Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Gitmo state of mind: Pingree visits Guantanamo, advocates closure

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Last week, Defense Secretary Robert Gates told Congress that keeping President Obama's promise to close the notorious military prison for suspected terrorists at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, would be difficult because of opposition from members of Congress. Maine 1st District Representative Chellie Pingree, however, is among those who support closing the base.

Last month, she was part of a bipartisan (if 10 Republicans and two Democrats is "bipartisan") group of members of the House Armed Services Committee who visited Gitmo to see for themselves what's going on.

"Some things we see are classified," Pingree says, beginning our interview by clarifying that she might not be able to talk about certain topics related to the prison — including ones that might be unclassified, because, she says, it can be difficult to remember what's classified and what's not in a particular briefing. (For example, certain details of what the prison is like are kept secret, but other details are not; keeping the categories straight can be a challenge.)

She was able to say, generally speaking, that "living conditions for prisoners — aside from the fact that they don't know when they are going to leave — have improved tremendously," with no waterboarding, no torture, no guard mistreatment, and no disorientingly loud music (as I described in "A Night in Guantanamo," June 20, 2008).

Obama's "different attitude" about torture — specifically, that this president won't use the techniques George W. Bush authorized but claimed were not torture — is to be credited, Pingree says. "It's become clear that better living conditions for prisoners make it easier for the guards to do their work" — and more information is forthcoming from prisoners who are being interrogated, she says.

While Pingree said Obama "has not fulfilled his promise that he was going to close Guantanamo," she did give the administration credit for "working very hard to sort through the huge range of issues," primarily relating to where to move the inmates now at Guantanamo, and where they should stand trial.

A key obstacle is politics. Buck McKeon, the California Republican who chairs the House Armed Services Committee, wants to expand the use of Gitmo, and is a strong supporter of the existing ban on bringing Gitmo prisoners to the US for any reason, including trial. (That law resulted from the firestorm around the trial of suspected 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, which was originally slated for a federal court in New York City.)

Pingree says much of the concern about bringing suspected terrorists to the US is "fear-mongering," observing that "we have a lot of trials in this country," including ones involving terrorism charges.

The Obama administration has been working with other nations' governments to repatriate their citizens when the US is ready to release them; as a result the inmate population has dwindled to 172 from a high of nearly 800 in 2002. Of the inmates remaining, Pingree notes, as many as 48 are "in limbo," with US officials believing they could be dangerous if released, but lacking (or unwilling to declassify) evidence that could aid in a conviction. Other inmates, such as several Uighurs, a central Asian ethnic group largely ruled by the Chinese, cannot return home because their home government will persecute them. (Ironically, that leaves them being incarcerated by a foreign power under the argument that being locked up by the US in Gitmo is better than a Chinese prison — or execution. And sadly, that argument is probably accurate.)

"The problems have now sort of shifted a little bit to how the trials will be conducted, where the trials will be conducted," Pingree says. At the cost of "an enormous amount of money," the US has built a massive courthouse at Gitmo, with room enough for trials with multiple defendants and extensive capability for closed-circuit televisions and teleconferencing with witnesses and attorneys elsewhere, including the US.

But even that initiative faces what Pingree calls "an increasing stalemate" because of complaints about the fairness of the military tribunal system set up to handle inmates' cases.

And ultimately, it is those kinds of problems that convince Pingree the prison does need to close. "To the rest of the world, Guantanamo is a symbol of a country that says it lives by the rule of law, (but) that denied habeas corpus, that used torture to get evidence," she says. If we do close it, we will affirm our belief in the law; if we don't, "they'll say we're just American hypocrites."