Obama Embracing Bush Legacy

July 1, 2009

The Obama administration is reportedly close to finalizing the outlines of a new preventative detention regime likely to be crafted along the lines proposed by Matthew Waxman in a paper released last week by the Brookings Institute.

Waxman’s paper tries to reconcile the supposed need for some form of administrative detention without trial with the Supreme Court’s Boumediene v Bush decision affirming the habeas rights of Guantanamo detainees and he proposes introducing legislation to create a new category of administrative detention subject to periodic judicial review.

An increasingly familiar pattern is once again being repeated. The administration ‘discovers’ that the issues it is facing are tougher than it had anticipated, sees some merit in the approach adopted by the Bush administration, promises to make some minor adjustments to preexisting conditions, and finally undertakes to implement this revised policy with a sensitivity the previous administration lacked.

However, such changes amount to little more than putting lipstick on a pig. Closing Guantanamo was always going to require taking some unpopular and morally courageous decisions but the President who declared in his inaugural address that he rejected the false choice between our safety and our ideals has sadly gone AWOL.

To codify administrative detention would be to perpetuate a system that has to date incarcerated more innocent people than it has men of violence on the basis of half-truths and innuendo.

The ordered release last week of Syrian-born detainee Abd Al Rahim Abdul Rassak al Janko provided further proof of the flimsy grounds on which many of the detainees at Guantanamo have and continue to be held.

Al Janko freely admitted staying for five days at a guest house run by Al Qaeda in 2000 and for a further 18 days at an Al Qaeda-run camp as a refugee making his way towards Europe. However, Al Qaeda militants suspected Al Janko of being a US spy and he was detained for three months and tortured until he admitted to these charges.

Al Janko was then handed over to the Taliban and imprisoned for a further 18 months. Having nowhere else to go, he remained behind in the prison after it was abandoned by the Taliban and was discovered there by US forces when they occupied Kandahar in the fall of 2001.

US soldiers also found a video which showed Al Janko being tortured by members of Al Qaeda. In true Kafkaesque style the video has been used by government lawyers as proof of his association with the group.

The Al Janko case demonstrates that arguments that the Obama administration will do a better job of separating the wheat from the chaff than their predecessors hold little water. In his scathing dismissal of the case, District Court Judge Richard Leon described administration lawyers as “taking a position that defies common sense” and it should be noted that this administration has fought Al Janko’s release tenaciously through the courts despite its manifest flaws.

We should not ignore the fact that it took a real court to make an effective determination about Al Janko’s status, and that this administration flunked that same test. Creating a legal framework for indefinite detention is a profound mistake. Since 1783 there has only been one standard in the United States for incarceration and that is conviction in a court of law.

Twice before in our history this standard has been ignored in times of crisis – during the Civil War and during World War II. The suspension of habeas corpus and the internment of Japanese Americans left a lasting stain on two of America’s most successful presidencies. The detention regime created at Guantanamo by President Bush added a third to a rather less illustrious presidency.

It is not too late to prevent the Obama administration repeating this mistake. Amnesty International USA has launched an online action campaign to petition President Obama to reconsider. We need your help to prompt a change of direction before fear mongering once again overcomes the angels of our better nature. Please visit our site today and add your voice to the thousands already raised in protest.