Feinstein Calls for Review of Her Moratorium on Release of Yemeni Prisoners from Gitmo

Finally sensing that US policy on Yemeni prisoners at Guantanamo is a disaster of epic proportions, and after playing a key role in putting the moratorium on release of Yemeni prisoners into place, Dianne Feinstein on Thursday took the first step toward trying to resolve the crisis before hunger striking prisoners begin to die in large numbers. Feinstein penned a letter to National Security Director Tom Donilon on Thursday, asking for renewed efforts to release those Guantanamo prisoners who have been cleared for release. It is clear that a central step in that process is to review the moratorium on release of cleared Yemeni prisoners.

There is a craven semantics game that is played in the arena of prisoners who have been cleared for release. Government and military officials only ever refer to “detainees” who are cleared for “transfer”, even when those prisoners have been completely cleared of any wrong-doing. Because of that semantics problem, the Guantanamo Review Task Force final report (pdf), issued in January of 2010, provides a muddled description of two groups of Yemeni prisoners who are cleared at various levels for release:

Falling into the category of those who really should be released outright, but classed in the report as “Detainees Approved for Transfer”, we see 29 from Yemen:

29 are from Yemen. In light of the moratorium on transfers of Guantanamo detainees to Yemen announced by the President on January 5, 2010, these detainees cannot be transferred to Yemen at this time. In the meantime, these detainees are eligible to be transferred to third countries capable of imposing appropriate security measures.

A second category of Yemeni detainees cleared for release are those that the government believes still warrant some sort of detention in Yemen. They appear in the category “Detainees Approved for Conditional Detention”:

30 detainees from Yemen were unanimously approved for “conditional” detention based on current security conditions in Yemen.

The status of these prisoners is described further:

After carefully considering the intelligence concerning the security situation in Yemen, and reviewing each detainee on a case-by-case basis, the review participants selected a group of 30 Yemeni detainees who pose a lower threat than the 48 detainees designated for continued detention under the AUMF, but who should not be among the first groups of transfers to Yemen even if the current moratorium on such transfers is lifted.

These 30 detainees were approved for “conditional” detention, meaning that they may be transferred if one of the following conditions is satisfied: (1) the security situation improves in Yemen; (2) an appropriate rehabilitation program becomes available; or (3) an appropriate third-country resettlement option becomes available. Should any of these conditions be satisfied, however, the 29 Yemeni detainees approved for transfer would receive priority for any transfer options over the 30 Yemeni detainees approved for conditional detention.

About that “moratorium” on release of Yemeni prisoners. The review task force report informs us that of 36 Yemeni detainees initially cleared for full release, one was released by court order in September 2009 and another six were released in December 2009. But then the Undie Bomber episode took place on Christmas Day of 2009, and the release of Yemeni prisoners somehow became politically impossible. From the review report: Read more

Task Force Conclusion: “Many” Detainees Were Legally Detained

While I was away celebrating my 20th college reunion this weekend (thanks for filling in, bmaz), the WaPo liberated the Gitmo Review Task Force report. As the WaPo reported, the big takeaway is the government’s admission that over 55% of those reviewed by the Task Force were what it called “low level fighters” in al Qaeda, the Taliban, or “associated groups.” The claim itself is not all that credible–and that doesn’t include some of the 20% whom the Task Force described as having some organizational role in al Qaeda but might just mean they’re one of Osama bin Laden’s seemingly infinite number of bodyguards. Just 10% were the “worst of the worst” that Gitmo was supposed to hold (the report did not name Abu Zubaydah among those, for example).

All of which might explain why the report was so desperate to claim that detaining these men all these years–well, “many” of them, anyway–wasn’t illegal.

For many of the detainees approved for transfer, however, the review participants found there to be reliable evidence that the detainee had engaged in conduct providing a legal basis for his detention.

No word about the others who have been detained for up to 8 years for whom the Task Force found no legal basis to hold.

Similarly, the report implies that torture was not why the government cannot prosecute “most” of the 48 detainees it has slated for indefinite detention.

Notably, the principal obstacles to prosecution in the cases deemed infeasible by the Task Force did not stem from concerns over protecting sensitive sources or methods from disclosure, or concerns that the evidence against the detainee was tainted. While such concerns were present in some cases, most detainees were deemed infeasible for prosecution based on more fundamental evidentiary and jurisdictional limitations tied to the demands of a criminal forum, as described above.

It describes those jurisdictional limitations this way:

Second, many of the detainees cannot be prosecuted because of jurisdictional limitations. In many cases, even though the Task Force found evidence that a detainee was lawfully detainable as part of al-Qaida–e.g., based on information that he attended a training camp, or played some role in the hierarchy of the organization–the Task Force did not find evidence that the detainee participated in a specific terrorist plot. The lack of such evidence can pose obstacles to pursuing a prosecution in either federal court or a military commission. While the federal material support statutes have been used to convict persons who have merely provided services to a terrorist organization, e.g., by attending a terrorist training camp, there are potential limitations to pursuing such a charge against the detainees. 21

21 Among these limitations: First, the two relevant statutes–18 USC 2339A and 2339B–were not amended to expressly apply extraterrorially to non-US persons until October 2001 and December 2004, respectively. Thus, material support may not be available as a charge in the federal system unless there is sufficient evidence to prove that a detainee was supporting al-Qaida after October 2001 at the earliest. Second the statute of limitations for these offenses is typically eight years (see 18 USC 3286), which may bar prosecution for offenses that occurred well before the detainee’s capture. Third, because the statutory maximum for material support is 15 years (where death does not result from the offense), sentencing considerations may weigh against pursuing prosecution in certain cases. Some of these considerations would not apply to material support charges brought in the military commissions; however, the legal viability of material support charges brought in the military commission system has been challenged on appeal in commission proceedings.

Let’s take a moment to lay out what these passages all suggest, but don’t admit candidly:

  • “Concerns” about tainted evidence explained why at least “some” of these people cannot be prosecuted. I take that as a shorthand admission that these men–or their accusers–were abused in US custody. And the solution, apparently, is to just keep them in custody. The report doesn’t say how the government can trust the evidence itself if it is tainted. I guess they just know.
  • For a significant number of the 48 men slated for indefinite detention, there is no evidence that the man participated in terrorism. Indeed, given the description, it appears there isn’t even any evidence the man took part in an attack on American troops (even granting the government claim that all such attacks were necessarily illegal and not self-defense, which is itself bogus). And given the timing implied by the October 2001 deadline, there’s not even any evidence these men continued their affiliation with Al Qaeda after 9/11 made it clear the organization was attacking US civilians. In short, a significant number of these 48 men are just like the mujahadeen the US used to fund in the glorious Reagan days. But in the glorious post-9/11 days, such actions qualify a man for indefinite detention.
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