Talib Kweli, Alex Wagner + More Speak On Obama's Unfulfilled Promise To Close Guantánamo Bay

Lenny Kravitz, Grace Jones, Lauryn Hill, Lion Babe, Thundercat, SZA & More Rock The Afropunk Festival 2015 in Brooklyn, NY.

Yasiin Bey, about to undergo simulated force-feeding in line with practices at Guantánamo.

While you were (hopefully) enjoying a lazy Sunday of Netflix and Chill, something changed. America crossed an invisible line, a boundary you probably didn't even realize was there, which nevertheless has far-reaching  and ominous implications for the presidential race getting under way in Iowa, our standing in the world and perhaps most of all, our ability to look in the mirror and recognize ourselves as the Land Of The Free. That's because as of Sunday, January 31st the US Detention Center at Guantánamo Bay has now officially been open longer under President Barack Obama--who vowed to close the facility on his second day in the oval office back in 2009--than it was under George W. Bush, who first employed it as an extra-legal holding pen for detainees in the War on Terror.

To be clear, since the prison opened in January 2002 , 779 prisoners have been detained at Gitmo. Of those, 678 have been released or transferred, one was brought to the US for trial, and nine have died in prison. Only 146 of that 678 have been released under Obama's administration, including a period in 2011-2o12 when no prisoners were released, in spite of official clearance for many of those inmates (including 24 men who are still being held to date) which was handed down in 2009 by Obama's Guantánamo Bay Review Task Force. In 2013, President Obama made a high profile promise to resume the release process, striking down a ban he imposed on the release of Yemeni prisoners, who comprised 33 of the 37 cleared prisoners who were still being held at that time. Although another group of nine cleared prisoners has been released this month--including Omani national Fahd Ghazy, who has been interred at Guantánamo since the age of 17--91 prisoners are still being detained, 34 who have already been cleared for release and are simply waiting for justice.

Although President Obama has laid the endless deferment of his first Presidential promise at the feet of the Republican-controlled congress, lawyers for the detainees, including the CCR (Center for Constitutional Rights) have pointed out that with so many cleared prisoners still in an unexplainable legal limbo, the more logical explanation is political cover, not congressional interference.“It’s a joke,” said one lawyer, summarizing the Obama administrations latest changes to the review process to The Guardian. “The Obama administration set up the Periodic Review Board process when it suited their political needs [in 2011]...and then did nothing about it.” The bottom line is that in spite of occasional spurts of progress “..at the current pace, the administration will not get through all the detainees and give them a proper chance of transfer by the time Obama steps down,” according to senior CCR attorney Pardiss Kebriaei.

As we tried to wrap our heads around this ongoing nightmare--and what it all means as our generation tries to figure out the way forward for America, we reached out to some of the sharpest political minds--and tongues--we know personally to get their views, including Talib Kweli, M-1 of dead prez, Alex Wagner (host of MSNBC's Now With Alex and former Editor of FADER Magazine) and frequent Okayplayer contributor Sama'an Ashrawi.

OKP: As of Jan. 31st, Gitmo has been open longer under Obama than Bush--14 years later, how do we weigh Barack Obama's legacy in light of his promise to close the prison on Day 2 of his presidency?

Talib Kweli:

"Being a politician means being a professional liar. The job requires making promises you cannot keep because once you are elected the job becomes about keeping the job, the campaign promises become secondary. Obama's legacy will be measured on a series of events, Gitmo being one of them. When you weigh what he got accomplished against the historically unprecedented, racist opposition he faced and the good will destroyed by the previous administration, in the world of politics, which is a world of half truths and lies, he will be seen as an efficient and successful president. He was better at the political game than any of his foes by a long shot."

Alex Wagner:

"You can’t really blame the president for the fact that Gitmo is still open — if he could close it by executive order, my guess is, he would. But the current Republican-held Congress is unlikely to do anything on key issues of national security in an election year where they’re trying to exploit fears about terrorism to win back the White House. That said, this administration’s policy relating to force feeding — and general lack of transparency about the extrajudicial measures it has taken in the name of national security — had been in direct opposition to the president’s stated goals at the beginning of his presidency. That’s been a major disappointment for a lot of Americans who were hoping he would abide by (and restore) the rule of law that was so grossly manipulated under George W. Bush. It's truly important that Obama ended the Bush-era practice of torture, including water boarding--but for those had hoped to see an end to extrajudicial practices, including targeted killing, we've been seriously disappointed."

