Act Now or Gitmo Never Ends

August 3, 2011

© US DoD

When Congress returns from its summer recess in September one of the first tasks on its agenda will be hammering out a final draft of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).  Unless we take action now this bill will lay the foundation for a permanent military prison camp at Guantanamo Bay.

As things currently stand, both the House and Senate have both produced language in their respective drafts of the NDAA that seeks to redefine the authority under which the President conducts the ‘war’ on al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and ‘associated forces’.

One lingering concern in Congress is that the original Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) passed in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks failed to create a framework under which to detain private individuals captured during military operations.

There is a simple reason for this. By effectively declaring war on two non-state entities – al-Qaeda and the Taliban – the United States broke new ground. Wars are fought between states and detention authority in war comes from treaties agreed between those states – the Geneva Conventions.

The Taliban’s physical link to defined territory in Afghanistan and Iraq allows for military action against it to be governed by the laws covering internal armed conflict. However, there is simply no meaningful modern precedent for the situation created by the US decision to treat al-Qaeda as a military foe with a global presence.

In the past, armed groups like al-Qaeda were treated as criminal gangs. Most other countries still treat them that way. If you capture a member of the gang you bring them before a criminal court and you prosecute them for the criminal acts they have committed. This system works well.

We used it to convict the men behind the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993 and the bombings of US embassies in Tanzania and Kenya in 1998. We used it to convict aspirant al-Qaeda bombers Richard Reid in 2003 and Ahmed Ressam in 2005. These guys are all currently in federal jail and will remain so for a very long time.

As Judge William Young told shoe bomber Richard Reid:

“You are not an enemy combatant. You are a terrorist. You are not a soldier in any war. You are a terrorist. To give you that reference, to call you a soldier gives you far too much stature… I know warriors. You are a terrorist. A species of criminal guilty of multiple attempted murders.”

Congress now wants to create a permanent alternative to our tried and tested judicial system. Apparently — despite the fact that ‘Guantanamo’ has become global shorthand for human rights abuse; despite the fact that ‘Guantanamo’ has become a recruitment slogan for armed groups from Pakistan to Morocco; and despite the fact that Military Commissions have only successfully disposed of six cases in almost ten years – Congress thinks this ill-conceived political train wreck is a better answer.

We are used to hearing that politicians live in ‘a Beltway bubble’ but this takes disconnection from reality to extremes.

The draft NDAA bill produced in the Senate would mandate the military detention of al-Qaeda members – and members of a so far undefined subset of affiliated organizations. This would include US resident aliens and perhaps, in certain circumstances, US citizens.

These individuals could then be held indefinitely at Guantanamo until ‘hostilities’ with al-Qaeda, or its affiliates, end. We have swept up a lot of innocent people so far in the course of the war on terror and that is going to happen many times more in the future. By backing prison camps and military commissions over federal court, the Senate is creating a permanent mandate for injustice.

We are calling on our members to act now to prevent Guantanamo becoming a permanent stain on the reputation of the United States.

Two years ago politicians on both sides of the aisle were almost unanimous in wanting to close Guantanamo. It was a good idea then and it is a good idea now. Please take action to defeat the draft NDAA bill in the Senate!