Transcript: Q&A with Andy Worthington at the ICUJP luncheon in Los Angeles on Jan. 15, 2014

Partial transcript of the Q&A with Andy Worthington, an independent investigative journalist, on Guantanamo at the luncheon organized by Interfaith Communities United For Justice and Peace (ICUJP) and World Can’t Wait in Los Angeles on Jan. 15, 2014.

Editor’s note: Remarks made by Edina Lekovic, Director of Policy and Programming at the Muslim Public Affairs Council, and Rev. Dr. Art Cribbs, Executive Director of Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice – California, during the Q&A are omitted from this transcript. 

Response to a question on why Worthington made a point of emphasizing that it’s President Obama’s responsibility to close Guantanamo notwithstanding barriers imposed by Congress:

Well, the President has a waiver in the legislation allowing him to completely bypass Congress. He can do it; he just doesn’t want to do it. He can do it. He can.

…The fact is that I think the important thing that, you know, we all need to remember – and I hope I conveyed it – is that all three branches of the United States government have failed the men in Guantanamo in various ways. That remains true.

But at the moment, one of the things that can be done is for one man in this country to arrange for men to put on airplanes and be sent back to their home countries. That’s not a single one of your Congressmen or women. That’s the President of the United States. He is the only man who could do that.

Congress has been persuaded after a long, long struggle to tone down its restrictions on the release of prisoners so that President Obama is in the best position he’s been in for three years to order men to be put on planes and sent home. It’s in his hands.

Response to a question on Sen. Carl Levin, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, and the current process of transferring cleared detainees:

…Sen. Carl Levin is the Chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee. So, they drafted the amendments to the National Defense Authorization Act, which were passed by the Senate in November or early December.

The House didn’t or had no interest in passing the version that eased the restrictions on the release of prisoners or transferring the prisoners to the U.S. mainland. They passed an even more punitive version of the NDAA back in June.

When the Senate passed the version that Sen. Carl Levin had driven – but I know that it had support from Sen. Feinstein, it had support from Sen. John McCain – then they had to thrash it out in committee, and that’s when the easing of restrictions of transfer stayed but the ban on releasing prisoners to the U.S. under any circumstances remained.

So, the President doesn’t need to use a waiver to release prisoners from Guantanamo. He’s not going to face the opposition that he has faced before at this present time.

He has appointed to envoys; he’s not doing this personally. He has appointed two envoys, veteran diplomats – Paul Lewis and Cliff Sloan – to deal with these issues.

On the release of prisoners to countries where that’s feasible or third countries if they can’t return home, where negotiations are underway, I’m sure that’s what these men are doing, and I very much hope that it’s going to lead to the release of these 21 who are not Yemenis who have been cleared for release.

The Yemenis – I don’t know what level that is being discussed. But as I understand it, that power resides with the President at this moment in time. There is no sufficient obstacle that Congress can raise at the moment to prevent him from doing that. What we need to give him is the encouragement that this is necessary.

You know, I’m discussing this with representatives of the Yemeni prisoners…This has not been mostly a legal issue; it’s been an issue of how it’s presented to the public – a publicity issue.

We need to find the stories of the Yemenis that can accentuate the most positive aspects of why these men need releasing, that these are not bloodthirsty maniacs because they’re not. But people need stories that they can believe in. People need to hear…not just the words of the prisoners but from their family members.

So, we’re going to try and work with the Yemeni family members, and we hope if we can to try and get some Yemeni family members to come over to the United States. I think all of these things are the ways, really, to push forward on that.

Response to a question on whether there has been greater awareness about Guantanamo in the U.K. than in the U.S. because there have been British nationals (but no U.S. citizens) held in the detention facility:

First of all, I would say that although there is some awareness of that in the U.K. – it may have helped having British prisoners there – the administration of Tony Blair in the U.K. initiated its own mini-Guantanamo in the United Kingdom. And it hasn’t – that’s never been fully done away with.

It only ever involved a few dozen people. It involved mainly foreign terrorist suspects, some British suspects being deprived of their liberties without charge or trial. Some of those men were imprisoned without charge or trial. Some of those men still imprisoned without charge or trial. They’ve been there since late 2001. The police and the intelligence agencies never asked them a single question.

They hold them because they alleged that they’re terror suspects, the evidence is secret, and they want to deport them to their countries where they’re from but they’re constrained – or they’re constantly trying to break it – by the U.N. Convention Against Torture to which both our countries are signatories which prevent the return of people to countries where they face the risk of torture.

