There are currently 38 detainees still languishing in the Guantánamo Bay Detention Centre, which was opened on January 11th 2002, in response to the events of 9/11, as one of the key policies of the War on Terror.
Last updated: 13th May 2022
At its peak, there were 780 men being held and 741 of those have been released.
Of those that remain, 17 are the so-called ‘High Value Detainees’ (HVDs) including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and the other alleged 9/11 conspirators. Even these men have not received a trial in the last 20 years and only ten men in total are expected ever to enjoy the dubious privilege of a Military Commission.
The other 21 are what we refer to as No Value Detainees (NVDs), who have been held as ‘Forever Prisoners’ for no good reason. As of October 2021, 12 of these men have been cleared for release, reflecting the considered and consensus view of six U.S. intelligence agencies that they pose no threat to the United States.
The idea of using Guantánamo Bay to detain people indefinitely was not new. George Bush Snr had built a facility there in the 1990s to house thousands of Haitian refugees fleeing their country following a coup. The scheme was a humanitarian catastrophe and the facility was eventually closed, but it had set a precedent which would come in useful less than a decade later.
Guantánamo Bay was touted by the Bush Administration as a key achievement in the long-discredited ‘War on Terror’. Donald Rumsfeld, then Secretary of Defense, assured the world that the men held there were all the ‘worst of the worst terrorists in the world’ captured on the battlefield of Afghanistan.
This would turn out to be a massive deceit, and the U.S. itself has since admitted that 753 of 780 are not the danger men promised by Rumsfeld.
The U.S. has thus conceded (quietly) that they got it wrong in 96.5% of cases!
There can surely be no experiment in history with such a catastrophic error rate. Guantánamo, then, reflects a sociological study in the ineptitude of U.S. intelligence.
But how did it happen?
The answer: Bounty leaflets.
The U.S. was offering rewards ranging from $5,000 to $20 million for “terrorists”. This translated in Afghanistan and Pakistan to “anyone with a beard who looks like a foreigner”.
In his 2006 autobiography In the Line of Fire, General Pervez Musharraf wrote that Pakistani officials “have captured 689 and handed over 369 to the United States. We have earned bounties totaling millions of dollars.”
The Legal Case
When Clive – along with two other lawyers, Joe Margulies and Michael Ratner – brought Rasul v. Bush, on February 19th, 2002, it was the first challenge to the prison. The right to due process and a fair trial are enshrined within the Bill of Rights and International Law and the goal was very much to protect that rule of law for all detainees.
It took more than 2 years to secure a victory in that case and in July 2004, a conservative U.S. Supreme Court voted 6-3 in Rasul, ruling that the Great Writ of Habeas Corpus should extend to Guantánamo. Clive was one of the first lawyers to the base shortly afterwards.
Since then, Clive has secured the liberty of 81 Guantanamo detainees. Far more than any other lawyer, and he continues his work to free his remaining clients.
Doing the initial groundwork to find information on those captured wasn’t easy because the U.S. considered the names of prisoners a state secret. The relatives of these men only learned of their loved ones’ detention through postcards sent by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the only communication allowed. Clive then travelled around the Middle East contacting those distraught family members to offer his help.
The reality was that families from Yemen, for example, a country with an average annual per capita income of $300 at the time, obviously could not afford American lawyers who could charge $1,500 an hour. Nevertheless, the pool of pro bono lawyers gradually swelled to 500, and everyone who wished to was able to obtain legal assistance.
The hypocrisy and injustice of detention without trial in Guantánamo, along with the abuse of prisoners, has inflicted enormous reputational cost to the United States. Almost 20 years ago, a U.S. intelligence officer said that for each prisoner held there we have probably provoked ten people to be dedicated enemies of our country. Today the assessment would be much more stark. When Usama Bin Laden was assassinated, a list was found where he purported to identify the 120 members of al Qaida around the time of 9/11. The names would fit onto one page. The same could not be said today.
One day, perhaps there will be a proper evaluation of the disaster that is Guantánamo Bay. Many of the horrific stories of Guantánamo are told in Clive’s book, Bad Men: Guantánamo and the Secret Prisons (Weidenfeld, published April 2007), short listed for the Orwell Prize (2008); available from firstname.lastname@example.org.