama and tell him Guantánamo need to be closed sooner than the one-year deadline.

January 11 is the date when the first detainees started to arrive in Guantánamo in 2002. It is an excellent opportunity each year that the prison remains open to call upon our elected officials to end the abuse and torture, restore habeas corpus, and provide a just means for detainees to either receive a fair trial or be set free. More information on how to plan your own January 11 event.

More information

Illegal Detentions and Guantánamo (Center for Constitutional Rights)

Guantánamo and Its Aftermath (report by UC Berkeley and the Center for Constitutional Rights)

Torture and Cruel, Inhuman, and Degrading Treatment of Prisoners at Guantánamo Bay (report by the Center for Constitutional Rights)    

The Guantánamo Docket (New York Times and NPR)

The Guantánamo Files (documents on Guantánamo Bay released by Wikileaks)

The Case to Close Guantánamo  (Human Rights First)

Report on the Treatment of Fourteen “High Value Detainees” in CIA Custody (International Committee of the Red Cross)

“CIA Psychologist's Notes Reveal True Purpose Behind Bush's Torture Program” (Jason Leopold and Jeffrey Kaye, Truthout, March 22, 2011)

Guantánamo (Human Rights Watch)

Guantánamo Military Commissions (Human Rights Watch)

Final Report: Guantánamo Review Task Force (US Department of Justice)

Fact Sheet: Officials Say Torture Did Not Reveal Bin Laden’s Whereabouts (Human Rights First)