The U.S. military camp at Guantánamo Bay recently celebrated two solemn anniversaries.
Last week marked the 11th anniversary of the facility’s use as a torture and detention facility in the U.S.’s never-ending “war on terror.” Less noticed, it was also the four-year anniversary of President Obama’s inaugural pledge to close the prison in less than a year.
With hindsight, we might be less inclined to trust Obama’s words. The president who came into office proclaiming a sunshine transparency policy has classified more documents than any other in history. The candidate who unequivocally vowed to filibuster any bill protecting illegal Bush-era wiretapping later voted for precisely such a bill—the 2008 FISA Amendments—and as president insists upon the right of warrantless eavesdropping.
Obama’s signing of the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act now ensures he cannot legally fulfill his long overdue pledge to close Guantánamo any time soon. Meanwhile, 166 prisoners remain locked up at the camp, many developing the debilitating physical and psychological conditions of indefinite detention and extreme isolation. Egregiously, 86 of them, who have been unanimously cleared for release by relevant federal agencies, remain imprisoned.
We were once chastised by Obama to look “forward,” not backward, on the U.S.’s crimes of torture, but the men at Guantánamo are allowed neither luxury. Their personal histories as well as futures have been forsaken. At the prison camp’s sham tribunals, evidentiary disclosure of torture is blocked from the public, throwing a dark veil over the CIA’s storied abuses.
But the stories are there. Journalist Sami al-Hajj, wrongfully held at Guantánamo for six years and released only after a 438-day hunger strike, recalls being tortured, attacked by dogs and hung shackled from ceilings. Brandon Neely, a former Guantánamo guard, watched as a medic beat an inmate he was supposed to treat.
Further troubling, Guantánamo has become only the barely-visible tip of the U.S.’s sprawling secret torture regime. Although in the fantasyland of 2008 rhetoric Obama claimed, “We don’t farm out torture,” referring to the CIA’s practice of “rendering” terror suspects out to torture contractors, he has since embraced the policy. The European Court of Human Rights last year revealed that CIA agents wrongfully shackled, sodomized and beat a car salesman named Khaled El-Masri. Picked up on a case of mistaken identity, he was later dumped on the side of an Albanian road. A similar fate—down to the gruesome extreme of ritualized rape—befell Suleiman Abdullah, wrongfully detained at several foreign U.S. detention facilities, including Bagram Air Force Base, for five years and later released with no compensation. In 2010, an American-born teenager named Gulet Mohamed sobbed to reporters on the phone, unable to understand why the Obama administration had arranged to have him beaten and tortured while on a visit to Kuwait.
Basic human compassion demands we contend with these individuals so heinously wronged by our legacy of torture. Looking forward, we must also ensure such grievous mistakes are never again repeated.
Yet our Nobel Peace Prize-winning president seems incapable or unwilling to express remorse. The Justice Department has definitively indicated that no Bush-era war criminals, even in the case of death-by-torture, will ever be prosecuted. John Kiriakou, meanwhile, an ex-CIA official who refused torture training and was the first to publicly admit the torture program’s existence, received a neat jail sentence. He now holds the dubious distinction of being the only person against whom the U.S. has pressed any charges with regard to post-9/11 torture.
John Brennan, a vocal advocate of Bush-era wiretapping and torture (even beyond waterboarding), has now been awarded with a nomination for the CIA directorship. In 2008, Brennan withdrew his name from consideration for the same post amid these precise concerns, but they have since been forgiven. As Obama’s counterterrorism adviser, Brennan is best known for leading the extrajudicial drone assassination campaign and accompanying para-militarization of the executive branch. In that capacity he was also caught outright lying about the civilian casualties of drone strikes, claiming there were none despite glaring contrary evidence.
The brutal contrast between Brennan and Kiriakou’s treatment by the Obama administration showcases its true values—unabashed secrecy, militarism and dishonesty—far more clearly than any statement ever issued by an official.
Policies once controversial under a Republican president in the immediate aftermath of a terrorist attack have thus been superseded and cemented by his Democratic successor. Perhaps we should add to the oft-repeated truism “only Nixon [avowed Cold Warrior] could go to China” a slogan for our era’s false progressive hope: “only Obama could spy, torture and assassinate.”
Prashanth Kamalakanthan is a Trinity junior. His column runs every other Monday. You can follow Prashanth on Twitter @pkinbrief.