July 17, 2013

President Obama wants to close the prison at Guantanamo. At least he says he does. In his national security speech on May 23 of this year, he renewed his pledge to close Guantanamo and lamented the current situation of indefinite detention without charge, and the force-feeding of hunger strikers protesting their detention. Yet he made that same pledge more than four years ago, and did almost nothing to follow through.

When Obama failed to act swiftly to close the detention facility, Congress stepped in and made things more difficult, passing with each year more stringent restrictions on the transfer of prisoners. Stringent as they are, the restrictions do not entirely tie Obama’s hands, yet he has failed to exercise the authority he does have to affect transfers. And each year Obama threatened to veto the bill, but nevertheless signed it into law.

Which brings us to the present. Last week 106 detainees were on a hunger strike. This week the number has apparently dropped to 78, perhaps because of Ramadan and perhaps because of a shift in military policy allowing more detainees to return to communal living. Forty-six are being tube-fed, a gruesome process that the military uses in a manner different from the federal prisons and the international medical and ethical community considers a violationof medical ethics. Human Rights Watch considers the force-feeding of competent hunger-striking prisoners to be cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment.

After the hunger strike started, the military implemented a new policy, 11 years into the facility’s operation, requiring a pat-down of each prisoner’s groin area when he leaves his cell to visit his lawyer. The lawyers claimed this intrusive search was culturally offensive to their clients and designed solely to intrude on their right to counsel. A federal judge agreed. Judge Royce Lamberth, the chief judge of the Federal District Court for the District of Columbia, wrote an opinion last week that ordered an end to the searches, saying using such procedures “flagrantly disregards the need for a light touch on religious and cultural matters,” and that the searches “actively discourage” detainees from meeting with attorneys. Yet late Tuesday night the Obama administration requested that the judge not require them to actually stop the groin searches, saying doing so would create “serious irreparable harms,” and requested two weeks to consider appealing the decision.

In a remarkable exercise of hubris, the military claims that the stricter searches are actually designed to prevent the detainees from committing suicide; that they were implemented after the military completed its review of the suicide in custody of Adnan Latif, one of the more tragic cases of a Guantanamo detainee, who committed suicide last year after years of mental illness and after being cleared for transfer out of Guantanamo by both the Bush and Obama administrations. And if the 10-page declaration by a four-star general filed along with the request for the stay wasn’t enough, the military claims the issue is so pressing that when they didn't receive a stay by 10:00 a.m. Wednesday, they filed an appeal with a higher court.

In the early years of Guantanamo’s detention facility, the Standard Operating Procedure manual detailed that segregation – solitary confinement – would be used “to enhance and exploit the disorientation and disorganization felt by a newly arrived detainee.” With much of the camp on lock-down the last few months, nearly a third of the prisoners being strapped down to force-feeding chairs twice a day, and those visiting their lawyers or using the telephone being subjected to new and unnecessary searches, it’s hard to see how things have changed.