"A symbol around the world for an America that flouts the rule of law." These are President Obama's recent words on Guantanamo Bay, the military prison he rules as commander-in-chief. But as Gitmo's infamous hunger strike enters its sixth month, it is increasingly plain that we have not one, but two administrations on Guantánamo Bay.
The first - the administration of President Obama's speeches - regrets the prison, promises a new push to close it, and finds force-feeding repulsive, if necessary. It says: "Look at the current situation, where we are force-feeding detainees who are on hunger strike.... Is that who we are? Is that something that our founders foresaw? Is that the America we want to leave to our children?"
The second administration - that of the generals and lawyers who theoretically answer to President Obama - offers a retort. To Gen. John Kelly, the situation at Gitmo is 'Hunger Strike Lite'. To the DoJ lawyers who defend force-feeding, detainees are non-persons with no rights to the free exercise of religion. And if you thought strapping a prisoner in a chair and feeding a tube down his gullet might reasonably be described as non-consensual, here's Gen. Kelly again: "We don't force-feed right now at Gitmo."
Another depressing reminder of this reality emerged last week, as the Gitmo authorities flouted a federal judge's order to halt gratuitous and invasive searches of prisoners' genitals - searches which were deployed, in Judge Royce Lamberth's words, to "discourage meetings with counsel." In the initial days after the ruling, DoJ lawyers wrote to us at Reprieve and said the government was simply going to ignore the judge's ruling: DoD were "not in a position to apply the Court's order." DoJ has since appealed.
How do we square these alternate realities? We can safely assume President Obama knows what is happening on his watch. Prominent papers cover these issues daily. Yet despite his remarks, his lawyers defend the very force-feeding he decried, and his generals swear it is urgently necessary to 'search' prisoners by "placing the guard's hand as a wedge between the [detainee's] scrotum and thigh . . . and using [a] flat hand to press against the groin". His Solicitor-General has green-lighted the appeal to defend this pointless groping.
All of this makes clear that the second administration currently runs the show. The only question is why President Obama will not stop it.
Prominent legislators and judges have also sought in vain to stir the slumbering giant in the White House. Judge Gladys Kessler recently found that force-feeding, currently imposed on 45-odd Guantanamo detainees, is a "painful, humiliating and degrading process." And while she said she had no power to order the force-feeding to stop, she knew of someone who did: the Commander-in-Chief. Senators Dick Durbin and Dianne Feinstein echoed her call. These words - along with those of the UN, who call it torture, and the American Medical Association, who have condemned the practice as against medical ethics - have failed to make any visible impact on the practices of the Obama administration to address the hunger strike.
This is why organisations such as ours often despair of litigation alone as a sufficient method of bringing justice to Guantánamo. This is why we feel it is important to ensure that the voices of the people in Guantánamo are heard.
Yet this, too, meets underhand tactics by Guantanamo's defenders. Journalists report that the DoD has been passing them videos showing the (voluntary) tube feeding of children, to suggest that Guantánamo prisoners cannot possibly experience the humiliation and pain they repeatedly describe (and as demonstrated by Yasiin Bey, better known as Mos Def). Marc Theissen, a former speechwriter to George W. Bush, echoed this argument recently in the Washington Post.
Yet what Mr. Thiessen - who at least was prepared to run the point, however wrong, in his own name - and the shadowy spinners at the DoD fail to grasp is the difference between a consensual and a non-consensual medical practice. Many of us have had teeth extracted by dentists, with our consent, for legitimate medical reasons - but that doesn't negate the experiences of the many victims of torturers through the ages who have had teeth pulled as a torture technique. This is an extreme example, but the point stands: you and I accept all sorts of indignities at the hands of dentists and doctors that - were we hauled to a restraint chair, strapped down, and forced to undergo a harsh military version of the same - would hurt us, humiliate us, and which we would rightly view as assault. On Twitter, I invited Mr. Thiessen to test this proposition himself, and film a sequel to the force-feeding video with us. He has yet to reply.
But all this theatre obscures the real point. In their cells at Gitmo, my clients know full well which administration matters to them. Many of them very much wanted to believe in Barack Obama at first. Some even read Dreams from My Father. But in the intervening years they have seen that a government's behaviour can prove woefully inconsistent with the words of its commander-in-chief. They have been cleared, many not for the first time, and sat in prison for years. So they are starving themselves, not because they want to die - but because they reasonably believe this may be their only way out.
Mr. President, this is your prison. These matters are your responsibility and, unless you act, will taint your legacy. Stop the force-feeding, stop soldiers groping my clients, and do the one thing that will end this crisis in peace: send a cleared man home.
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