Moran on Guantanamo

James Moran (D-VA) has been in the House of Representatives since 1991. In 2002, he was one of 133 House members to vote against authorizing the invasion of Iraq. Most recently, he has proposed holding hearings in July on closing the detention facilities at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, that currently holds several hundred detainees. FPIF contributor Michael Shank interviews him on the implications of his position on Guantanamo.

Michael Shank: You have said that Guantanamo is a stain on our reputation as a nation. You and others, including former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, have called for it to be closed immediately. Is shutting it down, and moving prisoners to military prisons in the United States as you’ve suggested, sufficient to restore U.S. reputation? What else needs to be done?

Rep. James Moran: If we were to shut it down it might signal that there are new decision-makers in charge, that there’s a new attitude. This is one of the most egregious examples of un-American actions taken by this administration. Closing down Guantanamo in and of itself is not going to convince the world that we’ve gotten our bearings again as a nation. But I think it sends a very positive signal. And every day that we leave it open we lose ground in the global war on terrorism.

Shank: Why do you think the president has been so reluctant to move forward constructively on Guantanamo?

Moran: For the same reason he’s been reluctant to take constructive action with regard to the Iraq War. One, he wants to save face. And two, he’s surrounded by the very same people that resulted in our establishment of a detainee policy of indefinite detention without charges and without the ability to defend yourself. These are close-minded people who have little respect for the Constitution or the Bill of Rights or why America has become the greatest nation on the planet. It was for reasons that are really the antithesis of what this administration’s policy has been.

I’m not surprised that he’s reluctant to do the right thing. I can’t think of where he has used his presidency to do the right thing, frankly, in any area of policy. The one possible exception might be the immigration bill, and he didn’t have sufficient commitment to get it passed. Apparently it was a half-hearted commitment on his part.

Shank: If you and other members are successful in shutting down Guantanamo, will [the closing] ultimately and fundamentally change the way the U.S. government treats its enemy combatants in the so-called war on terrorism? Guantanamo has become highly symbolic, but will the system change?

Moran: The system is kind of a patchwork policy. In Afghanistan we’re detaining thousands of people. We’re going to defer to the Afghan government to prosecute them. In Iraq we have about 30,000 people detained, half of them by the Iraqi government, half of them by the U.S. military. Again, if there’s a conclusion to the war we’ll leave it to the Iraqi government to decide what they want to do with them. In Guantanamo it’s a legal black hole, and that’s the kind of situation this administration likes. But I don’t think there’s any coherent policy, so I don’t expect any particular policy change.

If Guantanamo closes it’s not going to be because the administration decided to do the right thing. It will be because they decided the political downside is too much or they had to compromise in order to achieve some other objective.

Shank: In The New York Times on Sunday there was an article on the Chinese Uighurs, former Guantanamo detainees, who have been in Albania for a year since their release. They remain in limbo. What responsibility does the U.S. have to detainees once they’re released?

Moran: We should put them in a country where they’re not going to be executed when they step off the plane. Albania was an unusual place to put them. We created a Uighur community in Albania which didn’t exist before. They’re still trying to figure out how to ask for a glass of water. They don’t know any Albanian and the Albanians don’t have any way to communicate with them. Now that we’ve established this Uighur community I think that’s probably where we’re going to place the rest of the Uighur [detainees].

But when you think about it, these are people that had no animosity towards the United States. What are they doing in an American detention facility for five years? There should’ve been another way to resolve this. If they were looking for refuge, we could’ve given them refuge here in some other place. But to send them into a legal black hole for five years because they were opposed to an authoritarian communist regime that we oppose as well, because they didn’t have any rights to represent themselves politically, because they couldn’t practice their own religion or express their individual beliefs. We should detain them for five years because the Chinese government considers them terrorists? Whose side are we on?

Shank: A federal appeals court recently decided that the president cannot indefinitely imprison a U.S. resident on suspicion alone and that constitutional protection, including the rights of habeas corpus must be afforded to all U.S. citizens regardless of criminal status. What are the implications of this decision?

Moran: They’re most encouraging because the most conservative court in the country recognizes that the Constitution should still be the referential document for their decisions, the foundational document for their decisions. This administration hasn’t believed that. To have the fourth circuit, particularly, say that legal precedence — and the obvious interpretation of the Constitution that [administration] policy is wrong — that has implications beyond the specifics of this situation. The specific situation doesn’t necessarily apply to the people at Guantanamo, but I think it sends a signal that the credibility of the administration in these areas is lacking. Hopefully it will give some greater confidence to other courts around the country to look first at the Constitution rather than to political signals from Karl Rove and Alberto Gonzales.

Shank: On Guantanamo, what can we expect from your office and from Congress in the coming weeks?

Moran: I’ve given Jack Murtha the language that I would recommend be put in the bill and he has indicated that he’s leaving it to my recommendation on how to handle Guantanamo in the regular defense appropriations bill. Obviously nobody in the Congress acts unilaterally. And as strong a relationship as I have with Jack Murtha, the leadership is going to make that decision and they’ll have to look not just at the policy but at the politics of the issue. I’m sure there are people within our party who will not want [Guantanamo closed]. I know there are because we had a vote on the House floor. I won on my amendment to require the administration to come up with a plan to close Guantanamo, but I won just barely. Hopefully I’ll be able to keep it in the bill through the Senate and through conference.