We also came up with in our country something called control orders, which have now been re-named by our Tory-led government, but which involve holding people under a form of house arrest. Again, they haven’t been tried, they haven’t been charged, they haven’t been prosecuted. On the basis of secret evidence, they’re regarded as a threat and they are kept under a form of house arrest where they’re not allowed communications devices, they’re under curfew, they’re not allowed to see anyone unless they’re vetted, they’re subject to raids at all times the day or night. This started only with some foreigners in our country and was then extended to some British citizens.

So, when told by our government about our own actions that that happens, people are not as interested.

I would be honest enough to tell you that sometimes I realize that it’s anti-Americanism that motivated people to be interested in what happens at Guantanamo. And I make a point to say that it’s about human rights because it is. You know, it’s absolutely nothing to do with the American people. I agree with you that it’s in your power to support the President and to do what you can to redress it. But it’s a human rights issue.

I don’t know…It’s terrible for us that after 12 years we’re still struggling to educate your fellow citizens about what indefinite detention without charge or trial means. Because when they are presented evidence of that from a totalitarian regime, they recognize it.

But they don’t recognize it here. And the powerful malevolent magic wand that’s been waved by the Bush administration in those early months after 9/11, the description of the people as the “worst of the worst”  – what a powerful piece of black propaganda that was. You know, because almost in the next breadth from [Donald] Rumsfeld said “I don’t even know who they are. Don’t worry about that.” You know, people forget that – the “worst of the worst” no explanation given or offered. Just “Go away. Be quiet. We know what we’re doing. We’re looking after you.” And people have not questioned.

You know, it’s quite simple. I always in my talks – you heard me, I’m sure many of you remembered it, I’m sure many of you recognize it – there are only two ways to deprive people of their liberties: through a trial –  through a federal court trial – or as a prisoner of war taken off the battlefield, protected, unmolested by the Geneva Conventions. And Guantanamo is not about that. It never has been about that. It cannot be dressed up as anything other than what it is, which is this prison where people are indefinitely detained without charge or trial. We can only keep trying to say it. I don’t know whether we could – we could focus something specifically on the issue of indefinite detention, I suppose, but if people don’t want to know what it is then we just have to keep trying.

Response to a question on the use of torture in black sites:

Black sites – yes and no in some ways. There are, I believe, forward operating bases and that kind of short-term detention facilities which are used – where torture is used.

When President Bush rescinded any involvement with torture, which he did basically on that day in early September 2006 when he said “You know what? I always said that there weren’t any secret prisons. Well, there were. But I’ve just closed them and I’ve moved these men into Guantanamo.” [Laughter]  14 high value detainees who arrived in September 2006.

Almost at the same time, the Army field manual was issued with an appendix called appendix M, which is publicly available. And appendix M involves all kinds of sleep deprivation and stress positions that can be used. That’s what’s being used in forward operating bases, which certainly stories have come out of Afghanistan so I would imagine that’s happening in a variety of places. There are darker things happening that I don’t really know in detail about. Look at the work of journalists…in places like Somalia, for example.

You know, a bigger issue is that you don’t have to find ways of detaining people when you’re murdering them in drone attacks. You know? And that’s a very important issue. I think tying all the different strands of everything is very important.

Response to a question on why Guantanamo still isn’t closed despite President Obama’s promise:

You know, when he – the first thing he wanted to do to close Guantanamo was to move everybody to a facility on the U.S. mainland and Congress withheld the funds. You know, he didn’t want to – he evidently didn’t want to upset Congress, and I completely understand that he wanted to try and maintain some semblance of consensus, although if you actually look at what’s going on in Congress, consensual politics don’t seem to be fashionable in the slightest.

But he is now put in a position, I think, where he has only a few years left to settle his legacy. Now, he’s not a standalone President. He cares about his party, so he’s going to care about what the reputation of the party is going into the next presidential election.

But I would say that he absolutely does need to one way or another bring this facility to a close before the end, with the sweep of a pen if it needs to be. Because all it takes is to move a certain number of the people that are left to two facilities on the U.S. mainland and then deal with that.

If there are people accused of crimes – terrorist crimes – they can be tried in federal court. If they’re not, then these guys were soldiers and this battle is going to be over. There is going to be a drawdown of troops from Afghanistan at the end of this year. The rationale for holding these men indefinitely when all they were was low-level foot soldiers in a war that is coming to an end will be gone.

So I think that it’s actually quite feasible for him to release the cleared prisoners, bring everybody out to the U.S. mainland, and start arranging for all of those people to go apart from the people who could be charged with crimes.


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One Comment on “Transcript: Q&A with Andy Worthington at the ICUJP luncheon in Los Angeles on Jan. 15, 2014

  1. Pingback: Transcript: Andy Worthington's speech on Guantanamo at the ICUJP luncheon in Los Angeles on Jan. 15, 2014 | What The Folly?!

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