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By Carol J. Williams, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

President Barack Obama has recharged his campaign for closing the Guantanamo Bay prison with a strategy legal experts say holds out new hope of achieving that objective of his presidency.

After years of being thwarted by Congress from transferring detainees cleared of terrorism suspicions from the remote prison at the U.S. naval base in southern Cuba, the administration has in less than three months resettled 27 of the long-held foreign men in countries as far-flung as Estonia, Oman and Uruguay.

Dozens more are ready to be moved out as soon as other countries agree to take them, a diplomatic task that received an unexpected boost last month with an appeal by Pope Francis for predominantly Catholic nations to help empty the prison.

Obama has also spotlighted the costs of maintaining the offshore detention operation — more than $3 million a year per detainee, by the Pentagon’s calculation — in his effort to counter Republican opposition to closing Guantanamo. And he has pointed out the failure of the U.S. military tribunal there to bring any of its most notorious terrorism suspects to justice.

Reducing Guantanamo’s population from its current 122 — fewer than half the 245 detainees Obama inherited from the Bush administration — is a key element of the president’s new push to deliver on the promise he made as a candidate to close Guantanamo within a year of taking office, lawyers and human rights advocates say.

A second crucial step needed to close the prison, they say, is moving the seven “high-value detainees” charged in major terrorism cases out of the dysfunctional military commissions and into U.S. courts.

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the confessed Sept. 11 mastermind, has been in U.S. custody for 12 years and at Guantanamo since 2006.

“It’s shocking that there is not more public pressure to try these people,” said Shayana Kadidal, senior managing attorney on the Guantanamo project at the Center for Constitutional Rights, a New York-based public interest law firm.

He was referring to the five men whose prosecution has been mired in pretrial challenges to the war court that rights advocates see as an end run around U.S. law. “If they had been brought to United States in 2009, those trials would be long over,” he said.

Obama has for years opposed indefinite detention at Guantanamo for the moral stain it has left on America’s reputation, but the money issue may offer better prospects for wearing down those opposed to closing the prison.

“It makes no sense to spend $3 million per prisoner to keep open a prison that the world condemns and terrorists use to recruit,” the president said in his State of the Union address Tuesday night. “It is not who we are. It is time to close Gitmo.”

In the 13 years since President George W. Bush created the prison and military tribunal, only eight militant foot soldiers from among the 780 men taken to Guantanamo have been tried and convicted, and only three of those remain at the prison to serve their terms.

Hundreds swept up in Afghanistan and Pakistan in the early days after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks were years later deemed by military authorities to pose no threat to U.S. or allied security. But the releases slowed after reports emerged of some freed detainees joining al-Qaida and other extremist groups.

The recidivism rate remains a topic of heated disagreement, with Republican lawmakers contending that 20 percent of former captives are believed to have taken up with militant groups, and the administration saying the percentage is half that at most.

Obama’s first executive order after inauguration in January 2009 called for a six-agency task force review of all detainees and for decisions on whether they were to be prosecuted, deemed eligible for transfer or release, or categorized as “indefinite detainees” because of lingering suspicion but too little evidence to prove criminal acts.

Fifty-four prisoners still at Guantanamo were cleared for release by the task force in January 2010. Congress, in the meantime, had imposed a ban on detainee movements or relocation of terrorist trials to U.S. soil.

A slight easing of those restrictions took effect in late 2013, and State Department diplomats are negotiating repatriation or resettlement, lawyers for some of the captives said.

But finding countries that will take in the detainees is a struggle, legal analysts say, pointing to the Bush-era condemnation of the prison’s residents as “the worst of the worst” militants on the planet.

An additional 35 prisoners remain at Guantanamo after being designated for indefinite detention, to be reconsidered annually by a multiagency Periodic Review Board. That figure is down by at least two now after a Saudi and a Kuwaiti were lifted from the “forever prisoners” list and repatriated in November.