M-1 of dead prez:

"How do we weigh his legacy? Well, I would say the same as any man or woman whose words are empty and meaningless. It should be more clear now than ever that it doesn't matter what race the POTUS is, there is no justice in the US government when it comes to political prisoners and human rights."

Sama'an Ashrawi:

"When we retrace the legacy of Mr. Obama's presidency, there is going to be a giant sinkhole when we get to his Middle East relations--and his failure to close Guantánamo is certainly part of that blemish. Domestically, he did about all he could to push us in the right direction-- might have been able to do even more without all that friction from the Republican majority congress--but he really failed to deliver on the promises he made during his first year in office, the highlight being his speech at Cairo University, "A New Beginning." He didn't get any shoes thrown at him, he didn't give an awkward shoulder rub to Queen Noor, but his legacy in the Middle East will always be discussed in terms of what he didn't do. He said he would close Guantánamo, he didn't; he said he opposed Israeli settlements (which… good, because they're illegal), yet thousands of settlements were approved and Obama and John Kerry didn't offer much more than a slap on Netanyahu's wrist. And this is not even mentioning the drone strikes..."

OKP: The lack of political will to close Gitmo seems to stem from a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy, the fear that even (and especially) detainees who were innocent, non-combatants or by-standers may have been radicalized by the years of unconstitutional imprisonment without formal charges, force-feeding and "enhanced interrogation...the anticipation that any violent act performed by a released detainee will be laid at the doorstep of the official or politician who approved their release, not the politician or intelligence officer who unjustly imprisoned them. How do we break this self-perpetuating cycle of fear and unlawful imprisonment?


"Recidivism — or in some cases, radicalization — is always going to be a potential liability for anyone looking to close Gitmo. There’s inherent risk. But if you do the cost-benefit analysis of what Gitmo costs us in terms of national security by virtue of its mere existence— keeping the damn thing open will continue to radicalize and recruit terrorists on a scale that completely dwarfs the number of former inmates who might join terrorist networks.

The pure cost-benefit of what it costs to keep prisoners in Gitmo ($2.8 million/year) versus a US Supermax prison ($78K/year) should be all the information any so-called fiscal hawks should need to support its closure. And then, for everyone else, there’s the simple constitutional argument: Gitmo does not reflect American values. It’s a stain on our democracy and it needs to be closed. End of story."


"America breaks the cycle of fear by stopping the aggression against and exploitation of others via war and economic coercion. The last thing a politician should fear is the retaliation of a Gitmo PP, the real fear should come from the ones who witnessed injustice and dare to correct it!"


"Just days into his presidency, Obama addressed Muslims, saying, "My job to the Muslim world is to communicate that Americans are not your enemy." Well, closing Guantánamo would be a great first step… but then what about the 700+ military bases we have around the world? As former CIA man Chalmers Johnson (and author of the incredible and prophetic--not in an Alex Jones-y way--Blowback) toldAmy Goodman of Democracy Now, 'A nation can be…a democracy or an imperialist, but it can't be both.'

While our government has done a good job keeping its own citizens in the dark about its actions abroad, people who live near one of these military bases have not fallen for the illusion of democracy. Arabs aren't dumb.

If the hesitation is that closing Guantánamo invites retaliation that would mar Mr. Obama's presidency, despite it not being his creation… well, the longer we wait, the more the resentment percolates. You just can't kidnap innocent people, hold them indefinitely, and not expect their family and friends to be quiet about it.

I rode with Obama during his presidency because the mere thought of a black man sitting in the Oval Office seemed to cause elevated blood pressure throughout most of the Bible Belt, and, well, maybe it's not so bad if his presidency is making those folks run a little faster on the treadmill. He's one of the most intelligent presidents we've ever had, and it's a shame he couldn't be more pro-active in the Middle East, but if House of Cards has taught me anything it's that we would be naive to think there aren't bigger forces at play. I think Obama The Guy leans much more to the left than Obama The President would have ever been allowed."


"The problem of Gitmo, torture and America policing the world is the same as the problem we face with the prison industrial complex. America profits from over criminalizing poor black and brown people at home the same way we profit from decimating countries full of black and brown people, making them want to strike back. All of it is done in the name of profit. War is the most profitable, we've even manage to profit on the righteous anger we create."