Kojo talks with author Colson Whitehead about his new novel "The Underground Railroad" and its resonance at this particular moment in history.
Lawmakers are once again focusing their attention on the future of the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay in the wake of a hunger strike by inmates and renewed calls by the president to shut it down. Several members of the Washington region’s local congressional delegation made a point of travelling to Cuba to inspect the facility themselves. We explore the options left on the table for Guantanamo, which still holds more than 150 detainees.
- Jim Moran Member, U.S. House of Representatives (D-Va., 8th District)
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast the story behind the matriarch of an American political dynasty. We learn about the life and times of Rose Kennedy from biographer Barbara Perry.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIBut first the cloudy future of America's detention facility at Guantanamo Bay. For more than a decade the United States has operated a prison at a naval base in Cuba and used it as a place to hold detainees suspected of terrorism.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIMore than 150 prisoners are still housed there and more than half of them just went on a hunger strike to protest their indefinite detention. President Obama came into the White House in 2009 with hopes of closing down Guantanamo entirely but he ran into immediate roadblocks on Capitol Hill where members of Congress swiftly beat back plans to try detainees on American soil.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIThis past week the Senate held its first hearing on Guantanamo in four years and several members of Virginia's congressional delegation traveled there on Friday to see the facility for themselves. One of them who has pushed hard for the past several years for the prison's closure is with us today in studio. He is Jim Moran, he's a member of the United States House of Representatives. He's a democrat from Virginia. Congressman Moran, thank you for joining us.
CONGRESSMAN JIM MORANThank you, Kojo, and thank you for being one of the very few people who actually cares about this issue.
NNAMDIIt something that we care about a great deal and we know that you do because this is a trip that you have made before, this time on Friday you went with other members of Virginia's congressional delegation. You've held the position for years that Guantanamo should be shut down. What were you going there to see this time around and what gives you reason to believe there will be political will to begin conversations about the future of Guantanamo again in earnest?
MORANWell, that's requires a long answer but basically I hadn't been there since 2006 and when I left six years ago I was just so disgusted I, actually the admiral in charge, Admiral Harris, went on to become Hilary Clinton's military attaché.
MORANI saw him at the Army-Navy game this year and I somewhat apologized for the treatment I gave him and he told the chief of naval operations, well I won't use the term he used but then he turned and he said, "But you know every question you asked of me should've been asked and you were right to be asking them."
MORANI think a lot of the people involved with this know what the real situation is. They know what needs to be done but they're not able to do it and I think that largely includes the president. So I wanted to see what differences had occurred over the last six years, clearly their presentation of visitors is much more polished.
MORANYou know, it's cleaner. They've shut down Camp X-ray. They now have three camps, 5, 6 and 7. 5 and 6 are the 166 people, excuse me, there are basically 150 people who had been brought there 12 years ago. There's a Camp 7 that's quite a bit removed from the first two camps and that's for what truly are the worst of the worst, 16 people were the masterminds of the cold bombing of 911.
MORANThey're kept in solitary confinement, it's a very different treatment of those folk and they're wholly separated not only from each other but from all the other detainees at the camp.
MORANI think that the Chaney-Bush administration has made an effort to define all of the detainees by the 16 that are held in this Camp 7 but there's a vast difference...
NNAMDIIs that why we in the public still have a general perception that all 166 of these people are very dangerous people? So dangerous that they cannot A, be released or B, be brought to the United States for trial?
MORANI think that's largely the perception. As you know, perception has its own reality, Kojo. The fact is, of 779 that we brought into the camp roughly 12 years ago, 86 percent of them had been acquired in exchange for substantial bounties.
MORANThe majority had never been involved in hostile acts against the United States or any of its allies and we don't have anything to charge them with and the military commission trials have been wholly ineffective.
MORANWe had one conviction plea deal and one that was overturned and that's it. So now the, over time the Bush administration released 600 of them but not before they had been very harshly treated, many cases tortured. But they're back, a few have gone back to the battlefield, a much lower percentage than occurs with our own prisoners. But that's one of the reasons that the rest are kept there.
MORANBut the fact is it, we have 86 of them that simply have been cleared for release, we can't charge them with anything and, in fact, of the 166 only 80 could be charged with any kind of terrorist action. And yet we hold them there indefinitely and that's the problem because it's not just the cost which is $2.67…
NNAMDII was about to say when you talk about the cost of detention, are you talking about the money it takes to keep this facility for the, or the loss of standing in the world?
MORANWell, thank you, it's both. It costs $2,670,000 per detainee per year at Guantanamo versus $34,000 a year to keep them in a maximum security prison in the United States. But beyond that there's a cost to our reputation around the world and there's an erosion of our moral and legal standards here at home.
