The Cable

Moran: The administration never really fought to close Guantanamo

Today marks the 10th anniversary of the transformation of the U.S. Naval Base in Guantanamo Bay into a prison for holding presumed terrorists from the war on terror -- but there's almost nobody left in Washington officialdom still trying to close Gitmo, and one leading proponent of closing the prison says President Barack Obama's team never really tried.

Rep. Jim Moran (D-VA) was one of the congressional leaders of the movement to fulfill Obama's Jan. 22, 2009, signed order to close the Guantanamo prison. In an interview today with The Cable, Moran said the administration never supported its allies in Congress when the attempt to close the prison came to a head -- and then the administration abandoned the effort altogether. As the election season progresses, Moran said, Congress keeps passing laws that will keep the prison open and the administration seems to have no intention of fighting back.

"There were a few of us who were willing to fight the issue.... We were trying to get help from the administration in terms of factual talking points and in terms of the administration saying this is important to us. But we just didn't get that support," Moran said of the Democratic efforts, which were led by him, then Appropriations Committee chairman David Obey (D-WI), Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin (D-IL), and others.

Moran said that three years of GOP-driven congressional action successfully tied the administration's hands on closing the prison. These measures included provisions that barred funding for moving prisoners to U.S. soil, barred funding for building an alternative facility, and required extensive certifications of prisoners' innocence before moving them.

But the administration never really fought those provisions in a serious way, leaving congressional Democrats who wanted to fight to close Gitmo twisting in the wind. When laws containing such provisions got to the House floor, the administration wouldn't even provide Moran and his allies talking points, one of the steps they regularly take to help lawmakers defend administration priorities, Moran said.

"I can only speculate that the problem was a more political one than a policy one," Moran said, adding that these types of decisions are typically made by the political team at the White House. "My sense is, they've given up on this. I guess I don't blame him. This is one of those issues where the Republicans are just waiting for [Obama] to stand on principle so they can pounce all over him."

The 2012 National Defense Authorization Act, which Congress recently passed, established that U.S. citizens can be held indefinitely on terrorism charges. Obama reluctantly signed that bill into law, but issued a signing statement expressing his intention to implement that provision as he saw fit.

"I'm confident that the House will never provide the legislation he needs to close [the Guantanamo prison] and if he tries to, it will be an excuse to come up with even more severe legislation to make sure that he doesn't," said Moran.

Proponents of keeping the prison open claim that 25 percent of prisoners have returned to terrorism. But Moran said that number is actually closer to 6 percent -- and besides, he noted, there's no way to prove they are returning to the fight, because most have never been confirmed to have been fighting against the United States in the first place.

"Of the 171 inmates remaining in Guantanamo, most have been cleared for release but they are still being held there," he said. "And that's because of the Congress; the administration is afraid to [release them]. Their concern that even one of them goes back and turns against the U.S., it's going to reflect badly on them. The feeling is CYA [cover your ass] and avoid any embarrassment."

Moran said the issue could very well be a political loser for the White House, especially in an election year, but it's a failure to engage in public education about the prisoners' identities and the options for establishing a process to deal with them.

"The vast majority of the American people would just as soon leave them there, lock them up, out of sight out of mind," said Moran. "The job is to push out more knowledge into a sea of ignorance."

The most recent transfer of a detainee from the Guantanamo prison was that of Saiid Farhi, who was released to Algeria on Jan.  6, 2011. Farhi was ordered released by the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia in November 2009.

The State Department maintains it is still committed to closing the prison.

"The administration has made clear that closing Guantanamo is in the interest of our national security and is continuing its efforts to close the facility," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in a Jan. 9 statement. "Progress has been made under this and the previous administration. However, given legislation in place, it is clear that it will take some time to fully close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay."

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The Cable

More U.S. diplomats leaving Syria as violence increases

The State Department is further scaling down the staff at the U.S. embassy in Damascus, citing increased violence and the inability of U.S. diplomats to effectively do their jobs there.

"Due to security concerns in Syria, in October 2011, the embassy was designated an unaccompanied post with restricted staffing. The Department has decided to further reduce the number of employees present in Damascus, and has ordered a number of employees to depart Syria as soon as possible," stated a Jan. 11 travel warning. "U.S. citizens should avoid all travel to Syria."

Airline services into and out of Syria are also cutting operations and U.S. citizens should leave now if they can, the travel warning stated. The consular section at the U.S. embassy in Damascus is no longer going to be open to the public, so American citizens will now have to make an appointment. Moreover, the embassy is warning Americans that if they get in trouble in Syria, they might be on their own.

"Our ability to assist U.S. citizens in an emergency is extremely limited and may be further constrained by the fluid security situation," the warning said. "Syrian efforts to attribute the current civil unrest to external influences have led to an increase in anti-foreigner sentiment. Detained U.S. citizens may find themselves subject to allegations of incitement or espionage. Contrary to the terms of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, of which Syria is a signatory, Syrian authorities generally do not notify the U.S. Embassy of the arrest of a U.S. citizen until days or weeks after the arrest. Moreover, in the past, security officials have not responded to U.S. Embassy requests for consular access, especially in cases of persons detained for ‘security' reasons. There have been numerous credible reports of torture in Syrian prisons."

One embassy official who won't be leaving, however, is Ambassador Robert Ford, who continues to engage Syrians both in person and on the U.S. embassy's Facebook page. In his Jan. 5 post, Ford acknowledged that terrorists may be attacking the Syrian regime but said that the regime was broadly responsible for the violence.

"Indeed there are terrorists attacking people in Syria. I'm the American ambassador and I just acknowledged it; in fact we've acknowledged and condemned violence all along," wrote Ford. "We strongly condemned the December 23 suicide car bomb attacks. But the question is what started all this violence and how to stop it? Can the Syrian government oppress a large part of the population that demands dignity and respect of basic human rights or is its violence making things even worse?"

French journalist Gilles Jacquier was killed in the city of Homs today on a government-sponsored trip of the city, becoming the first Western reporter killed during the Syria conflict. The perpetrators of the attack remain a mystery.