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As Hunger Strike Continues, Ex-Chief Guantánamo Prosecutor Says “No Good Reason” To Keep Prison Open

Web ExclusiveJuly 11, 2013
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More than 150 days in their hunger strike, at least 45 Guantánamo prisoners are being force-fed through tubes. “It’s regrettable that it’s taking them putting their lives at risk to get us to pay attention, that they’ve been cleared for transfer, yet they’re still in prison,” said Col. Morris Davis, former chief prosecutor at Guantánamo.

AMY GOODMAN: Colonel Morris Davis, you’re the former Guantánamo Bay chief prosecutor. Let’s talk about the ongoing prisoner hunger strike at the prison. It looks like at least 45 of the estimated 120, and it could well be more, Guantánamo hunger strikers are being force-fed through tubes. On Monday, a federal judge issued a ruling suggesting the force-feeding of hunger-striking Guantánamo Bay prisoners is illegal, but warning only President Obama can stop it. U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler rejected a prisoner’s effort to halt his force-feeding, saying she lacks jurisdiction. But she went on to say, “It is perfectly clear … that force-feeding is a painful, humiliating, and degrading process.” Colonel Davis, can you talk about this?

COL. MORRIS DAVIS: Yes. I mean, it’s a sad commentary about our country, that it takes people putting their lives at risk to get us to pause for a moment and pay attention to them, because, you know, the men at Guantánamo have largely been abandoned and forgotten, that, you know, they’ve been there in some cases for 11-and-a-half years now, and, in many cases, cleared to be transferred out. As an example, one of the detainee assessment briefs I discussed in the Manning trial was on a detainee that was assessed in that brief as being a high-risk, high-threat detainee, yet he’s on the to-be-transferred list that the Obama administration published back in 2010. But you’ve got a majority of the detainee population that has been cleared for transfer out, you know, people that the intelligence community, the law enforcement community, the military has unanimously agreed we do not want to detain, we don’t need to detain, because they’re not a threat. And as John McCain said a few weeks ago, that we’re spending $1.5 million per year per person to keep them at Guantánamo. So it’s regrettable that it’s taking them putting their lives at risk to get us to pay attention, that they’ve been cleared for transfer, yet they’re still in prison. And we’ve got to—we’ve got to make this right. And, unfortunately, with the president, you know, we’ve gotten lectures when we needed a leader, and he needs to stand up and be a leader on this and bring this to an end.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: In a video released by Reprieve, the hip-hop artist and actor Yasiin Bey, formerly known as Mos Def, voluntarily undergoes a force-feeding similar to those at Guantánamo. In a disturbing sequence, Bey screams for help before the force-feeding is stopped.

YASIIN BEY: Stop! Stop! Stop! Stop! Stop it, please! Stop! [inaudible] Please stop! I can’t do it.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Colonel Davis, that was hip-hop artist and actor Yasiin Bey, who voluntarily underwent a force-feeding similar to those being carried out at Guantánamo. Could you explain what you think ought to happen now to the prison in Guantánamo and the prisoners who are still there?

COL. MORRIS DAVIS: Well, there really is no good reason for Guantánamo. I mean, it was a bad idea when John Yoo and others in the Bush administration thought it was going to be this law-free zone that we could exploit people for intelligence, and it’s still a bad idea. And there’s no good reason. As I mentioned, the expense of operating it is outrageous. General Kelly, who—the Southern Command commander, told Congress recently he needs a quarter of a billion dollars to rehabilitate the facilities at Gitmo, because they were supposed to be temporary, not permanent—and then you add the annual operating cost on. If it stays open through the end of the Obama administration at the current rate of spending, we’ll spend another three-quarters of a billion dollars to incarcerate 166 men, 86 of which we’ve said we don’t want to keep.

Legally, it’s been a black hole for the law. I mean, every case that’s come out of Guantánamo, from Rasul to Hamdan to Boumediene, has been a black eye for the government. Policywise, both our enemies and our adversaries use Guantánamo against us. You know, before we could get Abu Hamza al-Masri extradited from the U.K., our closest friend—before they would extradite him to the U.S., we had to promise two things. One is we wouldn’t take him to Guantánamo, and, two, that we wouldn’t prosecute him in a military commission. Our federal courts have worked effectively to prosecute terrorism-related cases. Our Federal Bureau of Prisons has successfully incarcerated terrorism suspects and people convicted of terrorism. So I’ve made the argument—I’ve asked the other side—I mean, those are the reasons it makes no sense. What’s a good reason for keeping it open? And other than political talking points to try to paint the president as being weak on terrorism, there’s no good argument for Guantánamo. So I think the president—again, we don’t need a lecture; we need a leader. And he’s got to stand up and lead and bring this to an end.

AMY GOODMAN: Colonel Davis, isn’t there an irony? Here you have Bradley Manning being charged with aiding the enemy, but what could aid the enemy more than having this example of injustice at Guantánamo?

COL. MORRIS DAVIS: Yeah. And the president mentioned that. I was pleasantly surprised. I was invited by the White House to attend the speech he gave at National Defense University in May, where he talked about the drone program and about Guantánamo. And, again, that’s one of the points that the White House has mentioned, is that, you know, one of the many reasons Guantánamo makes no sense is it is a propaganda and recruiting tool for the enemy. So it is, you know, aiding their effort. And it certainly, as I’ve said, does absolutely no good for America, other than the far-right wing using it as a political tool to go after the president.

AMY GOODMAN: So, can you talk about why you resigned, specifically, in 2007 as the chief military prosecutor at Guantánamo Bay?

