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Activists rally for U.S. President Barack Obama to close down Guantanamo Bay prison while in Washington

More than 200,000 people have signed an online petition calling on U.S. President Barack Obama to close the controversial detention facility for suspected terrorists and enemy combatants at Guantanamo Bay. Of the nearly 800 men held there over the past decade, 166 remain today; many of them are currently on a hunger strike.

Retired U.S. Air Force Colonel Morris D. Davis, who authored the online petition,  served as chief prosecutor at Guantanamo’s Office of Military Commissions for terrorism trials from 2005 through 2007.  Today, an assistant professor at Howard University Law School in Washington, D.C., Davis told VOA reporter Cecily Hilleary that he believes the prison is a blot on the American record.

Below please find transcribed highlights of the interview. You can listen to it in full using the audio player at the bottom of this post.

Col. Morris Davis, Ret. (Reuters)

Davis:  I retired from the military in October 2008, and in November of 2008 I met with members of the transition team that were working on what at that point was President-elect Obama’s effort to close Guantanamo.  And I came away with the impression that they were naïve, and grossly underestimated the complexity of it.  I mean, “Close Guantanamo” makes a really nice bumper sticker.  But the practicality of doing it is a lot more complicated than I think they envisioned.  And so when President Obama took office in January of 2009, I think actually his second official act was signing the order to close Guantanamo.  And I think what happened –  if you think back to 2008, remember, President Bush, before he left office, said he wanted to close Guantanamo, and during the campaign, you had both John McCain and Barack Obama saying they wanted to close Guantanamo.  So, for at least a period of time, it was essentially a non-partisan issue.

So I think that when [Obama] took office in January 2009 and signed the order, I think he kind of dusted his hands and thought that was it.  And then you had his opponents who were committed to try to make him a one-term president, so if he was for it, they were against it.  So I don’t think he and his administration were prepared for the blowback.  And I think it would be interesting – had John McCain won, would Guantanamo still be open?

Hilleary:  Well, we know there is an awful lot of politicking going on, but all of that apart, you have 166 men who were detained eleven years ago.  What is the concern?  Give me the statistics – how many, what, 56 have been cleared for release?

Davis:  More than that.  There have been a grand total of 779 men that were ever held at Guantanamo.  And they were the ones, remember, that [former U.S. Secretary of Defense] Donald Rumsfeld told the public were the “worst of the worst.”  And I think today – I was speaking at an event and on Twitter, somebody commented, “Hey, if these are guys that wanted to blow themselves up, then isn’t a hunger strike better than letting them kill people?”  So I think the public largely still buys into this “worst of the worst” narrative.

Of the 779, the population is now 166, so more than 600 are no longer at Guantanamo.  Most of those were cleared and transferred out during the Bush administration.  So the underlying premise that these guys were the “worst of the worst” was just a fallacy.

Of the 166 that are still there, there are 86 that have been cleared for transfer, which means that a joint task force made up of the CIA, Department of Justice, FBI and Department of Defense unanimously agreed that these 86 men didn’t commit a crime, we don’t intend to charge them, they don’t pose an imminent threat and we don’t want to keep them.  So a majority of the people at Guantanamo are people that our government has said we don’t want.  Yet they sit there, year after year after year.

“I’ve heard talk that the administration is making a genuine effort to try to repatriate the Yemenis, but it’s one of those things where I’ve been optimistic so many times in the past that I’ll believe it when I see it.” Col. Morris Davis, Ret.

Hilleary:  But who does want them?  What are the options?

Davis:  The detainees fall into three groups:  The 86 that have been cleared for transfer is the largest group; there are about 30 that the administration has indicated they want to prosecute; and then there is a group of about 50 that are the indefinite detainees – that are neither supposed to go home or to trial.

But of the 86 that have been cleared, the majority, 56 of the 86 are Yemenis.  And we were in the process of repatriating the Yemenis that had been cleared up until the ‘underwear bomber’ on Christmas Day, 2009.  And when it turned out that the plot for the underwear bombing was hatched in Yemen, we shut off the pipeline back.  So you have men who were cleared and were headed back to Yemen who’ve been sitting there since 2009, waiting for their turn that has never come.  That’s the largest block, and the Yemen government has said they want their people back.

Hilleary:  Attorney General Eric Holder held a press conference a couple of days ago where he said, according to the Guardian newspaper — I can’t find a transcript anywhere — that the administration was going to appoint a new person to oversee the process of closing – and according to the Guardian, they were getting ready to go ahead and consider sending the Yemenis home.  Do you know anything more?

Davis:  The President two weeks ago — at the press conference when the issue came up — said all the right things about why Guantanamo is a bad idea – the costs, the blot on our reputation, the recruiting tool- all the reasons why Guantanamo makes no sense.  The Yemeni government, who has been asking for their detainees back for some period of time, I think  they felt the government was serious here and sent a representative here that the administration wouldn’t meet with and the representative went back to Yemen.

I’ve heard talk that the administration is making a genuine effort to try to repatriate the Yemenis, but it’s one of those things where I’ve been optimistic so many times in the past that I’ll believe it when I see it.

“If you look at the number of Americans killed by international terrorism since 9/11, we have a ‘9/11’ every quarter through gun violence, and we’re not willing to do a damned thing about gun violence.  But we’ll spend three quarters of a billion dollars to lock up 166 people on an 8.5 percent chance that one of them might do something stupid that could possibly involve an American.” – Col. Morris Davis, Ret.

