Playing Pieces in Political Football: Bergdahl and Guantanamo Prisoners

Written for TruthOut, June 11, 2014

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Smithsonian Museum of American History Guantanamo installation. (Photo: Palina Prasasouk / Flickr)

For the past twelve years, Guantanamo Bay Prison has received little media attention until President Obama’s second term in office. First, in March 2013 after a prison-wide hunger strike occurred – which is still on-going at nearly 500 days, up to 40 prisoners on hunger strike, and 19 being force-fed. Now, the swap of 5 of the “worst of the worst” for Sgt Bowe Bergdahl is receiving criticism from Republicans for being an illegal deal with terrorists. Daily Beast reporters Eli Lake and Josh Rogin calls them “bad guys.” However, politicians from both parties have been negotiating with the Taliban and other so-called bad guys for a long time. Obama armed and funded the Syrian rebels against President Bashar Al-Assad. The group of Syrian rebels include al-Qaeda. Reagan gave Iran 500 anti-tank missiles, “over 1,500 American missiles,” and “approximately thirty million dollars” without the knowledge of Congress.

Neither Obama Nor McCain Make Sense

Why is President Obama now releasing “high-level” prisoners from the prison when he has repeatedly blamed Congress for blocking him from closing the prison? The swap means the President does have executive power after all.

And why is Senator John McCain decrying the release of Sgt Bergdahl when he was once a former Vietnam Prisoner of War who won his freedom during a 1973 swap? McCain said just four months ago, “I would support ways of bringing him home, and if exchange was one of them, I think that would be something I think we should seriously consider.” The senator, who once asked the CIA for the same documents they provided the film Zero Dark Thirty in fear of the film being “misled by information,” now calls the swap a “mistake”. Does this have anything to do with his “serious” consideration for re-election in 2016? In 2013 on KFYI-AM radio he said, “I’m seriously thinking about maybe giving another opportunity for you to vote for or against me in a few years from now. I’m seriously giving that a lot of thought.” He went as far as saying on Fox News, “Inmates at Guantanamo are reviewed all the time…30 percent of those released from Guantanamo have already gone back into the fight.”

Can McCain tell us just how often are inmates reviewed? Obama signed Executive Order 13567 in March, 2011, ten years after the opening of the prison on January 11, 2001. Its purpose was to establish Periodic Review Board (PRB) hearings to review which Guantanamo detainees should remain or be released. The first review was not conducted until late 2013 and only 7 of the remaining 149 prisoners have received hearings.

Recidivism Rates Cannot Fully Be Determined

According to the US Office of the Director of National Intelligence, as of January, 2014, 104 of the 614 detainees (17%) released from the prison have engaged in “terrorist activities,” while another 74 (12%) are suspected of doing so. The government has not publicly released the names of any of these detainees for the past five years – making it impossible to assess the validity of the US government’s claim, referenced by McCain, that nearly 30% of the released detainees are confirmed or suspected of engaging in terrorist activity.

In a study conducted by the New American Foundation of the 620 former detainees who have been transferred from the prison camp, 15 were able to be identified former Guantanamo detainees (2.5%) who are confirmed to have engaged in terrorist or insurgent activities against the United States or its citizens, while there are 21 individuals (3.5%) who are suspected of engaging in such activities. 18 former detainees (3%) are confirmed or suspected of involvement in militant attacks against non-US targets. Regardless of which percentage is correct, a staggering 53% recidivism rate is true of US prisons.

Human Lives Are Not Players in a Game

Fouzi Khalid Abdullah al-Awda is the last detainee to undergo PRB on June 4, 2014. The Pentagon profile said al-Awda probably attended extremist training camp and may have fought in Afghanistan. After graduating from the University of Kuwait in 2000, al-Awda became a teacher. Along with other religious Kuwaitis, al-Awda spent his summer vacations in 2000 and 2001 in Pakistan, teaching and helping to distribute charitable donations he had collected at home to villagers near the Afghan border. Al-Awda fled to the Afghan-Pakistani border and placed himself in the custody of the Pakistani army with the request that they transfer him to the Kuwait Embassy. Instead, he was transferred to US custody and transferred to Guantánamo in late February 2002.

Despite President Obama’s slow response in honoring his promise to close the prison five years ago, progress was being made. He appointed envoys to be in charge of releasing the prisoners and lifted the ban against releasing Yemeni men; a nonsensical order to begin with. Security concerns prompted Obama to suspend transfers to Yemen in January 2010 after a Nigerian man attempted to blow up a US-bound flight on Christmas Day 2009 with explosives hidden in his underwear on instructions from al-Qaida operatives in Yemen. More than half of the men who are cleared for release are Yemeni. They were essentially being punished for their nationality. Republicans like John McCain are attempting to stall the closure of the prison camp yet again by calling the swap “illegal” and accusing Bergdahl of being a “traitor”after deserting his platoon. Bowe Bergdahl was a prisoner of war who was held hostage for five years. The five Afghan men were also prisoners of war we have been held in captivity for 12 years. 149 detainees remain inside Guantanamo Bay Prison, 78 of whom are cleared for release.

Who are the Taliban 5?

Khair Ulla Said Wali Khairkhwa – Age 47 – The Department of Defense would neither confirm nor deny the accuracy of this data – was an early member of the Taliban in 1994 and was interior minister during the Taliban’s rule. He was arrested in Pakistan and was transferred to Guantanamo in May 2002. During questioning, Khairkhwa denied all knowledge of extremist activities.

Mullah Mohammad Fazl – Age 47 – commanded the main force fighting the US-backed Northern Alliance in 2001, and served as chief of army staff under the Taliban regime. Fazl was detained after surrendering to Abdul Rashid Dostam, the leader of Afghanistan’s Uzbek community, in November 2001. He was transferred into US custody in December 2001 and was one of the first arrivals at Guantanamo, where he was assessed as having high intelligence value.

Mullah Norullah Noori – Age 47 – served as governor of Balkh province in the Taliban regime and played some role in coordinating the fight against the Northern Alliance. Like Fazl, Noori was detained after surrendering to Dostam, the Uzbek leader, in 2001.

Abdul Haq Wasiq – Age 43 – was the deputy chief of the Taliban regime’s intelligence service. Wasiq claimed, according to an administrative review, that he was arrested while trying to help the United States locate senior Taliban figures. He denied any links to militant groups.

Mohammad Nabi Omari – Age 46 – was a minor Taliban official in Khost Province and was the Taliban’s chief of communications and helped al Qaeda members escape from Afghanistan to Pakistan. He also said that he had worked with a US operative named Mark to try to track down Taliban leader Mullah Omar.

More than 85 percent of detainees at Guantanamo Bay were arrested, not on the Afghanistan battlefield by US forces, but by the Northern Alliance fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan and in Pakistan, at a time when rewards of up to US$5,000 (the equivalent of a quarter of million rupees, enough to take care of your family) were paid for every “terrorist” turned over to the United States.

Guantanamo by the numbers:

Nearly 600 have been released without being charged.

9 have died while in captivity.

15 minors under the age of 18 have been imprisoned.

78 cleared for transfer.

38 slated for indefinite detention. PRB review is contemplated for these men **The five Afghans were in this category

23 recommended for prosecution. Unless and until prosecuted, these men are subject to PRB review.

7 in military commissions: The five 9/11 defendants and Nashiri (all in pre-trial proceedings) and al Iraqi (charges sworn but not referred).

3 convicted and (1) serving sentences (Bahlul) or (2) awaiting sentencing (Khan and Darbi).

15 of the 149 detainees are “high value” detainees.

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