COL. MORRIS DAVIS: Yeah, if you go back and look, I mean, I was the leading advocate for Guantánamo and for the military commissions, where I wrote op-eds for The New York Times and spoke and gave presentations on why Guantánamo made sense and why military commissions made sense. For about two years, I believe, we were committed to having full, fair and open trials and that we could do this in a way that—you know, people my age, we look back at Nuremberg with kind of this romanticized view of not just having victors’ justice, but actually having a judicial proceeding before imposing a punishment. And I hoped that my grandkids would be able to look back at Guantánamo the way my generation looks back at Nuremberg.

In the summer of 2007, some people that were above me that I think were committed to trying to do this right chose to retire, and they were replaced by political appointees. And those political appointees came in and—my policy bad been we weren’t going to use any evidence that was obtained by the enhanced interrogation techniques. And so, we’d been building cases, for instance, against like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed without using any of the statements he made in U.S. custody, and there is ample evidence to prove his guilt without those statements. But people were appointed above me that said, “President Bush said we don’t torture. So if the president says we don’t torture, who are you to say that we do? Therefore, you need to take all this information you haven’t been using and use it.” And then, above that was Jim Haynes, who was the DOD general counsel that authored the torture memo. You probably recall the memo that Donald Rumsfeld signed and wrote in the margin, “I stand eight hours a day. Why are the detainees limited to four?” He was the author of the torture memo, and he was appointed above me in the chain of command. So when I had people above me that said—had sanctioned torture and who had said, “The president said we don’t torture. You’ve got to use this evidence,” I was convinced we weren’t committed to having full, fair and open trials, and this was going to be more political theater than it was going to be justice. And I didn’t want to be a part of it.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, what are you doing today?

COL. MORRIS DAVIS: I’m a professor at the Howard University School of Law, and they’ve—again, I’d like to say thank you to them, because they’ve been very supportive of allowing me to write and speak and testify in the Manning trial and do those types of things, so it’s been a really—a good home for me.

AMY GOODMAN: What’s going to end Guantánamo? I mean, you have people like Senator Feinstein of California. She has come out against force-feeding.

SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN: Detainees are restrained in a chair, by body, by foot, by hand. And twice a day, a tube is inserted, perhaps covered with olive oil, up the nose and down into the stomach, and the individual is force-fed. This goes on week after week and month after month. We have 86 detainees who are cleared for transfer. They are no threat to this country. They have been adjudged so. And they have no place to go. So this is an express of acute hopelessness in the force-feeding.

AMY GOODMAN: Yet, and now—right now we’re in the midst of Ramadan, and they’re continuing to be force-fed at night. And President Obama sent down even more people to force-feed them. We don’t even know how many people are on hunger strike. The military has always said fewer than there are. There’s 166 prisoners there. The lawyers are saying perhaps almost all of them are on hunger strike. And what do you think would get this to stop? Is it just a popular uprising? I mean, the prisoners got attention paid to them by doing the hunger strike.

COL. MORRIS DAVIS: Right. I think either—right now, the administration is faced with what I think they view are two bad choices. One is, you stop the force-feeding, and you stand there and watch someone slowly die, which they view is not a good choice. The other choice then is to do the force-feeding, which, you know, the international community has condemned. Domestically, we’ve had—as you’ve mentioned, members of Congress have condemned. So it’s really a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t choice.

I think the logical choice, and the one that’s going to take leadership and not lectures, is to begin sending people home. You’ve got 86 of the prisoners that have been cleared unanimously by the U.S. government agencies as not being a threat, and we don’t want to keep them, we don’t need to keep them, and they’re there because of their citizenship. Fifty-six of the 86 are Yemenis. The Yemeni government has asked for their people back. So, to me, that would be low-hanging fruit for the president to fly a plane to Guantánamo, load up those 56 Yemenis and send them home. And I think if the hunger strikers saw that they’re—you know, they’re not just forgotten, there is concrete action, and that there is light at the end of the tunnel, I think the hunger strike would be over. But so far all they’ve gotten is rhetoric, and I think they want to see some reality.

AMY GOODMAN: Someone like Shaker Aamer, who is a British detainee—


AMY GOODMAN: —who has been held for what? Close to—well, over a decade.


AMY GOODMAN: Britain said they will take him back. He has been cleared. Why isn’t he sent back?

COL. MORRIS DAVIS: Well, again, you know, to me, it was hypocritical. You saw recently when President Obama and his family visited South Africa, and he took Sasha and Malia to visit the cell—you know, it was billed in the media that the president took his daughters out to this island prison where Mandela spent 18 years in prison. And at the same time, he’s operating an island prison in Guantánamo, where people like Shaker Aamer and others—and again, the majority who have been cleared to be transferred out. And, you know, they haven’t quite made it to the 18-year point of Mandela, but there are people that have been there for 11-and-a-half years that we have cleared to be transferred home, and they still sit in prison. So, again, I think it’s going to take political will and backbone on the president’s part. And I think if he—you know, if the American people understood the truth, the real facts about Guantánamo—because I can tell you, when I go out and speak, there are people that say, “Hey, these guys all want to, you know, blow themselves up and kill Americans, so just let them die at Guantánamo,” and that’s not the case. So I think if he educated the public and if the public knew the truth, that the public would be outraged that Guantánamo is still open.

AMY GOODMAN: Morris Davis, we want to thank you for being with us, retired Air Force colonel, resigned as former chief military prosecutor at Guantánamo Bay in 2007, testified at the Bradley Manning trial this Monday and Tuesday. Thanks so much for joining us. This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

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