Wikileaks reminder that Obama’s still Guantánamo gaoler-in-chief

As Ireland readies itself to welcome President Obama to these shores next month, those with an interest in upholding international law have been given reason to recall how he has failed the litmus test of Guantánamo.

While the President appears to have forgotten his January 2010 promise to close the internment camp within a year, a new batch of leaked government documents provides a reminder of just how iniquitous the US experiment in unlawful detention has proven.

The new document cache consists of case summaries, produced by intelligence analysts at Guantánamo between 2002 and 2009, that were first leaked to Wikileaks and then to the press.

The picture of Guantánamo that emerges from these new documents – on top of what we already know – is of a place of arbitrary detention, operating from a presumption of guilt not innocence, where torture was used to extract information from some detainees which was then used to taint the innocence of others.

It emerges from the documents that at least 150 of those detained in Guantánamo had no demonstrable connection whatsoever to Al Qaeda, the Taliban or any other armed group.

The leaked material also highlights that adverse testimony from just eight inmates was cited in the files of 255 Guantánamo detainees. One inmate, Mohammed Basardah, alone provided ‘intel’ on 131 detainees. Abu Zubaydeh who was water-boarded at least eighty-three times, subsequently – perhaps unsurprisingly in the circumstances – gave adverse statements on 127 other inmates.

The files reveal that intelligence analysts came to regard most of this testimony as unreliable.

The fact is, Guantánamo has disgraced the US across the world, has produced little or no intelligence of any value, and it has likely radicalised far more people than it has deterred.

Yes, there are no doubt some unpleasant people held in Guantánamo, like Khaled Shaikh Mohammed, who has boasted openly about his role in terrorist attacks.

However, Guantánamo was never the only option for dealing with them. There can be no doubt that the criminal justice system would have done a much better job. The innocent would likely have been processed and released, the guilty tried and convicted years ago if the US had chosen the legal, constitutional path instead.

In 2007, Obama told supporters:

I was a constitutional law professor, which means unlike the current president I actually respect the Constitution.

So, Obama’s defence of the status quo – 172 detainees still held, military commissions rather than fair trials, the prospect of indefinite detention without trial – has been all the more disappointing.

In his defence, he may choose to point to Congress‘ refusal to allow funding for detainees to be brought to the US for trial and its insistence that every detainee release or transfer must be individually approved. Yet, being the president, as Harry Truman’s desk sign reminded him every day, the buck stops with him.

It’s an embarrassment that the US justice system could have become so degraded as to allow this to happen and a further embarrassment that Obama – the constitutional law expert – should now have become the Guantánamo gaoler-in-chief. 

Will anyone in Ireland’s political class have the temerity to remind the President of his international human rights obligations while on Irish soil, or will everyone just be expected to dance at the crossroads of Moneygall?

I am the Northern Ireland Programme Director of Amnesty International UK and an occasional human rights blogger at Amnesty Blogs: Belfast & Beyond.

I’m on Twitter at @PatrickCorrigan

  • Pete Baker

    Yes, Patrick.

    It’s not magical unicorn fairyland.

    But only the deluded thought it would be.

    “Yes, there are no doubt some unpleasant people held in Guantánamo…”

    Yes, and no doubt the decisions on whom to detain are also difficult and sometimes wrong.

    On both sides of the line.

    Your point?

    “There can be no doubt that the criminal justice system would have done a much better job.”

    Clearly two completely different administrations in the US thought otherwise.

    Obama “the constitutional law expert”.


    And aren’t you exercised about Libya [and Syria – Ed] as well?

  • pippakin

    Obama did get into office bragging he would shut Guantanamo in the first year, then he found himself in the real world (probably for the first time) and had to make real decisions,. Any attempt to close the place would undoubtedly upset the vast majority of Americans.

    It might have been more honest if he had said he would shut Guantanamo in the first year – of his second term, but if he had he would never get the second term. Its hard in the real world.

  • Jimmy Sands

    When Egypt erupted and the White House was chastised for its apparent unconcern for human rights, the State Dept official responsible for this field (apparently there is such a position) boasted that the administration’s commitment was demonstrated by the fact that the closure of Guantanamo was announced on his very first day in office.

  • There’s a simple solution to satisfy the American people. Swap the current inmates of Guantanamo for the bankers who brought down the economy.

  • joeCanuck

    I like your suggestion Dave. Pity it’s more of a wet dream.

