February 6, 2009

As Guantanamo Closes, Speaker Expounds on Prison’s Policies

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Just two days after taking office, President Barack Obama signed executive orders on Jan. 22 to shut down the Guantanamo Bay detention center within a year, immediately stopping coercive interrogations.
Although the orders signal a break from the policies of the Bush Administration, the groundwork for the orders was laid far in advance of the Obama Administration in a report called “Closing Guantanamo: From Bumper Sticker to Blueprint.”
90 percent of the executive order was based on the report, according to Sarah Mendelson, director of Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Human Rights and Security Initiative. Mendelson, who authored the report with the CSIS Working Group on Guantanamo and Detention Policy, presented the report yesterday to about 25 students, professors and local Ithacans in a Peace Studies Program Seminar.
“[Guantanamo] is something of a public debate and at times, it overwhelms. There were several days when Guantanamo was the top story. This is something we’re all engaged in,” Mendelson said.
The report, based on the maxim “R2T2” — review, release/transfer, try — recommended that the new presidential administration announce a closure date and new procedures for Guantanamo during its first week in office. It also urged the president to establish a panel of experts to begin reviewing each detainee’s files.
That panel would categorize detainees into two groups: detainees to be transferred or released into the custody of another nation, or detainees to be held for prosecution in the United States’ criminal justice system.
The transfer and release scheme would occur through U.S. diplomatic relations with Europe and would rely on fo[img_assist|nid=34828|title=Looking forward|desc=Sarah Mendelson, director of the Human Rights and Security Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, presents a talk entitled “Closing Guantanamo: From Bumper Sticker to Blueprint” in Uris Hall yesterday|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]reign governments for support. The report went as far as to provide a phone number for U.S. diplomats to call to begin discussion with Europe, Mendelson said.
Since 2001, three Guantanamo detainees have been sentenced, while the U.S. criminal justice system has convicted 145 international terrorism cases, according to the report. “Shoe bomber” Richard Reid, who tried to attempted to blow up a plane with explosives in his shoe in 2001, was among these cases. He was treated as a “common criminal” and placed into a maximum correctional facility, according to Mendelson.
Approximately 90 percent of President Obama’s executive orders are based on the report’s recommendations. The remaining 10 percent, however, allows for the creation of a third category of detainees that the U.S. would not release, transfer or prosecute, according to Mendelson.
“Putting in place detention without charge will effectively institutionalize Guantanamo. In the executive order, there is a paragraph that says ‘do everything you can to get [detainees] into these two categories,’ but does leave the option on the table for the third category,” Mendelson said.
The working group’s most heated debate focused on weighing a third category for high-risk or dangerous detainees during the creation of the report, which was ultimately not recommended even though such a category would make the process more feasible.
“There was a big conversation going on [which discusses] if we should have preventative detainment. Immediately after an attack, there is some sense that you want to round everyone up and detain them. We came to this with the view that detaining every young male who possesses a threat to the U.S. would end up with thousands in Guantanamo … This heavy reliance on detention was not making us safe,” Mendelson said.
Preventative detainment only exists in the U.S. criminal justice system for mental health cases and cannot legally extend to any of the Guantanamo detainees, according to Mendelson.
The working group questioned what detainees would be of interest to national security and on what legal basis, concluding that the greatest interest should be in the “masterminds,” or any detainee who is leading or providing logistical support, Mendelson said. Moreover, the U.S. should move towards a paradigm of risk management, he added.
The working group, established in Nov. 2007, consisted of international lawyers, government officials, 9-11 advisors, intelligence officers and other experts brought together by Mendelson, with the goal to lay out the process to close Guantanamo through a non-partisan effort for any presidential administration committed to shutting it down.
“The larger issue for me is that we spent eight months on 250 people. There are thousands being held in Iraq and … various detention facilities in Afghanistan [that] needs to be looked at. [Guantanamo] is a focus because of the symbol it has become. We suspect that the conditions in Afghanistan are [also] poor,” Mendelson said.
During the question and answer section of the lecture, several attendees expressed concern that the portion of the executive orders not based on the report would be ballooned to permit extraordinary rendition or continue the Guantanamo model.
“Most college students are struggling with how to interpret presidential actions and there’s still a hint of ambiguity that’s left in this arrangement. It’s interesting to see that the Cornell faculty picked up on that,” said Laura Temel ’09, a Sun columnist.
Others expressed an appreciation for the role academics could play in politics.
“I thought it was good for academics to see that they can influence policy in government,” Lee Robinson grad said.