Obama and the Gulag Archipelago

15 March 2009

Obama and the Gulag Archipelago

By Gwynne Dyer

In his first week in office, President Barack Obama announced the closure of the notorious detention camp at Guantanamo Bay. It was a promise kept and a corner turned — but Guantanamo is only the most visible part of an entire archipelago of extra-legal and often secret US prisons that extends halfway around the planet. Like the “Gulag Archipelago” of the old Soviet Union, made famous by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, most of its inmates are people who were seized only on suspicion, and many of them were tortured to get “confessions”.

It was widely assumed that shutting down Guantanamo was just the first step in winding up the whole shameful system, but the signals sent by the new administration since then have not been reassuring. Last month, US government lawyers made a series of interventions which suggested that it would be business as usual, Bush-style, for the thousands of detainees trapped in other parts of the secret prison system managed by the United States.

Last week came the first sign that Obama remembers that he came to drain the whole swamp, not just to whack a couple of high-profile alligators. The US government is to stop using the term “illegal enemy combatants”, a label contrived by the Bush administration to justify detaining people indefinitely without ever bringing them before a court or even granting them prisoner-of-war status.

Only 242 prisoners are still held at Guantanamo, but that is just the tip of an iceberg. There are thousands more held in legal black holes at Bagram airbase in Afghanistan, in Iraq, Djibouti and the prison ships, at the US base on Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean, and in the countries where the Central Intelligence Agency has been out-sourcing the more severe forms of torture (notably Egypt, Morocco and Jordan).

An exact count of the detainees is impossible, because in many cases even their names are not known, but estimates run as high as 18,000 people. Some of them have been held for as much as seven years.

Some of them were involved in acts of violence against Americans, others at least gave the matter some thought, and some are completely innocent, just as at Guantanamo. All were classed as “illegal enemy combatants,” which meant that they had no legal recourse against their imprisonment.

Since his first bold gesture about Guantanamo, Obama has seemed to be drifting towards the view of the Washington security establishment, which would rather lock up innocent people than risk letting a dangerous person go free. When Judge John Bates of the US District Court for the District of Columbia, hearing the case of four men held at Bagram, asked the new administration if it intended to change the Bush-era policy of keeping the detainees out of reach of the courts, the answer was no.

The Bagram detainees wanted Judge Bates to extend last year’s Supreme Court decision, which gave Guantanamo inmates access to the US courts, so that prisoners in other extra-legal prisons abroad could also benefit from the ruling. The Bush administration had opposed their request, but Judge Bates asked the Obama administration if it wanted to “refine” its position. “Having considered the matter, the government adheres to its previously articulated position,” replied the Justice Department, re-affirming the Bush policy.

In another case last month, involving a lawsuit by several former detainees against a subsidiary of Boeing that supplied aircraft for the “rendition” flights that had delivered them to various destinations for torture, the Obama administration repeated the Bush demand that the case be dismissed because discussing it in court could damage national security and relations with other nations. (Translation: we did send them for torture, but letting the case proceed would embarrass the people who did the torture for us.)

It was looking pretty grim for a while, as if Obama’s decision to shut down Guantanamo and halt torture by US government agencies was mere window-dressing for a policy that had not really changed at all. Even now it is not sure that he is going to change the policy fundamentally; after all, he has fallen into the clutches of the Washington consensus in his Afghanistan policy. But dropping the category of “illegal enemy combatants”

is a hopeful sign.

The Justice Department said that suspects will in future be held according to legal standards set by the international laws of war. In itself, that only means that there will be no more torture and no more renditions, and that the United States must provide information about all the people it holds. It does NOT mean it will release them until after the “war” is over, even though the “war on terror,” like the “war on crime” or the “war on drugs,” could last for decades.

Nor does promising to treat the detainees according to the Geneva Conventions oblige the Obama administration to give them access to the US court system. That will require a separate decision, and Obama will not make it until he thinks the country is ready (if he makes it at all). But this is a start.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 8. (“Some…imprisonment”; and “The Bagram…policy”)