  • Pete

    “Yes, and no doubt the decisions on whom to detain are also difficult and sometimes wrong”:

    It’s been rather more than that – huge numbers of people were / are detained, without charge, without trial and without a shred of credible evidence against them. Of course, you are free to choose to ignore this inconvenient truth if you wish.

    “Your point?”:

    My point is that the US is a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, as are the UK and Ireland. For those who take the rule of law seriously, such ongoing law-breaking by the US is a serious matter. The UK and Irish governments have an obligation to remind the President of this when he comes calling.

    “And aren’t you exercised about Libya [and Syria – Ed] as well?”:

    Yes. And your point is? Oh yes, whataboutery – a disreputable attempt to create a diversion from the debate at hand.

  • Hedley Lamarr

    Pete- “And aren’t you exercised about Libya [and Syria – Ed] as well?”

    If Patrick wrote in detail about all the countries in the world who violate human rights he would have to include almost all of them.

    If he can not highlight USA human rights abuses (“The Land of the Free”) particularly with their very poor record in this area without “whataboutery” he might as well not highlight US abuses at all. Perhaps some people would prefer this.

  • grandimarkey

    This makes for ridiculous and truly terrifying reading

    I agree that Guantanamo has probably radicalised more than it has deterred. Trying to combat those that would destroy law and order by in turn destroying law and order is rarely advisable

  • pippakin

    Hedley Lamarr

    Most Americans don’t care that those suspected of being involved in 9/11 may have been/are being tortured but they care very much about having prisoners housed on American soil when, as they see it, a perfectly good prison has been custom built for them in, as far as they are concerned, a very safe area.

    Water boarding is a terrible thing but I doubt if many Americans believe the Bush government was wrong to use it on Guantanamo detainees.

    Obama forgot who his employers are. He will not do that again until after the next presidential election.

  • grandimarkey


    “Water boarding is a terrible thing but I doubt if many Americans believe the Bush government was wrong to use it on Guantanamo detainees.”

    What do you believe?

  • pippakin


    I believe it is wrong to use it or any form of torture on anyone. I also believe torture is unreliable and counter productive. I have always been thankful I was not German in the thirties, I would have been a very obedient little Nazi.

  • Alias

    The US will only be bound by the ICCPR when the Senate ratifies it. The Executive can only sign it, not ratify it. So while it is a signatory to it, it isn’t bound by it as it has never ratified it.

    Not the Irish state could do is remind the US, as the US has reminded other states not bound by international laws within their own sovereign jurisdiction, that it has a moral duty to heed the mythical ‘will of the international community.’ The US has, of course, invaded other countries on that premise, so it’ll have a hard job explaining it isn’t bound by what it has’t ratified but other states are.

    At any rate, that should not involve any unhelpful public display by either preening politician, grubby student, or bleeding heart. This visit is important given the dire circumstances that Ireland has been placed in by its EU centric approach to world affairs, so we need good relations with states outside of that cesspool.

  • Alias

    What the Irish state could do is remind the US…”

  • RepublicanStones

    Pete if you think events on Syria/Lybia need a post by all means author one. The fact you haven’t but have come onto a thread about human rights abuses by the US and have attempted to throw a swerve on the issue, shows you aren’t really interested in abuses by Syria/Libya but in ignoring those by a country which claims to be that which Syria/Libya does not. Infact, I may have missed one, but looking at your post history back til 9th March I can’t see a post from you on Syria or Libya. Transparent, I think the word is…

    Pip I think you understate the debate that has raged in the US with regard to torture (waterboarding most definitely is torture).

  • pippakin


    I have noticed that the majority of donations to Wikileaks re Mannings have come from the US but I still think Americans are very happy with Guantanamo being where it is.

    I know water boarding is torture! but I think most Americans think its worth it to catch Bin Ladin. I think they are wrong but I can’t see their opinions on that issue changing any time soon.

  • grandimarkey

    I’d be careful with the generalisations, Pippakin.

    I know plenty of Americans (granted if they’ve made it this far across the water you could probably guess their politics*) who are very much against Guantanamo.

    Obama was elected with this being a major pledge, there are a lot of Democrat voters who are unhappy with this particular renege.