That contingent is the most problematic for Obama, as both Congress and rights groups that support closing Guantanamo object to administration proposals to bring them to some underused U.S. prison. The groups criticize the idea as simply transferring an illegal detention practice from Guantanamo to another venue.

Rights advocates, detainees’ lawyers and other critics of Obama’s failure to close Guantanamo have accused him of sacrificing that cause for other priorities, namely health care reform and economic crisis intervention during the first years of his administration. But even five years after the missed closure deadline, those critics say they are encouraged by the president’s resumed focus on ridding the nation — and his legacy — of the prison and war crimes tribunal.

“Privately, the level of commitment has been even more intense, as he is telling other officials that this is his top goal now and raising it with foreign leaders,” said Chris Anders, senior legislative counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union, who has monitored the legal battle over Guantanamo for a decade.

Closing Guantanamo will require Obama to spend political capital on the issue during his last two years in office, Anders said. Congress has tabled a bill that would impose new restrictions on Guantanamo releases.

Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), sponsor of the bill and one of Obama’s fiercest critics on the detention issue, recently said the administration “is more interested in emptying Guantanamo so that it can close it … than protecting the national security interests of the United States.”

Most of the 75 Yemenis at Guantanamo have been cleared, but U.S. authorities have been reluctant to send them home to a country engulfed in political chaos and increasingly under the sway of Yemen-based al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.

Among the 27 prisoners released since early November have been 12 Yemenis, all sent to other countries in apparent recognition that their homeland won’t be stable any time soon.

The quest for new havens for the releasable detainees got a lift last month when Francis appealed to diplomats at the Vatican to open their doors to those marooned at the prison because of turmoil in their homelands.

Cori Crider, an attorney with the British human rights group Reprieve and defense lawyer for several Guantanamo prisoners, accompanied six detainees in December on their journey to freedom in Uruguay, the first Latin American country to heed the pope’s moral intervention.

“That signal from the Vatican can only help. Other new states that hadn’t previously taken detainees have come forward,” Crider said.

“Hope springs eternal, even when it has been so disappointing previously,” she said of Obama’s recent revving up of the stalled closure effort.

“I don’t see closing Guantanamo as a light switch,” she said of an expected incremental process. “But every detainee that goes is a move away from this dark chapter.”

Photo via Wikimedia Commons


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Former President Donald Trump, left, and former White House counsel Pat Cipollone

On Wednesday evening the House Select Committee investigating the Trump coup plot issued a subpoena to former White House counsel Pat Cipollone, following blockbuster testimony from former White House aide Cassidy Hutchinson, who said the lawyer had warned of potential criminal activity by former President Donald Trump and his aides.

The committee summons to Cipollone followed long negotiations over his possible appearance and increasing pressure on him to come forward as Hutchinson did. Committee members expect the former counsel’s testimony to advance their investigation, owing to his knowledge of the former president's actions before, during and after the January 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol.

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Mark Meadows

Donald Trump’s White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows wanted a presidential pardon. He had facilitated key stages of Trump’s attempted 2020 coup, linking the insurrectionists to the highest reaches of the White House and Congress.

But ultimately, Meadows failed to deliver what Trump most wanted, which was convincing others in government to overturn the 2020 election. And then his subordinates, White House security staff, thwarted Trump’s plan to march with a mob into the Capitol.

Meadows’ role has become clearer with each January 6 hearing. Earlier hearings traced how his attempted Justice Department takeover failed. The fake Electoral College slates that Meadows had pushed were not accepted by Congress. The calls by Trump to state officials that he had orchestrated to “find votes” did not work. Nor could Meadows convince Vice-President Mike Pence to ignore the official Electoral College results and count pro-Trump forgeries.

And as January 6 approached and the insurrection began, new and riveting details emerged about Meadow’s pivotal role at the eye of this storm, according to testimony on Tuesday by his top White House aide, Cassidy Hutchinson.

Meadows had been repeatedly told that threats of violence were real. Yet he repeatedly ignored calls from the Secret Service, Capitol police, White House lawyers and military chiefs to protect the Capitol, Hutchinson told the committee under oath. And then Meadows, or, at least White House staff under him, failed Trump a final time – although in a surprising way.

