“We don’t want to be the world’s jailer,” insists Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Really? The Bush Administration seems to be waking up to the realization that Guantánamo Bay shames the United States before the world. The President and the Secretary now portray themselves as hapless custodians caught between Al Qaeda operatives and a slowpoke Supreme Court. “I would like to close the camp and put the prisoners on trial,” the President declared May 10. It’s as if Bush, Rice and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had never promulgated, approved or defended Guantánamo’s law-free zone over the past four years.
The clock seems to be running down on Guantánamo. Last year Amnesty International secretary general Irene Khan was widely derided for describing Gitmo as the gulag of our times, but now impatience emanates from the world’s capitals and even from the confines of the prison itself. In London, Lord Goldsmith–attorney general for Bush’s staunchest ally and no stranger to harsh antiterrorism legislation–adopts Khan’s analysis, calling Gitmo a global symbol of injustice: “The existence of Guantánamo Bay remains unacceptable.” In Geneva the UN Commission Against Torture calls on the United States to close Guantánamo and any other prisons whose secrecy and lawlessness facilitate waterboarding, short-shackling or other brutalities that place our nation in violation of the Convention Against Torture. (CIA nominee Michael Hayden refused to condemn waterboarding at his recent confirmation hearing.) And in Guantánamo itself recently, a wave of suicide attempts was followed by a skirmish between guards and prisoners who had improvised weapons from lighting fixtures and electric fans.
While the White House party line on Guantánamo shifts, the lies that justify it go on. Rice continues to maintain that Guantánamo is filled with dangerous war criminals and terrorists, whom she characterizes as “people who have vowed to kill more Americans if released.” But the ranks of those released so far suggest otherwise: juveniles, low-level militia volunteers and the clearly innocent, sold to the Americans in Afghanistan as members of Al Qaeda by unscrupulous bounty hunters. On May 20 a Kuwaiti criminal court acquitted five former Guantánamo prisoners–released by the United States into Kuwaiti custody–of charges that they had collected money for Osama bin Laden.
What’s more, the key facilitator of Guantánamo, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, remains adamant. As Salon has reported, Rumsfeld has been far more involved with the abusive interrogation of detainees than was previously known. On February 18 he declared bluntly, “We shouldn’t close Guantánamo.” And even as Bush and Rice hint at ambivalence, Rumsfeld’s Defense Department is finishing a $30 million long-term detention center.
If Guantánamo has finally reached critical mass as a worldwide issue, it is because of two intertwined activist campaigns: courtroom litigation and social protest. It is hard to think of an issue since the waning of the civil rights movement that has brought together volunteer lawyers from white-shoe firms like Jenner & Block in Chicago and religious activists and radical witness-bearers like the members of Catholic Worker, who in December staged a pilgrimage to Cuba, to the camp’s boundaries. Thanks to the lawyers, the Supreme Court is expected to rule within weeks in the Hamdan case on the constitutionality of Rumsfeld’s military tribunals; thanks to the activists, look for protest and other actions nationwide on June 26, the UN’s International Day in Support of Victims of Torture.
The Administration’s phony attempts to backpedal rhetorically while maintaining Status Quo Gitmo will make matters worse. The suicides, cell-block battles and degrading treatment of prisoners–along with the moral degradation of our own military–can only intensify if the camp remains open. When Rice throws her hands in the air and asks, in essence, What do you expect us to do? there is only one answer: Shut it down.