MORANThis is extralegal. This says we are not who we portray ourselves and we're not the people who have a right to insist upon the release of people who are being held for human, you know, for protests or whatever around the world.
MORANWe claim to insist upon human rights standards for our own prisoners but how can we insist upon that when we don't apply the same standards to ourselves at Guantanamo and that's the feedback we get from other nations and I think it's a legitimate one as long as Guantanamo remains open.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Jim Moran. He's a member of the United States House of Representatives, a Democrat from Virginia who visited the detention facility at Guantanamo over the weekend. We're inviting your calls at 800-433-8850. What do you think should be done with the more than 150 prisoners who remain detained in Guantanamo Bay?
NNAMDIWhat expectations do you have for the Obama administration's renewed focus on this issue? Give us a call, 800-433-8850. Talk about the hunger strike for a bit. To what degree has the hunger strike undertaken by inmates this year shape the debate about the prison's future if at all?
MORANThe reason they're engaged in a hunger strike is because they've lost hope for ever getting released. Now the folks down there on Friday told me that with the release of these two Algerians that really shouldn't have been held in the first place, but just with that release that will give them hope and probably end the hunger strike.
MORANEven though it's only two out of 166, in fact, when this teenager pleaded guilty and was sent to Canada to be incarcerated, they all wanted to plead guilty even though there were no charges because they want out.
MORANThey haven't seen their families for 12 years, they don't know what's happening in the rest of the world and they're problem, of course, the frustration is they haven't been charged with anything. So they don't see any hope for ever being released because there's no charge to fight.
NNAMDIWhat questions about the hunger strike did you have when you were on site of the facility? A video made by the human rights group REPROVE caught a lot of attention this summer. In the video the rapper formerly known as Mos Def subjects himself to the force feeding that the group says the military is doing to detainees who went on the hunger strike. Military officials have said the video is not an accurate depiction of their procedures.
MORANIt's impossible to tell really. They gave the folks at the prison gave the most benign description of it possible. That they lubricate the tube before they stick it in the nose and down into the stomach and that the prisoners don't really mind, that some of them even get food in the evening.
MORANYou know, it's impossible for us to tell. We weren't allowed to actually see a forced feeding but let me answer this in another way. Israel which keeps thousands of Palestinian prisoners, some of whom are actually going to be released in the concert of the Middle East peace discussions.
MORANBut they have a sanctity of life rule and even though they maintain thousands of Palestinian prisoners over the years they never engage in force feeding because they feel it's a form of torture and they've never had a suicide. They've had hunger strikes but nobody's ever died of starvation.
MORANThey don't do it and other countries don't do it and I don't think we need to be doing it and we shouldn't. But obviously it plays into the hands of propagandas who wish this country harm and, you know, it also underscores the fact that these folks are so desperate they're willing to undergo that so that somebody will care about their situation.
NNAMDIA federal judge this summer said she could not issue an injunction about force feeding because Congress has barred courts from intervening on issues involving conditions on the prisoner. But Judge Gladys Kessler said that she wrote that it was perfectly clear that the procedure was quoting her a painful humiliating and degrading process.
NNAMDIWhat political will is there among your colleagues, particularly in the House, to change that? And what, in your view, could the president be doing with executive power?
MORANWell, that's two different questions of course. First of all, there's virtually no political will to do anything about this in the House. Just in the last couple of weeks I've had four amendments to close down Guantanamo, I've lost on all of them.
MORANI've gotten four Republicans out of what, 234, to vote with me and I lose 25 Democrats, 175 out 218 is the highest number we're going to get and it's not going to change. It's not going to change in the 2014 election. So the idea of closing it down, we're just not going to do it unless the president is willing to use his executive order.
MORANBecause he has been given waivers that he could exercise but, you know, other than a few being released here and there, I don't see it happening. And, you know, the president and the White House will have to speak for themselves.
MORANWe did have the point person for Guantanamo with us, Bill Lightsow (sp?) but, you know, he acknowledged that the most likely of this is that these people are going to be there for the rest of their lives and we're going to keep Guantanamo open, which means probably another 50 years at half a billion dollars per years not to speak of the cost to our international reputation and our own legal and moral standards.
NNAMDIPut on your headphones, please, because that's what Shirley in Alexandria would like to talk about. I want you to be able to Shirley. Shirley, you are now on the air, go ahead please.
SHIRLEYThanks, I appreciate it. I was in Afghanistan for a year in 2004 and 2005 and to me, it's terrible moral example we're setting and a legal example because we're trying to draw down the troops but we're leaving Americans over there and over people over there working on peace, working on building roads and doing projects, trying to help people and we're saying it's okay to hold people indefinitely with no charges. And why shouldn't the Afghans do that with Americans now and we're saying it's okay.