After Trump told supporters at a January 6 rally that he would walk with them to the Capitol, Meadows’ staff, which oversaw Trump’s transportation, refused to drive him there. Trump was furious. He grabbed at the limousine’s steering wheel. He assaulted the Secret Service deputy, who was in the car, and had told Trump that it was not safe to go, Hutchinson testified.

“He said, ‘I’m the f-ing president. Take me up to the Capitol now,’” she said, describing what was told to her a short while later by those in the limousine. And Trump blamed Meadows.

“Later in the day, it had been relayed to me via Mark that the president wasn’t happy that Bobby [Engel, the driver] didn’t pull it off for him, and that Mark didn’t work hard enough to get the movement on the books [Trump’s schedule].”

Hutchinson’s testimony was the latest revelations to emerge from hearings that have traced in great detail how Trump and his allies plotted and intended to overturn the election. Her eye-witness account provided an unprecedented view of a raging president.

Hutchinson’s testimony was compared to John Dean, the star witness of the Watergate hearings a half-century ago that led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon for his aides’ efforts to spy on and smear Democrats during the 1972 presidential campaign.

“She IS the John Dean of the hearings,” tweeted the Brooking Institution’s Norman Eisen, who has written legal analyses on prosecuting Trump. “Trump fighting with his security, throwing plates at the wall, but above all the WH knowing that violence was coming on 1/6. The plates & the fighting are not crimes, but they will color the prosecution devastatingly.”

Meadows’ presence has hovered over the coup plot and insurrection. Though he has refused to testify before the January 6 committee, his pivotal role increasingly has come into view.

Under oath, Hutchinson described links between Meadows and communication channels to the armed mob that had assembled. She was backstage at the Trump’s midday January 6 rally and described Trump’s anger that the crowd was not big enough. The Secret Service told him that many people were armed and did not want to go through security and give up their weapons.

Trump, she recounted, said “something to the effect of, ‘I don’t f-ing care that they have weapons. They’re not here to hurt me. Take the mags [metal detectors] away. Let the people in. They can march to the Capitol from here.

As the day progressed and the Capitol was breached, Hutchison described the scene at the White House from her cubicle outside the Oval Office. She repeatedly went into Meadows’ office, where he had isolated himself. When Secret Service officials urged her to get Meadows to urge Trump to tell his supporters to stand down and leave, he sat listless.

“He [Meadows] needs to snap out of it,” she said that she told others who pressed her to get Meadows to act. Later, she heard Meadows repeatedly tell other White House officials that Trump “doesn’t think they [insurrectionists] are doing anything wrong.” Trump said Pence deserved to be hung as a traitor, she said.

Immediately after January 6, Hutchinson said that Trump’s cabinet discussed invoking the 25th Amendment to remove a sitting president but did not do so. She also said that Meadows sought a pardon for his January 6-related actions.

Today, Meadows is championing many of the same election falsehoods that he pushed for Trump as a senior partner at the Conservative Partnership Institute (CPI), a right-wing think tank whose 2021 annual report boasts of “changing the way conservatives fight.”

His colleagues include Cleta Mitchell, a lawyer who pushed for Trump to use every means to overturn the election and leads CPI’s “election integrity network,” and other Republicans who have been attacking elections as illegitimate where their candidates lose.

Hutchinson’s testimony may impede Meadows’ future political role, as it exposes him to possible criminal prosecution. But the election-denying movement that he nurtured has not gone away. CPI said it is targeting elections in national battleground states for 2022’s midterms, including Arizona, Georgia, Florida, Michigan, and Pennsylvania.

Trump did not give Meadows a pardon. But in July 2021, Trump’s “Save America” PAC gave CPI $1 million.

Steven Rosenfeld is the editor and chief correspondent of Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He has reported for National Public Radio, Marketplace, and Christian Science Monitor Radio, as well as a wide range of progressive publications including Salon, AlterNet, The American Prospect, and many others.

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