Nineteen minutes. That’s how long the review hearing for a Guantanamo detainee lasted this morning. Or, to be more exact, that’s as much of the proceeding as nine reporters and four representatives from nongovernmental organizations were permitted to observe, via video feed, from a secure conference room in Arlington, Virginia. The rest of the proceeding was considered classified, including anything the detainee would say. Weeks from now, a redacted transcript will be made public.
The US military Periodic Review Boards were created to assess whether to continue to detain Guantanamo detainees who are not being prosecuted and haven’t already been slated for release. The administration deems these men too dangerous to release but doesn’t have enough admissible evidence or a legal ground to prosecute them.
No observers or media were allowed to attend the first Periodic Review Board in November 2013 – a review of a Yemeni man that resulted in the Board ordering him approved for release. But the Pentagon announced public access for this and future Board proceedings. The review board is made up of representatives from the Departments of Defense, State, Justice, and Homeland Security, along with the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
But access is relative. Observers were permitted to see only the portion of the proceedings in which the detainee’s counsel and “personal representative” – a military officer appointed by the military – read prepared statements (statements, moreover, that had been posted on the Defense Department’s website the night before). The scripted proceeding – so scripted that the clerk read out the start time as “9 a.m.” even though a glance at her watch would have told her the hearing actually started at 9:15 – offered no insight into the purpose of the hearing, which was to determine if Abdel Malik Al Rahabi should, after 12 years in Guantanamo, continue to be held “to protect against a continuing and significant threat to the United States and its interests.” The Pentagon’s two-paragraph prepared statement claimed without supporting evidence that Al Rahabi was once a member of Al Qaeda, but that if repatriated he would probably live peacefully with his family in Yemen.
The Obama administration has claimed to be the most transparent administration in history, yet when faced with an opportunity to provide greater transparency about what takes place at Guantanamo, it has erred on the side of secrecy. While men like Al Rahabi should never have been held for years without trial, the Periodic Review Boards at least provide a chance for some prisoners to be allowed to go home. But instead of demonstrating a fair and open process, today’s proceeding was a reminder both to the prisoners and the world that Guantanamo has always been a place where the truth remains hidden.