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Northeast Ohio-Based Federal Public Defender Carlos Warner Works for Change at Guantanamo Bay

Shut it down

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You mentioned McDonald’s on reddit.

The McDonald’s -- that’s an interesting thing. This is a good example of how we’ve adapted to the system. It’s kind of Darwinism in some respects. They have these horrible hunger strikes, but the men would eat with the lawyers. They made a rule that we could bring whatever food we wanted. Most of the lawyers would go down there and they would just stop in the morning and they’d take them some McMuffins. When we started going, all I would do is, with the help of many organizations here in Cleveland, I would organize and bring these incredible feasts down there for them. The guards were used to seeing a couple McMuffins coming in, but I would bring in, you know, piles of grape leaves, wonderful pies, Afghan food. We’ve had Thanksgiving there. They have no idea what Thanksgiving is, but that’s what we would do. We became known for that. Some of the other lawyers started doing that. That really built some -- very little -- but some morale, and they’d look forward to it and make requests. When new lawyers would ask me what they shouldn’t do, I’d say you should not bring McDonald’s. The detainees realized McDonald’s sucks, and it really sucks in Guantanamo.

I can only imagine.

They have a Subway there too, but.

How often do you go down there?

For regular trips, I’ve been down there 30 times and I go as often as I can. We have other lawyers who work on cases, and they go too. One of the things that has improved in the last few years is we can have phone calls with our clients. The mail is still impossible to deal with.

Outside of just checking in on their state of being, what sort of things are you able to do?

“How do we attack getting them out,” I think you’re asking. We were assigned to do habeas corpus, which is basically a lawsuit against the president saying that the person is illegally held. Habeas corpus means “free the body.” Because he’s being illegally held he should be freed. I watched this litigation evolve in Washington, D.C. They started having these incredible legal loopholes for the government.

The first one, and probably the biggest one, was one that involved the Chinese Uighurs. They’re an ethnic Muslim Chinese population. They were fleeing China, and they were picked up and sent to Guantanamo. The government realized very early on -- 2003 -- that, wait, these guys have nothing to do with anything. They were fleeing China, and China’s like, “Please, give them back. We want the Muslims back.” They wanted to execute them. In any case, our court of appeals in Washington, D.C., said, "OK, they’re innocent, but we have no power to tell the government that they have to release them." It became a pyrrhic victory. That was the first time a lot of lawyers said, “Now, wait a minute.”

The second thing that happened was that the same D.C. circuit said that all of the government’s evidence is presumed accurate, and we have the burden to show that it’s inaccurate. That’s the complete opposite of all the jurisprudence here where the government has a burden. Not only that, but there’s a security clearance. Let’s say you’re a witness, and my client was charged with assaulting someone in a bar. They just say, your client assault a Sandy in a bar in Yemen. But they won’t tell us what bar -- I can’t talk to you, because you don’t have a security clearance -- and I can’t talk to any witnesses. I can’t even tell my client -- this is the crazy part -- that this is the allegation, because he doesn’t have security clearance. So there’s absolutely nothing you can do. And that evidence is presumed innocent. I’d like to think that our office -- and not everything agrees with this -- was one of the first offices to stand up and say, hey, this entire system we have for litigating these Guantanamo cases is bullshit. There’s just nowhere you can go with it.

So then what’s to make of this?

First of all, we’re there to communicate to the degree we can with our clients’ families. The second thing we do is a lot of work in Washington behind the scenes -- try to lobby, for lack of a better word, with other lawyers the more conservative parts of our government that are really uneducated and ignorant about Guantanamo. We tell them, this is what’s going on, and a big reason the place isn’t closed is because of the political football that Guantanamo is. We work with the administration to try to get this resolved with them. We work with foreign countries -- Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Kuwait -- to the best of our ability to try to form those solutions. To that end, we work with the State Department.

We work with the clients to tell them the things that need to be done so we can get them somewhere. We had clients, without naming names, who only wanted to go back to Yemen. Well, if you only want to go back to Yemen, then it’s going to be a long wait. That might be your ultimate goal, but maybe we can do something else. We have those conversations.

Zooming out a bit, do you have a sense of optimism?

We have to be optimists by nature. If we’re not, then it’s hard to do what we do. Just yesterday, they had hearings in Congress. Look it up on YouTube. Tom Cotton, who is a know-nothing senator from Arkansas, said that everyone in Guantanamo should rot in hell, and if they can’t rot there they should rot in Guantanamo. It’s just ignorance. When a senator says that, it really shakes your optimism.

To close Guantanamo, we know it can happen, but it would take the president spending a lot of political capital. I think at the end of his term, he’ll say, "Hey, we reduced it from 280 when we took over and we got it down to 60 and that’s the best we could do." That’s true but it’s also disingenuous. We’ve been doing this for two years. We could have been doing it for the last five, but it was not a priority of his administration. I think at the end of his term, there’s gonna be a handful of men there. I wouldn’t guess how many. That’s too bad. The legacy lives on.

All the horrible things that we’re seeing, it’s not a surprise that all of the people that ISIS is executing are wearing orange jumpsuits. That’s not an accident. That’s because ISIS uses Guantanamo to recruit hundreds and hundreds of other disenfranchised, radicalized young men. We give them that power by remaining open. I don’t think the president has the will to close it all down. I think if he was sitting with us, he’d say, "Yes, I want to do it. But there’s only so much we can do." He’d have to make incredible strides in Congress.

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