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

Shut it down

News of Guantanamo Bay and its prisoner population reaches the cable news airwaves in fits and bursts, always setting the tone of the place against a drawn-out war and two overzealous administrations that have never made clear the intent of the place. Federal public defender Carlos Warner, a Cleveland guy who now lives in Summit County, helps represent more than a dozen men doing time at Gitmo. He’s here to share how important it is that we start moving on closing the place.

You did a reddit AMA on this topic recently. What brought that about?

One of the biggest challenges we have for Guantanamo is just keeping it in the news. It tends to be in the news, but it goes to the background and the cycle is so quick. Like I said there, one of my obligations is to try to keep the issue out front and to try to educate. That’s the only way that we can make any change down there, is by having the average citizen know who is down there and why they’re down there. They’re not terrorists. I got a lot of feedback. I guess the reddit community is fairly liberal, but I wasn’t sure.

The news cycle thing is very true. In 2009, Obama signed the order to close Guantanamo, and then?

He ran into things he never thought he’d run into. He really had to make political decisions about what was valuable and what wasn’t valuable at the time -- it was all about the Affordable Care Act then.

So, to pose as weirdly broad a question as possible, how does Guantanamo work and why hasn’t there been a change in those policies?

They opened Guantanamo -- and when I say “they,” it was the neocons in our government, like Dick Cheney, Wolfowitz -- they opened it up with the purpose of holding people someplace where no country could touch them. That’s why they picked the Caribbean. They fought that for years. It was just a few years ago that we got access to the men at Guantanamo. Once we started to get access, that’s when we started to learn about them. We did our best to get the stories out about them. They said that you can have access, but you can’t tell anybody about it. You can’t talk about the allegations. You can’t really investigate any of the allegations. We had to get really creative about how to get the men’s stories out. For a long time, especially in 2006, it was a mixed bag. But George W. Bush actually released the dangerous people. They were mainly Saudi people. These are people who returned to the battlefield. Then, around 2007 and 2008, which is when I got involved, were really the poor people who had no representation or governments talking to then. Even though the Supreme Court of the United States said, yes, you can be involved, they can have attorneys, no one could really do it because it costs tens of thousands of dollars to represent them -- just the flying, the investigation that we can do, the amount of time involved. That’s how federal defenders got involved in the cases. There was really a void. Our office ended up taking five. Because we were doing a good job, we ended up with about 13. Now -- we still have 13, because even if you’re released -- but we have eight men down there.

The idea, of course, is that the worst of the worst are down there. That idea has persisted. When you say that these men are “the poor people,” what do you mean by that? They’re innocent. Let’s be clear about that. They’re not only not the worst of the worst, they’re innocent. They are people who -- let’s say they’re looking for an Eric Sandy and they got the wrong Eric Sandy. But you’re a poor Yemeni Eric Sandy, so you’re stuck there for 13 years while we’re trying to sort it out. We can’t get you out of there. We can’t send you back to Yemen, because there’s a civil war there. There is a mixed bag still, because you have the people in the military commission system, which is another conversation. Those guys -- they have admitted that they were part of it and they want to be executed. They happen to be at Guantanamo too, but they’re not in the general population. In the general population, the majority of men left -- both the Bush administration and the Obama administration have said that they should be released. They’re cleared for release -- the majority of them. We have a sector of about 40 individuals who are not cleared, but we have some of those people. Some of those guys have never done anything in the first place, but they’re ticked off that they’ve been held for 13 years without charge, so they would say and do things in Guantanamo. Some of the other ones, it’s unclear why they haven’t been cleared. You’ve got maybe, I’d say, under 10 hardcore guys who should be charged somewhere. You have this group of people who are being held on suspicion. They can’t be charged, they won’t be charged, but they’re being held indefinitely. Then you have this last group of people who are all cleared. Everyone agrees they should be released -- all the intelligence agencies -- but it’s hard to find them solutions. Nobody was looking for solutions for several years.

Day to day, what are their lives like? Is this like a supermax prison?

There are three different places. We represent people in all three. There’s Camp Seven, where the high-value detainees are. We have someone there, but we’re not really allowed to discuss at all what goes on there. There’s Camps Five and Six. Camp Five is like a segregation supermax. They use it for punitive purposes -- people who are not behaving. That’s solitary confinement. The majority of men are held in Camp Six, which is basically just a medium-security prison here: communal pod living. They have some electronics, they have some amenities. The military touts how wonderful this is. For a long time, in 2013, everyone was locked down because of the strike in the prison, but now the majority of men are in that kind of communal setting. In that setting it’s still impossible -- at least if you’re here you that on Jan. 14, 2017, I will be released, or whenever it is. These guys have no idea. But they try to paint it as this good place. They’ve had no family visits. The only amenities they can get are from the lawyers. They have no money to get anything. We have to provide them with whatever extras they get beyond the prison food.

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Eric Sandy

Eric Sandy is an award-winning Cleveland-based journalist. For a while, he was the managing editor of Scene. He now contributes jam band features every now and then.
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