Hilleary:  What are the chief concerns?  That these people, if they weren’t radical, militant, American-hating to begin with, that they’ve been made so?

Davis:  It was interesting… when Attorney General [Eric] Holder was on Capitol Hill getting beat up on the head and shoulders over the AP phone records and the IRS and all the other things that have happened in the last couple of days.  One of the members [of Congress] – and I forget which one it was – asked him about Guantanamo, and Holder said that Congress has put up impediments, but they haven’t made it impossible for the president to close Guantanamo.  Because you hear a lot of people say – you know, I get a lot of ‘hate mail’ on Twitter from both sides, and on the pro-Obama side, it’s ‘How dare you try to pin this on the president? Congress has made it impossible!’ But they haven’t.  Congress has made it difficult.  And what they’ve done is – in the National Defense Authorization Act, there’s a provision where the secretary of defense has the authority to certify, on a case-by-case basis, detainees – basically vouching that they are not a threat to the U.S. and they’re not going to do any harm and it’s safe to send them home.  But what the administration has actually lacked is the backbone to actually sign one of those because there is no way humanly possible to reduce the risk to zero. The fact is – it’s inevitable.  If you sent the 86 cleared detainees home, somebody in that group is going to do something stupid at some point in the future, and the president hasn’t been willing to have his name on that happening.

You hear a variety of figures bandied about on what the recidivism rate is; there’s a new study by the New America Foundation that really dug into the numbers and the data.  And their figure – they used a really broad definition of recidivism, for instance, if a detainee goes back and produces a ‘I hate America’ YouTube video, that counts.  So it’s not just, you know, people going back and becoming suicide bombers.  But even going back and using a broad definition of recidivism, the New America Foundation found that the rate is about 8.5 percent.

Hilleary:  Well, that’s not very big, but still, if you are talking about 8.5 percent of 56 Yemenis, you’re still talking about four people doing something stupid.  So what’s the alternative?

Davis:  The alternative is to me fundamentally un-American: And that’s to say we’re willing to keep 166 people locked up for the rest of their lives on the chance that 8 and a half percent of them would do something stupid.

Hilleary:  There has been talk of transferring some of them to Supermax prisons in the United States.  Is that a plan?  Is that an alternative?

Davis:  It’s entirely do-able, and actually, you know, for the fiscal conservatives – I thought the president did a nice job in that first press briefing about two weeks ago of laying out the rationale for why Guantanamo makes no sense.  And one of the reasons is the cost, the fiscal irresponsibility of maintaining Guantanamo.  We are paying about $800,000-900,000 per man per year to keep people at Guantanamo.  When you figure that a majority of them we don’t want to keep – 86 of the 166 are men that we’ve cleared and said we don’t want – we’re wasting about $175,000,000 a year [Davis is presumed to have included in this figure planned renovation costs for Guantanamo - ed.] to incarcerate people that we say shouldn’t be incarcerated.

For the ones that need to be incarcerated, I mean there are – the description “worst of the worst” applies to some of the detainees, who should be detained and should be prosecuted.  The Supermax federal prison, I believe, averages about $32,000 per person per year.

Hilleary:  So it’s cheaper.

Davis:  Absolutely.  And you hear so many conservatives, I’ve heard them say recently, ‘Oh, we don’t want these bastards in our backyard.’  We’ve got a lot of crazy bastards that we keep incarcerated and we manage to do it safely and securely and efficiently.  We’ve got Osama bin Laden’s son-in-law.  We’ve got Khalid Shaikh Mohammed’s nephew [Ali Abd al-Aziz, AKA Ammar al-Baluchi].  We’ve got hundreds of people that have been convicted or are facing trial for terrorism-related charges that we can keep safely and securely at a fraction of the cost of what Guantanamo runs.  And that’s not counting what General  John F. Kelly, Commander of Southern Command, testified at a hearing about a month ago, that he needs about a quarter of a billion dollars to rehabilitate the facilities at Guantanamo.  Because he said they were built to be temporary, not permanent, and they’ve far exceeded their life span, and if we’re  going to keep this facility open, we need a quarter of a billion dollars to renovate it.  So if President Obama doesn’t fulfill his promise to close Guantanamo, between now and the end of his administration, we will have spent another three quarters of a billion dollars to incarcerate 166 men, the majority of whom we don’t want to keep in prison.

Hilleary:  I can see the numbers – certainly – fiscally, it doesn’t make sense, but if there’s a risk of one of them doing something bad a la 9/11 again, isn’t it worth any amount of money to avoid that?

Davis:  If you look at the number of Americans killed by international terrorism since 9/11, we have a ‘9/11’ every quarter through gun violence, and we’re not willing to do a damned thing about gun violence.  But we’ll spend three quarter of a billion dollars to lock up 166 people on an 8.5 percent chance that one of them might do something stupid that could possibly involve an American.

Listen to Cecily Hilleary’s interview with Col. Davis in full, below:

For an alternative view, check our interview with Bush administration Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

Cecily Hilleary

Cecily began her reporting career in the 1990s, covering US Middle East policy for Dubai-TV English. She has lived and/or worked in the Middle East, North Africa and Gulf regions, consulting and producing for several regional radio and television networks and production houses, including MBC, Al-Arabiya, the former Emirates Media Incorporated and Al-Ikhbaria. She brings to VOA and MEV a keen understanding of the region's top social, cultural and political issues.

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