But there are some Democrats who don’t want us to close it. I hope that I can persuade them to change their minds when they see the evidence. I think in the regular defense appropriations bill the language that I recommended to Mr. Murtha will be included, which closes down Guantanamo. Not tomorrow, but it will do so in an orderly and determinate manner. And I suspect it will relocate the detainees to military brigs within this country, at least in terms of those who can be charged. Those for whom we have no charges would be relocated to their country of origin.

There are a considerable number of detainees from Saudi Arabia, for example. The administration says that the Saudis don’t want them. I’ve talked with the Saudi ambassador, that’s not true. They will accept anybody who is a Saudi citizen. And then the administration says they’re going to release them. They will release them if they have no charges that can be established. They’re not going to have the kinds of legal protections that we should be giving people in the United States, but they will look at the charges and make a determination, hopefully an objective determination. But then when they release them, they follow them.

That’s what’s happened with those they’ve released in the past. They follow them, they watch their contacts. If you want to gain information from these people because you believe they have contacts with Muslim fundamentalists groups — and that’s the primary reason 95% of them are there because they have some affiliation or contact, or knowledge of, or friendship with somebody who belongs to an Al-Qaeda-type related group, which means basically any fundamentalist Muslim organization — then you follow them, that’s how you get information.

The Saudis contact their parents. They let them know they’re being monitored and they monitor them. It seems to me a more intelligent way of collecting information than keeping someone outside any communication with anybody for five years. You’ve isolated these people to such an extent that even anything they knew five years ago is not particularly helpful today. It’s bizarre to think that there’s anything they’re going to get from these people.

Then for most of the five years, all they’ve given them to read is the Quran. So if they weren’t radicalized when we put them in, undoubtedly they are now. But even if they are radicalized, our system of justice says that you punish people for what they do, not for what they believe.

Shank: The Saudis are receiving positive press for their reintegration programs that help de-brainwash potential extremists or fanatics and bring them back into the community. Is this how you undermine fanaticism and extremism?

Moran: You do. If these stone heads that established and continue to carry out this Guantanamo detainee policy had thought about it, this is an opportunity to de-brainwash them. How about exposing them to some of the great works of literature of philosophy or theology? They’ve got all the time in the world. Let them read other points of view that they haven’t been exposed to. These are not people who were born with a criminal mind. They have become radicalized because of the environment in which they have lived and the people that have had influence over them. If you’ve got them for five years, how about developing the kind of empathy that naturally is created through contact with the sources of our value system, whether it be in religion or philosophy or even economics.

There’s a reason why the founding fathers established a Constitution and a Bill of Rights that has had such sustainable value not just to the United States but to the whole world and it’s because of the value of ideas, ideas that we believe in. If we believe in them, how about letting these detainees for five years read something beyond the Quran? Let them read the Quran all they want, but here’s something else you might be interested in reading to get a broader perspective perhaps.

It’s so disappointing that the military, who should have a system of discipline and adherence to a mission independent of the administration, couldn’t have come up with a more thoughtful policy. But I don’t see that, I don’t see any evidence of that at Guantanamo. You know, there’s a phrase at the gate to the prison, “In Defense of Liberty” or “Always Defending Liberty” or something. It’s so inconsistent with what has happened at Guantanamo.

I don’t expect anything out of this administration at this point. But the military is an organization that should rise above politics and we should have enough people in there that would come up with a more thoughtful policy, particular in regard to Guantanamo. Is Colin Powell the only one who realizes how wrongheaded this Guantanamo policy is? I shouldn’t be too harsh on the military but when President Bush declared that Iraq was part of the global war on terrorism, there wasn’t one military officer who could see any link to the war on terrorism. Not a one. But only one resigned. Where were the rest of them? Unfortunately I think they’re just too easily intimidated by people in political power and it’s disappointing.

Shank: For those of you in favor of shutting down Guantanamo and providing habeas corpus to criminal detainees, how do you respond to critics like Mitt Romney who think that in the global war on terrorism these individuals should not be afforded any special privileges, constitutional rights and protections, access to an attorney, etc.?

Moran: I saw Mitt Romney’s response with regard to Guantanamo. He is either utterly ignorant or a pure political panderer to his audience. I suspect that it’s more political pandering than it is ignorance because he has been pandering on any number of other issues that are quite inconsistent with policies that he implemented as governor of Massachusetts. This is a different constituency. He assumes that Republicans are very conservative, are narrow-minded and mean-spirited. So that’s what he is appealing to. I think he’s wrong. I think the Republican base is going to reject most of these people, including Giuliani, because the Republican base is a lot more thoughtful and has a lot more respect for our fundamental principles as a nation than these candidates are exhibiting.

Shank: If correlations are being drawn abroad between terrorist attacks and U.S. policy in Iraq, Israel-Palestine, and Guantanamo, where do you think Guantanamo ranks as a motivating factor?

Moran: I think it’s a contributing factor. They are all contributing factors. Unfortunately none of these things is an aberration. They’re all consistent. And that’s what’s most troubling. And if we can close down Guantanamo hopefully it will establish some momentum for doing the right thing in other areas, including Iraq, including showing some leadership with regard to the Israeli-Palestinian struggle. Because if this is about our security, we are doing just the opposite of what common sense would indicate.

Michael Shank is a doctoral student at the Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University and a frequent contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus (www.fpif.org).