Thursday, May 23, 2013
By John Paterson
Friday will mark 11 years since the United States brought the first detainees to the Guantanamo Bay prison camp.
In the years since January 11, 2002, Guantanamo has served as the most visual reminder of this nation's abandonment of our historic standards of due process in the name of national security.
Images of shackled men in orange jumpsuits and blackened goggles, which once sparked shock and outrage from Americans who refused to support torture, are now as familiar to our collective psyche as Neil Armstrong on the moon.
More than a decade later, the images from Guantanamo have slowed and softened.
Sadly, our collective outrage has ebbed as news from the prison has fallen from the front page.
Yet not much has changed, and so we must refuse to become complacent.
Guantanamo remains a secretive island prison where our government locks men up indefinitely, without charge or trial -- and holds them there even after they have been cleared for release.
As recently as October, President Obama reiterated his commitment to close Guantanamo.
Discouragingly, just this month he opted to sign the National Defense Authorization Act, which jeopardizes his ability to meet this promise.
The NDAA restricts President Obama's ability to transfer detainees for repatriation or resettlement in foreign countries or to prosecute them in federal criminal court.
Originally set to expire on March 27, the transfer restrictions have been extended through Sept. 30.
To the president's credit, his administration has refused to add to the number held in indefinite detention at Guantanamo and has made diplomatic efforts to resettle some detainees.
Notwithstanding those efforts, 166 detainees remain behind bars, including more than 80 who have been cleared for release.
This means they pose no threat to our security, and we have no good reason to justify holding them any longer.
All 166 are being held without appropriate judicial review.
Yet further restrictions on what can be done with them mean the president's ability to close the prison has once again been hampered, and the stain of Guantanamo and all it represents remains.
In a more positive development, shortly before her departure from the Senate, Sen. Olympia Snowe joined her colleagues on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in voting to adopt an in-depth report on the CIA's role in torture.
Many of the people at Guantanamo were tortured through the CIA program.
This 6,000-page report contains important information about what happened, and by the Senate's action we are a step closer to ensuring it doesn't happen again.
Sen. Snowe's vote capped an impressive 10-year tenure on the Senate Intelligence Committee and reminded us of her commitment to stand up for our nation's fundamental values of justice.
By voting to adopt the report, the senator and her colleagues took an important step toward ensuring that history won't repeat itself by establishing checks and balances between Congress and the CIA.
Unfortunately, the report that Sen. Snowe endorsed has not been made public.
In fact the report may remain entirely secret without further Senate action.
Declassifying and releasing the report is the next step the Senate committee should take.
Until that happens, Americans will continue to learn about the CIA's torture program only from fictionalized movies and television shows.
We urge Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King -- who in an exciting moment for Maine now both join the Senate Intelligence Committee -- to use their key positions to finish the work that Sen. Snowe started, and support the declassification and public release of the report on CIA torture.
People should not learn about torture from the movies, but instead should be able to get the facts about the CIA's role in torture from an authoritative report that is hidden in Intelligence Committee offices.
The senators from Maine now have an opportunity to help Americans learn the truth about what happened.
As for President Obama and the continuing problem of Guantanamo, we call on him to release or try in federal court all detainees, and to transfer all prisoners awaiting trial to facilities in the U.S.
Congress may have imposed restrictions on the tools available to do so for now, but the president should refuse to sign any further legislation restricting the trial or transfer of detainees in Guantanamo.
The legacy of Guantanamo is long and getting longer, but we can and should put an end to it.
John Paterson is the President of the ACLU of Maine and a lawyer practicing in Portland.