NNAMDIWell, Congressman Moran.
MORANYeah, it's a very good point, Shirley. Thank you for making it. Now you did bring up an interesting issue, if I could just digress a little bit. You know, at the conclusion of the Afghan war -- and some could say after 2014 -- hostilities will end according to the president's firm stand on that. Well, then what right do we have to continue to detain prisoners of war, particularly the Taliban? They were acquired in combat and by all precedent they're supposed to be released once the war is over.
MORANNow after World War II we did try the masterminds. But, you know, we could do that for the 16 because that's a very different case, as far as I'm concerned, than the 779 we acquired originally, most of whom hadn't been involved in hostile actions. And I don't know how we're going to deal with that but I know the way we should deal with it is to simply say the war's over. We no longer have a right to hold prisoners of war, particularly if we can't charge them with anything. And so they get released. But we'll see. I have some question that the congress wouldn't pass legislation preventing them from being released.
NNAMDIShirley, thank you for your call. On to Daphne in New York City, N.Y. Daphne, your turn.
DAPHNEHi. Thank you so much for taking my call. And thank you, Representative Moran, for talking about this and for visiting Guantanamo Bay. I'm a lawyer with Human Rights First. We've got offices in D.C. and New York. And we work on this issue. And, you know, it's amazing, as you said, how difficult it's been to get congress to support the closing of Guantanamo Bay. And so geared leadership on this is really, really helpful.
DAPHNEI wonder -- I mean, you talk about the high cost of holding detainees at Guantanamo goes to $2.7 million per detainee per year and the high cost for United States' moral standing. Given that overwhelming evidence demonstrating that Guantanamo is hurting the United States, why is it that we're not seeing anymore -- any movement on it? I mean, we see the administration as maybe now talking about transferring a couple of detainees. So why aren't we seeing more energy both from the administration and from the leaders in congress?
MORANWell, I have to speculate on that obviously because I can only speak for myself. But I would speculate that the members of congress understand the attitude of their constituents, which is that these are the worse of the worst. They are going to go right back to the battlefield. And then -- but the members feel that themselves and that the old adage out of sight out of mind is the best way to deal with this.
NNAMDIWell, what do you think is the way forward for dealing with those prisoners who are going to at least, in theory, face trial at some point, either in civilian or military court?
MORANThank you, Kojo. The best way -- and this is a compromise for me because I really think it should be shut down. And I doubt that I would ever have reason to change that attitude. But given the fact that we're not going to be able to shut down logically for political reasons, the best thing to do is to try them in civilian courts at Guantanamo. That's the compromise. And we might possibly be able to get some bipartisan support for that.
MORANYou know, there's a charge of military -- excuse me, material support of terrorism. That's what we charge this guy Galani (sp?) with. He got 40 years. You can't -- there is no such charge in a military commission, but in a civil criminal trial, you can charge them with that. So let's have Article 3 of the U.S. Criminal Code apply to these folks. And then we can move these prosecutions along. Because the military commission doesn't work.
MORANAnd one of the things why even if it was working, and if we were expeditiously prosecuting these folks, that where there would be some real question as to the validity of the findings is that the jury is of uniformed military personnel. Now they'd be chosen from a wide pool but is that really a jury of their peers? People who are in a line of authority who know what their commanders want them to determine?
MORANAnd the military commission simply, for so many reasons, don't yield a verdict that would be acceptable outside of the context of being a member of the military yourself. So I think that the compromise that might work is just to apply Article 3 to all of them, but do it at Guantanamo.
NNAMDIAnd I know that's a significant concession for you but it has to be made, particularly when you know that when the Obama Administration floated its plan to try high profiled detainees in courts on American soil, that turned out to be a landmine for them. So that's not going to happen.
MORANWell, that's right. Not withstand the fact that 300 people have been convicted of terrorism are being held in 98 different facilities in the United States. There's never been an attack. There's never been an attempt to escape. And it costs $34,000 a year versus $2.7 million a year in Guantanamo without any hope for conviction.
NNAMDIJim Moran. He's a member of the United States House of Representatives. He's a Democrat from Virginia. Congressman Moran, thank you so much for joining us and for continuing to focus on this issue.
MORANThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back, the story behind the matriarch of an American political dynasty. We'll be learning about the life and times of Rose Kennedy. Biographer Barbara Perry joins us. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
Most Recent Shows
Kojo explores what's next for Chinatown residents fighting against a developer who wants to demolish their building.
Is a meal for a special occasion worth hundreds of dollars?
Fairfax County residents will vote on whether to adopt a four percent meal tax ballot measure on November's ballot. We explore why the ballot question has become such a hot-button issue in the county.