    *Hypocritical generalisation alert

  • Alias

    True, and the one-termer – now looking for the strinking Irish-American vote – will have to change his ‘Yes we can’ slogan to ‘Looks like we couldn’t after all.’ Not as catchy…

  • pippakin


    This whole thread is about generalisations! I think Lyndon Johnson was the one who said “The silent majority”

    Guantanamo appears to make Americans feel safe I don’t know why because it seems clear to me that the opposite is the case but I don’t believe its about to change.

  • RepublicanStones

    Pip I think polls show most Americans support Gitmo, but the issue of torture is much more unclear according to similar polls. I don’t believe the two issues are mutually dependant.

  • Greenflag

    dave newman

    ‘There’s a simple solution to satisfy the American people. Swap the current inmates of Guantanamo for the bankers who brought down the economy.’

    A good start but for proper justice you’d have to include the bulk of the politicians of both Houses and of both parties and the ex Chairman of AIG and the current CEO’s of Goldman Sachs , Bank of America and Citigroup .If the USA was kind enough to extend it’s solution world wide I can even see Guantanamo being filled to capacity by members of the previous Irish government and former banksters .

    As an aside it being Friday an interesting survey reveals that Irish people trust the following ‘professions’ in descending percentage table

    Doctors -88%
    Professors -72%
    Judges -71%
    Newsreaders -63%
    Scientists -61%
    Civil Servants -45%
    Journalists -37%
    Business Leaders/Bankers -27%
    TD’s /politicians -12%

    No percentages were made for professionals such as prostitutes or petty criminals but it’s believed that the ladies of the night were well ahead of our politicians and rated above the ‘priestly’ class and the petty criminals rated slightly above ‘business leaders ‘ i.e the banksters .

  • Mac

    And whatabout [and whatabout – Ed] as well?

  • Pete Baker


    “Oh yes, whataboutery – a disreputable attempt to create a diversion from the debate at hand.”

    Sorry you feel that way.

    That wasn’t my intention at all.

    I mentioned them as areas where Obama’s actions, and inactions, can be called into question on the basis of ‘human rights’ concerns. And, on Libya, where he has already contradicted himself over his interpretation of the US Constitution.

    They also illustrate the moral, and legal, mazes such decisions involve. Even when, as Alias pointed out, he’s not actually “bound by the ICCPR”.

    As for “the litmus test of Guantánamo”.

    Litmus test for what? And whom?

    As I said, it’s not magical unicorn fairyland.

  • Zachariah Tiffins Foot

    Deliver us from these self-appointed guardians of ‘human rights’! By their (self-claimed) friends shall you know them.

    Three cheers for Gitmo. I for one am more than happy that these “unpleasant” people are behind bars. Indeed I’d be even happier to head to Aldergrove with a couple of old table tennis bats to land a rendition flight and load it up with a few local unpleasant types recently observed stamping around Londonderry in comedy-soldier get-ups. Twenty-odd years in Cuba would do very nicely Mr President.

  • ThomasMourne

    Guantanamo is a dreadful stain on the ‘land of the free’.

    But of much greater concern is the fact that this man stands over the remote control killing of people in Pakistan and Afghanistan using drones.

    The death rate in Guantanamo is very low although the mental torture practised there is inhuman; while the death rate in the countries mentioned is very high and is ignored by ‘civilised’ countries, Ireland included, as well as the United Nations.

    Obama made it clear before his election that he would continue the US foreign policy of bombing its perceived enemies and would not shirk from taking on Iran as well.

  • Pete, more than happy to accept your assurance that ‘whataboutery’ was not your intention, although I was obviously not the only one to (mis)interpret it as such.

    I think that the US response to unfolding attempts at the human rights revolutions across the Middle East and North Africa is fascinating. I have already blogged about these events on a number of occasions and will do so again.

    Re the USA and the ICCPR, to clear up matters a little, here’s a briefing note from my colleagues in AI USA:

    “The United States has signed and ratified the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights, which prohibits arbitrary detention and ensures due process rights for those detained. The United States has also a signed and ratified of the Third Geneva Convention regarding the laws of war and the treatment of prisoners of war. These are two of the treaties that the United States has been accused of violating in the detentions in Guantanamo and of U.S. citizens declared “enemy combatants” in the United States.

    “Another form of international law that the U.S. is bound by is customary international law. Customary international law results from a general and consistent practice of states followed out of a sense of legal obligation, so much so that it becomes custom. As such, it is not necessary for a country to sign a treaty for customary international law to apply. For example, prohibition on slavery and genocide are considered to be customary international law. The right against prolonged arbitrary detention is also considered customary, and is another way in which the detention of foreign nationals in Guantanamo and US citizens designated “enemy combatants” in the U.S. can be considered a violation of U.S. obligations under customary international law.”

