Joan Smith: Invite Guantanamo inmates into US

Obama needs a grand gesture to separate himself from Bush. He should offer shelter to detainees

Share
Related Topics

It was the day when the undead walked in Washington. Barely had Barack Obama completed a thoughtful speech about one of the most intractable problems he has inherited from the Bush administration, namely Guantanamo Bay, then one of the chief architects of detention without trial emerged from the dark place he now inhabits to peddle the same old message of fear. Former vice-president Dick Cheney chose last week to make a speech of his own, which served to demonstrate how sensible the American people were to distance themselves from his poisonous legacy.

Even now Cheney doesn't get it, defying the changed public mood which resulted in Obama's victory and making a case for policies which the country has already judged indefensible. He likes "enhanced interrogation methods" and is still refusing to call them torture, long after most Americans have conceded that water-boarding of detainees at Guantanamo Bay was beyond the pale.

His speech was inconsistent, dishonest – he made the breathtaking claim that criticising CIA interrogators amounts to casting "terrorists and murderers as innocent victims" – and suggested that Obama's policies were putting the US at risk of another terrorist attack.

"In the fight against terrorism, there is no middle ground, and half measures keep you half exposed," Cheney warned, echoing former Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater's famous (indeed notorious) defence of extremism: "I would remind you that extremism in the defence of liberty is no vice! And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!"

Goldwater lost massively to Lyndon Johnson, whom he loathed, in the 1964 presidential election and it's clear that Cheney's feelings towards Obama are no warmer. In fact, although the President did not show it during his speech at the National Archives in Washington on Thursday, he could be forgiven for feeling pretty cross with Cheney and his old boss.

With considerable restraint, Obama described the detention camp on the Cuban mainland as a "misguided experiment" which had resulted in "a mess"; no incoming president would welcome the problem of 240 prisoners in an offshore facility, ranging from extremely dangerous terrorists to insignificant players, many of whom have been traumatised by torture.

Obama's plans to close the camp by next January have already run into trouble, with the Senate voting overwhelmingly last week to cut the $80m (£50m) he had asked for to accomplish the task.

This is not Obama's first setback as he grapples with the Guantanamo problem. Earlier this month, the German foreign minister got cold feet about accepting a group of nine Uighurs (members of a mainly Muslim minority who have suffered severe repression from the Chinese government), fearing retaliation from China, which says it wants to put them on trial.

At home, Obama's suggestion that some of the most dangerous inmates could be moved to maximum-security prisons on the American mainland has caused outrage at both ends of the political spectrum; the right believes that top al-Qa'ida operatives might escape and organise terrorist attacks, while the left dislikes

his proposal to construct a "legitimate legal framework" which would allow them to be detained indefinitely without trial.

The first objection is nonsense, as Obama himself pointed out last week: "Nobody has ever escaped from one of our federal supermax prisons, which hold hundreds of convicted terrorists." Liberals might riposte that the US's huge federal penal colonies are nothing to boast about, but it is true that supermax prisons have successfully contained significant convicted terrorists, among them the blind cleric Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman who masterminded the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, and four other men serving life sentences for their part in the first attack on the Twin Towers.

But Obama's proposal that some of the Guantanamo detainees should be held without trial in American prisons is genuinely troubling and he knows it, characterising it as "the toughest issue we face".

The problem, in essence, is this: the fact that the men were seized in dubious circumstances and then mistreated by the loathed Bush administration does not mean that they are without exception innocent.

There is an abiding reluctance on the left to acknowledge the extent of the worldwide Islamist threat, despite one terrorist outrage after another; civilians have died in bombings in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Indonesia, Israel, Egypt, Morocco, Turkey, France, Spain and the UK, confirming the existence of Islamist networks dedicated to killing men, women and children – including Muslims – who do not share their ideology.

The Obama administration does not share this blind spot, which is why it cannot simply close the facility and send all the remaining prisoners home. An unpublished report from the Pentagon, obtained by The New York Times last week, illustrates how difficult it is to assess the threat posed by individuals: according to the report, 74 of the 534 prisoners released from Guantanamo Bay so far have returned to terrorism or Islamist activity.

The most significant is Said Ali al-Shihri, a leader of the Yemeni branch of al-Qa'ida and now a suspect in the bombing of the US embassy in the Yemeni capital, Sana, last year. Another is an Afghan Taliban commander, Abdullah Ghulam Rasoul. The Pentagon report shows that the process of release is not without risk, but the rate of recidivism isn't unduly high.

Where evidence of involvement in terrorist activity exists, trials in civil courts – not the military tribunals set under Bush and unexpectedly reprieved by Obama – are essential. If there isn't sufficient evidence or it was obtained through torture, Obama will need to amass sufficient moral capital to win over critics of his plan for "prolonged detention" in federal prisons.

It won't be easy but he could begin by making a dramatic gesture: instead of trying to persuade third countries to take them, he should offer shelter in the US to those prisoners who aren't judged a risk but would face unjust trials if they were sent home. The goodwill that swept him into office last year means that Obama is uniquely placed to show such magnanimity, and he could plausibly argue that it would increase America's security.

Images of shackled detainees in orange jumpsuits have inflamed anti-American sentiment across the world since the Guantanamo Bay facility started receiving prisoners in 2002. Inviting some of them to live in the US would be an extraordinarily powerful statement that the Bush era – and the influence of his unrepentant crony Dick Cheney – is over for good.

Alan Watkins is away

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

BI Manager - £50,000

£49000 - £55000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client is...

BI Project Manager - £48,000 - £54,000 - Midlands

£48000 - £54000 per annum + Benefits package: Progressive Recruitment: My clie...

VB.Net Developer

£35000 - £45000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: If you're pa...

SAP Business Consultant (SD, MM and FICO), £55,000, Wakefield

£45000 - £55000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP Business...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

The law is too hard on sexting teenagers

Memphis Barker
 

Obama must speak out – Americans are worried no one is listening to them

David Usborne
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform
Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

Take a good look while you can

How climate change could wipe out this seal
Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

Farewell, my lovely

Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?
Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
Will The Minerva Project - the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century - change the face of higher learning?

Will The Minerva Project change the face of higher learning?

The university has no lecture halls, no debating societies, no sports teams and no fraternities. Instead, the 33 students who have made the cut at Minerva, will travel the world and change the face of higher learning
The 10 best pedicure products

Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
Commonwealth Games 2014: Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games

Commonwealth Games 2014

Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games
Jack Pitt-Brooke: Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism

Jack Pitt-Brooke

Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism
How Terry Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

How Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

Over a hundred rugby league players have contacted clinic to deal with mental challenges of game