    Former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson will be delivering a keynote address at Amnesty’s 50th anniversary conference in Belfast next Friday evening and will undoubtedly reflect further on these events.

    Slugger followers are more than welcome to attend. About 1,000 people have already booked to attend but some free tickets are still available here. Pete, would love you to come – feel free to introduce yourself if you can.

  • Alias

    Amnesty can’t seem to get its story straight. Here is what it said in its “ECONOMIC, SOCIAL AND CULTURAL RIGHTS: Questions and Answers” booklet in 1998:


    A: No. The United States signed the Covenant in 1979 under the Carter administration but is not fully bound by it until it is ratified. For political reasons, the Carter administration did not push for the necessary review of the Covenant by the Senate, which must give its “advice and consent” before the US can ratify a treaty. The Reagan and Bush (Sr.) administrations took the view that economic, social, and cultural rights were not really rights but merely desirable social goals and therefore should not be the object of binding treaties. The Clinton Administration did not deny the nature of these rights but did not find it politically expedient to engage in a battle with Congress over the Covenant. The current Bush (W.) administration follows in line with the view of the previous Bush (Sr.) administration.

  • No. The US ratified the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights in 1992, but with certain reservations. Here’s a note from Jimmy Carter about this:

    You have quoted, mistakenly, a briefing related to a totally different UN Convention, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, not ICCPR, relating to civil and political rights, which are the relevant ones in this situation. In any case, notwithstanding any such reservations (referred to above), the US is still bound by customary international law which prohibits, for instance, prolonged arbitrary detention and torture, hence its relevance to Guantanamo.

  • Alias

    Yes, my mistake. Different covenant. *slaps own wrist*

    The Senate finally ratify the treaty in 1992.

    However, it added several reservations, declarations, and understandings including one critical proviso (IV) that gives the US Constitution precedence over the ICCPR.

    There is no incongruity, therefore, between President Obama’s claim to “actually respect the Constitution” and the status of the ICCPR as long as he acts in accordance with the Constitution.

    Another critical proviso is that the ICCPR does not have any affect within sovereign US jurisdiction, only to its actions outside of it. Since Guantánamo is within sovereign US jurisdiction, the ICCPR as ratified does not apply. Therefore, the US cannot be said to be violating its obligations.

    US citizens or others may not seek any redress through US courts for alleged violation of rights declared within the ICCPR that are not appciable within the US.

    If it carried out these acts on foreign soil then that is a different matter, of course.

    As it stands, I don’t see any violation. Amnesty is just citing a lot of ‘rights’ without pinning it down to specifics.

  • Alias, you’re still choosing to be selective, ignoring customary international law, which I’ve cited several times and the Third Geneva Convention regarding the laws of war and the treatment of prisoners of war.

  • Alias

    At the end of the day, America makes it up as it goes along. It needs these prisioners to have physical presence for an otherwise invisible enemy. Unlike Pearl Harbour, with 911 there was no state that attacked the US and no state to strike back at. That baffled ordinary Americans. It is why it had to invent enemy states and duly invade them in search of the ever-elusive enemy. At least this way, they can see their enemy (or some of them) and see their own shortcomings as an international citizen with the rest. So it’s a mix of psychology and politics, and I doubt it will be closed until Americans can be trained to focus on a more visible enemy. Cue Libya, Iran and Syria.

    It seems pointless for the US to have bothered ratifying the ICCPR if it wasn’t going to be enforcable in the US courts. It is declaring that other peoples should have those rights but not its own citizens – or, rather, they should have them (where they don’t conflict with the US Constitution) but they should have no right to demand them.

    That was just, I guess, a feeble attempt to exclude itself from the pariah states that Carter mentioned in your linked article.

    Incidentally, if you look at Article 1 (pride of place) of the ICCPR, you’d be hard pressed not to bring a case against the EU for violating it. It’s the most imporant right in there, yet we live within a supranational entity that specialises in the systematic violation of it. There is some inconsistency on Amnesty’s side of things.

    But keep up the good work, for what it’s worth…

  • Hedley Lamarr

    Pete – “That wasn’t my intention at all.”

    Sorry Pete. didn’t look at your Libya link. I assumed incorrectly because of the Syria link beside it. My apologies.